The Scripture says, “Everyone will die for their own sin” (Jeremiah 31:30). Yet, the Scripture also says that the priest can atone for sin:
1 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 2 If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the Lord, and lie unto his neighbour in that which was delivered him to keep, or in fellowship, or in a thing taken away by violence, or hath deceived his neighbour; 3 Or have found that which was lost, and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely; in any of all these that a man doeth, sinning therein: 4 Then it shall be, because he hath sinned, and is guilty, that he shall restore that which he took violently away, or the thing which he hath deceitfully gotten, or that which was delivered him to keep, or the lost thing which he found, 5 Or all that about which he hath sworn falsely; he shall even restore it in the principal, and shall add the fifth part more thereto, and give it unto him to whom it appertaineth, in the day of his trespass offering. 6 And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord, a ram without blemish out of the flock, with thy estimation, for a trespass offering, unto the priest: 7 And the PRIEST WILL MAKE ATONEMENT for him before the Lord: and it shall be forgiven him for any thing of all that he hath done in trespassing therein (Leviticus 6:1-7).
And not only can the priest atone for other people’s sin, he can through his own sin bring guilt on the people. If, however, he offers a sacrifice as a sin offering, the guilt on the people is lifted:
“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Say to the people of Israel, If any one sins unwittingly in any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins, THUS BRINGING GUILT UPON THE PEOPLE, then let him offer for the sin which he has committed a young bull without blemish to the LORD for a sin offering” (Leviticus 4:1-3).
As Maimonides, many centuries later, explains (Laws of Repentance, 1:2):
“Since the goat sent [to Azazeil] atones for all of Israel, the High Priest confesses on it as the spokesman for all of Israel, as [Lev. 16:21] states: ‘He shall confess on it all the sins of the Children of Israel.'”
So, the priest’s confession represents the confession of the people. In other words, the priest stands in the place of the people; which, in theological terms, is called “substitutionary atonement.”
Imagine a goat being the key to forgiveness, the substitute on which is thrust the sins of Israel. Weird – from a non-biblical perspective – enough to get the goat of many a humanist; Richard Dawkins (“The God delusion”), for example.
To return to, “Everyone will die for their own sin” (Jeremiah 31:30)
Here is the complete verse of Jeremiah 31:30 “Everyone shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge.”
It is absolutely true that we are held responsible for our own sins, and if they remain unabsolved, we shall die not only physically (a truism) but also spiritually. The Hebrew scriptures are not clear what “spiritual” death means , whereas this is very clear in the New Testament.
What is the solution to sin? It lies in the new covenant, which we read about in the verses immediately following Jeremiah 30:30, “Everyone shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge.”
31 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: 32 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord:
33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
What is the nub of this new covenant? It is the atonement of sinners provided by the Messiah, on whom our iniquities are laid. The Messiah is our substitute, as Isaiah 53 makes very clear.
As I pointed out in “Jewish and Christian views on substitutionary atonement”, there is a strong Jewish tradition of substitutionary atonement. For the orthodox Jew, the passage par excellence of substitutionary atonement is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Who, though, does the Orthodox Jew claim the suffering servant to be? Himself, naturally.
“He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).
It is this suffering servant who is the One through whom and by whom the new covenant is made with sinners – Gentile and Jewish sinners. And, yes, He is of the seed of Abraham and of Judah; he’s Jewish. He is also the Messiah, the Son of God. For any other Jew to arrogate to himself this substitutionary role of Messiah on whom the “iniquity of us all” has been laid, is very sad.