The elaborate atonement ceremonies under the Old Testament were shadows of spiritual realities discussed and developed in the New Testament. A study of these rituals is of great help in learning truths necessary to Christian living.
The word atonement is from the Hebrew, kaphar, and means to cover or cancel. Its counterpart in the Greek is hilasmos and is translated propitiation or expiation in our English New Testament [I John 2: 1]. These atonement ceremonies were built into the Sinai covenant and represented God’s efforts to take care of Israel’s sins, and thus restore them into a right standing with Him.
The Day of Atonement was one of several annual events. It was celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month- in Hebrew Tishri, and was a Sabbath or holy convocation in which no work was to be done. The Levitical high priest figured prominently on this occasion. After washing himself, the High Priest would put on his holy garments consisting of a linen tunic, linen turban, linen undergarments, and a linen sash tied around him. A sin offering of a bull and burnt offering of a ram were offered by him and for him in the Holy Place. A sensor of fragrant incense ignited from burning coals from off the altar in the Holy Place, was also taken with him into the Holy of Holies.
Two goats were taken from among the children of Israel for a sin offering. The High Priest cast lots to determine which one would be killed and which one would be the Azazel, or scapegoat. The blood of the slain goat was taken into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the mercy seat – the top of the Ark of the Covenant, between the Cherubim. The sins of the people of Israel were confessed by the High Priest and symbolically transferred to the scapegoat, by laying his hands on the goat’s head. It was then hastily led out and released into a solitary place in the wilderness by a physically fit man. Finally, the remains of the slain bull and goat were taken and burned outside the camp. The attitude of the nation throughout these ceremonies was to be one of sadness. Citizens were to deny themselves the usual comforts and afflict themselves with sorrow. In this way, Israel’s sins were covered or cancelled until the next year. Through these ceremonies God was getting Israel and the world ready for the reality of the sacrifice of Christ as a covering or cancellation for sins.
A careful study reveals both similarities and differences between the atonement of Christ and the atonement prefigured under the Mosaic dispensation. Firstly, the shedding of blood is similar, but the sacrifice of a sin offering on behalf of the High Priest is different in the case of Jesus. He had no sins of his own and hence, no sin offering was necessary for his cleansing [Hebrews 4: 15]. Secondly, the expiation of sins is similar in both cases. The blood sprinkled on the mercy seat served to cancel the offenses of Israel [at least temporarily], as Christ’s blood has covered our sins. However, the frequency of offerings is different. The High Priest repeated the atonement ceremonies every year, but the effect of Christ’s offering was such that it would never need repeating [Hebrews 9: 27]. Thirdly, while two goats were used in the atonement ceremonies under the shadow of the Old Testament, only one lamb was used in the substance of the New Covenant. The slain goat prefigured the atonement cost, and the scapegoat signified the effects of atonement, namely, the far removal of sins into a distant place. Both ideas are fulfilled in Christ. He gave his life as the cost of sins, and as a result, he took away the sins of the world [Psalm 103:12; John 1: 29]. Finally, under the Old Testament ceremonies, the High Priest and the sacrifice were different entities, but in the case of Christ, he is both the High Priest and the offering. The New Testament writers speak of Him offering himself [Hebrews 7: 27]. He is in the role of priest as he offers, and in the role of the offering as he is offered.
Thank God for the covering of Christ’s blood! It is no wonder Christians are asked every Lord’s Day to remember Calvary [Matt. 26:26-28; Acts 20:7; I Cor. 11:23-34]. But as Christians think of atonement prefigured in the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur and actualized in Christ’s death, they must have more than an attitude of gratitude; they must have one of learning.
Through the atonement of Christ, Christians must learn that sin is no slight matter with God. That God would enact such detailed and costly rituals in the Old Testament, and require the ultimate price of his Son in the New Testament shows that sin is costly. Christianity teaches that salvation is free, but it is not cheap.
In the atonement of Christ, Christians also learn that God is gracious. The atonement rituals do not represent Israel’s inventions as they scramble to restore a relationship with God. Instead, they stem from the mind of a loving God who put those measures in place for their benefit. Similarly, his provision for the expiation of our sins through the offering of Christ was not motivated from a sense of compulsion, but of willing love. Christians must see that a God who did not withhold his son, will not withhold the less costly things like daily bread [Romans 8: 32].
Finally, Christians can learn that an attitude of penitence is a prerequisite for benefiting from the atonement sacrifice. As Israel was required to afflict her soul, so also, godly sorrow [II Cor. 7:10], for sins and its far-reaching effects upon God, ourselves, and our fellowman, must characterize us, not just one day out of the year, but throughout our lives.
If one looks at the bloodiness and painfully tedious ceremonies of atonement in the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, he will see clearly God’s hatred for sin, his love for mankind, and the condition of repentance as a prerequisite for reconciliation with God.
- Thaddeus Bruno
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