A Permanent Statute … Once Every Year


The preceding chapters, 11-16, have given a mixture of dietary regulations, rules for ceremonial cleansing, method of observing and guarding against skin disorders, especially leprosy, and orders for cleansing in relation to various unclean discharges. The guidelines were given to increase the distinctiveness of the people, guard against epidemics breaking out among them, and increasing care about personal sanitation. Obedience would shield them from the diseases of the nations. Chapter 16, however, sets forth the standard to be observed in the annual sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. This would keep them from the condemnation of the nations. Health and distinctive holiness in this life are important, but the forgiveness of sins is paramount and of eternal consequence. Earlier chapters also had given regulations for sacrifices for individuals upon specific occasions of sin, guilt, transgression and thanksgiving. This offering was established for the whole nation and was the single most solemn day of the year.


I. The entire ceremony is saturated with evidence that even this God-revealed system of ceremonial cleansing and forgiveness must itself be repented of for its internal imperfection. “The way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience” (Hebrews 9:9).

A. The Priest and his “household,” must have an atoning sacrifice (6). These instructions were given soon after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu. This was to give clarity to the way in which the rest of the family would not die. If these instructions were disobeyed, they would die; but provision was made for avoiding death by giving a way of atonement first of all to the ministering priest. This was done only once per year and all was performed by the person selected High Priest for that year. He would be accompanied outside by the one who would release the scape goat and one who would burn the bodies of the goat and bull outside the camp.

B. The people of Israel must also be atoned for by the slaughter of the goat of the sin offering (15). Perhaps a goat was selected because of the peculiarly vile appearance and smell of the animal, an analogy to the repulsive nature of the sins of the people. Also, the goat was an object of worship to which some had been sacrificing (17:7).

C. The holy place itself must be atoned for “because of the impurities of the sons of Israel” (16). These places where God himself would dwell among the people and in which they would be taught the price of forgiveness, were themselves polluted by their presence among the people.

D. For the tent of meeting also atonement must be made (16).

E. The altar upon which sacrifice is made also has been defiled with the impurities of the sons of Israel and must be atoned for (18, 19).

F. Verse 33 summarizes: “He shall . . . make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar. He shall also make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.”


II. The sacrifices themselves. The particular offerings given by the high priest out of view of the people was preceded by an offering of a bull, a ram, and seven yearling lambs, all combined with measured grain offerings, and one kid (Numbers 29:8ff). The priest then would change from his normal sacrificing garments, and put on the prescribed linen garments for the duties of the rest of the day.

A. A bull for a sin offering – Aaron offers this bull for himself and his household. After slaughtering this bull, he took its blood plus a firepan of coals from the altar and a basket of finely ground incense behind the veil into the most holy place. According to tradition, he would enter sideways so as not to face the mercy seat before it was covered with incense. He would place the pan of coals on the ground, put the incense on the hot coals and the smoke and smell of the incense would fill the most holy place and thus cover the mercy seat. Then Aaron would sprinkle blood at the east side of the mercy seat one time with his finger, and in front of the mercy seat he would sprinkle it seven times.

B. Two goats, one for the Lord and one for release into the wilderness – After offering the blood of the bull, Aaron would back out of the most holy place. He would then slaughter the goat of the sin offering for the people. He would take its blood inside the veil to the most holy place and sprinkle it as he did the blood of the bull.

C. Then the officiating priest goes out again to the altar and puts blood of both the bull and the goat on the horns of the altar on all sides. Also, he sprinkled blood seven times to cleanse it from the impurities of the people.

D. The live goat then is taken by the High Priest. He places his hands on the goat’s head, confesses all the iniquities of Israel, and sends it into the wilderness by the hands of one who stood ready for the task. “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. . . . As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

E. A ram for a burnt offering – This was offered after the series of other offerings—the offering of the bull for Aaron and his household, the offering of the goat devoted to the Lord, and the sending away of the scape goat. Aaron then shed the linen garments in which he had dressed for those appearances in the most holy place, put on his more elaborate priestly garb, and offered the burnt offering, the ram (verse 3).

F. Finely ground sweet incense (12, 13). This was to be offered upon Aaron’s first entrance into the most holy place before sprinkling the blood of the bull. The mercy seat could not be approached apart from the smoke and savor of this incense. The blood could not be sprinkled without the covering of the incense offering.


III. Christ puts an end to this testimony to incompleteness. “

A. In his high priestly prayer in John 17, Christ recognizes every part of his work as High Priest.

  1. Christ first prays for himself, not in confession of sin but in the righteousness of a reconciling assignment completed. On that basis he could ask for a restoration of the glory of which he had been emptied at the incarnation: “I have finished the work which you have given me to do; . . . Father, glorify me together with yourself” (John 17:4, 5).
  2. Then he prays for his disciples as Aaron made sacrifice for his household. “I have manifested your name to the men whom you have given me out of the world. . . . For I have given to them the words which you have given me” (John 17:6, 8).
  3. Then he intercedes for the whole house of Israel, the Israel of God, the elect from all nations throughout all ages: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20).
  4. Now all have been raised to the level of priests and may enter the most holy place. “Father, I desire that they also whom you gave me may be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory which you have given me; for you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). The high priest could not approach the mercy seat apart from the incense. This prayer, and Christ’s continuing intercession, is the incense whereby we may gaze upon the glory of God.

B. Christ entered the most holy place only once with his own blood.

  1. Jesus had prepared himself in perfect holiness and righteousness to present an offering that would set apart his people for a complete and true redemption. As he prayed in John 17, “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth “ (John 17:17).
  2. He did not need to go back and forth, leaving the most holy place in order to perform another sacrifice and re-enter to apply its blood. All that sin required in the way of death, for all transgressions, iniquities, guilt, corruptions were cared for when he offered his body the one time as a sacrifice sin. “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood he entered the most holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:14). When the high priest exited the place of the mercy seat for the final time, he would not enter again for a year. Jesus entered with his own blood one time and having made purification for sins sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high (Hebrews 1:3).
  3. Though sacrifices were made for the tent of meeting, the holy place, and the altar because of their presence in the midst of a sinning, rebellious, iniquitous people, Jesus came into the world, walked among, talked with, ate with, had daily contact with the most degraded of sinners and yet was holy and righteous. His birth kept him free from the taint of original sin, his perfect obedience and unremitting love for the will of his Father made him righteous. He was not polluted by his humanity nor by his walking with sinners. He was altar, sacrifice, mercy seat, and officiating priest and had no need to make offering for himself, but only for the corruption and sins of the people. “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow in his steps: Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth; who when he was reviled, did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously; who himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, having died to sin, might live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:21-24).
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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