Right here in the middle of the Law of Moses, we find God giving his instructions for the Day of Atonement. A Christian must approach this text with wonder.
For 1,500 years, God’s people practiced the Day of Atonement with the understanding there was much sin in their lives. And that sin defiled their relationship with God. It blocked them from entering into God’s presence. And so the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, behind the veil where the ark of the covenant was, with the blood of the sacrifices of God’s people.
Two goats would be slaughtered that day – one as a sin offering, dying in the place of the people of Israel, and the other as a goat “that departs.” The sins of the people would be laid upon that goat, and it was released into the wilderness, cut off from the people, where it would perish. It was a visual reminder of the cost of sin and the ridding of sin from among the people of God.
To fully grasp this text as a Christian, you need to do some more reading today. Here’s a partial reading list: Isaiah 53; Hebrews 9-10; Matthew 27:51; Galatians 3:13; Colossians 2:17; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24.
If you read those passages, you will see that Jesus Christ fulfilled all the requirements of the Day of Atonement. This ritual was carried out in full when Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Everything that the Day of Atonement set out to do, Jesus has finished once and for all.
Spend some time with this chapter here in the heart of God’s Law. It is so vitally important to see the need for atonement for sinners – for “all their sins” (Leviticus 16:16). We need a way back into the presence of God.
Jesus has provided that way.
At the end of the chapter, God tells the people when they were to carry out the ritual – on the tenth day of the seventh month each year. The people were to approach that day with reverence.
“You shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever.”
To “afflict” oneself has connections with self-reflection, with sackcloth and ashes, with mourning, with fasting. The season of Lent carries forward some of these themes into the church’s life.
Rituals don’t have much meaning if your heart is not in them. Prayer, fasting, music worship, Bible reading, the Lord’s Supper, baptism – they require a heart that is ready.
To afflict oneself means, basically, to come to terms with who you are. If the reality of who you are without God doesn’t feel like some kind of “affliction” to you, then you have fooled yourself.
We are sinners in need of grace. We don’t measure up to the holiness of God. Our sinfulness carries with it a steep price. The weight of guilt for our sins ought to feel like an affliction. It ought to pain us. We ought to be “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37).
And it ought to make us eager for our Savior.
I suppose some in our culture would encourage us never to feel this way – to feel like sinners. These people would only want us to feel good about ourselves. They know there is real danger in hopelessness.
But biblical “affliction” only comes to those who are ready for Jesus, for the Author of our atonement. Our affliction leads us straight to the hope of eternal life.
If a person never finds himself or herself afflicted by sin and looking for the solution, that person is, unfortunately, lost. Prayer is needed.
But this is not the case for you. You are a Christian. You understand your own sin and the cost of it.
Perhaps a good exercise on a day like this would be to do the following: Think about one area of sin in your life. It could be covetousness or lust or deceit or bitterness. You know what it is for you.
Write it down on a piece of paper – just a word or two. Carry that “sin” around with you. It belongs to you, after all. You’ll feel that piece of paper when you reach in your pocket for your keys or into your purse. You’ll remember. This is a sin that you have in your life, a sin you have committed perhaps many times.
You’ll be afflicted. When you are, you’ll be reminded you are ready for Jesus.
Then come to church on Sunday. Take Communion with the church family. Take the bread and the cup – symbols of Jesus broken body and shed blood, reminders of Leviticus 16 – and leave that piece of paper at the table.
Thank God for the new life you’ve been given.