by Moshe Gold 

     Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most sacred day ordained by God for the Jewish people – a day of fasting, affliction of the soul, sacrifice and prayer (Leviticus 23:27-31).

     In the days of the Tabernacle and the Temples the central figures were the High Priest and the people of Israel. The High Priest made a sacrifice and brought the blood of that sacrifice into the Most Holy Place; into the presence of God (Leviticus 16). The High Priest was the only person allowed this awesome privilege, and only on this day did he venture into the veiled inner sanctum. Even then he lit a large amount of sweet incense to form a cloud to cloak him from the presence of God. The people of Israel stood outside in anguish of soul waiting, offering prayers of repentance.

     The sacrificial blood was sprinkled upon the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, called the Mercy Seat. It was specifically here that God met with His people in the form of smoke and fire. The tablets of the Law contained in the Ark were the perfect standard by which He judged His people. Since it was impossible for anyone to keep the Law (its purpose was to expose this fact – Romans 3:20), the sacrificial system was imposed by God. Thereby His judgment, which was to fall on the guilty, was transferred to an innocent victim while, through the shed blood of the victim, mercy was extended to the guilty who was repentant. Yom Kippur was the national day of repentance. It was a reminder to Israel of their total dependence on the mercy of God to provide a means by which they could continue in relationship with Him, separated as they were due to sin and the sinful nature (evil inclination) that they and all men possess, but could not by human means be rid of.  

Sacrifice Required

     The focus of this day was the sacrifices made of a bull and two goats as a substitute for the guilty (Leviticus 16:5). The High Priest, divested of his regal garments, was a figure of humiliation dressed in simple white linen. First, he leaned his hands upon the young bull, personally acknowledging that it was standing in his place; its blood would become the ultimate price to rescue him and his family from judgment they deserved. He then confessed his and his family’s sins upon it, slit its carotid artery and caught its blood in a silver container. He then brought that blood into the Most Holy Place, where he sprinkled it seven times upon the Mercy Seat. Seven is understood to be the number of completion and thus complete repentance was intended; complete substitution was taking place and complete mercy was shown to the High Priest and his family through the blood making atonement for their sins.

     Suitable atonement for the High Priest was crucial for him to then represent the people before the Lord. After this, he likewise killed the goat chosen to be the surrogate for the people of Israel and mingled its blood with the bull’s remaining blood. The commingling of the bloods intimately identified the High Priest and the people as one. Returning to the Holy of Holies, he sprinkled this blood upon the Mercy Seat to make atonement for the nation. He then smeared the blood upon the horns of the Altar of Incense. The remainder was poured out at the base of the Altar of Sacrifice. This act of purification was also a reminder that the blood of another was required for Israel to have their prayers accepted and their individual sins forgiven, thus making peace with God. The need to repeat this ritual every year further reminded the people of Israel that a righteous lifestyle and social position were insufficient to enter either the presence of God or to achieve permanent acceptance and peace with Him, from the most holy among them to the least.  

     Finally, upon the second goat, the Scapegoat, the High Priest confessed the sins of the nation (Leviticus 16:21-22). It was then led into the wilderness never to be seen again. The blood of the bull and the goat yearly provided the needed covering for sin, protection from the righteous judgment of God, which is the meaning of the word Kippur. The Scapegoat (Heb. Azazel) provided the forgiveness of that sin. In the New Testament this two-fold act of atonement is referred to by the words propitiation and expiation.  

Sacrificed Changed

     With the Temple destroyed and the priestly service ending in 70 AD, Jewish worship under the Law required change to remain viable. Overseen by a council of rabbis, many changes were made to the Jewish religion. Their assumption was that God allowed these things to happen, so He must provide a bloodless way to observe the Holy Days and keep the Law. They based their thesis on Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8 and 1 Samuel 15:22 where God is pleased with man when he shows mercy to others, loves them as himself, exhibits knowledge of God, and lives righteously. A section of Isaiah (57:14-58:14) read on Yom Kippur seems to reinforce this view. The rabbis maintain that these verses eliminate the need for actual blood sacrifice and that atonement may be obtained from God through righteous deeds. However, upon closer examination, we find that all of these portions refer, not to the end of sacrifices, but to God hating and despising sacrifices that are offered by “unholy and dishonorable worshippers” and “unaccompanied by righteous conduct.”[1]

     The rabbis, in reaction to the events of 70 AD, used rationalization to reinterpret the prophets, resulting in an explanation inconsistent with the intent of Scripture. While some do maintain that today’s worshippers must claim the sacrifice once offered in the Temple as their own through identifying with it, the majority view the sacrificial system as barbaric. According to them, God’s people are evolving toward a better understanding of how to worship God. They teach that as man’s perception of God matures, blood sacrifices, common in ancient times and found among ignorant peoples, become outgrown and unnecessary as a way of pleasing God. This, they point out, is a major distinction between Judaism and other religions.  

