The laws contained in the first three chapters seem to have been delivered to Moses at one time. Here begin the statutes of another session, another day. From the throne of glory between the cherubim God delivered these orders. And he enters now upon a subject more strictly new than those before. Burnt-offerings, meat-offerings, and peace-offerings, it should seem, had been offered before the giving of the law upon mount Sinai; those sacrifices the patriarchs had not been altogether unacquainted with (Gen. 8:20; Exod. 20:24), and in them they had respect to sin, to make atonement for it, Job 1:5. But the law being now added because of transgressions (Gal. 3:19), and having entered, that eventually the offence might abound (Rom. 5:20), they were put into a way of making atonement for sin more particularly by sacrifice, which was (more than any of the ceremonial institutions) a shadow of good things to come, but the substance is Christ, and that one offering of himself by which he put away sin and perfected for ever those who are sanctified.
I. The general case supposed we have, Lev. 4:2. Here observe, 1. Concerning sin in general, that it is described to be against any of the commandments of the Lord; for sin is the transgression of the law, the divine law. The wits or wills of men, their inventions or their injunctions, cannot make that to be sin which the law of God has not made to be so. It is said likewise, if a soul sin, for it is not sin if it be not some way or other the soul’s act; hence it is called the sin of the soul (Mic. 6:7), and it is the soul that is injured by it, Prov. 8:36. 2. Concerning the sins for which those offerings were appointed. (1.) They are supposed to be overt acts; for, had they been required to bring a sacrifice for every sinful thought or word, the task had been endless. Atonement was made for those in the gross, on the day of expiation, once a year; but these are said to be done against the commandments. (2.) They are supposed to be sins of commission, things which ought not to be done. Omissions are sins, and must come into judgment; but what had been omitted at one time might be done at another, and so to obey was better than sacrifice: but a commission was past recall. (3.) They are supposed to be sins committed through ignorance. If they were done presumptuously, and with an avowed contempt of the law and the Law-maker, the offender was to be cut off, and there remained no sacrifice for the sin, Heb. 10:26, 27; Num. 15:30. But if the offender were either ignorant of the law, as in divers instances we may suppose many were (so numerous and various were the prohibitions), or were surprised into the sin unawares, the circumstances being such as made it evident that his resolution against the sin was sincere, but that he was overtaken in it, as the expression is (Gal. 6:1), in this case relief was provided by the remedial law of the sin-offering. And the Jews say, “Those crimes only were to be expiated by sacrifice, if committed ignorantly, for which the criminal was to have been cut off if they had been committed presumptuously.”
II. The law begins with the case of the anointed priest, that is, the high priest, provided he should sin through ignorance; for the law made men priests who had infirmity. Though his ignorance was of all others least excusable, yet he was allowed to bring his offering. His office did not so far excuse his offence as that it should be forgiven him without a sacrifice; yet it did not so far aggravate it but that it should be forgiven him when he did bring his sacrifice. If he sin according to the sin of the people (so the case is put, Lev. 4:3), which supposes him in this matter to stand upon the level with other Israelites, and to have no benefit of his clergy at all. Now the law concerning the sin-offering for the high priest is, 1. That he must bring a bullock without blemish for a sin-offering (Lev. 4:3), as valuable an offering as that for the whole congregation (Lev. 4:14); whereas for any other ruler, or a common person, a kid of the goats should serve, Lev. 4:23, 28. This intimated the greatness of the guilt connected with the sin of a high priest. The eminency of his station, and his relation both to God and to the people, greatly aggravated his offences; see Rom. 2:21. 2. The hand of the offerer must be laid upon the head of the offering (Lev. 4:4), with a solemn penitent confession of the sin he had committed, putting it upon the head of the sin-offering, Lev. 16:21. No remission without confession, Ps. 32:5; Prov. 28:13. It signified also a confidence in this instituted way of expiating guilt, as a figure of something better yet to come, which they could not stedfastly discern. He that laid his hand on the head of the beast thereby owned that he deserved to die himself, and that it was God’s great mercy that he would please to accept the offering of this beast to die for him. The Jewish writers themselves say that neither the sin-offering nor the trespass-offering made atonement, except for those that repented and believed in their atonement. 3. The bullock must be killed, and a great deal of solemnity there must be in disposing of the blood; for it was the blood that made atonement, and without shedding of blood there was no remission, Lev. 4:5-7. Some of the blood of the high-priest’s sin-offering was to be sprinkled seven times before the veil, with an eye towards the mercy-seat, though it was veiled: some of it was to be put upon the horns of the golden altar, because at that altar the priest himself ministered; and thus was signified the putting away of that pollution which from his sins did cleave to his services. It likewise serves to illustrate the influence which Christ’s satisfaction has upon the prevalency of his intercession. The blood of his sacrifice is put upon the altar of his incense and sprinkled before the Lord. When this was done the remainder of the blood was poured at the foot of the brazen altar. By this rite, the sinner acknowledged that he deserved to have his blood thus poured out like water. It likewise signified the pouring out of the soul before God in true repentance, and typified our Saviour’s pouring out his soul unto death. 4. The fat of the inwards was to be burnt upon the altar of burnt-offering, Lev. 4:8-10. By this the intention of the offering and of the atonement made by it was directed to the glory of God, who, having been dishonoured by the sin, was thus honoured by the sacrifice. It signified the sharp sufferings of our Lord Jesus, when he was made sin (that is, a sin-offering) for us, especially the sorrows of his soul and his inward agonies. It likewise teaches us, in conformity to the death of Christ, to crucify the flesh. 5. The head and body of the beast, skin and all, were to be carried without the camp, to a certain place appointed for that purpose, and there burnt to ashes, Lev. 4:11, 12. This was very significant, (1.) Of the duty of repentance, which is the putting away of sin as a detestable thing, which our soul hates. True penitents say to their idols, “Get you hence; what have we to do any more with idols?” The sin-offering is called sin. What they did to that we must do to our sins; the body of sin must be destroyed, Rom. 6:6. (2.) Of the privilege of remission. When God pardons sin he quite abolishes it, casts it behind his back. The iniquity of Judah shall be sought for and not found. The apostle takes particular notice of this ceremony, and applies it to Christ (Heb. 13:11-13), who suffered without the gate, in the place of a skull, where the ashes of dead men, as those of the altar, were poured out.