The Day of Atonement

The Day of Atonement, yom kippur, is the most sacred of all days in the Jewish year. On this day the Jewish people performed “the supreme act of national atonement for sin” (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. I, p. 604). It has been called “the good Friday of the Old Testament” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. I, p. 327). Philo, a first century Jew, called it “the greatest of the feasts” (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. I, p. 316).

Hebrews 7:25-8:1

25 Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens;

27 who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.

28 For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.

8:1 Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens,

8:2 a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man.

 The events that occurred on this day are described best in Leviticus 16. The High Priest would move to the sanctuary one week before the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement he would arise, bathe, put aside his regular high priest clothes,

and put on special white linen garments. He first offered a young bullock for his own sins.

He entered the Holy of Holies with incense and later returned with blood of the bullock to be sprinkled on the mercy seat. Now he could act as a representative on behalf of the people.

Sacrifices were made for the people. Two goats were presented at the door of the tabernacle, and lots were cast for them.

 One was to be for The Lord God and the other for (a-za’-zel) Aza’zel. The meaning of this word is obscure, although the root word in the Hebrew means “far removed” with the “el” ending, therefore probably meaning “far removed from the Lord God. Once the goats were chosen the Lord’s goat was slain and blood from it was again sprinkled. The Holy Place received a seven-fold sprinkling to cleanse it. A-za’zel  was then brought to the High Priest.

Lev. 16:21

21 “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness.

Men would be standing by ready to lead it there. This goat is what we call the scapegoat or the removing goat, since it removed the sins of the people and took them out into the wilderness.

 There are several comparisons and contrasts between the Day of Atonement and the atonement of Jesus Christ. First let us examine the high priest. Jesus is our high priest, yet he has no need to offer sacrifices on behalf of himself year after year before acting as high priest. Christ is without sin.

Heb 7:27

27* who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.

Heb 8:25, 26

25* nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own.

26* Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.

The Jewish High Priest wore beautiful, clean, holy linen cloth while performing the rituals on the Day of Atonement. Jesus was clothed with his own righteousness.

Blood provides our second parallel. On the Day of Atonement it was the blood of animals that was used to cleanse and purify. These animals had to be without spot or blemish, but they were really not worth the value of a human being. Jesus came offering the sacrifice of his own blood, and his life was infinite in worth.

The scapegoat provides our third analogy and the most interesting one. The scapegoat is the one that carried away the sins of the people. Likewise it is Jesus who carries away our sins. He makes forgiveness possible, and forgiveness is the taking away of sin.

As the Psalmist explained

Psalm 103:12

As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.

The way we have our directions laid out on our earth, the distance from the North Pole to the South Pole is a definite, fixed constant. You can only go north so far and then you start going south again.

But you can go east or west without changing directions until the day you die. In other words, when God forgives us of our sins, he removes them away from us an infinite distance. Jesus is pictured as a sacrificial lamb in the New Testament. John the Baptist declared, “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29).

The laying on of hands is of special symbolic importance. To the Jews this demonstrated the transfer of the sins of the people to the goat. In a similar way our sins were laid upon Jesus. Isaiah predicted,

Isaiah 53:6

6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.

The involvement of the people in the Day of Atonement is an interesting story also. As time passed the multitudes got more and more involved. Once the temple was built in Jerusalem and the Day of Atonement was observed there, people would follow the goat through the streets as it was led away. Some would reach out and pull wool from the poor animal. Some would poke at it with sticks. Others would spit on it, urging it to begone. Finally the goat was led across the Kidron Brook into the wilderness. To make sure that the goat did not wander back into an inhabited place, a rock was sometimes tied to the neck of the goat by means of a rope. The rock was then thrown over a cliff, the goat plunging down afterwards.

While these actions of the people were not commanded by the Lord, is it not interesting that Jesus received similar treatment? At his trial they spat upon him and slapped him. He was mocked at by the soldiers and the crowds. They cried out, “Hail, King of the Jews.” They took a reed and hit him and then scourged him. He was led through the streets for all to see. As Isaiah predicted, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted” (Isa. 53:7).

One interesting legend has been handed down about the Day of Atonement, and I emphasize this is just a legend. Nevertheless, we can use this myth like a parable to illustrate a truth. It was claimed by some Jews that at the moment the goat was pushed over the cliff, a scarlet cord tied to the door of the temple immediately turned white.

