Yom Kippur: Making Atonement
Just over a week ago, we learned a bit about the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh HaShanah). This event introduces the biblical fall holidays and leads up to the only somber holiday that God commanded His people to remember each year — the Day of Atonement.
The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur in Hebrew) starts Friday at sundown and lasts until Saturday at sundown. In the Bible, and still today, it was the holiest day of the year for the people of God. In Leviticus 23, God commanded the Israelites to abstain from work and to deny themselves (fast) for a whole day. People examine themselves and their sins, asking God for His forgiveness.
Like I’ve mentioned, there are seven holidays God asks His people to celebrate every year, and Yom Kippur is the only one that is serious. This is because it is related to the atonement of sins. There are very detailed instructions in Leviticus 16 about how the Day of Atonement activities are to be carried out. Leviticus 16 says that the high priest must sacrifice to atone for himself and his family, and sacrifice to atone the altar and the Most Holy Place. Then the priest would bring two goats — one to sacrifice as a sin offering for the people, and one to be a scapegoat. The priest would symbolically place all of the sins of the people for the past year on the scapegoat. A man would then lead the goat, heavy with the burden of Israel’s sin, into the desert and let it go — the scapegoat would carry away, upon its head, the wickedness of their hearts.
It’s a fascinating story. Please, please take a second to read Leviticus 16. I hadn’t read it in awhile, and it’s amazing to look at the process required to atone for our sins.
What is really cool for believers in Jesus is that Christ came and went through the Day of Atonement process Himself. Hebrews 9 parallels this ritual by showing us that Jesus, the Messiah, has become our high priest. He is the one who made atonement for us once and for all, not through sacrificing a bull or a goat or a ram, but through sacrificing His body — broken, burdened, crushed under the weight of, not only the sins of Israel, but the sins of all humanity throughout all time.
Because there is no longer a temple in Jerusalem, modern-day Judaism observes the Day of Atonement differently. Jewish tradition now has three main components of Yom Kippur — repentance, prayer and fasting.
In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, people repent, asking God to forgive sins and reconciling with anyone they need forgiveness from or need to forgive. This need for reconciliation is something Christians still take into account before we take communion, the symbol of our atonement.
The prayer part is done together. There is an evening Yom Kippur service on the night it starts, and then many people go to services for much of the next day. Often, people read the book of Jonah, which reminds us that we are quick to run from God’s plan in rebellion, but He is also quick to offer compassion. Part of the communal prayer time is to recognize that our sins affect others. All of our sin is against God, but the ramifications often spread to our family and friends. People pray, asking God to please forgive them and begging him to write their names in the Book of Life. As believers in Jesus, we know that we don’t need a yearly atonement any longer. Jesus paid the price fully and completely and victoriously through his death. Although it is a solemn holiday and people are asking God for forgiveness, there is also an undertone of joy. People wear white, as a reminder that God has promised to make our sins as white as snow. God is gracious and compassionate and always willing to forgive when we repent.
The third part of Yom Kippur is fasting from sundown to sundown. Although many Jews and Christians fast, this is the only fast commanded by God in the Bible. Many people don’t eat or even drink water; they fast to demonstrate the seriousness of their sin, and the need for God to forgive.
A couple of years ago I observed the Day of Atonement by fasting. It was uncomfortable. I was hungry. But I suppose that is the point. Atonement is uncomfortable; it requires a sacrifice, a penalty, someone willing to suffer. I decided to fast that year, not because I feared that God hadn’t forgiven me, but because I know many people who have not been reconciled to God. They have not recognized their need for Jesus’ atoning blood; their eyes are still blinded to the truth, and their hearts are still enslaved to sin. So, I fasted during that Day of Atonement as a way to remember to pray for those in my life who need Jesus, to lift up them up to the Lord, to ask His Spirit to call them to Him because Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
So there we are — the Day of Atonement. Remember on Friday and Saturday that Jesus has atoned for us, that God is so willing to forgive when we turn around, when we repent. Remember it with joy, not fear, because our God is good to us! And if you feel called, consider fasting and praying for those in your life who need Jesus.
* What stands out to you most about the Day of Atonement?