Christ’s Greater Atonement—Leviticus 16

Someone recently asked about my coming to faith in Jesus Christ. As I recounted God’s amazing awakening and softening of my heart, I spoke of my miserable, troubled first year as a Christian. I had sinned so much over thirty-three years and wounded many people. I am exceedingly grateful to the Lord for repeatedly bringing me to my knees that year in tearful confessions and for the reconciliation he later provided in my relationships, especially with my birth family. Being a Christian is not “happy-clappy” but mostly about being low and broken if we are true believers. We can only rejoice in our salvation to the extent that we have humbled ourselves under God’s holy rule, as Christ was. We observed Easter recently, with all its celebratory accompaniments—special outfits, Easter eggs, lilies, and lots of food. Christmas is similar, with gifts, family gatherings, parties, more parties, and lots of food again. While this is typical of most religious holidays, the Jewish “feasts,” as prescribed by our Lord in the Old Testament, had none of these frills. At the most, there was a break-fast after a day of fasting and prayer. This was especially true for the three major holidays—Rosh Hashanah (New Year or Harvest), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) ten days later, and Passover in the Spring. Yom Kippur was the most solemn day of prayerful confession with sacrifices at the temple or tabernacle. Today religious Jews solemnly observe the Day of Atonement, but many families, like Christians are more ceremonial in their observance than personally involved. However, the Lord called Israel to sincerely and personally confess all their sins annually because of the corruption that resulted from them, in themselves, the tabernacle, and the camp. For Christians, Christ’s atonement—once for all believers everywhere—provides access to God if we sincerely humble ourselves. We rejoice in confessing our sins and those of our community and the world for sanctified purification, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God and others.

Why a Day of Atonement?

“Some commentators have referred to the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus as the central chapter of the book. Chapters 1-15 describe laws for sacrifices and purity, and chapters 17-27 describe the holy living that God required of His people. Chapter 16 stands in the middle of those two divisions of Leviticus, and it describes the holiest day of the year for God’s people of the old covenant…The ceremonies of the Day of Atonement are also the most important Old Testament ceremonies for New Testament Christians because they most clearly explain and illustrate God’s central and final act of atoning grace—the death of Jesus for our sins.” (1) “By this point in Leviticus, it is clear that the Israelites’ sins and impurities defiled not only themselves, but also the Lord’s sanctuary. This created a serious problem, because defiling a king’s home was viewed as a treasonous act to be met with swift justice…The Lord, however, was Israel’s redeeming King, who always desired to continue in covenant fellowship with his people. He therefore provided this day–the ‘Day of Atonement’–to make full atonement for their sin and impurity, thus removing the threat of his judgment and assuring the Israelites that they could continue in covenant fellowship with him…Taken together, [all] these rites underscored that full atonement was made for all sin and impurity. Such rites were powerless, however, if not accompanied by faith.” (2) Just as God called Israel to annually confess all their sins—which corrupted them, the tabernacle, and the camp—for purification and reconciliation with Him on the Day of Atonement. Now, Christ’s atonement—once for all believers everywhere—provides access to God, so we rejoice in confessing our sins and those of our community and world.

The Priest’s Atonement

In Leviticus 16:1-10 Moses reports the instructions God gave him for Aaron’s personal atonement—and that of every future high priest of Israel. “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. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering…Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house…And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness.” “Aaron must not come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place… the Lord manifested his presence here directly, appearing in his cloud of glory over the ark. For Aaron to barge into this room–as his sons had tried to do–would have been a sign of great disrespect, resulting in the same fate: he would die…To begin, Aaron must have the necessary animals and clothing. Rather than his ornate high-priestly clothing, he was to wear a simpler set of plain linen clothes. The reason is not stated. Since his ornate clothes had kingly overtones, these might have been deemed inappropriate when coming into the heavenly King’s presence. Alternatively, humbler clothes might have been considered a more appropriate way to show contrition. In either case, the clothes’ simplicity suggests humility.” (3) Here is a shadow of Christ’s calling to humble ourselves, offering God our “broken and contrite hearts,” as prescribed in the Old Testament through David’s confession (Psalm 51:17). It is a blessing to confess our personal and communal sins and to receive God’s forgiveness, and more profound union with Christ.

The Tabernacle’s Atonement

Verses 11 through 18 describe Aaron’s requirement to purify the tabernacle. “Aaron…shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sin. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.” Leviticus 16:15-16) “How [and why] does one make atonement for an inanimate object and why is that necessary? God was communicating the message that sin defiles us and our environment. Therefore, part of the Day of Atonement was devoted toward cleansing the space where the people had brought their sins to God all year. In the minds of the people, that space was surely associated with sin, since sacrifices were offered for sin constantly…Why have Americans felt the impulse to build a significant structure on the site of the former World Trade Center in New York City? That place was where a great evil was perpetrated, and we want to redeem the site for good. The place did nothing wrong; people did wrong at that place. Still, we associate the wrong with the place. Sometimes that happens in our personal lives. We did something wrong, and whenever we go back to the place where we committed that wrong or every time with think of that place, we feel the guilt all over again. The tabernacle had done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, [Israel] associated that place with their sin. It was supposed to be a holy place, but their sin made it dirty. God gave the ceremonies on the Day of Atonement to help His people start over again, to sanctify that space.” (4) The Lord’s holy dwelling place, like heaven, was to be free from the sinful corruption of his people, and he himself provided for its cleansing.

