Our study on the Feasts in Lev 23 takes us to the Day of Atonement this week. Lev 16 also mentions the Day of Atonement, but there, it focused on the work of the priests on behalf of the people. Then, God gave instructions to His priests to observe this Day. In Lev 23, this focuses on God speaking to His people as He details how they are to celebrate this Day of Atonement.
(A) Atonement before your God: Remembering God's gracious provisions in His presence among His people (Lev 23:26-28)
If we compare with the other feasts in Lev 23, we realise that this is the only instance where God begins His instructions with the word "Now" (Lev 23:27a). For the other feasts, He either commands them directly, or opens with the phrase "Speak to the people". This is not something to gloss over, because the word indicates that God seeks to draw their attention to something important now. The Day of Atonement was slightly different from the other Feasts. This Day is for the Israelites to make atonement before their God (Lev 23:28b). This is important because it shows how God has a specific demand for sin, and a specific way that the sinful people could return to God. Lev 10 shows us the consequences of treating God flippantly and worshipping Him as they pleased.
This Day is important because they were coming before their God, who is a holy God. This is not to be treated lightly. God instituted this feast for the purpose of reminding Israel his chosen people that this feast is “for them”, for their remembrance that they are a sinful people. Another aspect to remember is that God is tabernacled amongst his people. He is living amongst Israel, giving to them the most precious thing: his presence. The Day of Atonement shows us how God being holy and without sin, provides a way “for Israel” to live in his presence without dying like Aaron’s 2 sons (c.f. Lev 10).
Israel was supposed to do 4 things on this Day (Lev 23:26-28):
It is a holy convocation. It is a gathering of people, indicating how this is a communal event. The people were not to reflect at home but had to meet together. This is clearly different from any other gathering because it is "holy". There is a different purpose.
They were to afflict themselves or fast. Fasting comes as a sign of repentance and also indicates a turn of focus away from physical fulfillment to God. Fasting is constantly uncomfortable. The pangs of hunger remind us that we are human and that we need food. In those moments, we are to direct our attention to the God who is so unlike us, who is entirely self-sufficient and who does not need food.
They were to present a food offering. From Lev 16, we read of the series of sacrifices that the priest had to make for the Day of Atonement. There was a cleansing from the inside out, and the sins were placed on a goat, which was subsequently sent out away from the camp, symbolizing how their sins were borne by a substitute. These sacrifices were a pleasing aroma to God.
On that day, no work should be done. This intentional rest indicated how important this Day of Atonement is. Their entire mind should be focused on the purpose and intention of this Day.
God's instructions reminded the people of their identity as a nation. They are a chosen nation, God's covenantal people with whom He has a special relationship with. He brought them out of Egypt, and He is their God, they are His people. He will continue to be faithful to them as He has always been. It also reminds Israel of their limit, helpless in their sin, for they are dependent creatures who need food and rest. Their God, however, is limitless and holy, without sin and entirely self-sufficient.
More than physical provisions, the Day of Atonement reminds us that what Israel really needed was atonement for their sins. This Day also reminds Israel that their works and strivings do not contribute to their atonement. To receive atonement was not to rely on the work of their hands. Taken as a whole, the Day of Atonement reminded them that more than food for the body, and work for provisions, Israel needed atonement for their sins, so that they could live in the presence of a holy God. Do we take lightly the presence of God in our lives? That he lives in us, and speaks to us through his word?
(B) Warnings against disobedience: death and separation from God and His people (Lev 23: 29-30)
In Lev 23:29- 30, we read of 2 consequences as a result of disobedience.
Disobedience leads to being cut off from God's people or being destroyed from God's people. Israel is on the move here, and to be cut off means a removal of safety in community. As God is tabernacled among His people, the bigger problem is to be separate from God, cut off from God's presence. Sin does not merely bring about death, or broken relationship’s and a loss of identity. The great problem and consequence is a separation from God.
(C) God did what the law could not do: bringing us in His presence by hiding us in the righteousness of Christ (Rom 8:1-4)
We now turn to Rom 8:1-4, to see what the Day of Atonement means for us who live after Jesus came, lived, died and rose again. In Rom 8:3a, we learn that God did the law what could not do (Rom 8:3a) in order that the righteous requirement of the law could be fulfilled in us (Rom 8:4a). Why could the requirements of the law not be fulfilled in us? Rom 8:3a tells us that it is because of our flesh. Our flesh and our sin means that we cannot live up to the requirements of the law and therefore the law cannot be our salvation by our own striving. We are weak, helpless in our sin and the law merely condemns us and shows us the depths of our sins.
The requirements of the law was therefore not fulfilled by us. Instead, God sent His own Son "in the likeness of sinful flesh". Jesus was like sinful flesh, taking the form of human, but He was not sinful. So whose sin did God condemn in the flesh of His Son? It was our sin (Rom 8:4b)! Our sin was condemned in the suffering and death of Christ since He had no sin. And now we know why the death of Jesus Christ takes away all our condemnation. When He died God was condemning sin, sentencing it, and punishing it fully and finally for all who are in Christ by faith. If our sins were punished there finally and fully, we will not be punished for it again. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1).
The Israelites needed a shield to protect them from the white hot wrath of God against sin. The atoning sacrifice in the form of a lamb was a symbol of this. God did away with the yearly sacrifice of goats, because there was one complete, perfect sacrifice in Christ Jesus that received God’s condemnation fully, went to the cross and suffered the full punishment of God. Christ is that shield for us today, because in Him, we now have no condemnation. For us we know that there is no other shield that can protect us from the white hot wrath of God, besides this shield. The Christian knows and constantly declares that: Christ died for my sins; Christ bore my condemnation; Christ absorbed all the divine wrath that would and should have come on me. Him when He died. When He rose again, so did we, hidden in the righteousness and presence of God. That's why we can sing, "one with Himself I cannot die, my soul is purchased by His blood, my life is hid with Christ on high, with Christ my Savior and my God".