The important background to today's study comes from Lev 10:1-2. It records for us the death of Aaron's 2 sons from offering unauthorised fire to the Lord. They put fire and laid incense in their censers even though God did not command them, and as a result, fire came from the Lord and consumed them. This sets the stage for us to understand Lev 16.
(A) Requirements for The Day Of Atonement: Holy reverence and utter obedience (v.1-5)
Lev 16 picks up from this account, and opens with the Lord speaking to Moses "after the death of the two sons of Aaron" (v.1). God instructed Moses to tell Aaron that he was was not to enter the Holy Place any time, as he pleased, "so that he may not die" (v.2). Why? This was because God will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.
What does Lev 10 and 16 show us? Doesn't God sound rather severe to us? Yes it is. But it goes to show that even the Levite priests had no clue how holy God is, and how He is to be obeyed. Even the priests don't know how and when to approach God and are likely to approach God with their own ideas! So here, God is helping them and showing them how He is to be approached. God needed to reveal Himself and show how holy He is, and in contrast, how sinful the people are.
Aaron is given a set of instructions that detail how he is to come into the Holy Place (v.3-5). Aaron is to bring a bull for a sin offering and a ram for burnt offering. He is to also bring 2 male goats for a sin offering and one ram for the burnt offering on behalf of the people. Notice here that he is to first offer offerings on behalf of himself, before doing so for the people. The High Priest too, was a sinner too before this Holy God, and had to atone for his own sins.
Aaron was also told to put on the holy linen coat, and the linen undergarment, together with the linen sash around his waist, and put on the linen turban too. These garments are different from the usual elaborate garments that he puts on (c.f. Exo 28), and these simpler clothes speak of a certain humility and represents the posture of the heart coming before the Holy God. This simple act of dressing different has a lesson for us to consider too. How do you approach God? Do we come decked out in our own finery, covered in our own achievements and works or do we come humbly?
Like Aaron, we need to hear these words of Lev 16 to learn how we can approach God so that we will not die.
(B) Order of The Day of Atonement:cleansing from the inside out and sins carried far away (v.6-28)
Verses 6 to 28 detail for us the offerings and rituals that are part of the Day of Atonement.
Overview of sin offerings (v.6-10)
Aaron first offers the bull as a sin offering for himself, to make atonement for himself and his house (v.6). Next, 2 goats are presented at the front of the tent of meeting (v.7-10). Lots are cast to decide which one is to be presented to the Lord, while the other is sent out.
Aaron's sin offering (v.11-14)
Aaron is to present the bull as a sin offering (v.11). The blood is sprinkled in front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat, the blood is to be sprinkled seven times (v.14). Incense was also to be offered. He shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar, and 2 handfuls of sweet incense shall be brought inside the veil and placed on the fire before the lord so that the cloud may cover the mercy seat and Aaron does not die (v.12-13). Remember that his sons were killed by offering unauthorized fire, so here, Aaron is given specific and detailed instructions as to how the incense was to be offered. Though Aaron is a mediator on behalf of the people he is still a sinner that still needs protection from the holiness of God.
Israel's sin offering: Part 1 (v.15-19)
He kills the goat on behalf of the people, and brings the blood inside the veil (v.15). He does the same thing with the blood as in verse 14. Next, he moves from the Holy Place and moves out to the tent of meeting (v.16). Why? It emphasises how God is really dwelling in the midst of a sinful people, and even their dwelling needs to be atoned for. He goes out to the altar before the Lord and makes atonement for it (v.18-19).
Israel's sin offering: Part 2 (v.20-22)
While the first goat was used for cleansing, here, the second goat bears their confessed iniquities (v.20). Imagine what it feels and looks like? Once a year, the community gathers and watches the priest lay the sins and confess on the goat. They may not see the priest sprinkle the blood inside but they can see and participate in this. They think of all their secret sins, all their moments of weaknesses and giving in to temptations, and everything, all their sins, transgressions, iniquities are being laid on this goat. This goat is eventually brought to a remote area and freed in the wilderness (v.22). Their sins and guilt are borne by another, and they are now free from the burden. As Ps 103:8-12 say, God is indeed gracious and compassionate, and as far as the east is from the west, so too has he now removed their transgressions from them!
Burnt offerings and closing rites (v.23-28)
Aaron now takes off the linen garments and puts on his usual garments after bathing (v.23-25). Only then does he offer the burnt offering, a sign of devotion. He also offers the fat of the sin offering. The one who lets the goat out shall also wash his clothes and bathe his body, and only then can he enter the camp (v.26). This guy is not forgotten! Lev 16 is so detailed. Lastly, the bull and goat that were offered shall be carried outside and burnt up. Those that handled the animals also needed to bathe before entering the camp (v.27)
(C) The Day of Atonement institutionalized: one day in a year forever (v.29-34)
At the close of this chapter, verse 29 answers the problem hinted at in verse 2.God institutes the actions in this chapter and shows them exactly when and how they had to offer sacrifices through Aaron. God spells our when and how the sacrifices are to be offered, and how exactly the priests are to approach God. The priests are taught that they need to approach God on His terms. He even told them how to handle the animals that were offered to Him, spelling everything out clearly and requiring their obedience.This, too is a lesson for us that that we cannot take our relationship with God lightly. We approach Him on His terms and not ours. He's not merely our "best friend" that we can approach as we please. This is how you approach a Holy God who is clean. Nothing unclean could be in His presence.
The people were commanded to fast and do no work, for it was to be a day of solemn rest (v.29b-31). This is what rest means. They were not to leisurely relax and chill. Rest meant participating in rites to be made clean before the Lord from all their sins. Rest is to be reminded that it is not their daily work that keeps them safe before the holy God.
The lovely words of Heb 9:23-28 show us how Christ is in every single way a better high priest. He doesn't live in a tent. He doesn't come before a mercy seat but God himself. He doesn't offer the blood of bulls and goats year after year, but offered Himself. He doesn't lay the sins of the people on a goat, but he bore it and went out into the wilderness for God's people. Just like the goat that is burnt up, He too bore the judgment and wrath on behalf of God's people. The Day of Atonement points to Jesus.
And that is not all! "So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Heb 9:28)" This too, is our hope as we eagerly await His return.