Leviticus 16 - Priests, Atonement and the Resurrection of the Son of God

March 31, 2013 Speaker: Series: Hebrews

Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Leviticus 16:1–16:34

[Leviticus 16] “Priests, Atonement and the Resurrection of the Son of God”


From the earliest histories of humanity we know that mankind has always wanted to be close to the divine. It’s seen on the walls of tombs and heard in our stories and felt in our souls. But in most religions of the world, the way to be close to the divine is to raise yourself up to heaven and it happens, they say, through meditation or the giving up of desire or obedience to the rules the god has laid out as the requirements for his followers. “Oneness with the divine is up to you and if you follow the steps you’ll go up to it,” so they say.

That’s why people go to extreme measures to follow the rules of their religion. There are gurus in India who sweep a broom before each step, lest they crush an ant and add to bad karma – really, that’s a logical action when your ascent to the divine depends on doing more good than bad. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons why some extremists are willing to blow themselves up – it really is a logical action in their belief system – they will do what they believe gets them closer to their god. There are people who walk on their knees for decades or crawl from holy place to holy place to appease their divinity who demands they make up for the ways he’s been displeased.

It’s penance, humans paying for their own sins against the divine in order to get closer to that god. It’s why some people come to Christian churches, too – not to live in the community of the Savior as one already redeemed by grace, but to use it as a step toward the divine as if showing up in church makes up for everything our consciences hold against us. It’s a how-to-be-saved, self-help program and it’s why even Christians still sometimes pray a little extra after we recognize sin in our lives. We forget the true story of how God saves and go back to thinking it’s up to us.

But that isn’t how the God of the Bible works. Only in the Bible is the true story of a God who came down to His people, to break into their rebellion and brokenness and rescue them at great cost to Himself. Today, we’re going to look at just how close God wanted to be with His people and how He made it all possible during the Old Testament. He made it possible for God and His people to be together when He gave them the priests and the sacrifices.

This is important because today we’re looking at the pattern for the rescue being set, a pattern that God Himself would follow later in the Story as He Himself comes down from heaven, taking on flesh and blood like ours in the person of Jesus, who became both priest and sacrifice so that God and His people can be together forever.

This is all part of getting ready for the book of Hebrews, which we’ll be starting to consider in a couple of weeks. We heard from Hebrews 9:11-15 just a moment ago that the writer holds on to the priesthood and the sacrifice of Jesus as the only hope for God and man to be together again. So, these aren’t small things we’re talking about. We’re talking about the sure hope of the very thing for which you were made – closeness to God – being given to you freely by Jesus when you simply receive what he has done on your behalf. He is your sacrifice and as your priest, whom God raised from the dead to continue as your priest forever.

But first things first.  Let’s look at the pattern of redemption God set in the Old Testament as He gave His people the priests and the sacrifices so that God and His people could live together.

At the end of Exodus, God had achieved the greatest rescue the world had ever seen. He’d conquered the gods of Egypt, defeated the world’s dominant army by drowning them in the waters of the Red Sea, which His own people had safely passed through on dry ground. He’d brought them like He’d promised to the foot of Mount Sinai and confirmed that He was their God and they were His people. All this was the beginning of the redemption He’d promised back in the Garden of Eden after the Fall, when He said that sin and evil would not have the last word in this Story.

At the end of Exodus, we see an echo of life in the Garden before humanity rebelled against its Creator; we see God living with His people once again. God had told Moses to build a huge tent right in the middle of the Israelite camp and when it was finished (in Exodus 40) God Himself came down in a cloud of glory in sight of all of the people He had redeemed by grace. God lived in their neighborhood.

But what had happened in the Garden had not been undone. Adam had rejected God to pursue the divine on his own terms; his Fall was humanity’s fall and the curse of sin endured in all his children, separating them from the LORD. They had been quick to grumble against God, doubting the ability of the One who’d made all things out of nothing to provide food for them in the wilderness. And at Sinai, they made new gods for themselves just days after seeing the smoke and fire and hearing the trumpets of God at Sinai. So, they were truly a redeemed people living with their God, but they were separated from the holiness of God by two things – two things that were actually a threat to them and prevented them from being in the presence of God.

