The Day of Atonement

As Americans, we enjoy our holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day, Easter, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July and the various other days off from work. These days are all designed to remind us something. They are markers in our life designed to point to the deep and abiding values of our lives.

The Hebrews in the time of Moses celebrated many holidays as well. The most significant holiday was what we know today as Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement.  This is and was the most holy day in Israel. The Day of Atonement was an elaborate and scripted ritual.  The High Priest was required to follow a certain procedure and follow it carefully or he would die. The Day of Atonement was a day of fasting.  A day without labor.  The ritual was described in Leviticus 16.

  • The priest bathed his entire body (not just washing his hands and feet)
  • Put on the white linen tunic with white undergarments, sash, and turban instead of the richly ornamented High Priests robe.  This was to show the purity of the priest
  • Sacrificed a bull for his sin and the sin of his family
  • Filled a censer with burning coals from the altar and two handfuls of incense and entered into the Holy of Holies where the Ark of God and the mercy seat (on top of the ark) resided. This was the only time during the year the High Priest could enter this place of God’s presence. When he walked in he was to place the incense on the coals and this would would form a cloud over the mercy seat.  This symbolized the need to shield the priest from the eyes of the Holy God.
  • The priest would exit and get some of the bull’s blood and would return and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and then seven times on the grown before the mercy seat. This was to atone or pay for his own sin. 
  • Then the priest turned to the two goats and cast lots over them.  One was chosen for sacrifice and one was chosen as the scapegoat.  A piece of crimson wool was tied to the horns of the scapegoat, and a thread was bound around the goat to be slaughtered (Yoma 4.2) 
  • Next the sacrificial goat would be killed.  The blood of the goat would be brought into the Holy of Holies and the same ritual would be performed. This was for the sin of the people.
  • When emerging from the Holy Place he took the mixed blood of the bull and the goat and put it on the horns of the altar (outside of the Holy of Holies), and sprinkled the altar to cleanse the tabernacle from the contamination of the sins of the people.
  • Then the priest laid his hands on the live goat and confessed the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites and “put them on the goats head”. 
  • This goat was then led away into the dessert.
  • The priest bathed, put on normal robes and completed the burnt offerings of the bull and goat and other offerings.

It was an elaborate and very significant ritual. This morning we are going to look at what the Day of Atonement was supposed to illustrate, where the Day of Atonement fell short, and why all these things are significant to you and me.


None of the Biblical ceremonies was without meaning. God never did anything simply because it was “cool” or because that’s the way it was always done.  The celebrations the Lord established were to remind the people of eternal truth.  So, what was it the people were to remember as a result of the Day of Atonement?

First, this ritual points to the separation that exists between God and men. The Lord was “housed” in the tabernacle in the Holy of Holies or the Most Holy Place. No one could go behind the thick veil.  There was only one time that man could enter that place and that was on the Day of Atonement and then it could only be the High Priest who needed to first bathe, offer sacrifices for his sins, and then carefully enter into the sacred room. This whole process reminds us of the distance that exists between a Holy God and sinful human beings. We cannot and must not barge into His presence.  We cannot come unless we are invited.

Second, the ceremony reminded the people that sin is costly.  The whole idea of the sacrificial system was to teach that sin demands a steep price. Yes, the celebration was bloody.  Yes, it was tragic that these animals were sacrificed in this manner. And all these images were to make us aware that sin is not just something we shrug off.  When we sin, we become enemies of God.  

Third, the ceremony pointed to the insufficiency of the works of men.  No matter how diligent the people might be in their confession of sin and the offering of sacrifices, there were always unknown sins that had not been atoned (or paid) for. The Day of Atonement took care of these unintentional acts of defilement. 

Fourth, the Day of Atonement points out the need for a substitute.  We cannot take care of our sin on our own. The whole idea of the two goats was designed to show us that we needed someone who could bear our punishment and take away our guilt and shame. James Boice describes the point of the Day of Atonement well:

The place where the blood was put was symbolic, as was the whole ritual.  It was called the mercy seat. Being on the lid of the ark, the mercy seat was between the stone tablets of the law of Moses (within the ark) and the space between the outstretched wings of the cherubim over the ark (symbolizing the place of God’s dwelling).

Without the blood the ark with its law and cherubim paints a terrible picture. There is the law, which we have broken. There is God, whom we have offended. Moreover, as God looks down, it is the law broken by us that he sees. It is a picture of judgment, of our hopelessness apart from grace. But then the sacrifice is performed, and the high priest enters the Holy of Holies and places the blood of the innocent victim upon the mercy seat, which thus comes between God in his holiness and ourselves and our sin. There has been substitution. An innocent has died in the place of those who should have died, and the blood is proof. Wrath is averted. Now God looks in grace upon the sinner. (Boice, FOUNDATIONS p. 224)

In short, the Day of Atonement pointed to a future day. The entire celebration pointed forward to Jesus. And that leads us to our next section.  


