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The entire sacrificial system of the Old Covenant pictures the many facets of our sin and God’s promise of forgiveness and cleansing, but the Sin Offering is perhaps the sacrifice that underlines this point the clearest. And perhaps what many Christians miss is the fact that God cannot dwell with a people who are forgiven and clean. The holiness of God burns against all evil and sin, and when sin accumulates in a land, so does His wrath, unless justice is done.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to the sons of Israel saying, ‘If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them…” (Lev. 4:1-35).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
The Sin Offering is presented for anyone who sins unintentionally in anything that God has commanded must not be done (4:2). The Sin Offering is presented for four scenarios: the anointed priest (4:3-12), the whole congregation (4:13-21), a tribal leader (4:22-26), and any other Israelite (4:27-35). The Sin Offering reminds us of elements of the Ascension and Peace Offerings: the worshiper brings the animal to the door of the tabernacle, he lays his hand on the head of the animal and kills it, and the fat of the entrails is put on the altar and goes up in smoke to the Lord (4:4, 8-10, 15, 24, 26, 29, 31, 33, 35). However, there are two unique elements of this offering: first, the sprinkling of blood in the Holy Place for the High Priest and congregation and putting blood on the horns of the altar (4:6-7, 16-18, 25, 30, 34), and second, when the Sin Offering blood is brought inside the Holy Place, they are to burn the hide, the flesh, and the head and legs outside the camp (4:11-12, 21, cf. 6:24-30).
The word used to describe “unintentional” sin is used elsewhere to describe the difference between this and “defiant” or “high-handed” or “presumptuous” sin (Num. 15:27-31). A famous example of this is when Israel goes up to fight the Amalekites in the Promised Land after the 10 spies bring back the bad report. Israel was warned not to go, but they went up anyway and were defeated (Num. 14:40-45, Dt. 1:41-44). A similar contrast is at work in descriptions of accidental murder versus premeditated (Num. 35:9-34). But there seems to be a sense in which all sin is considered “unintentional” if the perpetrator ultimately repents. “… even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief… It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:13, 15).
What the Sin Offering teaches is that sin not only brings guilt, but it also pollutes the land and the tabernacle (Lev. 15:31, Num. 19:13). On the Day of Atonement, once a year, the High Priest sprinkled blood from a Sin Offering inside the curtain on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant to cleanse the sins of the people (Lev. 16:15-19, 30, cf. 14:52, 1 Jn. 1:7). Therefore, the blood of the Sin Offering sprinkled in the Holy Place and wiped on the horns of the altar is for cleansing. “Atonement” literally means “covering.” In the New Testament, the Greek equivalent is often translated “propitiation,” which means turning away wrath (Rom. 3:25, Heb. 2:17, 1 Jn. 2:2, 4:10). The wages of sin is death, but sin also defiles. We need to be forgiven and cleansed. And atonement does both. Because of the holiness of God in the midst of His people, their sin collects on Him and His tent. So that is what must be cleansed. All of this foreshadows when God sent His only Son to “tabernacle” among us (Jn. 1:14) to take our sin judicially upon Himself and to bleed and die to make us (and our land) clean. We are the unclean ones, and it should be our blood, but the Clean One bled to make us clean.
CONCLUSION: GO TO HIM OUTSIDE THE CAMP
Hebrews describes the Sin Offering for the congregation: “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Heb. 13:11-13). To follow Jesus is to be reckoned unclean by the world, but it is the only way to be truly clean in the sight of God.
“What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:3-4). The blood of bulls and goats could not actually take away sin, but that blood was a promise of the blood of Christ which was to come. That Sin Offering makes us bold. There is now no condemnation.