St. John's Presbyterian Church

The Last 'Scapegoat'

SERIES: Xtraordinary Words, Expressions, & Their Biblical Origins

TEXT: Lev. 16:20-22; John 1:29, Hebrews 10    TITLE: The Last Scapegoat

OPEN: A few years back, I was preaching a series about some of the spiritual myths and misconceptions in our culture (Urban Legends); phrases like “God helps those who help themselves” – ideas that people think are from the Bible but are really not.  One day, Nate (a church member) said to me, “Wouldn’t be interesting to look at this subject in reverse: to find words and phrases that people use everyday…but don’t realize come from the Bible.  Now Nate, I want you to stand up; because if the rest of you think this series is uninteresting or irrelevant to your life…you can blame him! 

    A.  Now what I just did to Nate is called scapegoating.  Sorry Nate! Though this is not its original definition, the word "scapegoat" has come to mean a person, often innocent, who is blamed and punished for the sins, crimes, or sufferings of others, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes.

    B. I recently did a word search of scapegoat on the LA Times website and got 2040 hits. Almost anyone can become a scapegoat, demonized and held responsible for all of society’s problems…   

    C.  Now it’s my conviction that the Risen Christ, the Living Word, is not only present among us spiritually, but verbally, in the very words we use; and that there are forces at work which seek to hide this Word and its influence. The word “scapegoat” is a biblical word whose original meaning has been largely forgotten or ignored.  As we uncover its true meaning we will also experience its true blessing.


I. No one wants to be the scapegoat; just to have one. 

    A. At the heart of scapegoating as we commonly understand it is the avoidance of responsibility for our own sin and personal failures.  Generally, there are three ways that we try to do this. 

        1. We blame others (even God) for our own failures, mistakes and mess-ups.  Hitler blamed and then exterminated from 11-14 million people for the problems of his nation; at least 6 million were Jews, 3 million non-Jewish Poles, children and adults with physical and mental handicaps, homosexuals, biracial marriage partners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, communists, and other political opponents.  He blamed them for corrupting racial and national purity; he said they were “life unworthy of life,” and he sent them all to systematically die in the gas chambers.   

            a. It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s behavior, politics, or beliefs…it’s another to demonize and blame them for all the world’s problems, or just your own. 

        2. We compensate for the mistakes we have made by trying to do good.  The idea is to counterbalance all the bad stuff we’ve done with an abundance of good deeds, and hope that the good eventually outdistances the bad.  If we have hurt a family member, a friend, or someone at church with our words, we may try to smother them with niceness….anything to avoid having to apologize for our actions.

        3. Finally, we practice denial.  A visitor I met in church one day commented sarcastically “I come to church once a year to be reminded how bad I am.”  Like me, she believes that for the most part she is a pretty good person.  But the truth is not that we never do good, but that (given the right conditions) we are capable of doing a lot of wrong; lying, cheating, stealing, overindulging, lashing out in anger and violence, breaking oaths and promises…and in a million subtle and not so subtle ways contributing to the tide of evil in our world.

            a. None of these ‘scapegoats’ work very well…because we still feel as condemned, inadequate, guilty, and ashamed as we did before we tried them.  But there is another way.  In Leviticus, we read about a ceremony that served as a dramatic illustration of God’s way…the way of repentance and forgiveness.


II. The Day of Atonement celebrates God cleansing his people from sin through the scapegoat (Lev. 16: 1-10; 20-22).

A. Two animals were chosen for that particular day. The first animal died—a blood sacrifice for sins. It demonstrated in a graphic way, that there is always a price to pay to be paid for our sin, and the hurt that it causes. 

            1. But the second animal was driven away as it carried the sins of the people away from the camp forever. This was the scapegoat. The goat had done nothing wrong.  It was not sent out into the wilderness because it was a mean goat, didn’t give enough milk, ate too much, or charged someone with its horns. 

