As Far as the East is From the West
A sermon on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), Leviticus 16 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown MA, 12/6/98
Yesterday morning while Beth and I were still in bed, we heard the pitter-patter of little feet walking down the hallway. We looked up, and saw three-year-old Joel's smiling face peering in at the door. He crawled under the covers with us and -- to our surprise -- began a very profound conversation. As you know, our dear friend Mrs Gert died at the age of 95 a few weeks ago. After hearing of her death and her entry into a new life with the Lord, Joel has been asking a lot of questions. So yesterday we discussed God's love for us and his desire for us to be like him. We talked about the barrier separating us from God, our sinfulness -- "All of us do bad things," we said. "When we do bad things, we deserve punishment. But God loves us so much that he sent his dear son Jesus to take our punishment by dying on the cross. God is holy, he is perfect, he never does anything bad."
At this point, Joel broke in, speaking with wide open eyes and great sincerity: "I will never, ever do anything bad again."
Have you made a similar statement? My guess is that most of us here this morning have made such a promise to God. We see our own sinfulness, we get a glimpse of God's perfect holiness, we are overcome with a sense of His love -- and we despise our sin. We sense the freedom of His love, and cry out, "I will never, ever sin again!" We are like the Israelites at Mt Sinai, so impressed by God's presence among them, promising "All you have commanded we will do!"
The desire for purity, for sinlessness, is good. But what happens when you fail? What happens when you next sin?
None of us can live up to Joel's commitment. We may make that statement in all sincerity, but every one among us who has made that commitment has since violated it.
We come this morning to the 16th chapter of Leviticus, the concluding chapter of the first of the two major divisions of this book. As we have seen, in this first division God paints a series of pictures, showing how through the person and work of Jesus Christ He provides the answer for our every weakness. Through the five offerings, God shows how he fulfills our need for belonging, our need to respond, our need for forgiveness, and our need for reconciliation. Through the priesthood God shows how each of us needs the great high priest, Jesus Christ, to serve as our mediator -- and he shows how he has given a priestly ministry to each one of us, as God displays his love for his people through his people. Last week we saw how God provides for our need for cleansing, alerting us to the filth that we collect either intentionally or unintentionally while living in this fallen world, and providing ways for cleansing, so that we can enter his presence in complete confidence.
Today's passage, Chapter16, concludes this section with the most detailed picture yet of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Here God sums up the primary provision he has made for reconciling His people to himself. And here God provides the answer we need when we, like Joel, fail to live up to our sincere intention to avoid sin. And as we will see, God not only reconciles us to himself, but he provides a beautiful picture of our being completely separated from our sins.
During the rest of our time together, we will examine The Sacrifice, The Scapegoat, and the Impact on the People. Let's begin by looking at the Sacrifice.
1 Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the LORD and died. 2 And the LORD said to Moses, "Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at 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 over the mercy seat. 3 Aaron shall enter the holy place with this: with a bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He shall put on the holy linen tunic, and the linen undergarments shall be next to his body, and he shall be girded with the linen sash, and attired with the linen turban (these are holy garments). Then he shall bathe his body in water and put them on.
On the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, Aaron the High Priest acts out Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, the sacrifice that allows God to satisfy his justice while showing love to his people. Joel was impressed yesterday with God's purity -- and here God shows his purity by prohibiting any casual entrance into the Holy of Holies.
Remember, in the tabernacle (and later the temple) the ark of the covenant -- containing the tablets of the 10 commandments -- was placed in an interior room. On top of the ark were two gold cherubim, whose wings spread out over the ark. The top of the ark was called the "mercy seat," the place where atonement would be made for the people. So the ark and the mercy seat represent both God's Law -- His requirements for holiness -- and God's mercy, his forgiving love for his people.
Recall also that this interior room, called the Holy of Holies or the Holiest Place, was separated from the outer room by a curtain, an opaque veil. And note that no one could enter through that veil, except the High Priest -- and he only this one time each year, when he acts out Jesus' sacrifice for us.
How is the high priest dressed when he acts out Jesus' sacrifice? He is not wearing the normal priestly garments, which we described in detail in an earlier sermon. These normal garments included gold and precious stones -- they were festive, in a sense, brightly colored. Those celebratory garments are appropriate when the high priest pictures the risen Christ, but on this special day he is acting out Jesus death. So on this day the high priest wears nothing except the linen tunic and undergarments, representing the inner righteousness of Christ. Jesus on the cross wore no clothes at all -- he was clothed only in his own righteousness. Just so, the high priest on this day removes his festive garments and is dressed only in the righteousness of Jesus.
