Our heavenly Father, what joyous good news is ours to sing and to celebrate today. Now we pray that You would give us ears to hear that we may understand Your Word and not be hearers only but also doers. So give grace to me that by Your Spirit the people here would hear a better sermon that I’m about to preach and that You would exalt Christ in our midst. In whose name we pray. Amen.
Let me start with some good news and some bad news. I know what you’re like – you want the bad news first. The bad news is that this is a sermon for sinners. So I might as well state that from the beginning. Many of us don’t like to think of ourselves as sinners. Imperfect – sure. In need of some growth areas, growth edges – yes. Do we make mistakes? Of course we do. Are there parts of our personality we wish were different? Possibly. But sinners. That word gets stuck.
It’s wonderful to see so many people here on Easter, whether you’ve been here for weeks and weeks in a row or been at church your whole life or here for the very first time, or back after a long time, we’re very glad you’re here. I realize that many people on Easter are very happy, the flowers and the brass and the choir and the singing and the sunshine, and you don’t really want to hear about being sinners.
So let me just say from the very outset, this is a sermon for sinners. That’s the bad news.
Here’s the good news. This is a sermon for sinners. And that’s good because that’s all of you on that side of the pulpit and all of us on this side of the pulpit. Oh, yes, even the choir and the instrumentalists and certainly even your pastor. If you are here this morning, feeling like a pretty decent person, like all the problems in your life are owing to other people, then this sermon is not going to tell you what you want to hear.
But if you are here this morning feeling like too often you are not the person you want to be, and if you’re honest, the common denominator in all of your problems is you, like your life is not what you hoped it would be, like you are here this morning tired of feeling guilty or shame for doing the wrong things you don’t want to do and not doing the right things you had every intention of doing… If that’s how you’re feeling, this sermon is for you.
Because this chapter, and I hope, if you’re not there already, you turn in your Bibles to Leviticus chapter 16. That’s the third book in the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus. These first five books, Numbers and Deuteronomy after that, are called the Pentateuch, penta meaning five, the first five books of the Bible. Or they would have been called the Torah, meaning the law, in the Old Testament or for the Jews today.
Here we have, in this chapter, the holiest day in the life of God’s people in the Old Testament. You can see the heading, “The Day of Atonement,” or “Yom Kippur,” which simply means “Day of Atonement.”
You can see what this day is about. If you have your Bibles open, look toward the end, verse 29: “And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month you shall afflict yourselves,” and that usually, that language usually meant maybe tearing your clothes, sackcloth, ashes, perhaps fasting, “you shall afflict yourselves, shall do no work either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you, for on this day shall atonement…”
Atonement. If you want an easy way to know what that word means, just break it apart. William Tyndale, when he first translated the Bible into English, he made this word up, “at one ment,” how estranged parties are brought together. That’s atonement.
“Would be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins.”
It is a sabbath of solemn rest, or in the Hebrew, it is a sabbath of sabbaths. It is the sabbieth sabbath day and you shall afflict yourselves. It is a statute forever.
Look down at verse 34: “And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement be made for the people of Israel once in the year,” once in the year because of all their sins, “And Aaron did as the Lord commanded Moses.”
So one day each year, and only on this day, the high priest, and at this time it was Aaron, Moses’ brother, the high priest and only the high priest could enter into the holy of holies, that holiest place inside the tabernacle to atone for the sins of the people. All of the accumulated junk and gunk and rotten filthiness for the year cleansed.
Like getting on your roof, be careful if you do, and reaching and trying to clean out the gutters. Or cleaning your carpets. We do that and we realize these were white carpets, who knew? Getting your car detailed, unclogging the drain in your bathroom. Your overflowing garbage.
Our garbage comes on Monday and with so many of us in the household, one big can does not stand a chance for all of the garbage. So right about by Friday I have to start getting creative by placing the new bags of trash, pressing down, rearranging them. Don’t tell Rick Ely, sometimes I bring them here to the church. Pastor’s privilege. Because we don’t have room for all of our garbage. And the recycling, the big blue bin, that’s even worse because that only comes every other week. So by the second week, my wife has spotted me many times before, I’m like Gideon in the wine press, I’m standing, jumping up and down, in the recycling. There will be, I hope not, but if there is a Sunday and Tom is preaching here because your pastor has had a fall out of the recycling bin, that’s why. We have too much and we’re just waiting for the garbage man to come. Would you take away all of this filthiness.
