Finding Jesus in Yom Kippur
The History of Atonement for the Jewish People
Yom Kippur represents the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. The story of this day, the Day of Atonement, goes back to the earliest parts of their history when God gave instructions to his people through the prophet Moses.
Leviticus 16:29-30 29 "And it shall be a statute to you forever," says the Lord, "that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. 30 For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins."
Have you ever wondered what the word "atonement" means? In its simplest form, to atone for something is to cover it; to conceal or clothe an object so that it is no longer exposed. Unlike most cultures, the New Year begins with a time of repentance, affliction, and humility for Jewish people. This was not their idea. It was God's. As the new year is ushered in, the people humble themselves and ask the Lord to cover their sins. At various times throughout Jewish history, this included a ceremony of atonement conducted by the high priest.
Leviticus 16:31-34 "32 And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father's place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments. 33 He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins."
The two-part service was straightforward. Yom Kippur was the one day of the year the high priest could enter the holy of holies – the place where God's presence dwelt before the people. He would do so with the blood of a young goat and sprinkle it over the mercy seat, the altar, and the remaining parts of the inner tent/temple. This ceremony of atoning, or "covering," covered the people's sins for the following calendar year (that is, as long as the high priest made it out of the holy place alive). A second goat was then selected by the high priest, who would lay his hands on the head of the animal and confess all the iniquities of the people over it (ever wonder from where we get the term "scapegoat"?) By setting this goat free to go and wander in the wilderness, the Israelites attained a visible sign that God had separated them from their sins.
Leviticus 16:20-22 20 "And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. "
It's a beautiful thing to think about; God covered the sins of his people and granted them a visible sign of their separation from sin as the year began. This way, despite human weakness and frailty, communion and connection with the Lord might remain unbroken for the people throughout the year.
What God Has Done in Jesus
But like every statute and feast consecrated under God's holy covenant with the people of Israel, this tradition foreshadowed what was to come. If the blood of goats offered by the people covered their sins for a year, what type of coverage has been offered by the blood of the ram that God himself provided?
Hebrews 10:1-4 "For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."
What we have in Jesus is not a sacrifice that covers our sins for a calendar year, but one that covers our sins forever.
Hebrews 10: 5-14 "5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; 6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. 7 Then I said, 'Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.' " 8 When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), 9 then he added, "Behold, I have come to do your will." He does away with the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified."
The ram of God has taken away the sins of the world. If you are in Christ, your sins have been atoned for. They have been covered. They have been washed by the blood of the ram. The veil that once separated the holy of holies from the people of God has been torn, and the Holy One Himself has now come to make his abode amongst a cleansed and sanctified people. The people of faith today enjoy unfettered access to this holiest of places – the presence of almighty God – where the Lord himself waits to receive us and rejoices at our coming.