The Day of Atonement

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This entry is part 12 of 22 in the series The Thread: God's Appointments with History

For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

Romans 5:10–11 KJV

In the Autumn of every year, the Jews celebrate their most solemn festival, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Would it surprise you to learn that Yom Kippur is a Christian holiday as well, that the New Testament church observed the day, only with a different sense of its meaning? Very few Christians take any note of the day at all, and that is surprising, since the day is all about the ministry of Christ. They cheerfully observe Easter which is not in the Bible at all, and ignore the Day of Atonement which is not only biblical, it lies right at the heart of the meaning of the Christian Faith. Maybe it is because observing the Day of Atonement requires a fast, but it is probably because no one ever thinks of it.

So, how can I say that Yom Kippur is a Christian holiday as well as a Jewish holiday? I could point to Acts, where Luke mentions that sailing in the Mediterranean was now dangerous because the fast was already past. It is a reference to the fast of the Day of Atonement, which comes at the beginning of the stormy season in that part of the world (Acts 27:9).

But it is better, I think, to look at the Christian significance of the day. During the entire period in which the New Testament was written, the churches not only continued to observe the Sabbath, but the festivals and holydays of the Bible as well. That really shouldn’t surprise anyone, since in the early years the church was almost entirely Jewish. But the new Christians began to see a new significance in those festivals as time went by. The peculiarity of the New Testament is that it is not a systematic dissertation on the theology of the early church. It is a collection of ad hoc writings originally intended for living, first century Christians, sometimes to solve problems that had arisen in the community. Imagine how much information would be lost to us if the Corinthian church had not been so problematic.

All those people had a background in the faith that is somewhat different from the modern Christian. The Gospels and letters of the New Testament fit into that background and made sense to them in connection with that background. They understood these documents somewhat differently from us. For one thing, they had no New Testament to cite. For them, the Old Testament was their Bible, their Holy Scriptures. As Paul wrote to Timothy:

But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:14–17

Bear in mind that the only Holy Scriptures that Timothy knew from his childhood were those of what we call The Old Testament, and that those Scriptures were able to make him wise for salvation. Moreover, when Paul says all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, he is referring solely to the Old Testament. The New Testament is replete with references to the Old Testament, because it was the only written authority they had.i If Paul wanted a written Scriptural authority for what he said, the only source he could cite was the Old Testament. The only other source they had was the oral tradition of the words of Jesus. It may come as a surprise to realize that the four Gospels of the New Testament were written later than Paul’s best known epistles. That in no way diminishes the importance or the authority of the Gospels. And the oral traditions that lay at the root of the Gospel were strong and finalized by eye witnesses. Memorization was much more commonly practiced in that world than in ours.

Occasionally, the writers of New Testament books launch into explanations of the Old Testament that open up avenues of thought we otherwise might never notice. In the Book of Hebrews, for example, there is a commentary on the Temple ceremony of the Day of Atonement. Here is where our thread once again comes into view. Scholars are not certain who wrote the book of Hebrews, but the most common attribution is to Paul. His subject throughout the book is Christ, his divinity, his priesthood, his works. He is at some pains to establish that Jesus is our High Priest even though, in the flesh, he comes from the tribe of Judah, not Levi. And in the process of explaining and developing the priesthood of Christ, he incidentally gives us a Christian commentary on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and tells us what it actually means to a Christian. Now for Paul to write to a group of Christians to explain the Christian meaning of a Jewish holiday should be suggestive. But before we go there, we need to take a look at the original commandment for the Day of Atonement:

Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement [i.e., Reconciliation]. It shall be a holy convocation for you [i.e., you go to church]; you shall afflict your souls [fast],ii and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.iii

Leviticus 23:27–32

As an interesting aside, the precise limits of this day are prescribed with much more precision than they are on the other days. It may have something to do with impressing on one’s mind not to cut the fast short, but it also limits the overly righteous who might think if one day is good, two is better. In any case, it is probably the fact that they are fasting on this day that leads to the precise delineation of the day.

So once a year, all Israel came together to be reconciled to God, and consequently to one another. What does all this have to do with Christianity? Fortunately for us, Paul fully develops the theme of this day in his letter to the Hebrew Christians. It is part of a longer discussion of the priesthood of Christ. Paul finds it necessary to digress from that theme and explain some things to us about the services in the Temple.

Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

Hebrews 9:1–5

Paul takes pains to draw a mental image for his readers. The layout of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, was simple enough. It was a rectangular structure comprising two equal squares, one was the Holy Place, the other was the Holy of Holies. The heart of all this was the Ark of the Covenant, with two giant golden Cherubs touching their wingtips over the Ark. The cover of the ark is called the mercy seat, or the seat of mercy. In Hebrew, it is Kippur, hence Yom Kippur, the day of covering.

Now when these things have been thus prepared, the priests are continually enteringiv the outer tabernacle, performing the divine worship, but into the second only the high priest enters, once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing.

Hebrews 9:6–8 NASB

Paul reveals something of his method right here. He says that the Holy Spirit signified something by the order of service in the old Tabernacle. In this case, the service revealed that man did not have complete access to God in olden times, but now it is different. The Temple was like a stage, upon which the drama of the plan of God was played out in the ceremonies performed there. Everything they did had meaning. By the time the Epistle of Hebrews was written, the apostles were beginning to see, perhaps in ways they had never seen before, that all those ceremonies played out on the stage of the Temple pointed, of all places, to the ministry of Jesus Christ.

The Tabernacle, Paul said, was a figure, a metaphor. This, he said, is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper (v. 9). The entire structure of the Tabernacle and its service had meaning, meaning that reaches to the present time.

But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.

Hebrews 9:11–12

If we are going to understand what Paul is talking about, we need to know a little more about the background. He is making an oblique reference to the ceremony that took place on the Day of Atonement, something his Hebrew readers would have understood. But lacking that background, we need a little more help.

The ceremony in question is described in considerable detail in the 16th chapter of Leviticus. These instructions come just after a tragic event when Aaron’s two sons had decided to engage in some innovative worship at the Tabernacle. They had offered strange fire which simply meant burning incense that they had no instructions to offer, at a time when they had no business doing it. They got too close to the power in the Tabernacle and got burned to a crisp for their trouble. They carried them away, smoking, wrapped in their coats.

Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered profane fire before the Lord, and died; and the Lord said to Moses: Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.

Leviticus 16:1–2

This was not merely a matter of a bad tempered God who would kill him if he didn’t get it just right. He was coming into the presence of enormous power. You don’t wander in among high tension lines without taking safety precautions. If you want an idea of how this works, see the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark for an idea. The scene at the end of the movie where they open up the Ark will give you an idea of what it might have been like.

In this case, Aaron had to be prepared with certain offerings for purification, and he had to be properly attired. He had to take a bath and dress properly. Then he had to make certain offerings for himself and his family. Aaron, the High Priest, had to be ceremonially perfect, because in this ceremony he would represent Jesus Christ and his work.

Once he finished all of his preparation, he took two kids of the goats and presented them before the Lord at door of the Tabernacle. He then cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for Jehovah, and the other lot for the scapegoat. Each of these two little goats had a role to play.

First, though, He took incense and put it on hot coals inside the Holy of Holies to generate plenty of smoke. God said he would appear there, and the smoke would screen Aaron from the intense light of God’s presence. Then he took the blood of a bullock and offered it for himself and for his family, making an atonement for them, sprinkling the blood of the bullock on the cover of the ark.

It is worth noting a play on words here. Yom Kippur means literally a day of covering. The making of an atonement, in Hebrew is to make a covering. And the word translated Mercy seat in the Bible is actually Cover and specifies the lid on the Ark of the Covenant.

Then the priest came back outside and killed the goat that was for the Lord as a sin offering. He took that blood into the Holy of Holies and made an atonement for the sins of the Children of Israel. For a Christian reader, this falls easily into place. The High Priest has to first make an atonement for himself, so he can represent Christ. Then, representing Christ, He takes the blood of the goat into the Holy of Holies and makes an atonement for everyone.

In Christian typology, that would be Christ, presenting his blood before the Father’s throne as an atonement for mankind. The actual event, not the ceremonial event, took place on the Sunday morning after the resurrection of Jesus which was explained in chapter seven of this book.

When the High Priest, representing Christ, finished that atonement, he returned to the people, perhaps representing Christ returning to earth.

And he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord, and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel. And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat.

