This Saturday is Yom Kippur, when Jews around the world commemorate the Old Testament Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement was established during Moses’ time, and was one of the most important events in the Israelite year. On this day each year, the Israelite high priest sacrificed and made atonement for the sins of Israel.
While most Christians today don’t observe the Day of Atonement, it remains significant because, like many events and ordinances in the Old Testament, it foreshadows the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Every element of the Day of Atonement holds theological significance: the sacrifices, the banishment of a “scapegoat” that bore Israel’s sins, and the promise of God’s forgiveness.
“[Aaron] shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness….
“When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites–all their sins–and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert….
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work–whether native-born or an alien living among you–because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the people of the community.
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”
And it was done, as the LORD commanded Moses.
The Day of Atonement was an annual reminder of God’s grace and of man’s need for forgiveness. Reading it in the light of the New Testament, seeing it also as a signpost pointing ahead to Christ, lends it even more significance. With the sacrifice of Easter well behind us and the promise of Christmas still months away, Yom Kippur is a good opportunity for Christians to reflect on the atonement God offers to us through Jesus Christ.