The Day of Atonement

In Leviticus 16, the Lord God commanded Old Covenant Israel to observe the Day of Atonement on the 10th day of the 7th month as a perpetual ordinance. The Day of Atonement was a type and shadow that pointed forward to New Covenant fulfillment in and through the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The stated purpose of the ritual of Leviticus 16 was “to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year” (v.34). The word ‘atonement’ means ‘to cover’ and is used in other contexts to refer to ‘forgiveness’ and ‘ransom’ and ‘cleansing.’ The ritual was also designed to teach Israel several lessons concerning atonement.

In the first place, the Day of Atonement demonstrated the holiness of God. The historical occasion for the instruction given in Lev 16 is found in vv.1-2 which refers to the death of Nadab and Abihu when they offered strange fire before the LORD (Lev 10:1-2). After the death of the two priests, the Lord nailed down a fundamental lesson that Israel needed to learn, “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified” (Lev 10:3). The floor plan in the tabernacle (where the ritual was conducted) further demonstrated the holiness of God: there were two rooms and the room behind the veil (the Holy of Holies) was where God manifested His presence. Access to the second room was guarded, restricted, and further revealed that sinners do not just wander into the presence of God without mediation.

Secondly, the Day of Atonement reminded Israel about their sinfulness. When the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, he did so in order to make atonement for sin. The ritual demonstrated the pervasive power of sin: the high priest made atonement for himself, his house, and the children of Israel. It is interesting to note that atonement had to be made even for the Holy of Holies, the holy place, the tabernacle of meeting, and even the altar. The lesson is obvious: even holy things are defiled when they come into contact with sinful man (cf. Hag 2:10-14). Andrew Bonar commented on atonement for the altar in this way,

Strange that the altar should need to be purified! And yet what spot had more connection with sin? Was not ever sin confessed there? Was not every sin laid down there? Was not that the spot where wrath was ever falling? Here is a strange combination – sin, and the atonement for sin. It may have been typical of the fact, that the foulest sin and the fullest atonement were found at the cross.[1]

Thirdly, the Day of Atonement taught the children of Israel that “without the shedding of blood, there is no remission” (Heb 9:22). The high priest did not enter behind the veil without blood. He brought blood to atone for his sins, his house, the children of Israel, and the tabernacle. Lev 17:11 indicated the significance of the sacrifice of blood, “For 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; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” The Christian church ought not to reduce (destroy?) the gospel message by portraying it as a self-help message, a moralistic message (be like Jesus!), or one message among many. Furthermore, the Day of Atonement taught the children of Israel (and us) that we are not free to be innovative in our approach to worship; God alone determines how we may approach Him. While modern man seeks signs or wisdom like the Jew and the Greek before him, we must echo the Apostle Paul, “but we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23). Blood atonement through Christ the Lord is what sinful man desperately needs if he is to gain acceptance with a holy God.

Finally, the Day of Atonement instructed Israel in how blessed atonement really is. The high priest brought two goats for sacrifice on behalf of Israel (not for the nations surrounding Israel: it was a particular atonement). One of the goats was killed and the other served as a scapegoat. The children of Israel were forbidden from entering the tent of meeting while the priest offered the blood of the first goat, but the ritual concerning the scapegoat was witnessed by the children of Israel. The high priest laid his hands on the goat, confessed the sins of Israel, and then drove the goat into the wilderness. The action demonstrated substitutionary curse-bearing and the removal of sin. If the children of Israel had would have had Horatio Spafford’s famous hymn “When Peace Like a River,” perhaps they would have sung the third stanza in this way,

My sin – O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part, but the whole, is laid on this goat and I bear it no more; praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul![2]

[1] Andrew Bonar, Commentary on Leviticus, (Carlisle:  PA, Banner of Truth Trust, re. 1998), 310.

[2] Horatio B. Spafford, Trinity Hymnal – Baptist Edition (Suwanee: GA, Great Commission Publications, 1995), #580.

The Worship of the Lamb, Revelation 5

Worship and adoration are the appropriate responses to the revelation of the Lamb who has prevailed to open the scroll of God’s judgment. In fact, falling down before the Lamb, presenting prayers before the Lamb, singing to the Lamb, and worshiping the Lamb are all consistent with the revelation of His glory. This activity is not confined to the twenty-four elders (representatives of the church), but extends to “many angels around the throne” along with the “living creatures” and encompassing a great number of worshipers, “and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands” (Rev 5:11).

Christ is praised with a “new song” because He is “worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals” (Rev 5:9a). Notice one significant difference between the worshipers in heaven and worshipers on earth. Some of God’s professing people on earth do not often talk about God’s judgment and some even seem embarrassed by the Lord’s judgments and try to explain them away. They do not usually admit embarrassment, but their words and actions evidence the disposition of their hearts. Contrary to that attitude the worshipers in heaven see Christ’s execution of vengeance as a reason to sing a new song to Him and praise Him. There is need for the church today to recover this attitude; not with a petty and vindictive spirit, but with a desire to see the justice of God manifested.

Christ is praised because He “was slain, and [has] redeemed us to God by [His] blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9b). This is the Christ of v. 5 who is described as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” who interestingly appears to John as “a Lamb as though it had been slain” (v.6). The King-Priest of Psalm 110 has accomplished the work the Father had given Him, ascended to heaven, and now receives praise from His people. Revelation 5:9 also indicates another difference between the worshipers of heaven and the worshipers on earth:  the multitudes in heaven do not have a problem with particular redemption. Christ did not come to make redemption possible, He came to actually redeem the elect of God by His blood and this glorious truth elicits the praise of the “ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands!” The “Five Points of Calvinism” are not only a soteriological formulation; they are also a doxological foundation. The knowledge of a Holy Redeemer who crushed the head of the serpent ought to promote praise and worship for Christ by His church.

Christ is praised because He has “made us kings and priests to our God; and [has enabled us to] reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10). This statement highlights something of God’s covenantal plan:  the nation of Israel was to function as a kingdom of priests in order to mediate God’s blessings to the rest of the earth (Ex 19:6). Of course, Israel failed to execute this because of their sin. Christ as the true Israel fulfills all of His covenantal obligations, saves His elect, and enables them to function as the Israel of God by virtue of their union with Him. The church’s calling is a glorious one because of the redemptive work of her Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ is praised for having received “power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5:12). In Daniel’s description of Christ’s ascension, he writes “Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him” (Dan 7:14). Christ as victor receives great blessing from His Father and the worshipers in heaven ascribe worthiness to Him “who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing” (v.12). This is not a potential Savior or one who helps His people save themselves; Christ saves to the uttermost and is worthy of the praise of His people.

Christ is praised as the One who sits with His Father on the throne “forever and ever” (Rev 5:13b).  This praise comes from “every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea” (Rev 5:13a).  This is a vivid application of Ps 103:  David calls on the entirety of the moral universe to bless the Lord (Ps 103:20-22). The church militant ought to join the church triumphant in that blessed refrain, “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb, forever and ever” (v.13).