Let's continue reading:
5 ¶ "And he shall take from the congregation of the sons of Israel two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering. 6 "Then Aaron shall offer the bull for the sin offering which is for himself, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household. 7 "And he shall take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the doorway of the tent of meeting. 8 "And Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat. 9 "Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the LORD fell, and make it a sin offering. 10 "But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat.
Jesus enters directly into the inner sanctuary, based on his own righteousness. Unlike Jesus, Aaron is sinful. Only the perfect can enter into the Holy of Holies. So before he can act out the role of Jesus for the people, Aaron must cover his own sins. We won't discuss this morning the method God prescribes for Aaron to cover his sin; I encourage you to read it on your own.
But in acting out the role of Jesus, God tells Aaron to work with two goats. These two goats will foreshadow two distinct elements of the work of Jesus on the cross. Note that these goats come "from the congregation" -- they belong to the congregation as a whole rather than to any individual. He presents both of these goats before the Lord, and lets the Lord decide by lot which is to be sacrificed, and which is to become the scapegoat.
Let's continue reading in verse 15, after Aaron has sacrificed the bull for his own sins:
15 ¶ "Then he shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood inside the veil, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 "And he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel, and because of their transgressions, in regard to all their sins; and thus he shall do for the tent of meeting which abides with them in the midst of their impurities. 17 "When he goes in to make atonement in the holy place, no one shall be in the tent of meeting until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household and for all the assembly of Israel. 18 "Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar on all sides. 19 "And with his finger he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it seven times, and cleanse it, and from the impurities of the sons of Israel consecrate it.
So Aaron places the blood of the sin offering for the people on the mercy seat. And the sins are covered! The people of Israel are not holy, they are not always clean, they violate their promise never, ever to do bad things again -- and this makes the tent of meeting itself unclean. Yet God provides the perfect sacrifice through the person of Jesus Christ; Jesus enters into God's presence with his own blood, puts that blood on God's mercy seat, and atones for all sin.
Recall that no one can see Aaron doing this -- this action takes place behind the opaque veil. But after performing the ritual in the Holy of Holies, Aaron comes outside to the altar where all can see, and puts the goat's blood high up on the horns of the altar. Now the entire congregation witnesses the covering. The blood covers their sin.
Thus, the blood has been brought into the very presence of God. The requirements of the law, as represented by the tablets of the 10 commandments, are satisfied. The people and the tabernacle itself are covered through this atonement. We are forgiven by the blood of Jesus.
This sacrifice, while different and more detailed than the usual sin offerings, nevertheless is similar to that daily ritual. The next act on the Day of Atonement, however, is unusual, and a bit strange. Let's continue reading in verse 20:
20 ¶ "When he finishes atoning for the holy place, and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat. 21 "Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. 22 "And the goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.
What is going on here? Aren't the people's sins already forgiven? Aaron has sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat, before the Lord's very presence -- how can he then place the people's sins on this goat? Why does God prescribe this second ritual?
Both goats represent the work of Jesus. This goat whose blood is sprinkled on the mercy seat represents Jesus' taking on our punishment, dying for us, satisfying God's justice. But remember, all that takes place where the people cannot see. Sin not only separates us from God -- sin also makes us feel defiled, sin leads to a guilty conscience. We promise God we will never, ever sin again -- then we do. And we feel so impure, we feel unworthy of God's love, we feel like we can't even read the bible or bow down in prayer. So God provides this second picture, for all to see, of His separating us from our sin.
Jewish tradition says that the man appointed to drive off the goat would walk out of the camp, with the whole congregation watching. He would continue walking a distance of 12 miles -- disappearing from the sight of the congregation, walking far beyond what anyone could see. Then he was to drive off the goat, and continue watching until he himself could see it no longer. The sins of the people are no more. They disappear into the wilderness.
You see why that is important? Have you ever done something to hurt your best friend -- perhaps your spouse, or your sibling? You ask for forgiveness, and they claim to forgive you -- but then, months later, in the midst of an argument, they drag up that old hurt, and throw it back in your face. "You always hurt me! Remember when . . ."
Through this picture God shows us that he will never act that way. Our sins are forgiven -- not only temporarily, not only until our next disagreement. The blood of Jesus has covered those sins for all time. Satan will try to make us feel guilty, Satan will try to make us feel separated from God -- but that goat carried our sins off into the wilderness, never to be seen again.
Note how God clarifies that this atonement is complete: Aaron confesses all their iniquities, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins. Nothing is left out. There is no more worry -- the blood of Jesus covers it all.
God puts it this way in Isaiah 43:25:
I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.
Charles Spurgeon expresses this thought beautifully in his sermon on this passage:
We may have to take a long journey, and carry our sins with us; but oh! how we watch and watch till they are utterly cast into the depths of the wilderness of forgetfulness, where they shall never be found any more against us for ever.
