The Greatest Day of the Year
A Pocket Paper
“This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls. It is a statute forever. And the priest, who is anointed and consecrated to minister as priest in his father’s place, shall make atonement, and put on the linen clothes, the holy garments; then he shall make atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tabernacle of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year.” And he did as the Lord commanded Moses. (Leviticus 16:29-34)
Today we are finishing our summertime series of messages from the book of Leviticus. If I had it to do over, I think I would have kept preaching through Leviticus to the end of the book; but in anticipating this series of messages, I wasn’t sure it would hold the interest of my listeners for more than eight weeks. And so, Lord willing, I will come back next year and finish the book—especially the portions of Leviticus having to do with the Feasts and Festivals of ancient Israel.
I think I can make a solid case that the book of Leviticus is simply a long series of adumbrations and types of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus once said, “If you want to learn about me, go to the books written by Moses in the Old Testament. He spoke of me.” Right here, at the heart of the five books of Moses, is the book of Leviticus, and it speaks of Him.
There are three major ways in Leviticus in which we learn of Jesus Christ. First, through the sacrifices and offerings prescribed in chapters 1-7. Second, through the duties of the High Priest who prefigured Christ. Third, in the Feasts and Festivals of ancient Israel, which are described later in this book.
Today we are coming to the very heart of the matter—the day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16.
You may remember that several years ago, on October 6, 1973, the combined forces of Egypt and Syria attacked the nation of Israel, intending to destroy it. The war began at noon, and it was a well-chosen time and date, because it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the year to the Jews. The nation of Israel was caught off guard, and for a little while it looked very bleak for Israel. Within a few days, however, the United Nations was screaming for the war to stop because Israel had recovered and its troops were pressing to within a few miles of Cairo and Damascus. Suddenly it was the aggressor nations who found themselves threatened.
From that point on in modern day history, the words Yom Kippur have been in the vocabulary of the world. The Hebrew word “Yom” means “Year.” And “Kippur” means “Atonement.” This is the most solemn day of the year for the Jews. All their other Feasts and Festivals are times of rejoicing and celebrations, but Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and self-denial, a time when they afflicted their souls. The people of Israel have been observing this holy day every year since the ancient times of Moses, ever since the details were described in Leviticus 16. And it is very important in our Christian theology and beliefs as well. Today, I’d like for us to look at this subject from both an Old Testament and a New Testament perspective.
The Old Testament instructions for the observing of Yom Kippur are found here in Leviticus 16, as well as later in Leviticus 23. Rather than read this entire chapter, let me list for you the major elements. To make things as simple as possible, let me use three words to sum up the contents of Leviticus 16.
The first word is clothing. The entire nation of Israel with all its work and busyness came to a complete halt as the High Priest of Israel took a ritual bath and clothed himself in some unusual clothing. Look at Leviticus 16:1ff:
Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered profane fire before the Lord, and died; and the Lord said to Moses: “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat, which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat. Thus Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with the blood of a young bull as a sin offering, and of a ram as a burnt offering. He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body; he shall be girded with a linen sash, and with the linen turban he shall be attired. These are holy garments. Therefore he shall wash his body in water and put them on.
These garments were not the usual articles of clothing for the High Priest. The raiment for the High Priest was exceedingly ornate. It was colorful and expensive and bedecked with jewels. But on this day, all that fancy garb was left behind, and the High Priest appeared dressed himself using only four pieces of clothing: White pants (the Hebrew word indicates that it was akin to our shorts), a white shirt or top, a white sash, and a white turban for the head.
What was the significance of this? Well, it seems that there is a two-fold importance. First, on this day the High Priest became a servant. He clad himself in garments akin to those worn by servants—white shorts and a white top. Simple white garments. He removed his ornate garments that spoke of the dignity of his standing before God and clad himself in the garments of a servant.
