We have been working, dialoguing, and processing our way through the book of Leviticus, really focusing on the overarching concepts that God desires relationship with us and that our efforts in relationship matter.
I can feel the razor’s edge in processing this. God desires relationship with you and me, BUT I have issues, I am not good enough, and I am standing in the way. And.. You if what I do matters, then I have to do more in order to have relationship with God. And after I have done that, it is still not enough. There’s always more to do, right?
But the foundation in this is that it is not about us trying to get to God, but God working to get to us–AND–while it is not about what we do (to earn relationship with God), God values what we do. Today we will talk about atonement, and next week we will talk about relationship with God.
Let’s jump right into conversation. What would life be like if your body never healed? Imagine we have figured out how not to die, but nothing ever really heals. Talk about how it would affect you physically, but also talk about how it would impact what you would do or not do and how it would impact the way you do the things you do.
What would life be like if your body never healed?
It would affect every day, every moment, every decision. It would make you question every step. It would make you feel incredible regret for simple mistakes. Imagine a life lived trying so hard to not stub a toe or scrape a knee–the fear, the crippling caution, the paralyzing regret of a simple mistake.
Let's go one step further. What would life be like if relationships never healed? Any degree of brokenness, frustration, hurt, or offense would always be there. Damaged, hurt, forever. Never healing. Keep in mind our first conversation as you talk about this:
What would life be like if relationships never healed?
The Torah is the first five books of Moses in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Torah is a Hebrew word meaning “to instruct.” We have been focusing on the book of Leviticus which lands right in the middle of the Torah. This middle–the “fold in the text”-- is a literary tool to focus emphasis, and it’s used commonly in scripture. Leviticus on its own is written with a fold as well. So here we are today on the fold of the fold–the middle of the middle–and what we are looking at today is atonement. The emphasis of the fold is pointing to atonement.
Let’s take a quick look at the context.
There was Abraham, Issac and Jacob–the patriarchs. One of Jacob’s sons was Joseph, who was sold off into slavery by his brothers out of jealousy and ended up in Egypt, where he rose to a place of authority in spite of great adversity. Because of his position, he was able to provide for his family as famine overwhelmed the region.
Generations later, Joseph was long forgotten, and while the Isrealites grew in number and power, it came with great oppression and slavery to Pharaoh. God heard the cries of His people and called and empowered Moses to lead them to freedom.
There was a showdown between God and Pharaoh (who was seen as a god), in the plagues and the Passover. The people were set free, but the drama was not over. They were pinned between the Sea of Reeds and Pharaoh's army, because Pharaoh had changed his mind about letting them go. God provided, and they crossed on dry ground.
In their wandering in the wilderness, they come to Mount Sinai, and this is a season where Scriptural writing really slows down. There is so much focus (text given) on this season at Mount Sinai as God is giving instruction as Moses goes up and down the mountain. In the book of Exodus, we see Israel in Egypt in 1:1-13:16, Israel in the wilderness in 13:17-18:27, and Israel at Mt. Sinai in all of chapters 19-40.
In the middle of that last section, Israel has an epic fail with the golden calf (see Exodus 32:1-14). In the context, we see four things: connection (provision of relationship with God), a breakdown (an epic fail of some sort), consequence (separation from God), and grace (atonement happens).
This is a repeated process in microcosm and macrocosm throughout Scripture. The repetition gives focus to the process of relationship, to how relationship with God works, and to our own process in relationship with God. The repetition also gives foundation to understanding who Jesus is.
Out of this moment, as Exodus is ending, the Tabernacle was built–this physical dwelling of God here with His people. This is the provision of relationship. But an unexpected thing happened–Moses couldn’t go in to the tabernacle:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34-35)
WHAT? Moses had spent weeks with God on the mountain and now he can’t enter the Tabernacle? So–after the golden calf, it was all over????
Don’t worry–that was not the end. Relationship can be restored; damage can be repaired. Atonement is a real thing and is a possibility.
Turn the page to Leviticus. So far we have focused on the offerings, the priests, and the process of being clean or set apart before (or for) God.
As Exodus ends, things seemed to be broken. But immediately after the separation or brokenness of Exodus, we turn to Leviticus and see the process to relationship again.
Remember: God desires relationship with us, and our efforts in relationship matter.
And now, at the fold of the Torah–the middle of the Torah and the middle of Leviticus, in the place of emphasis, what do we find? Atonement.
What is atonement?
Why is God into atonement? How do you know?
In Leviticus 10, the offerings or sacrifices had begun to be detailed. The office of priest had been given. Relationship with God was in the forefront. And then the trainwreck hits again:
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: “‘Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’” Aaron remained silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)
Once again, is it all over? No. God is into relationship with us. God is into atonement. In Leviticus 16, He offers a path for atonement:
The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the Lord. The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. For I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover. This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place: He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
“Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.
“Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die. He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.
“He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the tent of meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness. No one is to be in the tent of meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel.
“Then he shall come out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the goat’s blood and put it on all the horns of the altar. He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites.
“When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.
“Then Aaron is to go into the tent of meeting and take off the linen garments he put on before he entered the Most Holy Place, and he is to leave them there. He shall bathe himself with water in the sanctuary area and put on his regular garments. Then he shall come out and sacrifice the burnt offering for himself and the burnt offering for the people, to make atonement for himself and for the people. He shall also burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar.
“The man who releases the goat as a scapegoat must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp. The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and intestines are to be burned up. The man who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the members of the community. This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”
And it was done, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Leviticus 16:1-34)
Wow. This is complicated. There are two different things we can focus on. One, how does the sacrifice of an animal make a difference in the relationship between God and humanity?
That’s a great question, but getting lost in the weeds of how can lead us away form the focus, which is the second way of looking at this: Isn't it amazing that God would make provision for restored relationship after it is broken? God provides the means to atonement.
How it works is so complex, and it can be valuable to contemplate it. But I need to start with marveling at God’s provision. God is a provider of means to atonement. God is a provider of means to relationship with Him!!
What does it say about a person (and their character) if they continually open the door to restoring breaks in relationship? (atonement)
The repetitive theme that is built in the Old Testament and is brought to a climactic completion in the Gospels is this: broken relationship can be atoned for by the transferal of offense from the breaker onto one that is perfect. In that transfer atonement is accomplished, but the cost is not eliminated. Sacrifice/cost still takes place, and atonement is accomplished.
As I marvel at the opportunity for atonement, I bring Jesus into the picture. The author of Hebrews responds to Psalm 40, which says:
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—but my ears you have opened— burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:6-8)
Then he writes:
First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest (Jesus)had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waited for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:8-14)
The repetitive theme over and over and over again is that there is relationship with God, that the relationship is broken, and that atonement is made available.Can you believe it? For me, for us–atonement has been made available.
What does it say about God (and His character) that He continually opens the door to restoring broken relationship?
Take It Deeper Questions
- Read 1 Peter 2:24, Leviticus 17:11, 1 John 2:2, Hebrews 9:12, Revelation 5:9, Isaiah 53:5.
- How would you explain atonement to a ten year old? How would a ten year old explain atonement to you?
- What would be different if God was not into atonement?
- What is different because God is into atonement?
- How are you challenged, focused, encouraged, and/or confused by these verses?
Bible Reading Plan
- 2 Samuel 2
- 2 Samuel 3
- 2 Samuel 4
- 2 Samuel 5
- 2 Samuel 6