Leviticus 16 deals with the Day of Atonement. In the Jewish feast calendar there are seven major feasts—four in the spring, three in the fall. The fall feasts begin with the Feast of Trumpets, also called Rosh Hashanah. The Feast of Trumpets inaugurates the ten days of awe, which is ten days of repentance, of soul searching. They begin the New Year getting right with God. You fast, deny yourself, you search your heart. God, I want to start the New Year right. We as a community want to start the New Year by letting you clean us.
This leads up to the Day of Atonement, which is in Leviticus 16. It's called Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur centers around several animals and the high priest. We need a high priest, a person who speaks on behalf of the people.
The High Priest Represents the People Before God
Verse 3. "This is how Aaron is to enter the sanctuary area: with 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." The only reference to underwear I know of in the Bible. "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."
We have to understand the picture here. Some scholars believe that at the time—this is the second temple period—you could fit 210,000 people on the temple mount. When Herod was done building the temple, 18,000 people were unemployed. They used 2.3 million stones to build it. Some of the stones are ten feet by ten feet by eighty feet—hundreds of tons. They don't even know how they were moved into place. One historian says that when the temple was built, not the sound of a chisel was heard in Jerusalem. They carved the stone somewhere else because you wouldn't want to have that going on in the holy place. Then they moved them into place. To this day we don't have machinery strong enough to move some of the stones dug up in the temple area. Imagine this massive, huge place. Josephus, one historian, says that the gold at the top of the holy of holies were clusters the size of a grown man.
Picture a couple of hundred thousand people, gathered after ten days of weeping, fasting, and denying themselves—soul searching so they can come before their God to have their sins removed. One man, the high priest, is going to go into the presence of God on their behalf. You'd better hope he's got sacred underwear on.
If this dude is offering on behalf of the people, you had better hope he's got everything together.
Remember that the temple is a place where the heavenly and earthly line gets blurred. The temple area is a merging of several different realms. The heavenly and the earthly are colliding. They made sure the sacred undergarments, garments, linen, and the headpiece were crafted exactly how God wanted because they understood there was something unearthly going on.
If you scour the ancient sources, you can find accounts of people who described what they saw. One of them is a letter to Aerasaus, a firsthand account of the high priest in action. He says:
It was an occasion of great amazement to us when we saw Eleazar engaged in his ministry and all the glorious vestments, including the wearing of the garment with precious stones upon it in which he is vested. There the priest's appearance makes one awestruck and dumbfounded. A man would think he had come out of this world into another. I emphatically assert that every man who comes near the spectacle of what I have described will experience astonishment and amazement beyond words, his very being transformed by the hallowed arrangement on every single detail.
There was something about the high priest working on the Day of Atonement in the priestly function that led people to sense, I am seeing another realm colliding with this realm.
Look at what Josephus said, "If one reflects on the construction of the tabernacle and looks at the vestments of the priests and the vessels which we use for the sacred ministry, he will discover that every one of these objects is intended to recall and represent the universe."
It's not just a priest. It's not just a sash. It's not just bells around the base of the garment. There is something else going on here, because everyday, normal occasions can take on holy, sacred significance.
The high priest is going into God's presence on your behalf. Notice what he has to go through. Verse 6, "Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household." Aaron has to go through a series of rituals to make sure he is cleansed, power washed, sanctified; so he can go in on behalf of the people.
The Scapegoat Carries Away the Sins of the People
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 desert as a scapegoat.
Imagine hundreds of thousands of worshipers, come together to begin the year by having their sins atoned for, covered over, cleansed; to be reminded of God's grace and mercy. The high point is when the high priest is brought a goat—one of them is sacrificed; the second goat is brought to him alive.
We need a live goat because when you see how the goat and the high priest interact it will start to bring to light what's happening here. Remember, the Eastern mind thinks in terms of pictures. We in the Western world were educated by definitions. When we think about theology, we often think of God systematically. We think in terms of Define it. Give me three points. Give me four insights. Give me two things to take home. The Eastern mind thinks in terms of picture, thinks in terms of metaphor, thinks in terms of image. So instead of Jesus saying, "God is really forgiving and I want to give you four reasons why," Jesus says: There's this guy who has two sons and the one son says, "Dad, I wish you were dead. I want all your money."
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 desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place, and the man shall release it in the desert.
Who is going to be the man appointed to the task? If this goat has got the sins of all your neighbors on it, do you want to be leading that thing out into the wilderness? Tradition has it that the man appointed to the task would be a Gentile who had no connection with the people of Israel. Because the community, when they send that goat away, doesn't want to see that goat walking around in town three days later. It's one loaded goat.
There was some tradition surrounding the goat and a red cord. You can only find it in a few sources. They would take a red cord—red being symbolic of blood, judgment, and punishment—and it would be placed on the head of the goat. The red cord is symbolic of your sin.
We are placing our sins on the head of the goat. The Eastern mind also thinks communally. Many of us think individually. We think of my guilt before God. The Eastern mind thinks individually but far more important would be the community. What are we guilty of as the people of God that needs to be placed on the head of the goat?
What would it be like for churches to capture a sense What are we guilty of? What would it be like for a small group to say, What do we need to confess to God?
All of the people are placing their sin on the head of the goat. The high priest would place his hands upon the goat. Remember, this is the culmination of the ten days of awe. This is a most sacred, powerful moment when God is meeting with people and their communal guilt is placed upon the goat. It would be quiet. It would be somber. A moment when for the next year, our sins are being covered. They're being covered because God is gracious and merciful. This is a moment of unbelievable seriousness.
