And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD'S lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness. (Lev 16:7-10)
And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. (Lev 16:20-22)
This is the rule for the "scapegoat" on which the sins of Israel were placed yearly. As the passage says, the goat bore the sins into the wilderness, where it presumably died of exposure or was eaten by the wild beasts. What the passages do not say, but is told by the Jewish sages, is that a red cloth was tied to the horns of the goat. The man accompanying the goat to the wilderness was not to release it until the cloth turned white, signifying the sin offering had been accepted. It is further recorded that for about the forty years leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans the cloth remained red. The beginning of the period in which the scapegoat's bearing of the sins was no longer accepted, as indicated by the cloth, was the time of the death of Jesus of Nazareth.
I have read the above account in a number of Messianic Jewish books. Each author used the story to illustrate that Jesus was the final, perfect sin offering. Because of the efficacy of his death the offering of a goat and the laying sins on the scapegoat were no longer necessary or useful. Whether you accept the legend or not, it is true that Jesus removed the need for a yearly sin offering and the scapegoat.
What I would like to do, though, is look at some reasons the people might have feared the cloth would not turn white. Why would the sin offering not be accepted or effective?
The High Priest
It is said that when the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies at Yom Kippur during the last couple of centuries of the Temple, a scarlet rope was tied to his foot. A priest in the Holy Place tended the other end of this rope. The rope had a purpose. If the High Priest's sins were not atoned for properly, he would die in the presence of the shekinah, the glory of God that filled the Holy of Holies. Since nobody else could enter that part of the Temple without also dying, the priests felt they needed a way to retrieve the body of the High Priest, if necessary. That was the purpose of the rope-to pull the body out.
Many of the High Priests under the Romans were Sadducees who had bought the position. Some may not even have known the Hebrew language and had to memorize the words they were to speak during the ceremony. There was a real fear that they were so ignorant of the requirements of their position that they would make a mistake, or even be smitten because they had not truly repented.
Compare with them the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek who offered himself as a perfect offering. "For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need." (Heb 4:15-16) We need not tie a rope to our High Priest, for he had no sin. The offering will not be rejected because of his sin. The cloth will not stay red on his account.
The second fear of the people might have been that the sin offering itself was unsatisfactory. The requirements were pretty strict. They had to be without blemish, as all offerings. Traditionally, the two goats chosen for Yom Kippur had to be virtually identical. In fact, that was the original reason for the cloth on the horns. When the scapegoat was chosen by lot, the cloth was put on its horns so that it would not accidentally be mistaken for the goat of sin offering. If either goat was less than perfect, the offering would be rejected.
Since our High Priest is also our sin offering, we don't have to worry about the perfection of the sacrifice. As his sinlessness made him an acceptable High Priest, so it also made him an acceptable sacrifice.
For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation. (Heb 9: 24-28)
Jesus was such an acceptable offering for sin that it was effective for all time. The goat for Yom Kippur had to be chosen yearly. Not so our sacrifice who was once and forever offered for sin. And after that time, nobody ever needs fear that the sacrifice will not be accepted.
The third reason the people could realistically fear that the sin offering would be rejected was that there might be those among them who had not repented. Some might not have approached Yom Kippur with the right attitude.
The Ten Days from the Feast of Trumpets to Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe (September 18-27 this year). They are a period of reflection and repentance. The trumpets were blown every day to remind the people to repent. And yet, there was the possibility (maybe even a probability through some of their history) that the nation as a whole had not repented. Even the blood of the most perfect goat could not cover sins not repented of.
And yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah hath not turned unto me with her whole heart, but deceitfully, saith the LORD. And the LORD said unto me, The backsliding Israel hath justified herself more than treacherous Judah. (Jer 3:10-11)
Jeremiah had to admit that the attitude of the people in offering legitimate sacrifices was not correct. Even Israel, who offered no sacrifices, was better than Judah, who did. Even though the offering was pure and according to the law, the people could still be held to be guilty. The cloth on the goat could still remain red.
Although we have a perfect High Priest who is a perfect sin offering, it is still possible for that offering to be ineffective. God is not going to reject the High Priest or the sin offering. But we can make it ineffective in our own lives by our attitude toward sin. Jesus said those who would not repent would perish (Lk 13:3,5). The psalmist says that it is our choice. "Our God is the God of salvation; and unto GOD the Lord belong the issues from death. But God shall wound the head of his enemies, and the hairy scalp of such an one as goeth on still in his trespasses."( Ps 68:20-21, emphasis mine) God is not a God of robots. He gives us the opportunity to repent. We can choose not to, to our detriment.
The High Priest laid his hands on the head of the scapegoat and confessed "all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins." Had he neglected to lay any of the iniquities or any of the transgressions in sin, those would not have gone into the wilderness with the goat. The nation would still bear that iniquity or sin.
The day of atonement for each individual is always at hand. The sin offering has been made. The scapegoat has been sent out. We are holding the cloth, watching to see if it turns color. Let us each work at our repentance, so that the cloth will change. The sacrifice is effective, but only if we let it affect us. "For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death." (2 Cor 7:10)