“This shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make an atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year” Leviticus 16:34

The Law of Moses was intended to bring Israel near to God in holiness. Their observance of the Law and their way of life was to be a witness to the fact that their God was the Creator of heaven and earth, and it was to prepare them for the prophet greater than Moses who would have the words of Yahweh in his mouth (Deut 18:18). It was to be an indication of good things to come in an everlasting kingdom; to be “a schoolmaster to prepare the way for Christ” (ROTH ‘training us for Christ’ Gal 3:24), and “a shadow of good things to come” (Heb 10:1). One of the greatest types found in the Law speaks eloquently of the work of redemption that our Lord accomplished in taking away the sins of the world in his crucifixion and resurrection. But, it was only a shadow!

We may wonder how Israel saw the principles of the Law? In the harsh environment of the wilderness they saw only hardship and a monotonous diet, and forgot that God had rescued them from abject slavery and given them a hope of an inheritance. Yet in the fruitfulness of the land they soon forgot that it was the hand of God that provided the abundance of all things. Is there a danger that we likewise may only see the stress and cares of life and the ‘restraints’ of the Truth, or conversely be overwhelmed by the distractions and abundance of this age?

The Death of the Firstborn

The firstborn of Egypt was sacrificed in the process of the redemption of Israel from bondage, but Israel soon forgot the suffering inflicted on Egypt and dwelt on their own hardships and difficulties. The “firstborn” of God was sacrificed for a far greater objective—the redemption of the faithful of all ages (Psa 89:7). Do we seriously consider the great suffering inflicted on the “altogether lovely One” that we might be saved? The events in Sinai and in the wilderness were lessons for those who came later, as Paul reminded his generation: “All these things happened to them for examples [to make an impression]… written for our admonition [training by word]” (1 Cor 10:11).

The Law was a “shadow of good things to come”. The shadow is not the substance—it indicates a greater reality. Without the substance of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God there was no future promise in the Law. The tragedy of Israel’s observance of the Law was that they only saw it as the substance. We face the same challenge as Israel—our present existence and service is a shadow whereas the reality is immortality in the Kingdom. The admonition in Luke 21 is for the disciples, not for the unbeliever: “Take heed to yourselves… lest your hearts be burdened with the anxieties of livelihood, and so that day come upon you unawares” (Luke 21:34).

The Day of Atonement

On the Day of Atonement the focus was entirely on the High Priest, showing that God can only be approached with reverence for His principles. It was the most solemn day of the year in Israel, a day in which they were to “afflict their souls”. It was the only day in the year in which the High Priest entered the Most Holy so that the nation could be “cleansed from all their sins before Yahweh” (Lev 16:29–30). How blessed we are that our High Priest has opened a new and living way into the Holiest, and we can come with a true heart in full assurance of faith, our minds cleansed by the Word.

The focus of the atonement is on forgiveness and redemption, as Paul wrote to the Colossians: we are “buried with Christ in baptism… God hath quickened us together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Col 2:12–13). The essence of the atonement is forgiveness of sin, and ultimately the removal of the bias to sin in our nature.

There are interesting connections with the symbol of the scapegoat, and the Greek words in the New Testament translated “forgiveness” and “redemption”. In their various forms as verbs and nouns the words have the meaning of “sending away”, “a loosing”, (chains removed), “a loosing out of”, (of bondage or prison), “a loosing away from”, (a complete removal from the place of imprisonment). It speaks of mortality swallowed up in immortality.

Lessons from the Scapegoat

Amongst all the sacrifices that the High Priest offered that day, the offering of the two goats was the most wonderful symbol of forgiveness and the hope of resurrection. In Leviticus 16:7–10 the two goats were presented to Yahweh at the door of the tabernacle for Aaron to cast lots upon them. One lot was for Yahweh and the other for a “scapegoat” or “goat of departure”. The two goats were one offering—typifying both the death of Christ and his resurrection.

After sacrificing the one goat for a sin offering, the scapegoat was again brought before Aaron who placed “both his hands upon its head”, signifying identification and the removal of all their iniquities, transgressions and sins (Lev 16:20–22). The reality of gracious forgiveness of sin was seen in the “goat of departure bearing upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited”. Their sins were covered in the death of the one goat as a sin offering, and the departure of the live goat, taken into “a land not inhabited” (mg “of separation”), “a land cut off”, “a land of forgetfulness” which was a symbol of resurrection to a new life. Our Lord overcame the bias to sin in his death and it was removed in his immortal state.

The Hebrew word for “scapegoat” has the meaning of “one who removes by a series of acts”, shown in the action of the goat walking away. It was not a sudden departure—it was a deliberate action, impressing upon the onlookers a visible removal of sin by the mercy of God. John the Baptist, looking upon Jesus as he walked, declared: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away [beareth] the sin of the world” (John 1:29), thus fulfilling Isaiah 53:12, “he bare the sin of many”. In Leviticus 16:21 the goat was led away “by the hand of a fit man” (ROTH “appropriate to the circumstances”). This was perhaps a shadow of Simon of Cyrene who assisted our Lord to carry the cross to Golgotha.