It speaks of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, on the Day of Atonement, laid aside His glorious garb, his raiment of light, and took upon Himself the form a servant, becoming in likeness like a man. He said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
At the funeral of Ronald Reagan, the senior George Bush spoke of that horrible day in March of 1981 when President Reagan was shot. Later, as he recovered from his wounds in the hospital, an aide entered his room and was shocked to find him on his hands and knees wiping water from the floor. He explained that he had spilled some water from the sink, and he was afraid his nurse would get into trouble
All of us, hearing that story, were moved at the humility of a great man. But how can we ever visualize or conceptualize the humility of the King of Heaven, getting down in His knees and wiping away our sins with His own blood? It is beyond my abilities as a public speaker to bring that home to us as I would like to.
Second, the white clothing spoke of holiness, which was the real emphasis of the day. What does the word “atonement” mean? What was the purpose of the day? The word “atonement” means “at-one-ment.” It signifies that God is on one side as a holy and righteous God, and we are on the other side as benighted and defiled sinners. And Jesus Christ, the Perfect Man, stands between us, ready to forgive our sins and to clothe us, as it were, with His own righteousness that we might be reconciled to God.
The second thing to notice about Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16 are the clouds. Look again at Leviticus 16:1ff: Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered profane fire before the Lord, and died; and the Lord said to Moses: “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.
When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they paused at Mount Sinai, and there the Lord gave Moses the Ten Commandments and also the architectural blueprints, as it were, for the building of a portable worship center called the Tabernacle. This is one of the most fascinating portraits and adumbrations of Christ in the entire Old Testament, Fifty chapters in the Bible are devoted to this Tabernacle. The whole plan of salvation and redemption can be seen in its structure and function.
At the heart of the Tabernacle Complex was a tent which was divided into two rooms. The first room was called the Holy Place, and the various priests of Israel could enter that room at various times. When you entered it, you say to your left the golden seven-branched candlestick. On your right, you saw the table of showbread. And right in front of you was a little altar on which incense was burned.
Just behind the altar of incense was a very beautiful tapestry into which were woven images of angels. Behind that tapestry was the inner room of the Tabernacle, the Sanctum Sanctorum, the Holy of Holies. There was a special sense in Old Testament days in which this Holy of Holies represented the very dwelling place of the very essence of God among His people. The cloud of God’s Glory resided in that little room. There was only one piece of furniture there—the fabled Ark of the Covenant, which represented the earthly footstool of God’s heavenly throne. The lid to this Ark of the Covenant was called the mercy seat or the mercy covering. It was there, into that room, that the High Priest was to bring the blood of the sacrifices to atone for sin and to sprinkle that blood on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant.
But how could the High Priest enter the very presence of the Almighty? How could he survive the pure holiness of the essence of God Himself? Well, he—the High Priest—was to create another cloud, as it were. Look at verses 11ff:
And Aaron shall bring the bull of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house, and shall kill the bull as the sin offering which is for himself. Then he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony lest he die.
The altar of incense represents the prayers, the intercessory ministry, of the High Priest. Before parting the veil and stepping into the Holy of Holies, the High Priest had a special concoction of incense which he threw on the coals of the altar of incense, creating a cloud. I don’t think it was necessarily a thick cloud, but it was symbolic. It represented the intercession of the Son of Man for us. It represented a plea for mercy. And thus the High Priest, Aaron, could enter the Sanctum Sanctorum.
What did he do there? Well that leads to the third word that sums up this chapter—cleaning. He offered the blood of the sacrifice for the cleansing of himself and of the people. Now, this was a rather elaborate process and it involved more than just making atonement for the sins of the people. Aaron had to first make atonement for his own sins and for those of his family. He also had to cleanse the Tabernacle itself from the defilement of the people who had worshipped there during the past year. But the most important elements involved three animals—a bull and two goats.
It was the blood of the bull and one of the goats that atoned for sin. It was symbolic of the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. For some reason unknown to us God wove an immutable law into the moral fabric of the universe at the time of the creation: Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.
But it’s the two goats that I want to end with.
Verses 7ff: He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot feel, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness…
Verse 15: Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. There shall be no man in the tabernacle of meeting when he goes in to make atonement in the Holy Place, until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel…
Verse 20: And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all the iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.
