Day of Atonement: 1. The Principle Part 1

Leviticus 16:1-4
“And Jehovah spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near before Jehovah and died; and Jehovah said to Moses, Speak to Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the sanctuary within the veil before the mercy-seat which [is] upon the ark, that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy-seat. Thus shall Aaron come into the sanctuary, with a young bullock for a sin-offering, and a ram for a burnt-offering. A holy linen coat he shall put on, and linen breeches shall be upon his flesh; and he shall be girded with a linen girdle, and with the linen miter shall he be attired: these [are] holy garments; and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and put them on” (Lev. 16:1-41And the Lord spake unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the Lord, and died; 2And the Lord said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the vail before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat. 3Thus shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bullock for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering. 4He shall put on the holy linen coat, and he shall have the linen breeches upon his flesh, and shall be girded with a linen girdle, and with the linen mitre shall he be attired: these are holy garments; therefore shall he wash his flesh in water, and so put them on. (Leviticus 16:1‑4)).
The preliminary verses of Lev. 16 introduce the day of atonement. It is indeed a chapter demonstrably instructive in all its provisions. It shows, in the light of the New Testament (that is, of Christ Himself and the mighty work He has accomplished), what the import of “atonement” truly is. But the distance of the O.T. was kept up.
In due course proofs will appear that in this type God not only had all before His mind (as every one that knows Him must feel), but that He has been pleased to unroll it before us. In a marvelous manner He has contrived, with a wisdom that bespeaks itself as divine, to furnish an earthly people with provisional sacrifices and outward cleansings (or what is called “the purifying of the flesh”); but in these self-same rites grace and truth lay hidden till the light of Christ should shine on them. Then could be perceived, if not the very image, a shadow of the good things to come; some already fulfilled, some not even yet, but no less assuredly so to be according to the word and purpose of God.
Inasmuch then as God has yet plans which have not been carried out to the full, as even this chapter does testify, we may see (what is true of scripture generally) that it is prophetic. Can anything witness to God more than that His word is thus pregnant? Is not prophecy a more enduring and deeper witness than miracle? While the world goes on as usual, a miraculous sign displays God's power and goodness; but prophecy gives living proof of His truth. None but a low-minded or thoughtless man could suppose that power is equal to mind. Yet there is more than this in it. Moral light and love are made known, the maintenance of God's character, will, and grace; which are evidently far beyond not matter only but mind. As a great Frenchman said, the least mind is above all matter, and all mind is below charity or divine love.
Here we find the true source of atonement. The love of God provided it in a way that should conciliate grace and righteousness, guilty man and a holy God, Who thus, and thus only, causes mercy to glory against judgment. Nowhere is God so highly exalted, nowhere man so truly humbled. What speaks so simply and withal so profoundly of sin as the blood of Christ? But this is applied to our utter unworthiness, meeting man as he is, to bring him out of all his iniquities to God as God is. For such, and nothing less, is the design of atonement. Divine righteousness, based on Christ's work, is its character, when man was proved unrighteous; and as it was according to God's grace, so is it of faith, and thus open to every believer, Jew or Greek.
But the day of atonement necessarily had, first of all, a temporal and imperfect character: “the law made nothing perfect.” It was, beyond question, the most solemn rite in the whole Jewish year; but its renewal every year is conclusive evidence, as the Epistle to the Hebrews declares, of its inefficacy for man's conscience as well as for God's judgment in view of eternity. It was therefore provisional, as all the institutions of the law were. Is this any impeachment of the law of God? His own word pronounces it. If such be His word, dispute not that God is a better judge than you or I or all men. If God declares that the law made nothing perfect—and such is His expressed and irrevocable sentence (Heb. 7:1919For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God. (Hebrews 7:19))—who that has the least reverence ought to question it for a moment? The atonement being year by year for Israel disclosed therefore on its face, that it did not rise up to the perfection of God's nature and mind. At best it could be but a type of the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ. One can understand readily that, only when a perfect being comes, can the result be perfection.