"The wilderness of forgetfulness." The scapegoat takes our sins to the wilderness of forgetfulness. God will never throw these sins back in our faces. Satan will try to do so, but we can throw those accusations back at him, remembering this image of the scapegoat carrying our sins to where they will be found no more.
The Psalmist says:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. 12 As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:11-12 NASB)
So God, in the picture of the scapegoat, meets our need for a clear conscience. He removes our sin, sending it far away where it can never be found; God promises he will never, ever hold those sins against us. And God keeps his promises. Praise Him!
Consider now verses 23 and 24:
23 "Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting, and take off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there. 24 "And he shall bathe his body with water in a holy place and put on his clothes, and come forth and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people.
Aaron removes his special clothes, the clothes he wears when acting out the death of Christ, then bathes, and puts on his normal clothes, which represent the risen Christ. He subsequently offers the whole burnt offering. Remember that this particular offering represents God's complete acceptance of us, our being dedicated in our entirety to Him. What a beautiful picture of God's acceptance of his people.
So we have now considered the Sacrifice and the Scapegoat. Let's conclude by examining the impact on the people.
Impact on the People.
29 ¶ "And this shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; 30 for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be clean from all your sins before the LORD. 31 "It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute.
The people are completely humbled by this ritual. They are guilty -- there is no question about that. They can do nothing to make themselves righteous in God's sight. They cannot even think of entering the presence of a Holy God. They have promised to live holy and righteous lives, but they have failed. Their only hope is in God's mercy.
Note how they are to do no work. This is not simply a ritualistic requirement. There is no work we can do that will put us right with God. There is nothing we can do to earn God's favor. His favor is given to us solely on His terms, and those terms are solely by the blood of Jesus. So what can we do but humble ourselves, bow before him, praise him, and thank him for his mercy and grace?
Have you been like Joel -- impressed with God's love, overwhelmed by his lovingkindness, vowing in consequence never to sin again, vowing to live henceforth a life worthy of his calling? And have you stumbled and failed, have you fallen into sins that embarrass you and prove you to be a liar?
The Day of Atonement is for you. Don't let Satan use your failures to drive you away from God, in supposed humility. No! God never demands that you make yourself perfect -- instead, He has guaranteed that He will make you perfect. If you have received Jesus as Lord and Savior, the blood of Jesus covers the mercy seat for you, and God wants you to fall at His feet, confessing your sin, so that He might welcome you into His sanctuary -- right behind the veil, into the Holy of Holies, into the very presence of the all-powerful, perfectly holy, perfectly just, all-loving God.
There is nothing you can do to earn God's favor. God's covenant with you is based on grace, and grace alone. So delight in that grace, and believe God when he says he will remember your sins no more!
This idea is expressed beautifully in the novel The Cross by Nobel-prize winning author Sigrid Undset. The main character, Kristin, gives away her wedding ring when she knows she is about to die, and notes that the letter M -- for Mary -- is impressed upon her bare skin.
And the last clear thought that formed in her brain was that she should die ere this mark had time to vanish -- and she was glad. It seemed to her to be a mystery that she could not fathom, but which she knew most surely none the less, that God had held her fast in a covenant made for her without her knowledge by a love poured out upon her richly -- and in despite of her self-will, . . . somewhat of this love had become part of her, had wrought in her like sunlight in the earth, had brought forth increase which not even the hottest flames of fleshly love nor its wildest bursts of wrath could lay waste wholly. A handmaiden of God had she been -- a wayward, unruly servant, oftenest an eye-servant in her prayers and faithless in her heart, slothful and neglectful, impatient under correction, but little constant in her deeds -- yet had he held her fast in his service, and under the glittering golden ring a mark had been set secretly upon her, showing that she was His handmaid, owned by the Lord and King who was now coming . . . to give her freedom and salvation --
My friends, does the description of Kristin fit you? I find it so accurate in describing me. Wayward. Unruly. Slothful. Neglectful. Impatient. Inconstant. Unworthy of God's love and care. Is that you? If so, God's message for you today is that if you have received Jesus as Lord and Savior, God is holding you fast in his covenant, God is pouring out his love upon you richly, God has marked you as his, you are His bride, his handmaiden, owned by the Lord and King who is coming to give you freedom and salvation.
There is nothing in all creation that can separate you from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord -- not your failures, not your negligence, not your sins. Remember that goat, running off into the desert, never to be seen again, carrying your sins as far away as the east is from the west. Remember God's love, holding you fast despite yourself. Remember -- and fall on your face before him. Praise God!
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 12/6/98. I decided to preach a series of sermons on Leviticus after reading Ray Stedman's series, which is available at thePBC web site. I am heavily indebted to him both for his insights into Leviticus, and for all I learned about expository preaching from him.
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