And Jesus said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
The early morning hours are the most important part of the day for me. I rise around 6, splash some water on my face, and make my way down to the kitchen. I fill the teapot with water, scoop some coffee grounds into our French press, and while I am waiting for the water to come to a boil, I begin talking with the Father. I continue the conversation, with my heart warming toward him, as I prepare my coffee. I then make my way into the living room, cup in hand, ready now to stop my talking and start listening.
"The LORD spoke..."
This morning I heard the Father speaking to Moses. He was instructing him on what would be necessary for a sinful people, led by a sinful priest, to come into his pure and holy presence. This was a conversation where listening was a life or death matter, for if the Father's instructions were not followed exactly, the priest (in this case Aaron) would die.
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 (Lev. 16:4).
This is an instructive and beautiful picture. Particularly as a pastor, I am moved by preparation necessary for Aaron to enter into the presence of God. And why all the preparation? Because Aaron is unclean. He is marked with and corrupted by his many sins. So he puts on holy and clean garments, over a washed and scrubbed body. He will kill a bull as an offering for his own sin (clean now inside and out), and the sin of his house (Lev. 16:6). Aaron is making atonement for himself and for his house.
Atonement. It is a word with a range of meaning, depending on its context in the Scriptures. To forgive, cleanse, and ransom. To avert God's just and righteous wrath. Which meaning is present in this story, as God speaks of how his people will relate to their heavenly Father?
After making atonement for himself, Aaron is commanded to kill a goat - to slit its throat and spill its blood - "because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins." (Lev. 16:16) This sinful people has made everything they have come into contact with - the Holy Place, the tent of meeting, the altar - unclean because of their uncleanness. The blood of the goat is sprinkled on these things, making them clean, and therefore usable, in worship.
But God is not done speaking. There is another goat present, and it also has a function in this atoning work:
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...(Lev. 16:20-22a)
In this way, the people themselves have been atoned for.
And with these two texts, the answer to our question above is clear: all four meanings of atonement are present. These sinful people must be made clean, and the life of the goat is the ransom - the substitutionary payment given to bring forgiveness and avert God's righteous wrath.
And so important is atonement, in the face of ongoing sins, the Father speaks further, instituting a yearly Day of Atonement:
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 shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement 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 to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever. And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments. He 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. And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins. (Lev. 16:29-34)
Sin, uncleanness, corruption...they are a big deal to a holy God. Their cost is great. Lifeblood is necessary to atone for their presence, so that we may commune with our Father. But after this day, this day of solemn rest, filled with forgiveness, cleansing, and the removal of wrath, a new day would dawn. More sins would occur, and they would build until the Day of Atonement would come the following year. And another sinful priest would initiate the ceremony for a sinful people so they could be made right before their sinless Father.
Honestly, that would be a pretty discouraging end to the story. I'm glad God didn't stop talking this morning, but told me another story as I made my way in my Bible plan to Matthew 26...
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
You are probably familiar with this story, but maybe you haven't considered its connection to God's speaking to Moses about atonement. Think about it.
For his whole life, Jesus has experienced the Day of Atonement. He has watched the priest slaughter a goat and spill its blood to cleanse the holy places. He has seen the priest lay his hands upon a goat, transferring millions upon millions of the people's sins onto that goat as it is sent outside the camp, abandoned to the wilderness. And in this moment of prayer, he knows.
He knows that he is the atoning sacrifice: it is his lifeblood that will be spilled for the sins of the whole world, that they might be clean and forgiven. He knows that he is the atoning sacrifice: he is the one who will be brought outside the camp, onto a lonely hill called Calvary, and there the Father will place upon him the billions upon trillions of the sins of all the people for all time. He will be abandoned, crying out, "Why have you forsaken me?!?!" He will be the ransom, the substitutionary sacrifice, the one who will absorb - and therefore, avert - God's righteous wrath.
Is it any wonder that his "soul is very sorrowful, even to death"? Is it any wonder that he prays "if it be possible, let this cup pass from me." Jesus knows. He knows the suffering that will come as he becomes the sacrifice.
Oh, how I love Jesus! I love his courage, and his bravery, and his obedience, and his love for us. He could have turned away from suffering, but he didn't. He prayed against the temptation assaulting the weakness of his flesh (Mt. 26:41), and stood firm. He did not seek his own will, but the Father's.
Oh, how I love Jesus! He did not deserve this. Unlike Aaron, our Great High Priest needed no sacrifice to make him clean; he was, is, and always will be perfectly clean. Utterly holy. Incorruptible, pure, and beautiful. And instead of looking to bulls and goats, this Priest placed himself upon the altar of the cross, and offered up his life. He gave himself into the hands of his enemies and was murdered for them, and the world.
And in so doing, the work of our atonement was perfected and finished.
We are forgiven.
We are cleansed.
God's wrath against us averted.
The ransom "paid-in-full" by Jesus.
"The LORD has spoken..."
And what a story he has to tell! May it fuel your praise of Jesus, 'til we gather again this Sunday to praise him, and hear Jesus' Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:27-36).
See you then.
Man of Sorrows! what a name For the Son of God, who came Ruined sinners to reclaim. Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned He stood; Sealed my pardon with His blood. Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Guilty, vile, and helpless we; Spotless Lamb of God was He; “Full atonement!” can it be? Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Lifted up was He to die; “It is finished!” was His cry; Now in Heav’n exalted high. Hallelujah! What a Savior!
When He comes, our glorious King, All His ransomed home to bring, Then anew His song we’ll sing: Hallelujah! What a Savior!
[Image credit: Desiring God Ministries]