What did the Day of Atonement do for the children of Israel?
(1) It purified them so that they could dwell with God and serve Him.
We learn the most about the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. It follows instruction on the offerings (chs.1-7), how the priesthood was instituted (chs.8-10), and the importance of being cleansed from uncleanness (chs.11-15). The Day of Atonement builds on these themes by describing how Israel’s defilement could be removed so that the Lord could dwell in their midst and the priests could offer acceptable sacrifices to Him.
God wanted to live among a holy, priestly people (Exo 19:6), but they were constantly defiled by who they were (“uncleanness,” Lev 16:16) and what they did (“iniquities, transgressions, sins,” v21). How could a holy God dwell “among them in the midst of their uncleanness” (v16 JND) without devastating judgment? That defilement needed to be cleansed away (v30) so that they could be restored to the full enjoyment of God’s favor.
On the Day of Atonement two pairs of offerings were offered: a sin offering and a burnt offering, for both the priests (v3) and the congregation (v5). The two sin offerings were offered first (vv11-28), to cleanse the priests (vv6,11), the congregation (v17), and the tabernacle itself (vv18-20,33), along with its furnishings, from defilement. When the scapegoat was released into the wilderness, it symbolized all Israel’s defilement being removed from sight. Only then did the High Priest – bathed and re-clothed in his glorious garments – offer the burnt offerings, picturing a restored, cleansed people worshipping God in beautiful holiness (v24).
(2) It reminded them of their sin.
In Hebrews 10:3 we discover a second purpose for the Day of Atonement. It was an annual reminder of the sacrificial system’s inability to permanently deal with sin. The author specifically refers to the blood of bulls and goats (10:4) – that is, the sin offerings made on behalf of the priests (Lev 16:3) and the congregation (v5) on the Day of Atonement. The fact that these were offered every year meant that neither priest nor people were ever fully and finally clean. Each year the Day of Atonement reminded them of their sinfulness and the sacrificial system’s utter inadequacy, so that they would long for a perfect Priest (Heb 7:24-27) with a perfect Sacrifice (Heb 10:12), who could cleanse them forever.
(3) It foreshadowed Calvary.
That desire was fulfilled when the Lord Jesus Christ sat down at the right hand of God (Heb 10:12-14). He did so because there was nothing more that needed to be done. The Day of Atonement was just a shadow (Heb 10:1). It gave an outline, somewhat unclear and incomplete but one that showed enough of the shape of Calvary to identify the Reality when He came. Christ’s offering of Himself answered to all that the ram (worship), the slain goat (propitiation), and the live goat (substitution) portrayed. His holy humility (Lev 16:4), the solitude (v17) and acceptability (Heb 9:24) of His work, and much more, are foreshadowed in the Day of Atonement. That shadow was given to Israel for their longing anticipation. The Substance is revealed to us for our eternal appreciation.