The of sin and death begins, of course, in Genesis:
“And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years…” (5:3).
Adam’s days are now numbered. He is a dying man.
“All the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died” (v 5).
Adam’s offspring are like him:
“Adam begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth… So all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years; and he died” (vv 3,8).
And so on through the lives of all the ancient ones, to the end of the chapter, and beyond.
Without exception, every human being shares Adam’s predicament. Sin and death hold all mankind in their grip:
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
“Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and death spread to all men, because all sinned” (5:12).
“The wages of sin is death” (6:23).
Sin is imputed
The Bible takes us from Adam to Moses. We come to the time when sin was imputed under the Law. At least, Israelites no longer had an excuse for not knowing their iniquities, transgressions, and sins. The commandment made sin exceedingly sinful.
At the same time, Israel celebrated an annual Day of Atonement. Everyone was implicated: Aaron, his house, and all the people. God held out mercy to every person who would take hold of it:
“Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with the blood of a young bull as a sin offering, and of a ram as a burnt offering… And he [Aaron] shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering. Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house… Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people…” (Lev 16:3,5,6,15).
The escaping goat
“But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go [LXX ‘aphsei’] as the scapegoat into the wilderness” (Lev 16:10).
The term “scapegoat” was coined by William Tyndale and first appeared in his 1530 translation of the Pentateuch. It reflects the meaning of the Hebrew word: the goat that departs. For Tyndale, the idea of the scapegoat was simple: it was the escaping goat.
Only later, in Jewish tradition, was the scapegoat not allowed to escape. It was taken away and destroyed. And only after the days of Tyndale, in Christian tradition, did the idea of a scapegoat come to mean a substitute; one who took the blame or punishment for something someone else had done.
But we don’t need to be concerned with these traditions. The lessons of the Day of Atonement led Israel to know the mercy of God. We, in our turn, can be grateful for the lessons.
Words have wonderful associations in the Bible. In the Greek Old Testament, “let it go” (Greek “aphiemi”) has several applications. None is lovelier than the one we find at the beginning of Psalm 32:
“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven [‘let go’], whose sin is covered” (v 1).
This is Day of Atonement language. The contemplation was David’s. The sin was his, and it was grievous. The contrition and confession were his, and they were genuine. The forgiveness was his. The mercy is God’s.
The Hebrew word for forgiveness in Psalm 32:1, “nasa”, has its application in Leviticus 16 as well:
“The goat shall bear [‘nasa’] on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness” (v 22).
As an Israelite, my iniquities are taken away on the Day of Atonement. Thank God!
When we come to the New Testament, the same Septuagint (Greek) word continues to be found in reassuring contexts:
“Forgive [‘aphek’] us our debts, As we forgive [‘aphiemen’] our debtors” (Matt 6:12).
“They brought to him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you’… ‘the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’ ” (9:2,6).
“He who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Loose him, and let him go’ ” (John 11:44).
Continuing with the Day of Atonement
“Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness” (Lev 16:21,22).
As an Israelite, I watch. I see my sins disappear with the escaping goat, taken to a land uninhabited, released by the hand of “a suitable man”. The image and the blessing are impressed on my heart.
Later Jewish tradition held that the scapegoat should be taken away toward the east. This resonates with Scripture. The great blessing of the Day of Atonement is confirmed:
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him” (Psa 103:10-13).
But a problem asserts itself. As an Israelite, I will enter into the atonement ritual again next year, and the year after that. The years will stretch into a lifetime, and the time will come for me to die. If I have been perceptive, I will have learned two things: God is merciful to me, but sin simply will not go away.
The escaping goat almost mocks me as the ritual is repeated over and over again. Sin is still with me and, in fact, it is not just the goat but my sin that continues to mock me — unless my faith sees something more on the horizon. It does: God will provide a suitable man to meet my most besetting need.
We leave Old Testament times with a promise on the horizon. It is the LORD’s promise of a “new covenant” with Israel, greater than the old covenant:
“I will be their God, and they shall be my people… For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jer 31:31-34).
And so we come to the New Testament.
Sin is taken away
“For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect… But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb 10:1-4).
One bull was offered, each year, for Aaron and his household on the Day of Atonement, and only one goat was slain, each year, for the people. The plural — bulls and goats — underscores the fact that year after year the sin of mankind was not taken away, so long as Israel worshipped under the law.
The mercy perceived in the escaping goat was wonderful, to be sure, but how much more wonderful to have no more consciousness of sins; no more annual reminders that I am still beset by sin, and that sin is still triumphant over all mankind. But how?
Words have wonderful associations in the Bible. God now provides a suitable man. The idea behind this is that of a man who is timely, prepared, and ready:
“Therefore, when he came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you had no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come — in the volume of the book it is written of me — to do your will, O God.’ Previously saying, ‘Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin you did not desire, nor had pleasure in them’ (which are offered according to the law), then he said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God.’ He takes away the first that he may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:5-10).
Timely, prepared, and ready to do the will of God. Here at last is the man, the only one among men, who does no sin, and by whose sacrifice the sin of the world is finally taken away forever.
“As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins’ ” (Matt 26:26-28).
In his body, by the shedding of his blood, sin has been slain forever.
We embrace the blessing of the New Covenant by dying with him in baptism. Now we are assured, by another great act of God’s forgiveness, that our sins are dead in him.
Our sins are gone in the death of Christ, not needing to be atoned for again next year or the next. Never again will they haunt us. Never again will they be remembered against us on the Day of Judgment. We need have no more consciousness of sins. The suitable man of God’s providing has borne our sins once and for all to an uninhabited land, even to death itself. Such is the mercy of God on those who fear Him.
Of us it can be said:
“The LORD has laid on him [the Man of sorrows] the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6).
“[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed” (1Pet 2:24).
This is Day of Atonement language in its final outworking. If the escaping goat provided the Israelite with an annual depiction of the forgiveness of sins, the reality of the cross constantly reminds us that sin itself, including all of our sins, has been forever taken away.
How, then, shall we now live?
Our final change has not yet come. We still await in faith the day when Jesus will appear a second time, not to deal with sins again, but to save us (Heb 9:28). Meanwhile, over the years, faithful men and women have pondered the cross and been brought to their knees. Some have taken pen in hand to express the gratitude of their hearts. We close with the words of our late, beloved brother L.G. Sargent. His words become ours in the singing of Hymn 221. The hymn is cast in a minor key, helping to capture the wonder, solemnity, and depth of feeling we share at the foot of the cross:
Was it for me thy flesh was wounded sore,
Thy body lifted high on cross of shame?
Was it for me the King of Glory bore
So meek the scourge, and ruthless men’s defame?
Was there no way for any man to live
But thou must die, no joy but through thy grief?
Is sin so dark that God cannot forgive
Save through thy sacrifice, and our belief?
That no more heedless through the world I roam,
But come to take the pardon thou didst gain,
And find within thy fold eternal home.
Faithful brother, faithful sister, “Be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Go your way. Don’t despair of the frailty which continues to be ours yet a little while, and with which we still wrestle. In the mercy of God, and through the sacrifice of His Son, eternal life is before us.