First, they were sinners and sin can’t be in the presence of God. But second, there were things that made them ceremonially “unclean.” That’s a distinct category from sin as various things common to life would make one unfit to enter even outer courts of God’s tent – things from which the worshippers needed to be purified like sex, contact with the dead, or disease. One commentator put it well when he said, “…uncleanness is not necessarily morally culpable…. But it does make a person unfit to enter the presence of the sanctuary [that is, the tent of God].”[1]

So the tent of God included barriers between God and His people. There was the outer court which was as close as most of them could ever get to the presence of God. Then, set apart by a veil, there was the Holy Place where the priests alone could come to do the work they had been set apart by God to do. Last, there was the Most Holy Place, the very presence of God, set apart by another beautiful veil, which only the high priest could enter only once a year with the blood of a sacrifice. All these barriers existed to protect unclean, sinful people from the pure holiness of God. There were times when some tried to pass through those barriers on their own, thinking themselves able to go up to God. But it didn’t go well for them. Some got sick, others died because no one can come to God on their own terms.

All this paints a more serious view of sin than many have today. When I’m tempted to think lightly of my disobedience to God, when I think God should welcome me with open arms because my sin isn’t really a big deal; I see how seriously God takes His holiness and human sin and I realize something; people who try to come to God on their own terms never find the closeness for which they’re looking. If we are to come into His presence, it has to be through the way He provides.

And God did provide a way for Israel. He gave them the priests and the sacrifices; through them He provided the means by which God and His people could live together, enjoying each other’s presence.

The priests were the Israelite’s own brothers. They weren’t “better Israelites” and they hadn’t earned the right to get closer to God. Even their access to God was dependent on grace. However – and this is important – they had been appointed, set apart (that is, made holy) by God to stand between God and His people, ministering to them in His name. And in them, the people of Israel had access to their God and could enjoy, truly enjoy, a close, intimate relationship with Him. What other nation had a God so close to them as Yahweh?

The significance of the priesthood is seen even in the clothing of the high priest and is seen especially in a work to which God called the high priest to do for the people.

In Exodus 28 God Himself told Moses how Aaron, the high priest, should be clothed and commanded that all those who followed him as high priest should wear the same coverings. They were expertly woven, made “for glory and for beauty.” On his turban, right in front, he wore a gleaming golden plate that said, “Holy to the LORD” to show that he was set apart to do this work. And inscribed on precious stones set into his breastplate were the names of the twelve tribes of Israel so that when the high priest performed his work, he would carry with him the names of the people of God. The names of his brothers would be with him when he went into the presence of God and God would remember – and keep – His promises to His people. And the high priest would come near to God not because he’d earned a special place, but because he carried with him the blood of sacrifices to make atonement for his sin and all the sin of Israel.

“Atonement” isn’t really a common word today, but it’s an important one in the Scriptures. Atonement means that a payment has been made to take away sin; atonement was God accepting the blood of a sacrifice in the place of His people’s. He would look at the blood and consider his holy wrath satisfied. He would look at the blood and consider his people clean and forgiven. Atonement by blood was God’s way of dealing with sin so that He could be close to His people.

And while there were many sacrifices that were offered each day by the priests on behalf of people, God said that there was one day of sacrifice that was more important than any other. It was called the “Day of Atonement” and it was the one day of the year on which the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place – the very presence of God – to make atonement for all their sin and uncleanness.

The Day of Atonement is described in detail in Leviticus (yes, we’re looking at Leviticus on Easter morning) – Leviticus 16. It was a day of blood, of sacrifice, of cleansing and rest and grace.

But consider the context in which it was given; Leviticus 16 opens as the LORD speaks to Moses after Aaron’s two sons died approaching the LORD on their own terms, trying to get close to the divine in a way they really believed was right. In that context, God spoke to Moses and told him,

“Tell Aaron, your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die…. But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place; with a bull from the heard for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on…the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.” (Leviticus 16:1-5, passim, emphasis mine)

Whereas Aaron’s sons had come in the way they believed was right, God was telling Aaron the way sinners like he and his brothers could live in the presence of God; by the blood of a sacrifice that would atone for all their sin and uncleanness.

He would slit the throat of the bull and catch its blood. Then, along with a censer of incense burning with coals from the altar’s fire, he would go inside the veil, sprinkling the blood of the bull on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant, the place of God’s presence, to make atonement for his own sin and purify the Holy Place. Then he would take one of the two goats, kill it and sprinkle its blood in the same way to make atonement for the people and purify the Holy Place. With the blood of the sacrifices he would make atonement, cleansing even the altar so that the entire tent would be cleansed and set apart.

“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:20-22)

Then, after bathing and offering up the rams as burnt offerings to the LORD, the bodies of the bull and the goat, “whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place,” (v. 27) would be taken outside the camp and entirely destroyed with fire.

