Many of the more complex items we purchase today come with an owner’s manual. Whether it’s that new phone fresh out of the box or the new car straight off the dealer’s lot—the owner’s manual tells us how to operate and use that new item that we are unfamiliar with. The Old Testament book of Leviticus functioned as the “owner’s manual” for the Israelite Tabernacle. Unfortunately, as with many of our owner’s manuals today, Leviticus is often overlooked and viewed as a needless part of our normal Bible reading and study.
Admittedly, Leviticus is a challenging and, at times, gruesome book to read. Yet, without a proper understanding of Leviticus we cannot grasp the height and depth of God’s love for us in Christ. In particular, there is one chapter in the book that serves as an important "hinge" for the entire "manual" - Leviticus chapter 16.
Before we can get to Leviticus 16 we need a little background information and context for the book...
In Leviticus 20:26 God said to the nation of Israel, "You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine."
God had set apart and called the Israelite people to be His treasured possession among all the peoples of the earth. The nation of Israel was to be separate and distinct from all other nations by following the commandments of God given in the book of Exodus. They were to be a light unto the nations pointing people to God—a nation through whom the promised blessings given to Abraham would be realized!
But, what the commandments of God ultimately revealed was that no human could live up to God’s perfect standard. No human, apart from the intervention and work of God, can be holy as God is holy. For, we all like sheep have gone astray because, as we saw back in Genesis 6:5, every intention of the thoughts our heart is only evil all the time.
Praise be to God! He does not leave us dead in our trespasses and sin. God provided a way for sinful man to once again enter His Holy and Infinite presence. The only way for God’s people in the Old Testament to have a relationship with Him was through the Tabernacle and it’s successor, the Temple. Last week we looked at the intricate details of the Tabernacle’s construction and saw how everything had a specific purpose, from the curtains surrounding the outer court to the details of how the furniture was to be constructed.
The book of Exodus then concluded with the Tabernacle’s completion and the glory of the Lord descending upon the tent of meeting. But, in Exodus 40:35, we read this most-unusual statement:
And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
Why was Moses, the man who had communed with God at the top of Mount Sinai, not able to enter the tent of meeting and meet with the Lord? The “owner’s manual,” the book of the Leviticus, gives us the answer. It’s only through the book of Leviticus that God’s people in the Old Testament could learn how to enter the presence of God.
There are two guiding principles of Leviticus that flow like a river through the rest of the Bible until they find their ultimate fulfillment and meaning in the person and work of Jesus. Here they are:
(1) Sin requires the shedding of blood. The debt owed because of sin is death and the death penalty must be paid by the shedding of blood. That’s bad news for each of us, since we are all born sinners. But, thankfully, there’s a second principle.
(2) God accepts a substitute. The penalty of death must be paid BUT the wonderful news of Leviticus is that God accepts a substitute! Each of the different sacrifices outlined in Leviticus teach us that God accepts a substitute.
Chief among all the sacrifices is the one we find in Leviticus 16—The Day of Atonement. Known as Yom Kippur, this important ritual is still conducted and observed by devout Jews today.
All the sacrifices and offerings that God decreed in Leviticus chapters 1–15 were not sufficient to cover all the sins of the people. So, God appointed this yearly sacrifice to atone for (or cover over) all the sins and impurities not covered by other means, that the Israelites committed unknowingly (Heb. 9:7). The sacrifice of the Day of Atonement was the highest and most comprehensive of all the sacrifices in the Old Testament.
The first thing Leviticus 16 shows us is that:
I. God provides the way to come to Him
Notice, first, in verse one God is speaking to Moses. God is giving the directions and guidance to Moses regarding how His people can come to Him. In the Old Testament God spoke to and through the prophets, men like Moses and Isaiah. Some of you probably wish that God would speak to you—like he did to people in the Old Testament. If you just had a direct word from God it would make things so much clearer and easier in life! I want you to know that God speaks to me every day—through His Word! If you want to hear God speak to you open your Bible and read it!
Hebrews 1:1–2 tells us that God now speaks to us through His Son, who is the incarnate Word of God. We have the very words of God kept and preserved for us in the Bible! In the Old Testament God spoke to a few dozen people. Today, we all—at least in this country—have access to the Word of God every single day!
The Word of God continues to be the standard for everything in life. Most importantly, only the Word of God tells us how we can come to the Holy God and be in a relationship with Him. Some of you might be tempted to think you don’t need to really know the Bible that well. You know enough to get by. You know the basics and you’ll leave the details up to the “professionals.”
