Lev_16:29-30; Lev_16:33. And this shall be a statute for ever unto you, that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you. For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord
And he shall make an atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the tabernacle of the congregation, and for the altar; and he shall make an atonement far the priests, and for all the people of the congregation.
THE wisdom and piety of the Church in early ages appointed, that a considerable portion of time at this season of the year should be devoted annually to the particular consideration of Our Saviour’s sufferings; and that the day on which he is supposed to have died upon the cross, should be always observed as a solemn fast. In process of time many superstitious usages were introduced; which, however, in the Reformed Churches, have been very properly discontinued. But it is much to be regretted, that, whilst we have cast off the yoke of Popish superstition, we have lost, in a very great measure, that regard for the solemnities which our Reformers themselves retained; and which experience has proved to be highly conducive to the spiritual welfare of mankind. The Nativity of our Lord indeed, because it is a feast, is observed by almost all persons with a religious reverence; but the day of his death, being to be kept as a fast, is almost wholly disregarded; insomuch that the house of God is scarcely at all attended, and the various vocations of men proceed almost without interruption in their accustomed channel. We are well aware that the Jewish institutions are not to be revived: but, though the ordinances themselves have ceased, the moral ends for which they were instituted should be retained; nor should any means, whereby they may, in perfect consistency with Christian liberty, be attained, be deemed unworthy of our attention.
The great day of annual expiation was the most solemn appointment in the whole of the Mosaic economy. Its avowed purpose was to bring men to repentance, and to faith in the atonement which should in due time be offered. Now these are the sole ends for which an annual fast is observed on this day: and, if they be attained by us, we shall have reason to bless God for ever that such an appointment has been preserved in the Church.
In considering the passage before us there are two things to be noticed;
The objects for which atonement was made—
To have a just view of this subject, we must not rest in the general idea of an atonement for sin, but must enter particularly into the consideration of the specific objects for which the atonement was made. It was made,
For the High-Priest—
[The persons who filled the office of the priesthood were partakers of the same corrupt nature, as was in those for whom they ministered: and, being themselves shiners, they needed an atonement for themselves [Note: Heb_5:1-3.]: nor could they hope to interpose with effect between God and the people, unless they themselves were first brought into a state of reconciliation with God. Hence they were necessitated to “offer first of all for their own sins.”
And this is a point which reflects peculiar light on the excellency of the dispensation under which we live. Our High-Priest was under no such necessity: He had no sin of his own to answer for [Note: 1Pe_2:22.]: and hence it is that his atonement becomes effectual for? us [Note: 1Jn_3:5; 2Co_5:21.]: for, if he had needed any atonement for himself, he never could have procured reconciliation for us [Note: Heb_7:26-28.] — — —]
For the people—
[“All the people of the congregation” were considered as sinners; and for all of them indiscriminately was the atonement offered. None were supposed to be so holy as not to need it, nor any so vile as to be excluded from a participation of its benefits.
But here again we are reminded of the superior excellency of the Christian dispensation. For though, among the Jews, the atonement was offered for all, it did not suffice for the removal of guilt from all: it took off the dread of punishment for ceremonial defilements; but left the people at large, and especially all who had been guilty of presumptuous sin, under the dread of a future reckoning at the tribunal of God. “It could not make any man perfect as pertaining to the conscience [Note: Heb_9:9-10.].” The very repetition of those sacrifices from year to year shewed, that some further atonement was necessary [Note: Heb_10:1-4.]. But under the Gospel the reconciliation offered to us is perfect: it extends to all persons and all sins, in all ages, and quarters, of the world. No guilt is left upon the conscience, no dread of future retribution remains, where the atonement of Christ has had its full effect [Note: Heb_9:14.]: there is peace with God, even “a peace that passeth all understanding:” He “perfects, yea, perfects for ever, all them that are sanctified [Note: Heb_10:14; Heb_10:17; Heb_10:21-22.].”]
For “the sanctuary itself and the altar”—
[Even the house of God, and the altar which sanctified every tiling that was put upon it, were rendered unclean by the ministrations of sinful men. The very touch or presence of such guilty creatures communicated a defilement, which could not be purged away but by the blood of atonement. The high-priest, even while making atonement for the holy place, contracted pollution, from which he must wash himself, before he could proceed in his priestly work [Note: 4.]. In like manner, the person who led away the scape-goat into the wilderness, and the person who burnt the sin-offering without the camp, must wash, both their persons and their clothes, before they could be re-admitted into the camp [Note: 6–28.]. What an idea does this give us of the corruption of human nature, when even the most holy actions, performed according to the express appointment of God, were, by a painful necessity, the means and occasions of fresh defilement!
From the atonement required for the sanctuary we learn, that heaven itself, so to speak, is defiled by the admission of sinners into it; and that on that very account it could not be a meet habitation for the Deity, if it were not purified by the atoning blood of Christ [Note: Heb_9:23.].]
