Leviticus 16 and the Day of Atonement

Leviticus 16 describes rituals the high priest had to perform once a year on the Day of Atonement. But how do these rituals relate to the Day of Atonement?

Aaron, as the high priest, went into the holy place of the tabernacle once a year—only on the Day of Atonement.

“And the LORD said to Moses: ‘Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat’” (Leviticus 16:2).

A unique ceremony

Aaron—and his successors as high priest—was to carefully follow a prescribed ritual on that special day:

“Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness” (Leviticus 16:15-16).

Why was this ceremony unique? Why only once a year? What did it mean?

The answer lies in the symbolism of Aaron’s office—and how it relates to Christ’s.

Aaron was the physical high priest then, but the New Testament tells us that Jesus Christ has now ascended to heaven and become our High Priest at the very throne of God. “We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (Hebrews 8:1).

Unlike Aaron, who offered the blood of a sacrificed animal in a physical tabernacle (Leviticus 16:3), Jesus Christ has entered the heavenly temple with His own blood. “But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12).

But the meaning and its connection to our salvation only deepens! There were two goats in that ancient ceremony in Leviticus 16. What about the other one—the one not symbolic of Christ and His perfect sacrifice for our sins?

God gave instructions for what to do about that goat too:

“Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:21-22).

What does this symbolize?

Atonement—the day of reconciliation

The Day of Atonement pictures reconciliation between God and man. After Christ returns, one of the first steps taken will be the binding of Satan for a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-3). Why is this action so important?

Throughout humanity’s generations, from Eden to the present, Satan the devil has deceived all people into following a way of life that is contrary to God. He is described as the one “who deceives the whole world” (Revelation 12:9).

Succumbing to his influence and living a life of disobedience to God—breaking His righteous laws and commandments—is defined as sin. “Sin is lawlessness,” the apostle John wrote (1 John 3:4). What is the result of human sin? Separation from God, as we read in Isaiah 59:2: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear.”

The result of Satan’s ongoing deception is that everyone has sinned and continues to struggle with sin (Romans 3:23; 7:13-24).

But there’s an even deeper issue here. In addition to sin causing a separation from God, it also carries with it the death penalty! Ezekiel 18:4 and 18:20 unequivocally state “the soul who sins shall die.”

Two vital steps toward reconciliation

Since Satan has deceived the whole world into sinning and the penalty for sin is eternal death, God has set in motion two vital steps to facilitate reconciliation.

First, Jesus Christ, who was God in the flesh and without sin, laid down His life for humanity. He was the supreme sacrifice and paid the penalty for sin (death) on behalf of all who ever have lived or will live. It is through His suffering, death and resurrection that humanity can be reconciled to God and inherit eternal life. According to your Bible, there is no other way to receive salvation (Acts 4:12).

The goat sacrificed every year in the ceremony of Leviticus 16 foreshadowed His sacrifice for our sins.

Second, shortly after Jesus returns to earth, Satan the devil, a spirit being who cannot die, will be removed or restrained so that he can no longer influence humanity into living a way that is contrary to God’s righteous commandments and laws. The apostle John saw this future event in a vision described in the book of Revelation:

“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished” (Revelation 20:1-3).

With Satan’s influence removed, people can finally have a clear understanding of the benefits of living according to God’s righteous requirements.

The “azazel” goat of Leviticus 16—the one released alive into the wilderness—foreshadowed this removal of Satan, symbolically pictured by what occurred on the Day of Atonement.The “azazel” goat of Leviticus 16—the one released alive into the wilderness—foreshadowed this removal of Satan, symbolically pictured by what occurred on the Day of Atonement.

It should be noted that the live goat is referred to as a “scapegoat” in Leviticus 16:8 and 10 in both the King James Version and the New King James Version of the Bible. This is not the best translation of the Hebrew word azazel, which is more accurately translated as a “goat of departure.” Many Bible translations, including the American Standard Version, simply use the Hebrew word “Azazel,” with no attempt to translate it into English. The Contemporary English Version translates it as “demon Azazel.” Other translations such as the Modern King James Version render it “complete removal.”

Some scholars believe Azazel is the name of a demon inhabiting the wilderness (Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, p. 326). This would describe Satan, the one whom the live goat, azazel, represents.

Reconciliation now

Upon repentance and being baptized, people can have their sins forgiven (Acts 2:38). Those of us called during this age—from the beginning of the New Testament Church to the return of Jesus Christ to earth—are reconciled to God when we take this important step (Colossians 1:21).

As Paul wrote: “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18, emphasis added throughout). Continuing, Paul urged the Corinthians and us today to live our lives as ambassadors, imploring others to likewise be “reconciled to God” (verse 20).

Since Satan has not yet been removed, people who respond to God’s calling during this age must resist Satan’s negative influences. As James notes, “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

But what about people who are not called by God during this present age (John 6:44, 65)? Will they have the opportunity to be reconciled to God? If you wish to learn more about how God calls people, the article “God Calling” provides an excellent explanation.

Looking for the church behind Life, Hope & Truth? See our “Who We Are” page.

Future reconciliation

In addition to those called by God to reconciliation with Him in this life, the Bible reveals that God will eventually give every human this priceless opportunity. We read in 2 Peter 3:9 that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

As already explained, after Jesus returns to earth, Satan will be bound for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:1-3). Without Satan’s influence, it will be easier for people who survive the catastrophic events accompanying Jesus’ return to understand God’s way and repent of their sins.

Those who have lived and died without knowing God’s way of life will be resurrected back to human life to have their opportunity for reconciliation (Revelation 20:11-12). Upon repentance and their acceptance of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ—pictured by the slain goat on the Day of Atonement—they can also have their sins forgiven and be reconciled with God. To learn more about God’s timetable for calling people, see the article “Resurrections.”

What a remarkable and revealing ceremony! Leviticus 16 has great meaning for all—past, present and future. Would you like to know more? Read more about Satan’s fate in the article “Satan Destroyed? How?

About the Author

Neville Smith

Neville Smith is the pastor of the Durban, South Africa, and Zimbabwe congregations of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He has four married children and eight grandchildren and enjoys spending time in the outdoors with friends and family.

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