If that’s the casual nature in which you approach the Word of God, let me draw your attention to the second part of Leviticus 16:1:
The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.
Aaron was the high priest and his sons served as priests under him. Leviticus 10 tells us how two of his sons, Nadab and Abihu, decided to approach the Lord’s presence in an unauthorized way and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them! What an incredible reminder that we must not approach the Lord in a causal, “anything goes” type way.
One of the popular catch phrases floating around today is “be the church.” But before you can “be the church,” you better understand what God has called the church to be! As with the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, the church in the New Testament is God’s chosen people, set apart as holy, and called to be distinctively different from the world around us. Above all, when the church gathers we are to worship God!
Just as the book of Leviticus was the owner’s manual for the Israelite’s worship of God—the New Testament gives us clear guidelines on how we are to worship God today. When the church—the body of believers—assembles to worship, we are to proclaim the Word of God through the singing of the Word, reading the Word, preaching of the Word, prayer; and we even practice the Word through baptism and communion. That’s what it should look like to “be the church.”
Now, on to verse two, which begins the content of the Lord’s message to Moses concerning the proper and only way to come to him in the Old Testament. God tells Moses to warn Aaron, not to come whenever he wants into the Holy Place, “so that he may not die.” The Holy Place mentioned in this chapter is referencing the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Testimony would sit and the presence of God would periodically descend among the people. This Most Holy Place was separated from the rest of the Tent of Meeting by a veil—a curtain that we studied in detail last week.
If there is any statement that should have grabbed Aaron’s attention it’s that last phrase, “so that he may not die.”That’s the sort of statement that would grab anyone’s attention! Without a doubt the recent death of his two sons at the entrance to the Holy Place would have been forefront in his mind as he prepared to approach the same place his sons died.
Now that God has his attention, verse 3 begins describing the preparations regarding how Aaron, as the High Priest, was to enter into the very presence of God manifested in the cloud over the mercy seat on the top of the Ark of the Testimony.
For the sake of time, I’m going to summarize the preparations mentioned in the end of verse 3 through verse 10. The yearly sacrifice involved new holy clothes for Aaron to wear into the Most Holy Place, a bull for his own personal sin offering, a ram for his own personal burnt offering, two male goats from the people for their sin offering, and finally, a ram from among the people for their collective burnt offering.
The use of each of these items is then described in great detail beginning in verse 11 where we’ll now pick up the text. I’m going to walk us through verses 11–34 now very quickly...reading the text and providing some explanation along the way. Prior to verse 11, Aaron would have already bathed in water and put on the holy linen garments. Verse 11 then begins the detailed description of the ritual.
Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself.
Remember our two guiding principles from Leviticus: (1) sin requires the shedding of blood, and (2) God accepts a substitute! That’s why the bull is killed! Before Aaron could function as the mediator between God and His people he first had to be cleansed from his own sin by offering a sin offing for himself and his household. He would have killed the bull out by the Altar of Burnt Offering in the outer court of the Tabernacle. After he killed the bull here’s what he was to do next:
12 And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die.
Can you imagine what the fear and awe Aaron must have felt as he approached the veil where his sons were consumed by the fire of God? Can you imagine reaching our your hand to pull back that curtain knowing at any moment the God has the power to snuff out your life?
As Aaron entered into the Most Holy Place and approached the Mercy Seat the glory of God was so overwhelming that he had to carry smoking embers before him to help shield him from the glory of God’s presence over the mercy seat. The smoke would literally act as a barrier to guard him from overexposure to the glory of God, which according to the end of verse 13, results in death! After the cloud of incense was in place between him and the Mercy Seat look at what he was to do in verse 14:
And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
Aaron had to take some of the blood from the bull he just killed to atone for his own sin and sprinkle it with his finger seven times in front of the Mercy Seat. Only after his own sin was atoned for could he then act on behalf of God’s people and their sins, which is what we see beginning in verse 15.
15 Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he
shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. 17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel.
Now that Aaron’s personal sins were atoned for he would repeat the same sacrificial process with one of the goats presented by the people to make atonement for the Holy Place and for all the assembly of Israel. Notice, this is all done by one man, the High Priest, functioning as the mediator between God and His people. Apart from bringing the animals to the Tabernacle the people were not involved in any other part of this process thus far. On to verse 18:
18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. 19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.
