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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Greatest Day of the Year
Text:Leviticus 16:1-34 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Forgiveness of Sins

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 66:1,6                                                                                

Ps 130:2,4                                                                                                      

Reading – Hebrews 10:11-25

Ps 32:1,2

Sermon – Leviticus 16:1-34

Hy 42:1,2,3,4,5,6

Hy 23:1,2,3,6

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in the Lord, for you what’s the best day of the year? Probably a lot of people will say it’s their birthday, a day when you get spoiled and feel loved. Some students will say that the best day is always the last day of school. There could be another day that’s really special to you, like your wedding anniversary, or maybe Christmas.

For a faithful Israelite, there was no question about the best day of the year. It was the Day of Atonement, the day God establishes in Leviticus 16. This was the heart of Israel’s yearly calendar and the pinnacle of God’s law. And it’s not like our annual highlights, which tend to be self-focused and defined by things like leisure and play. For an Israelite, this day was like none other, for it was a day of being purged of all uncleanness. This was the day when the high priest could enter God’s glorious presence—and not be incinerated—but he could go in and obtain grace and mercy! It meant sin forgiven, impurity removed, and peace restored.

If you want to think of a parallel on our own calendar, think of Good Friday. This is the momentous day when the holy God allowed sinful humans to draw near to Him, for we drew near in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. At the cross, Jesus presented his atoning blood to God in order to make our forgiveness and renewal possible. It is in Christ that the Day of Atonement has its fullest meaning, and it’s in Him that the day is no longer needed. I preach God’s Word to you from Leviticus 16 on this theme,

The Day of Atonement: the greatest day of the year!

  1. a day full of meaning
  2. a day no longer needed


1) a day full of meaning: If there’s one key lesson from Leviticus, it’s about the purifying power of blood. There’s 17:11, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” Atonement means to make peace, to make amends. As sinners, we owe God for our sin. And the price is death, every time. That’s a terrifying truth: after another day of ordinary sinning, think what we owe God! But by sacrifice our penalty can be covered, and we can be reconciled to Him.

So the worshipers brought their goats and bulls and pigeons. In this book you can read how the priest would sprinkle their blood onto the sides of the bronze altar, or smear it on the horns of the altar of incense. By putting it into the altar, the blood was being given to the Lord, showing how the sinner’s sin was paid for in God’s sight—there was atonement through the life of another.

It was straightforward, in a way: you sin, you sacrifice. But the system had its flaws. The people who brought sacrifices were still sinful, even as they stood at the entrance to the tabernacle: no sooner had they offered one sacrifice, than they needed another. The priests were sinful too: they needed atonement themselves, to say nothing of acquiring it for others! Sin plagued the whole process, from start to finish. Even with the most meticulous obedience, so much defilement remained.

The result was that even the sanctuary became defiled. As another year of daily sacrifices came and went up, the very structure of the tabernacle, the furniture and the building and the holy places, was covered with a toxic build-up. So on an annual basis, the LORD’s house needed to be cleansed and purified, so He can continue to dwell there.

This is what the rituals on the Day of Atonement were intended to do. As we read in verse 33, the high priest “shall make atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tabernacle of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.”

To appreciate the gravity of what’s going to happen on this day, think about the immense divide between God and sinful mankind. This radical separation was portrayed in the tabernacle’s design. With all those curtains and gates and walls and courts, there was no mistaking the clear partition between sinners and God, between the Holy and the unholy. Compare it to the barbed wire and barricades and minefields that you see at a hostile border.

And way inside, at the very back, protected by all those layers and levels, stood the ark of the covenant. It was in the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies. This was called God’s throne room, the earthly version of God’s throne room in heaven. It’s not a coincidence that God commanded Moses to put two carved images of cherubim on the ark, for the LORD is also enthroned between the cherubim in heaven above. This was the focal point of God’s holy presence on earth, the nerve centre of glory. So who’s ever going to enter that room? Who could approach that throne without being destroyed?

