I hear numerous objections to what I’ve proposed about how to understand the atoning sacrifice of Jesus in his death. I know these objections quite well since I personally made most of them for decades. The only problem with these objections, at least to me, is that they can be answered quite clearly by a better, richer and fuller understanding of the Old Testament sacrificial system. If this understanding is correctly joined with the teaching given to us by the writer to the Hebrews, then we can make better sense of Jesus’ death and what happened at the cross.
I am referring to Hebrews chapter nine when I make this statement. (I will include the whole chapter here to create the context. I have also included some relevant translation notes in parentheses, notes which are particularly important to reading this chapter.)
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. 2 For a tent (tent=tabernacle) was constructed, the first one, in which were the lampstand, the table, and the bread of the Presence; this is called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a tent called the Holy of Holies. 4 In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which there were a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; 5 above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat (mercy seat=the place of the atonement). Of these things we cannot speak now in detail.
6 Such preparations having been made, the priests go continually into the first tent to carry out their ritual duties; 7 but only the high priest goes into the second, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary has not yet been disclosed as long as the first tent is still standing. 9 This is a symbol (parable) of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right.
11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our (your) conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
15 For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. 16 Where a will (or covenant) is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18 Hence not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment had been told to all the people by Moses in accordance with the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent[q] and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
Christ’s Sacrifice Takes Away Sin
23 Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (NRSV).
If you search the writings of the earliest church fathers you will soon discover that they read and interpreted this text from Hebrews in a very simple way. They believed that Hebrews was originally one long sermon, or apostolic commentary, on Leviticus chapter sixteen.
What is taught in Leviticus 16? It is a description of the Jewish Day of Atonement, what was called Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is centered upon the work of the high priest who represented all of God’s covenant people. I still remember hearing my mother teach the meaning of the tabernacle, with her appropriate visual aids on a flannel board, when I was just a child.The deep impression that she left on me was that only priests, who had to meet many strict requirements, could ever go beyond the temple veil, thus into the Holy of Holies. This was the place where the ark and the presence of God were continually present. This meant that only levitical priests could ask God to remove the sins of Israel.
Now you must keep firmly in mind that in the Old Covenant God is a consuming, refining, holy fire. (Hebrews says this is still true in the New Covenant as well; cf. Hebrews 12:29, where we read that our God is “a devouring fire.”) But it is this wholly other God, the God of fire and light, who loves his people! Under the Old Covenant we see very clearly that no one could come near God’s presence and live. But there was one exception – the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies. But even the priest must obey or he would die. If he disobeyed, any single item that was included on a whole list of specific commandments, then he would be struck down and lose his life. God was terribly serious about this sacrificial business. This is why everything about the high priest is clearly so spelled out in Leviticus. God is making a point that Israel was meant to know forever.
When the priest had done all that God commanded, and was rightly prepared, then he was to bring two goats before the people. One was to be sacrificed in order to cleanse the temple of sin and the other was to be kept alive. This second goat always intrigued me. The priest would lay his hands upon the head of this second goat and then confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel. Simply put – the priest removes all the people’s sins and places them on this living goat. When this ritualistic work was complete the priest would then send this goat out into the wilderness to take away the sins of God’s people, the people he loved and longed to forgive.
Why was this goat sent out into the wilderness? Because the wilderness symbolized exile, a God forsaken place of death.The high priest transferred the sins of the people onto the goat and the goat was sent away into the wild. This story is vitally important to understanding God and forgiveness.
Why do I share this in such detail? Because if you follow this account you can readily see that Yom Kippur really wasn’t about God’s plan to punish the people of Israel. We have misunderstood this in many instances. Yom Kippur was about God removing and forgiving sin.
Let me state this as simply and clearly as I possibly can – the Day of Atonement is not about appeasing an angry, wrathful God. I must have heard this error a thousand times and even once taught it. But Yom Kippur is about God removing the sin that separated us from him, and even from each other, and then sending these sins away so that we do not have to live in an unforgiven state before God and each other.
While the high priest prayed over this goat, the king of the Jews would undergo a ritual humiliation to repent for his people’s sins; he’d be struck, his clothes would be torn, the king would ask God to forgive his people because they did not know what they had done. In Hebrew the goat is called ahzahzel, which is translated in English by the word “scapegoat.” The word literally means “taking, or taken, away.” It refers to the sins of God’s covenant people being taken away completely.
Tomorrow: The Scapegoat Removes All Our Sin, Part Two