What is the Day of Atonement and the Christian's Response to it?

(Leviticus 16:15-16) The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, is the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. But, should Christians celebrate, and what is its significance?

Woman kneeling before a tall cross structure while sun is setting.
Photo by Jametlene Reskp / Unsplash

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is considered the "holiest day on the Jewish calendar." It's marked by reverence, humility, repentance, and fasting.

As Christians, how are we to observe the Day of Atonement? Are we even supposed to since Christ has already paid the debt of our sin?

TL;DR - There's so much we can pull from this historical and reverent holy day! Jesus is directly linked to the very place of mercy, where the High Priest atoned for the sins of Israel on this one special day per year.

In Leviticus, Yom Kippur introduces sacrifices in addition to the daily sacrifices already prescribed in the Books of Moses:

  • Goats and bulls sacrificed on behalf of the priests and the people
  • Blood atonement within the Most Holy Place
  • And the "scapegoat" who is released into the wilderness with the sins of the people

Let's zoom into a specific moment during the Day of Atonement when the High Priest atones for the people in the Most Holy Place...

“He 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."

Leviticus 16:15-16 (NIV)

The Atonement Cover

It's interesting how the priest had to sprinkle blood over the "atonement cover." It sat atop the Ark of the Covenant which held the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments.

Also, the atonement cover—or "mercy seat"—is the place where God's literal presence dwelt in the Temple.

And it's only on Yom Kippur, this holiest of days on the Jewish calendar, when the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place behind the woven curtain and approach the presence of God.

A Dangerous Approach

As Christians, we live in the era after Christ's perfect sacrifice. We can sometimes take God's holiness and righteousness for granted.

For the Israelites, though, there were layers of mediation between themselves and God. And even the High Priest was not immune. If he were to approach God incorrectly, he would die before God's overwhelming holiness.

So, for ancient Israel, the day of Yom Kippur is a stark reminder of God's holiness, the consequence of sin, and the price of approaching God.

Because approaching God was a dangerous affair, it makes the reality of Christ's atonement sweeter...

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:1-2 (NIV)

The Lamb of God

When we talk about Jesus as the "Lamb of God," this is not meant to conjure cuddly emotions. Instead, it's an image of...

  • The world's debt to sin
  • The costly sacrifice to atone for it
  • And God's radical compassion

And John refers to Jesus as the "atoning sacrifice," or the propitiation for our sins.

The original word behind "atoning sacrifice" connects with the word used in the Old Testament for the place of atonement...

...the atonement cover itself.

The Place of Mercy

Sooooo, Jesus is a golden plate covering the Ark of the Covenant? Not literally. 😜

But, the meaning is still there. Remember, the mercy seat, or atonement cover, functioned in a few ways...

  • It covered the Ark of the Covenant
  • Beneath it were the Ten Commandments
  • Above it resided God's holy Presence

In other words, by referring to Christ as the atoning sacrifice, He is the very connection between God and humanity.

The only sacrifice able to cover "the sins of the whole world."

And the fulfillment of God's covenant with His people.

Should Christians Celebrate Yom Kippur?

Well, I'm not an expert on how Judaism remembers the Day of Atonement today. But, the why behind it is something we should embrace as Christians.

Here's a few quick reasons:

1. Communal Repentance

The holy week leading up to the Day of Atonement is filled with solemnity, humility, and repentance.

People reconcile with each other. Sins are considered. God is reverenced for His holiness.

The Israelites would repent as a nation, and the High Priest would approach God on their behalf.

This should be a time we remember God's holiness and that no one is beyond repenting or relying on God's mercy.

2. The Sweetness of Mercy

Yom Kippur should also increase our love for the Lord. The Day of Atonement reminds us of the costly sacrifice of Jesus, the faithful High Priest who entered the Holy of Holies on our behalf...once-and-for-all.

This reality is humbling and sweet.

Humbling because you'd be stuck in your sins without Christ. Sweet because His atoning sacrifice is complete, granting you a new life in Him and transplanting us from the kingdom of darkness in the Kingdom of light.

3. Our Response

The response to amazing Grace is not to trample on it, to embrace sin, or to hate others. The Day of Atonement is the necessary hard reset we need for our hardened hearts.

Christmas is our celebration of Immanuel, God With Us, being born.

Yom Kippur is our response to Immanuel suffering for us.

Jesus compels us to repent, turn to Him, and to live like Him. And the Day of Atonement is the time to embrace the holiness and mercy of God.

🔥 Bonus Sauce!

For a beautiful explanation of Yom Kippur's significance, check out the Bible Project's post here...

God invites Israel to live in close proximity to his holy presence. Which seems awesome, but it’s actually dangerous. This book explores how the sacrificial rituals and purity practices cleared the way for morally corrupt Israelites to become God’s covenant partners.

Tim Mackie & Aeron Sullivan, BibleProject

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