On The Day of Atonement
The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) takes place on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar (see Leviticus 23:27-32; this corresponds to our September-October time frame). The day was a Sabbath rest in which they were forbidden to work. It was also the day on which they were to “afflict” or deny themselves (e.g., fasting). The explanation of the meaning and priestly actions are given in Leviticus 16.
The chapter begins by reminding the people about Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10). How to approach God on the Day of Atonement was about to be explained, but coming into God's presence was never to be taken lightly. The tabernacle represented God's presence among the people, and the Most Holy Place with the mercy seat represented God's throne. Aaron, as the High Priest, was the one allowed, on this day only, to enter into that Most Holy Place. How he approached God was critical.
Aaron was to bathe himself, then put on the holy garments. He was to take one bull, which he would give as a sacrifice for himself as a sin offering, and two goats for which lots were cast to tell him which goat the purpose of each. One goat was to be offered as a sin offering. Aaron brought incense inside the veil of the Most Holy Place and the incense cloud would cover the mercy seat. He slaughtered the bull, then brought its blood behind the veil to sprinkle on the mercy seat. Then he slaughtered the goat and took its blood to sprinkle on and before the mercy seat. Thus he would “make atonement for the holy place because of the impurities of the sons of Israel and because of their transgressions in regards to all their sins…” (vs. 16). Aaron was to take some of the blood to spread on the horns of the altar in the courtyard for cleansing.
The second goat was presented alive and sent away as a scapegoat (Azazel). Aaron would lay his hands on the head of this goat and send it away into the wilderness. As he laid his hands on its head, he would confess all the iniquities and transgressions of the people. “The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land…” (Lev. 16:22).
The bodies of the sacrificed bull and goat would be taken outside of the camp and burned. The priest would wash his clothes and bath again before coming back into the camp. This process was to occur once a year so that they would be clean from all their sins before the Lord (v. 30).
The Day of Atonement was symbolically very meaningful. What are some of the issues stressed that are connected with this day?
1. Holiness. The concept is seen in the bathing and washing of the priest and his clothes. If he was to approach God, then he had to first make a sacrifice for himself so that he could be cleansed from sin.
2. Sacrifice. The blood of the bull and goat had to be shed in order to purify the priest, the people, and the sanctuary. The problem of sin is so great that only the shedding of blood would accomplish forgiveness (Heb 9:22).
3. Forgiveness. The sins of the people created a barrier to God. The Lord provided a means by which they could have their sins forgiven. Forgiveness is the idea of a sending away, and the “scapegoat” being sent away bearing the sins of the people highlighted this.
This day has even greater significance for Christians, as it was intended to be Messianic. Hebrews picks up this theme to speak of Jesus Christ as the sacrifice for sin. Since the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin, Christ came as the perfect sacrifice (Heb 10). Yet He is also the High Priest, though Jesus did not need to atone for Himself first. He is already pure and holy and can enter behind the veil into the Most Holy Place. Yet He also went “outside the camp” where he was reproached and despised (Heb 13:11-13).
Jesus is called our “propitiation,” which is an appeasement of the wrath of God against the sins of mankind (1 John 2:1-2). Jesus is our peace, and by Him we can be reconciled to God through the forgiveness of our sins. As the goat bore the sins of the people away, so Jesus bore our sins in His body and has taken those sins away (1 Peter 2:24). We can stand forgiven!
The Day of Atonement was to take place once a year under the Law of Moses, but in Christ our Day of Atonement is continual. This, I believe, is basically what Paul had in mind when he wrote that now is the “Day of Salvation” (2 Cor. 6:1-2; taken from Isa. 49:8). Our day of salvation is not just one day a year, but rather an era brought about through Christ’s work on our behalf. Paul connects this to the grace of God, which, as always, needs to be understood and stressed if we are to understand forgiveness. And forgiveness is what all of this is about. May God be thanked and praised!