How Jesus Fulfills the Day of Atonement

This is a simple look at Leviticus 16 in ten steps. Jesus fulfilled all the elements required on that holy day. How?

As I note in many of these posts that touch on the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices, the Spirit-inspired writers of the New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament) encourage us to read the Old Testament, particularly the priesthood and the ministry of the priests, as containing types and shadows of the substance or reality, which is Christ and his heavenly priesthood.

They [priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven (Heb. 8:5)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. (Heb. 10:1)

Then the author of Hebrews writes many, many verses explaining the realities of the copies and shadows. They are revealed most clearly in Jesus’s sacrifice and his priesthood in the heavenly, eternal sanctuary.

For a general overview of the interrelations between the Old Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant, click on: What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old? Many (not even close to all) elements are retained, and what is kept is improved on or streamlined.

The NIV is used here, unless otherwise noted. Readers are invited to go to biblegateway.com, choose their own translation, and open another window to follow along.

Next, let’s review what atonement means.

In English the word literally means “at-one-ment,” or reconciliation, being at one with God (the -ment suffix means the “result of”). The Hebrew verb is kapar (used 102 times) and is generally translated as “to atone,” “to wipe clean,” and “to appease.” In Gen. 32:20, Jacob sent gifts ahead of him to “wipe” (atone) the anger off his brother Esau’s face. The Day of Atonement was to atone for the worshiper’s own sins, by blood manipulation and sacrifice. God’s judicial wrath was lifted and he smiled on the people of Israel again.

The NT Greek nouns are hilasmos (used twice) (pronounced hih-lahs-mohss) and hilasterion (also used twice and pronounced hih-lah-stay-ree-own). The first noun appears in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 and means “an atoning sacrifice, propitiation.” Propitiation means “satisfaction” or “appeasement.” Jesus is the sacrifice that atones for sins. Our sins destroyed and separated us from God, but the sacrifice of Jesus reconciles us to God (1 John 1:6-7).

For more information, please click on this post:

What Does ‘Atonement’ Mean?

To forestall objections that falsely accuse God of being primitive or petty, please see this post: Christ’s Death on Cross = Cosmic Child Abuse?

What was the purpose of the Day of Atonement?

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.

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. (Rom. 3:25)

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:

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. … 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.(Heb. 4:14, 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).

Jesus did not need to offer a sacrifice for his own sins:

26 Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. (Heb. 7:26-27)

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. The cover was the lid for the ark. Jesus himself was our atonement cover (Rom 3:25; and see no. 1 for a quotation of the verse).

Jesus cleansed our consciences through sprinkling his blood on our hearts, to remove or atone or wipe clean our guilty conscience

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.  (Heb. 10:22)

The blood of bulls and goats could not do this (Heb. 9:11-14, and see below for a quotation). 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.

This is true love:

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

Atonement speaks of wiping clean. Jesus the high priest wipes away or cleanses our lives from past sins:

But whoever does not have them [listed virtues] is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. (2 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). The altar speaks of sacrifice and consecration of the believer in the Messiah. They are willing to give their all to him.

Once again, our consciences and past sins are cleansed through the sacrificial blood of Christ (Heb. 9:11-14, Heb. 10:22; 2 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).

BTSB says that the priest bore on himself the iniquities of the congregation, the high priest could confess them and so lay them on the scapegoat to completely remove them on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) (note on 10:17).

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]).

The high priest burned the hide, flesh and intestines outside the camp. The author of Hebrews applies this act outside to Jesus being crucified outside of Jerusalem proper:

11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Therefore, let’s go outside the camp of the world and bear his disgrace because we are looking for the eternal city.

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).

Here’s how Jesus is better than the Aaronic high priest:

Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

Jesus serves in the heavenly sanctuary, not a copy and shadow down here on earth. The New Covenant is better than the old one, since the new one is established on better promises.

Is there a summary passage in the New Testament of the Day of Atonement?

Yes, the author of Hebrews spells it out in two of them:

When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. 10 They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (Heb. 9:6-10)

In short, that passage says that the high priest entered once a year and offered a blood sacrifice for himself and for the people. This is an illustration for the present time because the gifts and offerings were never able to clear the conscience. The whole sacrificial system was about food and drink–in other sacrifices the one bringing the animal or grain could eat it. It was about externals. We need to look more deeply into the typological meaning, as the old order reveals in part and in shadows the new order.

The next passage continues the previous one and shows how Jesus fulfills the old system.

11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here,[a] he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Heb. 9:11-14).

The contrast could not be clearer. Do you see how Jesus fulfills all of the Day of Atonement? He entered the Most Holy Place by his own blood, so he obtains once-and-for-all or eternal redemption. The purpose is that we can serve the living God (v. 14), because our conscience is clear and cleansed by the blood of Christ.

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. (Heb. 10:19-23)

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.

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