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Commentary

The Scapegoat

In my last post on the Lamb of God, I mentioned a meeting where we spoke about John 1:29. Here is what it says in John:

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

John 1:29

As we were studying, one of the Christian men thought that the Lamb of God was the same as the so-called “scapegoat” that is mentioned in Leviticus 16.

I had heard of the scapegoat before, but I hadn’t ever heard of it from the perspective of Jesus being the Lamb of God, so I thought that it would be important for me to go back to read again in Leviticus to see if there was a way that it could be connected to Jesus being called the Lamb of God.

Here are some of the most important sections of Leviticus 16 for us to look at as we consider the idea of the scapegoat. First, God tells Moses how Aaron, who is the high priest at the time, should enter into the presence of God:

“This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place: He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

Leviticus 16:3-5

The important thing that I see here related to the scapegoat is that there are actually two male goats that he takes with him as a sin offering. I think this will become important as we go forward.

Next, we see what Aaron is supposed to do with the two goats:

Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.

Leviticus 16:7-10

So we have the scenario that one of the goats is sacrificed and offered to God. Its blood is an offering for sin. On the other hand, we have the scapegoat. This goat is presented alive and is sent into the wilderness.

Finally, we get a sense of the significance of the goat that is sent into the wilderness. God says:

“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

So the first goat is a sacrifice. We see that God requires that its blood is offered for sin. But then we see that Aaron is also supposed to confess the sins of the people and symbolically pass them onto the goat by placing his hands on the goat’s head. The goat then carries the sins of the people away from them, showing us a picture of forgiveness and God removing the sins of the people away from them to a remote place.

Context

One thing that I think that is important here is to understand the context in which all of these are being given to Moses. There was a point at which Aaron’s sons approached God in the tabernacle in an unworthy, or you might also say unauthorized manner. As a result, both of these sons die and God is giving Moses instructions about how the Israelites should approach God. They must do it in a respectful way, in a way that makes atonement for the sins that the people have committed. God wants to remain with his people, but he can’t do that if the sins of the people are entering the tabernacle, defiling the holiness of God and where his presence lives with his people.

Is Jesus a “Scapegoat”?

This annual sacrifice was a sin offering to cleanse the Israelite community of their sins. It was an offering of blood with the one goat that was killed as a sacrifice and a symbol of what the sacrifice does with the other goat as the sins of the people are passed onto the other goat and sent away into the wilderness.

In one sense, this is an image of what Jesus has done for us. Jesus plays the part of both goats in this day of atonement in that he was killed as a sacrifice and all of the sins of the world are placed upon him. Our sins are taken away and he became the one that does this substitution for us, taking the punishment for us.

On the other hand, I would say that it is also, like many of the symbols and rituals from the Old Testament, a poor picture of the sacrifice and atonement that Jesus gave for us. Why? Because Jesus is the Lamb of God. We shouldn’t forget that God is, himself, coming to save his people. He sacrificed himself for his people. It is a perfect sacrifice. Not just an animal, but God himself. It is the only sacrifice that can take away the sins of the world, once and for all. God gives Jesus as the sacrifice with blood and to cleanse us and to remove our sins once and for all.

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