In order to understand the meaning of “atonement,”, the word can be broken down into its components: at•one•ment. Its purpose was to bring people back to unity with God. This was the only day of the year the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. The Jewish tabernacle, or temple, had two divisions to it. One was called the Holy Place where the priests would offer incense (representing prayers to God), and it also contained a menorah and a table which always held twelve loafs of bread for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. In the New Testament, Christ stated he was the “light of the word” (Jn 8:12) and the “bread of life” (Jn 6:51). All of the elements of the tabernacle pointed toward the need for atonement and to its future fulfillment. As the other feasts were prophetic, this one, though solemn, was no different.
Once a year, the high priest was allowed to enter the second division of the temple, the Holy of Holies. Inside this room, which was a perfect cube in shape, was the Ark of the Covenant which contained the Mercy Seat above it where there were two cherubim facing each other in deference. Atop the mercy seat was where blood was placed to represent the blood atonement for sin.
Why was blood needed for atonement? Two verses come to mind. “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Lv 17:11). “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hb 9:22). I think the statement, “life is in the blood” is important. What does this mean? Well, let’s look at the components of blood: white blood cells (leukocytes), which are involved with the body’s immune system to fight off disease; platelets (thrombocytes), which are involved with the body’s clotting mechanism; and red blood cells (erythrocytes), which carry oxygen to all the cells of the body. Oxygen is important for life. The other cells are important to help sustain life, but without oxygen, life cannot exist.
In Genesis, we read that God breathed into Adam and he became alive (Gn 2:7). We just stated that erythrocytes hold the oxygen (i.e., one’s breath). Using blood is the tangible giving back to God the breath He gave man. Using blood for cleansing (purification) was used to make something holy for use in worship of God. Therefore, blood became a symbol of giving back to God the life God gave man.
When outside the tabernacle, or temple, the High Priest wore special clothing to signify his status before the people. Yet, when he entered the Holy of Holies, the High Priest wore plain white clothes just like all the other priests wore in their daily services. Why? Because before God, everyone is the same with no special status. In addition, the High Priest had to offer a sacrifice for himself and his family before he made sacrifice for the people. He placed coals from the altar in a censer as well as incense as he entered the Holy of Holies. He then chose two goats. Lots were cast to define which was the “scapegoat.” One was sacrificed and the scapegoat was set free. He sprinkled blood before the Ark and Mercy Seat seven times (the number of completion) from his sacrifice and then repeated that for the blood of the goat as a sacrifice for the people. He then laid his hands on the head of scapegoat and set it free in the wilderness, which indicated their sins were removed from them.
Over time, many Jews began to consider the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be a time of introspection – called Days of Awe. An individual seeks atonement of sins over the previous year: between them and other individuals; between them and God. At Yom Kippur, one’s sentence is sealed by God. God decides if an individual will have a good life or not over the next year, and who will live and who will die. During the Days of Awe, an individual can change God’s mind by repentance, prayer, and good deeds.
Yet, this was not the original intent of Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement. Israel called on God to remember His covenant with them (Feast of Trumpets; Rosh Hashanah). There was nothing else they could rely on to appease God for their sins. In the same way, after we receive Christ as our Savior, we ask God to view us through His blood – not on our own merit. A sacrifice God demanded was presented before Him for the nation’s forgiveness (Day of Atonement). This was not due to any work that Israel could do. This pointed to the ultimate sacrifice God had ordained – His Son (second person of the Godhead) – through whom we are saved; it is not on our own merit. There is nothing Israel could do, or we can do, to alter God’s decision or plan.
There are four elements of atonement. The first is Propitiation, which means appeasement of God’s wrath. Mankind cannot appear before God and live: “The Lord said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die” (Lv 16:2); “no one may see me and live” (Ex 33:20). Propitiation was the function of the Mercy Seat (Atonement Cover). It is a Symbol of Christ: Christ presented himself as a sacrifice of atonement (i.e., propitiation) (Ro 3:25); Christ is the atoning sacrifice (propitiation) for our sins (1Jn 2:2); God sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice (propitiation) (1Jn 4:10).
The second element is Reconciliation, which means the reestablishment of friendship: then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins (Lv 16:30). Yet, Lv 16:34 states, “Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.” Christ’s death reconciles us to God: God reconciled us to Himself through Christ, does not count our sins against us, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2Co 5:18-19); the death of Christ reconciles both Jews and Gentiles – there is no longer a barrier (balustrade) between the two (Ep 2:16).
The third element is Justification, meaning being declared righteous by God: then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins (Lv 16:30). The sacrifice pointed to something deeper: God does not delight in sacrifice but in a broken and contrite heart (Ps 51:16); by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many (Is 53:11); the righteous will live by his faith (Hk 2:4). We are justified by faith through Christ: since we have been justified (declared righteous) through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Ro 5:1).
The fourth element is Cleansing, meaning being made acceptable and useful in service to God: various requirements for becoming clean (Lv 11-15); 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 (Lv 16:33). This is likely one of the main reasons for sacrifices being made during the Millennium: sinful man will be in the presence of a holy God; blood is put on the altar to purify it before sacrifice (Ek 43). We do not lose our sin nature: if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1Jn 1:9).
So, what is the future fulfillment of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)? Christ’s Second Coming. His return to earth is the fulfillment of this Feast. Why? Because Christ provides atonement for the nation of Israel: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son . . . On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and impurity” (Zc 12:10; 13:1).
So, what is our takeaway from all of this? We see that God is consistent no matter the day and age in which people live. The elements for atonement are applicable to both Old Testament and New Testament times. The differences? Israel was a chosen nation to mediate God to the world; therefore, that nation was held to a higher standard. Israel was pre-cross, so the elements were physical and pointed toward what Christ would accomplish. We are post-cross and benefit from what Christ has already done for us. Faith was required both pre- and post-cross.
Isn’t God amazing and wonderful? He meets our needs in every age and prepares for our future needs at the same time. What a mighty God we serve!
Fall Jewish Holidays - Part 2: Yom Kippur
Fall Jewish Holidays - Part 5: Jubilee