Then the man appointed for the task would lead the goat out into the wilderness. The word for this scapegoat is ahzahzel. Ahzahzel carries with it the idea of "taking away." The Gentile appointed to the task would ahzahzel the ahzahzel goat, take it away. It's removed. It's no longer here.
Jesus Is Our Scapegoat
Turn to John 19. John has Jesus before a man named Pilate. Jesus' own community has said he's guilty and must be killed. They have taken what they say is guilt and placed it upon Jesus. "Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head." If you have a crown of thorns on your head and it punctures your skin, you're going to get what color lines around your head? Red.
Verse 15, "But they shouted." When the text says, "the crowd shouted," what did they shout? "Crucify him?" No, first they shout, "Take him away," then they shout, "Crucify him!"
If you're familiar with the Day of Atonement and ahzahzel, John is saying, Hey, by the way, there's a connection.
Verse 16, "Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified." Jesus is led outside of the camp, the city of Jerusalem, by Gentiles. You have Jesus with a red ring around his head, the crowd chanting, "ahzahzel, ahzahzel" and then a Gentile leads him outside of the camp, Jerusalem.
The Work of Jesus Is Finished
How many of you, watching this high priest right now, are tired? Can't the guy just take a seat? Is he going to have to stand the whole teaching? The Day of Atonement happened this year, but then the Day of Atonement is going to happen next year because people keep sinning. You got to do the whole thing next year. If you have this sense, you understand the longing for a sacrifice "once and for all."
Couldn't we just do this once and for all? Man, you know what that would be? That would be Good News. The prophets spoke many times and in many ways: He's coming. He's bruised for our iniquities. He's coming. Hebrews 10:1:
The Law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeatedly endless year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
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 had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
One fascinating tradition comes in the Mishnah, an extrabiblical source recorded by the Jews. When the red cord placed on the goat was taken off, some believe the red cord was hung on the front of the altar, or the doorway going into the temple. Legend has it that over the next year the red cord would mysteriously turn white. Witnesses interpreted that to mean God's supernatural ability to forgive their sins.
Roughly forty years before the destruction of the temple they say the red cord stopped turning from red to white. Forty years before A.D. 70 puts you sometime around the year 30. It stopped working. The system was no longer effective.
In Christ We Have Been Made Holy Forever
It says the High Priest sat down. In a moment this High Priest is going to sit down.
One of the messages we can take away from this is when we are reminded of our failures and of our darkness, maybe our message to the world is "the goat has left the building." When somebody reminds you about your past and wants to hold your failures against you, maybe you should say, "Excuse me. I don't see a goat in the room." When people feel loaded down and ashamed and feel religion has beaten them down, maybe our word to the world is "I got something to tell you. The goat? It's gone."
Those who trust this, Hebrews says, have been made holy forever. The central redeeming message is that when you meet Jesus and you confess and you are born from above, born again, remade, then you aren't who you were. You're a new creation. The old has gone. The new has come. You have new identity. You were a sinner. And while you still stumble, you are now fundamentally defined as a saint.
The message of the goat leaving the building is the story of the Scriptures. It doesn't mean we don't sin, but the Scripture keeps saying: You are not who you were. You are a new creation. You have joined the saints. You have been rebirthed, remade, and you have been made holy forever.
One of the reasons why many churches get so fixated on the rules is because when you lose who you are in Jesus all you're left with is a bunch of rules and sin management. Stuart Briscoe said, "If we taught people who they are in Christ, we probably wouldn't have to spend as much time telling them what to do."
God knows about the addiction. God knows about the abortion. He knows about the break up. God knows it, and I'm here to tell you that the goat has left the building. It's freedom. This picture God gives us—take that goat and send it out because it's gone and it's not coming back. God's in the freedom business. Jesus, the ultimate scapegoat, took it and it was nailed to a cross so that we would live free.
In a moment, the High Priest is going to sit down. I think it would be appropriate for us to celebrate that the goat has left the building. Some of you are distinguished, honorable, restrained, respected members of your community. But we're not in your community. Some of you go to sporting events and when a man in tight pants and a helmet runs over a goal line, you hug your spouse, you your kids. "Wasn't that great?!" Then the next morning in the community of the faithful it's, "Praise the Lord." What our world needs is people who understand how to celebrate the right things in the right way. Perhaps the Day of Atonement and these ancient festivals were ways where God said, Listen, every year I'm going to get you together because I want you to get in the patterns and the rhythms of celebration. Because if you forget the goat has left, you'll start to lose your joy. If our communities aren't places of joy and celebration and freedom, then how do we take this out into the world and say, "Hey, come join us; because we're having a Bible study until we die." No. The goat has left the building.
In a minute the High Priest is going to sit down because Jesus did the work and he sat down. Yes, he did. Jesus is sitting now. He sits and waits for everything to be brought under his feet. He sits because the work is done. We need to be in communities where when we struggle and fall, we have brothers and sisters to say, "Hey, I don't see a goat around here."
You cannot celebrate sitting down. There are times and places where we must celebrate what deserves to be celebrated. In honor of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, Jesus, the ultimate scapegoat, let's have the High Priest walk in silence. As he walks in silence, you relive when it first became real to you. If we're not constantly recovering and discovering and remembering those first moments, we get stale and moldy. Maybe right now you're carrying something. You had a rough day yesterday. Maybe you've got some sort of addiction. Maybe in these moments as the High Priest walks in silence—before he sits down and we raise the roof—maybe you say, "God, here, I'm not going to carry this junk around any more."
Are you ready?
Rob Bell is teaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. He is the featured teacher in the Nooma film series.