Why Does the Day of Atonement Matter Today?
Many people clean their yards in the spring before the mowing and gardening season. Similarly, every year in the fall, the Jewish people had (and still have) a particular day set aside for a spiritual cleanup or renewal. It’s called the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. In this article, we will answer questions about the Day of Atonement: where does the Bible mention it, how is it described, why did the Jewish people need atonement, how do they celebrate the Day of Atonement today, what does this special day teach us, and how might it affect our future?
Where Does the Bible Mention the Day of Atonement?
Depending on the Bible version, there are approximately 100 verses that mention the words “atone” or “atonement.” They begin in the latter chapters of Exodus. After God delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and protects them from the pursuing Egyptian army, the Israelites are ready to worship him. But how?
God tells Moses to share the designs for a portable worship center (the tabernacle) and to teach them how to worship him. The book of Leviticus is a manual, a guide for how to live holy lives. Those instructions involve how to repair and restore broken relationships with him and their fellow Israelites. We find the directions for the Day of Atonement in Leviticus.
The book of Ezekiel also has several references to atonement. The priest Ezekiel gives the exiles in Babylon hope; although Babylon destroyed Israel, one day in the distant future, God will give her land back, not temporarily but permanently; she won’t be subject to the will of other nations (a vassal). Instead, Israel will become an independent nation again. God will forgive her sins, defend her, destroy her enemies, restore her land, and provide her with a glorious temple for worship.
The New Testament writers rarely refer to the Day of Atonement except for the book of Hebrews. This is because Christ’s blood shed on the cross is the only way to make amends for our sins (John 14:6). There were coverings for sin, yes, but complete forgiveness is only found in Christ.
Leviticus 23:27-28; 25:9; and Acts 27:9 are the only places that use the phrase “Day of Atonement,” but Leviticus 16 describes the ceremony.
How Is the Day of Atonement Described?
Although the original Hebrew word for atonement (kaphar) meant to cover or put a lid on something, it came to mean to cover an offense or make amends.
Every day, the Jews sacrificed cattle, sheep, and goats in payment for their sins. God covered their sins and forgave them when they offered sacrifices in obedience to his commands. But once a year, there was the Day of Atonement to clean up all sins, intentional and unintentional (Leviticus 16:16)
The Day of Atonement occurred during the fall of the Jewish calendar year and was part of the Feast of Trumpets (or Harvests). It took place before the Feast of Tabernacles. Hollow ram horns (Shofars) sounded 10 days before the Day of Atonement began.
The ceremony began with a day of fasting, the ceasing of all labor, and a denial of some pleasure. We aren’t precisely sure what the denial of pleasure was. Abstaining from sexual relations was what God required of the Israelites before he met with them at Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 19:15), so perhaps this is the denial of pleasure. He wanted them to focus on him during this ceremony.
As the ritual began, only the high priest could minister in the Holy Place of the tabernacle or temple. He must show the utmost reverence for God (unlike Aaron’s drunken sons Nadab and Abihu). He would bathe and put on sacred linen garments. His normal priestly garments were quite ornate, but the plain white linen was a sign of humility. Why was he humble? He offered sacrifices for his and his family’s sins before he offered a sacrifice for the nation’s sins. The priest was no less responsible for his sins than the people were for their sins.
How do you view yourself—as superior to others because of your position or heritage? Or do you view yourself as saved by God’s grace? The Apostle Peter wrote in a general letter to followers of Christ,
“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9 NIV).
Why did the Jewish people need atonement on this special day?
Other sacrifices during the year were for unintentional sins. This ceremony was to make reparations (amends) for all sins (Leviticus 16:16). It was a fall spiritual cleanup and a cleanup of the tabernacle or temple.
The High Priest worked alone in the area behind the curtain of the Holy Place. This was where the Menorah (lampstand), the Table of Shewbread, and the Altar Of incense were located. Only the high priest entered the Most Holy place, where the ark of the covenant resided. He entered it once a year to make amends for his and his family’s sins and once for the nation. He had to do everything in the manner the Lord prescribed or lose his life, for if he looked upon the glory of God in the Most Holy Place, he would die.
