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Yom Kippur and the Christian

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Yom Kippur was celebrated by Jews this week (the evening of September 18 through the evening of September 19). Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement” in Hebrew (“Yom” means day, and “Kippur” means atonement). Yom Kippur was established by God in the Old Testament, and  points us forward to Jesus.

Old Testament Establishment

The Day of Atonement was established by God in Leviticus 16 (other regulations for the Day of Atonement are also found in Leviticus 23:26-32 and Numbers 29:7-11) after He had brought the people of Israel out from Egypt, and it took place on the 10th day of the 7th month (the date will differ each year because the Jewish calendar differs from our calendar). On this day the people were to fast and refrain from working (Leviticus 16:29) as it was the day on which atonement was to be made for the people. This atonement would happen as the high priest entered the Most Holy Place in the Tabernacle (later the temple) and would present an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people. This was the only time all year that the high priest would go into this Most Holy Place; he was required to be purified and washed before entering and needed to present a sacrifice for his own sins before he made the sacrifice for the sins of the people. There was also a ritual involving two goats, one of which was selected to be the sacrifice to the Lord while the other was said to be for “Azazel” that was released into the wilderness after the priest placed his hands on this goat and confessed the sins of the people. This goat came to be known as the “scapegoat” and was a symbol that the sins of the people have been taken away and will never return. The point of this practice and the entire day was to show reconciliation between God and His people.

Post-Temple Rituals in Judaism

At this point I think it is good to note how modern Judaism practices this holiday since there is no temple for sacrifices (which was a key part of the rituals). We must remember that modern Judaism does not just look at the Old Testament but has a wider collection of authoritative writings that establish modern faith and practice. Judaism in the 21st century is, therefore, different from Judaism at the time of Jesus (and even then, there were various forms). These writings are complex. I have been able to explore some of them through my studies, but I definitely consider myself a novice and rely on studies and insights from scholars to guide me through them. However, I can give a bit of an overview as it relates to the Day of Atonement.

The collection of writings known as the Mishnah (which was edited around the 3rd century AD) explains traditions and customs of Judaism. Among the six parts (or orders) is a section on festivals or holidays (called Mo’ed), with a portion of one section on the Day of Atonement.  (There are 8 chapters that deal with the Day of Atonement – the technical name for the section is Tractate, and the one regarding the Day of Atonement is called Yoma). This section in the Mishnah mostly describes the preparation of the priest for the day and the various services and elements performed, but also includes details about the fast (noting that one is to abstain from eating and drinking, wearing leather shoes, anointing oneself with oil, washing, and marital relations) as well as various provisions for young children, the pregnant and the sick. It also discusses the nature of repentance (for example, one cannot sin just because one knows that one can repent, and atonement for sinning against another person requires you to reach out to them to make things right).

There is also commentary on the Mishnah found in what it is called the Talmud and other writings by rabbis. In these writings, various rabbis discuss how acts of kindness, prayers, and studying the Law can replace sacrifices when there is no temple. Therefore, studying the ritual of the high priest, along with repentance, brings about atonement. Remembering the day is what is important, not the temple; the day is a day of repentance, prayer, and fasting.

Fulfillment in Christ

While believing that the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament are the Word of God, Christians do not practice the rituals concerning the Day of Atonement found in Leviticus 16 because we see that they point to Jesus and he fulfills them (see Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:27; John 5:39, 46); having no temple is not a problem because Jesus is the temple.

The New Testament book of Hebrews gives careful attention to how the rituals of the Old Testament and temple sacrifice point us to Christ. The writer notes that the temple was a picture of heavenly realities (8:5), discusses how the practice of the priest going once a year into the Holy Place was a sign the heavenly places had not been opened yet, and that various rituals indicated the conscience of a worshipper had not yet been purified (9:6-10). Jesus does greater work and accomplishes what those rites pointed to as Hebrews 9:11-14 notes:

“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (ESV)

Christ entered into the heavenly place and did a once and for all sacrifice that the sacrifices of the law pointed to, as further noted in Hebrews 9:24-25:

“For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (ESV)

In summary, when we read Leviticus 16 or see the Day of Atonement on our calendar, we need to reflect what Jesus has done for us. As the writer of Hebrews notes, may it be a reminder to draw near to God through Jesus in prayer and to live in boldness and confidence as we might go through suffering in this world. Let us hold fast to the faith and not be drawn back to sin.

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