The Blessing Of Atonement

adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 26 June 2009

And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him” (Leviticus 1:4).

We have begun a series of messages on the exceeding great and precious promises of God that Peter refers to 2 Peter 1:4. These promises are revealed throughout God’s Word. In fact, I believe there are promises in every book of the Bible even though some of them may not appear to be promises.

And so we have embarked on a journey to find a promise in each book of the Bible.

We have considered the first of the promises found in the Bible, which is Genesis 3:15. We noted that the promise was being fulfilled in the history of the redemption of God’s people, and especially at the Cross. For at the Cross, Christ crushed the head of the serpent who bit his heel. And one day, this promise will find its complete fulfilment when God’s people will be fully vindicated and Satan finally silenced.

We considered also the conditional promise in the book of Exodus, in chapter 19, verses 5-6. We noted how God bore his people out from Egypt upon eagle’s wings. But He would have them respond to his mercy by gratefully walking according to His covenant stipulations. If they would do so, they would as a people enjoy God’s special blessing as He embraces them as a peculiar treasure, a royal priesthood and a holy nation.

But now we come to the third book in the Bible, and our first impression is that we surely can’t find any promises here: It is a book about ceremonial laws which God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai after He spoke the Ten Commandments!

But if you know where to look, you will not need to go too far into the book before you encounter the first promise. I am referring to verse 4—

And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.

God is describing to Moses how the burnt offering was to be administered. The burnt offering is one of 5 offerings stipulated by the Law of God. The others are the meat offering, which is really a grain offering; the peace offering or fellowship offering; the sin offering; and the trespass or guilt offering.

The burnt offering involves killing and burning up a bull or a ram, or for the poor, a dove or young pigeon. It is a voluntary act of worship which includes atonement for sin and an expression of devotion, commitment and complete surrender to God.

Ordinarily, when an Israelite desired to offer a burnt offering, he would bring an unblemished ram or a bull from his flock to the priest. He must not bring a wild animal or an animal that is injured, deformed or blemished.

Then before the priest, he will put his hand on the head of the animal as he cuts the neck of the animal to kill it. After that, the priests will take over to collect the blood of the animal to sprinkle round about upon the altar; and then they would cut up the animal, arrange it on firewood on the altar and then burnt it up as a sweet savour unto the Lord.

But now, how is our text a promise?

It is a promise, at two levels. First, it is a promise of the Messiah and what he would come to do. Secondly, it is a promise of forgiveness to every one who fears the Lord.

1. Promise of the Messiah

Now, this is actually quite clear as soon as we understand the full significance of the ritual that the Lord was outlining. You see, it is clear that the ram or the bull cannot take away sin. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” says the writer of Hebrews (Heb 10:4).

What then does the words ‘and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him’ means? Can or cannot the animal represent the man to make atonement for him and take away his sin? Well, we must allow the clarity of the New Testament to give us the answer. The New is in the Old concealed. The Old is in the New revealed.

The animal that was to be slain really represented Christ.  The conscientious worshipper would have understood that both through the Gospel preached unto them and through the work of the Holy Spirit.

The animal could not take his sin and die for him. The animal, after all, is not a moral creature. It has no righteousness, nor does it have any guilt. It could not really suffer for man’s sin, for in that man is created in the image of God and has a soul, the punishment due to him for sin against an infinite God can only be paid by someone who is able to endure the equivalent of God’s wrath for eternity.

Christ Jesus, the God man, is the only one who could be the substitute for all his elect through all ages.

Thus when God instructed that the worshipper must put his hand of the head of the animal as he slays it, he is essentially telling him that his worship can only be accepted through Christ as his substitutionary atonement.

The animal stood in the place of Christ. When the worshipper put his hand on the head of the animal, he is not transferring his sin to the animal. He is symbolically affirming his faith in the Messiah to come who would atone for his sins.

Thus, our text really carries with it a very important promise of the coming Messiah for the people of old.

