Editor’s Note: Editor’s Note: This article was previously published on September 16, 2021. This year (2023), the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishrei runs from the evening of September 24 until sunset on September 25.
Background to Yom Kippur:
The Temple Mount and the tension surrounding this particular location are common themes of contemporary discussions concerning the Modern State of Israel. However, when the people of Israel came out of Egypt (Exodus 12:33-14:31), they did not have a fixed location in which they would worship God. In fact, the building of the first Israelite Temple, which was ultimately established on what we now know as the Temple Mount, did not start until 480 years after the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt. This project was undertaken by King Solomon (1 Kings 6:1)—the third king of the nation of Israel.
Nevertheless, prior to the existence of a permanent Temple building, the people still worshiped. In Exodus 25-40, God gives instructions to the people of Israel regarding the construction of a portable tabernacle—and all of its component parts—as a place of worship and sacrificial activity. The people transported the Tabernacle with them during the wilderness wanderings, prior to entering the Promised Land.
Subsequent to the instructions relating to the building of the Tabernacle came very specific commands pertaining to the regulation of sacrifices in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 1-7). These sacrifices were performed by priests who interceded between humankind and God by implementing divine instruction on behalf of the people. Aaron (Moses’ brother) and his sons were divinely appointed and inaugurated as the leaders of the community of priests (Leviticus 8-9).
Yet, immediately following their call to the priesthood, the book of Leviticus relates the account of the death of Aaron’s two sons—Nadab and Abihu—by the hand of God (10:1). The text does not explicitly state why God put these two men to death. They were apparently guilty of entering the tabernacle and making an offering in a manner that was not ordained by God (cf. 10:2).
This episode is presented as the historical foundation for the instruction presented in Leviticus 16:1-2 relating to the Day of the Atonement. In short, as a preface to the instructions for Yom Kippur, God declares to Aaron through Moses, “You are going to atone for your sin and the sin of your community exactly the way I am about to command you so that you do not die like your sons died.” The following provides a summary of the rest of the events that were to take place on Yom Kippur that are crucial to our understanding of the significance of this day.
Summary of Biblical Yom Kippur:
Initially, the high priest would enter the Holy Place of the Tabernacle with offerings of a bull and a ram. He was then commanded to remove his ordinary, yet majestic, priestly garb and dress in holy, simple linen vestments after properly bathing his body. After taking two more goats from the congregation to serve as sin offerings, the high priest would offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and his family, prior to making atonement for the people. He then entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of the bull that was sacrificed on his behalf, on and in front of the mercy seat—the place where God’s presence was manifested (16:3-6, 11, 14).
This initial stage of the Day of Atonement is extremely important in that the high priest—the person who was chosen by God to intermediate between God and the community of Israel—demonstrated his own shortcomings. The need for the priest to bathe his body is the typical example of his constant need to renew the physical body in order for it to thrive. The sin offering that the high priest offered for himself was representative of (even) the high priest’s need to be cleansed of his sin. It indicated the necessity of the priest to attend to his own spiritual need prior to interceding on behalf of his community.
Next, the high priest was commanded to take two goats and cast lots over them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. God determined, through the casting of lots, which of these two goats was to be offered as a sin offering to the Lord (16:7-9). After this goat was killed, its blood was taken into the Holy of Holies and was sprinkled on and in front of the mercy seat. In this way, atonement was made by the high priest for the Tabernacle as well as on behalf of the people (16:15-16). The high priest then spread the blood of the bull he sacrificed for himself and the goat he sacrificed on behalf of the people on the horns of another altar, outside of the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle complex (16:18).
The sprinkling of the blood in different areas of the Tabernacle indicated that God permitted the high priest to enter into His presence to make atonement for himself, the people and the Tabernacle (which was defiled by the sin of the people) ONLY through the death of a substitute. That is to say, the life of the animal was sacrificed in order for there to be communion with God. These were God’s terms of worship. The people, through the priest, could only receive the forgiveness of their sin through the blood of a sacrifice (17:11).
In the midst of all of the blood sprinkling, there is a somewhat unexpected turn of events. Just when one might expect more bloodshed, the high priest is instructed to lay his hands on the head of the goat, that was not fated to death by the casting of lots, and confess the transgressions of the people. This act seemingly represents the transmitting of the sin of the people onto the goat. That goat—traditionally known as the “scapegoat,” though not without dispute—was taken by a helper and set free into the wilderness, evidently carrying away the sin of the people (16:20-22).
The last stage of the day was one of cleansing. The high priest was instructed to enter the tent of meeting, take off all of his garments and leave them there. The high priest was to bathe, get dressed in (presumably) his normal garments, and then make another sacrifice for himself and for the people. The person who was responsible for letting the goat go alive was also to purify himself. Lastly, all of the remains of the sacrifices were taken outside of the camp of the people of Israel and burned. The person who was responsible for burning the remains of the sacrifices was also commanded to purify himself (16:23-28).
