The Day of Atonement

 The regulations concerning the Day of Atonement under the law of Moses are given in Leviticus chapter 16. This chapter begins with a remembrance of the death of the two sons of Aaron when they offered “strange fire” before Yahweh and were slain because of it. Arising from this recollection, Yahweh spoke unto Moses that he should be careful in approaching the tabernacle, that he come not at all times into the Holy Place to draw near before God, for God’s glory would appear in a cloud upon the mercy seat. Moses was being told to warn Aaron against a thoughtless approach to Israel’s God.

The account of the death of Aaron’s two sons is actually given several chapters earlier in chapter 10. Whilst the incident is still fresh and the impact upon their father, Aaron, still terrible, there is given to him a statement of what God had said to Moses concerning an acceptable approach to Him. The phrase is in verse 3, “this is it that Yahweh spake saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me and before all the people I will be glorified”. And Aaron, although stricken with grief, simply held his peace. This somewhat terrifying incident forms a backdrop to the regulations concerning the Day of Atonement and this principle which we have put at the head of this article forms an excellent summary of the principles of the atonement. It is not by chance that chapter 16, which deals with the very Day of Atonement, refers back to this incident where this important principle is given such a clear pronunciation by God.

What this says is that, if we are to be reconciled to God, if there is to be an atonement made, a covering (as the word atonement means in the Hebrew) of our sins, then it must be on the basis that we glorify the God of heaven. This involves not only the recognition of the honour and glory and righteousness of God but also our own unworthiness, the weakness of flesh and the sinfulness of our nature. It is only on the basis of our recognition of these principles that we can draw nigh unto God.

 The Teaching in Jesus’ Life

 Let us consider just several incidents in the life of the Lord which illustrate the supreme principle above.

1 Matthew 3:13–15 The predicament of John  the Baptist was that, whilst he was a man of good character, he was not as his cousin Jesus—without sin. John’s baptism was one of repentance (see verses 2, 6, 8 and 11) that is, people came to him to confess their sins and thus indicate their intention to change their ways. But when Jesus stood before John the predicament for John was this—that Jesus had no sins; there was no repentance required. How could John baptise him?

Why then did Jesus insist that he should be baptised? He expresses the answer himself with these words: “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness”. To Jesus’ mind there was an appropriateness about his baptism. He did not for a moment consider himself to be on an equal footing with God. He saw only God as completely righteous and acknowledged that he himself was also flesh and blood with all its weaknesses.

In verse 3 we find the basis of John’s ministry in the prophet Isaiah’s words. He is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. When we turn to Isaiah 40 we find that the principal message of the ministry is given in verses 6–8: “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of Yahweh bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever”. The emphasis was that all flesh is grass and that only God’s Word is permanent. All humanity with all its prowess, all its abilities (its “flower”) will vanish away, but the Word of the living God will stand alone. It is therefore consistent with this thought that Jesus would desire to identify with a baptism that was renouncing the flesh and all its desires. John’s ministry was to declare that flesh cannot stand before God in righteousness. It must humble itself before Him. Man must honour Him; he must declare the Almighty only to be righteous. The Lord Jesus heartily endorsed that declaration.

2 Matthew 16:21–23 Here Peter, together with the other eleven disciples, is told of Jesus’ impending death in Jerusalem and the terrible things that he would suffer there of the leaders of the nation. Peter, perhaps recently uplifted by the apparently complimentary comment of Christ in verse 17, has  the affrontery to take Jesus aside and to rebuke him that he should entertain such a future for himself. “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee”. You will notice that the margin more accurately translates it, “Pity thyself Lord, this shall not be unto thee”. So here we have the Lord Jesus Christ treading with difficult step the road that would lead to Jerusalem, where this tragic death awaited him, according to the will of God, now being prevented from this course by Peter. Peter virtually says, “You are too good for this; it is not right that you should entertain such a course for yourself”.

The issue is therefore wide open—is there righteousness in the death of a sinless man? Is there something appropriate, something just in God asking of His son to accept this awful sacrifice? The mind of Jesus is abundantly clear on this question. To Peter he simply says, “Get thee behind me, adversary: thou art an offence (a stumbling block) unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men”. Peter was guilty, said the Lord, of looking at the matter of his death from a human standpoint and not seeing in his offering, in his death, the important principles that God desired to show. Again we see that in Jesus’ understanding—what God was asking him to do was right, there was an appropriateness, a righteousness about this intention of God. If it “pleased Yahweh to bruise him”, then it could not be wrong! (Isaiah 53:10).

3 Matthew 19:16–17 A rich young lawyer, impressed by Jesus’ teaching, runs to him and says, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” Flattery usually causes a man to be lost for words for some seconds. However Jesus here reveals a very wonderful depth of character. He rebuts the compliment of the young man with these words, “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God”. It is at first hard to evaluate the thinking of Christ. Surely he was a good man. Surely it was right for the young man to address him in this respectful manner. But again the incident throws open the thinking of Christ in respect to his Father. Whilst he was but flesh and blood, he would never consider himself to be “good” in the same sense as His Father. He says in Luke 13:32, “the third day I shall be perfected”. He sees himself as imperfect, as burdened with the weakness and inclinations of men and therefore much inferior to the righteousness, the glory and  the honour of his Father in heaven. He has a desire therefore to utterly conquer the flesh with its lusts and desires and magnify the righteousness of God alone.

4 Matthew 26:36–42 On this awe-inspiring occasion in the Garden of Gethsemane, notice especially verse 39 and the phrase, “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt”. We see therefore the righteousness of this event, its correctness, the justice of God’s dealings. God in His Son is showing the true place of the human will. Throughout the conflict God is elevated in the grandest and most complete way and man, flesh, is abased.

Link this incident with a remarkably similar passage in John 12:27–28: “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I shall say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.”

This all-important principle receives continual prominence as the Lord moves from the Garden of Gethsemane to his crucifixion. This is what his crucifixion means. When all the barbs of the opposition were thrown at him there was no response according to the flesh. There was no violence, no resistance, no angry word of bitterness, no retaliation, no reviling for reviling, no threatening for the threatening he received. There was a total capitulation; more than that, a crushing of his own will to the will of the Word of God. In this wonderful obedience God was greatly glorified in the sacrifice of His Son and it is this that the crucifixion of Christ teaches us.


 The whole life and death of the Lord Jesus can therefore be summarised in his own words “It is the Spirit that quickeneth (makes alive); the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63). This was his mind set, the pulsating dynamic principle of his life. He had come to glorify his Father’s name in perfect obedience: “not my will but thine be done”! What is so impressive is that this was the motive of all the Lord’s life. His death brought the principle to a grand crescendo, but it was only the final expression of what was always the dominant theme of his life.

Expressed in other words; the shedding of the blood of Christ declared the righteousness of God. This is the way the apostle Paul wrote of it  in Romans 3:25 and to ensure the point was noted, he repeated it in verse 26. In this crucial passage of Romans, when the Apostle comes to the core of his exposition, it is the glory and righteousness of God that he sees as the purpose of the death of Christ. All who find forgiveness of sins will find it through faith in the blood of Christ. They endorse the teaching and meaning of Christ crucified. They renounce the desires of the flesh and glorify the Father. As their Master did, so do they. This is justification by faith (Romans 3:26,28) that looks to the eternal Spirit and has no confidence in the flesh.

So the Apostle endorses the mind of the Lord Jesus and both have the support of the ancient prophet Isaiah who, a thousand years before, had taught, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. Surely, shall one say, in Yahweh have I righteousness and strength” (Isaiah 45:22–24).