This is a simple look at Leviticus 16 in ten steps. Jesus fulfilled all the elements required on that holy day.
The Day of Atonement was a special holy day, one day per year, in perpetuity, a lasting ordinance (Lev. 16:1-34). Its purposes were as follows:
(1) Cleanse the entire tabernacle, even the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies (v. 31-33);
(2) Offer a sin offering (vv. 6, 11-14) and burnt offering (3, 5, 23-25) for the high priest and his household;
(3) Offer two sin offerings for the people: the slaughtered sin offering (vv. 9, 13-19) and the scapegoat sin offering (vv. 10, 20-22);
The epistle to the Hebrews and other New Covenant Scriptures teach us that Jesus Christ fulfilled and replaced every element in the Day of Atonement, from the sacrificial animals to the sprinkling of their blood, to the high priest himself. And he did not need to be an offering for his own sin, though the Israelite high priest did! And Jesus entered the heavenly tabernacle and opened the way to us.
Now let’s look at the elements and rituals to find out how great Jesus’s sacrifice was.
1.. The high priest was not to enter the holy place whenever he pleases.
The ark of the covenant was placed there behind the curtain, and the ark had a cover or lid where God lived between the two cherubim with outstretched wings. The LORD appeared in a cloud over the atonement cover. This cloud was a veil so that Aaron the first high priest could not see the pure and awesome presence of God. If he did, he would die (Lev. 16:2). One way that he could provide the cloud is through the smoke of the finely ground incense that he threw on hot coals. This smoke concealed the atonement cover (Lev. 16:12-13).
In Rom. 3:25, Jesus himself is the place over the ark where the presence of God lived. We can boldly enter into God’s presence through prayer because he sits on the throne of grace, which does not need to be sprinkled with blood (Heb. 4:16).
2.. The high priest must put on right clothing and bathe.
Items: Linen undergarments next to his body and linen sash around him and a turban. He had to bathe before he put them on (Lev. 16:4). This symbolizes cleanness of body and the inner part of him, his soul, which was surely affected by his dressing and water “baptism.”
Jesus went through his own baptism (Matt. 3:13-17 // Mark 1:9-11 // Luke 3:21-22 // John 1:31-34). He did not do this to be cleansed from defilement, but to identify with humanity, to be consecrated to God, to launch his public ministry, and to receive the fullness of the Spirit—immersion in water and the Spirit. Jesus’s “sacrificial” garment was the ordinary clothing of the people. He did not have to wear special ones to show that he was pleasing to God. And he died naked on the cross.
3.. The high priest sacrificed for the entire Israelite community.
He brought two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for the burnt offering. The sin offering was for specific unintentional sins, confession of sins and forgiveness of them. It cleansed him from defilement (Lev. 16:5).
A burnt offering was a voluntary act of worship and atonement for general unintentional sins; it was an expression of devotion and commitment and complete surrender to God. Hence, the burning symbolized the burning away of self and the smoke ascended as a prayer to God (Lev. 16:5).
Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross shows that he gave his all and surrendered everything to the Father. Jesus is the once-and-for-all sacrifice for all people everywhere, not the just Israelites (John 1:29; Rom. 3:24-26; Heb. 9:26; Heb. 9:28; Heb. 10:2; Heb. 10:10).
4.. Before the high priest could enter the holy place, he had to bring sacrifices for himself.
The LORD had to forgive the sins of the high priest, who had to bring a young bull for the sin offer and a ram for the burnt offering. The high priest did this for himself and his household (Lev. 16:6; Lev. 16:11).
Jesus was without sin (Heb. 4:15), so he did not have to bring sacrifices for himself. He could enter the heavenly tabernacle by his own blood shed for us and the forgiveness of our sins, obtaining eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12).
5.. Two goats were to be presented to the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting (or tabernacle).
One goat was chosen by lot, and it was sacrificed as a sin offering. The other goat, also chosen by lot, was to be sent out into the wilderness (see nos. 7 and 8) (Lev. 16:7-10).
Some see in the two goats two men who were standing side by side just before Jesus died. Jesus the Righteous One and Barabbas the unrighteous one. Jesus’s special relationship with his Father means he can be called Bar-Abbas, literally “son of the Father.” And the other person was a criminal, Barabbas, whose name also means “son of the Father” (Matt. 20:16-26). That’s insightful, but make of it what you will.
