Today is Yom Kippur, the most sacred and solemn day of the year in Jewish synagogues around the world. This is the “Day of Atonement,” one of the seven biblical holidays commanded by God when Moses led his people out of Egypt.
Here are some things about the Day of Atonement I find most interesting.
During the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, the high priest was taken to the Temple one week before Yom Kippur and confined there. For seven days, he concentrated on his personal holiness and continually reviewed all he must do on the Day of Atonement. By being confined, he was protected from being defiled and thus being declared ineligible to perform his sacred duties on Yom Kippur. Because of the importance to the entire nation, he simply must be considered spiritually clean before acting on behalf of the people.
An assistant was chosen to help the high priest. If the high priest fell ill, died or somehow became “unclean,” the assistant would take over the important role on the Day of Atonement. Providing atonement for sins was something the Jewish people understood with great clarity.
The high priest normally wore an elaborate outfit that included several visual reminders that he represented all the people. His turban was inscribed with “Holy to the Lord.” On one shoulder he wore a gemstone with six of the tribes of Israel inscribed upon it. On the other shoulder another gemstone was inscribed with the other six tribes. On his chest was a special vest that held 12 precious gems. Each gem represented one of the tribes of Israel. Symbolically, it was impossible to miss the message. He was one man representing the entire nation. On the Day of Atonement, however the high priest wore a simple, seamless, linen outfit for most of the day. He would change into fresh clothes five times, taking an immersive bath before each change of outfits. He also washed his hands and feet in ritual fashion ten times during his duties that day! Though one source claims an estimated 500 priests would be on hand to assist the high priest on this solemn day, only the high priest would perform the sacred duties. The symbolism was crystal clear. One man, and one man only, would take care of the atonement needs of the entire nation.
Two goats were brought to the high priest near the Eastern Gate in the open courtyard of the Temple Mount. The high priest cast lots for the two goats, placing one lot on the head of each. One of them was “for the Lord” and would be killed at the Temple. The other was “for Azazel,” which the King James Bible translated “scapegoat.” The word is so illustrative of an innocent creature being saddled with the sins of others, it remains popular in our modern vocabulary.
In the only act that took place in full view of the massive crowds at the Temple, the high priest presented the scapegoat to the people rather dramatically. He would turn the goat slowly in all directions so everyone in the crowd could see it. In response, the people would “project” their sins onto the scapegoat. All other acts the high priest would perform on Yom Kippur would be in front of the Temple and inside the Temple itself. Only a few would be able to see those events. But everyone related to the scapegoat!
By the time of the New Testament, an interesting tradition had developed outside of scriptural requirements. The high priest handed the scapegoat to a non-Jewish man – a Gentile – who then took the goat through the Eastern Gate, over the Mount of Olives and into the rocky Judean wilderness. He would walk no further than a Sabbath’s Day walk. Because of the distance limitation, it took 10 men to take the goat far enough out into the wilderness to release it. The last “assistant” pushed the goat off a high cliff. As the scapegoat fell to its death, it took the sins of the people with it.
Once the goat was “released” into the wilderness, a series of raised flags quickly communicated from one station to the next in reverse order until the people inside the Temple complex knew that the deed was done. Though they would have tempered their spirit of celebration on such a solemn day, no doubt there was great relief to know that their sins had “died” in the wilderness with the scapegoat!
In the meantime, the high priest continued his messy and important work of sacrifice at the altar and inside the Temple. No one was allowed to see the activity in the Holy of Holies. When he entered the most holy chamber for the first time, the high priest put some incense on hot coals he’d taken from the altar outside the Temple so a thick smoke would obscure the Holy of Holies from anyone else any time the curtain was pulled back for his entrance or exit.
When the high priest did enter the Holy of Holies, tradition holds that a rope was tied around his ankle in case he died suddenly. After all, who would dare enter such a place if God struck down the one man designate to enter the Holy of Holies? With the rope in place, assistants could simply pull the corpse out of the sacred room without dying themselves!
The apostle Paul connected Jesus with the Day of Atonement. “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith,” Paul wrote in Romans 3:25. Little wonder why a Jewish believer in Christ would make the connection. Consider:
Like the high priest, Jesus was one man representing all people. The book of Hebrews makes this connection multiple times, including this verse, which combines both the picture of the high priest and the purpose of Yom Kippur. “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17)
Jesus was sinless, perfectly qualified for the ultimate act of atonement. No human being in history has ever been so “clean” before God.
Like the scapegoat, Jesus was presented to all of the people and even handed over to a Gentile by the Jewish leaders who wanted to have Jesus crucified. Since only Pilate could sentence a man to death, it was a Gentile who ordered the death of Jesus!
Like the scapegoat, Jesus was taken outside the city walls to his place of execution.
Jesus wore a simple, seamless, linen garment to his death. At the cross, Roman soldiers gambled for possession of it.
If Yom Kippur is the bloodiest day of the year for the acting high priest, the day of his crucifixion was obviously the bloodiest day of a lifetime for Jesus. Before he was nailed to a cross, he was scourged. It was a most horrible beating. Two Roman soldiers skilled in their task would tear strips of skin off their victims from head to toe with a leather whip imbedded with sharp pieces of metal or glass. There was no “39-lashes” limit for the scourging of a non-Roman by Roman authorities. They simply whipped a man until it was feared he might die from the punishment. At the cross, Jesus continued to bleed from his wounds. Even after his death, a Roman soldier pierced his side, and a flow of blood and water poured out.
Most importantly, the death of Jesus had a spiritual impact only on the people who accepted his death as a substitute for their sins. This was also true at the Temple each year on Yom Kippur. There were a multitude of people in and around Jerusalem each Yom Kippur who did not fast, pray or ask God for forgiveness. Only those who sought the grace of God would find it on the Day of Atonement.
Likewise, only those who accept the gift of Jesus’ death on the cross will find the grace offered there.