When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites — all their sins — and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place, and the man shall release it in the wilderness. 
–Leviticus 16:20-22

The text of Leviticus 16 captures one of the more profound images in all of the Scriptures: the Day of Atonement. On this day, once a year, the high priest would enter the Most Holy Place, where it was believed the presence of God mysteriously resided here on earth. There, he would make atonement for all the people, wiping away their sins from the prior year.

The high mark of the Day was when the priest would lay his hands on the head of a goat and pronounce over it all the sins of the people, thus transferring them onto the head of the goat. The goat would then be taken deep into the wilderness and set free, with all the sins of the Israelites upon it. I guess you could say that this was one loaded-down goat.

Now, perhaps you’re wondering — what on earth is going on here?

In giving the Israelites these observances, God was giving the people a rich image. Their sins, more than merely being covered over, were actually removed, sent away.

There is a huge difference between having your sins covered over and having them removed.

After the goat was sent away, the people celebrated. (I think the actual Hebrew term would be “party.”) Anyway, the people celebrated because their sins were not just excused, but were wiped clean. It wasn’t that God was somehow just appeased, still leaving the sins in their place. The Israelites actually believed that they were free from them–those sins had been sent away, never to return. It was as if they never happened in the first place.

Astounding, is it not?

Their sins were removed. They were set free. And so it is with us.

Jesus, on the cross, was not merely covering over your sin and my sin. No, he was actually removing it from us, doing away with it… sending it away, never to return. Do we still feel the effects and consequences of our sin? Sure. But as for the sin itself… it’s gone. It is as if it never happened.

So the next time a past sin is brought back to memory, remember that you’ve been set free. Sin has been done away with. There’s no goat here.

If you are still haunted by the past, take a few moments to write out those sins, pronouncing over them God’s forgiveness, freedom, and wholeness. Maybe you want to throw them away, symbolically showing the deeper reality that they have been removed.

Leviticus 16; Hebrews 9

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Mike DeVries

Mike DeVries is a husband, father and a veteran pastor and youth pastor. He is an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University in the School of Theology.

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