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Atonement

Removal of Sin's Cause and Reconciliation to God

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We have already seen—through the symbolism involved in the Passover—that Christ’s shed blood atones for our past sins. In fact, atonement means reconciliation. The Day of Atonement symbolizes the reconciliation of God and all humanity.

If we are reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrifice, why do we need another Holy Day to teach us about reconciliation? If we are already reconciled, why do we need to fast, as commanded on the Day of Atonement? (Leviticus 23:27 Leviticus 23:27Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation to you; and you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD.
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; Acts 27:9 Acts 27:9Now when much time was spent, and when sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past, Paul admonished them,
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). What is this day’s specific significance in God’s master plan for the salvation of mankind?

The Day of Atonement and Passover both teach us about the forgiveness of sin and our reconciliation with God through Christ’s sacrifice. However, Passover concerns the redemption of the firstborn and thus applies most directly to Christians whom God has called in this age, while Atonement carries universal implications.

Moreover, the Day of Atonement pictures an essential additional step in God’s salvation plan not found in the symbolism of the Passover. This step must take place before humanity can experience true peace on earth. All people suffer the tragic consequences of sin. But sin doesn’t happen without a cause, and God makes this cause clear in the symbolism associated with the Day of Atonement.

Satan is the author of sin

The Day of Atonement involves not only the forgiveness of sin; it pictures the removal of the primary cause of sin—Satan and his demons. Until God removes the original instigator of sin, mankind will simply continue to fall back into disobedience and suffering. Although our human nature has a part to play in our sins, Satan the devil bears great responsibility for influencing mankind to disobey God.

Even though many people doubt the existence of a devil, the Bible reveals Satan as a powerful, invisible being who can sway all man-kind. Revelation 12:9 Revelation 12:9And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
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tells us that his influence is so great that he “deceives the whole world.”

The devil blinds people to the understanding of God’s truth. The apostle Paul explained this to the Corinthians: “If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 3 But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: 4 In whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine to them.
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).

Paul also teaches us that Satan has influenced every human being to walk in the ways of disobedience. He notes that those called into God’s Church “once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2 Ephesians 2:2Wherein in time past you walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience:
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). Paul warned the Corinthians that Satan can present himself as righteous to lead people astray: “For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15 2 Corinthians 11:14-15 14 And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.
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).

Jesus Christ plainly stated that Satan introduced sin and rebellion into the world. In John 8:44 John 8:44You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and stayed not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.
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Christ declared to those who were antagonistic to His teaching: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.”

Tying these scriptures together allows us to see the power and the influence of Satan. Paul warned us to beware of the deceitful methods of the devil: “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3 2 Corinthians 11:3But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
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, NIV).

Christians who struggle to resist Satan and stop sinning fight a spiritual battle against the devil and his demons. Paul explains: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness” (Ephesians 6:12 Ephesians 6:12For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
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, NASB).

Paul further explains here that Jesus Christ will deliver us from the influence of the devil (Ephesians 6:13-18 Ephesians 6:13-18 13 Why take to you the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14 Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; 15 And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16 Above all, taking the shield of faith, with which you shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: 18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;
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). Of course, God is much more powerful than Satan, but we must do our part by actively resisting the devil and the pulls of the flesh (James 4:7 James 4:7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
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). The Day of Atonement looks forward to the time during which Satan’s deception will be removed and he will no longer be free to influence and deceive mankind (Revelation 20:1-3 Revelation 20:1-3 1 And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. 2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, 3 And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
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).

Old Testament symbolism

Leviticus 16 describes God instructing ancient Israel to observe the Day of Atonement. Although Christians are not required to offer animal sacrifices today, this chapter adds significantly to our understanding of God’s plan.

Notice that the priest was to select two goats for a sin offering for the people, and he was to present them before God (Leviticus 16:5-7 Leviticus 16:5-7 5 And he shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. 6 And Aaron shall offer his bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make an atonement for himself, and for his house. 7 And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
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). Aaron, the high priest, was to cast lots to select one “for the Lord,” which he was to offer as a sacrifice (Leviticus 16:8-9 Leviticus 16:8-9 8 And Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat. 9 And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering.
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). This goat represented Jesus Christ, who would be slain to pay the penalty for our sins.

The other goat served a completely different purpose: “But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:10 Leviticus 16:10But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.
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). Notice that this goat was not to be killed. The high priest was to “lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert” (Leviticus 16:21-22 Leviticus 16:21-22 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: 22 And the goat shall bear on him all their iniquities to a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.
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, NIV).

The priest chose by lot the “scapegoat,” or Azazel, as the word appears in the original Hebrew. Many scholars identify Azazel as the name of a demon inhabiting the wilderness ( Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, p. 326). The Azazel goat represents Satan, who bears the responsibility for the sins of humanity (Leviticus 16:22 Leviticus 16:22And the goat shall bear on him all their iniquities to a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.
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) because of the deception he has foisted upon mankind.

The high priest laid hands on this goat and confessed over it the wickedness, rebellion and sins of the people. Why did he do that? As present ruler of the world, the devil bears responsibility for his perversity in beguiling and coercing humanity to sin. “The sending of the sin-laden goat … signified the complete removal of the sins of the people and the handing them over, as it were, to the evil spirit to whom they belonged” ( The One Volume Bible Commentary, 1975, p. 95).

