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Of all the days in the annual calendar of the nation of Israel, the Day of Atonement, which was the tenth day of the seventh month, was regarded as the most sacred. It was the holiest of all rest days, a sabbath of solemn rest, a high sabbath, a day of repentance, a day of affliction for sins. The rabbis simply called it "The Day"1 . It was "the highest symbolic expression of sacrificial expiation and removal of sins". "On the tenth day of the seventh month the day of atonement was to be observed by a holy meeting, by fasting from the evening of the ninth till the evening of the tenth, by resting from all work on pain of death, and with sacrifices, of which the great expiatory sacrifice peculiar to this day had already been appointed in ch.16, and the general festal sacrifices described in Numbers 29.8-11."2
IN THE LIFE OF ISRAEL
The Cause of the Day
As the Day of Atonement is introduced, the opening words of the Lord are noteworthy: "And the Lord spake unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the Lord, and died" (Lev 16.1). The first recorded act by the newly consecrated priesthood was one of sin (Lev 10.1-2), so, although delivered out of Egypt and appointed to the high office of priesthood, man still sinned and God had to deal with these sins. The behaviour of these favoured men is an evidence of mans corruption and sinfulness. Nadab and Abihu enjoyed the highest privilege in the highest occupation given in Israel - yet still failure marked them. "The sacrifices and purifications enjoined thus far did not suffice to complete the reconciliation between the congregation of Israel, which was called to be a holy nation, but in its very nature was still altogether involved in sin and uncleanness, and Jehovah the Holy One - that is to say, to restore the perfect reconciliation and true vital fellowship of the nation with its God, in accordance with the idea and object of the old covenant - because, even with the most scrupulous observance of these directions, many sins and defilements would still remain unacknowledged, and therefore without expiation, and would necessarily produce in the congregation a feeling of separation from its God, so that it would be unable to attain to the true joyousness of access to the throne of grace, and to the place of reconciliation with God."3
The Continuation of the Day
That this day was repeated annually taught important lessons to Israel. First, it emphasised that this was a privilege not to be taken lightly. The sins which were dealt with that day had accumulated over one year, emphasising the great importance of what was to take place. It was a day to which the nation looked forward, and to which they looked back. Second, the necessity to repeat it annually indicated that the sacrifices were of a temporary nature and that a permanent sacrifice was necessary.
The Course of the Day
There were a number of stages laid out, each of which had to be meticulously followed. It would be awe inspiring to see the nation gathered before the Tabernacle, waiting in anxious expectation to see their sins dealt with for another year.
The Approach (Lev 16.1-5)
Aaron was robed in linen garments consisting of a coat, breeches, a girdle, and a mitre.
He brought a bullock for a sin offer and a ram for a burnt offering.
The Offering for himself (16.11-14)
He killed the bullock for a sin offering for himself.
He took the censer with coals from the Altar and the blood of the sin offering.
The placed the censer before the Mercy Seat.
He sprinkled the blood on and before the Mercy Seat.
The Offering for the people (16.15-19)
He killed the goat of the sin offering.
He did with this as he did with the bullock which had been offered for himself.
He sprinkled blood seven times upon the horns of the Golden Altar (see Ex 30.10).
The Scapegoat (16.20-22)
This was sent with a fit man into the wilderness never to return to the camp of Israel. It indicated the fact that the sins of the people had been dealt with and put away for another year.
Aaron bathed and put on his full garments of glory and beauty.
The Completion of the Day
Aaron offered the burnt offering for himself and for the people.
The fat of the sin offering was burnt on the altar.
The man who took the scapegoat into the wilderness washed his clothes and bathed.
The sin offering for Aaron and for the people was burned outside the camp.
IN THE TEACHING OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
What took place annually in Israel was a shadow of the reality of the substance which is today enjoyed by believers. As Aaron went about the sacred tasks of the day, what he was carrying out was a picture of the work of the Lord Jesus presently. Aaron entered into the Tabernacle annually, but the Lord Jesus only entered into the heavenly Tabernacle once, and that was when He ascended to heaven. The differences between the work of the Aaron and the Lord are:
Aaron was the High Priest but the Lord is our Great High Priest (Heb 4.14).
Those for whom the High Priest offered sacrifices
Aaron offered for himself and people but the Lord offered only for others (Heb 9.7; 7.27).
Aaron entered into the earthly, but the Lord entered into the heavenly (Heb 9.24).
Aaron entered with the blood of goats and calves but the Lord entered with His own blood (Heb 9.12,25).
Aarons work sanctified to the purifying of the flesh, the work of the Lord purged the "conscience from dead works to serve the living God" (9.13-14).
The annual repetition necessary for Aaron brought remembrance of sin (stirred the conscience), but the work of the Lord ensures that the issue was completely dealt with (settled the conscience).
The Posture of the High Priest
Aaron stood to minister, but the Lord sits (Heb 1.3;8.1;10.12;12.2).
The work of the cross not only dealt with the sins of the believer up to the day of salvation, it dealt with them and all the issues surrounding them completely, for all time and for all eternity. Sin can still affect our relationship with the Father, and the First Epistle of John deals with this. Our Great High Priest deals with our sin by virtue of the blood that He shed at Calvary. In the scapegoat we see a foretelling of the One on whom our sins were laid as a burden, and He took them away once for all. Scripture teaches us that they have been removed "As far as the east is from the west" (Ps 103.12).
In the future of Israel
The Day of Atonement, however, was also the sixth feast of the seven annual Feasts of Jehovah, and as such pointed forward to the day when, at the end of the years of tribulation which will follow the rapture of the Church, Israel will acknowledge the Lord Jesus, now returned in glory, as the Messiah.
It is interesting to consider that the feasts which were prophetic in relation to events which have now taken place were all fulfilled on the day of the relevant feast (see, for instance, the events of Acts 2 which v.1 notes took place "when the day of Pentecost was fully come"). The three feasts which prophetically have yet to be fulfilled commence with the Feast of Trumpets, followed by the Day of Atonement, which in turn will be followed by the Feast of Tabernacles. These feasts were "celebrated" respectively on the first, tenth, and fifteenth days of the seven month. It seems, therefore, a reasonable assumption to make that the fulfilment of the prophetic content of these feasts will also take place on the day of the relevant feast. If this be so, Israel will be awakened on the first day of the seventh month, the matter of their sin will be dealt with on the tenth day, and the kingdom established on the fifteenth day of that month. Let it never be forgotten that the promises of God to Abraham will one day be fulfilled, and Israel will enter into the great blessing of one thousand years under the rule of their King.
1 David Baron
2 Keil & Delitzsch
3 Keil & Delitzsch