The Hebrew Day of Atonement was the holiest and most sacred moment in the calendar of the ancient Jew.
This was the day when the High Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, beyond the veil of the sanctuary where the Ark of the Covenant was housed. The acceptance of the High Priest by God on this day was the sign that the sins of Israel were covered and that they nationally had peace with God.
Therefore the Day of Atonement was a time of assurance. Fears were calmed because atonement was accomplished.
There is nothing more important for us as Christians than knowing that we have eternal life. As with the Jews on this ancient day full of solemn ritual we are sure because of the atonement.
The importance of atonement and assurance is exemplified by the two goats which formed a central feature of the day.
The High Priest cast lots to determine which beast would be sacrificed on the altar and which creature would be the scapegoat. In both animals we observe the work of Christ; one represents the atonement accomplished by Christ and the other is our assurance through Christ.
In the goat sacrificed we observe Christ and His work of atonement. This comes first because assurance is impossible without Calvary. The word atonement means to cover, and the only covering for sin is the blood of Christ which was shed at cross. The simple creature was slain upon the brazen altar and then the High Priest stepped into the Holy of Holies bearing the shed blood. Sprinkling the blood upon the veil and upon the mercy seat guaranteed acceptance by God.
“O Christ, what burdens bowed Thy head!
Our load was laid in thee;
Thou stoodest in the sinners’ stead,
Didn’t bear all ill for me,
A victim led, Thy blood was shed;
Now there’s no load for me”.
Anne Ross Cousin
The High Priest, turning his attention to the living creature placed both his hands upon its head and performed the most remarkable ceremony:
“And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon 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 upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:21).
This was the visible and emotional moment of assurance. The blood had been shed to make atonement, now the scapegoat bearing their sins would be sent into the wilderness never to return. Similarly, we by faith lay our hands upon the head of Christ, confessing our sin, and thereby experience the separating of those sins from us, as far as east is from the west. The debt is cancelled, the guilt is removed and we have peace with God.
“Not all the blood of beasts
on Jewish altars slain,
could give the guilty conscience peace,
or wash away the stain.
But Christ, the heav’nly Lamb,
takes all our sins away,
a sacrifice of nobler name
and richer blood than they.
My faith would lay her hand
on that dear head of thine,
while like a penitent I stand,
and there confess my sin.
My soul looks back to see
the burdens thou didst bear,
when hanging on the cursed tree,
and knows her guilt was there.
Believing, we rejoice
to see the curse remove;
we bless the Lamb with cheerful voice,
and sing his bleeding love.”