But wait a minute: Is this promise only for the Old Testament church?

I do not think so, for it appears to me to be a very comforting promise to us individually too.

2. Promise of Forgiveness

The Lord says:

And he [the worshipper] shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.

Why does the worshipper need an atonement? Why can’t he just worship God. The modern idea of worship is that man is doing God a favour when he worships God, so God must accept everything that he offers.

But that is not the biblical doctrine. The biblical doctrine is that since the Fall, man is by nature at enmity with God. We hate God, and God would not accept us because of our sin. “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” says Habakkuk (Hab 1:13). This is the reason why we need an atonement.

What is atonement? Do you realise the word was first used in the theological sense by William Tyndale in 1526? Some commentators even go so far as to say that he invited the term to convey the idea that he saw in the Scripture. ‘Atonement’ is really ‘At-one-ment.’ Sin has separated us from God. In order that we may be reconciled to God, we need an atonement.

Now, as God’s children redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, we know that our sins have been atoned for, and we are reconciled to God; and therefore we can worship him acceptably.

However, are there not times when we feel a sense of guilt or a sense that God is angry with us because of our failures? Are there not times, when we feel ourselves terribly condemned when a certain sin is preached against? And we need such sermons too! What shall we do at such times?

I know a dear old lady, who would always be reduced to tears whenever sin is preached against. She must be one of the most sensitive spirit and godly saints I know. She would be the last person that the preacher would be trying to convict by the sermon, but she would be the first to tear up with sorrow for her sin.

Are there some of us like that? What shall we do when our heart condemns us, when our sorrow for our sin roll over our soul like the rolling waves? What shall we do, when our hearts are burden that it is ready to burst while our bones are out of join? What shall we do when we can say nothing to our own defence, but ‘Woe am I, a sinner?’

It will not do to tell ourselves we are not as bad as we may think we are. It will not do to minimise our guilt. What shall we do then? Shall we not let the Word of God shut us up to Christ as it is intended to do? And really one of the verses that will help us at such times is our text.

Indeed, the dear old saint that I mention, told me of how she struggled for many years with guilt and lack of assurance until one day she heard a sermon on our text. How was this lady help?

She was helped in the realisation that nothing is required of her, but to place her hand on the head of the sacrifice! That was what the worshipper in the Old Covenant were required to do.

And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.

Of course, we do not need to bring a bull or a ram for worship today. So what does it mean for us to put our hands on the head of the offering? What it means for us is simply to rest on the Lord, to come unto the Father with our hands of faith clinging on to the Lord.

Now the amazing thing is that while the bull or ram offers no help to the worshipper in his attempt to worship the Father, the antitype Christ actually comes to us, when by faith we acknowledge Him and what He has done for us.

We will always fail. There will times in every true believer’s heart that he wonders if his sin has shut out heaven and if God is displeased with him. There will be  times when our heart condemns us. At such times, we must remember we have an atonement whose blood speaks so much louder than the blood of rams and bulls. If the promise of the word of God is that the bull or ram will be accepted to make an atonement for the worshipper, then how much more, we can have the assurance of the Father’s acceptance, when our atonement has come to us in person. He died for us and he rose again from the dead for our justification.

Beloved brethren and children, herein is the promise. We have an atonement or a propitiation in Christ our advocate (1 Jn 2:2). For his sake, “if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9)

Therefore go to the Father, with your hand of faith on the sacrifice. You do not need to allow yourself to be burdened by guilt whether it is because of an oversensitive conscience, or because of man who would judge you. Your atonement has been accepted. There is no condemnation to those who are in Him.

33 Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. 34 Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Rom 8:33-34).


And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.

Thank God that we do not need to bring a bull or a ram or even a bird for worship. But thank God that the promise given to those who needed to bring the bull and the ram are for us even more clearly than it is for them.

Thank God for the Messiah. Thank God for forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ that we may that we always have acceptance with the Father even if man reject us and condemn us. Amen.

—JJ Lim