Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It began at sundown, Friday and it ends at sunset tonight. It always takes place exactly ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This is the one day a year when the High Priest would enter the presence of God within the innermost room of the Temple. There he would present offerings to God and the sins committed by the Israelites in the past year were atoned for.
“For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins” (Lev 16:30).
Today, there is no Temple. Thus, for the Jews there is no dwelling for God upon this earth and no place to carry out the annual ritual for the atonement for sins. In place of the sacrifices and Temple rituals, modern religious Jews spend this day in synagogue services which often last twenty-five hours from one evening to the next. These services consist of collective confession of sin, traditional prayers, chants, and scripture readings. Tonight the services will close with the sounding of the shofar, a trumpet made from a ram’s horn. This trumpet blast symbolizes the closing of the gates of heaven.
Last week, Rosh Hashanah began what are known as the High Holy Days. During these holy days Judaism believes that God judges the deeds of mankind. These days of judgment end with the shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur. At this point, you hope that your name has been sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year.
From the time of Moses, when God appointed Aaron as High Priest, until the destruction of the second Temple in 70CE (with a couple breaks, ex. the Exile) the ritual of atonement occurred every year on Yom Kippur. In the Levitical system, atonement was procured through the sacrifice of animals.
On Yom Kippur, the High Priest would offer a bull as a sacrifice to God to cleanse himself and his family prior to beginning the rituals for the cleansing of the nation. Prior to this sacrifice, the nation of Israel, who would have all gathered at the Tabernacle or Temple for this day, would have brought two male goats to the High Priest as well as a ram.
“Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel” (Lev 7-10).
The High Priest then performed a ritual in which he placed his hands upon the goat, called the Azazel, symbolically laying upon it all the sins of the nation from the past year. The Azazel was then led outside of the camp (or later, out of the city of Jerusalem), into the wilderness by a Gentile. The Gentile would leave the goat in the wilderness to die. It is interesting that later Jewish sources mention that the Gentile who led the Azazel out into the Wilderness would push the goat off of a cliff. It makes you wonder if the Azazel had wandered back into town the year before. Once all the sin of the nation has been placed upon this goat you certainly do not want it showing up in your backyard!
You can read about God’s guidelines for the day in Leviticus 16. Scriptures read on this day include the Leviticus 16, the book of Jonah, various Psalms, and a few other passages.
As a Christian, why is this day important to us? Well, I hope that as you read the paragraphs above some lightbulbs were appearing over your head as you thought, “Hey, that sounds a lot like something from the New Testament!” If you thought that, then you’re absolutely right. Before Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, God had already laid out the pattern of redemption for us, His beloved children. Jesus took upon Himself the role of both the Azazel who was led out of town to die as well as the goat who was sacrificed on the altar as a sin offering for all the people. Atonement for sin requires blood. I know that sounds morbid, but that is the reality of how serious our sin is to God. Death of a blameless animal was all that could absolve the nation of Israel of its sin. The death of the Son of God, who as a man lived a blameless life here upon the earth, was the only thing which could make possible the saving of all humanity from the death penalty which we all incurred as a result of our own actions.
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:6-7)
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:21-25a).
If Christ’s sacrifice is a picture of the ancient ceremony of Yom Kippur, then, as Christians, who is our High Priest?
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:14-16).
“He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Heb 7:25-27).
Jesus’ sacrifice was 100% effective. Through offering himself as an unblemished sacrifice He made it possible for our consciences to be cleansed so that we might serve the living God (Heb 9:14). He obtained eternal redemption (Heb 9:12) and is now capable of saving completely (Heb 7:25) those who choose Him as their covenant representative.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:1-4).
Unlike Judaism, those who have accepted Jesus as their covenant representative do not have to wait for a once a year opportunity to confess their sins to God. We must work out our salvation daily, always becoming more like our covenant representative, Jesus.
“ If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
As Christians, Yom Kippur serves to remind us of the seriousness of sin to God and our need for His grace. It also reminds us of the urgent necessity to seek His forgiveness and cleansing daily. Through the work of our great High priest, this is not an unreal dream. This is a living reality.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:8-10).
On this day, we, as Christians, rest from work (the earth will not stop spinning if you take a total day off from work once a week) to remember that our sin has been atoned for once and for all. With Jesus’ sacrifice and the arrival of the Holy Spirit on earth He made it possible for us to live with Him in complete freedom from sin every day of our lives. We no longer have to wait for a single day of the year for our sin to be atoned for and to experience His grace. We may confess to Him daily so that nothing chokes the relationship between our Heavenly Father and us.
Have you ever wondered why it is that the apostle Paul always begins his letters “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” with grace and peace appearing in that order? What must come first so that we may have true, lasting, complete peace? God’s grace! How is it that it is possible for this grace to be bestowed upon us?
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb 10:11-12).
This grace is possible for us to receive because our great High Priest is no longer standing, performing priestly duties. His work has been completed! He has sat down! “It is finished” (John 19:30). Through Him alone, true, eternal freedom and peace are now available to all those who choose Jesus as their savior and covenant representative.
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…If, because of one man’s [Adam’s] trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:12, 17).
Therefore, may you daily live in freedom knowing the awesome gift which God has bestowed upon you. And, may you be a living example of the love which God our Father, the source of more abundant goodness than we can imagine or contain, is willing, ready and yearning to fill you with every single day.
Grace and peace to you!