READ: Leviticus 16. I know this was on the list last Monday while I was out of the country in Haiti, but my intention was to leave it out and let it stand alone. Why? It’s an incredibly important chapter that helps us understand the culture into which Jesus came and just exactly what his sacrifice was all about. It’s worth reading and rereading and rereading again. So today, take a moment and read it again.
THINK: This is longer than normal. It’s from a message delivered by a pastor named Sean McDowell. But read it all. This is what Leviticus 16, The Day of Atonement, and the Cross of Jesus Christ are all about:
On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter the sanctuary area. What is the sanctuary area? In the Old Testament God asked the Israelites to build Him a house, to build Him a sanctuary. We read about it in Exodus 25:8. Look on the screen above. God said to Moses, “…have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” The key word is “dwell.” This verse could also be translated, “I will tabernacle with my people.”
God instructs the Israelites to place the tabernacle in the center of camp. We have provided some pictures of the tabernacle for you. This is a replica found in Timna Park, Israel. Here is an aerial view of the tabernacle. You will notice there are four sides, four white walls, to the tabernacle area. Around these four sides, the twelve tribes of Israel were arranged, three on each side. This was a reminder to them, a picture, that they were to be a people centered around God. They were to be a community with God planted in the heart.
So, the Israelites built a tabernacle according to God’s plans. And as with any house, there were furnishings. In the outer courtyard there was a bronze altar. Five offerings or sacrifices were given on this altar for the purpose of worship and atonement. Another item in the outer courtyard was a large basin. The basin is a picture, a lesson, for the people about the need for purity to meet with God. To have a basin like this for washing would have been quite common for a Middle Eastern nomadic home. Imagine living in a desert culture where it’s quite dusty and dirty, and you almost never get a chance to be clean.
At the end of my first year of ministry at Constance, I went with an old college friend to the boundary waters. We aggressively canoed countless lakes, with multiple portages, up and around the Canadian border and back. We packed light. At the end of the trip we ate at Sven and Oles Pizza in Grand Marais, MN. I remember biting into a slice of Sven and Oles famous Hawaiian pizza. A tropical paradise took place in my mouth. Those sitting around us could not help but notice our worn out and disheveled appearance. We smelled as bad as we looked. I got home and never felt so outwardly cleansed as I washed a week of the boundary waters off of me.
The priests were to wash themselves with water from the basin before entering the actual tabernacle or Tent of Meeting. This is a picture of what it means to be cleansed. In the tent, there were two chambers, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. In the Holy Place, there were three main pieces of furnishings. There was an altar of incense. This no doubt covered up the odor of animal slaughter. It was also a picture of God’s people praying that prayer is a pleasing aroma to God.
There was a lamp stand, made of pure hammered gold. The priest’s job was to keep the lamp filled with olive oil and not let it burn out. Do you remember the old commercial for a motel chain called Motel 6? A guy named Tom Bodette would always end the commercial by saying, “We’ll leave the light on for you.” Do you remember the commercial? God in a sense said to the priests, “Don’t let the lamp go out. I want all my people to know – when they’re alone, when they’re worried, when it’s dark – I’ll leave the light on. I’m right here in their midst.” Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” He leaves the light on for you.
There was also a table. Its primary purpose was to hold bread, 12 loaves, one for each of the 12 tribes. This bread was called the bread of the Presence. Literally, in Hebrew, it’s called the bread of the Face, bread that is set before the face of God. The breaking of bread together in the Middle Eastern culture was a sign of deep intimacy, of deep communion. It was a little foreshadowing of the table Jesus and his friends would gather around, the table you and I are going to gather around tonight. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” Do you see the pictures, images and metaphors? All these furnishings, even the placement of the tabernacle, left people a picture, a visual.
Not only was there an outer chamber, but there was an inner chamber called the Most Holy Place. This was carefully set apart from the rest of the tent by a curtain or veil made of purple, blue and scarlet colors. This room was as a bedroom would be in a house, the room of greatest intimacy. Access to this holy place was very restricted. Violated entry into the Most Holy Place meant death, the same penalty for adultery when someone violated the marriage chamber in that day. And once a year, on the Day of Atonement, after ten days of soul searching, the high priest would enter this Most Holy Place, the sanctuary area, to meet with God.
Leviticus 16 starting with verse 3, on the screen above, “This is how Aaron (the high priest) is to enter the sanctuary area…From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for the sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household.”
The ceremony begins by the high priest offering a bull sacrifice for himself and his household, so he would be purified when he acted on the Israelites behalf. Now, verse 7, “Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.”
