THE DAY OF ATONEMENT
I recently came across an interesting parallel between the Day of Atonement and the ministry of Jesus in the book, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, by the Scottish theologian James Torrance, who is the brother of the famous trinitarian theologian Tom Torrance.
To Torrance’s basic outline I have added my own research, the most important being on the recent reconstruction of Solomon’s temple reported in the Biblical Archeological Review which describes the necessity of the high priest physically ascending several sets of stairs to reach the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement, plus, I have added a final parallel (which Torrance does not make) which surrounds Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples on the resurrection evening.
Ideally, to make things clear, I would use two parallel columns, one for the actions of the High Priest in Leviticus 16, and the other demonstrating how each of the five main actions of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement are perfectly mirrored in the ministry of Jesus. But lacking a diagram I will have to simply list the five steps of the priest and then immediately after list the matching five steps of Jesus as he exercises his high priesthood. But try and hold the first five steps in your mind so that you can match them with the second five steps as it both a beautiful and profound picture—with lots of helpful application—that Torrance is sharing with us.
To Begin With, Column One, The Symbolism From The Day of Atonement In Leviticus 16
First, the high priest represented all Israel. He was bone of their bone, and flesh of their flesh. All that he did he did in their name, he was a representative Israelite. And of course, even his priestly garments revealed this, the names of the 12 tribes being engraved on the stones in his breastplate and shoulder pads. When he went into the most holy place all Israel symbolically went with him. He was acting on behalf of them all.
Second, before going in he consecrated himself. Leviticus describes the elaborate ritual he went through of washing and then placing blood on the extremities of his body (his ear, thumb, toe) indicating of course that, ceremonially, he was now clean and without sin.
Third, he laid his hands on the first goat (there were, of course two used on the Day of Atonement) symbolized a vicarious confession and transfer of the sins of all Israel. And after this the sacrifice is slain.
Fourth, he takes the blood and “ascends” into the Holy of Holies, and sprinkles the mercy seat. Two things are interesting here. The first is that in the Septuagint of Leviticus the word “ascend” is used in the text actually used of the action of the High Priest. And second is that in the most recent reconstruction of Solomon’s temple we find that the High Priest would have to ascend steps from the outer court to the court of the Israelites, and then more steps to the court of the priests. He would then be on the level where the great altar stood. After slaying the sacrifice he would then have to ascend yet more steps up into the holy place and then another set of steps up into the holy of holies. And of course he would begin his day, early in the morning by ascending the steps to the temple mount. The significance of all this ascending is not hard to see when we reach the New Testament.
Fifth, after the sins are laid on the second goat, the scapegoat, and it is sent away (indicating the carrying away of sin) then he returns to the people outside with the Aaronic blessing peace recorded in Numbers chapter 6.
We now move to column two, and what Torrance now points out is that these five steps of the high priest are exactly replicated in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
First, like the high priest, Jesus comes as our representative, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. All that he does he does in our name. He is the one who, as the last Adam, now subsumes all of humankind into himself.
Second, while his whole life was one of consecration to the Father, before the cross, like the Aaronic priest, he formally “consecrates” himself. In what we describe as his great High Priestly prayer (Jn 17) speaking of his sacrificial offering he prays “Father, the hour has come, glorify your Son that your Son might glorify you” (v.1) and then speaks in verse v.19 of consecrating himself to this task.
Third, following in the footsteps of the high priest, having vicariously confessed our sins (which began with his baptism by John and will be climaxed with the words “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”), he is now slain as the lamb of God (I should add that “lamb” and “goat” are sometimes used interchangeably in the Septuagint).
Fourth, just as the high priest had gone from one set of steps to another as he moved through the various courts of the temple on his way to the holy of holies, so, on the day of the resurrection Jesus says to Mary in the garden “I ascend to my father and your Father, to my God and to your God” (Jn 20:17), declaring his intention (as we discover from the book of Hebrews) to “ascend” into the Holy of Holies in heaven, and sprinkle the mercy seat on our behalf.
And fifth, again following in the steps of the high priest on the resurrection evening he returns to his waiting disciples in the upper room with the doors locked and greets them with the Aaronic blessing of peace (Jn 20:19). He can give them peace, as he himself is both the slain lamb and the scapegoat who has carried away the sins of the world.
However, having faithfully fulfilled the fivefold symbolism of the Day of Atonement Jesus can now take things as step further and do something the OT high priest could never do.
He had said, speaking of his body, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” and of course the new temple is not simply his physical body, but his mystical body, the church, which will become the new temple of the Holy Spirit.
The dedication of Solomon’s temple took place during the celebrations surrounding the Day of Atonement. However the temple was not complete until it was filled with the shekinah glory. So now Jesus, having fulfilled the day of Atonement, on the evening of the resurrection in John 20 breaths on the disciples the Holy Spirit to constitute his people as his body, the new tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. (Jn 20:22). And as we have seen, the tabernacle was a war tent, which is why in the same breath he says, “as the Father sent me, even so send I you” and they are commissioned for battle, to extend his kingdom to the ends of the earth.
This temple will not be fully operational until the day of Pentecost, but the great symbolism of the Day of Atonement and the dedication of the temple has its denouement with this action of Jesus in the upper room on the evening of Easter day.
I don’t know about you, but such discoveries lead me to worship. And as I was thinking this through the words of Bancroft’s great hymn kept echoing through my mind and perhaps it sums things up better than I can…
“Before the throne of God above I have a strong, a perfect plea, a great high priest whose name is love who ever lives and pleads for me. My name is graven on his hands, my name is written on his heart, I know that while in heaven he stands, no tongue can bid me thence depart…”
(see James Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace)