The Christian faith is centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But what was the purpose of his death? According to the Bible, Jesus Christ is the culmination of a long historical process, the dramatic height of God’s sovereign plan from the beginning to send his Son to inaugurate the kingdom of God, die in our place for our sins, and conquer our enemies of Satan, sin, and death in his resurrection.
You see, the human problem is that God’s original vision for the earth was broken by human rebellion. In Genesis, we see that God’s plan for humanity was for the earth to be filled with his image bearers, who were to glorify him through worship and obedience. This beautiful state of being, enjoying the cosmic bliss of God’s intended blessing and his wise rule, is called shalom. The shalom God intended was broken when our first parents Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s rule in an act of cosmic treason. In response, the Creator placed a curse on our parents that cast the whole human race into futility and death.
But God planned from the beginning to ultimately restore humanity to right relationship with him.
The key is that it would require an ultimate blood sacrifice to repair the rift and bring us back into communion with our Creator. God shows us this throughout the storyline of the Old Testament, beginning immediately after the Fall when he kills an animal to provide clothing to cover the shame and nakedness of our first parents (Genesis 3:21).
We see this again when God accepts the animal sacrifice of Abel over the offering of fruit from Cain (Genesis 4:3–5), and throughout the story of the patriarchs and the nation of Israel with the institution of sacrifice God commanded. All of this was done to give us the categories to understand the weight of sin, the awesome holiness of God, and the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus’ death, which was required for God to restore us to fellowship with him.
THE DAY OF ATONEMENT
The climax of the Old Testament sacrificial system was the Day of Atonement, a day of great bloodshed in which the gravity of humanity’s sin could be seen. Because of its importance, it eventually became referred to simply as “the Day.”
The primary section in Scripture concerning the Day of Atonement appears in Leviticus 16–17. This passage functions as the center of the book of Leviticus, which is itself the center of the Pentateuch. This day speaks of the Lord’s gracious concern both to deal fully with his people’s sin and to make them fully aware that they stand before him, accepted and covered in respect of all iniquity, transgression, and sin (Leviticus 16:21).
On this day, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of Israel in order to avert the holy wrath of God for the sins of the past year and to remove their sin and its stain from them. Two healthy goats without defect were chosen. They were therefore fit to represent sinless perfection.
TWO IMAGES OF THE ATONEMENT
The first goat was a propitiating sin offering. The high priest slaughtered this goat, which acted as a substitute for the sinners who deserved a violently bloody death for their many sins.
Then the high priest, acting as the representative and mediator between the sinful people and their holy God, would take the second goat and lay his hands on the animal while confessing the sins of the people. This goat, called the scapegoat, would then be sent away to die in the wilderness away from the sinners, symbolically expiating or removing the sins of the people by taking them away.
The sacrifices of the Day were designed to pay for both sin’s penalty and sin’s presence in Israel. The shedding of blood and the sending off of the scapegoat were meant to appease God’s wrath against sin and to cleanse the nation, the priesthood, and even the sanctuary itself from the taint of sin (Leviticus 16:30).
THE LAMB OF GOD
The Day of Atonement was a foreshadowing of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and our great high priest who is able to sympathize with us in our weakness. These great images of the priest, slaughter, and scapegoat are all given by God to help us more fully comprehend Jesus’ bloody sacrifice for us on the cross.
Jesus Christ fulfills and accomplishes forever what the two goats symbolized. The Old Testament sacrifice of animals has been replaced by the perfect sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 9:26, 10:5–10; 1 John 2:1–2, 4:9–10). Christ paid sin’s penalty (Romans 3:25–26, 6:23; Galatians 3:13). He redeemed us (Ephesians 1:7), paying the price that sets us free (1 Corinthians 6:20; Galatians 5:1). He turned away God’s wrath (Romans 3:25) and reconciled believers to God (Ephesians 2:16) so we can be forgiven for our sins and cleansed from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
In his death on the cross, Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice, which God had planned from the beginning and illustrated all through the history of Israel. In his death our sins were paid for, and in his resurrection we receive new life.