The Great Day of Atonement and the Day That Far Greater Atonement Came*
In Judaism to this day, the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur—is a significant event. And no wonder: According to Leviticus 16, it was on this day, once a year, that the whole nation of Israel stopped work and joined together to repent of their wrongs. While the people did so, the high priest carried out an elaborate series of rites on their behalf and his, rites the Lord had given Israel so their sins might be forgiven. The way the rites accomplished this—and the way this day relates to Jesus’s sacrifice on Good Friday—begins to make more sense once we recognize that sin may be pictured in at least two different ways.
Sin as a Defiling Substance: We Need Cleansing
In the first series of rites (16:11–19), sin is pictured as an unclean substance that clings to the Lord’s home like an unholy mold. To remove it, the high priest used the sin offerings’ cleansing blood like a holy bleach, sprinkling it in the three major parts of the Sanctuary: the Most Holy Place (16:11–16a), the Holy Place (16:16b), and the courtyard (16:18–19). This cleansed the Israelites’ sins from the entire Sanctuary complex, and the Lord could remain in his people’s midst. In his love for them, he provided a way for the defilement of their sin to be taken away.
With Jesus, how much more! In the book of Hebrews, the New Testament draws a parallel between the high priest’s actions in this part of the ceremony and the person and work of Jesus as the great and final High Priest. It notes the similarity (a high priest achieving atonement and cleansing by means of sacrifice), but also the significant difference: what the high priest accomplishes in Leviticus is a mere shadow of what Jesus the High Priest accomplishes in the far greater Day of Atonement that was still to come.
|Israelite High Priest||Jesus the Great High Priest|
|Enters the Lord’s earthly throne room with the blood of sacrificial animals to make atonement.||Enters the Lord’s heavenly throne room with his own blood to make atonement.|
|Repeats the same sacrifices year after year that cannot deal fully and finally with sin.||Has presented himself as the final sacrifice that has dealt with sin once and for all.|
|Only he could enter the Most Holy Place; the cleansing was not sufficient to enable Israelites to enter.||The cleansing was so thorough that all God’s people may now enter into the Most Holy Place, following behind their Great High Priest and what he has accomplished on their behalf.|
Jesus is thus both High Priest and atoning sacrifice, whose sacrificial lifeblood provides full and final cleansing for sin, a cleansing so deep and strong and pure that we are invited into the very throne room of the King to know him, love him, serve him, and worship him!
Sin as a Lethal Burden: We Need Someone to Bear It Away
In a second series of rites, the sin metaphor switches from defiling substance (16:11–19) to lethal burden, a fatal weight that must be removed from the sinner’s head (16:20–22). It is a two-stage process. First, Aaron places his hands on the goat’s head and confesses over it all the Israelites’ sins and iniquities. The burden has now been transferred from the Israelites’ to the goat’s head. Second, Aaron sends the sin-laden goat away “by means of a man appointed for this time, into the wilderness” (16:21c). The result is that the goat both bears the sins away and bears responsibility for them. In his love for his people, the Lord provided this third party to remove their sin and bear its penalty—so that they do not have to.
Years later, the prophet Isaiah would recall the language of this part of the Day of Atonement ceremony to describe the suffering servant, who bore the responsibility for the penalty of sin on behalf of God’s people. Isaiah says the servant, like the goat, will take the people’s sins on himself and bear responsibility for them so that they do not have to.
|Leviticus 16||Isaiah 53|
|“Aaron must lean both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites and all their transgressions, with regard to any of their sins” (Lev. 16:21a)||“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5a)|
|“So the goat will bear on itself all their iniquities to a land cut off” (Lev. 16:22)||“. . . he was cut off from the land of the living . . . He will bear their iniquities . . . he bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:8b, 11–12)|
These parallels are significant because the New Testament looks back to Isaiah 53 to describe Jesus. This is especially the case in 1 Peter 2:22–25, which “include[s] four quotations from, and at least four further allusions to, Isa. 52:13-53:12.” In this passage, Peter attests that Jesus is the one who suffers sin’s penalty on behalf of God’s people. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24).
Responding to the Day That Far Greater Atonement Came
In Jesus, the Lord has provided the ultimate Day of Atonement. Because of Jesus, our sin and guilt may be dealt with fully and finally. But this only happens as we turn humbly to him, with our whole heart, acknowledging our need for his forgiveness and cleansing. When we do, we have every reason to rejoice, knowing our sin and impurity have been fully cleansed, the burden of our guilt fully removed, and that the Lord receives us as his very own, the children of his special love and care.
What are we waiting for?
* NOTE: Portions of this article are excerpted and adapted from Jay Sklar, Leviticus: A Discourse Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, forthcoming).
 D. A. Carson, “1 Peter,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. Greg K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 1033; see there for details. Other New Testament passages that quote Isa. 53 to describe Jesus include Matt. 8:17 (cf. Isa 53:4), Luke 22:37 (cf. Isa. 53:12), Acts 8:32–33 (applied to Jesus in 8:34–35) (cf. Isa. 53:7–8), and Heb. 9:28 (cf. Isa. 53:12).