A ceremony involving casting lots, killing a bull and a goat, sprinkling blood, loosing live animals in the wilderness—it all sounds pretty strange.
It certainly was meant to arrest the attention of the Israelites whom God commanded to observe it. But He revealed to them only a tiny fraction of the deeply beautiful and profoundly moving meaning with which He imbued this ritual.
God had Moses record every detail of the ceremony He directed the Israelites to perform each year on the Day of Atonement. And to His Spirit-begotten Church, He has fully revealed His magnificent purpose as disclosed in those details.
A deep study of the ancient Atonement ceremony in Leviticus 16 gives us a clear vision of God’s love for humankind. It is a study that richly rewards you for every ounce of effort you devote to it.
The Pivotal Point
What is atonement? “To set at one; to join in one; to form by uniting,” says Webster. The Herbert W. Armstrong College Bible Correspondence Course explains, “This day actually symbolizes God and man being set at one: literally the Day of At-one-ment” (Lesson 27).
The concept is unfathomably deep. It summarizes God’s glorious master plan.
Herbert Armstrong made a statement in Mystery of the Ages worthy of deep contemplation. While briefly summarizing the very core of the doctrinal teaching of God’s Church, he wrote: “[D]octrinally, remember what the Church is called to help restore—the Kingdom, government and character of God. What was taken away? God’s law, the foundation of His government and the very essence of God’s character and divine life.
“In other words, the pivotal point is the sin question” (emphasis added).
God is and always has been sinless and perfect. The archangel Lucifer introduced the foreign and perverse concept of lawlessness and shattered the peace of the universe (Ezekiel 28:14-15). Transformed into Satan the Adversary, he polluted the minds of the first two human beings, and as a result, sin—with all its brutality, degeneration and misery—spread to all mankind. The pivotal point is the sin question.
Humans are wracked with sin and deeply flawed. Sin divides man from God (Isaiah 59:2; Psalm 66:18). It is a chasm between us—a tear in the fabric of the family unity God yearns to share with us. As passionate as God’s love is, it is equaled by the passion of His hatred of sin. He simply will not abide sin.
God’s master plan involves spiritually converting human minds to the point where we come to despise sin and embrace righteousness as He does—in every thought, word and deed. This is the fundamental change required in God’s plan. Only then can we join God’s eternal Family and contribute—flawlessly, trustworthily, eternally—to the spread throughout the cosmos of His peace-producing government.
In other words, if we are ever to fulfill God’s purpose for us sinful human beings—if ever the violence set in motion by Lucifer’s rebellion is to be set right—God must institute a process of atonement. Sin must be dealt with; the presence of sin in our lives demands radical action to remove it, expunge it, wipe it out, so that true at-one-ment between man and God can occur.
The Leviticus 16 ceremony reveals in symbol three acts of God that begin and complete this crucial atonement process.
The Forbidden Room
The tabernacle, the locus of Israel’s worship of God, was divided by a veil. The room behind the veil was the holy of holies—the place where God Himself dwelled. This extraordinary room contained the ark of the covenant, covered by the mercy seat that represented God’s very throne. The holy of holies demonstrated the separation between sinless God and sinful man: It was so sanctified that no human was permitted to enter at any time, lest he die (Leviticus 16:2).
There was only one exception: the high priest of Israel, on the Day of Atonement—the day that represents reconciliation of God and man.
The high priest’s annual entrance into the holy of holies was enshrouded in scrupulous ceremony. The priest wore special holy garments of linen (verse 4)—the fabric symbolizing the righteousness of God’s saints (Revelation 19:8). He had to slay a bullock and offer it to God, making atonement for his own sins and those of his family (Leviticus 16:3, 6, 11, 14). In order to be accepted in God’s presence, he had to be covered in a cloud of incense, representing prayer (verses 12-13; Revelation 8:3-4). God required all these rituals to impress upon the priest’s mind—and upon the whole nation—that sin must be covered, forgiven and set aside before any atonement between God and man is possible.
Then came the first of the three acts of atonement.
The First Act
Leviticus 16:5, 7 and 8 show how the priest took two goats and cast lots to find out which role God wanted each goat to fulfill. One goat would represent Satan—the author of sin. The other would represent Jesus Christ—the Word, who would be made flesh and purge the world of sin (John 1:14).
With this second goat, the first and most vital event required for atonement transpired: “And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. … Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people …” (Leviticus 16:9, 15). This act represented the death of Jesus Christ on the stake at Calvary.
Ponder it: The mighty and majestic Being who dwelled in the holy of holies among the Israelites was typed in this ceremony by a goat that was slaughtered. This Being later fulfilled this ceremony: He voluntarily put off His immortality, was born a mortal human being, and was then murdered. His spilled blood paid the death penalty for the sins not only of the whole nation of Israel, but also of all mankind. That blood justifies us (Romans 5:9) and redeems us to God the Father (Revelation 5:9).
Consider the strategic planning involved in this act of atonement.
When Lucifer and the angels sinned, their penalty was not death; they are spirit and cannot die. God chose to impose upon mortal man the death penalty for sin. But He also made the material creation subject to change so that if, or when, human beings did sin, they could repent. As Mr. Armstrong wrote in Mystery of the Ages, God’s “supreme purpose required: 1) that man reject Satan’s way, embracing God’s way of love, based on God’s spiritual law; and 2) that man be made first of matter so that, if he was led into Satan’s way of ‘get,’ he could be changed, converted to God’s way of love, or if he refused to change, his life would be blotted out … as if he had never been.”
