What Is the Day of Atonement?

header for What Is the Day of Atonement?

God often teaches us through pictures, and the Day of Atonement is His greatest visual aid. It is like a drama in five acts, each one pointing us forward to Jesus Christ, and it helps us to understand the significance of His death on the cross as the sacrifice for our sins.

Act 1: The Priest Appears

If you saw the high priest, you would immediately have known that he was one of the most important people in the land. His magnificent robes displayed the dignity of his office.

But on the Day of Atonement, the high priest discarded his robes and appeared in the streets wearing a simple white cloth. People would line the route as he made his way toward the tabernacle like a boxer entering the ring.

Act 2: The Priest Prepares

Before the high priest could enter the presence of God to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people, his first priority was to deal with his own sins. He took the blood of a slaughtered bull into the Most Holy Place; and sprinkled it on the mercy seat.

Act 3: Atonement Is Made

Then two goats were brought forward, and one was slaughtered. The high priest took its blood behind the curtain and sprinkled it on the mercy seat, between the two golden figures of the cherubim that represented God’s judgment. Justice was satisfied and mercy was released when the sacrifice was made.

Just as in the garden, God had diverted the curse away from Adam and onto the ground; so now, God was ready to allow the death sentence to be passed on an animal instead of
the sinner.

Act 4: Sin Is Confessed

What happened next was the most dramatic part of the whole Day of Atonement.

The live goat was brought forward. God had instructed the high priest to “lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites” (Leviticus 16:21).

During child dedication services, I have often struggled to offer a coherent prayer as a wriggling two-year-old tried desperately to escape my clutches. But such problems are nothing compared with what the high priest had to do here. He had to confess all the sins of Israel while holding onto a live goat with both hands!

The high priest identified specific sins in his prayer, and if you had been in the crowd, you would have recognized some of the sins he confessed as your own.

As the high priest prayed, an act of transfer took place. The guilt of these sins was removed from the people and laid on the goat. The high priest “put them on the goat’s head” (v. 21). So at the end of his prayer, there was one very guilty goat!

Act 5: Guilt Is Removed

Then God told the high priest to “send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task” (v. 21).

Imagine the scene as the goat is led away, between the tents and then outside the camp and into the desert. You watch until the man and the goat are only a dot on the horizon, and then you cannot see them at all.

I cannot imagine a more powerful visual presentation of the gospel. This five-act drama was like a dress rehearsal for the real performance that took place when Jesus Christ came into the world. It was like a preview, telling us what to look for and what to expect when He came.

For Further Reading:

10 Keys for Unlocking the Bible

by Colin S. Smith

If you’re just beginning to explore the rewards of Bible study, here is the perfect introduction! Colin S. Smith has drawn from all four...

book cover for 10 Keys for Unlocking the Bible