After the high priest performed his humble God-fearing task, he chose two spotless goats, one for as in offering and the other for a scapegoat. He offered one goat as a sin offering representing all the sins of the nation (Leviticus 16:30). This was a requirement:
“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I [God] have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Leviticus 17:11, NIV).
Then the priest would place both hands on top of the head of the other goat, confess all the nation’s sins, and release it to wander into the wilderness away from the assembly, forever. This was a symbol that God had let go of (or covered) their sins and had forgiven them.
How do People Celebrate the Day of Atonement Today?
The Day of Atonement (called Yom Kippur) is still the Jews’ most sacred holiday of the year, but the ceremony lacks something. Since 70 AD, when the Romans destroyed their temple, the Jewish people have observed the ceremony without its most crucial element, a blood sacrifice.
How then do people get covering (forgiveness) for their sins? Between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (the 10 days of awe), observant Jews do various good deeds, so their names will be written in the book of life. They fast, repent, make amends, abstain from sexual relations, avoid wearing luxurious items like leather shoes (once thought a luxury) and cosmetics—and generally avoid anything that might distract their devotion to God and incur his wrath. They will also attend more synagogue services.
Finally, when the shofar sounds to end the solemn ceremony, there is much rejoicing that the fast is over, God forgives their sins, and they can eat! However, the Bible teaches something different (Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22).
What Does the Day of Atonement Teach Us Today?
The Day of Atonement is a picture of what Christ did for us. On one particular day, he offered himself once as a sin sacrifice for all time so we can have forgiveness (Hebrews 7:26-28; 9:7-14). He will separate our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:11-12). We will be at-one-ment with the Lord.
Perhaps, you’ve attended a symphony and heard the orchestra tuning up before they began the prelude. When our sins are forgiven, we also want to be in tune or at-one-ment with Christ in his orchestra. We can do this by carefully listening to the Word of God and obeying his directions.
How Might the Day of Atonement Affect our future?
A trumpet blast will one day sound Jesus Christ’s coming when he gathers up (raptures) church-age believers into heaven (Hebrews 9:27-28). If you have a life-changing relationship with God through Christ, you will go to meet him, too.
The Day of Atonement also foretells when Israel will repent and be God’s chosen and blessed nation again. The Jews will look on the one they have pierced and mourn for him like an only son (Zechariah 12:9-11 and 13:1). This spiritual renewal will happen after the seven-year tribulation recorded in the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. God will show the survivors how he governs; Christ will reign for one thousand years on the earth (Revelation 20:4-6). It will be a time of peace, prosperity, and safety (Isaiah 2:1-5; 11:1-10).
Once again, there will be sacrifices to cover and forgive sins (an atonement). Why? Because those who survive the seven-year tribulation recorded in the book of Revelation will convert to Christ as their messiah, but their future children won’t. Like the Jewish people, they will need sacrifices to teach them about Christ and their need for him, even while they enjoy peace and prosperity.
All nations will be required to attend the different feasts and the Feast of Tabernacles, but the Scriptures skip the Day of Atonement. Can you guess why? Yes, Christ is the atoning sacrifice for sin. He is not just a covering; he takes away our sin and offers us spiritual life, forgiveness, and peace.
Do you need a spiritual cleanup? You don’t have to wait until the fall or spring. God offers you a complete cleanup of your soul now. Because Jesus offered himself up as our atonement, we can be at-one-ment with God and others who follow him. Call on him, and he’ll be there today to help you.
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Rodney Harrier is a committed Christian, husband, father of four adult children, and has four grandchildren. He lives with his wife in central Illinois. Rodney has a B.S. in Bible from Clarks Summit University in Clarks Summit, Pa. He is passionate about helping typical people read through the entire Bible in chronological order in one year and understand it. He is the author and administrator of ChronologicalBibleStudies.com, ConnectingTruthtoLife.org, and the Chronological Bible Studies podcast.