Leviticus 16 is a remarkable chapter that sets out, in detail, the actions the High Priest was to undertake on the Day of Atonement (v. 29). The particulars of the chapter relate to the High Priest alone. The only other person in view is the “suitable man” who is to take one goat into the wilderness at the climax of the day (vv. 21–22). We know that in the time of Jesus and the early Church, this day was a day of great pageantry in the temple. Pilgrims to Jerusalem for the Fall Festivals gathered in great numbers to watch and observe the High Priest go through these actions. Yet, the chapter speaks to more than just the ritual of the Day of Atonement, as we find the events portray an overview of the steps in God’s Holy Day plan up to that point.
The Day of Atonement started for the High Priest with the bringing of sin offerings, the blood of which was taken into the Holy of Holies itself—the only day in the year when he could enter. One of the sin offerings was a bull, for the High Priest and his household. Another sin offering was the goat that was divinely chosen by the casting of lots to be for the Eternal (vv. 7–9). Notice that the original Passover sacrifice was to be a yearling male, taken from the sheep or the goats (Exodus 12:5). The blood of those sin offerings then had to be taken into the Holy of Holies by the High Priest and sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant and the mercy seat that covered it (Leviticus 16:14–15).
We understand that the wave sheaf offering that took place during the Days of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:9–14) represented Jesus Christ’s brief appearance before His Father shortly after His resurrection (cf. John 20:17), having accomplished His sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. So, the initial instructions for the High Priest to take a goat as a sin offering and present its blood on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies hearken back to what would happen to Jesus Christ as our Passover and the wave sheaf offering that occurred during the days of Unleavened Bread (Hebrews 9:11–12).
When he had finished sprinkling the blood from the sin offerings on the mercy seat, the High Priest was to go back into the Holy Place, the larger part of the Tabernacle of the Temple, where the golden altar of incense, the menorah, and the table of showbread were located. There, he was to purify those items of furniture through more sprinkling of blood (Leviticus 16:16–17). These items of furnishing are used in the New Testament to represent the work of those called into the Church, who have God’s Holy Spirit. The menorah was a light in a very dark place, just as we are to be a light in this world enveloped in darkness. It was fueled by olive oil, a representation of God’s Holy Spirit given to the Church on the day of Pentecost. The incense from the golden altar is used as a description of our prayers ascending to our Father’s throne (Revelation 8:4). Although the showbread is not specifically used in the New Testament in relation to the Church, its unleavened form is a type of what we, as a result of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and with the aid of God’s Holy Spirit, are to become. In making atonement for this part of the Tabernacle, the High Priest is portraying the role of Christ in the Church today. He is cleansing us so that we can perform His work and be readied to be part of His family (1 Peter 4:17).
When he had finished his cleansing of the Holy Place, the High Priest was to come out of the tabernacle and into the courtyard, to the altar of burnt offering that he would cleanse with the blood from the sin offerings (Leviticus 16:18–19). Malachi speaks of the Messiah performing this function when He returns so that the offerings can be acceptable to our Father (Malachi 3:1–4). It is set in the context of events surrounding the coming of the Messiah, as we understand—His Second Coming, associated as those events are with the Feast of Trumpets. Isaiah also portrays the return of Jesus Christ similarly. Isaiah describes Jesus Christ coming with glorious robes splattered in blood, as though He had been treading a wine press (Isaiah 63:1–4). The High Priest had to wear special garments when he undertook these functions on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:4)—garments that may well have ended up stained with blood from his actions of sprinkling the blood as he went about the cleansing rituals. The High Priest was to bathe before attiring himself with these ceremonial linen garments.
Only when he had finished his work of cleansing, was the High Priest to return to the second goat, on which the “Lord’s lot” did not fall (vv. 9–10, 20). That goat was to have all the sins of the people confessed upon its head and was taken into the wilderness and removed from the people by the hand of a “suitable man” (vv. 21–22). John, in the Book of Revelation, shows Satan being taken away from contact with humanity upon the return of Jesus Christ as Lord of Lords and King of Kings (Revelation 20:1–3). The climax of the day of Atonement was that removal of sin from the people, the ultimate act of cleansing that the High Priest undertook on that day.
Jesus Christ is our High Priest, who at present is at His Father’s throne, pictured by the Holy of Holies. He is in the process of preparing us for roles in His Kingdom when He returns to banish Satan from his role as the god of this world and to usher in the glorious reign of the God family. The actions of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement help us appreciate how that transformation is going to occur.