Adam was an admirable creature, if we believe the scriptures, as an innocent man on an unfallen earth. Nevertheless, on the plain surface of fact, the first thing recorded of his doing when tried is that he sinned. There may be perpetual and violent effort to escape the moral inference; honest denial of man's sin there cannot be. The overwhelming fact is out from the beginning. Is sin to be tolerated or ignored because it is universal?
At once God's grace pledges a bruised Vanquisher of the Serpent in the woman's Seed. This ere long decided the difference between the two sons of Adam. Jehovah had respect to Abel and to his offering: why to Abel rather than to Cain? Because “by faith” Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice. Faith submits to, receives, and rests on, the word of God. It was not the mere matter of fact or human feeling; it did not turn on which of the two brought the more valuable offering. By faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain. What made it so? In Cain there was no more than natural religion: he took no account of sin; as duty to Jehovah he offered of the fruit of the ground—the ground under the curse. It was the expression of unbelieving homage, with total insensibility to sin on one side and to grace on the other. Faith always takes account of sin in man, as it more or less rises up to grace in God. Whatever be the sin of man, the grace of God is beyond it. One of the workings of unbelief is despair, another may be the bolder form of rebellion against God in the open rejection of His word. But the soul may not be so impious and yet be guilty by doubting grace in God to forgive its sin, however heinous. Faith owns the sin truly, but reckons on the mercy God reveals.
Man's device ever fails to cover his evil. God clothed fallen Adam and Eve with coats of skins. It was a provision which, as there was sin, spoke of death, yet of mercy to man through it. This would never have entered the human mind. Naturally Cain's was a more reasonable offering in appearance. What man in unbelief would ever have thought of a sacrifice as acceptable to God? Abel brought of the firstlings of the flock, and of the fat thereof. If slain beasts furnished the clothing which God gave his parents, Abel slays a lamb in sacrifice to God. It was an offering in faith; access to God for a sinner can only be through death. That there was more behind it all, deeper than Abel or any saint of old knew, is true. One does not say that Abel contemplated the sacrifice of the woman's Seed; but it was in God's mind, and faith reaped the blessing. Thereby witness was borne to Abel as righteous, “God bearing witness to his gifts; and by it, having died, he yet speaketh.” Abel looked for the One who should crush the power of evil here below; and against and above nature he, by faith, offered sacrifice to God with the expression of its excellency in “the fat.” God blesses according to what He sees in the sacrifice; a principle which comes out plainly in the blood of the paschal lamb (Ex. 12:1313And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:13)).
No doubt all the believers throughout the Old Testament looked for the Kinsman-Redeemer (as we may see in the assurance of Job 19:25-2925For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: 26And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: 27Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me. 28But ye should say, Why persecute we him, seeing the root of the matter is found in me? 29Be ye afraid of the sword: for wrath bringeth the punishments of the sword, that ye may know there is a judgment. (Job 19:25‑29)), the destroyer of death and of him that has the power of death. They did not question that in due time the Messiah would meet both God and man perfectly; but to suppose that they understood how it was to be done is going beyond scripture. Not even the disciples in the days of our Lord could put the two things intelligently together. Did not Christ's personal envoys who accompanied the Master from John's baptism till the ascension—did not the apostles know as much as their predecessors? To doubt this would be doing anything but honor to the teaching of Jehovah's righteous Servant (Isa. 53:1111He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:11)). His enemies being judges, “never man spake like this man;” and never did men on earth receive such a course of holy and perfect instruction as did the twelve from the Son of God.
The grand question then is, not what the saints under the Old Testament understood, but what God set up in word or deed, and what its bearing is on the atonement, now that Christ has come and finished the work given Him to do. The true meaning of the atonement is in question; and here the New Testament comes most powerfully to our aid. What can be conceived clearer than the divine comment given in the Epistle to the Hebrews (or Christian Jews) who needed it, as they ought to have appreciated it best? We sometimes hear of commentaries and commentators; wherein the best men show their prepossessions and prejudices. It is a pity that they do not use the Epistle to the Hebrews a little more and to better purpose. There is the greatest of all commentaries, and the one most immediately bearing on this very truth with which we are now occupied. Not only does the inspired text lie in the chapter before us, but we have also the inspired exegesis in that Epistle. No believer can doubt this who reads Heb. 9. And what does it let us know? That Aaron, the high priest, represents Christ, and that the work He wrought was for no transient purpose but “eternal (or, everlasting) redemption.”