The need to approach rightly is seen in the first verse, “Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered profane fire before the LORD, and died” (v 1). Remember the tragic deaths of Nadab and Abihu, the two priests who were killed for their lack of reverence before God. At the outset of the day’s whole ceremony, this was like a blaring siren, a flashing warning light—the horrific example of how people could defile God’s presence. God explains 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” (v 2). The danger could not be more real.

“Do not come at just any time, and in just any way.” But do come! God says that on this one special day, one man may draw near, the mediator between God and man. This was a job for the high priest. To prepare, Aaron would wash not just his hands, but his entire body. Notice how he’d also put aside his official robes, those ones that were so ornate and impressive with purple and precious stones, and he’d dress in a simple white garment—a linen tunic and trousers. Among his fellow Israelites he had great dignity, but in God’s presence he is stripped of all honour, and he looks more like a slave.

Then he’ll begin with the sacrifices. There are two sets of offerings. The first is a sin offering for the priests, and the second is for all Israel. After the first offering, there’s a moment of high drama. For Aaron must take “a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil” (v 12). For the first time that year, for the only time that year, someone will enter the Most Holy Place.

Let’s take a look at that veil or curtain, the final one that separates God’s throne room from the rest of the tabernacle. In the instructions for tabernacle-assembly in Exodus, you learn that this veil had cherubim depicted on it, angels woven into the fabric with golden thread. These are more heavenly attendants for the LORD, but they also bring to mind the angels who guarded the way to the tree of life in Paradise. When we fell into sin our first parents had to leave the garden, expelled from the glorious presence of God, and prevented by angels from re-entering. The angels on that veil were like an announcement to anyone who came near: No further!

That’s now being overturned as the high priest is allowed past the cherubim, and into God’s throne room. I like the way that one commentator put it: “That’s a few small steps for a man, but a giant leap for mankind back toward God.” What’s happening shows that it is possible to regain fullness of life with God, to be near Him again!

Once inside the Most Holy Place, Aaron placed two handfuls of incense onto those coals in his censer. Sweet-smelling incense was burned every day in the tabernacle, but here it’s like a smokescreen to protect the high priest’s eyes from God’s glory. As it burns, it creates a cloud, “that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die” (v 13).

Safely in front of the ark, the blood from that first sin offering is “[sprinkled] with his finger on the mercy seat” (v 14). What’s the mercy seat? This was the golden slab on the top of the ark. This was where the LORD’s presence hovered. And underneath was stored the “Testimony,” or the tablets of the law, the law that testified to Israel’s constant sin. But see how God in his great mercy is willing to cover their sin, to pay its cost with blood. 

By sprinkling, the high priest would avoid touching the ark, but just see how close the blood is coming. For other ceremonies, we said, the priests might splash blood on the altar outside, even sprinkle it onto that last curtain, but here the blood is brought all the way inside.

After this, the next stage begins, involving two goats. After he exits the tabernacle, the high priest chooses one of the goats as another sin offering, this one for the people. Again the priest enters the Most Holy Place, and he sprinkles blood on the mercy seat seven times.

Then comes another dramatic moment. For the high priest takes the second goat—often called the scapegoat—and he lays both his hands on it. In Leviticus this action is a way of showing that an animal is being the substitute for a person. Verse 21 says, “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.”

I wonder how that confession was made. What would Aaron say? How can you express a year’s worth of sinning in a few meaningful words? Even the sins of an entire nation? For ourselves, we know that our sins are past all counting, committed against every commandment of the LORD, meaning to, and without meaning to. But we have God’s promise: if we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive us, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

After the confession, the scapegoat is sent away: “[Aaron] shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man” (v 21). Someone will lead the goat out to a distant place, and then turn it loose. The meaning of this is powerful, “The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land” (v 22).

