A look at the historical Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, as it relates to the suffering of Christ in Isaiah 53.
“Where is the one who is wise and where is the debater of this age?” That is the question Paul asks when he was rebuking the Corinthians for their misguided obsession with knowledge and wisdom. Paul is very clear when he tells us that Christ is the wisdom of God. In fact, Paul is so convinced that Christ himself is wisdom, and that all of the wisdom of the world could not even match up to the foolishness of God, that he makes a strong commitment. His commitment is to preach nothing but Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God. Christ crucified upon a Roman cross is the power of God. Christ crucified at the hands of wicked men is the wisdom of God. This, Paul tells us, is foolishness to those who have not been saved. But to those who have been saved by this crucified Christ, it is the very wisdom of God.
Now the first thing that Isaiah tells us at the beginning of this poem is that the servant will act wisely. So much can be said about the term “wisely”. The Hebrew (skl) is often translated “to be wise” or “to prosper”. Neither of those words gives the force of the context here. Literally, the term means “that he will both know and do the right things in order to accomplish the purpose for which he was called.”
How many people can say of themselves that they possess this kind of wisdom? What man among us knows every step that he must take in order to accomplish his purpose on this planet?
Every step that Christ made was a very specific means to an end. When he went to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, he knew that this was a step toward the cross. As he walked the beach choosing his disciples, again, he knew each disciple was one more step toward the cross. When he healed the leper, forgave the prostitute, rebuked the Pharisees, and overturned the tables in the temple, Christ knew all the right things that needed to be done in order to fulfill his purpose. Christ is the only one who could truly say, “It is finished.”
❖ The Master Plan
From the very beginning of time, there was a plan to save wicked sinners from the separation of God. This plan had several steps or phases. First, God wanted to educate the sinner concerning his sin. This was done through the law because one quickly recognizes his own wickedness once it is compared to the perfect law of God. Paul tells us that the Law was our tutor to lead us to Christ. (Gal. 3:24) The next step was to teach the sinner how to atone (or cover) that sin. It is clear, and not only in Judaism, but in many world religions, that sin must be paid for through the shedding of blood. A sacrifice must be made. The Hebrew people were perpetually slaughtering beasts which served as a consistent reminder that sin is ugly and must be paid for. After thousands of years, as this picture became ingrained in the minds of God’s people, the final step of this master plan was revealed. One could say that in the fullness of time or at the appointed time, the wisdom of God was revealed in Christ crucified.
Now in order to fully understand the finished work of Christ, we must place ourselves behind the cross to experience the laborious work of the high priest. We must understand the importance of the Day of Atonement before we can understand the wisdom of God in Christ crucified.
❖ The Day of Atonement
I would like to invite you to an ancient Biblical scene, as we focus our attention on the ceremonial customs of the Day of Atonement. It is my intention, as we experience the different parts of this very solemn day, that we will understand the wisdom of God in Christ crucified. You see, Christ can be seen in almost every detail of that day. In fact, the Day of Atonement was established as part of God’s master plan, for the sole purpose of preparing human eyes to see Jesus. Let us now examine the details and may they heighten our affections for Christ.
The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur is literally translated “the day of” (yom) “covering” (Kaphar). It was a day when man, by the sacrifice and blood of animals, was allowed by God to cover their sins. The English term “atonement” literally means at-one-ment. It is an acknowledgment that our sin separates us from God. Through the covering with blood, God provided a temporary way for man to be reconciled, or made at one with God. Notice that the sin is not removed, only covered.
This was the most important day of the entire year. Everything had to be perfect and the Lord commanded the people to approach this day with solemn reverence. The Hebrew people were told to afflict themselves on this day. God wanted the people to understand that their sin and the atonement of that sin was a very dark moment. The Lord God commanded Moses concerning the Day of Atonement:
“The Day of Atonement shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the LORD. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people.” ~Lev. 23:27–29
It is fitting, I believe, for Christians to have the same attitude. Particularly on Good Friday. It is helpful for us to be reminded that Christ’s finished work upon the cross to make atonement for our sin was a very dark moment. Leviticus says, “afflict yourselves and present a food offering.” I find it interesting that very early in the history of the Church it was common for Christians to fast on Good Friday.
The first detail prescribed for the Day of Atonement is centered on the high priest. “Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.” (Leviticus 16:3) It is important that we notice three things concerning the high priest’s work. First the high priest does all of this work alone. Second, the high priest must first make atonement for his own sins so that he would be spotless and blameless before the Lord. And third, the high priest must be humbled before the people.
❖ The High Priest Must Work Alone
First we see that the high priest does all of the work alone and he does it all. From the lighting of the candles to the slaughtering of the beasts, he must do it all by himself. This is unusual because on every other day of the year, it was the responsibility for the levites or lower priests to do the menial work of taking care of the candles and beasts. However, on this day everything was reserved for the high priest. In fact, it has been said that the high priest would have to slaughter similar animals on the night before the Day of Atonement in order to refresh his memory on how it was done. Naturally, he would be out of practice, so to ensure that everything went smoothly on the great Day of Atonement, the high priest would need to practice.
