By Doug Redford
If the Israelites of the Old Testament had the books that we have in our Old Testament, arranged into chapters as ours is, Leviticus 16 would have drawn their attention as the Day of Atonement neared much as Luke 2 gets our attention during the Christmas season. There we see outlined the proper procedure for observing that sacred day, which came to be known as Yom Kippur, literally the “day of covering.” The Jewish people will observe it this year on October 4 and 5. The final verse of Leviticus 16 captures the day’s significance: “Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites” (v. 34).
That single verse captures three important ingredients of this day. The first is its purpose: atonement. Dividing the word so that it reads “at-one-ment” is not a bad way to analyze its meaning. Like many such events in the Old Testament, the Day of Atonement served as a “shadow” (Hebrews 10:1) of what Jesus would accomplish by his death on the cross. The apostle John wrote, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Second, a time is mentioned: once a year. Every year the instructions of Leviticus 16 were to be repeated. The finality of Jesus’ sacrifice is perhaps best expressed in the book of Hebrews, where the writer pictures the contrast between the old covenant priest, who “day after day . . . stands” to offer sacrifices that can never truly remove sins, and Jesus, who after his one sacrifice at the cross, “sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:11-12; cf. 1:3).
Third, the people impacted are mentioned: the sins of the Israelites. The Day of Atonement was a command given to God’s covenant people Israel. In contrast, Jesus’ sacrifice covered the sins of all peoples throughout all of history. First John 2:2 makes this clear: “He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Sin is a true pandemic, a word meaning “all the people.” Only Jesus’ blood provides a cure that has lost none of its power through the years to cover sins and to declare them forgiven, forgotten, forever! We remember his Day of Atonement through our Day of Remembrance at Communion.
Thus we could modify the final verse of Leviticus 16 to read, “Atonement has been made once for all the sins of the entire world.” And we could add another verse, the verse of the hymn that declares,
Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Doug Redford has served in the preaching ministry, as an editor of adult Sunday school curriculum, and as a Bible college professor. Currently he is the minister at Highview Christian Church in Cincinnati.