Sacrifice and Scapegoat

Leviticus 16:7-10 – 7 Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.

I recently worked on learning to play a new song for our church’s worship service. It sounded fairly simple when I first heard it. But as I picked it up, and as I tried to translate what was happening on the piano to the guitar, I discovered that a lot more was happening than I first heard. The song was more complicated and more beautiful than I realized.

Similarly, the concept of forgiveness in Scripture is both far more beautiful and more complicated than we often realize. Looking at Leviticus 16, we see a couple of things taking place when the sins of the people are forgiven. In neither instance is the depiction one of God just letting go or choosing to ignore sin. We see a sacrifice and a scapegoat. Both are needed. Both depict biblical forgiveness. Both point to Jesus.

The sacrifice is the more familiar picture for us. A goat dies, paying with its blood the price that the sinners should have had to pay. The wages of sin is truly death (Rom. 6:23), and without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness (Heb. 9:22). This is the issue of a substitutionary atonement. One dies and pays the price of the penalty for sin so that another might live.

Of course, the sacrificial goat genuinely brought the people forgiveness, but not because it actually paid the price for sin. After all, the blood of goats can never be worthy enough to pay the price for our sin against God (Heb. 10:4). Instead, the sacrifice pointed toward the coming of Jesus. God forgave the sins of the people for real, but he did so with the clear understanding that the blood of Jesus Christ would in fact be the payment for all the sins that God would forgive. Thus, the sacrifice of Jesus includes in its purpose the proof of God’s righteousness as it actually paid the price for sins that God had passed over without receiving payment of infinite worth in the Old Covenant days (Rom. 3:24-26). God really forgave the folks in the Old Testament, but the sacrifice was not a payment of the price of sin, but an act of faith on the part of the people as they trusted God’s promise of forgiveness. The sacrifice was also, on God’s part, a sort of placeholder or IOU for himself as he awaited the day when Jesus would make the only actual acceptable payment for sin.

The scapegoat, that second goat sent off into the desert, is a second picture of forgiveness. The idea here is that the goat will carry away on itself the guilt of the sins of the people. The removal of sin is here depicted. After all, having your sin’s penalty paid for, if you are still covered in your sin, would not make you acceptable to enter into the presence of God. Only if your sin is removed from you so that you are made clean can you enter the presence of the Lord (Psa. 24:3-5). We need the price of sin to be paid and our sin to be carried away from us.

The two goats together point us beautifully to Jesus. We are sinners. We need to have the price of our sins paid for, and if we try to pay that price ourselves, we will spend eternity in hell trying to pay the just and infinite penalty for sinning against an infinitely holy God. But not only do we need the penalty to be paid, we also need the dirtiness and guilt of our sin to be lifted from us. We need to stand before the Lord as people made clean enough to enter his presence without a trace of our former sins clinging to us. And no matter how much we improve ourselves in this life, we will never be that clean.

Thanks be to God for the gift of his Son! Jesus lived the only perfect human life in history, completely satisfying all the demands of perfection that we could never meet. Jesus died to pay the just and infinite penalty we could never pay. Like the two goats, Jesus both pays our penalty and bears away our sins. Jesus swaps our record of rebellion with his perfect righteousness so that we might enter the presence of God both with the penalty for sin paid and with ourselves declared righteous. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Even better than merely carrying our sin away from us, Jesus imputes to us his perfect righteousness.

Had Jesus not performed the work only pointed to by the two goats—sacrifice and scapegoat—we would have no chance to be forgiven. But, since the ceremony here is a shadow, a foreshadowing, of Christ and his work, because Jesus has actually paid for our sins and will lift them from us, we may have life. And we cannot gain that life through any good works of our own. We come to Jesus in faith, entrusting him with our very souls, and we know that, because of his perfect life, finished work, and glorious grace, we are saved. We have the price paid and the righteousness of God to cover us. Jesus lifts our sin and its guilt off of us and bears it away from us. Jesus is our only hope and our glorious Savior.