What is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?

October marks a solemn month for followers of Judaism this year as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls on October 8. Just what is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and why is it significant to us as Christians? 

To answer these questions, we first we need to understand the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. While today we have two distinct religions, that is not the way Jesus intended it. Jesus came to fulfill God’s plan of redemption for humanity which had been planned since the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). Jesus came first to preach His message to the lost sheep of Israel (Matt. 10:5-6), to gather them up as hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Matt.23:37). Christ’s first followers did not refer to themselves as “Christians” but rather as followers of the Way (Acts 9:2). By calling themselves this, they meant to say that they didn’t see themselves as followers of a new religion but as followers of the true way to God, as Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The relationship between Judaism at the time of Christ and what eventually became known as Christianity is similar to the relationship between John Hus and the Catholic Church. Hus didn’t intend to start a new church, but he sought to reform the church by calling it back to the true ways of God. In light of a corrupt generation, Jesus came to call the people back to God and also to fulfill God’s plan of redemption that the Lord had foretold to the people throughout the ages.

Some time would pass between when God first spoke to the people of Israel and established a covenant relationship with them and the time of Jesus’ appearing. In the time between, God gave the people His Law which contained directions for living a godly life and maintaining a relationship with Him. But without the revelation of Jesus, the Law was incomplete. It was a “shadow of the good things” that were to come (Hebrews 10:1). It was a guardian until Christ came (Galatians 3:24). The Law before Jesus’ appearing gave people a temporary solution to the problem of sin. Sin is that thing that breaks our fellowship with God. While it promises us fulfillment and satisfaction, it always leaves us empty and lost, and it leaves others and ourselves wounded and damaged. For the harm and the offense we cause by not following the Lord’s will, our God demands justice. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But our God is also loving and merciful, and even before the time of Jesus’ coming, God provided a way out of the punishment for sin — through sacrifice. With a repentant heart, people could bring an animal sacrifice to God to take the place they deserved to take for their sin. It cost something to them — a precious animal — and many of the animals God allowed for sacrifice had a foul odor to them, further reinforcing the foul consequences of the people’s sinful choices. 

But even this regular sacrifice system was not enough. The repeated sins of the priests and the people built up so much and even tainted the temple of God that something even greater needed to be done to remove the sin of the people. God ordained the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, to do just that. Once a year on the designated Day of Atonement, the High Priest would make a sacrifice for the sins that the people had committed over the last year. First he would sacrifice a bull for his own sin so that he could approach God in the temple’s Holy of Holies. Then he would sacrifice a goat and sprinkle its blood on the mercy seat of God to cover the sins of the people. A second goat was also brought to the temple. This goat was not sacrificed, but rather the High Priest would lay hands on the goat and confess over it all the wickedness of the people. He would then send the goat out into the wilderness to carry the people’s sins to a remote place (Leviticus 16:22). This was done as a symbol to the people to show that as far as the east is from the west, so far has the Lord removed the people’s sins from them (Psalm 103:12). 

The Day of Atonement provided a means for people to be freed from the punishment of their sin, to be healed from the burden and guilt of their disobedience, and to be made right with God again, but this too was insufficient. It was a temporary fix. This sacrifice had to be performed year after year, with a new bull and a new goat. But with Jesus’ coming, something changed. On Calvary, Jesus entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood and obtained eternal redemption for the people (Hebrews 9:12). What can be more powerful than God saying, “I, Myself, will pay for the sins of my people”? Jesus did just that. He paid the price for the sins of humankind, and He offers forgiveness to whoever believes in Him. 

Today, followers of Judaism still celebrate the Day of Atonement because they do not believe in the work of Jesus on the cross. Many followers of Judaism also believe that a sacrifice is no longer necessary for the forgiveness of sins. Rather, through a contrite heart and service we can obtain God’s forgiveness. But God’s standards haven’t changed. Before, God required the blood of creatures for the atonement for one’s life (Lev. 17:11). When Jesus came, the standard was still there, however, Jesus fulfilled that standard with His own blood:  “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … but with the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19). Jesus is the final sacrifice and the blood that was shed for our souls. 

We no longer need to observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, because of what Jesus has done for us. This holy day’s place in the history of our faith, however, is a reminder for us. It is a reminder that God loved us so much that He Himself was willing to take the punishment for our sin. The day is also a call for us to look into our hearts and ask God, “Lord, how have I sinned against you?”, to turn back to the Lord, and to receive His forgiveness. And lastly, it is a call for us to talk to God about the wound that we carry as a result of someone else’s sin against us and to ask God to help us to forgive that person. 

All is made right with the Lord. May we receive His forgiveness, His healing, and His help this month as we accept His gracious invitation to come to Him. Amen. 

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