Problems with Yom Kippur:
Since June 19, 2007—the day in which the first iPhone was released—I have consistently yearned to possess every generation of the iPhone. Ten years later, 18 different iPhone models have been produced with the latest and best being the iPhone X. At this point in history, it is possible to look back at the first generation of the iPhone, and while recognizing its splendor at the time of its debut, also acknowledge that it is not a desirable phone at this juncture. The reason is that there were several, if not many, shortcomings inherent to the original model.
For example, the first generation of the iPhone could not multitask in the manner in which it is possible on almost every phone nowadays. It was not possible to copy and paste text; third party applications could not be downloaded; there was no GPS system; the camera did not have a flash; it could not video record; the screen was minute compared to the screens on current phones; and the absolute best model had a memory of only 16GB. In light of all of these deficiencies, the best way to evaluate the value of the current iPhone X is by looking at the shortcomings of the initial model and reflecting upon how those shortcomings foreshadowed a greater end result.
Likewise, there were indeed shortcomings in the original High Holy day of Yom Kippur that foreshadowed a greater end result. God gave the people of Israel specific instructions for the Day of Atonement that contained certain inadequacies, implying the necessity for the atonement of sin in a more excellent manner. There are at least four main issues that arise with regard to the atonement for sin as depicted in Leviticus 16:
1) The Temporary Nature of the Atonement:
Why did the people have to continually sacrifice in order to atone for their sin? Why couldn’t their sin be atoned for once and for all?
2) The Blood of Animals:
How could the blood of animals take away the sin of humans? These first two issues bring to mind the inextricable connection between sacrificial activity and a physical Tabernacle or Temple. According to the Law set out in Leviticus 16, the people needed an actual location to carry out the sacrifices necessary in order to comply with God’s commands for legitimate atonement. Does the absence of a Tabernacle or a Temple—as is the present state of affairs—eliminate the possibility for the remission of sin?
3) The Imperfection of the Priesthood:
The priests had to perpetually sacrifice for themselves, symbolizing the guilt of the intermediator that was to represent the people to God, and God to the people. The priest had his own issue with sin, requiring him to sacrifice for his own sin before he could sacrifice for the sin of others. Aaron was indeed imperfect (cf. the Golden Calf narrative in Exodus 32), as were his sons (see above, e.g. Nadab and Abihu). This begs the question: Could there ever be forgiveness of sin by means of an innocent mediator as opposed to the guilty interceding on behalf of the guilty?
4) The Affliction of the People:
Is the self-affliction of the people related to the forgiveness of sin?
Christ in Yom Kippur.
This past summer, my family spent about seven weeks in Israel. Upon returning home, we were greeted by an enormous underground beehive in our front yard.This beehive grew to be extremely problematic because it was located about 10 feet from the front porch, meaning that we would have to pass many bees upon exiting the front door. I am as incompetent as anyone when it comes to problems with bees, so in my mind, I was sure I could eliminate the problem by killing the bees.
Our family and friends subsequently conducted a series of experiments with the intent of eliminating the bee problem. The experiments consisted of: spraying entire cans of bee spray on the bees, covering the bees with dirt, pouring water on the bees and even running over the bees with the lawnmower. To our dismay, the bees insisted upon endlessly occupying our front yard.
In reality, we were not addressing the source of the problem.
The reason the bees persisted in holding our family hostage was that their hive remained relatively unscathed. Despite our repeated attempts to resolve the matter by facilitating the demise of our unwanted neighbors, our solution to the problem was only representative of what needed to be accomplished. The problem continued to return after an hour, a day or a week. In order to obtain true liberation from the threat of the bees, something greater needed to happen. We needed to deal with the root of the issue—the underground beehive.
Correspondingly, atonement through the blood of animals could not truly eliminate humankind’s plight stemming from their sin. The high priests—impaired by the depravity of their own transgressions—were incapable of interceding in a manner worthy of absolute divine sanction. Thus, it was commanded that sacrifices be repeatedly carried out so that atonement could be made for sin, regardless of how much the people of Israel afflicted themselves.
These systemic inadequacies relating to Yom Kippur foreshadowed a day in which the shortcomings would be perfected—namely, through the person and the work of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus perfected the imperfections of Yom Kippur. This is an implicit message read through the pages of the New Testament.
However, Jesus is explicitly stated to be the culmination of the sacrificial system in Hebrews 7:26-27: “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”
Jesus is the Perfect High Priest.
As we see in this passage from Hebrews, Jesus is “holy.” By His divine character, He is set apart for the service of God the Father. Jesus is “innocent.” He is without any deficiencies and completely blameless. Jesus is “unstained.” He is perfectly free from the character flaws and blemishes with which all of the previous high priests struggled as a result of their sin. Jesus is “separated from sinners.” He is completely disconnected from the sinful nature. Because of who He is and what He has done, Jesus is rightfully “exalted above the heavens.”
