Observing the Day of Atonement

Mike reviews and explains the instructions and procedure for observing the holiest day in the Jewish Religious calendar - Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement.
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Let's look at our outline to fix exactly our position with regards to our study of the book of Leviticus.

Training for Holiness

  1. Attaining Holiness – Leviticus Chapters 1-16
    1. Through offerings (Leviticus 1-7)
    2. Through a consecrated priesthood (Leviticus 8-10)
    3. Distinguishing between clean and unclean (Leviticus 11-15)
    4. By observing the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16)
  2. Practicing Holiness – Leviticus chapters 17-27

We will list these sections when we begin these in the next chapter. For now, I want to review and comment on the clean and unclean section which we briefly covered (Chapter 11-15) in a single lesson.

There are a few points I'd like to make and clarify before we move on to examine the most important ritual done only once a year by the High Priest and that was the Day of Atonement described in chapter 16.

1. Uncleanness Did Not Equal Sin.

To be unclean meant that a person was not in a condition to come before the Lord at the Tabernacle and offer any type of sacrifice. The rules for clean/unclean in regards to food, leprosy, various bodily discharges for both men and women, and regulations for women after they gave birth were instituted by God to form a pattern of behavior that reflected and honored God's innate character of holiness (transcendency, glory, inscrutability).

By accepting and willingly following these preconditions for coming into the presence of God, the Jews were following God's rules and procedures for being ceremonially clean/pure and thus able to approach the living God without danger or rejection because of some form of impurity. God gave the rules simply because humans would not know what was clean/unclean for God. Again, to be unclean was not a sin and did not require sacrifice in most instances (exception was when healed from leprosy). A person unclean for one reason or another was not ashamed or felt guilty, it was something that happened from time to time that needed to be remedied (usually through bathing and cleaning objects that had become contaminated).

2. There Were Some Advantages to the Clean/Unclean System

  1. Theologically – The people had a clear set of rules by which they could both please God and maintain the holiness of God's Tabernacle and nation.
  2. Morally – The rules encouraged behavior and respect consistent with God's broader teachings concerning moral conduct in matters of sex.
  3. Practically – This clean/unclean legislation led to a healthier lifestyle for the people.

3. Some Characteristics of "Uncleanness"

As Christians, we are not subject to these laws in order to come before God. Why? – Christ has cleansed and continues to purify us with His blood each day (Acts 2:35; I John 1:7-9) and in addition to this has put the Spirit of God within us so we don't have to go to a place to approach God – we are continually before Him and continually cleansed to do so by the sacrifice of Christ serving us through our faith in Jesus. However, this being said, the old system described in Leviticus had its own features. For example:

  1. Cleanness was not contagious, but uncleanness was. Just as one infected with a virus today can pass it on through contact with others, uncleanness could also be passed on through contact with things or people.
  2. Certain categories of animals and birds, etc. were considered unclean, but people were not (the poor, those who were uneducated, city vs. country folk, etc.)
  3. Uncleanness was a ceremonial condition not a moral condition. It was inconvenient and time consuming, but not shameful.
  4. Removing uncleanness mostly required quarantining, bathing, cleaning or disposing of various clothing or objects, along with visits with priests or offering of sacrifices to publicly confirm purification.

E. However, indifference or ignoring the rules about clean and unclean normally led to sin and eventual punishment by God.

4. Basic Reasons for These Laws

"Thus you shall keep the sons of Israel separated from their uncleanness, so that they will not die in their uncleanness by their defiling My tabernacle that is among them."
- Leviticus 15:31

The primary reason for these laws was to protect sinful humans who were in close contact to God Who dwelled in their midst. They also helped the Israelites distinguish themselves from other nations who may have had different names, languages, and territories, but shared eating habits.

5. Do These Laws Apply to Us Today?

They no longer apply to us, however, we can still learn from this teaching and the experience of the Jews.

A) We now know that none of these rules apply to individuals in the Christian age and we need to watch out for those who would try to impose them on us.

13"But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace,"
- Ephesians 2:13-15

We can eat pork, any type of fish, and bodily discharges of any kind do not render one impure before God. We can associate with any person or culture for the purpose of the gospel – some people are lost and need the good news, but no one is considered automatically unclean. We know through Christ (Mark 7:19) and Peter (Acts 10:12-15) that no food is unclean and we can eat any food, and our prayer of thanksgiving to God is what purifies it (I Timothy 4:5). Our only restriction on food is when we hurt someone's weak conscience by eating what another brother believes is forbidden and move him to do the same against his conscience (I Corinthians 8:10-13).