Of old they were but carnal ordinances imposed till a time of setting things right; but Christ being come, High Priest of the good things to come, by the better and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands (that is, not of this creation), nor by blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood entered in once for all into the holies, having found (or, obtained) an eternal redemption. His sacrifice is in the strictest sense of everlasting efficacy. The word “eternal” occurs frequently with peculiar stress in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Why eternal? In contrast with the temporal character of what was akin among the sons of Israel. Thus we find not only eternal redemption, but eternal salvation, eternal inheritance, everlasting or eternal covenant: all of which words have a pointed reference, to lift the believing Hebrews out of familiarity with what was but temporal. Christ dead, risen, and in heaven, puts the believer face to face with the unseen and eternal. Just because as Jews they were accustomed to what was displayed on earth, their eyes needed to be raised above and to see within the veil what can never pass away. If the believing ones slipped into their old thoughts, they would lower the gospel, and perhaps fatally as they are warned in chapter 6 and elsewhere.
Nor did the Hebrews only need this, but we do also. The inspired word has the supreme authority of God, and the deepest value for us all who believe. To faith it is no question of reading the law and of simply concluding that we have only there what is temporal, while of the New Testament we say this is eternal. Such is not the way to read the Bible, nor to profit the soul. What God intends by His precious word is that you should be raised above the clouds of tumult, doubt, and difficulty, especially during these changeful periods through which we are passing; and that you should be established even now in the certainty of a new, everlasting, and heavenly relationship to God through the atonement of our Lord Jesus.
The day of atonement avowedly was to provide for all the sins, transgressions, and iniquities of the children of Israel. What had the work of Christ in view? Not only the entire, present, and everlasting removal before God of all our iniquities, but the glorifying Himself even about sin by virtue of Christ's atoning death. Not only such is the need, but nothing less can avail. God assuredly will never slight the value of the sufferings of His Son, nor forget that He is indebted to His cross for perfectly glorifying Himself. Even if we take a lower but true ground, what is the value of an atonement which could fall short of a single sin? Supposing such a scheme possible as a man forgiven 999 sins, but not the 1000th, he is as ill off as if he had none; for by that one unforgiven sin he is absolutely unfit for the presence of God. No sin can enter there; and if we have not our portion above, where must we be consigned?
Nor did atonement contemplate a ground to meet the need which will arise only when we die or appear before the judgment-seat of Christ. It will be admitted by the reader of Lev. 16, that a Jew rightly looked for the effectual application of that day's sacrifice to his then wants, to his urgent need, to the iniquities that burdened his spirit and filled him with apprehension of judgment. But the effect was only for the time.
What then has the coming of our Lord done? Has it not brought life, love, and light into the world? It has revealed God in the actual presence of His own Son yet a man, Who suffered for sins once for all, Just for unjust, to bring us to God. To the believer this is Soul-salvation, as the body's salvation awaits Christ's coming again. Certain imperfections were allowed of old, as no saint can deny. Our Lord has ruled it so, “because (or, in view of) the hardness of their hearts.” We find David, Solomon, &c. doing things that no Christian would think of. How comes it then that licenses, which notoriously existed under the law, are now intolerable? Because Christ is come, “the true light now shineth.” No doubt man put it out, as far as he could; but he has not got rid of it. The rejected Christ is in heaven; but the light, far from being withdrawn, shines more brightly than ever. The First Epistle of John is most careful to affirm that the darkness is passing away, and that the true light already shineth (2:8). When He was on earth, the darkness comprehended it not, though shining in the darkness (John 1:55And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:5)). Now that He is risen and in heaven, the darkness passeth away. It is not exactly true that it “is past “; for plainly the A.V. is therein too strong. But if it be not absolutely gone, it is quite passing away as each believer receives the light. Now that redemption is effected, he who receives the light is made light in the Lord; and every one, to whom Christ is not only the light but the life, is cleansed by His blood, freed from sin to live to God.
