The Day of Atonement
Credo Magazine’s newest issue has arrived: “The Glory of the Atonement.” As we reflect on and rejoice in the cross of Christ this Good Friday, we want to highlight Michael Morales’ article on “The Day of Atonement.”
Michael Morales is Professor of Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus.
Here is an excerpt from his article:
The Cross of Christ: the need for the God-Man
Israel’s sacrificial system was as provisional as the Tabernacle itself, meant to school God’s people on the work that could only be accomplished by the Last Adam and eternal High Priest. In the humility of his first advent, Jesus came as the suffering servant to bear upon himself God’s holy and just wrath for our own sins and transgressions. Isaiah uses brutally vivid language, describing the Servant as “despised” and “rejected,” acquainted with “grief” and “sorrows,” being “smitten” “stricken,” “afflicted,” “wounded,” “bruised,” bearing “chastisement,” and lashed with “stripes” (Isa. 53). Aside from the rejection of the Servant by his own people, the primary subject of the action against the Servant—the smiting, afflicting, wounding, and striking— is God the Father.
Yet Isaiah also makes it clear that such suffering is as a penal substitute for God’s sinful people. Indeed, the pronouns tell the whole story: “he has borne our griefs…he was wounded for our transgressions” (53:4-5); although “we all have gone astray…the LORD has laid on him all of our iniquity” (53:6). It is, finally, Israel’s sacrificial system that illumines the theology of the Servant’s suffering, for, as Isaiah explains, the LORD has “made his soul an offering for sin” (53:10). The LORD’s righteous Servant would justify his people, having borne their sins and their judgment upon himself (53:11). The sins of God’s people having been transferred upon the Servant, the sufferings of the Servant are, therefore, judicial sufferings, penal in nature. The Servant’s self-sacrifice pays the penalty for Israel’s iniquities, making true and full atonement so as to justify many. The Servant is thus portrayed in a priestly manner, not only offering himself as a sacrifice—being numbered with transgressors, bearing the sin of many, and pouring out his soul unto death—but also making intercession thereby for sinners (53:12), the twofold work attributed to Jesus Christ as our eternal high priest in the book of Hebrews (8:24-27).
Because, as the author of Hebrews explains, the blood of bulls and goats cannot atone for sin (Heb. 10:4), ultimately, humanity needed a blameless human substitute to satisfy God’s justice—to which Isaiah’s suffering Servant passage gestures. Not only so, but a substitute for the innumerable host of God’s elect required more than one mere human. Jesus taught that gaining the whole world would be insufficient to redeem a single forfeited soul (Matt. 16:26)—how much more so for the souls of all of God’s people. As the God-man, however, Jesus Christ’s sufferings are of infinite value, able to absorb and—praise the Almighty!— exhaust the judgment due to guilty sinners, fully satisfying God’s righteous and holy wrath. As the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, Jesus by his suffering and death had even undergirded the provisional efficacy of the Old Testament sin offerings—they were sacramental tokens of Jesus’ penal substitutionary atonement.
In the Day of Atonement’s “blameless” animals, there was thus a shadow of Jesus’ active obedience, his fulfillment of the Law as federal head of his people, even his full-hearted love for the Father. In the sacrifice of the goat for the LORD and in the exile of the scapegoat, we see a dim silhouette of Jesus’ passive obedience as our sin-bearer, loaded down with our transgressions, guilt, and shame, judged and exiled with the torments of hell for our sakes. Even the sacrificial system of ancient Israel, including its Day of Atonement, though founded upon the doctrine of vicarious substitution in its use of animals and blood, proved insufficient to allay the consciences of guilty sinners who had come to grasp something of the gravity of their filthy rags before the awesome, holy, and Sovereign LORD (Heb. 10:1-4).
The Old Testament sacrifices pointed a bloody finger to the blessed assurance of the salvation found in Jesus Christ alone, the all-sufficient Savior. Because Jesus’ suffering was as a vicarious penal substitute, sinners can find rest for their souls. The dark and thunderous storm of divine judgment that ever threatens a guilty conscience, casting its gloomy shadow over every frivolity and pretense of happiness, cannot be dispelled by mere wishful thinking, hollow forgiveness, or deeply false notions of divine carelessness. A Christian basks securely and with peace of conscience in the warm rays of the Father’s benevolent face only because that storm has already broken in the full measure of its fury upon the crucified Son of God.