Jeff and I were earning money by cutting firewood. He found a dead Ponderosa Pine tree and obtained permission to cut it down. There was a lot of wood in that tree. It was about five feet in diameter and about 120 feet tall.
The problem was that our chain saws weren't long enough. Jeff had a Homelite saw with a 24 inch bar and my Husqvarna was 28 inches. So we took turns cutting around the tree, but we couldn't quite reach the middle from the outside.
We heard a cracking sound and jumped away. The tree started to fall. But then it stopped, leaning at a weird angle. The middle of the tree was still there, preventing it from falling all the way.
We couldn't leave the tree there like that. For one thing, it could come down without warning and kill someone. Also, we wanted the wood. We had to finish the job. But how?
Jeff was much more experienced than I, so he went to the tree and stuck his saw in the gaping notch that had opened up. He was able to break through the middle, so the tree fell the rest of the way.
What Jeff did was very dangerous. The root system on which he was standing could have been uprooted. The tree could have kicked back and squashed him like a fly. But he was determined to complete the job. "It ain't over until it's over!"
God wants to finish His job. An Israelite who had sinned or who had a severe ritual impurity received through sacrifice the atonement of forgiveness or purification (Lev 4-5, 12, 14-15). But there was a further stage of atonement once a year on the Day of Atonement (16; 23:27-32). Without this stage, a person's oneness with God would not be complete.
On the Day of Atonement, the high priest used special sacrifices to cleanse the sanctuary from the sins and impurities of the people (Lev 16:16,33). He did this because once a year God's sanctuary needed "housecleaning." Sins and impurities could remain in the sanctuary only for so long. If God's house became too polluted, He would not remain there (compare Ezek 9:3; 10:4, 18-19; 11:22-23).
Through the cleansing of the sanctuary, the people were also cleansed: "For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord" (Lev 16:30). All persons who had already been forgiven for sins at various times earlier in the year now received cleansing from all of them at once: "from all your sins you shall be clean."
We are talking about spiritual "housecleaning" here rather than physical cleaning that the priests must have performed at other times. As an example of physical cleaning, it seems safe to assume that the priests must have periodically removed blood that had been applied to the two altars. However, aside from instructions regarding daily removal of accumulated ashes from the outer altar (Lev 6:10-11; Hebrew verses 3-4), the Bible does not tell us about this kind of janitorial work in the sanctuary. Such practical details are addressed in later rabbinic writings, but in the Bible the focus is on removal of sins and ritual impurities.
The two stages of atonement for sin are clear:
1. Forgiveness through individual sacrifice during the year: "Thus the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin, and he shall be forgiven" (Lev 4:26).
2. Cleansing through the cleansing of the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement: "For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord" (Lev 16:30).
The first stage of atonement for sin is forgiveness. The second stage is cleansing.
The two stages of atonement for sin correspond to a promise in the New Testament: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn 1:9; NASB). We will see that through Christ's sacrifice He not only forgives us, He cleanses us as well.
What if an Israelite had rejected God's offer of forgiveness during the year? Could that person receive cleansing on the Day of Atonement? Earlier we saw what happened to a person who willfully neglected purification from corpse contamination. Such a person was condemned to be "cut off" (Num 19:13, 20). There was no sacrificial remedy for this punishment. A person who willfully neglected to receive forgiveness for sin by bringing a sacrifice would also receive punishment (compare Lev 5:1). This punishment was inevitable because the required sacrifice was the only way in which the punishment could have been removed (Lev 5:6). It could not be removed later by the cleansing sacrifices performed by the high priest on the Day of Atonement for the whole community.
The ceremonies of the Day of Atonement resulted in the cleansing of people who had already received forgiveness. Because forgiveness was the first stage of a process, you could not have the second stage without it. By comparison, if O'Grady had not gotten in the helicopter to begin with, the next step of flying him out of Bosnia could not have occurred.
In order for an Israelite to be cleansed on the Day of Atonement, the high priest had to cleanse the sanctuary on behalf of the entire community. In addition, the individual had to show loyalty to God by practicing self-denial, including fasting, and by resting from work (Lev 16:29).
The beginning of the next verse gives the reason for self-denial and doing no work:
"For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord" (Lev 16:30). If you were an Israelite, something crucially important was happening on your behalf, so you needed to show your involvement even though you could not go into the sanctuary.
What if an Israelite had been forgiven during the year and the high priest cleansed the sanctuary, but that Israelite ate and worked on the Day of Atonement as usual? Lev 23:29-30 tells us: "For anyone who does not practice self-denial during that entire day shall be cut off from the people. And anyone who does any work during that entire day, such a one I will destroy from the midst of the people."
A person who did not show loyalty to God on the Day of Atonement was rebelling against Him, and God would "cut off" or destroy that person. Such an individual would be no better off than if he/she had openly defied God earlier in the year (compare Num 15:30-31). Atonement had to be finished or it was invalidated, just as a baby cannot survive unless it is born completely, or as a criminal who commits another crime while on parole goes back to jail. An incomplete atonement would end up being no atonement.
By the end of the Day of Atonement, there were only two groups of Israelites: loyal Israelites who were "clean" and fully reconciled to God, and disloyal Israelites who bore their own sin and were rejected by God.
God's rejection was not arbitrary. He offered full atonement freely. The choice to accept or reject Him was up to the people. If they rejected Him, He accepted their decision and they bore the consequences.
We can see that the Day of Atonement was a day of judgment, when God separated disloyal Israelites from those who were loyal. Some people had been condemned already, before the Day of Atonement, because they had not received forgiveness through sacrifice. But the Day of Atonement judged between those who had been forgiven. Some held on to their forgiveness and some threw it away.
If you get on a helicopter that has come to rescue you, but then throw away your rescue by jumping off before you get to safety, you're on your own. You may feel free on the way down, but there's a big jolt at the bottom.