B) Another valuable lesson and parallel is the pursuit of holiness by believers. The Jews did this by fulfilling the ordinances given regarding clean and unclean for the purpose of maintaining ritual cleanness/purity as they would interact with God at the Tabernacle. The New Testament does not require Christians to be ritually pure, but it does require us to be morally pure.

Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.
- I Timothy 5:22
Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
- II Corinthians 7:1
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
- I John 2:15

We are God's holy nation and strive to be and remain holy and pure unto God, before Christ, in unity with the Spirit. How do we do this?

1) We distinguish between what is clean and unclean before we consume it. Not food, but the media (books, pics, music, images, entertainment) we consume:

  • Porn is impure/unclean.
  • Comedy that is filled with vulgarity, blasphemy – is unclean.
  • Movies filled with unholy ideas, glamorize crime, use woman as objects, promote what God has described as an abomination are unclean.
  • These are not things that Christians should be consuming if they are striving to be pure!

In other words, we don't need to be concerned for spiritual reasons, what food we consume, but rather what words, ideas, and images we consume and what words and ideas come out of our mouths.

17Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? 18But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.
- Matthew 15:17-18

We still pursue purity, but in a different way.

I. The Day of Atonement – Leviticus 16:1-34

The Day of Atonement given by God at this point of Jewish history is at the center of Jewish Law. It was meant to be a permanent statute (Leviticus 16:34) and is still observed to this day known by its Hebrew name, Yom Kippur. It was about "atonement" – that which leads to or results in the forgiveness of sins.

The Hebrew word KAPAR translated into the English word "Atonement" (mentioned 15 times in Chapter 16) meant – cover over; atone; pacify; or propitiate. In other words, on the Day of Atonement, Israel's sins (all the sins of the nation) were covered, purged, or removed.

As I said, it was at the heart of the Jewish Law and appeared near the middle of the Torah in the middle of third of five books (chapter 14 is the exact middle – atonement is in chapter 16). God provides instructions about the Day of Atonement with appropriate warnings concerning the importance of careful observance of this feast.

1Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the Lord and died. 2The Lord said to Moses: "Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, or he will die; for I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.
- Leviticus 16:1-2

The idea here is that God controlled the times and manner that the priests could approach Him in the Tabernacle and used the recent deaths of Nadab and Abihu as examples of the consequences for not doing so.

Leviticus 16:3-10

God first outlines, in general terms, the steps taken to accomplish the atonement/purification for the priests and his family, the people, and then the Tabernacle itself:

Step 1: The priest would bathe completely to insure ritual cleanness.

Step 2: He would only put on the basic clothing of his linen undergarment, linen tunic, his sash, and linen turban. These were his "working clothes." In coming before God, who appeared above the ark, covered by the Mercy Seat (with the two angels facing each other), the High Priest entered as a servant without the ornate trappings of the High Priest worn before the people (i.e. 12 precious stones on his chest piece, gold plate on his turban, all completed with his multicolored robe made with finely woven threads).

Step 3: He would bring various animals to sacrifice first for his own sins, then other animals for the sins of the people. These constituted a burnt offering and a sin offering for himself – bull/sin offering – ram/burnt offering (ram was a male sheep). He would then receive two male goats from the people – one for a sin offering and one as the "scapegoat".

Step 4: Once assembled, the procedure was as follows:

  1. The priest would offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, as well as the ram as a burnt offering for himself.
  2. The two goats were presented before the Lord at the Tabernacle as a sin offering for the people.
  3. The priests would then cast lots to determine which goat would be offered to the Lord and which would be the scapegoat.
  4. The goat chosen for the Lord would be sacrificed as a sin offering.
  5. The other goat was presented live before God, and then to make atonement, was set free into the wilderness as the scapegoat.

Step 5: Once the instructions were given, the actual sacrifices would be made (Leviticus 16:11-28). This passage describes in greater detail the offerings that were previewed in verses 3-10. However, the same order was followed:

  1. Offerings on behalf of the High Priest and his family of priests.
  2. Offerings on behalf of the people.
  3. Offerings on behalf of the Tabernacle and its contents.