6.. Taking the blood of the bull, the high priest was to sprinkle it on the atonement cover.
He took the blood with his finger and sprinkled it on the front of the atonement cover. Then he was to sprinkle it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover (Lev. 16:14). Seven speaks of completion and thoroughness.
Jesus cleansed our consciences through sprinkling his blood on our hearts, to remove or atone or wipe clean our guilty conscience (Heb. 10:22), while the blood of bulls and goats could not do this (Heb. 9:11-14). Now we can have confidence as we draw near to God with full assurance and a clean heart.
7.. He slaughtered one goat and sprinkled its blood before the atonement cover.
The purpose was to make atonement before the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites. He sprinkled blood on the tent of meeting, as well, because it sat among the unclean Israelites (Lev. 16:15-16). The space was sacred.
Atonement speaks of wiping clean. Jesus the high priest wipes away or cleanses our lives from past sins (1 Pet. 1:9).
8.. The high priest put the blood of the bull and the goat and on the horns of the altar.
Horns were little projections from the altar. They were symbols of help and refuge (1 Kings 1:50; 2:28). He does this through sprinkling as he did the atonement cover (Lev. 16:18-19).
Once again, our consciences and past sins are cleansed through the sacrificial blood of Christ (Heb. 9:11-14, Heb. 10:22; 1 Pet. 1:9). Jesus is our refuge in the sense of saving us (Matt. 1:21; John 10:9).
9.. The high priest sent out the live goat.
He was to place his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites, and send it out to the wilderness, led by an appointed man. It was to go to a remote place and then the appointed man was release it. It carried the people’s sins and removed their sins from the camp (Lev. 16:20-22).
This is a picture of the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. Our sins were transferred to Jesus and were removed from us. 1 Pet. 2:24 and Is. 53:6 say he “bore our sins.” John the Baptist proclaimed that Jesus was the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).
10.. The high priest finished his ministry in a specific way.
First, he took off the linen garments and left them in the tent of meeting. Then he bathed himself again. Next, he put on his regular garments. Finally, he went out and sacrificed the burnt offering for himself and a burnt offering for the people, to make atonement. He was to place the fat on the altar. Fat signified the best for the Lord (Lev. 16:23-25). (The appointed man who helped the high priest also went through a ritual finish of his ministry [Lev. 16: 26-28]).
Jesus was the better Aaronic high priest, and he finished his work by ascending on high and entering the heavenly tabernacle, forever. Now his sacrificial blood pays for our sins eternally, redeeming us eternally (Heb. 4:14-5:10; Heb. 8:1-2; Heb. 9:11-15; Heb. 9:23-28).
How does this information help me grow closer to Jesus?
The Day of Atonement happened once a year in September-October, and then the Israelites were cleansed for the year, but the high priest had to do the same thing next year (Lev. 16:29-34). In contrast, Christ’s sacrifice happened once and for all (Heb. 7:27; Heb. 9:12; Heb. 9:28) and is applied eternally (Heb. 5:9; Heb. 9:12; Heb. 13:20).
Next, Heb. 10:19-23 says with great promise and hope:
19 Therefore, brothers and sister, having confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 which opened to us a new and living way through the curtain, that is his flesh, 21 and a great high priest in the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart and full assurance of faith, our hearts being sprinkled from an evil conscience and our body having washed with clean water, 23 let us hold fast to the confession of hope without wavering, for the one who promised is faithful. (NIV)
This passage teaches us that Jesus entered the holy place by his own blood, not the blood of a bull or a ram. He did not have to make a sacrifice for his own sins, but his blood was shed for us and to remit (release) our sins. The curtain concealed the Most Holy Place, which symbolized Jesus’s flesh, but he gave up his mortal body on the cross, and it was resurrected in a glorified, transformed body, so now the curtain is removed. We can enter into God’s presence any time to ask for forgiveness or to pray or just have intimate fellowship with him. Our consciences have been sprinkled with his blood, which means he expiated (removed or lifted or wiped clean) our guilt. Now we have an unwavering hope, which we confess—out loud—because he who promised is faithful. It is not that we are faithful, but he is. So his promise is a sure thing.