Better than Goats
Adam and Eve messed up. They had it all, and they messed it all up. As we continue in the narrative of the Bible, we find that Israel, the people of God, are no different; they can’t keep themselves from sinning any more than the prior generation. Yet God still wants a relationship with his people. He still intends to be intimately involved with their lives and he intends to bring about a new kingdom through them, however, there is this small detail of mending the broken relationship.
A Holy (set apart, perfect in every way) God mixes with an unholy group of people about as well as oil and water. The two things are not compatible. So the question remains, how can all of this be made right?
I’m only kind of kidding.
In the beginning. God shares with Adam and Eve that the penalty for sin is death. Adam and Eve sin by disobeying the command of God, and yet they do not immediately die. Rather, they become aware of their nakedness and hide from God in their shame. And despite their behavior, He draws near to them in their brokenness and clothes them by providing the pelt of an animal to cover their shame. Implicitly, Genesis teaches us that the penalty for sin is still death, but this passage in Genesis reveals the penalty was brought to bear on an animal, rather than man and woman. Later in Exodus and most explicitly in Leviticus, we find that the Lord is using these animal sacrifices as the atonement for the sins of the people.
Atonement. What in the world does that mean? It is actually pretty simple… AT-ONE-MENT. When Christians talk about atonement, we are talking about the way in which God makes us AT-ONE with himself. It’s a holy reunion.
In Leviticus, the Lord institutes a model of sacrifice which culminates in the day of Atonement, or the day of AT-ONE-MENT (A God-given ritual practiced by the people of Israel in the Ancient Near East)! If we are not careful we can get lost in the exhaustive intricacies of the book of Leviticus and end up missing the point. The holiness of God is no small thing, and neither is the sin of the people. The complexity of the laws and rituals outlined in Leviticus remind us of the vast divide that exists between man and God, as well as the severe payment that must be made to make things right. Leviticus reveals a “two goat system” that removes the sin from the people.
First, in order to be set right, the sins needed to be removed - Also known as expiation.
Leviticus 16:21, “He is to lay his hands on the head of a 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 in the desert…”
The people spend all year sinning and sinning and they need a way to say their sorry for all of this sin. For God’s people in Israel, this goat signifies the removal of sin. The priest verbally places the nation's sins on its head and then sends it into the wilderness, symbolizing the removal of sin from the people of God. This is also where the common phrase “scapegoat” came from. In this way, the scapegoat served as an expiation (removal) of people’s sins. Their slates have been wiped clean, and there is no offense brought against them based on their prior sins, according to God. The only problem is that they need a new scapegoat every year because they can’t keep from sinning.They needed to transfer all of their sin: past, present, and future, onto a scapegoat fit for the task.
Second, In order for sin to be set right, the debt must be paid. Also known as propitiation.
Leviticus 17:11 says, “For the life of the flesh is blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”
This passage of Leviticus refers to the goat that was given as the sin offering. The Priest would prepare the goat and kill it as the atonement for the sins of the people. This is where we see God’s justice satisfied by life being taken as a payment for sin. However, in Hebrews 10:4, the author tells us that, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” What could he possibly mean? Isn’t this the very system that God revealed? Did he make a mistake?
But the author of Hebrews rightly understood the sacrificial system in its time and rightly realized that the death of these bulls and goats were mere shadows of the true sacrifice to come in Jesus Christ. Paul says in Romans 3 that Jesus has been put forward as a propitiation by his blood for our sins. In other words, he pays our debt, to the Father, in full. His sacrifice satisfied the wrath of God so that we will not endure the just punishment for our sin!
Not only is Jesus the sacrifice but he is also the scapegoat, the one who removes the sin from our heads and places it on his own. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that “God made him who had no sin to become sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” He is our great substitute. Without him as our scapegoat, we would need to be sent off into the wilderness, out of the presence of God. Yet, because of his great love, we are brought near to God and welcomed in as children. Our sin has been expiated by Jesus.
The old way was a “two-goat system,” what we have in Jesus is a two-for-one sacrifice. Not only is his work the expiation (removal) of our sins, but his saving act serves as the propitiation (payment) for our sins as well! Sin is both removed from us, and our debt is paid in full. John the Baptist said it best in John 1:29 “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In other words, the perfect and final sacrifice.
REFERENCES: John Frame - An Introduction to Christian Belief, pgs. 901-903. Miles Van Pelt - A Biblical Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: Redemption Promised, pgs. 98-102.
Tanner Fox is the Minister for Mission at First Pres. He’s a recent grad of Reformed Theological Seminary and holds deep affection for people, movies, sports and Jesus Christ. As Minister for Mission, he leads the charge to help you love and serve the city and the world. firstname.lastname@example.org