To the ancient Jews, the day of atonement was referred to as "the great day" or sometimes just "the day".1 It was the day atonement was made for all the unintentional sins of the entire year. Though sacrifices were constantly being offered by the priest, this particular day was one of great anticipation and anxiousness. What if God doesn't accept the high priest's sacrifice? What if something in the process of sacrificing and offering isn't done exactly as God has commanded? What if as the priest is walking in the holy of holies he is struck down by God and the bells on his robe cease to jingle? What if this year we have to use the rope the high priest has tied to his ankle to remove his dead body out of the Holy of holies? In the many requirements the high priest must fulfill before making atonement for the sins of the people, we come face to face with the deadly consequences of any trace of sinfulness in the presence of the Almighty Holy God.
Because of sin the only way for God to protect us from death is to have us move away. In Exodus
19:12 it says, "Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, `Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death." The perpetual theme is one of separation from God's presence. The tabernacle in the wilderness had
degrees of separation from the presence of God above the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies. There was a veil that separated where God's presence resided in the Holy of holies as if to say, "Stay out upon penalty of death!" And you couldn't just enter the Holy of Holies whenever you wanted. Coming into God's presence your own way, without invitation and without proper
provision is deadly dangerous.
In Leviticus 10, Aaron's own sons offer unauthorized fire which was against what God's command. The result was fire coming out of God's presence and killing them. Leviticus 10 says,
1 Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. 2 So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said:
“‘Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’”
Aaron remained silent.2
After the incident with Aaron's sons, God has Moses give a message to Aaron the priest about entering God's presence. Leviticus 16 says,
The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the Lord. 2 The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. For I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.
Skip forward to a Galilean hanging on a cross between two thieves. He claims to be the Son of God who takes away the sins of the world, however, the temple is not far away and the veil is still very much there barring access to God's presence. The veil still proclaims, "Do not enter under penalty of death!" You hear woman crying to your right and your left and finally the man on the cross utters, "It is finished" before breathing His last.3 According to Matthew 27:51 "At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." That's right, the gigantic DO NOT ENTER sign that declared stay away under penalty of death was ripped up by God like an attorney ripping up a contract. The door to the very presence of God was swung wide open so that the author of Hebrews can tell us, "Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."4
No longer are God's arms crossed and the door locked. His arms are wide open, welcoming you into His presence through faith in Jesus' finished atonement sacrifice on the cross.
Dustin Largent is the Pastor of SonRise Bible Church in Atkinson, IL and the author of "The Christian Marriage Counseling Workbook" and “In Their Own Words: First Person Narratives from the Book of Genesis (Volume 1)
2. New International Version
3. John 19:30 (NIV)
4. Hebrews 4:16 (NIV)