I am going to summarize the next few verses: Aaron was to take two goats and present them before the Lord. There were two goats. A coin is flipped, lots are cast, and one goat is killed as a sin offering. Its blood sprinkled in the Most Holy Place and eventually its remains burnt outside the camp.
I want us to spend a few moments discussing the second goat. The second goat was called a scapegoat. This goat was also used for making atonement. I wish I had a live goat here to demonstrate. But the Jewish high priest, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, would place his hands on the goat and the sins of the people were, in a sense, symbolically transferred to the animal.
Leviticus 16, verse 20, “He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.”
I love these words “send the goat away into the desert…to a solitary place.” You do not want this goat to be anywhere near. You do not want to wake up one-morning three days later and find this goat in your backyard. Not good! This would not be a great start to your Jewish New Year. Are you picturing this? The priest would lay hands on the scapegoat. An appointed person for the task would walk the goat out of camp. People would watch this as the scapegoat is led into the wilderness.
The general idea is the goat carries the sin of the people and its guilt out into the wilderness, it takes them away. In fact the Hebrew word for scapegoat is “azazel.” Azazel can be translated “to take away.”
Now, there is a fascinating Jewish tradition found in the Mishnah, which are ancient Jewish commentaries or sources. They say, after the high priest laid his hands on the goat, a red cord would be placed on the goat’s head. The red cord was a symbol of the people’s sin and its guilt. Remember, the Bible takes place in a Middle Eastern culture that thinks in terms of pictures and images and metaphors. And an early tradition says, “After the goat was released into the wilderness, the scarlet cord would be place on the bronze altar where everybody could see it. Later it was placed on the gate.” Anybody in the courtyard could see it. Over the course of the year, the red cord would gradually turn white. Are we all tracking? The red cord turned to white as a way of a picture, a reminder of what happened. You are redeemed.
Do you want to hear something even more amazing? The Mishnah, a first century Jewish source – not a Christian source, these are Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah – the Mishnah records that around 30 A.D, the red cord stopped turning white. It stopped right during the time when the sacrificial system became ineffective. Now, this is not the inspired Word of God. I would not die fighting over words recorded in the Mishnah. But isn’t it interesting…Isaiah 1:18, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow, though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Is Isaiah just pulling this idea out of the air? I don’t know.
But, this is where things get really good. No single offering, no scapegoat, was completely adequate to take away sins. These offerings, the tabernacle, this scapegoat, was a foreshadowing, a looking forward to Jesus Christ. See if you can make some connections to the Old Testament account of the Day of Atonement. The great first chapter of John begins to unfold the Old Testament. John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word” – echoing Genesis – “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Verse 14, “And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” The Greek word for dwelling is “to tabernacle.” As soon as any Israelite would see these words, it could be literally translated, “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” One day God said, “I’m not going to have it be a tent anymore. I’m going to send Jesus. I’ll send my Son to walk the earth.” And Jesus Christ became flesh and tabernacled among us, dwelled among us. Jesus lived about 30 years before He began a concentrated 3-year ministry campaign.
During that time He told His disciples, “I am the light of the world.” I leave the light on for you. “I am the bread of life.” I want to have deep communion with you. He said, “no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” Water, here refers to purification. Jesus consistently modeled the importance of prayer, as prayer is a pleasing aroma to God. All of these things are reflective of the Old Testament tabernacle and its furnishings. And the unfolding of the Old Testament continued. Eventually, we come to the Passion of Christ.
Jesus was brought before Pilate. John 19, starting with verse 1. “Then Pilate took Jesus and had Him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head.” They place a cord of thorns on His head and Pilate brought Him before the Jews. What did the Jews shout? Most people would immediately say, “Well the crowd shouted, crucify Him.” But there’s more.
Notice John 19, verse 14, “It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour. ‘Here is your king,’ Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, ‘Take Him away! Take Him away! Crucify Him!'”
Jesus became our azazel, our scapegoat. He was taken away. Jesus was led outside the city, away from the Jewish temple, the Jewish sanctuary area. He was led out by the appointed people for the task – the Romans. And Jesus was nailed to the cross, bearing our sins. And John the Baptist’s prophecy was fulfilled where he said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Jesus became our azazel. Jesus became our scapegoat.
We can have confidence Jesus is our azazel. He has taken those sins and its guilt away. In sort of a symbolic way, our sins have been released into the desert to a solitary place in the wilderness. Psalm 103 says, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgression from us.” We may live with the consequences of sin, but we can live with the awareness that we have been totally forgiven and our sins have been removed. Jesus is our azazel.
PRAY: Thank Jesus today for being your azazel.
Amazing! The scripture ….and life itself…..resonates with metaphor! The richness of God’s word and the depth of each passage are truly more than we can begin to comprehend!