“And if the whole congregation of Israel sin through ignorance, and the thing be hid from the eyes of the assembly, and they have done somewhat against any of the commandments of the LORD concerning things which should not be done, and are guilty; When the sin, which they have sinned against it, is known, then the congregation shall offer a young bullock for the sin, and bring him before the tabernacle of the congregation. “ (Leviticus 4:13-14)
The Jews had had the law for about eight hundred years when Josiah became king. During that time they had depended on the Levites and priest to teach them what they should do. After Hezekiah’s death, the temple had been closed up by Manasseh and Amon, and the people had largely forgotten the Law. Josiah was trying to get back to the proper worship of God. In the process of cleaning and reopening the temple, they found a copy of the Law.
II Chronicles 34:19-21 describes Josiah’s reaction when they read it. “And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the law, that he rent his clothes. And the king commanded Hilkiah, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Abdon the son of Micah, and Shaphan the scribe, and Asaiah a servant of the king's, saying, Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for them that are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that is found: for great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out upon us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do after all that is written in this book.”
Until he heard the law read, Josiah had assumed he was doing what God said. When he heard it, he realized they had been doing a lot of things that were not right simply because nobody had taught them what God expected. They were guilty of the sin, but because it was done in ignorance, could be readily forgiven. This provision was made especially for such cases.
“And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands upon the head of the bullock before the LORD: and the bullock shall be killed before the LORD.” (Leviticus 4:15)
In a case involving the a large group it was not practical for each individual to personally identify with the sacrifice personally, so the leaders acted as representatives for them. They were to make the sacrifice as soon as they were aware of the sin.
“And the priest that is anointed shall bring of the bullock's blood to the tabernacle of the congregation: And the priest shall dip his finger in some of the blood, and sprinkle it seven times before the LORD, even before the veil. And he shall put some of the blood upon the horns of the altar which is before the LORD, that is in the tabernacle of the congregation, and shall pour out all the blood at the bottom of the altar of the burnt offering, which is at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
And he shall take all his fat from him, and burn it upon the altar. And he shall do with the bullock as he did with the bullock for a sin offering, so shall he do with this: and the priest shall make an atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them.
And he shall carry forth the bullock without the camp, and burn him as he burned the first bullock: it is a sin offering for the congregation.” (Leviticus 4:16-21)
Other than the elders laying their hands on the sacrifice’s head instead of the individual, this sacrifice is exactly the same in every detail as that for a priest who had sinned. The same sacrifice as was required for a single priest was sufficient for the entire congregation. It was a sacrifice for sin, not for individual sins, which would have required a separate sacrifice for each sin.
This is an important concept for us Christians. Isaiah 53:6 says, “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.” As a result, I John 2:2 says, “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” It is because he dies for sin rather than individual sins that Christ can die in our place. He doesn’t need to die again for each person.
This does not mean we do not have to personally deal with our sins. Galatians 6:5 says, “For every man shall bear his own burden.” we may receive encouragement and support, but ultimately each person must take his own responsibility. Romans 2:6-11 warns, God “…will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God.”
We can’t be forgiven by proxy, whether by having someone be baptized for us, or by having some priest pray for us. A city may set up a dumpster and haul all the trash in it away for free, but it is still up to the individuals to get their trash in the dumpster. In the same way, it is up to us to get our sins included.