Further thoughts and teaching on the Sin or Purification Offering
Congregation and Assembly
Lev 4:13-15 makes mention of two specific bodies of people known as, firstly, the congregation (who are the group of people who ‘sin unwittingly’ and are the subject of the legislation of the subsequent verses) and, secondly, the assembly (who seem to be unaware of the sin that has been committed but who are responsible for providing the bull for the sin offering).
Wenham interprets ‘congregation’ as ‘representing all Israel’ (page 98) while ‘assembly’ is taken to mean something along the lines of the group of people who meet to daily worship God in the Tabernacle (page 99 - though I can’t quite imagine what this, in reality, really means). North (page 91), however, quotes Wenham as teaching that the congregation
‘...was a smaller body within the worshipping assembly’
before going on to side with Jordan (pages 91-92) that
‘...the congregation...was the nation...the assembly...was the formal gathering’
which seems to match Wenham’s assertions pretty well exactly.
However, there are previous passages where the Hebrew words are used that can be used to define the words for us and it’s to these that we should turn to understand the meaning of the words.
The Lord’s command through Moses (Ex 12:47) that
‘...the congregation of Israel shall keep [the Passover]’
should immediately help us to realise that the word (Strongs Hebrew Word 5712), when applied to Israel, could be taken to refer to the entire nation that was in covenant relationship with God. Similarly, when the Israelites refused to enter in to the Promised land, God assured them that the nation would wander for forty years in the wilderness and would die (Num 14:33-34), repeating His judgment with the words (Num 14:35)
‘...surely this I will do to all this wicked congregation...in this wilderness they shall come to a full end’
There are numerous other usages of the Hebrew word but these appear to be the most conclusive for us to take the meaning of the word in the context of Leviticus chapter 4 to mean ‘the entire nation of covenanted Israelites’.
The word for ‘assembly’ is a far harder word to adequately define (Strongs Hebrew Word 6951) seeing as there are numerous places within Scripture where the natural interpretation gives it the meaning of ‘the nation’ (Lev 16:17,33, Num 16:3,33, 22:4). But there are also occurrences of its use which indicate that the reference is to a large group of people who existed within the nation (Jer 31:8, 44:15) and where it means simply those that had come together as a group of people (I Sam 17:47, Jer 26:17).
It seems fair to accept this secondary meaning because the two words are used in the same passage and it’s unlikely that two distinct groupings in the passage could be one and the same.
But, to adequately define what this ‘assembly’ (this smaller group of Israelites within the nation) were appears to be impossible by reference to the usage and occurrence of the word alone. All that I feel can be said is that a ‘smaller than the nation’ group of people were to provide for the sin offering (Lev 4:14) that the elders of the nation were to identify with (Lev 4:15) before it was sacrificed for the nation’s sin.
But, having said that, it’s not impossible (in my opinion) to take the usage of ‘assembly’ and ‘congregation’ in Lev 4:13-21 to represent one and the same concept - that is, the nation. Especially as the usage of the word translated ‘assembly’ in verse 21 naturally reads as if it’s a reference to the entire nation.
The Sin Offering and the Last Supper
It’s quite apparent that Jesus considered His death on the cross as being the fulfilment of the sin offering. His statement at the Last Supper (Mtw 26:28) that
‘...this is My blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins...’
refers to it in two ways. Firstly, and most obviously, Jesus refers to His blood as securing the forgiveness of sins (covered in the Levitical commands in Lev 4:20,26,31,35). Secondly, and not always realised, is that it was only the sin offering that had its blood ‘poured out’ (Lev 4:7,18,25,30) at the base of the altar of burnt offering.
Isaiah 53:10 also speaks of Christ when it says that
‘...He makes Himself an offering for sin...’
I’ve quoted this verse in my notes on Yom Kippur to show that the Lord’s death was considered to be just one sin offering, but the Hebrew word that’s translated as ‘an offering for sin’ here is actually the word that’s used in Leviticus chapter 5 to denote the guilt or trespass offering.
The main difference of purpose, though, between the sin and guilt offerings is that the latter required restitution for the damages done through sin whereas the former imparted forgiveness where no material loss had been seen to be done.
Whatever, the Scriptures make it plain that Jesus’ death on the cross was the fulfilment of everything that the Old Testament sin offering pointed towards and promised.
The Purpose of the Sin Offering
Well, this is a tricky one!!!!
If Leviticus simply said that atonement was achieved through the ceremonies surrounding the sin offering, then, being good christians, we could point to the root of the word for atonement and suggest that there was no implication of sin actually being dealt with, the word implying that it was simply ‘covered’ until that time when Christ would come to ‘remove the cover’ and deal with the sin. But, in Lev 4:20, we read concerning the congregation of Israel that
‘...the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven’
and then, three times (4:26,31,35), concerning the ruler’s offering and the two options for the ‘common people’ that
‘he shall be forgiven’
This is certainly difficult to reconcile with the New Testament’s statement in Heb 10:4 that tells us quite simply that
‘...it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins’
In other words, though the priest secured forgiveness on behalf of the sinner, we should not regard the application of the blood of the offerings as able to deal effectively with the sin.
It would certainly be difficult to accept that the writer is saying that, under the OT legislation, there could be no forgiveness of sin as this seems to be implied in Heb 9:22 where we read that
‘...without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins’
and this is applied to the Old Covenant. But the point of Heb 10:4 is to offer a conclusion to the three verses that precede it which speak of the OT Law as being unable to once-and-for-all-time deal with sin.
The passage speaks of Old Testament sacrifices as being unable to
‘...make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered?’
and that they only caused
‘...a reminder of sin year after year’
If the sacrifices had been able to deal finally with sin, then the offerers, after having offered sacrifice
‘...would no longer have any consciousness of sin’
but, as it is, the need for an effective settlement of the sin problem needed to be made.
Therefore, it seems best to see in Heb 10:4, that the ‘impossibility’ of the Old Testament sacrifice is seen in its need for repeated offerings for sin whereas, in Christ, the sacrifice has been offered once and for all time.
Instead of implying that there was no forgiveness under the Levitical ordinances, it is stating that their was no final solution to the sin predicament of mankind.
As Guthrie notes (page 203 - my italics)
‘Worshippers in the Old Testament age were provided with a means of grace, but that means was never able to achieve a complete removal of sins, which could be voluntarily accomplished only by a perfect human, in contrast to an animal, sacrifice’
And, as North has been noted as saying under the burnt offering chapter (page 51)
‘...the requirement of only one animal placed limits on the sense of guilt and obligation’
showing God’s great mercy in providing a minimal cost to the sinner until the fulness of the price could be paid.
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