Well, it’s not just a week, it’s an entire year of their sinful dirt and grime and filth to now be atoned for.
You can see, even in your Bibles, that this is the center of the book of Leviticus. There’s 27 chapters, this is the 16th, so of course the chapters were original, those are not inspired, but you see this is just about in the literal center of the book. And it’s also the theological and literary center of the Pentateuch. Genesis on one end, Deuteronomy, Exodus, Numbers, in the middle Leviticus, and in the middle of Leviticus, so right in the middle of this book and at the very central point in the whole giving of God’s law, is this high holy day. The thematic center and the theological center of the entire Torah, is this chapter.
So this chapter, Leviticus 16, gives to us the essential truths in trying to understand how does God view the world, how does God view us, how does God view our problem, and therefore how should we view the world, God, and ourselves.
Three essential truths we find in this chapter.
Number one. God is holier than you think.
Number two. Sin is more pervasive than you realize.
Number three. Grace is better than you can imagine.
Those are the three points this morning. Instead of reading through the whole passage, which is long and then repeating the verses again, we’ll jump around to different parts of the passage and unpack these three points as we go.
Number one. Here’s what we see in this Day of Atonement. God is holier than you think.
If you know something of Israel’s history, they already had many occasions to become aware of this truth, of God’s holiness, His set-apartness, His other-ness, His majesty and power and glory. He visited upon Egypt the 10 plagues and so set them free. They saw His glory. They walked through the Red Sea on dry ground as He blew up on heaps to the left and to the right and then swallowed up the Egyptian army. He descended upon Mount Sinai and the people were fearful and said, “We cannot see, you, you speak to Him, Moses, lest we die.”
In chapter 9 of Leviticus His glory fills the tabernacle, consumes the sacrifice. They had had many occasions to come face-to-face, as it were, with His holiness.
The most immediate context, however, is given in verse 1. Look there: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron.” This was back in chapter 10. “When they drew near,” Nadab and Abihu were their names, “before the Lord and died, and the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.”
This happened in chapter 10. We don’t know exactly what they did, but Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire, strange fire, and it seems that they came at the wrong time and the wrong way. They perhaps were drunk and they maybe wandered in to the holy place and they were struck dead. So God says, this is on the very same day, He’s speaking to them, and now He’s giving instructions – if you don’t want to end up like Nadab and Abihu, your sons, Aaron, then you will listen very carefully.
This was a matter of life and death. You do not just ring the doorbell and ask for God.
The position and the architecture of the tabernacle itself was meant to reinforce this. Maybe as many as 2 million Israelites, so they’re scattered for miles and miles, but in the very middle of the camp was this tent. Later in Israel’s history they would build a temple in Jerusalem, here it’s a tent, the tabernacle, and this was quarantined off by a courtyard and then there was a basin and an altar for cleansing and sacrifice in order to approach the tabernacle, and you enter the veil and you would have a holy place and behind the veil would be the holiest place, or the holy of holies. There was the mercy seat, which was a name for the lid that was on top of the ark of the covenant. The mercy seat, it’s a strange name because it really didn’t look like a seat, it was two cherubim with wings outstretched like that, but it was called a “seat” because it’s where God’s presence came metaphorically to dwell, with a cloud and with this incense, He would come and He would sit and He would be there in the midst of the people.
God was so holy, holier than they could understand, that God says this is a matter of life and death.
Just think about it. If you had in your neighborhood, in the very middle of the neighborhood and you walk around in the morning and kids riding their bikes and you see there is one house, no one ever comes out of it. Only but once a year does one man come into it. Well, it wouldn’t be hard for people to talk and say, “No, that house, I don’t know what’s going on at that house. Be very careful.” Kids would have stories about it. You would understand it is quite literally set apart.
One of the jobs I’ve had in my life, which for a few of you you’ll say, “That sounds really interesting” and the rest of you will say, “Oh, poor pastor.” I worked in an archives. Ooh, yes. So if you like history like I do, archives are very exciting. There’s old stuff in boxes and there’s treasures to discover, so in doing history work for my doctoral work, I had to go and do archives. And then for a couple of summers, even before that when I was in college, I worked at various archives. Many of you have probably not been back in an archive, but it’s very climate-controlled, you have to have a certain kind of lighting as it is going to hit on the artifacts, and it has to have a certain level of humidity. It was always freezing cold back there. If you go in you sometimes to have special training or you have to wear special gloves because you remove [sound effect] makes some cool Star Wars sort of noise, you remove this thing and you look at this ancient text that may be hundreds or thousands of years old sometimes.