By virtue of these attributes and His exalted position, Jesus is the only Perfect High Priest who does not need “to offer sacrifices daily, first for His own sins and then for those of the people.” Jesus was not guilty of any sin as He offered a blood sacrifice for the remission (cancellation) of sin, thereby being the only one who ever lived who could serve as a perfect intermediator between God and humankind.
Jesus is the Perfect Sacrifice.
Notice that in Hebrews 7:27, Jesus functions in two roles:
1) Jesus is the Priest:
Jesus is the subject of the final phrase. He is the one that is carrying out the act of sacrificing. This is what Jesus did on the cross.
2) Jesus is the Sacrifice:
Jesus is the direct object of the final phrase of Hebrews 7:27. He is the one being sacrificed. This is what Jesus did on the cross. When Jesus was on the cross, He exclaimed, “It is finished” (John 19:30). These words indicated that the ultimate sacrifice had been offered. There was no longer a need for any other priest or sacrifice because Jesus, the Perfect Priest, perfectly offered Himself as the Perfect Sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1-4).
The Levitical high priest could only offer the blood of animals, which never truly removed sin, but rather, temporarily covered human sin. Our High Priest, Jesus, offered Himself as a blameless sacrifice on behalf of humanity, alone in the heavenly Holy of Holies, suffering an agonizing death, so that He could serve as an impeccable mediator between humankind and God. As a result of His actions, the veil of the Temple was torn (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45), giving all who are covered by His blood access to the Holy of Holies and, thereby, the presence of the Most High God.
Louis Goldberg summarizes: “…The Mediator of the New Covenant, in His ministry, did not have to confess His sin because there was no sin in Him. Jesus the Messiah, acting in the capacity of High Priest, was holy, innocent, undefiled; He did not have to offer sacrifices before He could minister for us, taking our place perfectly before the exalted and holy God. Jesus alone faultlessly bridges the infinite gap between God and man, and because of His death, He can give us His life.”1
The events that were commanded by God on Yom Kippur were signs of even greater things. They were representative of what the perfect High Priest Jesus would do in the heavenly Holy of Holies, satisfying the wrath of God toward sin by taking it upon Himself, spilling His own blood, and suffering the death penalty on the cross. Our sin was transferred to Jesus, paid for by His blood, and completely taken away (Hebrews 9:11-14; cf. Leviticus 16:20-22).
Conclusion: Affliction vs. Familiarity
The old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” seems to be why God commanded the people to afflict themselves in Leviticus 16 in addition to the other sacrificial obligations of Yom Kippur. Consider this fact: The people of Israel actually had the presence of the living God dwelling among them in the Tabernacle, and subsequently, in the Temple (cf. 2 Chronicles 5:14). This is the type of experience that might have become humdrum, and consequently, the people could have become complacent in their worship. Nevertheless, when the Day of Atonement came around, and with it multiple sacrifices to atone for the sin of the community, the people were reminded of who they were before a perfect God. Seeing what God required to make atonement as a result of the gravity of their sin, the people’s self-affliction was to serve as an additional reminder for them not to sin against God.
Nevertheless, believers in Jesus have no contemporary mandate to afflict ourselves on any particular day. Now, it is by looking at Jesus and how He intentionally permitted Himself to be afflicted, that we are reminded of the gravity of our sin.
God is not vindictive toward humankind but rather has established a way in which people can come to Him, completely liberated of their sin. God is not resentful and angry at human beings but rather has always loved those whom He created in His image. Through the sacrifice of Jesus, God has created a way for us to recognize Him and love Him back. In this, God has demonstrated that He indeed has never wanted anyone to perish in their sin but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9; cf. 1 Timothy 2:3-4).
It is because of God’s love exhibited through Jesus that humankind is not currently called to afflict our soul. Rather, we experience the affliction of our souls by fixing our eyes on the cross of Jesus. We meditate on the affliction He underwent, suffering mental and physical anguish, and eventually being put to death so that we might live. Our soul cannot be any more afflicted than that of Jesus who willingly died for humanity, suffering the wrath of God for sin that He did not commit.
An inadequate understanding of the ancient Israelite sacrificial system necessarily leads to an incomplete understanding of Jesus’ work for humanity. Because of this, we treasure every single page of written correspondence we have received from God. All of Scripture is relevant, and there is no section of Scripture that deserves to be read with my fantasy fiction attitude.
Yom Kippur is not simply another important Jewish holiday that Christians witness from a distance. Yom Kippur is a day in which we are reminded what the blood of Jesus actually did—and thereby, what it means to humankind. Jesus’ blood provided absolute forgiveness of sin, so that by looking to Him as our great High Priest, and believing in Him as our perfect sacrifice, we have the privilege of entering into the Holy of Holies and communing with the Most High God.
1 Louis Goldberg, Leviticus, p. 85