My friend Jennifer Hesse joins us this week as we continue our Word Nerd Wednesday series on the feasts God commanded the Israelites to observe with the Day of Atonement.
Day of Atonement
The word “atonement” in the Bible doesn’t mean what you think it means – except for the times that it does. Though it seems confusing, investigating the different meanings of the term illuminates our understanding of and appreciation for Christ’s act of redemption.
Definitions in Hebrew and English
Exodus 29-30 records how God initiated the priestly sacrificial system for atonement of sins.
“Once a year Aaron shall make atonement on its horns. This annual atonement must be made with the blood of the atoning sin offering for the generations to come. It is most holy to the LORD.” (Exodus 30:10)
The word atonement here is translated from the Hebrew word kaphar, meaning “to cover,” or expiate.
The English dictionary defines atonement in two ways:
1) Reparation for an offense or injury
2) The reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ
These definitions evolved from the original Middle English combination of “at” and “one,” implying restoration of peace between people or groups. Although Christ did restore our relationship with our Creator – reconciling sinful humans with a holy God – the idea of harmony or “at-one-ment” differs from the definition of atonement as described in the Levitical law. In this context, atonement describes how God covers our sins through a blood sacrifice, foreshadowing how Christ would cleanse and remove our sins by shedding His own blood.
Annual Holy Day
Leviticus 23:26-36 instituted the observance of the Day of Atonement, which is translated from the Hebrew words yom (meaning “day”) and kippur (derived from kaphar, meaning “to atone”).
“The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the LORD. Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the LORD your God. Those who do not deny themselves on that day must be cut off from their people. I will destroy from among their people anyone who does any work on that day. You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a day of Sabbath rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your Sabbath.”
This great day of humiliation, sometimes referred to as “the Good Friday of the Old Testament,” required the people to fast from sunset to sunset as a sign of sorrow over their sins and to abstain from all work as they did during Sabbath. It concluded with the blowing of the Shofar, the trumpet that heralds the coming of the Messiah.
Although some people of Jewish faith still observe Yom Kippur – typically by fasting for the day – they don’t offer the customary sacrifices according to the law of atonement.
Ceremony and Rituals
Leviticus 16:1-28 outlines the law God gave Moses, instructing the high priest (Aaron) what to do on the Day of Atonement.
On this one day of the year, the high priest entered the holy of holies twice, once with the blood of sacrifice for his own sins, and the second time with the blood of the sacrifice for the sins of the nation. The high priest had to complete the offerings alone, unaided by other priests, and had to wear the white linen garments of the common priests, rather than the more ornate high priestly garments.
The ceremony required the high priest to complete the following steps in order:
1) Sacrifice a bull to atone for his own sins.
2) Burn incense behind the veil of the Holy of Holies. The cloud of smoke would cover the ark and protect him from seeing the glorious presence of God; otherwise, he’d die.
3) Sprinkle blood from his bull on the mercy seat of the ark.
4) Take two goats and casts lots to determine which goat will be killed and which will be released as the scapegoat.
5) Sacrifice first goat and sprinkle its blood on the mercy seat to atone for the sins of the congregation and to cleanse the altar and inner sanctuary.
6) Lay both hands on the second goat, confess the congregation’s guilt over it, hand the goat over to a man who will take the goat and release it into the wilderness.
7) Remove linen garments, bathe in the holy place, put on priestly garb, and sacrifice two rams as burnt offerings for himself and the people.
A Better Sacrifice
Hebrews 9 proclaims the good news of how Jesus, our great High Priest, offered the ultimate sacrifice for sin.
“He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12)
The Day of Atonement didn’t remove sin – as Scripture says it’s “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” – but rather provided “copies of the heavenly things” pointing to the perfect atonement Jesus would provide, evidenced by several comparative illustrations:
• Instead of the earthly tabernacle, He entered heaven and appeared directly before God.
• Rather than an annual sacrifice, He paid the price once and for all.
• Unlike the high priest, He didn’t have to make a sin offering for Himself because He was without sin.
• Whereas the sin-bearing scapegoat was cast out into the wilderness alive, Christ bore our sins on the cross, took them to the grave, and resurrected in victory over sin and death.
• While the high priest had to wash his bloodstained white robes, Jesus rose from the dead clothed in white garments.
Under the Old Covenant, sin was covered but not eliminated. Jesus fulfilled, surpassed, and annulled this sacrificial system through the New Covenant of His blood.Under the Old Covenant, sin was covered but not eliminated. Jesus fulfilled, surpassed, and annulled this sacrificial system through the New Covenant of His blood. @jennmhesse #dayofatonement #feastsoftheBible #wordnerdwednesday Click To Tweet
Truth for Today
For those who believe and know Christ as the Messiah, we can consider the exacting demands of the Day of Atonement that had to be repeated year after year, and rejoice that our Savior eradicated our sins – fully, perfectly, and forever.
“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood – to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – He did it to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-16)
Jesus’ work at the cross granted us direct access to God, providing hope in heaven as an anchor for our souls (Hebrews 6:19). Instead of trying to cover or pay penance for our sins, we can walk in the light of redemption, enjoying fellowship and “one-ness” with our Creator (1 John 1:6). As the people of Israel had to rest as a way to recognize their dependence on the Lord for the atonement of sin, we can rest in the finished work of Jesus who suffered to make us right before God (Hebrews 4:1-11).
What freeing truth that our Redeemer provides, saving us from trying to save ourselves! Knowing this, we can confidently approach the throne of God with thanksgiving and prayer, dependent on His grace.What freeing truth that our Redeemer provides, saving us from trying to save ourselves! Knowing this, we can confidently approach the throne of God with thanksgiving and prayer, dependent on His grace. @jennmhesse #dayofatonement… Click To Tweet
• Chuck Smith, Sermon Notes for Leviticus 16
• David Guzik, Study Guide for Leviticus 16
• Easton’s Bible Dictionary
• International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
• NASB Study Bible, annotations on Leviticus 16:1-34
• Strong’s Concordance, H3722
• Strong’s Concordance, H3117
• Strong’s Concordance, H3725
You can also connect with Jennifer at