In these two verses Aaron uses the blood of the two sin offerings, the bull and the goat, and cleanses the Altar of Burnt Offerings because it is continually covered with the blood that symbolizes the sins (the uncleanness) of the people of Israel. This is a messy process because sin is messy! Sprinkling the blood around the altar would be a messy process, but the blood covered the stains of sin left behind on the altar!
Now, what about the other goat by the people as part of their sin offering? Look at verse 20:
20 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. 21 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. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.
Back up in verses 8–10 Aaron was instructed to cast lots over the two goats presented by the people as a sin offering. The one goat upon which the lot fell was offered to the Lord as part of the sin offering in verses 15 and 16. The second goat, now referenced here in verses 20–22, was to be kept alive as another part of the sin offering. This goat was said to have been for “Azazel.” This term is only used in verses 8, 10, and 26 of Leviticus 16—nowhere else in the entire Bible! While we don’t know the exact meaning of this term, we do know the significance of the goat’s function.
Before this second goat was brought out, notice that atonement has already been made for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting, and the Altar of Burnt Offerings. Everything in temple has been cleansed. Only when the tabernacle is clean can the substitute goat now be brought out.
Aaron was to then place both his hands on the head of the goat as he confessed the sins of the people of Israel—as a symbol of their sins being transferred to this goat. The goat then, bearing all the sins of the Israelites, was quickly taken out of the camp and set loose in the wilderness—a certain death sentence! Finally, the people of Israel could participate and watch as this symbol of Israel’s sins was quickly taken away from them. What a beautiful picture of God accepting a substitute and covering over (atoning for) the sins of His people for another year.
After the live goat was released look at what happened next, verse 23:
23 Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. 24 And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar.
Aaron would go back into the tent and change out of the holy linen garments, bathe in water, and put his normal priestly garments back on. He would then go out to the Altar of Burnt Offerings and offer the ram for his own personal burnt offering and the ram for the burnt offering of the people.
The thoroughness of the Day of Atonement ritual is seen in the closing verses of this section—Leviticus 16:26–28—where even the person who led the live goat out of the camp had to be cleansed because he was contaminated by the sin the goat now carried. Likewise, the remains of the animals used for the sin offerings had to be carried outside of the camp and burned. Whoever burned them had to also be cleansed!
Now, in the final verse of chapter 16 we see the importance of this yearly ritual for the people of Israel.
And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins. And Aaron did as the Lord commanded Moses.
Sin requires the shedding of blood, but praise be to God He also accepts a substitute. God provides the way to come to Him. Now, our second point:
II. The only way to God is through Jesus because of who He is and what He has done.
Leviticus shows us how God provides the way to come to Him and that the way involves a sinless mediator. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest became the designated go-between—the mediator between God and His people. Yet, the High Priest of the Old Testament had his own sin that hindered his service until he first offered a sacrifice to atone for his sin! Even then, he had to carry the smoldering embers before him as he entered the Most Holy Place to shield him from the overwhelming glory of God. There was still a separation—between the mediator and the holy God.
There was a separation between God and Aaron and every other High Priest that followed after Aaron in the Old Testament because their service was merely foreshadowing the service of the GREAT High Priest of the New Testament—Jesus. The Apostle Paul wrote:
1 Timothy 2:5
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus
Only Jesus, the God-Man is qualified to be the GREAT High Priest and function as our mediator with God. Here’s how the writer to the Hebrews in the New Testament describes Jesus’ role as our mediator:
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, [here’s his qualification] yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus—because God has done what the law of the Old Testament could not do. He sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 8:3–4).
We need not tremble with fear, wondering if the fire is about to consume us as we approach the presence of God. Through Jesus, we can now draw near to the throne of grace with confidence—and like Aaron, when we draw near to the presence of God we encounter the mercy seat of God. We find mercy and forgiveness through the mediator, Jesus, because there is ONE mediator between God and man.
The only way to God is Jesus because of who He is—the mediator—and now because of what He has done! Only Jesus provides complete atonement for our sins!
Over and over throughout the book of Leviticus we read that the sacrifices provided atonement for the sins of the people. Even this greatest sacrifice in Leviticus 16 is referred to as the Day of Atonement. Indeed, the sacrifices of the Old Testament atoned for sin in that they “covered over” the sins of the people who offered the sacrifices through faith.
But here’s what we read in Hebrews:
1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of
the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
The sacrifices were a continual reminder for the people of the messy and severe consequence of sin. Year after year the sacrifices reminded the people of the two guiding principles of Leviticus that flow like a river through the rest of the Bible: (1) sin requires the shedding of blood, and (2) God accepts a substitute. These two guiding principles flow through Scripture and lead us to Jesus.
