Recommended Reading: Isaiah 53:1–12; Romans 3:21–31; Hebrews 8:1—10:39
Once a year one person—the high priest—entered the Most Holy Place. The chosen day, the Day of Atonement, occurred on the tenth day of the seventh month of Israel’s lunar calendar (September–October).
The ritual of this day was complex and somber. The high priest took off his ornate robes and put on simple linen garments. He sacrificed a bull for his own sins and the sins of the other priests. Then he presented two goats to the Lord—one to sacrifice for the sins of the people and the other, known as the “scapegoat,” to take the weight of Israel’s sins outside of the camp.
As he entered the tabernacle the high priest burned incense, obscuring his vision from the atonement cover on top of the ark of the covenant. This prevented him from looking directly at God’s presence. The high priest carried the blood of the bull and the sacrificed goat into the Most Holy Place, using his finger to sprinkle the blood on the atonement cover. Leaving the tabernacle, he took more blood and placed it on the horns of the sacrificial altar.
At the culmination of the ritual, the high priest laid hands on the scapegoat, ritually transferring the sin of Israel to the animal. An assistant then released the scapegoat into the desert. Other actions concluded the ceremony.
The rituals of the Day of Atonement purged the sanctuary of the pollution of a year’s worth of Israel’s sins. Through the year, as Israelites sought forgiveness for their sins, they placed their hands on animals representing themselves. The blood of the sacrificed animals, now symbolically polluted with sin, was splashed, smeared and sprinkled on the altar. The Day of Atonement cleansed the tabernacle itself, as well as the Israelites who worshiped there, of a year’s worth of impurity.
While foreign to us, the Day of Atonement still demonstrates that God takes sin seriously. He requires blood sacrifice to facilitate the removal of sin from his presence. Our sin matches the seriousness of the Israelites’ sin. But we no longer observe these sacrificial rituals, because Jesus Christ serves as our high priest. And that high priest, representing our sins, went alone into God’s presence and offered his own blood as the sacrifice for our sin. His blood was shed once for all time to cover the darkness in our lives. And he himself acted as the scapegoat for us.
So the Day of Atonement is an Old Testament picture of Jesus’ New Testament sacrifice for our sins. Through him God sees us as pure and sin-free when we place our trust in Jesus for eternal life.