Connections 02.21.2016: Day of Atonement


Leviticus 16:11-19

We all know what a “cover-up” is. We also know it’s not a good thing.

How many times have we learned of a crime only after the cover-up falls apart? Often, more people go to prison for covering up a crime, particularly of the “white collar” variety, than are imprisoned for committing it. That’s because covering up a crime is a crime, too. Sometimes cover-ups have cover-ups.

Do we ever try to cover up our sins? Do we ever try to hide our weaknesses and our frailties? The New Testament book of James encourages us to confess our sins to one another and to pray for each other (5:16). We’re understandably leery about doing that. We’re afraid our sins will end up on social media before we can get home. Hopefully, though, we have a minister, a counselor, or a friend that we can trust, with whom we can be honest, and to whom we can be accountable. Hopefully, we regularly go to God for forgiveness.

But don’t we tend to act like we’re better than we are? Don’t we pretend there’s nothing wrong when there is? And don’t such cover-ups keep us from experiencing the sweet relief of forgiveness?

One thing that strikes me about the Day of Atonement ceremony is that everybody had to acknowledge their sins. The high priest—the #1 religious leader in the community; the Senior Pastor above all Senior Pastors—was required to offer a sacrifice for his sins before he took action to atone for the people’s sins. The ceremony acknowledged that every person in the community was a sinner and that every one of them needed forgiveness.

It’s a good reminder for the church: we’re all sinners and we all need God’s forgiveness. We don’t need to talk about our sins in public, but we do need to acknowledge that we’re all in this thing of being human together.

The Hebrew root of the English word “atonement” means “to cover.” So when the high priest carried out the required acts of atonement—sacrificing the bull, sacrificing one goat, and driving the scapegoat into the wilderness—he did so to “cover” his sins and the sins of the people. But he did so to “cover over” their sins, not to cover them up.

The book of Hebrews goes to great lengths to show that Jesus Christ is the great high priest who covered over our sins once and for all when he died on the cross (Heb 7:26-27). It also says that he is always ready to intercede for us (Heb 4:14-16).

Jesus covered over our sins. There’s no need to try to cover them up.


• Since Jesus died for our sins, why do we still need to confess our sins and seek forgiveness for them?
• How will our spiritual life be affected if we don’t seek forgiveness for our sins?
• Why do you think the high priest was required to atone for his sins before atoning for the sins of the people?
• Why do you think atonement was made for the sanctuary (Lev 16:16)?
• Today is the second Sunday in Lent. What can Christians learn about repentance from the ancient rituals of the Day of Atonement ceremony?

Reference Shelf

The new regulation concerns an annual purgation of the sanctuary, to take place on the tenth day of the seventh month. It is thus the first regularly scheduled (calendric) sacrificial occasion that we have encountered in the book, in contrast to the non-scheduled ones in chapters 1–7. This holy day is known as Yom Kippur, “The Day of Atonement,” in the Synagogue; it falls within September-October in the Gregorian calendar.

The temple is to be purged, not merely because of inadvertent ritual “uncleanness” (as in many of the cases outlined in chapters 11–15), but because of something far more serious. The RSV designates it as “transgression” (vv. 16, 21), thereby apparently meaning deliberate knowing acts of rebellion against the Deity. Both types of actions were thought to besmirch the sanctuary, and consequently it needed to be cleansed by sprinkling it with a ritual detergent.

Inadvertent individual offenses affect the outer altar while communal or priestly ones affect the inner one. Deliberate acts, on the other hand, are more serious: they affect even the innermost room of the temple (the so-called “Holy of Holies,” curiously here designated only as “the holy place within the veil”) where the Deity symbolically was said to dwell….

Lloyd R. Bailey, Leviticus-Numbers, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 191-92.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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