I’ve held these things and you think, “This is holy.” Everything about the set up here, the lights, behind the wall, you need permission to go in there, not just anybody can do it, signifies to you this is not common, this is not ordinary. These are holy things.
How much more with God?
Look at the clear and present danger in approaching the Lord. Look at verse 11: “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house.” So note that, the priest, he’s not just offering for others, he has to atone for his own sin because this priest, and we’ll get to Jesus, but this priest has his own sins to deal with. “He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat.” Again, that’s the cover of the ark of the covenant, the testimony would have been the 10 commandments inside the ark of the covenant. “Sprinkle in front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.”
God dwelt between the cherubim, over the ark, inside the holy of holies, and this fire and incense would make a cloud in front of the ark. Why? So that the high priest who entered but once a year could not even fully gaze upon the presence of God. God was so holy, is so holy, that the holiest man in Israel, which is to be a holy nation, though he’s washed in water, sprinkles with blood and comes in but once a year, cannot even fully look at a box because that box represents God. The box itself, of course, was not God. That would have been idolatrous. But it represented the presence of God. And so holy was God that the holiest man on the holiest day after washing and stripping down and cleansing with blood, cannot even look upon this box lest he die.
What does it mean that God is holy? Well, it certainly means He’s good, He’s pure, He doesn’t make mistakes. But it’s not just that He’s better than us, or bigger than us, it’s that He’s “other” than us. It’s hard to even put into words. The holiness of God is like if you’ve ever reached the top of some mountain peak, whether in this mountain range or further west, and you look out over the land for miles and miles and you’re just silent. The beauty is stunning and you’re silent.
Or being left speechless as you look over the edge of the Grand Canyon and you’re amazed and you’re fearful, especially if you have small children, even though the edge is really out there, you don’t want to get too close. It doesn’t stir up in you jocularity, but reverence and awe.
Or coming face-to-face with fear. I think I’ve shared this story before, years ago when I spent a summer in college working in Colorado, way into the mountains, sort of Leadville was the nearest sort of city. It was absolutely beautiful. You’d look out and see hundreds and thousands and thousands of acres of national forest and snowcapped peaks. It was exquisitely beautiful and we had no drinkable water and we had no electricity and we had an outhouse. It was remote and we were there working on a national government textbook, of all things. How did that work? Well, it was complicated.
But we were there and I would go on a run, absolutely beautiful, like 8000 feet up so I’m always out of breath. One day, usually running along the dirt road, went up, scampering up the hillside, just a little bit into the hills, and I came across there, so I’m not on any sort of path, just traipsing around, having a wonderful spiritual kind of moment, and I see a large animal dead on the ground. I don’t know what it was because I didn’t stick around, a deer, a moose, an elk. It communicated to me that animal is bigger and faster than you and something just killed it. And my heart started racing. Likely a black bear knocked this thing over. I felt for a moment there like Luke Skywalker trapped in that thing in the Hoth planet and the abominable snowman guy is coming out. Of course, I didn’t see anything, I just felt this tremendous sense of fear – I am not in the right place. I do not want to be here, I do not know what is going to happen, there is something I’m in the presence, though I cannot see it, of something that is bigger and stronger and dangerous and not safe.
So it is when the high priest would approach once a year the holy of holies. The holiness of God there, dangerous. The famous line about Aslan in Narnia – He’s good but He’s not safe.
This holiness is frightening. If we could really see God, really know God, it is an absolute certainty that everyone of us in this room, whether you love this God or you raised your fist against him, every one of us would conclude I have vastly underestimated the God-ness of God. Even the demons, who shudder. They don’t love Him, they don’t worship Him, but they have more of an awareness of who He is and His power. There is no doubt that everyone of us in this room, no matter how many Easter services you’ve been to or how many Easter services you’ve preached, you vastly underestimate God’s holiness.
This text, this ceremony, this centerpiece of the book and of the Torah, is meant to remind God’s people He is holier than you think.
Second. Sin is more pervasive than you realize.
This was the day of atonement. Look at the end of the chapter, verse 33. Here’s a great summary of what happened on this day. Verse 33: “He,” the high priest, “shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.”
Did you notice there it’s not just one thing, but five things, five groups of people or things, that need to be atoned for?