Sending Sin Away

“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) “This rite addressed sin as a lethal substance that had to be removed from the camp. Aaron began by confessing all the Israelites’ sins and placing them on the goat. This is in keeping with the biblical principle that confession is the necessary first step when seeking atonement. The goat then bore on itself all their sins to a land cut off. Unlike the rites within the Most Holy Place, this rite was performed in full view of all the Israelites, who could watch the goat—laden with their sin—disappear into the wilderness, never to return. The goat bore not only their sins, but also the penalty their sins deserved…the phrase ‘to bear sin’ is used elsewhere to refer to bearing sin and its penalty. In short, the lethal burden and penalty of the Israelites’ sin was taken off their shoulders and placed on the goat, which bore it away and endured its consequences on their behalf. [See] Isaiah 53, which uses the language of this chapter to describe the suffering servant as the one who ‘bore the sin of many’…The New Testament sees Jesus as the ultimate suffering servant who bears the sins of others.” (5) So, Hebrews 4:16 encourages us to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time.” “In the new covenant age, because of God’s grace in Jesus, He welcomes us into His presence not merely one day per year, but every day of our lives.” (6)

Christ’s Atoning Offering

After Aaron completed the purification rites described for himself, his household, the tabernacle, and Israel, “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. 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.” (Leviticus 16:23-24) As I studied these words, I wondered if Aaron foreshadowed Christ, who left the linen shroud in the tomb when he was raised from death. The symbolism in the Day of Atonement drives us to look to Christ. “The ninth and tenth chapters of the book of Hebrews describe in detail how Jesus’s death on the cross supersedes the Day of Atonement and all the old covenant sacrifices. Hebrews says that on the Day of Atonement the high priest offered the blood of animals; Jesus offered His own blood, and since He is eternal His atonement for our sins is eternal. The high priest entered an earthly tent; Jesus offered His sacrifice in the presence of God Himself. The high priest offered sacrifices for his own sins; Jesus had no sin so He was the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice. The high priest had to offer sacrifices repeatedly; Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice once for all eternity. The writer of Hebrews concluded that the old covenant sacrifices were ‘a shadow of the good things to come,’ and Jesus has abolished the old covenant and established the new covenant in His sacrifice on the cross.” (7) James Boice offers food for thought in his commentary on John. “Where did Jesus spend the forty days between the events of this Easter morning and his final ascension into heaven nearly seven weeks later?…During those days Jesus passed freely between earth and heaven, the first time being early on the first Easter morning…he said to Mary, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father,’ but then a very short time later allowed the other women to touch him and that evening invited the disciples to do so also (Matt. 28:9; Luke 24:39). It is an apparent contradiction, but the answer that seems right to me is that between the two occurrences Jesus did ascend to the Father…Jesus had to ascend to present the value of his atoning death before the Father in fulfillment of Leviticus 16. Thus, the announcement of a completed atonement is also a part of the resurrection day’s significance.” (8)

A Perpetual Observance

God did not intend to keep Israel stuck in the cycle of sin and atonement forever, so when we read verses 29-31 we must look to Christ. “And it shall be a statute to you forever…it is a statute forever.” “Here are typified the two great gospel privileges, of the remission of sin, and access to God, both of which we owe to our Lord Jesus. Christ is both the Maker and the Matter of the atonement; for he is the Priest, the High Priest, that makes reconciliation for the sins of the people. And as Christ is the High Priest, so he is the Sacrifice with which atonement is made; for he is all in all in our reconciliation to God…Christ dying for our sins; the scapegoat a type of Christ rising again for our justification…Christ, the Lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world, by taking it upon himself (John 1:29). The entrance into heaven, which Christ made for us, was typified by the high priest’s entrance into the most holy place…By the atonement we obtain rest for our souls, and all the glorious liberties of the children of God…Here are typified the two great gospel duties of faith and repentance. By faith we put our hands upon the head of the offering; relying on Christ as the Lord our Righteousness, pleading his satisfaction, as that which alone is able to atone for our sins, and procure us a pardon. By repentance we afflict our souls…inwardly sorrowing for sin, and living a life of self-denial, assuring ourselves, that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. By the atonement we obtain rest for our souls, and all the glorious liberties of the children of God. Sinner, get the blood of Christ effectually applied to thy soul, or else thou canst never look God in the face with any comfort or acceptance. Take this blood of Christ, apply it by faith, and see how it atones with God.” (9) “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:1-3)

Related Scripture: Exodus 25:22; 26:31–34; 30:10; Numbers 29:7-11; 2 Chronicles 26:21 Isaiah 53:6; John 1:29; Hebrews 7:26-28; 9:9-28; 10:1-2, 19-25; 13:11-12; 1 Peter 2:14, 24.


1. Moseley, Allen, Exalting Jesus in Leviticus, Christ-Centered Exposition Series, Leviticus 16, B&H Publishing Group, 2015.

2. Sklar, Jay, Leviticus, An Introduction and Commentary, Introduction to Leviticus 16, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, IVP Academic, 2014.

3. Sklar. Ibid, Leviticus 16:1-10.

4. Mosley, Ibid.

5. Sklar, Ibid, Leviticus 16:20-22.

6. Mosley, Ibid.

7. Mosley, Ibid.

8. Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, John 5:9-16, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

9. Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible, Leviticus 16,

10.Mosley, Ibid.

April 28, 2023

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