I know that this is a lot of information. It truly was a long, complex ceremony. But it was in this way, and this way alone, that God said His people would “be clean before the LORD from all (their) sins.” Someone, reflecting on the purpose behind all these things, touched on the most important thing to grasp. He said, “The aim of these rituals is to make possible God’s continued presence among his people.”[2]

The LORD said year after year, each high priest was to do this, making atonement while wearing his father’s holy garments. Year after year, blood would be shed to cleanse the Holy Place and atone for the sin of the priest and the people because year after year after year, the sin of the people of God remained. And their sin was always separating them from God, preventing them from fully returning to that closeness with God we all lost in the Garden. That’s because the blood of bulls and goats could never really cleanse them.

But it wasn’t as if God was a liar; He was simply showing them how their salvation would work in the fullness of time. And through the prophets He promised a better priest would come making a better sacrifice. The coming priest would present himself as a sacrifice and come into the presence of God so that the sin and pollution of God’s people would be removed from them once and for all. Then, nothing could separate God from His people again.

That is what Jesus accomplished for us in his death and resurrection, which we celebrate this and every Sunday.

We can hear it in the words of Jesus himself in Mark’s gospel. In chapter 10 Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus came to be the price of our redemption, the payment paid in blood to make atonement for our sin.

In Hebrews the writer sees so clearly how Jesus completes the events of the Day of Atonement. Jesus is the better high priest who didn’t have to make atonement for his own sin but bore in his body the names – and the sin – of all the people of God, just as the high priest of old worn the names of Israel on his body and carried their sin to make atonement for it before the LORD. And when Jesus our high priest died, pouring out his blood on the cross, he carried his blood not into the earthly tent of God, but into the heavenly presence of God Himself where God sees the blood and sees the priest and accepts them both as atonement for sin.

If you’re wondering in your heart, “I see the pattern and I want to believe it, but how can I know that Jesus is my sacrifice and priest?” The answer is simple and it’s what today is all about. We know that Jesus has been accepted as our priest and sacrifice; we know that full atonement for sin has been made; we know that we can enjoy intimacy with God – not by working ourselves up to the divine, but simply by faith in Jesus – because God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee that God has accepted his blood in place of ours and made him our high priest forever.

What can we add to this? How could we possibly approach God in any other way that He would find acceptable? Can good works or obedience to the law bring us into God’s presence? Israel had both and they still needed a Day of Atonement to cleanse them not only from sin, but incidental, accidental, ceremonial impurity that prevented them from coming into the presence of God.

So we have to turn away from any human way of coming to God. We can’t find intimacy with God on our own terms. It isn’t through acting on what we “feel” God wants. I can’t trust my heart like that. I could easily be deceiving myself just like Aaron’s sons! What have you believed would get you closer to God? Is it being a “good person?” Aaron’s sons were good men and they died trying to approach God without the covering of blood and holiness. Is it a vague spirituality or religion of this world that get’s you close to God? One pastor wrote, “The essence of other religions is advice; Christianity is essentially news. Other religions say, ‘This is what you have to do in order to connect to God forever; this is how you have to live in order to earn your way to God.’ But the gospel says, ‘This is what has been done in history. This is how Jesus lived and died to earn the way to God for you.’ Christianity is completely different. It’s joyful news.”[3]

Or what have you believed could replace God? Can a person truly be satisfied by intimacy with wealth? Can a reputation assure us of its love? Can good sex or good food or good friends really make this world the way it is supposed to be?

If I want to live in the intimacy with God my heart desires, I have to come to Him in the way he said to draw near to him – by faith in Jesus alone. And by faith He unites us to Christ so closely that the Scriptures can say, even now, that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. We who believe are in Jesus as he stands in the presence of God now, continuing his work as high priest for his brothers, always interceding for us before the throne. And if he remains our priest forever, what can separate us from our God? As Paul wrote,

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-39)

We are united with Christ in heaven now. And he is with us here, just like he promised. He sent his Holy Spirit to apply his blood to us, to cleanse us and to comfort us until the day when Jesus himself returns. On that day, God himself will restore life as life was meant to be and the dwelling of God will be with men as heaven and earth are made one; God and man together forever.

[Pray – Father, you made us for yourself and in Christ you came to redeem us back to yourself when we had wandered and rebelled against you. We praise you, O God, for your mercy and grace toward us. We praise you, O Christ, for willingly becoming our sacrifice and willingly serving us as our priest in your death and in your resurrection life. We praise you, O Spirit, for giving us life in Christ and uniting us to him through the gift of faith. And now, Triune God, help us, we pray, to live as becomes followers of Christ, to go to him who suffered outside the camp for our sanctification and bear the reproach he endured while we offer up a sacrifice of praise. Amen.]



[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Leviticus, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, 1981, 227-228.

[2] Wenham, Leviticus, 228.

[3] Timothy Keller in Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God

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