I want to ask you a very difficult question. Thinking back on your lifetime, what would you say was the worst sin that you have done? Now admittedly this is not a pleasant thing to do. We would just as soon forget about the times we did something wrong. Perhaps you ignored a pressing need and that caused a lot of hurt and pain. Perhaps it was saying or doing something that you knew was wrong. Maybe it was something that you did that no one else knows about but you and you know it was wrong. What would you consider to be your worst sin?
The next, and the far more important question, is “What do you think God has done with that worst sin?” To answer that question we need to look at the Bible’s teaching of “atonement.” Leviticus 16 lays a foundation that is vitally important for understanding what God does with our sins. Let’s read Leviticus 16:1-28.
The Day of Atonement was an annual national holiday centered on the Tabernacle. This was a day on which the High Priest, the religious leader of the people, would enter the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle, the place of worship. Ordinarily the High Priest would wear very elaborate and ornate vestments, but on this day, he wore a very plain and simple robe. In fact, on this day he looked more like a slave than priest. On this day, the high priest would first offer the bull as a sacrifice for his own sins. He would then pour incense on hot coals, creating a cloud which would hide him from God’s glory.
Then he would take some of the bull’s blood and enter the Most Holy Place where he would sprinkle that blood on the Mercy Seat of the ark of the Covenant. Coming back outside, he would take a goat, chosen by casting lots, and sacrifice it. The blood of the goat would represent the people. He would then go again into the Most Holy Place and sprinkle that goat’s blood on the Mercy Seat.
What is important to note at this point is that these animals were sacrificed as an atonement or a substitute for the people. The people had sinned and according to God’s law deserved to die. Their lives had to be given as punishment for their sins. But instead of their lives, the lives of the goat and bull were given. Did the animal’s death really take away the sins of the people? No, but the blood shed also demonstrated to the people that something or someone had to die to pay for their sins. The next step made the reality of God’s forgiveness even more vivid.
II. Verses 20-28 describe what happened with the scapegoat.
The high priest would take a second goat that was still alive, called the scapegoat. The high priest placed his hands on this goat and confessed the sins of all the people. The priest would confess: “O God, your people, the house of Israel, have sinned; they have committed iniquity and transgressed against you.” The action of laying the priest’s hands on the goat was a symbol of transferring the burden of all these sins to the goat.
Next one person would be chosen to lead this goat into the wilderness. The “wilderness” is that place from which the goat could not return. Thus, the people’s sins were brought to a place from which they could not return. The release of this goat meant that their sins and guilt were gone. Later on, the Jews would carry this out in even more dramatic fashion. The person would lead the goat to a cliff and push the goat over backwards down the cliff to kill it. The point was to show that the people’s sins were gone and removed completely.
This cleansing and sacrifice emphasized just how repulsive the people’s sins were. Those of you who have dogs perhaps can understand the mentality here. Every dog has at least one time gone outside, found something that is absolutely horrible on the ground and rolled in it. The dog immerses himself in an odor that can be beyond description. When that happens, the dog gets bathed immediately before it is allowed back into the house. These sins of the people were repulsive; truly awful things. And even being by them is dirty and offensive and so the priest and the man with the scapegoat needed to be cleansed.
Atonement was a dirty business but one that was necessary and the people were shown that God really does forgive and completely remove their sins from them. Just as they would never see that goat again after being taken into the wilderness, they could be assured that they would never see their sin or guilt again. All the things that they had done in that past year were gone and never to return! What a powerful symbol of God’s forgiveness! What does this have to do with us?
In a very real sense the real “Day of Atonement” occurred on that first Good Friday. When Jesus died on the cross, He atoned for our sins. We deserved to die and our blood deserved to be poured out. Jesus died and shed His blood instead. Hebrews 9:13 says this specifically: “The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.”
This is summarized in the Belgic Confession. Article 20 says: “God made known his justice toward his Son, who was charged with our sin, and he poured out his goodness and mercy on us, who are guilty and worthy of damnation, giving to us his Son to die, by a most perfect love, and raising him to life for our justification, in order that by him we might have immortality and eternal life.” Article 21 continues, “We believe that Jesus Christ is a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek, made such by an oath, and that he presented himself in our name before his Father, to appease his wrath with full satisfaction by offering himself on the tree of the cross and pouring out his precious blood for the cleansing of our sins, as the prophets had predicted.”
Jesus took our place and died for us so we can be forgiven and saved from death. Once two duck hunters were hunting in southeastern Georgia. Far away on the horizon one noticed a cloud of smoke. Soon he could hear crackling as the wind shifted. He realized then that a brush fire was advancing, so fast they couldn’t outrun it. Rifling through his pockets, he found a book of matches and lit a small fire around the two of them and soon they were standing in a circle of blackened earth, waiting for the fire to come. They didn’t have to wait long. They covered their mouths with handkerchiefs and braced themselves. The fire came near and swept over them. But they were unhurt and untouched. For fire will not burn where another fire has already burned. If we believe that Jesus died for us, we are in a place where no sin – past, present or future – can touch us. We are safe in Christ.
Now this has something very important to say about how God views us and our sin. God has great anger against sin and takes sin with utter seriousness. Still God is a God whose mercy is endless from the beginning. God is one who hates sin passionately but still passionately loves the sinner. How is this tension rectified? By Jesus Christ and His atoning death. There is both bitter punishment and most bitter death. Christ’s work and death are punishments for sin, but ours not His. God loves the sinner deeply but hates the sins we do with equal deepness.
And we too must learn to love the sinner while we hate the sin in the people we see around us. Oh, we agree in principle and try to carry this out to a certain extent. Someone mildly offends us or hurts us and we try to think, “I still love the person even though I don’t like what he has done to me.” But if we follow through on this completely, it becomes very difficult with certain people. For some people, we tend to lump both sinner and the sin together. We abhor terrorists’ actions which kill innocent people and we would just as soon get rid of the terrorists as well. We abhor the senseless acts of violence and so we want to get rid of the killers as well.
But what we must realize is that God deeply loves the sinner and wants to save the sinner! If anyone ever had any right to completely hate someone, God had that right with us. Our sinfulness is so repulsive to God that He could have written us off as well. But Jesus atoned for our sins because God loved us awful sinners in spite of our awful sin. That amazing love is what we are to imitate in our lives as well.
IV. But the main thing for us to realize is what happened to our sins.
Jesus’ death of atonement did away with all of our sins. What kind of sins? Simply all of our sins. The sins that we knew were wrong and we did them anyway. The sins that if anyone else found out about, we would be terribly, terribly ashamed. Even the sins that we did and were not even aware of. Even the worst possible sins, even the worst sin that you did last week or years ago! All of our sins are gone, completely removed forever because of Jesus. It is like the goat that goes off into the wilderness and never returns. If we confess our sins; they are completely gone forever! That is the power of Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. The sins that we have committed won’t come back.
That is important because it means that we don’t have to be plagued by guilt! That goat isn’t coming back to remind you of what you have done. If you have confessed your sins, they are gone and forgotten. You don’t have to listen to Satan’s voice telling you what a dirty rotten sinner you are. Instead you should listen to Jesus’ voice telling you that your sins are forgiven and that they are gone forever.
That is the beauty of the doctrine of the atonement that we remember in this season of Lent. Now, do you still remember the worst sin? You don’t need to because Jesus died to pay for it. If you confess it, God has forgotten all about it. Let’s thank God for that and live in humble obedient gratitude for that in our lives.