Lessons from the Day of Atonement
Here in the city of Portland, Oregon, Yom Kippur 2014 began at 6:47 p.m. on Friday, October 3. Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement” and the Bible says it falls on the tenth day of the Jewish month Tirish—October 4 on our calendar. According to Jewish custom, a day does not start at midnight but at sundown of the previous night, which was at 6:47 p.m. in Portland.
Yom Kippur was the most solemn holy day for the Children of Israel because it was the day when God dealt with the sins of the people. Sin separates mankind from God, so this day of atoning for sin was a very serious time. God commanded that it was to be a day of rest: no work of any kind was to be done on Yom Kippur. The Jews were to afflict their souls, recognizing the gravity of their sins. They would fast for twenty-five hours while abstaining from doing their own pleasure on that day. The punishment for not afflicting their souls was death, so we can see that this holy day had a very heavy weight to it.
Today there is good news—we do not have to keep Yom Kippur anymore! When Jesus died on the Cross, He made the full atonement for sin so atonement through the sacrificial system no longer needs to occur. A sinner can come in repentance to God at any time, and the offering of Jesus’ Blood will atone. Yet, we can still learn a great deal from what the Bible says about Yom Kippur because it foreshadowed the sacrifice that Jesus made on Calvary. The Old Testament instructions show us how the New Testament atonement is meant to be applied.
To understand what happened each year on Yom Kippur, we first need to know a little about the Tabernacle, which is where the sacrifice for atonement was made. God designed the Tabernacle to be the place where He would meet with His people. It was located in the center of the Jewish settlement and was surrounded by a large open courtyard. The Tabernacle itself was divided into two rooms: the holy place and the Holy of Holies. In the holy place was an altar for burning incense and a table with bread on it. Behind a curtain was the other room, the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. That room was reserved as God’s dwelling place, and was entered by only the high priest on only one day of the year: on the Day of Atonement. If he entered at any other time, or if he did not follow God’s precise instructions for entrance, he would die.
The high priest at the time of the first Yom Kippur was Moses’ brother Aaron, and he clearly understood the seriousness of approaching God. Two of his own sons, Nadab and Abihu, had disobeyed God’s instructions and as a consequence, the fire of God had consumed them. The lesson was clear: coming before God was a serious matter that must be done with great respect for who God is and what He has said.
We read in Leviticus 16 that it was shortly after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu when God gave the instructions for Yom Kippur. The high priest was first to wash himself and put on holy garments. Then he would sacrifice a bullock as an offering for his own sins. He would take coals from the altar of incense and burn incense as he entered the Holy of Holies, and once inside he would sprinkle the bullock’s blood eight times in front of the Ark of God. Then the priest would leave and repeat the same process using a goat as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. Next he would cleanse the altar of incense by sprinkling it with blood as well.
There was another goat involved in the Yom Kippur ceremony, and that was the scapegoat. We often use the word “scapegoat” when referring to a person who takes someone else’s punishment. That meaning comes directly from the Bible. On Yom Kippur, two goats were brought before God and lots were cast to determine which would be sacrificed and which would be sent away. After sacrificing the first goat, the priest would lay hands on the other goat, symbolically placing the sins of the people on the animal. Then the goat would be released to wander in the wilderness. After all of this was done, the priest was to take off his soiled garments, wash himself, and put on clean clothes. That was how Yom Kippur ended.
When Jesus was crucified at Calvary, His sacrificial death fulfilled all of these steps of atonement. Hebrews 9:11-12 and 24 says, “But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us . . . For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” Jesus is both our High Priest and our Sacrifice. He lived a sinless life, so He did not need to first bring an offering for His own sins. Instead, He offered His own Blood to make a complete atonement for the sins of all mankind. That is why we no longer have to celebrate Yom Kippur: our High Priest paid the ultimate price—a price that only He could pay. After His atoning Blood has been applied to our lives and we receive forgiveness for our sins, we can enjoy a relationship with God and the hope of a home awaiting us in Heaven.
The instructions for the Old Testament atonement also give insight into the way we receive salvation through Christ today. For instance, there is a lesson in God’s command for the people to afflict their souls while the priest made the atonement. Today, we too must come to God in repentance, mourning for our sins as we ask God to forgive us.
God also told the Children of Israel that no work was to be done on the Day of Atonement. This teaches us that we cannot earn, or do anything in ourselves, to atone for our sins. We could never work hard enough or do sufficient good deeds to earn forgiveness. Jesus did all the work for us. Our salvation was purchased entirely by Him, and He offers it as a free gift to those who come to Him in repentance.
We can also learn from the negative examples of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. God rejected them because they disobeyed His instructions for approaching Him. This teaches us that we cannot make up our own ideas of how to come to God. We must reverence God enough to obey what He has said.
In the Tabernacle, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies with incense. We know from other Bible passages that incense represents prayers (see Psalm 141:2 and Revelation 8:3-4). This helps us understand that we must come before the Lord through prayer. Then the priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice before the Ark. It is fascinating that the blood was applied at the heart of the Israelite camp; the Tabernacle was located at the center of where the Children of Israel lived, and the Holy of Holies was at the interior of the Tabernacle. Our cleansing needs to take place in our hearts, at the very center of who we are. Atonement is not about hiding our sins. Atonement is a work God does in our hearts which takes sin away.
When we read that the priest would proceed to apply the blood to the altar of incense, we get the idea that once our hearts are cleansed, what flows from our hearts will also be cleansed. Our conversation, thoughts, and desires are different after Jesus’ Blood has been applied.
The scapegoat illustrates that Jesus bore our sins and carried them away from us. We do not have to carry the weight of guilt and shame for the sins we have committed because Jesus carried them away, as far away as the east is from the west (see Psalm 103:12).
We can glean from the priest putting on a new garment at the close of Yom Kippur that after we have been forgiven, we must turn our backs on the former life of sin. As we begin this fresh start with God, we put away any wrong things that we used to do and begin a good, right way of living instead.
The Jewish New Year’s Day is called Rosh Hashanah, and it falls on the first day of the month called Tishri. Yom Kippur occurs on the tenth day of Tishri. Although God pronounced His judgment upon the people on Rosh Hashanah, it wasn’t until the end of Yom Kippur that His judgment was sealed. The intervening days were called the “Days of Awe.” The people had those ten days to repent of their sins so the atonement could be applied to them. Once the judgment was sealed on Yom Kippur, there was no way to change it.
In a very real sense, we are living in the “Days of Awe” before God’s judgment is sealed. Soon repentance will no longer be possible and God’s judgment will be sealed.
In a very real sense, we are living in the “Days of Awe” before God’s judgment is sealed. Soon repentance will no longer be possible and God’s judgment will be sealed—eternal life for those who have received atonement for their sins and eternal death for those who have not. No one knows exactly when God will seal our judgment—it could be in the next few minutes or the next few years. However, for now we still have the opportunity to repent and have Jesus’ atoning Blood cover our sins. You can come before God the way He has prescribed and repent of your sins. If you do, He has promised to forgive your transgressions. God will wipe the slate clean and will not remember a single one of those sins again. They will be expunged from your record.
Today, if the Voice of God is calling your name, this is a special moment for you. We cannot come to God in our own timing; the Bible says we can only come to Him when His Spirit draws us. If you ignore the Spirit now, there may not be another opportunity. He might not call again before you die, and if He does not call, you cannot come to Him.
Where do you stand in these Days of Awe? Have you repented and given your life to Jesus Christ? In these last days, take the opportunity God offers. Recognize His call, and reach out to God. Sin separates from God, but the gift of God is eternal life. He offers full atonement for your sins! Come to Him and be saved today.