Day of Atonement

If you look at your calendar for today you will notice that it is says today is Yom Kippur.  What is this holiday that shows up on your calendar, but that you have probably never heard about.  Yom Kippur is the Hebrew name for the most holiest day in the Jewish calendar.  However, it is sometimes referred to by a different name.  And that name is the Day of Atonement.  And the question that you are probably asking now is what does this non-Christian holiday have to do with you?  And to better understand that we first have to understand what the Day of Atonement actually is.

When we see the word “atonement” in the Bible and in particular the Old Testament the word in Hebrew used is kippurim which is derived from the Hebrew verb kaphar, which means “to cover over”.  This word in Hebrew suggests that one’s sins can be covered over or removed from sight by making a payment or “ransom” equal in value to the wrong that was done.  Now that we understand what the word atonement means, we can move on to what the process is that God gave for the people of Israel to gain atonement in the Old Testament and what that process shows us about God’s overall plan of atonement for us today.

God’s instructions to the people of Israel for the Day Atonement can be found in Leviticus 16.  It is here that God gives the high priest specific instructions on what must be done in under for the people Israel’s sins to be covered over and removed from God’s sight.  All of this was very ritualistic and so the process had a very specific order that it had to be completed in.

  1. The high priest went to the basin in the courtyard, removed his regular garments, washed himself (v.4) and went into the Holy Place to put on the special garments for the Day of Atonement (v.4).
  2. He went out to sacrifice a bull at the altar of burnt offering as a sin offering for himself and the other priests (v.11).
  3. He went into the Most Holy Place with some of the bull’s blood, with incense and with coals from the altar of burnt offering (vv.12-13).  The incense was placed on the burning coals, and the smoke of the incense hid the ark from view.
  4. He sprinkled some of the bull’s blood on and in front of the cover of the ark (v.14).
  5. He went outside the tabernacle and cast lots for two goats to see which was to be sacrificed and which was to be the scapegoat (vv.7-8).
  6. At the altar of burnt offering the high priest killed the goat for the sin offering for the people, and for a second time he went into the Most Holy Place, this time to sprinkle the goat’s blood in front of  and on the atonement cover (vv.5,9,15-16a).
  7. He returned to the Holy Place (called “Tent of Meeting” in v.16) and sprinkled the goat’s blood there (v.16b).
  8. He went outside to the altar of burnt offering and sprinkled it (v.18) with the blood of the bull  (for himself v.11) and of the goat (for the people v.15).
  9. While in the courtyard, he laid both hands on the second goat, thus symbolizing the transfer of Israel’s sin, and sent it out into the desert (vv.20-22).  
  10. The man who took the goat away, after he accomplished his task, washed himself and his clothes outside the camp (v.26) before rejoining the people.
  11. The high priest enter the Holy Place to remove his special garments (v.23).
  12. He went out to the basin to wash and put on his regular priestly clothes (v.24).
  13. As a final sacrifice he went out to the great altar and offered a ram (v.3) as a burnt offering for himself, and another ram (v.5) for the people (v.24).
  14. The conclusion of the entire day was the removal of the sacrifices for the sin offering to a place outside the camp, where they were burned, and there the man who performed this ritual bathed and washed his clothes (vv.27-28) before redoing the people.

As you can see this is a long and complicated process.  That involved the sacrificing of an innocent goat and an innocent bull in order for the high priest to enter into the Most Holy Place, which essential means entering into the presence of God.  But it did allow the people of Israel some sense of relieve, because for the next year they knew that their sins had been covered over and removed from God’s sight.  However, the process would have to be repeated the next year and the year after that and the year after that.  Which means that the ritual performed on the Day of Atonement never really offered the people of Israel real atonement for their sins.

Which then leads us to the next question.  What does this have to with those of us don’t practice Old Testament Judaism, New Testament Judaism or modern Judaism, but who instead practice Christianity?  The ritual of the Day of Atonement gives us a picture of what God had planned for the entire world from the beginning.  For in the ritual of the Day Atonement we see a picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

In the book of Isaiah we are told this: “We all like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6 NIV).  Who is the “him” that is referred to here in this passage?  The “him” is the Messiah, the Chosen One, or the Anointed One.  The one who would come to save his people from their sins. (For information on who are God’s people see the post entitled “If God’s People, Who are Called by His Name”.) There has only ever been one person who fits this description in the entire world.  And if you don’t agree, then you should the rest of Isaiah 53 and see if you see any similarities between the person described there and anybody else in history but this one person.  And that one person is Jesus.

For you see God knew all along that we needed a better way for our sins to be covered over and removed for God’s sight.  And God used the ritual’s surrounding the Day of Atonement to show the people of Israel and us that better way.  In John’s gospel that better way is described in this way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17 NIV).  Jesus is our better way.  Jesus is the one who took all of our sins on him when he died on the cross, thus providing us with a way for atonement to be achieved for our sins once and for all.  That is why the Day of Atonement is important.  Not because we need to have a earthly high priest go and make intercession for us once a year, every year, but because it points us to Jesus and his once for all sacrifice for our sins.

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