Literally it says that the goat is sent to a place “cut off.” You can take that literally, that it’s an area separated from the camp, maybe to the other side of a deep valley, so the goat had no chance of returning. More figuratively, it means the goat is sent to a place of “utter destruction.” For remember what it meant for an unclean person to be outside the camp. If you leave the camp, the place where God dwelled, you enter a place of chaos and death. That’s where the goat is being sent, into oblivion, and it’s taking Israel’s sins with it. According to an old tradition, the animal would even be shoved over a cliff to make sure it wouldn’t ever wander back.

The point is clear. The goat is God’s vehicle for removing iniquity, sin being sent to a place from where it can never return. The scapegoat has been called the ritual “rubbish truck,” hauling away the transgressions of the entire nation. It’s an act with great meaning: for sin is purged, sin utterly removed, sin fully forgiven. Atonement has been achieved, and life in God’s presence can continue. It’s the gospel of the Day of Atonement!

While all this is happening, the Israelites are participating—not in the ritual itself, but in the atmosphere around the day. As verse 29 explains, “On the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all.” That phrase “afflict yourself” means something like “humble yourself,” and it probably includes fasting, when the people ate no food for the day. It was also a day free from work, so that everyone could focus on these events. Over this past year they’d again sinned so grievously, and deserved only death. For it, they deserved to be sent away, even to utter destruction.

But in the midst of their humility over sin, there is joy. In their repentance, there’s a sense of restoration. This is actually a great day, for God is gracious, and with blood He’s atoning for every sin. It was a day full of meaning, and…


2) a day no longer needed: The Day of Atonement was a powerful display of how God removes sin and He lets his people to draw near. But it’s striking that even this day—special as it was, dramatic as it was—had to be repeated, year after year. In that sense it was like all those offerings, made day after day, that are spoken of in Hebrews 10, “Every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices” (v 11). By their very repetition, it was clear that these sacrifices couldn’t deal with sin effectively.

The fact is, none of Leviticus could do it. A bull wasn’t able to atone for sin by its blood, and a goat couldn’t take sin away on its head. Of course not! Yet God’s grace pervades the Day of Atonement, all the same. God wasn’t playing games with the people. There was a real opportunity for atonement, a real possibility of forgiveness—there is real mercy to be found at God’s throne!

And it was all because the real Day of Atonement was approaching. It took place on the first Good Friday: that was the greatest day, when mankind’s sins were removed once for all. In Hebrews 9 and 10, we meet Christ as the great high priest. When the Old Testament high priest entered the Most Holy Place, this was like entering God’s throne room. Christ might’ve been stuck with nails to the cross, but He was doing the same thing—approaching God, as the mediator between God and man. “With his own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all” (Heb 9:12). Christ entered heaven itself to appear before the Father.

God accepted Christ’s sacrifice, and He showed that very clearly. Think again about that temple veil of separation. For so long it stood for that separation between the holy God and lowly sinners—and it was covered with angels who warned you not to take one step further. Well, when Christ’s life ends, that curtain is ripped apart.

You can imagine that the Committee of Management at the temple quickly repaired the curtain in the following days. Unthinkable to have an open view into the Most Holy Place! But something had happened that would never change, not with a new veil, not even with a brick wall fifty meters thick and a hundred high. Through faith in Christ, sinners can freely enter the presence of God. We need not stand far off, but we can come very near. Because of God’s great mercy, we are not consumed!

When we look at Leviticus 16 through our New Testament glasses, we see Christ foreshadowed by that high priest who brought blood into God’s presence on behalf of the people. But that’s certainly not the end of the connections. For He was both high priest and offering. He was both the sacrificial goat and scapegoat.

Like that first goat, Christ was killed for the sin of God’s people. He was the great substitute. For He was a righteous man, pouring out precious blood, acceptable blood—a sufficient payment. As Isaiah had prophesied, “For the transgressions of my people He was stricken.” His blood was given to God, and his blood covers our sins. And this time, just once was enough: one sacrifice, one outpouring of blood.

And like that second goat, Christ was loaded up with our sins, burdened with all our impurity. “The LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all,” and then He removed it far from us. Hebrews 13 says Jesus was sent “outside the camp,” crucified outside Jerusalem for the sins of his people. And being outside the camp stands for what really happened when He was sent away. For Christ, it meant being banished from God’s presence, into the hellish depths.

