Yom Kippur: The Day Of Atonement, Part 2

In by Bruce Scott

Now it was time for one of the most unusual yet fascinating rituals performed on the Day of Atonement—the scapegoat. Approaching the male goat with the red wool thread tied to its head, the high priest laid his hands on it and recited the same confession of sins as he pronounced over the bull, the only exception being the substitution of the House of Israel for himself and his own house.

Within the confession, the holy name of God—Jehovah—was spoken for the fourth time that day, and the people reacted as before, falling down and blessing God.

The goat was then led away and drawn across a special causeway by a priest chosen for the task. The priest took the goat a distance of approximately 12 miles into the wilderness, stopping at ten booths or stations along the way for food and drink. After the last station, the priest brought the scapegoat to a ravine where he tied one end of the red wool thread or rope to a rock and the other end to the goat’s horns. The priest then pushed the goat over the edge and into the ravine, killing it. The priest, who was then unclean by reason of his duty with the scapegoat, remained at the last station until nightfall, at which time he could return.

When the scapegoat had been destroyed, the news was relayed back to the Temple by a series of sentinels waving flags. Meanwhile, the high priest burned the sacrificial parts of the sin offering of the bull and goat on the bronze altar. Unlike most sin offerings, these were not eaten by the priests (Lev. 6:24–30). Instead, the remains of the carcasses were taken outside of the city of Jerusalem and burned by designated people (who became temporarily unclean).

As the animal remains were being burnt, the high priest stood and read portions of Scripture to the people. Following the reading, he pronounced eight benedictions, after which he washed his hands and feet again, removed his linen clothing, and immersed himself. Then he redressed in the gold high priestly garments, washed his hands and feet, and sacrificed the two rams designated for a burnt offering, along with some of the extra offerings prescribed for that day.

Following this ritual, he again washed his hands and feet, removed the gold vestments, immersed again, put on the linen garments once more, and again washed his hands and feet. The high priest then returned to the holy of holies and retrieved the ladle and fire pan he had left there earlier in the day. Following that, he again went through the ritual of washing his hands and feet, stripping off the linen clothes, bathing, putting on the gold garments, and washing his hands and feet.

Returning to the holy place, the high priest burned the afternoon incense and trimmed the Temple lamps. Then, for the last time, he washed his hands and feet, removed the gold garments, and put on his own personal clothes, bringing to a conclusion his exhaustive duties for Yom Kippur. To celebrate the fact that he had not been struck down by the Lord, the high priest ended the day quietly at home, enjoying a splendid feast with his family and friends.

Thus, the Yom Kippur observance in biblical days centered primarily around the high priest and the services he performed in the Temple. The responsibilities of the children of Israel on this day were few because they were to abstain from work and were to humble their souls (misguidedly relegated to simple fasting).

Today much has changed. Atonement on Yom Kippur is no longer viewed in terms of national cleansing, as spelled out in Scripture. Rather, Yom Kippur now focuses more on individual, personal atonement. The shift in perspective came with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 a.d. With no Temple, no priesthood, no sacrifices, and the worldwide dispersion of the Jews, finding a way to be cleansed from sins became a problem.

Some Orthodox groups employ a ninth-century ritual called Kapparot (Expiations). On the day preceding Yom Kippur, a chicken is swung three times over the head of a penitent sinner as a prayer is recited: “This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement; this cock [for males, a hen for females] shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace.”

The predominant view in modern rabbinical Judaism is that sin is now atoned for by means of prayer, repentance, and good deeds. There is no need for a vicarious, substitutionary atonement because people are not viewed as suffering from original sin. Rather, people start life with a pure soul (as stated each day in the morning prayer: “O my God, the soul which Thou gavest me is pure”), and they must struggle all their lives to keep it pure.

Therefore, as one Jewish leader declared, “Judaism does not throw the burden of its sins on other shoulders, and it does not let the innocent expiate the actions of the guilty. In Judaism, there is no vicarious atonement. One’s own guilt—one’s own punishment; no pardon without true repentance.” Apart from prayer, repentance, and good deeds, modern Judaism also teaches that personal suffering may pay for sin. Even death is sufficient suffering to obtain atonement. The dying person is encouraged to proclaim, “May my death be an atonement for all my sins.”

Without the Temple, priesthood, or sacrifices, punishment for sin can be avoided and atonement procured within modern Judaism in the following manner:

1. Repentance atones.
2. If there is a more serious sin, repentance postpones the punishment and the Day of Atonement atones.
3. If there is an even more serious sin, repentance and the Day of Atonement postpone, and suffering atones.
4. If there is a grave sin, such as profaning God’s name, repentance, the Day of Atonement, and suffering all postpone the punishment, while death provides the atonement.

A prophetic examination of the Day of Atonement is the key to understanding how God has provided final atonement, not only for the sins of Israel but for those of the world. Modern Judaism would agree with the Christian teaching that, according to Leviticus 16, it was God who provided atonement for Israel. A parting of the ways occurs, however, over whether God used the medium of the high priest to accomplish that atonement. Judaism teaches that other religions, such as Christianity, need a mediator, while Judaism does not.

This view is contrary to the evidence in the Scriptures. Biblical Judaism has always known intermediaries—those who went to God on Israel’s behalf. Moses interceded for Israel on numerous occasions (Ex. 32:30–32). The Levites were chosen specifically to be the instruments through which God would make atonement for Israel (Num. 8:19). The office of high priest was ordained with the same purpose in mind (Lev. 9:7). Leviticus 16:32–33 makes it clear that on the Day of Atonement, the high priest was responsible for making atonement for the nation of Israel. Of course, only God can forgive sin, but He chose to use the high priesthood as the agency through which forgiveness was supplied. With this truth in mind, we see why God eventually provided the supreme liaison between Himself and mankind: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).