Now, if you research the requirements of this day it will be seen that the high priest must slaughter approximately a dozen different beasts, one of them being a bull. Can you imagine slaughtering a bull? By yourself? That is a lot of work. On top of that, the high priest must bathe himself several different times throughout the day. He must go in and out of the holy place, lighting candles and burning incense. He would have to physically cut up these animals into pieces, burned their flesh, wash himself — again, and then reclothe himself for the next task. At times the ceremony seems quite tedious, which is why it is important for us to note that he does it all by himself.
Remember, this was all designed for our eyes to see Jesus. In the same way, Christ is our high Priest who works alone for our atonement. There is no one there to help him; he must do it alone. Peter asked if he could go with him, but Christ said, “Can you drink the cup that I must drink?” Isaiah 63:3 says, “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me.” He alone accomplishes our atonement. Just as the covering of sin was wholly dependent on the obedience of the high priest, so our atonement is wholly dependent on our High Priest.
❖ The High Priest Must Be Holy
Second, the high priest must first make atonement for his own sin. He must approach the holy place by first sacrificing a bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. God says, “before you can make atonement for the sins of your people you must be clean yourself.” Once his sins are covered, He is also instructed to bring within the veil, a censer full of coals of fire and two handfuls of sweet incense. The incense would cause a huge cloud to cover the mercy seat and fill the room, essentially hiding him from God. Remember, his sins were not removed, only covered. God’s righteousness must be separated, even from looking, from sin.
As mentioned before, the high priest must wash himself several different times. It is been said that a high priest would wash himself up to 10 times for each time that he was required to wash. He wanted to ensure that he was clean. So, if God said, “Wash yourself before you put on your clothes”, the high priest literally would wash himself 10 times and then put on his clothes. This was prescribed in order to ensure that the one making atonement for sin was be pure and set apart for holiness.
However, we know that all of this washing did not make the high priest holy and pure. On this day he was only ceremonially clean, and this serves as a metaphor for the One who was to come. Christ was spotless. He “needed no washing, for he had no filth to wash away; he was pure and spotless; he needed no incense to wave before the mercy seat to hide the angry face of justice; he needed nothing to hide and shelter him; he was all pure and clean.”
Just as the book of Hebrews confirms, “It was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” (Hebrews 7:26–27)
❖ The High Priest Must Be Humble
Third, we see that the high priest is humbled on this day. Leviticus 16:4 describes the simple linen clothes that he was to wear. Normally, the high priest would wear a beautifully adorned robe. There would be a plate of gold around his head, a brightly colored robe and a distinctive blue sash. His breastplate was studded with gems, pure gold and precious stones. At the base of his robe would be tassels lined with bells and ornaments. I imagine his appearance to seem much like a modern pope or cardinal. By the way he would normally dress, everyone would recognize him as the high priest. But on this day, only simple linen.
Surely you are already seeing the picture now. Christ was humbled. As our High Priest, He did not “make atonement arrayed in all the glories of his ancient throne in heaven. Upon his brow there was no diadem, save the crown of thorns; around him was cast no purple robe, save that which he wore for a time of mockery; on his head was no scepter, save the reed which they thrust in cruel contempt upon him; he had no sandals of pure gold, neither was he dressed as a king; he had none of those splendors about him which should make him mighty and distinguished among men; he came out in his simple body, ay, in his naked body, for they stripped off even the common robe from him, and made him hang before God’s sun and God’s Universe, naked, to his shame.”
❖ The Sacrifice: Christ our Propitiation
The rest of the chapter concerning the Day of Atonement centers itself on two goats. I want to look at each of these goats in detail. We will see that both of these goats are young, healthy males, they are brought by the people, and then chosen by God through the casting of lots. The first goat is selected by God as a sin offering. This goat will die. But the second goat is selected by God as a live offering. This is the scapegoat. Each of these goats symbolize two distinct works of Christ crucified. The first goat is the type of propitiation for sin, the second goat a type of expiation for sin. Let us look at each separately.
First, we are told that the goat must be a young healthy male. Christ was a young healthy male. He would have died at the young age of 33. He was in the very prime of life. Second, we are told that the goat must be brought from amongst the congregation. This is important because Christ was brought in from among his own people. John tells us that he came to his own but his own did not receive him. (John 1) In fact, it was the Jews who captured Him, unjustly tried Him and then brought Him before Pilate begging that he be crucified. And the author of Hebrews makes special mention that “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17)
In the goat we see three clear parallels to Christ. However, it is in the work of Christ that we begin to understand propitiation. Aaron is instructed to kill the goat and then bring the blood of that goat inside the veil; he should take that blood and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat of God seven times with his finger. Seven is the number of perfection or completion, and so, as he sprinkles the blood of this goat upon the mercy seat, he is making perfect atonement for the people’s transgressions.