What is the effect of redemption even outwardly? That men are ashamed now of what, before Christ came, was thought nothing but natural and to be borne. Few know on the one hand, how much is due to the light of Christ in the gospel exposing all, and so deterring men from their audacious and inexpressible iniquities. For that very reason on the other hand, the sins of every one whose conscience is awakened by the word before God become most hateful and even appalling. The first effect of the light of God in Christ is to make the evil appear worse than ever.
Hence it is that wherever the word of God deals vitally with the soul, repentance toward God ensues, even though there must be faith that the repentance should have any divine character. The soul has no abiding comfort as yet, no settled peace, nor real relief. One may say, the burden becomes through the Holy Spirit's action more felt and more oppressive; and thank God for it! There is nothing more dangerous than to slur over our sins because Christ is preached. How enfeebling to the soul afterward if we bound, so to say, over the grave of our sins, instead of looking down steadily there to judge ourselves for what they are! A man otherwise is startled to find another day the evil which he at first passed over too lightly; and he is in danger of beginning to question whether he can really have, as he calls it, an interest in Christ and His grace. Had he at the start faced his own evil, he had known better, not only what he himself is, but how the Savior took all up and cleansed him from every sin with His precious blood when he believed.
According to the plain testimony of the New Testament, Christ's coming has laid sin bare in its full opposition to God, in its evil against man, in all its secret depths as never known before. No doubt the law acted in an admirable manner; for the commandment is holy, just, and good. But after all the law is not Christ, and Christ revealed God in His grace, instead of merely continuing rites that appealed suitably to fallen man. Yet in the law God had before Himself the evil state of man. At Sinai He commanded “Thou shalt not do this evil; thou shalt not do that.” It was of no use to claim from the sons of Israel, what could only be found in Christ. What the law did was just what man then needed; it forbade doing the evil that was there, it condemned what the evil heart desired. Man was already a sinner before the law was given. No doubt Adam had a law; but this is a very different thing from the law. For the law supposes that man is fallen, and that he is constantly inclined to do the wicked things prohibited and denounced by it. Along with the ten words, the most solemn institution annexed was the day of atonement, among other gracious provisions subsequently added.
But now that Christ is come, He has brought in an incomparably deeper and larger standard of sin. The evil and wretched condition of man is shown beyond comparison more complete and profound, and by nothing so much as by the worth of Christ's redemption. No wonder that the Holy Spirit uses grand words, for none less could set forth truly the character of what is revealed to us in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The law claimed man's works. Christ did in the highest sense the will of God. “Lo, I am come to do thy will, O God.” Atonement is God Himself, by and in Christ, taking up and settling the question of sin in His own grace for His own glory, that believers might now be fully and forever blessed. Present association with heaven is in open view, because the immediate object was to wean the Hebrews from yearning after earthly hopes. Yet the future is not forgotten; for the Christian it is unmistakably “everlasting,” whatever may be the accomplishment of earthly promises by-and-by. But there is more to heed than this. The Spirit's power gives present enjoyment of that eternal character. Its object is to put the believer now, with purged conscience, into God's presence, or, as Peter puts it, “to bring us to God,” as He is and will be known in the light forever.
What a blessed reality this is! Have you or have you not made it yours? The Lord intimates it even in the Gospel of Luke. The prodigal son comes not merely “to himself” but to the father; and the father meets him with not affection only but a vast deal more. He has the best robe put upon him, not when he deserved it (if this ever could be), but before there was the smallest question of aught save his repentant sense of sin. It is his father's love. God acted from and for what He is Himself, and for what He can righteously afford to do for the worst of sinners through the redemption that is in Christ. Such and so efficacious is His love displayed in the atoning work of the Lord Jesus. Luke as usual was led thus to present the grace of God in Christ and by His death, as applied to the most worthless who repent. Matthew (xxii. 2-14) presents grace dispensationally in the well-known parable of the kingdom of heaven; and the professor that despised grace is seen individually judged.