So he had to make atonement for the priest. There was a bull for a sin offering, we see that at the beginning of the ritual. There’s a ram for a burnt offering toward the end of the ceremony. So atonement for the priest. Atonement for the people. They also have a ram for a burnt offering. But the heart of the ceremony for the people are these two goats, which we’ll come back to in just a moment.
But it’s not just the priest and people. Do you notice the language in verse 33? It’s the whole structure. It’s the sanctuary inside, it’s the tent of meeting outside, it’s even the altar where the sacrifices would take place. All of these three things, they, too, need atonement.
You say that’s strange, they’re not in a relationship. Inanimate objects don’t have a relationship with God. That’s true. But the point is that the sin of the people accumulating over the course of a year has rendered everything dirty. Your windows need to be cleaned, the carpets need to be cleaned, the dust bunnies are accumulating. The dishes are over running in the sink. The laundry is overflowing. Everything has been made dirty. The people, the priest, the holy place, the tabernacle, the altar… All of it.
The whole sacrificial system reminded the people every day, and actually every moment of every day because the burnt offering was never to be extinguished, it was to be kept burning at all times. The sacrificial system reminded people every day and every moment of every day, they were sinners in need of a substitute. That’s the worldview of Leviticus – they’re sinners in need of a substitution.
The priests, the holy men, they need sacrifices. The people, the holy nation, they need sacrifices. Every day, every week, every year. Every bloody lamb and bull and goat testified to the people that they had fallen short of the glory of God. They were meant to think that bull is what I deserve. That lamb is what should have happened to me.
Aaron, even the high priest, he had to wash before and after the ceremony.
Look at verse 23: “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people.”
So he has to wash before and after.
The poor chap leading the goat out of the camp, we’ll come to the goat in just a moment, he has to wash. Look at verse 26: “He who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water.”
The altar must be sprinkled with blood. The mercy seat is sprinkled with blood. The whole tabernacle is sprinkled with blood.
Here’s the irony of the Bible and it’s logic. Blood acts as a detergent. If you try to get out blood, that’s about the hardest thing. I remember one comedian years ago had a little bit about these cleaning commercials, the detergent commercials, and those hard to get out stains and kids were coming back with blood stains on their socks or their shirts and this comedian says, “You got a bigger problem. What are your kids doing that they’re coming home with all these bloody clothes? Detergent is the least of your concerns.”
But he’s right. Blood is the hardest thing to get out. But in the Bible’s logic, blood is the detergent that makes things clean. That is what all of Leviticus is pointing to, and why the cross, that bloody cross, makes sense.
Unlike MacBeth, “out, darn spot,” to censor it, “out, darn spot.” No, this blood gets out all the other spots.
The people of Israel were not holy, so if God were to dwell with them in the tent, the impurities of the people had to be washed away. I’ve said throughout this series in Leviticus that the central, the big idea in this book, is that God is holy and we are not. So the problem in Leviticus and the problem in the universe, is how an unholy people can dwell in the midst of a holy God. How can a holy God dwell in the midst of an unholy people?
You may say, “Well, I don’t think that’s the problem in the universe. We’ve got lots of other problems. There’s lack of education and there’s oppression…” Well, there are lots of other problems, for sure, and some of those problems are related to this central problem. But if we want to be true to the Bible, the Bible tells us that central problem, above all others and which all others are connected, is that God is holy and we are not. Everything had been tainted. The problem in the Israelite system was sin, and that problem was in every person and it had spread everywhere. Sin is more pervasive than you realize.
God is holier than you think. Sin is more pervasive than you realize. Which leads to the third point – Grace is better than you can imagine.
Now before we get to that grace, we need to ask the question, “Grace for whom?” Because grace, that’s great. People like to talk about grace and healing and blessing and forgiveness, but for whom? Because there’s a very specific sort of person in the Bible who receives grace.
In fact, there’s a verse, it occurs in both the Old Testament in Proverbs and in the New Testament in James, it’s one worth remembering in your head and in your heart. It’s very simple – God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
If you want to be on the opposite side, if you want God to be against you, be proud. If you want to God to be for you, to help you, to give you grace upon grace, be humble. He opposes the proud, He gives grace to the humble.
So this grace, which is better than you can imagine, is a grace for the humble. Not for the raising their fist at God, for the penitent.
Notice something about the clothes that the high priest wears. Go back to the beginning of the chapter, verse 3: “But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.”
