The Origin of Scapegoat

What does an Old Testament book like Leviticus have to teach us about Jesus' death and resurrection? The Concordia Commentary volume on Leviticus clearly teaches us the connection between an old Jewish Festival and Good Friday.

Leviticus 16 paints a picture of the Lord's commands for the Day of Atonement.

He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Aaron did as the Lord commanded Moses.

Leviticus 16: 33-34

Aaron and the goat

As the sole celebrant Aaron acted on behalf of the people and represented them before the Lord. He approached the Lord on behalf of them. He performed the rite of atonement for all the Israelites (16:34), for himself and the priesthood, and for the congregation (16:5, 11, 17, 24, 33). As the representative of the people, he atoned for all their sins and cleansed the sanctuary from all their impurity (16:16); as their representative, he also confessed their sins and laid them on the scapegoat (16:21). He, therefore, embodied the whole sinful nation and acted vicariously on its behalf before the Lord.

While the blood for the Lord’s goat was brought into the Most Holy Place, the other goat for Azazel was sent out to an “inaccessible region” in the desert (16:21–22). That place was the counter location to the Most Holy Place. It was part of the unclean, demonic realm that belonged to Azazel rather than to the
Lord. The third location was the ash heap outside the camp.

Jesus as the scapegoat

The act of atonement was performed “upon” the scapegoat (16:10) by the rite of confession, as well as with the blood rite “upon” the Most Holy Place (16:16). The New Testament teaches that the death of Jesus is to be understood in the light of the Day of Atonement. Thus the Synoptic Gospels relate that when Jesus died, the veil of the temple was split from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). This showed what Jesus had accomplished by his death. As a result of his self-sacrifice, the way into the Father’s presence lay open to all his disciples. In the Old Testament era only the high priest, on one day per year, could enter the Holy of Holies. But because of the death of Jesus, all peoples at all times have open access to God the Father through faith in him.

Jesus as the mercy seat

In Romans 3:25 Paul alludes to the Day of Atonement to describe the purpose of Christ’s death. God appointed Jesus as the new “mercy seat,” the place of atonement and God’s gracious presence. Through His blood, Jesus gained redemption for sinners. Those who trust in His blood are justified by grace. So Jesus is both the place of atonement and the priest who makes atonement before God with His blood. God justifies those who have faith in Jesus and grants them access to His gracious presence (Romans 5:1–2).

The book of Hebrews elaborates on this. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement. There he performed the rite of atonement in God’s presence. But that access was limited and temporary. His work prefigured the ministry of Jesus who fulfilled what the high priest had begun on that day (Hebrews 9:7–14). By his death Jesus offered himself as the perfect sin offering for the whole world so that, exalted by God, He could enter the heavenly sanctuary with His blood (Hebrews 9:12) and open the way for His brothers into the divine presence (Hebrews 6:20).

Jesus as the High Priest

The work of Jesus resembles and yet differs from the ministry of the high priest on the Day of Atonement in four ways. First, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies in an earthly sanctuary to perform the rite of atonement in God’s presence once a year (Hebrews 9:7). However, Jesus entered heaven itself, the heavenly sanctuary, only once at his ascension, to appear before God on behalf of his brothers (Hebrews 9:12, 24).

Second, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies with the alien blood of animals to make atonement before God (Hebrews 9:7, 25). But Jesus brought His own blood into his Father’s presence to make atonement for sinners (Hebrews 9:12). Because Jesus’ blood had been brought into heaven, it was most holy. It had the power to cleanse and sanctify perfectly.

Third, the high priest brought the blood from the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the earthly altar for incense and the earthly altar for burnt offering (Hebrews 9:21). In this way he cleansed and consecrated these most holy things. Jesus, the great High Priest, sprinkles the heavenly things with His blood (Hebrews 9:23); with His own blood, He sprinkles the hearts and consciences of those who serve the living God in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:13–14; 10:2, 22; cf. 9:9).37 In His Holy Supper He brings His blood from His Father’s presence and gives it to His guests to drink for their cleansing and sanctification. Thus, as Pfitzner [Victor C. Pfitzner, in Hebrews, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries] has
shown, Jesus performs an “ongoing ministry of atonement” by the application of his blood on his people.

Fourth and most remarkably, the high priest was the only person who ever passed through the curtain into the Holy of Holies. No one else was ever allowed to approach the throne of grace. But Jesus entered the heavenly sanctuary to open up a new and living way into the heavenly sanctuary for all His fellow priests (Heb 10:20). He is therefore our ritual forerunner (Heb 6:20). As His fellow priests we can tread where no Israelite priest had ever trod. Through the flesh and blood of Christ, we can approach “the throne of grace” with a clear conscience. We who have the privilege of open access to God the Father can receive mercy and help from Him for ourselves and for others (Heb 4:16; 10:19–22). By faith, we have access to heavenly Jerusalem while we are residing here on earth (Hebrews 12:22–24).

Jesus' atonement is enough

Since Christ has made atonement for us, once and for all, on Good Friday, Christians have no need for any annual Day of Atonement. Through Jesus, we are justified before God the Father and are reconciled with Him (Romans 5:9–11). Unlike the people of Israel, we have no need to fast in order to lament God’s
sentence of death on us for our sins and to seek atonement from those sins by our self-abasement before Him. We do, however, fast in Lent and on Good Friday in order to celebrate His death for us and to rejoice in our redemption (Matthew 6:16–18; Mark 2:18–22).

Atonement theology shapes our worship

This theology of atonement has influenced the shape of our worship and the architecture of our churches. We have no barrier between the nave and the sanctuary. We all enter the sanctuary to receive the body and blood of our heavenly High Priest in Holy Communion. The altar symbolizes the throne of grace.

It reminds us of the mercy seat, with the cherubim, that was set over the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, as well as the altar for burnt offering in the courtyard of the tabernacle. But they are no longer kept apart, for Christ has opened up the way into the heavenly sanctuary for us through his body and
blood. The altar is the mercy seat where we come to receive mercy and grace from God for ourselves and others (Heb 4:16). And so by faith we enter the heavenly realm whenever we celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar.

Blog post excerpted from Levitivus - Concordia Commentary,  copyright © 2003 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Scripture: ESV®. 

Study connections to Christ in the Old Testament in Concordia Commentary: Leviticus.

leviticusOrder the commentary

Subscribe to all CPH Blog topics (Worship, Read, Study, Teach, and Serve)