            2. It was banished because it was symbolically carrying away the sins of the people – in fact, all the sins of the people.  The scapegoat demonstrated in a graphic way the complete removal of our sin through God’s mercy and forgiveness.  

    B. Notice the two parts of this redemptive act:

        1. Aaron first confessed on behalf of the people.  He confessed over the goat all their iniquities, all of their transgressions, and all their sins. Confession is important not just so that God can get satisfaction; but because we ourselves cannot experience reconciliation with God or others, we cannot know healing or deliverance, until we take responsibility for the wrongs we’ve done. 

        2. Secondly, the animal was taken away into the wilderness in this symbolic act; to remind God’s people that their sin and shame were completely removed because of God’s forgiveness and its price.   


III. Jesus is the final scapegoat & our high priest (John 1:29; Heb. 10: 1-14). 

    A. The Day of Atonement was an annual ritual of confession and repentance, but it was meant to be a picture and a foreshadowing of what God would do personally and completely in Christ (Have the congregation STAND).

    B. According to the writer of Hebrews, Jesus is our great High Priest. Like Aaron, he represents all of humanity before God; but this High Priest is different; for he was also the ultimate scapegoat, the one who completely identified with our sin, who was led away  to a cross, where he bore the price of our sins.  John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29).

    C. As the ultimate scapegoat, Jesus’ sacrifice was the final act of atonement.  (READ Heb. 10: 11-13).  No longer does the high priest or his descendents need to continually stand in the temple, offering sacrifices for the sins of the people.  Jesus has sat down at the right hand of God…the work of redemption is finished!  (Have congregation SIT DOWN & PRAISE!!).  At the moment of his death, Matthew says the curtain of the temple was torn in two…

        1. Ancient Jewish tradition suggests that around AD 30, a mysterious change took place in the temple.  In the Jerusalem Talmud [Tractate Yoma 6.3] we read:

It has been taught: Forty years before the destruction of the Temple [i.e., AD 30] the western light went out [a sign of God’s presence], the crimson thread remained crimson [instead of turning white, Is. 1:18], and the lot for the Lord [on the Day of Atonement] always came up in the left hand [instead of the right]. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open [signifying God’s departure or an invitation to intruders].  Said Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, “O Temple, why do you frighten us? We know that you will end up destroyed. For it has been said, ‘Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars!’” (Zech 11:1)

    D. Religious leaders noticed a change in the temple, as though God’s presence was departing nor operating through the temple rituals. As followers of Jesus we believe that in him, the work of sacrificial atonement was completed…which is why he is sitting down at the right hand of God as our Great High Priest.  That’s something to praise God for...not only with our lips, but with our love, for…


CLOSE: We’ve been set free from blaming, compensating, or denying to love as He loved us (1 John 1: 8-9; 4: 10-12)!

    A. The word “scapegoat” has come to mean the blaming of the innocent for the wrongs of others.   

        1. How very different is the Savior who freely chose to take the blame; to be our Scapegoat, and who calls us to repentance and reconciliation, our Great High Priest who offers us the forgiveness and grace which he won for us when he bore our sins on the cross, and who sets us free to  love as he loved. 

        2. “In this is love,” says John, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4: 1-12).

    B. A scapegoat has come mean someone who is made to unjustly bear the burdens of others…even the sins of a whole nation.  But there is only one person whose shoulders are wide enough to bear that burden…and that’s the One who knew no sin; the Lord Jesus Christ who offers us his forgiveness, mercy, and love and went to the cross to prove it.   

        1. Real life Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer John Hall talks about the experience of being involved in the rescue of more than 33,000 people following Hurricane Katrina, going down to the rooftops, pulling people out, working 18-24 hour days, pushing themselves to the limit.  In an interview he shared their organization’s motto and their true motivation… which  is this: 'So Others May Live.'"    

        2. At this table we remember that Christ became the final scapegoat, so that we might cease from blaming others or denying our sin, and begin to give ourselves away in humble service and self-giving love; freed forever to love others as he has loved us; and free to share that good news, so others also may live!    

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