In the Torah, especially Exodus and Leviticus, is found the story of God delivering a ragtag group of slaves out of Egypt and establishing a covenant with them. This covenant promised Israel that they would be God’s chosen people, so long as they followed the expectations of that covenant. In addition to a variety of laws, the covenant established a priesthood, a place of worship and a means of making atonement for violation of the laws associated with the covenant.
Of particular importance is the Day of Atonement, an annual sacrifice that was designed to make atonement for the High Priest, for the people, and for the tabernacle and its furnishings. This sacrifice included a pair of goats for the people, the first being a sin offering and the second being the scapegoat, one who would bear the sins of the people out into the wilderness.
It is easy to read through Exodus and Leviticus and see it as something that might have some historical interest, but not anything that is particularly relevant to 21st century American Christians. I believe there are two reasons, though, for us to understand what is taking place here. The first is that it will help us to better understand the references to sacrifices scattered throughout the New Testament, particularly in Hebrews. And the second, and more important reason, is that it will help us to better understand the events of Easter; the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
Central to much of what takes place in Exodus and Leviticus is the shedding of blood. Blood represents life, and it is tightly regulated in the Torah: human blood is not to be shed, except for extreme violations of the law; and animal blood is not to be consumed, but poured out or offered to God. Blood in an integral part of the Old Testament worship as well. As Hebrews 9:22 says, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
Hebrews 10:1 says that “the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.” So now, on the other side of the Law, we should be able to see some of these ‘realities’ that the law pointed to, including the extensive use of blood. Included among the ‘shadows’ pictured by the Law are:
- The 12th chapter of Exodus and the account of the Passover. God instructs the Hebrews to kill a lamb, put its blood on the doorframe of their houses, and then to eat the lamb. When the death angel passes through Egypt, he will pass over all the houses with the blood, not killing their firstborn. The lamb that was slain takes the place of those in the house, delivering them from God’s judgement on Egypt.
- As a part of confirming the covenant in Exodus 24:3-8, Moses offers burnt offerings and collects the blood, which he then sprinkles on the people; identifying it as the blood of the covenant. This blood serves both to confirm the covenant and to purify the covenant people.
- As a part of the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16, there are two goats offered on behalf of the people. The first goat is sacrificed as a sin offering; it’s blood collected and taken into the Most Holy Place, where it is sprinkled on the cover of the ark, the atonement cover or mercy seat, as well as in front of the cover. This makes atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the sin of the people. It is then sprinkled on the Tabernacle and the altar of burnt offerings; again to make atonement for them.
- The second goat used on the Day of Atonement was the scapegoat. Leviticus 16:20-22 instructs the high priest to put his hands on the head of the goat, confess over it all the sins of the people, and then send it out into the wilderness, carrying on itself all the sins of the people.
For each of these ‘shadow’ requirements of the law, their reality is found in Jesus and his sacrificial death on the cross.
- In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul tells us the Christ, our passover lamb, has been slain. It was no coincidence that Jesus crucifixion occurred at the passover; the passover was pointing to him, and his death for us is our passover event. Jesus became our Passover Lamb, protecting us from God’s righteous judgement.
- The author of Hebrews refers to the blood of the covenant in 9:16-28 when he talks about Christ’s blood being used to purify the heavenly sanctuary as well as the people of the covenant. Christ is the mediator of the new covenant, and his blood is used to both establish the covenant as well as to purify both the worshippers and the place of worship. His blood inaugurated the new covenant and our participation in it.
- Hebrews 9:6-14 refers to the sacrificial goat of the Day of Atonement, but now it is with the heavenly sanctuary and Christ is the high priest going into the Most Holy Place to cleanse it with his own blood. As our High Priest, he took his blood into the real Most Holy Place, bringing to us eternal redemption.
- While not certain, it is likely that the second goat of the Day of Atonement is what John the Baptist refers to in John 1:29 when he announces “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” As our scapegoat, Jesus carried our sins out into the wilderness, removing them from us.
The Old Testament paints a vivid picture of the sacrifice Christ made for us, and the significance of it. I am thankful that Jesus is my Passover lamb, delivering me from judgement. That he is the atoning sacrifice for my sin, sanctifying me by his blood. And that he takes on himself my sin, bearing it far away from me. He has done for me what I could not do for myself.
As you celebrate Easter this year, look beyond the fancy clothes, the easter eggs and other trappings of the day. Instead look to him, who through the sacrifice of himself, cleansed us from sin and ensured an eternal redemption for us.