The Book of Hebrews explains in detail how Jesus the Messiah is better or greater in His priesthood and sacrifice than the Old Testament Levitical priesthood and sacrifice. The following charts illustrate this.

Levitical Priesthood
Scripture Reference
Messiah’s Priesthood
Levi gave tithes to Melchizedek, thus demonstrating the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood.
Hebrews 5:6; 7:4–10
Jesus was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Levitical priests became priests on the basis of a physical birthright
Hebrews 7:16
Jesus became a priest on the merits of an endless life.
Levitical priests became priests only by the law of Moses.
Hebrews 7:21, 28
Jesus became a priest with an oath from God.
The Levitical priesthood required large numbers
Hebrews 7:23–24
The Messiah’s priesthood needed only one priest.
Levitical priests died.
Hebrews 7:23–24
Jesus lives forever.
Levitical priests were prevented from continuing their ministry.
Hebrews 7:23–24
Jesus holds His priesthood permanently.
A Levitical priest’s atoning intermediacy was temporary, ending at his death.
Hebrews 7:23, 25
Jesus is able to save forever, since He always lives to intercede.
The high priest exchanged only his clothes to provide atonement.
Leviticus 16:4; Hebrews 2:9, 14, 17; Philippians 2:5–7
Jesus exchanged His glory to provide atonement.
Levitical priests had to offer sacrifices for themselves.
Hebrews 7:26–2
Jesus was sinless and needed no sacrifice for Himself.
Levitical priests had to offer sacrifices repeatedly.
Hebrews 7:27
Jesus offered a once-for-all sacrifice.
Levitical priests were mere men.
Hebrews 7:2
Jesus is the Son of God, made perfect for evermore.
Levitical priests had to stand while ministering because their work was never finished.
Hebrews 10:11–12; 1:3; 8:1
Jesus sat down at the right hand of God because His atoning work was completed.

The writer of Hebrews confronts his readers with this probing question. “If, therefore, perfection were by the Levitical priesthood…what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchizedek, and not be called after the order of Aaron” (Heb. 7:11; cp. Ps. 110:4). The answer is self-evident: Because the Levitical priesthood was deficient in that it could never provide lasting atonement from sin, a superior priesthood was needed—one allocated to the Messiah and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

Old Testament Sacrifice
Scripture Reference
Messiah’s Sacrifice
The Old Testament place of atonement was an earthly Tabernacle.
Hebrews 9:1–7, 11, 24
The Messiah’s place of atonement is a heavenly Tabernacle.
The Old Testament place of atonement was a Tabernacle pitched by man.
Hebrews 8:2
The Messiah’s place of atonement is a Tabernacle pitched by God.
The Old Testament place of atonement was a mere copy.
Hebrews 8:5; 9:24
The Messiah’s place of atonement is the original—heaven itself.
The Old Testament sacrifices cleansed the Tabernacle on earth
Hebrews 9:23
The Messiah’s sacrifice cleansed the Tabernacle in heaven.
The Old Testament sacrifices used the blood of animals.
Hebrews 9:13–14
The Messiah’s sacrifice was His own blood.
The Old Testament sacrifices could only cover (atone) sins.
Hebrews 9:9, 26; 10:1–4, 11, 14
As illustrated by the scapegoat, the Messiah’s sacrifice took away sins completely.
The remains of the Old Testament Yom Kippur sin offerings were always burnt outside the camp,
showing a separation from and a rejection by the community of Israel;the Yom Kippur offerings were mere animals.
Leviticus 16:27; Hebrews 13:11–12; John 1:11
Jesus also suffered outside the gate, showing a separation from and a rejection by the people of Israel, although He was the Messiah.
The Old Testament sacrifices had to be repeated every year.
Hebrews 9:25–26, 28; 10:1, 10, 12
The Messiah’s one sacrifice was for all time.

Using Yom Kippur as a type, God presented a picture of His Son—the ultimate atonement, accomplished through the ultimate high priest, at a price of ultimate sacrifice.

Yom Kippur bears significance to the Messiah’s first coming as well as to His Second Coming. For the nation of Israel, the final atonement has been accomplished, but its efficacy has not yet been applied. Israel’s high priest, the Messiah Jesus, is prophetically still within the holy of holies, His own blood being presented before God as the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn. 2:2).

When Jesus returns, however, it will not be to procure atonement for sins. Rather, it will be to provide salvation for Israel and for all those who eagerly await Him (Heb. 9:28). Just as the people of Israel anxiously awaited the reappearance of the high priest from the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement, signifying that God was satisfied with the atoning sacrifice, so too will Jesus reappear in the heavens, having satisfied God’s righteous demands for a perfect, once-for-all cleansing from sin. Israel will be washed clean, given a new heart, and will receive God’s indwelling Spirit (Ezek. 36:25–27). “In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness” (Zech. 13:1). “And so [or, in this manner] all Israel shall be saved; as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” (Rom. 11:26–27).

The Bible does not mention the observance of Yom Kippur during the reign of the Messiah on earth because there will no longer be a need to keep the Day of Atonement. The final sacrifice will have already been paid. As the Scriptures teach, “Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin” (Heb. 10:18). If, however, Yom Kippur is part of the millennial holy days (Ezek. 45:17), it will most likely serve as an object lesson of what Jesus Christ has already accomplished.