All of these had to be atoned for, cleansed, and sanctified. This section provides additional details:

  1. The use of incense in offering sacrifices.
  2. The priest entering the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed bull on the Mercy Seat (cover of ark) itself.
  3. Only when the smoke of the incense covered the ark was the High priest to enter the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood of the bull – if he entered before he would die. The idea was that the smoke from the incense masked the presence of God in the Holy of Holies.
  4. Sprinkling the blood seven times on the Mercy Seat, on top of the ark, and in the air in front of the Mercy Seat (where God was). By doing this he made atonement for himself and his family.
  5. The goat sacrificed and whose blood was sprinkled in the Holy of Holies served to atone for the people as well as purify the Tabernacle complex. It was thought that the Tabernacle, situated in the midst of a sinful, impure, unclean people, became unclean itself simply by being in proximity to these people. This was similar to one being close to a leper catching the disease by contagion. With this in mind, the blood of both the bull and goat were sprinkled on the altar of burnt offerings in order to purify it and in so doing, purify all the furnishings and elements in the entire Tabernacle complex.
  6. The High Priest would lay both hands on the head of the remaining live goat (a gesture signifying the transfer of the sins and transgressions of all the people of Israel). Then another person would lead this goat out into the wilderness and then release it to wander there. The significance here was that the sins of the people were atoned for by the death of one animal and they were removed from the people and sent away by the other animal led into the wilderness – out of sight out of mind.

Step 6: Once all the offerings for the Day of Atonement were completed, the normal activities of the Tabernacle complex would resume.

  1. Aaron would bathe his body and get dressed.
  2. He would resume his priestly duties.
  3. The men who had brought the live goat to the wilderness and had disposed of the sacrifices made in connection with the Day of Atonement, both had to wash their clothes, bathe themselves, and only then could return to camp.

Step 7: Making the Statute (Day of Atonement) permanent.

29"This shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; 30for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the Lord. 31It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute. 32So the priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as priest in his father's place shall make atonement: he shall thus put on the linen garments, the holy garments, 33and make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar. He shall also make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34Now you shall have this as a permanent statute, to make atonement for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year." And just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so he did.
- Leviticus 16:29-34

These verses reveal four truths about this observance.

1. It was to be observed permanently – vs. 29; 31

  • Tenth day of the seventh month – six months after Passover.

2. A day of rest and humility – vs. 29-31

  • Time of fasting, prayer, devotion.

3. A responsibility of the High Priest – vs. 32-33

  • Handed down from one generation to the next.

4. A day when atonement for sins was accomplished – vs. 32-34

  • A time when the High Priest, the people, and the place of worship were purified.
  • No matter where you were, it was a fresh start, a time for rejoicing.

We've read where the Laws were given, which naturally led to them being broken, and now, when and how those who broke those laws were forgiven and restored.

II. Comparison

In both the Old and New Testaments, purification required blood because it was the most precious substance available to man, since it contained life itself (Genesis 9:4). So far in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, we've reviewed the reasons and procedures for the sacrifice and offering of the blood of animals as atonement and forgiveness of sin.

These, however, were a preview or shadow preparing us for a far superior offering of blood to be made at the right time by Jesus Christ. I say far superior for five reasons:

  1. It was the offering of One who was both human and Divine. Such an offering was far better than those of animals (Hebrews 9:13-14).
  2. It was a willing sacrifice. Animals had no choice (John 10:14-18).
  3. It was a sinless sacrifice, holy, innocent, and clean. Animals were only to be without physical defect (Hebrews 7:26).
  4. It was a once for all time sacrifice. The sacrifice of animals was required on a daily basis at a minimum (Hebrews 9:28).
  5. It would take away sins once and for all time. Animal sacrifices arrested sin and put it in a suspended state until Jesus' sacrifice completely eliminated sin since His blood was worthy to make proper atonement and secure eternal forgiveness for all sin (Hebrews 10:14).

In this way Jesus' sacrifice fulfills the purpose and promise of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament.

III. Conclusion

This concludes the portion of Leviticus dealing with the sacrificial system. Here, briefly, are a few lessons this teaches us:

  1. God takes sin seriously. Being holy, He must punish sin.
  2. The just punishment for sin is death since sin contaminates us and inevitably leads to both physical and spiritual death (Romans 6:23).
  3. God graciously offers His own Son's blood/life to atone for our sins and obtain forgiveness for them.
  4. We receive this atonement and forgiveness through faith expressed in repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38).
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