As picturesque as this ceremony was, there were still problems. The ceremony pointed to the penalty of sin being averted, or paid by another, but the people still did not feel forgiven.  And that is the point that the author of Hebrews is making in chapters 9 and 10.   

Limited Effectiveness. As grand a ritual as the Day of Atonement was, everyone knew that it was insufficient. All they were doing were buying time. This was merely a temporary reprieve.  Everyone knew that the blood of goats and bulls could not really take away sin. Before the day was done the people would have additional sin to atone for. The next day, the endless sacrifices would continue. Kent Hughes writes, 

…the sacrifices remained as “an annual reminder of sins.” As a matter of fact, the Day of Atonement increased the burden of those with sensitive hearts. The Day’s well-defined ritual was constructed to aggravate one’s conscience. The shadow of the Old Covenant Law and sacrifice inflamed the unrequited need for forgiveness and a clear conscience. The photograph, so to speak, pictured what could be and activated an ache for the reality.  (Hughes  HEBREWS Vol. 2 p. 22)

Imagine yourself as one of the people who were watching the ceremony of this day.  Imagine what might be going on in your mind.  You would first want it all to be true. You would wish that the stain of your sin could truly be dealt with in this ceremony. You would wish that this blood could erase all the evil that you had done. How do I know this is what we would wish?  Because we are wishing and hoping for the same things today.  We wish that there was a way to erase,

  • the bad choices
  • the hurtful words
  • the scarred lives
  • the opportunities missed
  • the hateful and profane thoughts
  • the willful defiance

And when the people saw that goat led off into the wilderness, don’t you think that prayed that this would happen with their sin?  Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to have the stain of sin removed?  Wouldn’t it be grand to think it was really possible? And wouldn’t you wish and yearn that this was a permanent situation. Wouldn’t it be great if that Day of Atonement was the end of the matter? But you knew that sin and the sacrifices would continue.  The Day of Atonement was a brilliant picture but in some ways it was only a mirage.  The Day of Atonement was a temporary measure.

Limited Access Though the Day of Atonement sought to portray the need and cost of forgiveness . . . the fact is that it felt like nothing changed.  The people didn’t feel reconciled to God. The curtain was still there.  God was still distant. They were still shut out from His presence. The goat may have carried their sin into the wilderness, but they were no closer to God. He was still distant. The Day of Atonement felt like a band aid on a broken leg.


So if this ritual was unable to really solve the sin problem, why is it important to us?  It’s important because this picture helps us understand our own salvation. 

We Have a Problem As much as we try to justify, rationalize and explain it away, sin is real in our lives. Deep down inside everyone of us knows that we have done what is displeasing in God’s sight. 

  • we have taken advantage of the weak
  • we have torn others apart with our words
  • we have ignored God’s law in our living
  • we have pursued our will over His
  • we have walked away from the promises we have made
  • we have worked to steal the credit for the things He has done
  • we have taken what didn’t belong to us
  • we have treated others as objects to exploit for our pleasures
  • we have steadfastly refused to honor God in our daily living
  • we have been lazy in our duties

We know we have a problem. We wish that we could undo all these things by writing a check or even offering a sacrifice. We pretend it isn’t a problem but in our heart we know it is.  Our conscience cries out against us.

Christ is our Substitute

Deep down we all know that we need help.  The Day of Atonement was meant to point us to Jesus.  The Day of Atonement helps us understand what Christ came to do. Eugene Peterson brings to life the words of Hebrews 9 in his contemporary paraphrase called The Message,

Christ didn’t enter the earthly version of the Holy Place; he entered the Place Itself, and offered himself to God as the sacrifice for our sins. He doesn’t do this every year as the high priests did under the old plan with blood that was not their own; if that had been the case, he would have to sacrifice himself repeatedly throughout the course of history. But instead he sacrificed himself once and for all, summing up all the other sacrifices in this sacrifice of himself, the final solution of sin. (9:24-26)

The author of Hebrews tells us several things about Christ.  

  • First, His sacrifice was presented not in an earthly tent or temple, it was made in Heaven. 
  • Second, He did not use the blood of bulls and goats, but His own blood
  • Third, His sacrifice cleanses us inside and out
  • Fourth, His sacrifice was once and for all

The picture of the two goats helps us understand what Christ did on the cross. On the one hand Christ paid the price for our sin to God (like the goat that was sacrificed).  He satisfied the demands of holy justice that wrong might be paid for.  Second, he removed our sin (like the scapegoat).  Christ was our substitute.  Our sins were placed on His head and transferred to His account and that account was settled at the cross. Sin has been removed from our account.  It is no longer on the record books of Heaven. In theological terms these two aspects of Christ’s work  is called propitiation and expiation. 

