Are you familiar with the concept of the scapegoat? I don’t mean in a biblical or theological manner but as it is commonly used in conversation. My dictionary defines a scapegoat as “a person bearing the blame for the sins, shortcomings, etc. of others, esp. as an expedient.” So a scapegoat is someone who has to pay the consequences for someone else’s crime.
The first example that comes to mind is not a high profile criminal case but something from my childhood. One of my friends decided to put red ants down the pants of his younger sister. She, of course, began to cry and scream. Realizing that he would get in trouble from his parents, he put red ants down his own pants so that he could blame the other friend (not me) who was there. This person, who was completely innocent of any red ant mischief, became the scapegoat.
The way we use scapegoat suggests a situation that is never good. It presumes an innocent person who is punished and a guilty person who goes free. With this understanding, we should never want a scapegoat. But in reality we have a scapegoat and it is something good.
The concept of the scapegoat originates in the Old Testament and it is very important to Jewish people to this day. It is also a powerful illustration of what Jesus has done for us.
Day of Atonement
If you have a calendar that includes religious holidays, you might notice one day marked Yom Kippur. That is Hebrew for the Day of Atonement and it continues to be one of the most important festivals of Judaism to this day. Now, it is celebrated in a different way today than it was in the Bible. With the destruction of the temple, Jews are no longer able to do animal sacrifices. The Day of Atonement is a day of prayer and fasting. If you think of the Christian concept of Lent, take that, make it stricter and compress it into one day, and you have some idea of what the Day of Atonement is to Jews. What it does have in common with the biblical version is the focus on confessing and repenting of sin. Dealing with sin is the whole reason why there is a Day of Atonement.
The ancient Hebrews were well aware of the presence of sin. While they believed that they were God’s chosen people simply by being born as a part of Israel, they understood that they didn’t always act like God’s chosen people. That sin could not be just ignored and it had to be dealt with.
Like many of the religious festivals of the Old Testament, this one included animal sacrifices. Two goats were chosen to participate in this ritual. One of the goats was to be killed as a sin offering. The high priest then placed his hands on the remaining goats and symbolically had the sins of the people come upon the goat. That goat, which was the scapegoat, then was driven into the wilderness. This was a visual representation of the sins of the people being removed from the community and an acknowledgment that they were forgiven.
Two things I would like to mention about the Day of Atonement. In addition to the sacrifice of the goat, there was also the sacrifice of a bull. The bull was a sacrifice for the sins of the high priest. The high priest could not intervene on behalf of the people while he was still in his own sin. Only after his sin was taken care of could he perform the ritual that would remove the sin of the people. The second thing is that this ritual would have to be repeated every year. Just because sin was dealt with one year didn’t mean that sin was absent a year later. It was understood that people are sinful by nature and we continue to struggle to follow God’s ways.
The ancient Hebrews took sin seriously. They knew sin was real and performing the rituals that went along with the Day of Atonement was essential to their faith.
Jesus as Our Atonement
What about us? What does this mean for us as Christians? We need to remind ourselves that we are just as sinful as the Israelites. We should never fool ourselves that Christians are more righteous than the Hebrews. We all struggle with sin. I believe the doctrine of sin is the easiest doctrine to prove. Not only do I see it on the news every day, I see it within my own heart. Even on the days that I’m doing well, I can see the unhealthy pride beginning to rise. I’m not saying that we should beat ourselves up or think of ourselves as the scum of the earth. But we should take sin seriously and be aware of us.
Despite our sin, like the Jews of our day, we do not offer sacrifices of goats. There is a reason for this beyond the absence of a physical temple. There was a letter written in the first century that was included in the New Testament. This letter to the Hebrews, among other things, looked at how things in the Old Testament prepared the way for what Jesus would do.
I knew a church that spent a large amount of money to have drawings made for a major expansion of their church building. Despite the high financial cost, those drawings were worthless because they decided to not go ahead of the building project. The drawings were only valuable as the first step in bringing about the reality, the actual physical construction.
The letter to the Hebrews saw certain passages in the Old Testament, including the Day of Atonement, in this way. The Day of Atonement is important for us as Christians in how it points to Jesus. And if we look carefully, we can see Jesus all over it. Jesus is actually both goats. He is the scapegoat that has the sin of humanity placed upon him. He is also the goat that is killed as a sin offering to pay for the sin. Not only that, Jesus is also the high priest that offers the sacrifice for the people, in this case himself. The Bible tells us that when Jesus died on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn. This temple was around the place in the temple where the high priest could go in only once a year, that being the Day of Atonement.
But there are two major differences between Jesus and the Old Testament version of the Day of Atonement. One is that Jesus didn’t need to sacrifice a bull for his own sins, because he had no sin. He was the only high priest ever who was without sin. Secondly, unlike the Day of Atonement had to be repeated every year, the atonement of Jesus was performed once forever. It would never have to be repeated. Jesus as our scapegoat was able to accomplish something far greater than anything an Old Testament ritual could ever do. We read this in Hebrews: “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.” (Hebrews 10:11-13)
I would like to conclude with some reflection on what this means for us in a practical way. The Day of Atonement is so much more than religious trivia. It has a number of lessons for us. The first is that sin is serious and important. We cannot fluff it off as mistaken ideas of a past generation. The Israelites understood sin to be serious and so did Jesus. We cannot take it lightly. Secondly, because Jesus died on the cross, we can experience forgiveness and life. There is hope for us because of the cross. Finally, while still trying to live a godly life, we should not let the burden of sin weigh us down. I love the picture of the scapegoat walking into the wilderness, taking the sins of the people with it. Too many Christians are weighed down with regrets and discouragement. That is not the life God has for us. There is freedom in Christ and we should celebrate that freedom. Our sin has been dealt with once and for all.