Christ, the Christian’s Scapegoat

Leviticus 16:21-22 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

The teaching of the doctrine of imputation (simply explained as the reckoning or assigning to someone something that is not their own—as the above text shows us in the fact that the sins spoken of were not the sins of the goat, but of the people) is one of the more difficult doctrines to teach and to understand. In recent years it has come under fresh attack in some of the controversies surrounding justification—some claiming that the Apostle Paul does not hold to or teach a doctrine concerning the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers. In far more liberal circles, this teaching has always been rejected as a display of supreme unfairness that the Father would punish His own Son for the sins of the people or that the people could in some way come to enjoy the holiness and perfections of the Son as their own. Some have, no doubt, mocked the imagery of the Old Testament teaching on this subject as found above in Leviticus (a book we will begin studying each Lord’s Day morning beginning this month!). How could a goat have the sins of the people placed on his head? How could such a transfer take place where an “innocent animal” could be made to bear all their iniquities? Surely, if PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) had existed in the time of Moses, they would have been protesting such cruel behaviors on the part of God’s people. “Set the goats and animals free!” they would have cried. “After all, they did nothing to deserve this banishment to a solitary place”. But these things are spiritually discerned—“for the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them for they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). John Owen, perhaps the greatest of the Puritan divines, while commenting on this passage wrote: Aaron was commanded to do this “to give a lively representation of it unto faith. So God did instruct Aaron to the putting of the guilt of our iniquities typically (as a type) upon the sacrifice, really upon Jesus Christ.” The Lord graciously gave to us in the Old Testament a wonderful picture of this great transaction between Christ and the sinner—“For He made Him Who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ has no sin of His own, but He was made sin for us by God the Father imputing our sins (and the sins of all His people) upon Him. And we sinners possess no righteousness in ourselves before God, but the Father declares us to be righteous by imputing to us the righteousness of His own Son. What is ours by nature—sin and the punishment we deserve—He took; what is His by nature—righteousness and holiness of life—we receive by grace through faith.

No one in the Old Testament actually believed that a goat, lamb or ram could take on the sins of the people, be held guilty, and then receive the just judgment of God (Hebrews 10). Neither the priest nor the people gathered would have noted any change in the scapegoat after the sins of the people were laid upon it, and the sending of the goat into the wilderness would not actually take the sins of the people away. It was clearly a picture of what was to come through Christ when the innocent Lamb of God would come and take away the sins of His people by His own sacrifice and shedding of blood. He would go outside the camp/gate/city to suffer and bear our reproach in His own body (Hebrews 13:12, 13). The Lord was pleased to lay upon Him the iniquities of us all so that by His stripes we are healed.

As we prepare to come this week once again to the Lord’s Table, let these things be foremost in our minds—for this is the place, along with the preaching of the Word, where we see the reality of them set before our eyes of faith. Owen again writes: “The way to apply the benefits and advantage of this great exchange to our souls, is in our minds, by faith, to put our seal to these acts of God. Christ in the Gospel, and especially in this ordinance, is ‘evidently crucified before our eyes’ (Galatians 3:1). God has set Him forth to be a propitiation; so He is declared in this ordinance. And Christ at the same time calls us to Him: ‘Come unto Me; look unto Me, all the ends of the earth;’—‘Come with your burdens; come you that are heavy laden with the guilt of sin.’ What God has done in a way of righteous imputation, that we are to do in this ordinance in a way of believing. We are, by divine help, to lay our sins by faith on Jesus Christ by closing with that act of God which is represented to us in the Word—that God has imputed all our sins to Jesus Christ. Let you and I, and all of us say ‘Amen,’ by faith; ‘So be it, Lord,–let the guilt of all our sins be on the head of Jesus Christ’; and therein admire the goodness, the grace, the love, the holiness, the infinite wisdom of God in this matter. If we are able to say ‘Amen’ to this great truth, we should have the comfort of it in our souls,–to acquiesce in it, to find power and reality in it. Then the other act of God is, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to us. It is not enough to us that our sins are all carried away into a land not inhabited; we stand in need of a righteousness whereby we may be accepted before God. He makes us to be the righteousness of God; we do not make ourselves so, but are made so by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.” May the Lord grant to each of us grace, that as we prepare to come to the Table of our Lord, we may come with great faith and joy in what God has already accomplished for us in Christ and set before our eyes in this communion meal. Meditate upon these things and delight yourself in the Lord!

Looking unto Him, Who suffered outside the camp and bore our reproach,
Pastor Ted Trefsgar


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