Israel’s yearly day of atonement ritual included the offering of two goats. One was offered on the altar, and the other was sent into the wilderness:
Aaron . . . shall take the two goats and set them before Yahweh at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for Yahweh and the other lot for destruction. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for Yahweh and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for destruction shall be presented alive before Yahweh to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to destruction. . . .
And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 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. (Leviticus 16:6-22)
James Jordan comments that this ritual has two complementary images. First, it reflects the double work that Jesus’s death accomplishes for us: like the first goat, Jesus’s blood covers our sins; and like the second goat, Jesus’s death removes our sins. But this ritual also reflects the reality of limited atonement, the fact that Jesus is a dual redeemer-avenger: those who trust in Jesus have their sins covered by his blood and enter into his throne room, but those who reject Jesus’s sacrifice will go to destruction.
Jesus died at the time of Passover, and much of the imagery surrounding the cross has to do with a Passover-exodus. But there is one key event that calls to mind the ritual of the day of atonement:
Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” . . . Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:15-23)
We see two men presented just as with the goats in Leviticus 16. By the will of the priests and elders (Mark also takes pains to say that the chief priests were involved), one man is put to death and one is released. Because of this atonement, the way into the holy of holies is opened:
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. (Matthew 27:51)
However, this is an ambiguous day of atonement. It is necessary to accept the sacrifice, but many rejected Jesus:
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” . . . . After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. (John 6:52,66)
It is also necessary to confess your sin over the scapegoat and repudiate your sin. But many did not repent from their spiritual pride. John 18 describes Barabbas as a robber or brigand, using the same word that Jesus uses in Matt. 21 and Luke 19 to describe what had become of his house. Far from sending the sin of Barabbas into the wilderness, the priests welcomed his sin into God’s house. And so, since they did not send their own sin to destruction, destruction itself came to Jerusalem in AD 70, Jerusalem that had become Babylon, the ultimate apostate church (Rev. 11:8 taken together with Rev. 18:10ff).