Notice these are not the usual clothes for the high priest. Back in Leviticus chapter 8 and elsewhere in Exodus, we get a description of the regal attire for the high priest. There he’s said to have blue robe, the color of royalty, bells and pomegranates. He has a royal ephod, he has a breast piece with 12 jewels. He has precious stones on his shoulders. He has a gold-plated turban. That was an impressive look, to set apart this man is our high priest, he has royal clothes, he has precious stones, he has a golden plate upon his head.
None of that here when he enters into the most holy place. What’s this high priest wearing? Linen undergarment, a linen sash, a linen coat, a linen turban. He is a walking bedsheet. He’s all in white linen. Not fancy, plain. Why? Well, surely, some of the point is purity. He needs to be clothed with righteousness. White linen garments. But more than that, even more than purity, it was a symbol of humility. These are not the clothes of the royal high priest; he still is the high priest, but these are the clothes of a lowly servant.
So have you ever noticed this before? When… Priests, priests are mediators. They lay a hand on us both, they are go-between between God and His people. When the high priest represents God to the people, ah, then then he gets blue and the gold-plated turban and the breast piece and the onyx and the stones, and all of the royal get up. When he represents God to the people, making the sacrifices.
When, however, he represents the people to God, he comes in his pajamas.
Aaron has no rank before God. It was quite literally that the high priest must be stripped of all of his honor. He must go into the holy of holies not as some great high priest but as a humble sinner before a holy God.
Now careful with this illustration. Don’t think about it too much. But it says if the pastor, nice new blue suit, hope you like it, this is to give God’s word to you. Fitting. But then the pastor has to go in for the people to God, and he has a white undershirt and white boxer shorts and white hat and a white bathrobe. That’s what he goes in, because he goes in not as one with great standing but as one who is a lowly servant.
This grace is for a penitent, humble, lowly people. You only receive it if you strip down and you come before God as one who has nothing to offer.
At the heart of Yom Kippur is a tale of two goats. Look at verse 6.
“Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house.”
That’s happened before. We’ve seen that in Leviticus with the various offerings, there are five different types of offerings and they have bulls and goats. We’ve seen this. But this is new. Verse 7.
“Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.”
One goat dies for the sins of the people, the other goat lives and goes into the wilderness for the sins of the people. The first goat is said to be for the Lord; that makes sense, it’s an atoning sacrifice to the Lord for the people’s sin.
The second goat is said, reading from the ESV, to be for Azazel. Now when you encounter a strange word like that, it usually tells you that the translators aren’t quite sure what to make of it so better to just give you the Hebrew and let your pastor try to figure it out.
You can read the commentaries as well as I can. Azazel could mean a rocky precipice, a reference to the remote area that it would go, so it could be a place name. Some recent scholars think it was a name for some sort of demon, some kind of goat for Yahweh and a goat for Azazel; that seems unlikely because Leviticus 17:7 give specific prohibition against sacrificing to any goat demons.
The traditional explanation I think is still the best one, that Azazel means “scapegoat.” Az, the word for goat, azel, the word for to go, to be led away, thus Azazel is the goat the departs, or the escape goat. That’s how the Greek translation of the Old Testament puts it, how the Vulgate understands it, it’s how William Tyndale translated it, that this goat for the Lord and then an escape goat, the goat that departs.
The climax to the ceremony comes in verse 20.
“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.”
This must have been a powerful scene. Once a year the high priest would lay his hands on the head of this live goat and confess the sins of the nation. There were sacrifices happening all over the time and all over the year, but once a year all the accumulated spiritual crud from a year of sin and uncleanness would be dealt with. These were all the sins you forgot to mention, all of the iniquities you overlooked, all of the transgressions you didn’t even know you committed.
The confession of the high priest probably sounded something like Daniel’s prayer in Daniel chapter 9: “O Lord, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love Him, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled. To You belongs righteousness, but to us open shame.”
It must have been some prayer that the high priest prayed once a year. Remember, it was not a prayer for the Amalekites, or the Jebusites, or the Canaanites. It was a prayer of confession not for all the problems that people out there have, all the bad people, it was a prayer of confession for them, for the Israelites, for God’s people, for the church people who showed up on Easter, for people like us.
