Good Friday is the most significant day that we remember or reflect on the only moment when humanity and God were reconciled in a drastic process of love, forgiveness of sin, and the death of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God whose ministry has revealed God to humanity.
This is even a simplistic representation of the theme of the cross for us because Christians have no consensus on how the death of Christ has reconciled us to God or led to the forgiveness of our sins. After reading William Placher’s book, Jesus the Saviour, this week I was struck by his remarkable discovery: “the Christian tradition has never taken an ‘official’ position on how Christ’s death helps save us” (p. 113). For this reason, John Calvin has acknowledged a plurality of possibilities: “If the death of Christ be our redemption, then we were captives; if it be satisfaction, we were debtors; if it be atonement (reconciliation), we were guilty; if it be cleansing, we were unclean” (113, emphasis added).
I would like us to approach our preaching today through the atonement (reconciliation) perspective, in view of the same theme in Leviticus 16 (I encourage you to read this chapter at your free time).
The High Priest – In the Israelite sacrificial system, the high priest mediates the purification rites for himself, his household and the entire community. The high priest is the intermediary between God and the community. However, because the priest is part of the sinful human community and is also sinful, he must not enter the Holy of Holies (the Most Holy Place) behind the curtainwhenever he chooses, or else he will die instantly. The high priest prepares for the entry into the Holy of Holies, into divine presence of God, by changing the regular clothes into the linen garments for sacrifices. The priest also takes the young bull and ram and makes atonement for himself and his household before he enters the atonement cover or Mercy Seat on the ark of covenant. This cleanses priest himself from his own sins.
The Selection of the Two Goats Procedure – Then the priest randomly chooses two goats from the animals that the Israelite community has brought to the tabernacle for sacrifice by casting a lot to choose which goat between the two random goats will be sacrificed as sin offering to the Lord, and which goat should be Azazel (scapegoat), to make atonement for the sins of the entire community and be sent to the wilderness, away from the community, because it carries all the sins of the community.
Cleansing the Curtain before Priest’s Entry into the Holy of Holies – This is done through the purification offering by the priest for himself and his household. The priest takes the censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragment incense behind the curtain, puts the incense of the fire before the Lord to make the smoke conceal the atonement cover or Mercy Seat above the tablets of the covenant law, and sprinkles some blood of the bull using the finger seven times on the front of the atonement.
The sacrificial goat procedure – the priest then slaughters the sacrificial goat chosen for the Lord for sin offering for the people, takes the blood behind the curtain and sprinkles the blood on the Mercy Seat and in front of the Mercy Seat. The blood atones for the Holy of Holies and the tent of meeting against the uncleanness or wickedness and rebellion of the Israelite community, for whatever sins they have committed, both confessed and unconfessed sins, before Yahweh their God.
Cleansing the altar of the Lord – The entry of priest into the Holy of Holies occurs only after the priest takes some of the blood of the bull for priestly sin offering and the goat for community sin offering and puts the blood on all the horns of the altar, sprinkles some blood with his finger seven times to cleanse the altar and to consecrate it from uncleanness of the Israelites. Nobody should enter the tent of meeting from the time Aaron enters the Holy of Holies until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the entire community in the Israelite camp outside the tent of meeting.
The scapegoat goat procedure – the scapegoat is brought forward after the high priest has made atonement and cleansed the Holy of Holies, the tent of meeting, and the altar. The high priest lays both hands on the head of the live scapegoat goat and confesses over it of all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites, all the sins, and symbolically puts the sins on the goat’s head, putting the goat in place of the community. The scapegoat goat is then sent into the wilderness incare of a person appointed for such a task. The scapegoat goat carries all the sins of the community under the supervision of appointed person to a remote place where the live goat is released to the wilderness, away from the community.
Restoration of Cleanness – The high priest goes into the tent of meeting and takes off the linen garments he had put on before he entered into the Holy of Holies, and leaves the linen garments in the tent of meeting. He bathes himself with water in the sanctuary area and puts on his regulargarments. He comes out from the tent of meeting and sacrifices the ram for burn offering for himself and the ram for burning offering for the people. This makes atonement for himself and the people. He burns the fat of the sin offering on the altar. The man who had released the livescapegoat (Azazel) goat into the wilderness must wash his clothes and bathe himself in water before he returns and joins the rest of the community. The bull and the sacrificial goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Holy of Holies to make atonement, must be taken outside the community camp, and their hides, flesh and intestines are burned up. The man who burns the animal products must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water before returning to the camp to join the rest of the community members.
Institution of atonement ordinance – Atonement becomes the annual celebration for the restoration of relationship between the Israelites and God. On the tenth day of the seventh month, the Israelites must fast, or deny themselves, and do not work because this atonement day is for the Lord and is made for Israelites to cleanse themselves from all sins, both known and unknown, confessed or unconfessed, individual or communal. It is a Sabbath rest, to fast once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.