Israel Missed the Point

The nation was to experience a joyful sense of liberation from the burden of sin and thus celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles with gratitude and thanksgiving to their God. However, in later times the Jews failed to see the true significance of the live goat and, by altering the instructions to the man leading the goat away, unwittingly brought into the type an element that another generation would enact in the anti-type! Fearful that the goat would find its way back to its point of departure and thus, in their minds, bring back with him all their sins, they instructed the man to take the goat to a very high cliff and push it over the edge to its destruction, thereby completely “misunderstanding” the goodness of God in forgiving sin.

There was a tragic attempt to repeat this error when Israel tried to cast their Messiah from the edge of a cliff. When Jesus returned to Nazareth after the first visit of his ministry to Jerusalem, the people were amazed at the gracious words that he spoke in the synagogue. But when he challenged their cherished exclusive attitude, they were “filled with wrath… thrust him out… and led him unto the brow of the hill…that they might cast him down” (Luke 4:22–30)! In their blindness they tried to do to their Messiah what they did to the scapegoat each year. “But he passing through the midst of them went his way.”

The current controversy in some parts of the brotherhood, questioning the reality of God’s forgiveness in our lives now, is contrary to Scripture, and to our understanding of the doctrine of the Atonement. The Jews had a similar difficulty in their understanding of God’s forgiveness. Our sins are not merely forgiven—they are forgotten by God as though they never occurred. We may, in this life, continue to experience the consequences of our sins, but sins repented of, with sincere attempts to overcome, are completely removed. The table of remembrance is for us a symbol of liberation from the burden of sin, as the Israelite should have experienced, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, as he watched the scapegoat led away. It should engender in us a joyful sense of gratitude, even though the bias to sin remains. We have an opportunity every week to remember the removal of sin through our Redeemer.

The Law but a Shadow

“The Law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect” (Heb 10:1). There can be no saving power in the shadow itself—and there can be no shadow apart from the substance. These shadows in the Law were eloquent evidence of the power and purpose of Yahweh, to be yet more perfectly manifested. As wonderful as these rituals of sacrifice, offerings and temple arrangements were, their deepest and most profound meaning was found in the person and work of the Son of God. He was truly “the Word made flesh”, and at the memorial meeting we should see him as the apostle John saw him—as “the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”.

Psalm 40:6 reads: “Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened.” In Hebrews 10:5 Paul quotes from the LXX of Psalm 40:6: “Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me.” The LXX has translated the Hebrew idiom, “opening the ears” to indicate the means by which the body or mind is made obedient, as shown by the rest of the quotation in verses 7 and 9: “I come to do thy will, O God”. Paul’s use of the LXX illustrates how Christ restored the harmony between God and man by his obedience to the will of God—“a body hast thou prepared me” (“prepared” means “to mend or repair, to complete”). A body cleansed of the bias to sin speaks of the damage inflicted in Eden now mended or repaired—a work completed in the resurrection of our Lord after he had destroyed the bias to sin in himself.

The sacrifices and ritual of the Law were shadows—shadows that were seen in substance in the events of the first coming of our Lord, shadows that were an indication of “good things to come”. They were partly fulfilled 2000 years ago, and now we await with eager anticipation the fulfilment of the desire of all ages—the advent of our Lord as King of Kings. In the midst of all the turmoil of this age let us continually give thanks that we worship a God Who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Psa 103:8–17). We worship a God Who desires to see us in His Kingdom—together with His Beloved Son who gave himself that we might have hope of release from the bondage of sin and death.

We, Being Many, are One Body

The partaking of the bread and the wine is both a collective and an individual act. The apostle Paul wrote that we, being many, are made one body, because we partake of the one loaf (1 Cor 10:17). This is only a shadow of a greater reality—the Kingdom of God on earth filled with immortal beings who are all part of the Divine Being. All this is possible because of the man from Galilee—the man who walked along the banks of the Jordan and the shores of the lake, who walked the streets of the villages and towns of Israel and who walked in the Temple courts. Each step that he took in his ministry was a progressive step toward taking away, not only the sin of the world, but also removing the burden of mortality and the trouble and evil that causes so much sorrow and grief. He walked amidst his people, and despite the lack of understanding from his disciples and the opposition of the rulers, he continued to walk in quiet, kingly dignity toward Gethsemane where the decisive battle of the ages was fought and won.

Words are inadequate to describe the greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ when compared with the shadow of the Law. How small in retrospect is the spectacle of the goat being led into the wilderness, taking away the sins of the nation! Yet the challenge for us is the same as it was for Israel! As we take our small portion of the bread and wine each memorial meeting, may we truly appreciate the grace and mercy extended to us by a God Who is prepared to remove our transgressions as far away as the east is from the west.

In this quiet moment of remembrance may we feel for ourselves the oneness that our Lord prayed for in the final hours of his ministry: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21). May we then, each first day, commence a new week of service with joy, for truly our Lord has done great things for us in opening a new and living way into the holiest and giving us the hope of an inheritance in his Kingdom.