Let that picture truly sink in. The high priest, after slaughtering the goat, fills a small bowl with its blood and then proceeds to enter into the Holy of Holies. He is going behind the veil. He is now approaching God. The whole place is filled with smoke and the high priest is hidden before the presence of God. In fear and trepidation, the high priest dips his trembling finger into the goat blood and sprinkles it upon the seat of God. Seven times. In a very clear picture, the priest is saying, “Please forgive us for all of our sins by accepting the blood of the goat that you have chosen for yourself from among the people.”
I hope that you are seeing the picture, because it was designed in this way so that we would understand the wisdom of God in Christ crucified. The author of Hebrews tells us that just as the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice upon the mercy seat, begging for mercy, Christ, our sacrifice, brings His own blood into the holy place and sprinkles it upon the mercy seat of God. Now, if the blood of a goat will temporarily satisfy the wrath of God, how much more will the blood of Christ?
Christ’s blood is our propitiation for our sin. The term propitiation deals with the wrath and anger of God towards sinfulness. Because God is holy and righteous and just, He must deal with sin by crushing it completely. The first goat is a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God. This is important because “there is an eternal, unchangeable requirement in the holiness and justice of God that sin be paid for”
The sin is paid for, temporarily, by the first goat.
❖ The Scapegoat: Christ our Expiation
The second goat, which was also chosen by God, is the scapegoat. In Leviticus 16:20 God directs the high priest to lay his hands on the head of this goat and then confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, all their transgressions and all their sins. I have often wondered how long this would take. Once that is accomplished, the goat is then handed off to a man waiting on the other side of the tent to send it into the wilderness. There the goat will bear all their iniquities on itself and carry them to a remote area. He is a sin eater.
In order to place that picture clearly in our minds I should once again quote Charles Spurgeon. Listen as he so eloquently paints the picture:
This scapegoat was not designed to show us the victim or the sacrifice, but simply what became of the sins. The sins of the people are confessed upon that head; the goat is going; the people lose sight of it; a fit man goes with it; the sins are going from them, and now the man has arrived at his destination; the man sees the goat in the distance skipping here and there over the mountains, glad of its liberty; it is not quite gone; a little farther, and now it is lost to sight. The man returns, and says he can no longer see it; then the people clap their hands, for their sins are all gone too. Oh! soul; canst thou see thy sins all gone? We may have to take a long journey, and carry our sins with us; but oh! how we watch and watch till they are utterly cast into the depths of the wilderness of forgetfulness, where they shall never be found any more against us for ever. But mark, this goat did not sacrificially make the atonement; it was a type of the sins going away, and so it was a type of the atonement; for you know, since our sins are thereby lost, it is the fruit of the atonement; but the sacrifice is the means of making it. So we have this great and glorious thought before us, that by the death of Christ there was full, free, perfect remission for all those whose sins are laid upon his head.
The first goat was a sacrifice and propitiation for atonement. By the blood of that goat the wrath of God is turned away. The second goat was a live scapegoat and an expiation for atonement. By the life of that goat our sins are taken away.
Now that we have traveled a few thousand years on the other side of the cross, and have experienced the great Day of Atonement, I would like to conclude with one final remark. This awesome plan of reconciliation, set in motion from the beginning of time, and given as a picture in the Day of Atonement, reveals to us the wisdom of God in Christ crucified. It is also clearly laid out in Isaiah 53.
But now that we are on this side of the cross, what is its meaning to us? To answer that, let us look at the final moment when Christ gave his life.
“And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” ~ Mark 15:34–38
Christ our High Priest went on the other side of the veil to sprinkle his own blood upon the mercy seat. He became a perfect propitiation and expiation for our sin, and ripped the veil in two. Atonement has been made. The debt has been paid. And our sin has been taken away. We now have complete access to the throne of God. We are at one with him and this is the wisdom of God in Christ crucified.
So what should we do? Scripture says that we should afflict our souls. Christ said that we should remember him. It was not an easy task for the high priest to cover the sin of wicked people, and it was not an easy task for Christ to bear ours upon the cross. So we would do well to remember, because this is the wisdom of God. This is the plan of God from the beginning of all creation. Christ was crucified. He that knew no sin became sin so that we may be made righteous before the throne of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
I wonder, has your soul been afflicted? Have you understood the weight of your own sin? Have you rejoiced as you have seen your sin carried away by the wisdom of God? God commanded the people concerning the Day of atonement that it should be “a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the LORD. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people.” (Leviticus 23:27–29)
Whoever does not consider the weight of his own sin take atonement seriously, will be cut off from God. The only way to cover your sin is by the shed blood of Christ and this is the wisdom of God. There is no other wisdom. It may seem foolish to some, but even the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisest of men. Please, sinner, I beg you — consider the weight of your sin and rejoice in the fact that God, in all of His wisdom, has provided a way for you to be at one with Him.