Summary: Day of Atonement
There are some traditions and customs out there in the world that on the surface quite strange. For instance, if I were to ask you about your favorite customs and practices about being a Christian, what would you say? Some might point to our celebration of Easter. Others to Christmas. And some might point to the Lord’s Supper. Have you ever thought about how strange this might look to someone who knows nothing about communion? Back at the start of Christianity, Christians were under a lot of scrutiny and persecution for various reasons. One of them was the practice of communion. Outsiders would look at this celebration and be grossed out, thinking that Christians were practicing some sort of cannibalism. For us, though, we realize that isn’t the case. Rather, communion is this wonderful sacrament which Christ gifted us in which we get to remember and proclaim his death, receive the forgiveness of sins, and be joined with him and fellow Christians.
What our lesson details today is the celebration of the Great Day of Atonement. For the Old Testament believers, this was one of the greatest celebrations of their entire year. But, for people of our time and our culture, our thought might be, “Wait, what?” Perhaps you may have never even heard of this day before. And you may be wondering what in the world is with all the sprinkling of blood and horns of the altar and goats? What’s with the incense and these strange sounding rooms like the Tent of Meeting or the Most Holy Place? In the end, though, there is so much great symbolism to be found here. And, there is so much of God’s love displayed too. And, a lot of these ideas we talk about more frequently than perhaps we even realize; it’s just a matter of putting it all together.
The first thing we run into is Aaron’s sacrifice for himself and his family. It says, “Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. 12 He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. 13 He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die. 14 He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.
The first thing Aaron was to do was to sacrifice a bull for himself and his family, as a sin offering, to make atonement. Why a bull? I don’t know why God chose that specific animal. In the end, the kind of animal is not what’s important. What is important is that God demanded death here. Romans 6 would later tell us that the wages of sin is death. The punishment for sin is death. Wherever there is sin, there will be death. However, what God wanted was not the guilty party to pay for that sin. Aaron didn’t have to sacrifice himself. Rather, a substitute was offered up in Aaron’s place. This is hugely important. God may be a just God, making sure to always punish sin with death. However, God is also a God of mercy. And he did not want these people, although they were guilty, to have to pay for their sins. He wished for there to be a substitute. Here for Aaron and his family, it was a bull.
Only then, once blood had been shed, was Aaron able to enter before God. God had told the people that he dwelled in their presence in a place called the tabernacle, here referred to as the tent of meeting. There was a curtain located in this tent which separated God from the people. As sinners, they had no right to come before God whenever they wanted. The only time they could was on this day, on the day of atonement. But, only one person, the high priest, here being Aaron could do so, acting as a go-between for the people, and only after blood had been shed. Taking some of the blood, he would sprinkle it upon the ark of the covenant, to symbolize how God’s requirement for sin was met with death.
Also, when he went before God, God demanded that Aaron go forth with incense. Why incense? For one, it served a practical purpose. Incense, having a pleasant aroma, would help with the stench of the blood and the animals. But, also think of the Psalm, “May my prayer rise before you as incense.” Here Aaron was approaching God with prayers and sacrifice on behalf of the people, rising up before God.