Rising Above on the Day of Atonement
If you ask any Jewish person, “what is the holiest day of the year?”, they will tell you without hesitation: Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement. Set apart by God already in the days of Moses, it is referred to also as the day of redemption, purification and reconciliation.
This unique holiday is a day of complete fasting, and even the less observant or less religious Jews quiet down their lives for 25 hours. In Israel specifically, everything comes to a full stop, including airports and traffic. Time is set aside to reflect on one’s life and to correct any wrongs. Yom Kippur is the time to ask God for forgiveness.
One of a Kind
Almost all biblical holidays relate to historical events and the natural cycle of the year. The Passover is a memorial to the departure from Egypt, the festival of Shavuot celebrates the full harvest (among other things), and Sukkot commemorates wandering of the Hebrews in the desert. On Purim and Hanukkah, we celebrate miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people.
But not Yom Kippur. The holiday relates neither to events in nature nor a historical event.
All other holidays, in addition to the spiritual symbolism and prophetic message, are characterized by joy and include a feast with delicious dishes. They are a time of thanksgiving and celebration.
And again, this is not the case for the Day of Atonement. There are no banquets nor festivity.
On Yom Kippur, we are commanded to fast and to humble the soul, while seeking forgiveness for our sins. Yom Kippur points to the future judgement day. But it is also a day of longing for something good – something unexplained, immeasurable but permanent – for an eternal sense of freedom.
The Day of Atonement points to the final judgment that is to come, following the return of the Messiah. The goal of fasting and abstaining from work is to focus solely on God and His grace. By denying one’s flesh, one learns to distinguish what is most important and what is secondary in life. We see clearer the difference between truth and fraud.
Along with fasting and denying yourself any pleasures, most Jewish people wear plain white clothing with no jewelry, no leather nor any other elements symbolizing wealth or privilege. This act of humility could be interpreted as either imitating the garments of the priest or burial attire. Both analogies emphasize letting go of any excess.
This Day of Reconciliation was and is very important to every Jewish believer, because it is a reminder that one day they will be reconciled with their God. The Lord of Hosts promised it will happen in just one day: “…I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.” Zechariah 3:9
Days of the Temple
Back when the Jewish Temple still adorned the landscape of Jerusalem, Yom Kippur was the only day of the year when the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies – the most holy place in the Temple.
Two goats were brought before him and lots were cast, to determine which goat would become a sin offering for the people. Over the other goat the Priest was to confess all the wickedness of Israel, and the animal was to be driven out into the desert. It symbolized a release from sins for the entire nation (Leviticus 16).
The priest was to enter behind the veil into the most holy place, and afterwards if we came out alive, it was a testimony that God accepted the sacrifice and forgave their sins. God said that this sacrifice mandate is eternal. But if there is no temple today, to offer sacrifices, how can one receive forgiveness of sins?
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Like the High Priest entered the holy place, Jesus went before God the Father to atone for our sins with His own blood (Hebrews 9:12). Instead of the goat, He was the One to shed His blood for us. Despite there being no Temple, He restored the meaning to the Day of Atonement. Jesus fulfilled the command of the Law by becoming the Yom Kippur sacrifice for all mankind.
The day on which our Savior the Messiah was crucified became the day of redemption for all – the day of covering and forgiveness of sins (Zechariah 13:1). Our life and eternity depend on whether we know Him and have accepted Him as the one true Messiah.
We are still awaiting His second coming, when He will put an end to all sin and wipe off every tear. He will establish His eternal kingdom in Jerusalem. And Apostle Paul reminds us that on that day we will also be reconciled with the remnant of Israel:
And in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” Romans 11:26