A just view of these things will discover to us the connexion between the atonement itself, and,
The duty especially enjoined at the time of that atonement—
To afflict the soul is our duty at all times—
[As for the penances which men have contrived for the afflicting of the body, they are neither acceptable to God, nor beneficial to man: they tend to keep men from true repentance, rather than to lead them to it. Doubtless such a measure of fasting and bodily self-denial as shall aid the soul in its operations, is good: but still it is the soul chiefly that must be afflicted. That is the principal seat of sin, and therefore should be the principal seat of our sorrows. Indeed, it is the soul alone which possesses a capacity for real and rational humiliation.
Now as there is “no man who does not in many things, yea, in every thing to a certain degree offend,” there is no man who does not need to afflict his soul, and to humble himself before God on account of his defects.
But it may be asked. How is this to be done? How can we reach our soul, so as to afflict it? I answer, By meditating deeply on our sins. We should call to mind all the transactions of our former lives, and compare them with the holy commands of God. We should, as far as possible, make all our sins pass in renew before us: we should consider their number and variety, their constancy and continuance, their magnitude and enormity: we should search out all the aggravating circumstances with which they have been committed, as being done against light and knowledge, against mercies and judgments, against vows and resolutions, and, above all, against redeeming love. We should contemplate our desert and danger on account of them, and our utter loathsomeness in the sight of God. This is the way to bring the soul to “a broken and contrite” state: and this is the duty of every living man.]
But it was peculiarly proper on the great day of atonement—
[The exercise of godly sorrow would further in a variety of views a just improvement of all the solemnities of that day.
It would dispose the person to justify God in requiring such services. Those who felt no sense of sin would be ready to complain of the ordinances as burthensome and expensive: but those who were truly contrite, would be thankful, that God had appointed any means of obtaining reconciliation with him— — —
It would prepare the person for a just reception of God’s mercy. An obdurate heart would reject the promises, just as the trodden path refuses to receive the seed that is cast upon it. The fallow ground must be broken up before the seed can be sown in it to good effect — — —
It would lead the person to acknowledge with gratitude the unbounded goodness of God. A person, unconscious of any malady, would pour contempt on any prescription that was offered him for the healing of his diseases: but one who felt himself languishing under a fatal, and, to all appearance, incurable disorder, would accept with thankfulness any remedy which he knew would restore his health. Thus it is the penitent sinner, and he only, that will value the offers of mercy through the blood of atonement — — —
Lastly, it would stimulate him to greater watchfulness and diligence in future. Suppose a person pardoned; if he felt not the evil and bitterness of sin, he would be as remiss and careless as ever: but, if his heart had been altogether broken with a sense of sin, if he had groaned under it as an intolerable burthen, he would be doubly careful lest he should subject himself again to the same distress and danger: and the more assured he was of pardon and acceptance with God, the more desirous he would be to “render unto God according to the benefits received from him” — — —]
The reflections to which this subject will naturally give rise, are such as these:
How vain is the idea of “establishing a righteousness of our own!”
[If the most holy actions of the most holy men, done expressly according to the divine appointment, rendered the persons unclean, yea and the very sanctuary of God and the altar itself unclean, so that the washing of water and the sprinkling of blood were necessary for their purification, who are we, that we should be able so to live as to claim a reward on the ground of merit? Let us lay aside this vain conceit, which, if not corrected, will infallibly issue in our own destruction. We need one to “bear the iniquity of our holy things [Note: Exo_28:38.],” no less than the iniquity of our vilest actions: and, from first to last, we must receive “eternal life as the free unmerited gift of God through Jesus Christ [Note: Rom_6:23.].”]
How transcendent must be the efficacy of our Redeemer’s blood!
[All these sacrifices which were repeated from year to year could never purge the conscience of one single individual: but the blood of Jesus Christ, once shed on Calvary, is sufficient to cleanse the whole world. Stupendous thought! Let us endeavour to realize it, and to get the evidence of it in our own souls — — —]
How blessed is the issue of true repentance!
[Men imagine that to afflict the soul is the way to be miserable: but the very reverse is true: to “sow in tears is the sure way to reap in joy [Note: Psa_126:5.].” How beautifully was this represented on the day of atonement! It was on that day (every fiftieth year) that the Jubilee was to be proclaimed [Note: Lev_25:9.]. What a blessed termination of the day was this! What a balm to every afflicted soul! Think of the joy which pervaded the whole country, when every man was rendered free, and all returned to their lost inheritance [Note: Lev_25:10.] ! Such shall be the happy experience of all who afflict their souls for sin and rely upon the atoning blood of Christ. “They that go on their way weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing their sheaves with them [Note: Psa_126:6.].”]