Leviticus 16:18–20

All this seems strange in that the Altar of God is holy, and it should not need cleansing. What may explain this is that throughout the year as sin offerings were made, the blood of those offerings is sprinkled again and again on this altar. The altar in itself becomes, in a way, polluted. So once a year, the priest must make an atonement for the altar, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies. The implication is that once, in the passage of all time, all this has to be reconciled to God.

Now this live goat is of particular interest. He is called the scapegoat. In the Hebrew, he is the Azazel, which means the goat of departure or the goat that escapes.

Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.

Leviticus 16:21–22

This goat is not killed. The first goat was the one that shed blood, this goat lives on in the wilderness. And you might well ask why, since an atonement has been made for sin, is there any sin left to confess? If the sin has been forgiven, why is there yet another ceremony regarding sin?

This is an important question from a Christian perspective.

Justification, as a Christian concept, is the forgiveness of sins past. But all of us know that even though we are forgiven, we still commit sin. We are forgiven but sin still dogs our steps. Sin seems to take on a life of its own, and mere forgiveness does not solve all the problems. We know this as a practical matter of fact.

If you stood outside the Temple and watched the High Priest lay both his hands on the head of the scapegoat, and heard him confess all the sins of the house of Israel on this goat, what would you have thought and felt as you watched the goat depart? Perhaps you would recall the Psalm:

As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:12

And so we come to realize that we must not only be forgiven of our sins, but the effect of the sins, the continuing burden of the sin must be sent away from us to free us of the lingering consequences. The Jews call the days leading up to Yom Kippur The Days of Awe. They are days in which they examine themselves before coming to God for reconciliation. A Jewish sage spoke about this concept and cited an ancient prayer:

How can we complain, what can we say, how can we speak, and how can we justify ourselves? We will examine our ways and scrutinize them, and we will return to You, for Your Hand is outstretched to accept returnees. Not with abundance and not with deeds have we come before You; like paupers and mendicants we knock on Your door. Throughout the year, we try to present ourselves before others (and before our own selves) as the proud owners of spiritual wealth, as capable and accomplished individuals. Only upon the arrival of the moment of truth does it become clear that like paupers and mendicants we knock on Your door. This does not mean that we are devoid of accomplishment; rather, any accomplishments we have attained cannot be attributed to us.v

This is a long way from salvation by works. You may have heard the ten days from trumpets to atonement called The Days of Awe. A better phrase in English is The Days of Repentance. What the Jews are looking for on the Day of Atonement is Grace. This may come as a surprise to those who think that Judaism is a kind of salvation by works.

After the ceremony on Yom Kippur, Aaron had to change clothes and bathe again, and so did the man who let go the goat in the wilderness. There was a lot of washing going on. It is this ceremony that the writer of Hebrews is talking about in his 9th chapter.

For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

Hebrews 9:13–14

It is plain that Paul is drawing a strong connection between the blood of that little goat and being taken into the Holy of Holies, and the blood of Christ offered, one time, to God for us.

For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you. Then likewise he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.

Hebrews 9:19–22

This takes us back to Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper when he gave them a little cup of wine and said, Here, take, drink it all. This is my blood of the New Testament, shed for you.

For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another; He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.

Hebrews 9:24–28

All this is compared to the High Priest who went once in the year into the Tabernacle with a sacrifice for sin. Now, once in the history of the world, Christ our High Priest, has offered his own blood for us.

We are left to wonder what Christ is going to do relative to that second goat when he returns the second time unto salvation. For there is no doubt that the writer of Hebrews is making this connection between the movements of the High Priest in this service and the ministry of Christ. And we are left to ponder the words after this the judgment.

One may wonder why there are two Sacrifices of Christ along this thread. Our best chance to understand this question is to pick up the thread and follow it on.

(An excerpt from The Thread: God’s Appointments with History)

i. There are no less than 46 direct citations from the Old Testament in the Epistle to the Romans alone.

ii. Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance (Ezra 8:21).

iii. The Hebrew day began and ended at sunset, not at midnight as in later civilization.

iv. The verb tenses here, according to the NASB, suggest that this is written while the Temple is standing and the service continuing.

v. Raval Amital, from The Selichot Prayers.

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Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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Image Credits: Karsten Knoefler