In the Old Testament, God required the children of Israel to celebrate six special feasts. Those feasts, plus the Sabbath, were known as holy convocations (Leviticus 23:2). God designed each feast to teach a unique message. Some messages were obvious, but others would only be understood in the New Testament.
The most important feast was the Day of Atonement, which used different figures to represent Christ and His work on the cross. It was the only day when the high priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place—into the presence of God Himself.
The high priest began by making sure he was clean and holy for his duties that day.
He washed himself to become ceremonially clean. As a reminder of how rare this occasion was, he adorned himself with holy garments reserved for the Day of Atonement. Then he offered sacrifices to make himself spiritually clean (Leviticus 16:4, 11). Even then, he still had to shield himself in a cloud of holy incense before he could go inside.
The high priest was the forerunner, or type, of Jesus Christ—who serves as our High Priest forever. Like the high priest, Jesus washed before He could enter the presence of God, too. Unlike the high priest, Jesus did not need cleansing from sin, because He was perfect (Hebrews 9:14). Jesus washed to be consecrated. As the Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism, God anointed Christ “with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 10:38; Luke 4:18–19). The washing of Jesus’s baptism parallels the washing of the high priest.
After preparing himself, the high priest began the Atonement ceremony.
He selected one goat for the Lord and one “for the scapegoat” (Leviticus 16:5, 18). Because Christ serves both as High Priest and sacrifice, both the priest and goats point to Him (Hebrews 9:11–12).
Sacrificing the first goat, the High Priest set aside its blood to sprinkle on the Ark of the Covenant. By his blood covering the mercy-seat, the first goat entered the Most Holy Place. His blood served as a covering, or atonement, between God’s holiness and the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:14–15). In the same way, Christ entered the throne room of God to be our blood atonement.
The priests left the bloodstains on the Ark because atonement was always necessary. We do too, which is why Christ remains in the throne room of God, always interceding and atoning for us (Romans 8:34). “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Hebrews 9:12).
Grasping the second goat, the high priest confessed all the sins of the people from the past year and released it into the wilderness to carry all their sins away (Leviticus 16:21–22). As they didn’t know exactly where the goat would go, neither do we know where exactly Jesus took the sins of the world. But we know that bore our sins in His body and that He carried them away in the same manner as the second goat (1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 3:5).
What does that all mean for us?
On the Day of Atonement, only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place and even he could not remain there long. By contrast, Christ’s perfection allows Him to remain in the presence of God, making intercession for us. When He was crucified, the veil of the Temple was torn. Now the Most Holy Place is open, allowing Christians to enter as well. In fact, God wants us to approach His throne.
“Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”Hebrews 10:19–22
That means we have the amazing privilege to serve in the presence of God Himself. God isn’t distant; He’s a loving Father who wants us close to Him. Let’s make ourselves holy for His service.