Leviticus 16; Matthew 4:1-11
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Most everyone knows what it means to be a scapegoat. It means to be blamed for something that you didn’t do, or at least that you only had a very small role in. A scapegoat bears the full consequences for someone else’s mistakes. When a sports team or a politician loses, when things go wrong at work or a when a crisis or a tragedy occurs in the world, one of the first things that happens is scapegoating, finding someone to blame and to punish. But while most people know the term, not very many could tell you the original biblical meaning of the scapegoat. That Scriptural meaning is to be found in today’s Old Testament reading where the Yom Kippur is described.
Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.” God had commanded many different sacrifices for various occasions in the Old Testament;” but on Yom Kippur, something special would happen. Only on this day, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies behind the veil in the tabernacle, bringing with him with the blood of slaughtered animals to make atonement for the people. The blood would be sprinkled on the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant. Through the promise God attached to these sacrifices, He was merciful to His people and covered their sins.
All of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were opportunities for God’s people to look forward in faith to the coming of His Son to be their Savior. Without the shedding of blood–Christ’s blood–there would be no final and complete forgiveness of sins. All the blood that was shed in Old Testament times was meant to foreshadow the blood that Christ would shed upon the cross in order to deal with man’s sin once and for all.
Sad to say, though, among the Jews of Israel, rituals like the Day of Atonement often became occasions for people to think of themselves as doing good works to bribe God into forgetting their sins, buying Him off with their sacrifices. To this day, even though there is no temple now standing where the animal sacrifices can be made, on Yom Kippur pious Jews afflict themselves with fasting and mourning over their sins. Their hope is that they can somehow be sorry enough to satisfy God’s righteous wrath against their sins.
We also are guilty of this when we think that our sorrow over sin is what makes God forgive us, as if His mercy is dependent on our good work of being sorry enough rather than on the cross alone, as if by spiritually beating up on ourselves, we can get God to forget our sins. That’s especially important for us to guard against during this Lententide. It is good for us to discipline our bodies and give things up so that we can dwell more fully on His saving Word and prayer and loving our neighbor. But we must always be on guard against the works-righteous notion that our penitential sacrifices for God are what get us into His good graces. No. The blood of Christ alone does that.
The Day of Atonement, then, is really all about Jesus, in particular the part about the goats. You will recall that two goats were to be selected and presented before the Lord. One would be sacrificed; but the other would not. Instead, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the people, and in this way put all their sins on the goat. Then the scapegoat would be sent away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man, presumably to perish there in the desert along with the transgressions of the people.
This is particularly interesting in light of today’s Gospel. For just like the scapegoat, we find Jesus in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days and nights, even as Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. And just as the scapegoat had become the bearer of Israel’s sin, so Jesus here bears the sins of the world.
For Jesus has just been baptized. Though He was without sin, yet Jesus submitted to John’s baptism, standing shoulder to shoulder with sinners, that He might be our substitute and stand-in. There in the water God the Father there made Jesus the scapegoat, laying on His head the guilt of the world, which He would take and carry away.
And just as it was a suitable man who led the goat into the wilderness, so also it is written that the Holy Spirit immediately led Jesus up into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. It is the Father’s will that He endure this for us. Jesus does all of this in our place. Whereas Adam had succumbed to the devil’s temptation, whereas the children of Israel had grumbled and been unfaithful in the wilderness, whereas we all too often give in to the desires of the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature, Jesus did not. He took everything that the devil threw at Him and prevailed, for us. He was and is entirely without sin.
And please note that Jesus does this without using any of His divine powers. Don’t think this was easy for Him. Why do you think angels had to tend to Him at the end? It wouldn’t be of much comfort to us if Jesus had done this with a brush of His almighty hand as God the Son. Instead He humbles Himself to do this as one of us, our representative, as the Son of Man–weak, hungry, alone, face to face with the devil. He even allows Satan to cart Him around–to the pinnacle of the temple, and then to an exceedingly high mountain. Jesus uses nothing but the Scriptures to fight with. And He wields the sword of the Word powerfully, skewering the devil and fighting off and defeating the him at every turn.
“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” “Go ahead and give in to your self-seeking desires. Serve your own appetites. Who cares what your Father has said. A little bread is no big deal.” We would give room to the devil’s words, dialogue with Him, and perhaps even give in. “You know, that’s true. I’m not sinning by providing a little bread for myself.” But Jesus stands firm and is not moved. His food is to do the Father’s will, which means self-sacrifice. And so for us, in our stead He simply replies, “It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Strike one for the devil.
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and ‘In their hand they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” The devil can play the Scripture-quoting game. Only for him, it’s just that: a game, a way of shrouding his temptation and making evil and falsehood appear to be good and holy. Don’t think that just because someone quotes Scripture that they’re using God’s Word rightly. Every false prophet uses the Bible. Jesus sees through the devil’s game. To put God the Father to the test, to make Him give you evidence that He’ll really protect you and be true to His Word, is to act not in faith but in unbelief. It’s to put yourself above God, making Him prove Himself to you. For our deliverance, Jesus replies, “It is written again, ‘You shall not test the Lord your God.’” Strike two.
Finally, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, saying, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” “You don’t have to suffer and go to the cross. Let’s team up and you can get to the glory right now.” We know that temptation to take the path of least resistance, to take the easy way out rather than the narrow way. But on our behalf, Jesus says, “Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’” Strike three. The devil’s out.
The good news for us today is that because Jesus was there as our stand-in, being tempted in our own flesh and blood, His victory over the devil now counts as ours, too. Whatever the devil had accomplished through the temptation in the Garden of Eden, Jesus has completely undone in His own sinless temptation. That’s what the hymn is all about when it says, “But for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected. Ask ye who is this? Jesus Christ it is. Of sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God. He holds the field forever.” On this wilderness battlefield, the devil has been routed. Through faith in what Christ has done, the sin of Adam your father is no longer what’s most true about you; now the faithfulness of Christ your Brother is your true identity before the Father. You are children of God through faith in Him.
But be warned: the devil is going to call into question that identity of yours in Christ. He said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, let’s see a little proof, a little divine glory.” And he’ll do the same to you. “If you are really a child of God, show me some glorious proof. You don’t look much like a Christian, with all that sin and trouble in your life.” After your baptism, you also are cast into the wilderness of this world with nothing but the Word of God as your defense. And yet, the Word of Christ is all that you need to put to devil to flight. Don’t believe Satan’s definition of what it means to be a child of God, where everything is success and victory and exaltation in this life. Skewer the devil, rather, with the sword of the Spirit. Trust in the sure words and promises of God. For Christ truly is your mighty fortress, your refuge and defense against all the power of the evil one.
In all of this, we see Jesus as our great High Priest, the one who makes sacrifice for us to rescue us–except that Jesus is both the sacrificer and the sacrifice. The blood He sprinkles on us in baptism to cleanse us is His own. He is both goats to accomplish our Day of Atonement. First, He is the one cast into the wilderness, actively obeying His Father’s will in our place, who was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Then, bearing our sins He is the second goat, passively being offered up on the mercy seat of the cross. Out of great love for you, Jesus has willingly made Himself to be your scapegoat. In Him you are free from blame. And in Him you are free from the need to blame others. Jesus has covered it all, for you.
Therefore, since we have such a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, and who stands before the throne of the Father in heaven as our mediator, let us come boldly to the throne of grace–let us come boldly to the altar in faith–that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