Maybe you could think of it this way. Suppose you had a great debt that you owed that you could not pay. The creditors were foreclosing and you were helpless to stop the process.  Now suppose someone came and paid your debt? But suppose they not only paid your debt but also eliminated every trace of that debt from your financial record.  It was removed from your credit rating, it was removed from bank records. And suppose this someone promised you that when you ran into trouble again, He would make sure you would not be foreclosed on. That is what Christ has done for us.

One more thing you need to see. When Jesus died on the cross a very noteworthy thing happened, In Matthew 27:51 we read, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” What curtain was this? It was the curtain between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place or the Holy of Holies.  In other words the way into God’s presence was opened. Not only was sin removed, but we now have access into the presence of God. We don’t have to wait for the priest to go to God for us.  We can go ourselves.  We don’t have to wait for Yom Kippur, we can go at any time. We are not restricted to one day a year.  We can come into His presence regularly. 

The writer to the Hebrews makes this grand declaration,

So, friends, we can now—without hesitation—walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. (Hebrew 10:19,20 THE MESSAGE)


There are two things that need to be said in closing.  First, I must point out that this gracious act of our Savior will only apply to your life, if you turn to Christ and receive this gift. On the day of atonement the sacrifice did not apply to the people unless they were in the right frame of mind.  They had to be in a spirit of repentance and humility. And the Bible tells us that we must “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” in order to be saved. 

What does it mean to “believe?” 

  • It means to recognize your sinfulness and your need for someone to save you from the judgment you deserve
  • It means to recognize that what Christ did on the cross was sufficient to pay for your sin in the present. We must really believe that when Christ died He died in our place, for our sin.  And when He rose from the grave He proved that His sacrifice was accepted by God.
  • It means putting our whole confidence for salvation in Christ. We no longer harbor any illusions of being able to earn our way into heaven by our good works.
  • It means living the rest of your life as a person who has been granted new life and the opportunity to live that new life as a friend of God.

Isn’t this what you have been wishing for? I know it seems to good to be true. And I know that you are asking what did you do to deserve such grace?  The answer to that question is “nothing”. This gift is not offered to us because of our goodness . . . but because of His. Do we deserve forgiveness?  No.  But it is offered to you. He will pay your debt.  He will erase the record.  You can be forgiven.  You can be set free.

  • even though you have acted foolishly
  • even though you have ignored Him for years
  • even though you have hurt the people you love
  • even though you have acted deceptively
  • even though you have broken the law repeatedly

You can be forgiven.  If you are sorry for what you have done and want to be right with God . . . it is possible. This is the potential. This is what could happen. But now a question remains: “How will you respond to His invitation?” Will you ignore His offer?  Will you walk away unwilling to believe? Or will you gratefully receive His gift?  In the quiet of this place I hope you will bow before God in your heart and mind and simply say, “I receive the gift you offer. I receive Christ as my Savior. Today, I saw ‘yes’ to your grace.”

If you are sincere in this prayer then your sin is forgiven. It is taken away by your scapegoat, Jesus. If you were sincere, then the curtain is torn in two and you can enter God’s presence without fear and with great joy.

But I mentioned that there were two things that need to be said in closing. In the book of Hebrews 10:21-24 we read,

And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s people, let us go right into the presence of God, with true hearts fully trusting him. For our evil consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.  Without wavering, let us hold tightly to the hope we say we have, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near. (NLT)

The writer understands that if we comprehend what Christ has done we will never be the same again. We will live our lives with a new joy, a new freedom, and desire to honor the Lord in everything we do. If we understand the new life that has been granted us, we will live with gratitude, with joy, with fervent hope and with an eager anticipation of the day when we will see Him face to face and enter into the inheritance that we do not deserve, but have been granted because of His love.

John Bunyan captures the idea in his great masterpiece, the Pilgrim’s Progress

On top of the hill, he came to a cross. Just as he got to the cross, his burden came loose, dropped from his shoulders and went tumbling down the hill. It fell into an open grave, and he saw it no more.

Now Christian’s heart was light. He had found relief from his burden. He said to himself, “He has given me rest by His sorrows, and life by His death.” He stood gazing at the cross, wondering how the sight of the cross could so relieve one of guilt and shame. He no longer felt guilty of anything. His conscience told him that all his sins were forgiven. He now felt innocent, clean, happy, and free.  He knew his sins had all been paid for by the death of the One who died on the cross. They were gone, buried in the Savior’s tomb, and God would remember them against him no more forever. He was so thankful and so full of joy that the tears began to flow.

As he stood looking at the cross, weeping for joy, three celestial beings stood near. They greeted him with, “peace be unto thee.”  The first said, “Your sins are forgiven.” The second stripped him of his rags and clothed him with garments white and clean. The third put a mark upon his forehead and gave him a book to read on the way. Then Christian leaped for joy, and went on his way singing.  (Pilgrim’s Progress in Today’s English p. 39, 40)

The people at the tabernacle during Yom Kippur knew that the next day would bring “business as usual”. But the person who finds atonement in Christ realizes joyfully that life will never be the same again.

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