Sacrifice Perfected

     While not agreeing with a false interpretation of Scripture accommodating repentance without proper sacrifice, followers of Judaism and Christianity can agree on the end of needed sacrifice on Yom Kippur. Furthermore, in bringing an end to the offering of Yom Kippur, God did provide an offering to identify with and thereby find mercy in place of judgment. It should also be understood that with the end of the Temple service, God did not leave His people comfortless, but first provided this perfected way of atonement.

     This perfection was through His promised Messiah, whose appearance was foretold to occur during the late Second Temple era (Daniel 9:25-26). He would be both the ideal High Priest and the satisfying sacrifice. Melchizedek was the illustration (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 7) of the Messiah as High Priest. Melchizedek exemplified the eternal nature of Messiah (Micah 5:2, Hebrews 7:1-3), superior than the Aaronic priests (Hebrews 7:11). Messiah also combined the offices of King and Priest (Zechariah 6:11-12) and is from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10). Under the Mosaic Law, it was forbidden to combine these offices. Neither was it permitted for a Levite to be king, nor a Judahite to be a priest. This necessitated that the Messiah, as the promised Prophet to come (Deuteronomy 18:15-18), establish the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-33; Ezekiel 36:24-27) – an everlasting covenant (Isaiah 61:8; Ezekiel 16:60). As the Messiah is higher than the Aaronic Priests, so too the covenant He established is greater than the Mosaic. While the Mosaic was external, temporal and national providing realization of man’s imperfection, the New Covenant is internal, spiritual and individual, giving a new heart favorably disposed toward God. Being the eternal High Priest of the New Covenant, His offering was made, not in the Temple on earth, which is a shadow of the heavenly reality (Exodus 25:9, 40), but in that Heavenly Temple where it has lasting permanent value, a one time offering for all time!

     The blood of the bull and goat could never permanently remove sin from the hearts of the repentant, which was why Yom Kippur was observed yearly and why the regular individual and daily sin offerings were needed. King David expressed hope in the self-sacrifice by Messiah to perfect the sin offering (Psalm 40:6-8) and establish the New Covenant. Isaiah looked forward to the day when the Messiah, the perfect and pure substitute, would make an acceptable end of sacrifice for sin for the people of Israel, providing complete and permanent propitiation and expiation (Isaiah 53:4-6, 8-12). Because Messiah is eternal, His priesthood is supreme in authority and His offering is perfect. Through Him purity and righteousness comes to both Jewish and non-Jewish people who identify with His sacrifice (Isaiah 42:6-7; 49:6). 

Consider Messiah

     Consider Messiah Jesus, Eternal God, who, like the High Priest divested of his glorious apparel, humbled himself becoming man in order to represent man before the Father. As the High Priest, through the mingling of blood, identified with those he represented, so too Messiah is identified as Jewish. Like the sacrificial animals, He took the sin of the people upon Himself, allowing His blood to be poured out. Just as the High Priest carried the blood into the Holy of Holies so too Messiah, our great High Priest, took His own blood into the presence of the Father where it provides complete atonement. Upon His sacrifice the veil in the earthly Temple, separating man from God, tore from top to bottom; no longer was the Aaronic Priesthood needed to intercede for man. Jesus became the final sacrifice for sin for all who are truly repentant. Those, who by faith in Him, based on His blood poured out before the Father, enter into the New Covenant made by Him and find mercy instead of judgment. His blood provides a permanent removal of our sin. It is in Jesus, the Messiah of God, that the essence of Yom Kippur is found.

[1] Pentatuch and Haftorahs; Soncino Press; Ed Dr. J.H. Hertz; Section: Leviticus – Additional Notes,  II. Do the Prophets Oppose Sacrifice? p. 560-1

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