The goat that was slain represents our Lord Jesus Christ. And the goat that bore the sins of Israel into the wilderness areas to be seen no more is a graphic depiction of how Jesus Christ removes our sins and our guilt and our shame and bears it far away, never to be seen again.
When I was a child, we used to sing a little song in Sunday School that said: “Gone, gone, gone, gone! Yes my sins are gone! Now my soul is free and in my heart’s a song!”
That’s the meaning of this. Just think of it. Jesus Christ likens himself to a goat to be killed, and he likens our sins to the scapegoat—removed from us forever.
Not long ago I read a fascinating story in the newspaper. In a small town in the western regions of India is a small pool. The Hindus believe that a drop of nectar fell from heaven into that pool, giving it mystic powers. One plunge into that pool, said this article from CNN, and the devout Hindu believes that all his sins will be washed away. Millions of Hindus travel to that little town and line up for hours waiting to take the plunge that will remove their sense of guilt.
Yet no muddy pool can do that. No bloody animal can do that. But…
There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins.
And sinners plunged beneath that flow lose all their guilty stains.
The Day of Atonement is simply a foreshadowing of the old rugged cross of our Savior whose blood alone can atone for sin and set the prisoner free.
Suppose you were on trail for your life, and one little sin would damn you. Imagine the prosecutor, frothing at the mouth, confident of his case, spun around and pointed his finger in your face and said:
Have you ever insulted your parents? Yes.
Have you ever acted out of pride and arrogance? Yes.
Have you ever hurt another human being? Yes.
Have you ever entertained evil thought? Yes.
Have you committed immorality?
Have you broken the laws of the land?
Have you done things of which you are ashamed?
Have you done things that no one knows about?
Have you condemned yourself to hell by the thoughts of your heart and the words of your mouth? Have you?
How do you plead? What do you have to say for yourself?
I have no other argument.
I have no other plea.
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but should have everlasting life.
The New Testament
And that brings us to the New Testament teaching on this subject. The Levitical Day of Atonement is so important to the whole Biblical story that God devoted two chapters in the book of Hebrews to explaining to us what it meant. Those two chapters—Hebrews 9 and 10—must be studied if we’re to understand Leviticus 16 and the significance of Yom Kippur to our own lives.
Hebrews 9 begins with the writer describing the furnishings for the Tabernacle.
Then indeed, even the first covenant (the Old Testament) had ordinance of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary (The Holy Place); and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these thing we cannot speak in detail.
I certainly wish that the writer of the book of Hebrews had paused long enough to speak of these things in detail, because every one of them (as we’ve seen in previous sermons) speaks of aspects of the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. But the writer is on a mission—he wants to go right to the significance of the Holy of Holies and of the Day of Atonement. So he continues in verse 6:
Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance, the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was not standing.
In other words, the Holy Spirit, who was the inspiration-power behind the Old Testament, was giving us advance previews of holy things. He was setting up a type which illustrated the greatest event in biblical history, in world history, and in divine history. Continue in verse 9:
It was symbolic for the present time.
That might just be the best definition of a biblical type that we have in the Bible. A “type” of Christ is any person, thing, or event in the Old Testament that foreshadows a New Testament truth. The Tabernacle is the greatest “type” of Christ in the Old Testament, not only in its arrangement, architecture, and furnishing; but especially in its ritual such as the Day of Atonement.
It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to conscience—concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.
That’s talking about the book of Leviticus. The dietary requirements, the ritual offerings, the oblations and offerings—none of those things could really cleanse the human conscience. They were simply symbols of something that was to come. Look at verse 11:
But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with human hands, not of this creation.
In other words, the earthly tabernacle was simply modeled and patterned after the real tabernacle in the highest heavens that serves as the dwelling place of God. And the High Priest of Israel was simply modeled and patterned after the real High Priest—the real Mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
This is a very important verse about our salvation because it involves all three members of the Trinity in the redemption process. Christ—God the Son—offered Himself to God the Father through the eternal Spirit, God the Holy Ghost. It was with the anointing and empowering of the Spirit that Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, made His sacrifice. Drop down to verse 24:
For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with the blood of another—He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
By ages, I think it means at the end of the age of the Old Testament, at the end of the Old Testament era, Christ appeared to fulfill all the Old Testament types and prophecies.
