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Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement

by Ed Vasicek


In  2012, Jewish people celebrated their most solemn holiday of the year, Yom Kippur—known to most of us as The Day of Atonement—from sunset September 25 through the 26th (dates vary, sometimes in September, other years in October. 


In modern Judaism, this is a time to grieve over one’s sins, repent, fast, and find God’s forgiveness.

In biblical times, this holy day involved the covering of sin by the payment of a penalty. The NIV of Leviticus 5:5-6a captures the idea of atonement: “When anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the LORD a female lamb or goat” (emphasis added).

No animal sacrifices could attain salvation, but merely made the individual ritually and socially clean. Hebrews 10:4 is blunt: “[I]t is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” From a New Covenant perspective, we can see that Yom Kippur also foreshadows a massive and complete spiritual cleansing.

Yom Kippur Under the Old Covenant (Leviticus 23:26-32, 16:5-34)

The Old Covenant provided sacrifice to cover unintentional sin, but not defiant sin. Numbers 15:30 (ESV) reads, “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people.”

God may graciously forgive such defiant sins, but not on the basis of animal sacrifice. God justly forgives on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ (Rom. 3:25-26). Before Jesus, the individual sinner could only offer God repentance and cast himself upon God’s mercy. God’s character and faithful love would be the source of the repentant sinner’s hope. It is that character and faithful love which would one day send the promised Messiah, Yeshua, to settle accounts.

Psalm 51 was written to express David’s repentance after his adulteress affair with Bathsheba: Verses 16 -17 ring clearly: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

David had committed high-handed sin, not merely unintentional sins. The Yom Kippur sacrifice could make a covering for the entire nation’s sins (Lev. 16:21), but could not save the soul.

The Ritual of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 23)

The people prepared for The Day of Atonement by fasting and confession of sin (Lev. 23:32). The priest entered the Most Holy Place, a compartment in the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was housed.

The priest made his initial entrance with the blood of a bull that had been sacrificed to make atonement (covering) for his own sin. He would then leave and retrieve two goats (as determined by lot), one of which was sacrificed. He would sprinkle the goat’s blood atop the Ark to atone for the sins of the people.

The second goat was called the scapegoat and would be allowed to live. The priest would lay his hands on the goat and lean into the goat with his weight while confessing the sins of the nation (Lev. 16:21) thus creating a substitute by pressing himself into the goat, and symbolically transferring the sins of the people he represented—Israel. (See The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism by David Daube, pp. 224-246 for a detailed study of the “laying on of hands.”)

This goat would then be released into the wilderness.

The Talmud tells us that the priest would tie a red ribbon on the scapegoat. If, after laying hands on the goat, God had accepted the sacrifice and forgiven the people, the ribbon would supernaturally turn from red to white. If not, the ribbon would remain red.

The ribbon ceased changing color in AD 30, probably because Jesus had presented Himself as Messiah. The Talmud comments:

Forty years before the Temple was destroyed the following things happened: The lot for the Yom Kippur goat ceased to be supernatural; the red cord of wool that used to change to white (as a symbol of God’s forgiveness) now remained red and did not change…the western candle in the candlestick in the sanctuary refused to burn continually while the doors of the Holy Temple would open of themselves.” (Tractate Yoma 39:b)

An explanation is offered in the same tractate:

Why was the first Holy Temple destroyed? Because of three things: idol worship, adultery, and murder. But in the second Temple in which time the Jewish people were occupied studying the Torah and doing good deeds and acts of charity, why was it then destroyed? The answer is: It was because of hatred without a cause to teach you, that hate without a cause is equal to these sins and that it is as serious a crime as the three great transgressions of idol worship, adultery, and murder. (Yoma 9)

Whom did the Jewish people hate without a cause? I suggest the answer is “Yeshua.”

But the attitude of non-Messianic Jews will be altered in the End Times. Yom Kippur foreshadows a massive and complete spiritual cleansing in two time frames.

Yom Kippur and the Cross

The Messiah’s atoning work on the cross is foreshadowed by both goats. Our Savior served as both priest and sacrifice: “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9:14)

God’s word tells us that Yom Kippur represents heavenly realities in Hebrews 9:22-10:1,

Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness…For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people… The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never…make perfect those who draw near to worship. (NIV)

Jesus' death was not merely atonement, but an actual removal of sin; its concern is not ritual uncleanness, but the removal of guilt of sin from our souls before a holy God.

The priest pressed his weight into a goat; in like manner, the Father laid all our sins upon the Messiah (Isa. 53:5); indeed, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (ESV, 2 Cor. 5:21). Paul seems to be expanding on both the Isaiah verse and the Yom Kippur ritual.

The second goat is thought to picture the burial of Christ; the ashes of our sin were left in the grave and are no more. J. Wilbur Chapman, in his Gospel song, One Day, captures the idea:

Living He love me; dying He saved me;
Buried He carried my sin far away;
Rising He justified freely forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!

Yom Kippur and End-Time Israel (Zech. 12:9-13:1)

Those of us who believe in a literal future fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel place these Zechariah verses at the end of the coming seven-year Tribulation with Armageddon looming.

The survivors of Israel will repent en masse. Their rejection of Yeshua as Messiah will transform into belief. Zechariah 12:9-10 indicates:

And on that day I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.

Zechariah 13:8-9 provides us with more details:

In the whole land, declares the LORD, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, “They are my people”; and they will say, “The LORD is my God.”


Romans 11:25-29 reads,

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”

As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

Perhaps Zechariah 13:1 reminds us most of Yom Kippur: “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.”

Have you experienced the cleansing symbolized by The Day of Atonement?

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