For Israel, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) was the holiest day of the year, because this was the one day that the high priest was allowed to enter the most holy place in the tabernacle and offer sacrifices on behalf of the entire nation. A bull would be sacrificed by the priest for his own sins and the sins of his family, and then a goat would be sacrificed for the sins of the people, and then the priest would put his hands on another (live) goat (called the scapegoat, from which we get that term), symbolically place the sins of all the people on that goat, and then release that goat into the wilderness.

It is described in Leviticus 16.

“Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.” (Leviticus 16:6-10)
“Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.
“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:15-22)

Atonement – I think the simplest definition of atonement is to break the word up like this: “at one ment”. Atonement is the act of being “made one” or “reconciled” with a person that you have offended. Our sins have offended a holy God and we must either be reconciled to Him or remain apart from Him. Sometimes people may ask this question: “How can a good God send people to hell?” The answer is that people send themselves to hell. Because all mankind are sinners, we all need to be reconciled to God. If we choose not to be reconciled with God (by placing our hope in Christ), then we simply remain unreconciled – and that means that we are eternally separated from God. Sin must be dealt with in two ways – the offended party must be satisfied (this is usually associated with punishment), and the offender must be forgiven through the removal of the offense. These two aspects of atonement are called propitiation and expiation.

Propitiation – The first goat (the goat that was sacrificed) demonstrates the doctrine of propitiation, whereby the wrath of a holy God is satisfied and turned into favor. God, as the righteous Judge, demands that sin be punished. His judgment must be satisfied and our sins punished. Romans 6:23 says that punishment for sin is death. This echoes what God said about the result of disobedience in Genesis 2:17. Because God is gracious, He has allowed us to substitute a blood sacrifice for our own blood, which is the reason that this first goat, and ultimately Jesus, had to die. Leviticus 17:11 explains that blood is shed because blood represents the life of the animal that is being substituted for the life of the one for whom it is sacrificed. This echoes Genesis 9:4Hebrews 9:22 clearly says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” My favorite verse on propitiation is 1 John 4:10: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Expiation – The second goat (the scapegoat) taking the sins of the people away into the wilderness demonstrates the doctrine of expiation, whereby our sins are removed from us forever so that we are made clean through Jesus our scapegoat. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, we have been reconciled by His death, “in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” (Colossians 1:22) Our sins have been “cancelled”, “set aside” and “nailed to the cross.” (Colossians 2:14)

Hebrews 9 explains that Jesus is now our atonement, serving as our tabernacle, our priest, and both goats – our propitiation (satisfying God’s wrath) and our expiation (taking away our sins forever). Thanks be to God for this glorious truth.

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