In Leviticus 16, the ritual for the Day of Atonement gives us a tangible picture of God’s holiness, justice, and mercy. The high priest could not enter the Most Holy Place until the presence of God over the atonement seat had been shrouded by smoke from burning incense. The priest’s body and garments had to be clean and the animals to be sacrificed unblemished. When the high priest followed the instructions exactly as laid out by God to Moses, Israel would be cleansed from all their sins for another year. In God’s great mercy, he permitted the repeated offering of bulls and goats to atone for the many times every Israelite and the foreigners living among them failed to honor God or his laws. In Hebrews 10, we learn that the annual Day of Atonement foreshadowed Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for sin that would fulfill God’s mission and God’s promise to bless all the families and nations of the earth through Israel.
Our culture honors diverse paths to spiritual fulfillment and discourages identification of sin. If I am honest, I allow these values to infect my own thoughts and feelings – questioning whether God’s judgment is too rigid and His way too narrow. Then I remember three things. First, Christ summed up all the commandments as loving God and loving our neighbor. As our creator and redeemer, God cannot abide any behavior which harms or diminishes the dignity of anyone he created. Second, when I really think about the harm we inflict on one another as individuals and communities, I would not be able to believe in the goodness of God if I thought He was turning a blind eye toward sin. Third, His forgiveness is available to everyone, at immeasurable cost, in the sacrifice of Christ.
The writer of Hebrews brings me back to the importance of the Day of Atonement for my own life and witness: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith… Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:19-24)