This was a symbol of the fact that the sins of the people had now been removed. Long ago Isaiah said, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18).

One time a group of men were discussing religion. Each was taking his turn in offering an explanation of Christ’s redeeming work in the atonement. One of the men gave this explanation: “Jesus was the Great Master Chemist and Artist of all time. He used a bright red to produce a pure white in a dead black.” That man then reread the story of the crucifixion to the other men.

Very briefly, then, by way of review, on the Day of Atonement the high priest sacrificed one goat for the people and confessed their sins over the other goat, the scapegoat. The leaving of this goat represented the taking away or removing of the sins of the people.

Likewise Christ offered a sacrifice for our sins, but it was his own blood. He is our scapegoat. Our sin was laid upon him, and he removed it from us. Jesus died outside the camp for us to make atonement for our sin.

Let us now turn to another Old Testament story which has similar parallels. In Leviticus 14 the cleansing ritual for a leper is given. This ritual had nothing to do with the sins of the leper and only dealt with a physical disease. Nevertheless, there are categories of thought and expression here which are similar to and useful in understanding the cross of Jesus. A leper who had been healed was to appear before a priest. The priest would make an examination to see if the leper was really cured from the disease. If he was cured, then two clean birds were brought forth. One bird was killed. Its blood was sprinkled seven times over the former leper. He was pronounced clean.

The living bird was then dipped in the blood of the sacrificial bird. The priest was then told to “let the living bird go into the open field” (Lev. 14:7). Again the shedding of blood symbolized purifying and cleansing. The leaving of the second bird represented the removal of the disease of leprosy. If we picture sin as our leprosy, we can see that Christ fulfills the role of both of the birds.

Isaiah 1:18

“Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool.

As we compare these various rituals and ceremonies with the cross of Jesus Christ, let us never forget one overwhelming difference between them. The sacrifice of a goat or a bird is not a costly sacrifice. In the cross, though, we see God giving his beloved Son! Jesus came not offering the blood of animals, but his own precious blood. As he himself said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13).


The story is told of a war between two tribes in the territory that is now Alaska. One old chief saw that if the war continued, neither tribe would put up its winter supply of food (mostly berries and salmon) and both tribes would die of starvation. Under a flag of truce he pledged that his men were willing to stop fighting. The other chief said, “No,” since his tribe had lost ten more men in the war. The old chief than declared, “I am a chief. I am worth more than ten of your men. You may kill me and let the people have peace.” The proposal was accepted. They killed the chief and peace came. It is claimed that years later a missionary came and preached to those tribes. When the cross was proclaimed to them, it made sense to the people as they remembered the kind old chief.

In January of 2007, 19 year old Pfc. Ross McGinnis,  from rural Pennsylvania,  was on routine patrol in an army Humvee in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah district in Iraq. McGinnis could see an insurgent on a rooftop fling a hand grenade at his vehicle. He shouted and tried to deflect it, but it fell inside. Four of his buddies were down there.  Pfc. McGinnis had time to leave the vehicle, but he did not.  Instead he threw himself backward onto the grenade, absorbing the blast with his body. He was killed instantly. The others escaped serious injury.

Paul wrote:

Romans 5:7, 8

7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.

8* But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

We would not want to sacrifice our lives for some worthless individual. For a very good person we might be willing to sacrifice our lives. Certainly it is not hard for us to conceive of our lives being given on behalf of our families. But would we sacrifice ourselves for a group of worthless persons? To take it a step further, would we sacrifice our own child for such useless folk? That is exactly what God did for us. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8).

While working with the Police Department as a Police Chaplain I responded to the scene of a suicide.  As I arrived I learned that a man about my age had just taken his life and that his mother was at the scene crying hysterically.  As I spoke to the mother she took me in her arms crying saying,

“can I hold you for a little while, and say good bye to my son?  I would give anything if I could exchange places with him and give him another chance.”

 She would have too.   Oh how the death of his son hurt her.

Let us remember, then, that the cross of Christ is far greater than the Day of Atonement of the Old Testament.

It represents not the sacrifice of a goat, but Jesus giving his own life and God giving the life of his beloved Son.

Now that is love!

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