Jesus carried all our sin out of God’s sight forever—into oblivion, to a place where they can never again be held against us. The Israelites sang about this in Psalm 103, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (v 12). Whatever evil you have done, and however long you have done it, if you confess your sins, and repent of them, God forgives you in Christ, and your sins are truly gone.

Let’s work through what this means for us as Christ’s people. First is the confidence we can have before God. See Hebrews 10 again, “Having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (vv 19-22).

Reading that next to Leviticus 16, you start to realise just how privileged we are. Just one man, the high priest, could enter into God’s presence, and he could do so but one time per year. No question, it was God’s grace that he could. But how much more honored are we! Through Christ, we can draw near at any time with boldness. Humble still, and deeply reverent before the holy God, but bold. Because God has built a bridge over the chasm, He’s torn down the barriers, opened the way, and now we can enter heaven itself! We may look above us, and look behind us, beside us, and within us, and know that God goes with us. He welcomes us into fellowship.

This confidence before God is such a gift. Even sincere believers sometimes live in terror of God, or we walk around with a load of guilt, or feel like He doesn’t really care. But we can learn to see ourselves as God sees us: as forgiven, redeemed, accepted. For when we’re united to Christ by faith, we know that whatever He did, we did. We went with Him into hell, and we went with Him into heaven. So now God loves us with an unbreakable love!

With Christ as Mediator, secondly, our prayers change. As the Spirit says, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” We know it’s a privilege to pray, but probably all of us struggle to do it. We forget to do it, or we can’t be bothered. Sometimes we wonder what words to use, or if God’s really listening, or if it makes any difference. But God does listen to us, and He does every time, for Jesus’ sake. We might not be eloquent in prayer or lengthy in petition, but we can have boldness in God’s presence. Don’t neglect prayer, but pour out your thanksgivings and troubles and trials. Pray to God in full assurance, knowing that if you believe in Christ, God accepts you freely.

And third, what joy there is in not having anything to add to Christ’s sacrifice. He’s done everything already! That takes all the desperation out of Christian living. Sometimes we think we’re not good enough for God. We don’t do enough, we don’t pray enough, we still sin too often. That’s true: you don’t do enough. But don’t forget that you already have your peace with God. You can’t make that even a fraction more secure by what you do. It’s as secure as it will ever be through Christ. Be sure of that, and live in the joy of that security.

We saw that part of the Israelites’ involvement in the Day of Atonement was through humbling themselves and grieving for their sins. In the fourth place, that’s an example to us too. Hearing how Christ atoned for our sins, we should be humbled: Who are we sinners, that God should think of us? His salvation should move us to a true repentance, and a growing devotion. Because you love the Saviour, be set apart from every impurity, break all the habits of the sinful flesh, and go on to holiness and thanksgiving.

The more you think about it, the more the blessed results of Christ’s sacrifice multiply. For our atonement is also an encouragement to worship, says Hebrews, “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (10:24-25). Christ gives the greatest reason to come together on Sundays, and to come together with joy and thanksgiving.

Lastly, Christ transforms our relations with each other. Think how God’s forgiveness of us is complete, how He doesn’t bring up our sins anymore: no grudges, no lingering accusations. Remember that God banishes our sins to oblivion, dumps them in the farthest place. That’s a model for how to love each other in the church and in our families. We’re not very good at this. We keep a record of wrongs, and we like to hold onto our resentment. But atonement in Christ must change us: Treat the people in your life with grace! Have a short memory for wrongs, and a big heart for love.

There’s a lot more that we could draw out of this chapter, but it’s time to bring things to a close. What happened on Good Friday, and then on Easter Sunday, are the greatest events in the history of the world. The death and resurrection of Christ changes everything. And when we believe in Him, He changes us too. So let it be seen that you know Him, that you love Him, and that every day with Christ is a good day!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2017, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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