This means that, from the very beginning of God’s master plan for human beings, God knew there had to be a way to pay the death penalty for sin in man’s stead. The death of the Word opened up the possibility of humans repenting of sin and living another day to then build God’s character. With this sacrifice, mortal man could grow, over the course of a lifetime of repenting and making better choices, from a state of spiritual weakness to one of true spiritual maturity. This possibility never existed for the angels.
That sacrifice, which we memorialize every year at Passover, began the plan of salvation whereby we can be made at one with God. No atonement would be possible without it.
So it is absolutely fitting and necessary that we look back upon that Passover sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. This is why God depicted that murder, in symbol, within this ceremony.
This act of atonement had not yet occurred when the Israelites performed this ceremony anciently. They did not understand it and could not comprehend it. But its wonderful meaning is plain to us!
The first act of atonement is now history. The second act is occurring right now, as you read this article.
The Second Act
After the high priest killed the goat of the sin offering, he performed a type of the second act: He brought the blood of that goat into the holy of holies and sprinkled it upon and in front of the mercy seat and made atonement for the sins of the people of Israel (Leviticus 16:15-16).
The goat represented the mortal, human Jesus Christ; its death represented Christ’s death. But at that point within this ritual, the symbolism dramatically shifted. The high priest then came to personify the resurrected Jesus Christ—who, shortly after His physical death, ascended into the heavens to be seated beside God the Father in the heavenly throne room.
“And so it was the high priest taking blood within the veil, to the mercy seat, that typified the risen Christ figuratively taking His blood, once for all, within the veil to the very throne of God in heaven, there to intercede for us as High Priest,” Mr. Armstrong wrote in his booklet Pagan Holidays—or God’s Holy Days—Which? based on scriptures such as Hebrews 9:11-12. “The high priest going within the veil, into the holy of holies, symbolized Christ’s return to heaven. The work he did while in the holy of holies symbolized Christ’s work these 1,900 years interceding for us, presenting His shed blood before the mercy seat in heaven.”
Ponder that last statement. This is another wonderful act of atonement: Jesus Christ’s work as our High Priest in the throne room of God. During His earthly ministry, Christ directed us to pray to the Father, but also revealed that He would serve an intermediary role in those prayers (John 16:23). This is the only way we sinful humans can have contact with the Most High God. Since our Father will not abide sin, Christ must come into His presence on our behalf. 1 John 2:1 calls Him our Advocate. With Christ’s intercessions and advocacy, the Father accepts our sincere offerings in the name of His holy Son. This priestly job is one of Christ’s major responsibilities today—in fact, He lives to fulfill this intercessory role for us (Hebrews 7:25).
Chapter 6 of Gerald Flurry’s booklet The Last Hour, “Our Advocate When We Sin,” provides a moving description of how and why Christ fulfills this role. There he writes, “We don’t understand what Christ is doing today if we fail to grasp this. He is always very active on our behalf—on your behalf. We are engaged to the living Christ. He is our Advocate to do everything possible to consummate our eternal marriage! We would never make it if not for our Advocate.” Grasp that! Christ’s ongoing, day-by-day advocacy for the Spirit-begotten saints is crucial if we are to be able to marry Him! Contemplate what His work in this role says about God’s commitment to at-one-ment with His people.
In ancient Israel, this event occurred only once a year. However, when Jesus died, the veil covering the holy of holies rent in two (Matthew 27:50-51). This was a miraculous symbol revealing that, because Christ was now High Priest, human beings could now access God the Father at any time.
Atonement with God is not a one-time event. It is something that, as long as we are in the flesh, must occur every day. In order to stay close to God, we must draw upon Christ as our High Priest continually.
This aspect of the Atonement ceremony pictures the atonement occurring right now. Though the Israelites had no knowledge of what it symbolized, God recorded it so we could contemplate and celebrate Christ’s work in this capacity on the Day of Atonement.
The Final Act of Atonement
The third event portrayed in the Atonement ceremony is a prophecy of a dramatic, soon-coming act of atonement—a climactic event that will finally restore the peace of the universe that shattered when sin emerged.
It involves the first of those two goats, the one that represented Satan. “And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:20-21).
This depicts the righteous execution of justice upon the author of all sin.
For complete atonement between God and man to take place, all of Satan’s guilt must be put back upon Satan, and he must then be banished—completely removed from God’s presence. “And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more …” (Revelation 20:1-3). At the end of the Millennium, after he is again loosed for a short period, here is his ultimate fate: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone … and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (verse 10).
This is the final act that we celebrate on Atonement: Satan being kicked off his throne and exiled. The entire world will be liberated—freed from his malevolent presence—free, then, to seek a family relationship with the Creator of mankind—free to pursue at-one-ment with God!
How rich with meaning the Atonement ceremony is, and what a blessing to understand it! Those symbols, witnessed uncomprehendingly year after year by the Israelites, represent the greatest truth we could possibly contemplate. They fix our minds on the bedazzling, gem-like beauty at the very heart of God’s master plan: the fact that the omnipotent God of the universe desires—and is working earnestly to achieve—perfect family unity with each one of us!