WORSHIP AS ASSURANCE Leviticus 16–17
“He will make atonement . . . because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been” (Lev. 16:16).Sin offerings dealt only with unintentional sins. On the Day of Atonement a sacrifice was offered which assured the Israelites that they could be forgiven for all their sins.
Definition of Key Terms
Atonement. The Hebrew word means “to cover or conceal.” In Israel’s sacrifices of atonement, God covered the sins of His people so that He could have fellowship with them. Blood. Blood played a vital role in Old Testament sacrifices. It represented the biological life of man and of animals. In the Bible God’s forgiveness of sin is consistently linked with the shedding of blood.
God gave the priests and the Israelites instructions for the Day of Atonement (16:1–34). Rules for the presentation of sacrifices were given (17:1–9), and the eating of meat without draining the blood was forbidden (vv. 10–16).
Understanding the Text
“His own sin offering” Lev. 16:1–6. Israel’s high priest was required to sacrifice a bull for his own sin on the Day of Atonement. Only then could he sacrifice for the sins of his people. Each of us needs to approach God humbly, for we have all sinned. The fact that Israel’s high priest was to make a public sacrifice to atone for his own failings shows that each of us is also to remain humble before others. A ram for a scapegoat Lev. 16:7–22. Two goats were selected for the Day of Atonement. One was sacrificed, and its blood was sprinkled on the altar. The other was set apart “to azazel.” The Hebrew word occurs only here, and its meaning is debated. The most likely explanation is that azazel is a technical theological term meaning “complete removal.” In the Day of Atonement ceremony, after the sacrifices were complete, the high priest laid both hands on the head of the scapegoat, symbolically transferring the sins of Israel to it. It was then driven out into the wilderness, symbolizing “complete removal” of “all their sins” from the covenant community. This acting out of sin’s removal was intended to convey to Israel a sense of assurance that their sins truly were gone. Israel was forgiven and accepted by the Lord. “All their sins” Lev. 16:18–22. The Hebrew language distinguishes between the sins of those who try but fall short, and sins committed consciously and willfully. The first are inadvertent expressions of human frailty. The second are purposeful sins, described by Hebrew words that mean “wickedness” and “rebellion.” The sacrifices described in Leviticus 1–7 made no provision for forgiveness of willful sins. Only unintentional sins could be dealt with by personal sin offerings. But on the Day of Atonement, God forgave all sins, including sins of wickedness and rebellion. God wants us to know that, whatever we have done, He is ready to forgive. There is nothing we can do to merit salvation. But on history’s ultimate Day of Atonement Jesus died on Calvary, paying the price for us, whatever we may have done. “Atonement is to be made once a year” Lev. 16:24–34. The sacrifice of the Day of Atonement was to be repeated yearly. Hebrews 10:3–4 points out that the repetition of this sacrifice served as “an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The sacrifice did cover Israel’s sins. But if it had been truly efficacious, only one sacrifice would have been required. How good to know that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (v. 10). Christ offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, and “by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (v. 14). Sacrifices outside the camp Lev. 17:1–9. All sacrifices made by the Israelites were to be offered at the tabernacle. This rule set Israel apart from other nations, whose people offered sacrifices to pagan gods at many different shrines. It reminds us of Jesus’ saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). If we are to come to God, we must approach Him in the one way He has ordained. “The life of the creature is in the blood” Lev. 17:10–16. God reserved the blood of animals, the source and symbol of biological life, for sacrifice. Verse 11 says, “I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” Because blood represents life itself, and was used in Israel’s religion to make atonement for sin, blood was a sacred fluid. No Jew was to eat blood. The blood of wild game was to be drained on the ground and covered with earth. Eating any animal not drained of blood when it was killed made a person unclean. The sacred nature of blood is reflected frequently in the New Testament, where the blood of Jesus stands for the life He gave for us. Ephesians 1:7 says that “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Eph. 1:7).
He Has Removed Our Sins from Us (Lev. 16)
I don’t know how she got my phone number. But she called my Phoenix home daily from Toronto, Canada. She was one of those folks who are tormented by uncertainty. Was she really forgiven? Did she really believe? Had God accepted her? After each conversation she seemed relieved, reassured. But the next day, the phone would ring again, as she shared her inner torment. The ceremony described in Leviticus 16 reminds us that God doesn’t intend you or me to doubt. He wants us to know that we are forgiven. He wants us to worship Him in the full assurance of faith. What conveys assurance? The image of the scapegoat. The picture of the high priest, symbolically transferring “all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites-all of their sins”—to the goat. And the picture of that goat being led out into the wilderness, never to be seen in the community of Israel again. David understood the message, and wrote in one of his psalms, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). Call up that image next time you feel uncertain about your relationship with God. Imagine all your sins. Close your eyes, and sense your sins being carried away, not by Israel’s scapegoat, but by Jesus Himself. Then let assurance of forgiveness bring you inner peace. Your sins are gone. As far as the east is from the west. So you truly are free. Free to worship God and to give Him thanks.
How does knowing that you are forgiven affect your feelings about God? About yourself? About your past sins and failures?