Leviticus was looking forward to Jesus and setting the stage for Him. Romans looks back from Christ’s work and traces it to Leviticus! It’s an amazing picture.
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— (that’s pointing us back to the Law—which Leviticus is a key part of) 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
The blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins, but God, in his divine forbearance “passed over” the sins of the people in the Old Testament. In that sense, the blood of the bulls and goats covered over, atoned for, the sins of those who offered the sacrifices in faith until—as verse 26 says—“the present time,” when God would “put forward (Jesus) as a propitiation by his blood” (3:25).
The blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins. The sins of man can only be paid by man. Thus, Hebrews 2:17 says:
Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
There’s that same word we read in Romans 3, propitiation. It sounds like an important word and it is! That Greek word is the word for “atonement.” In its noun form it’s used only in Romans 3 and in Hebrews 9 where it is translated “mercy seat.” That should set off all kinds of alarms in our head as it points us back to the Tabernacle where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the Day of
Atonement. Were it not for the truths of Leviticus, Romans 3, Hebrews 9, and the entire message of the cross would be emptied of its meaning. Only the blood of the perfect, sinless man—Jesus—can provide true cleansing from sin. Only the death of a Jesus paid the price for our sin—in our place—as our substitute. Jesus sacrifice on the cross provided substitutionary atonement for His people.
As Jesus was hanging on the cross, nearing the moment of his death, John 19 tells us he uttered a single Greek word, tetelestai, which the ESV renders “it is finished.” Archeologists have recovered Papyri receipts for taxes that were paid around the time of Jesus. Written across these tax receipts is a single Greek word, tetelestai, with the meaning, “paid in full.”
When Jesus died on the cross His redemptive work was completed. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 the Apostle Paul wrote,
2 Corinthians 5:12
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
What a wonderful truth—but I want to draw your attention back to Romans 3:26. God’s work of sending Jesus “...was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
While God passed over the sins of the people in the Old Testament and He continues to be patient waiting for others to believe in Jesus—He cannot look past your sin forever! Hebrews 9:27 tells us, “...it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
For the one who has faith in Jesus—God is a justifier through Jesus. The penalty of your sin has been paid in full. If you have believed in Jesus, by faith, then Jesus has stepped in front of the firing squad for you. Jesus endured the judgment and wrath of God destined for you when he died upon the cross. Jesus redeemed you from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for you (Galatians 3:13). But, for those who have not believed in Jesus, by faith, God will demonstrate His righteous justice.
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
I urge you today—believe and Jesus—and be cleansed through the work of the GREAT High Priest— the perfect sacrifice—Jesus!
Many liberal theologians and other people in the world direct attention to Christ’s teaching and compassionate deeds rather than his suffering and death on the cross, but that is why he came to earth. The angel of the Lord who appeared to Joseph in Matthew chapter 1 said, “...you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Christianity is Christ, and the pivotal fact about Christ is his work on the cross. It is offensive, but it is salvation—for everyone who believes!
Bruce Demarest in his book, The Cross and Salvation, wrote:
Given his own rules for how sin would be handled in his moral universe, the course of saving action God chose in light of the foreseen human situation was the wisest, most righteous, and most loving course possible. In sending his Son to be bruised and to bear our evils, God gave his highest and best. 1
SO, as the apostle Paul stated, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
We do not worship God according to the same “owner’s manual” of Leviticus that the Israelites used, but the same guiding principles of Leviticus are still in effect—sin requires the shedding of blood and God accepts a substitute. Praise be to God the sacrificial substitution has already been made once for all who believe! Christ’s work is finished. Sin and death has been defeated.
And, just as the people of Israel in the Old Testament were God’s chosen people—who were to live holy lives to honor the God who called them. So too, today, Christians are called to live holy lives—to honor the One who called us from death to life!
1 Peter 1:16 in the New Testament quotes straight from Leviticus and applies the same truth us today: “...YOU [believer] SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I [the Lord] AM HOLY!”
God has made us holy through the atoning work of Jesus—so that we might live holy lives! Our holy living should be a beacon of light pointing people to the GOD who gave His own Son—to die in the place of us, sinful people.
You, believer, be holy, for the Lord, your God is holy!
1 - Demarest, Bruce. The Cross and Salvation (Crossway Books, 1997), 188–189.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a
publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.