What might it sound like if a high priest confessed the sins of this people? O Lord, our great and merciful God, we have sinned against You, have done what is wrong in Your sight. Among us this day are adulterers, cheats, gossips, liars. We have been lazy in prayer and hardworking in sin. We have spent more time in front of our phones than in the Word of God. We have had our passions kindled hotter for sports than for a Savior. We have yelled at little children. We have disrespected our parents. We’ve been unforgiving toward our spouse. We have grown bitter toward friends and family. We have tried to create our identities out of sex and sensuality. We have been quick to judge the motives and attitudes of others. We have been slow to admit our own faults. We have lived for the approval of others and ignored your commands. We have been proud of our Bible knowledge, arrogant in our righteousness, haughty in parading our virtue and compassion. We have turned grace into license, we have turned blessing into boasting, we have turned privilege into presumption, we have not trusted in Your Word. We’ve twisted the hard parts of the Bible to say what we want it to say. We’ve ignored the obvious parts so we can live as we want to live. We’ve disbelieved Your promises. We’ve been angry with Your providences. We’ve doubted Your provision. We are not the people we want to be. We are not the people we seen to be. We are not the people we thought we would be. Our iniquities have gone over our heads and they are a burden too heavy for us to bear.
The prayer might have sounded something like that. Imagine that high priest at great length confessing all of his sins, your sins, our sins, on the head of that goat and then to see, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, the goat is led away.
The first goat died so that God’s people would know their sins were forgiven. The second goat was led away so they would know that their sins had been forgotten.
Have you noticed this in the metaphysic of ancient Israel? You think there’s these concentric circles. You could number them differently, but there’s really six concentric circles of holiness. You have the holy of holies, and around that you have the tabernacle, and then you have the courtyard, then you have the camp, then you have this designation often in the Old Testament “outside the camp,” and then you have the farthest out is the wilderness, the desert, the place of chaos, a kind of un-creation.
Only on this day of the year do you see traffic going all the way in and all the way out. The high priest, all the way in to that narrowest circle of the holy of holies, and then as he emerges to see the sin from there out of the tabernacle, out of the courtyard, out of the camp, beyond the camp, led all the way to the wilderness. All the way in for God’s forgiveness, all the way out that God would forget.
Once you know that, you will never hear Psalm 103 the same way.
“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will He keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does He remove our transgressions from us.”
If you are in Christ, how far has God removed your sins? As far as the wilderness is from the holy of holies. Outside of your tent, outside the camp, into the desert, the goat has left the building. And not just the building, he’s left all of civilization, creation itself, from a kind of garden of Eden represented in the tabernacle out to the chaos of un-creation. There has your sin been taken.
So skip ahead a couple millennia to a hill outside Jerusalem. Hebrews 13 tells us the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through His blood.
On Good Friday all God’s people, past, present and future, laid a hand on God’s anointed, as if to confess their sins upon Christ. He bore them for us, a Passover Lamb for us, a scapegoat for us. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
Of course, you remember, some of you, what happened when Jesus breathed His last. Mark’s Gospel tells us the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. What curtain? The curtain that separated the holy of holies. The curtain that separated out God’s holy presence, because the most holy place was no longer off limits.
Hebrews 9 says that into that second chamber of the tabernacle only the high priest went and only once a year and he did not go without taking blood, which he offered for himself and for the people. But when Christ appeared as the final, much better, superior high priest, He entered through that tent which was His body, once for all into the holy place. Not by the mean of blood of goats and calves, but by the means of His own blood.
So we can say on this Easter Sunday morning that the scapegoat lives. It’s as if He went off into the wilderness with all of your sin and He conquered that wilderness. He went toe to toe with the power of the devil and He defeated him. He was loaded with our sin and he crushed it. He took the penalty and paid it. He stared death in the eye and vanquished over it.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a beacon from God Himself to tell the world that all that is necessary has been accomplished, all has been paid for, all will one day be made right. It’s as if the scapegoat led into the wilderness returned to the camp but this time a victor over the power of death and the devil so that, yes, He bears the scars but no longer the sin.
Here’s the good news. All who belong to this scapegoat, all who belong to this Lamb of God, all who belong to this Lion of Judah, if you have some stripping yourself of all of your pretense and all of your pride, down to your spiritual pajamas to enter in and claim nothing for yourself except the blood of Jesus Christ, you never have to fear the sting of death, the dread of Satan, or the guilt of sin. For He has risen just as He said.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we give thanks for Your great and precious promises, all of which are yes and amen in Christ. The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Lamb of God, the scapegoat for our sins, the risen and conquering King. We fall at His feet and worship. In Jesus’ name. Amen.