And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.
Now, going on to chapter 10—and remember, these chapter divisions were not in the original text, so there is really no breakage in the flow of the content.
For the law—the book of Leviticus—having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshippers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.
Verse 5: Therefore, when He (Christ) came into the world, He said (and now he is going to quote from Psalm 40): “Sacrifice and offering You did not did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come—in the volume of the book it is written of Me—to do your will, O God.”
Now the writer recaps in verses 11ff:
And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made his footstool.
If you want to know what Jesus Christ is doing right now, this verse gives us a partial answer. He is enthroned in heaven, waiting for that coming moment when His enemies will be made His footstool.
For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified….
Now, what does this mean to you and me? Well, if I had been writing the book of Hebrews, I would have said, “Therefore, let us visualize this. Let us internalize this. Let us make sure we’ve accepted this grace and forgiveness.”
But the Holy Spirit took a different approach. This section about the High Priestly ministry of Jesus Christ on Yom Kippur ends with a series of practical exhortations, beginning in verse 19:
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us drawn near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
So far, that is just as I have said, only better put. Since Jesus Christ has fulfilled these types and done this for you and me, let’s make sure we have received it. But he goes on in verse 23: Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.
In other words, let’s keep growing stronger and stronger in faith, not weaker and weaker. Let’s grow in our confidence in the One who has promised and who is faithful.
And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.
Let’s grow closer to Lord and closer to His people. Let’s keep growing in this abundant life that He has provided for us.
I’d like to close by pointing out what a phenomenal thing this is. I love this line of teaching. To me, it confirms the brilliance and the infallibility of Scripture. To think that God previewed for us in advance—1400 years before Christ—the very ministry that redeems the human race. To think that it was all pictured out for us, like pictures in a children’s picture book. To think that down to the last details, the types and adumbrations were given. To think of the wonders of the theology. To think of how perfectly our Lord fulfilled each and every detail of the types.
Jesus my great High Priest
Offered Himself and died.
My guilty soul now needs no sacrifice besides.
His powerful blood for sin atoned
And now it pleads before the throne.
It is the greatest display of love in all the human story.
Dr. Karl Barth, who was one of the most brilliant and complex theologians of the twentieth century, was once asked if he could summarize what he had said in all his arcane books of theology. Dr. Barth thought a moment, then said: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
This week I received a e-mail from a woman who told me about her son, Bo, who was ten. He had been riding his bicycle in front of their house when he was hit by a truck going fifty miles an hour. Witnesses who were working on the roof of a neighbor’s house said that the boy flew over power lines, landed on a concrete sewer pad, rolled over 100 feet, and came to rest in the yard across the street.
As they were rushing to the hospital in the ambulance, it became clear that Bo was going into shock. He was puffy all over and getting pale. The color drained from his face. Instinctively, the woman and her husband, who were with Bo in the ambulance, began singing “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”
Bo’s lips began to move, and he began to sing, weakly at first, then stronger. The color returned to his face, and they could only describe it as miraculous. In the emergency room, the CT scan found no head injuries, no internal injuries, and nothing life threatening. His major injury was to his knee, and that later required a number of surgeries.
But the woman said in the letter to me, “To make a long story short, Bo is now 21 and a junior in college. God has put it on my heart to make certain that every child in the world has an opportunity to learn that life-saving hymn.”
One of the most incredible truths in the Bible is that Jesus loved us so much that He became our great High Priest according to the Old Testament principles of redemption, He offered Himself once for all at the end of that ancient era, and He entered into the heavenly tabernacle for us, to plead on our behalf with His own wounds. And the moment we receive Christ as our Savior is our own personal Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement.
As the old hymn puts it: Nothing can for sin atone. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
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