A scapegoat, in modern usage, is someone unfairly held responsible for the mistakes of others. However, the modern English word scapegoat cannot properly be applied to Satan; the devil is not a scapegoat in the modern sense of the term. (Although some Bible versions use the word “scapegoat,” Green’s Literal Translation more accurately calls it the “goat of departure.”) Rather than unfairly bearing the blame for sin, Satan will be held justly accountable for his own deliberate actions by which he has led humanity into sin for thousands of years.

The symbolism of the live goat parallels the fate of Satan and his demons, who will be removed at the outset of Jesus’ reign over the nations. The book of Revelation describes this removal: “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished …” (Revelation 20:1-3 Revelation 20:1-3 1 And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. 2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, 3 And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
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).

Thus the devil and his demons, who for thousands of years have led mankind into every evil deed imaginable, will be removed to a place of restraint (Revelation 20:4 Revelation 20:4And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
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). Complete global reconciliation to God cannot occur until the source of so much sin and suffering is out of the picture.

The modern application of this festival

Now notice specific instructions on when and how we are to keep this festival. “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement,” God says. “It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls …” (Leviticus 23:27 Leviticus 23:27Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation to you; and you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD.
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).

How do you “afflict your soul” on this day? Afflict comes from the Hebrew anah, which means “to be afflicted, be bowed down, be humbled, be meek” ( Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, “To Be Humbled, Afflicted”). The same word is used in connection with fasting in Psalms 35:13 Psalms 35:13But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into my own bosom.
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, Isaiah 58:3 Isaiah 58:3Why have we fasted, say they, and you see not? why have we afflicted our soul, and you take no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exact all your labors.
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, 5 and Ezra 8:21 Ezra 8:21Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.
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. Fasting means abstaining from food and drink (Esther 4:16 Esther 4:16Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast you for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in to the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.
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).

So why does God tell us to fast during this specific 24 hours? Fasting expresses our humble desire to draw closer to God. The Day of Atonement represents a coming time of reconciliation during which, with Satan banished and the world having been devastated by the horrific events leading up to this time, a humbled and repentant humanity will at last be reconciled to God.

Few understand the proper reasons for fasting. Fasting is not to bend God to our will. We don’t fast to receive anything from God except His abundant mercy and forgiveness for our human weaknesses. Fasting helps us remember how temporary our physical existence is. Without food and water, we would soon perish. Fasting helps us realize just how much we need God as the giver and sustainer of life.

We should always fast on the Day of Atonement in a repentant frame of mind. Notice the prophet Daniel’s exemplary attitude while fasting: “Then I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. And I prayed to the Lord my God, and made confession” (Daniel 9:3-4 Daniel 9:3-4 3 And I set my face to the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: 4 And I prayed to the LORD my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments;
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).

The early Church observed the Day of Atonement. More than 30 years after Christ’s death, Luke still referred to the time and seasons by mentioning this day, stating that “sailing was now dangerous because the Fast was already over” (Acts 27:9 Acts 27:9Now when much time was spent, and when sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past, Paul admonished them,
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). Almost all Bible commentaries and dictionaries acknowledge that “the Fast” refers to the Day of Atonement.

Yet another important lesson comes to us through the Day of Atonement. We have already seen that the slain goat represented the sacrifice in our place of Jesus Christ, who took on Himself the death penalty we have earned by sinning. But Jesus Christ did not stay dead; He came back to life. What does the Day of Atonement teach us about Christ’s role after His resurrection?

Leviticus 16:15-19 Leviticus 16:15-19 15 Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the veil, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat: 16 And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remains among them in the middle of their uncleanness. 17 And there shall be no man in the tabernacle of the congregation when he goes in to make an atonement in the holy place, until he come out, and have made an atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel. 18 And he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD, and make an atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar round about. 19 And he shall sprinkle of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel.
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describes a solemn ceremony that was carried out only once each year, on the Day of Atonement. The high priest was to take the blood of the slain goat into the Most Holy Place—the holiest part of the tabernacle—and to the mercy seat. The mercy seat was symbolic of the very throne of Almighty God. The high priest acted out the function Christ performs for repentant Christians. Having ascended to the very throne of God to present the blood of His sacrifice, Christ intercedes for us—as He has since His resurrection— as our High Priest.

The book of Hebrews makes this symbolism clear. “But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this [physical] creation. 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 9:11-12 Hebrews 9:11-12 11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; 12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.
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).

Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we enjoy direct access to the true mercy seat —the throne of our merciful, loving God. This was dramatically and miraculously demonstrated at the moment of Christ’s death, when “the veil of the temple,” covering the entrance to the Most Holy Place, “was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51 Matthew 27:51And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
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; Mark 15:38 Mark 15:38And the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom.
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). This massive curtain was torn asunder in a dramatic testimony to the access we now have to God’s throne.

Many verses in Hebrews mention Christ’s role as our High Priest and intercessor. Because of His sacrifice for us, we can “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16 Hebrews 4:16Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
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). The Day of Atonement thus pictures the loving reconciliation all people can have with God through Christ’s sacrifice. It also shows the remarkable truth that Satan, the author of sin, will eventually be removed so that humanity can at last attain reconciliation with God on a universal basis.

The Day of Atonement serves as a vital preparatory step in anticipation of the next milestone in God’s glorious Holy Day plan, beautifully depicted by the Feast of Tabernacles.

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