It’s easy for us to sometimes disregard, or functionally set aside, those portions of Scripture with which we are less familiar or culturally less connected to. Leviticus is one such portion. And yet, the Holy Spirit means to use all Scripture in his work to teach us, to reprove us, to correct us, and to train us in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). The Lord recently blessed me with an experience of this truth while reading Leviticus 23:26-32, Yahweh’s instructions to his people for the Day of Atonement.
Recall first the purpose of the Day of Atonement (Note: I’m helped here by the entry for “To Atone” in Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). Held on the tenth day of the seventh month (Israel’s “holy” month), this was the day each year when the high priest offered a special sacrifice, or series of sacrifices, before God to address the sins of Israel as a whole (see Leviticus 16). It was the day when a “scapegoat” was sent out and away from the camp, symbolically taking the people’s sins from them. It was the one day each year when God said the high priest must enter into the Tabernacle’s (and later the Temple’s) Holy of Holies; into the presence of God before the Ark of the Covenant with its mercy seat. The word “atone” carries with it the idea of covering over – “to cover over, atone, propitiate, pacify” (Vines, “To Atone”). On the Day of Atonement, God covered Israel’s sins, presenting his people pure to himself, ready for relationship.
With that background, let me quote verses 26-32 of Leviticus 23. As you read these (from the New American Standard Bible), pay special attention to what Israel must notdoon the Day of Atonement: The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. You shall not do any workon this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any workon this day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no workat all. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath.”
Did you catch the overwhelming emphasis of these verses? On the Day of Atonement, the day each year when their sins were covered and sent away from them, God commanded the people of Israel to cease working and rest. On other days of religious celebration they were not to do any “laborious,” or “ordinary” (in the ESV), work (see Lev. 23:36), but on the Day of Atonement they were to cease from allwork. It’s a point repeated at least three times in these seven verses, and so it is abundantly clear – on the Day of Atonement, no work!
Now, why does God command with such stringency this ceasing from labor on the Day of Atonement? In the theology of the Old Testament we could probably give several answers, but one that captures my attention and won’t let me budge. On the Day of Atonement God covered and dealt with the sins of his people. He took them away (and by implication took away both the consequence and the power of sin). This process of covering and removing required nothingin terms of work from his people. There was nothing they could do to deal with their sin before God…nothing they could do to save themselves. Atonement, from start to finish, was God’s work. Do you see it?! It’s as if God says to his people: “Sit still and rest. I love you, and I will deal with your filthy rebellion against me. You can do nothing, I must do all.” Paul’s rendering of this same truth comes in the well-traveled (and much beloved) words of Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” God does everything while we rest in faith. Therein lies salvation.
The great and final Day of Atonement came on the day when Jesus Christ died on a Roman cross. He was at once the sacrificial bull, the lamb and the ram and the goat of burnt offering, and the scapegoat sent outside the camp bearing the people’s sin (see Leviticus 16). What is our part in light of Jesus’ atoning work? Our part is to Sabbath (to rest) in faith, doing no work, but living lives of joy where labor is worship and effort is the outcome of grace.
Rejoice! The Day of Atonement has come. In Christ, if you will come to him, your sins have been covered and removed from you. Will you now rest in him and cease from all your work to do and earn what you cannot achieve or merit?