Most of what happens on Good Friday is the rehearsal of the Atonement Day in Leviticus 16. The death of Christ on the cross allows us to approach God individually without dying, unlike the high priest in Israel. We are all royal priests because of the atonement Christ has made for us on the cross (1 Pet. 2:9).
Such accessibility to God is our greatest privilege and responsibility. While Christ has fulfilled the purification from sin for humanity once and for all, the symbols of sacrifice remain significant in facilitating our union with Christ, whose body and blood are the sacraments through which God invites humanity to dwell in his divine presence through faith in Christ, whose work on the cross enables to appreciate God’s redemption, satisfaction, atonement, and cleansing for us.
We must accept that we are sinners and we need cleansing before we approach the altar of the Lord. However, the death of Christ on the cross has purified humanity, securing our identity as the covenant people. As a result, we should gather to praise God and acknowledge our sins before him without fear of dying and condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Christ’s death on the cross has removed the barrier to the holy of holiest (which only the high priest had access) and opened the way for us to personally approach God without dying in his divine presence. The only reason we do not die when approaching God’s altar is because the blood of Christ has atoned for our sins and the cross has sealed our identity in Christ.
Christ’s blood is like the blood of the sacrificial goat that was smeared at the Mercy Seat in the Tabernacle during Atonement Day in Leviticus 16. We atone for ourselves and others by confessing Christ, submitting to the guidance of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, and laying our hands on Christ through personal confession of our sins (“we do not presume to come to this thy table…”).
You may ask what kind of sins should we confess when Christ has cleansed us from sins once and for all? The Bible clearly differentiates the original sin by Adam in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3) that brought sin to human nature from the prevalent sins or acts of the flesh, such as serial immorality, adultery jealousy, hatred … (Gal. 5:19-21) that do not only destroy relationships among fellow human beings, but also go against the laws and commandments of God. Therefore, the believers who commit such ‘social sins’ cannot enter the kingdom of God even when Christ has already died on the cross.
Christians continually atone for ourselves and others by confessing our sins to Christ and submitting to the guidance of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit who advocate for and teach us to avoid sin. Christ has taken on the role of live scapegoat goat that is driven away from the Israelite camp. We lay our hands on Christ through either personal confession and prayer to Christ or communal participation in the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, two central sacraments of the church that are necessary for human salvation. Don’t you think, my friends?
Christians should come to God daily, weekly or annually in worship to gathering together and acknowledge their sins. Christ’s death on the cross opens the way for us to personally approach and interact with God without dying because while we remain sinners, God has mercy on us because of the blood of Christ. The blood of Christ is like the blood of the Passover lamb in Egypt that was smeared at the doorposts and lintels such that when the angel of death passes, the angel identified blood and the mark for the covenant people.
Christ is the live scapegoat goat who takes away the sins of the community, the high priest who presents the sins of the community to God and intercedes for us, the sacrificial goat whose blood cleanses the Mercy Seat, and the tabernacle in which all rituals and practices happen in the book of Leviticus.
I find it interesting to consider the complexity of the atonement. In some ways the very complexity of the atonement points to its reality. If it was easier to understand then we might be able to boast of unraveling the mysteries and purposes of God.
As has been pointed out, the symbolism of the atonement made in Leviticus 16 has many nuances which point to Jesus’ work on the cross. There is the notion that one (the high priest), makes sacrifices on behalf of the many (the Israelite community), just as Jesus makes atonement for Jews and Gentiles. Hebrews 9:24 also draws parallels (while noting important differences) between the high priest entering the Holy of Holies and Jesus entering heaven “to appear for us in God’s presence” (NIV). There is also the element of death and the spilling of blood being a requirement for atonement. The sacrificial animals, symbolically representing their owners, are surrendered to God, just as Jesus gave up his life in obedience to his Father as a substitute on our behalf.
I also read an analogy this past week in a devotional book that seemed to capture this sense of Jesus being both high priest and the sacrificial lamb: “We were held hostage to Sin and Death. These two Powers rose up with all their might, wielding their weapons so effectively that all the best people fell in line to acquiesce in the execution of the Son of God. On Good Friday he became two things at once: the one-man anti-terrorist team and the hostage who steps forward and volunteers to be killed. He is both at the same time.” (Means of Grace: A Year of Weekly Devotions, Fleming Rutledge, p. 90-91).
Unlike the Israelites in Leviticus 16, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, and a High Priest Jesus Christ who sits at the right hand of God praying for us continually, and the live scapegoat that has disappeared into the heavenly wilderness and yet to return. We are the People of the Resurrection, and we wait for His coming again.
We are on the journey for the restoration of relationships. We have started here and now, but we are yet to reach our destination in Christ’s name and for his sake. Amen.