Day of Atonement

Suggested readings. Lev. 16; 23.26-32; Num. 29.7-11; Zech. 12.10, 12; Rom. 4.4-5; Rev. 1.7. The word is better translated atonements, as the Hebrew is in the plural signifying the various aspects of atonement embraced on that day.

Leviticus 23.26-32. Nine days after the feast of trumpets came the most solemn day in Israel’s religious year, namely the day of atonement. This was a fast of peculiar solemnity hence called in Acts 27.9, “the fast”. The name given to the fast, “day of atonement” (Hebrew, Yom Kippurim), expresses its unique position in the religious calendar. Each year, commencing at even on the ninth day of the seventh month (Tishri), the whole nation of Israel were engaged in deep exercise of soul until the even of the tenth day. The exercise was one of confession of sin, and repentance for sin. As we shall see later, it was needful for Israel to mourn and grieve for the heinous sins committed by the people, and for those who ignored the divine commands of verses 29 and 30 the penalty was excision.

Before, however, we consider the main chapters dealing with the actual observance of the day of atonement, we shall look at the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for “atonement”. The Hebrew word kahphar is translated atonement in the verses before us, but is translated by various other words in the Old Testament, such as

i. Pitch, Gen. 6.14, as a covering of pitch.

ii. Appease, 32.20; Jacob seeks to propitiate his brother with a gift.

The word is also translated reconcile, purge, be merciful, forgive, pacify and-pardon. The meaning of kahphar here in Leviticus 23 would appear to be “a propitiatory covering”. This meaning is illustrated by the use of the word in Genesis 6.14, where kahphar is translated “pitch”. The pitch used by Noah was clearly a covering put over the wood. The difficulty comes in trying to establish if the covering refers to withdrawing something from view or protecting from danger. We believe that the thought in Leviticus 23 is that of a propitiatory covering of sin by the blood of sacrifice, and that on the day of atonement, and only on that day, Israel’s sins of the past year were in type covered over, withdrawn from view. Hebrews 10.1-4 reminds us however of the inefficacy of these sacrifices. Nonetheless this was the most important day in Israel’s calendar.

We now turn to the body of scriptures which record the divine instructions for the observance of the day of atonement. From Leviticus 16.1 we discover that the day of atonement was inaugurated as a direct result of the sin of Nadab and Abihu, Lev. 10.1-5. We are told that after the death of these two sons of Aaron, only Aaron was permitted on one day of the year to enter into the holy of holies of the tabernacle. Undoubtedly the sin of Nadab and Abihu restricted access into the divine presence. We are further told that Aaron only wore linen garments to officiate on this day, and that his garments for glory and beauty, Exod. 28, were temporarily put aside. On that day Aaron took a young bullock for a sin offering, a ram for a burnt offering, and two goats only one of which is stated to be a sin offering, Lev. 16.9. After offering the bullock for a sin offering for himself and his household, Aaron came to the climax of his work. He took the two goats, made them stand before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle, and cast lots upon them – one lot was for the Lord, and the other for the scapegoat. When the respective goats had been chosen, Aaron took the goat upon which the Lord’s lot had fallen, and offered the goat for a sin offering. Newberry puts in the margin opposite Leviticus 16.9 that the words should read “and make him sin’. Aaron next took the blood of the bullock and sprinkled it eastward seven times upon the mercy seat of the ark located within the holy of holies, and made atonement for himself and for his priestly house. Next he made atonement for the whole nation in exactly the same manner as he had done for himself, and took the blood of the Lord’s goat within the veil. Aaron also made atonement for the holy place and made atonement upon the brazen altar. When these aspects of atonement had been completed, Aaron took the living goat (the scapegoat), and having laid his hand upon the goat, he confessed over him all the sin of the nation. He then sent the goat away into the desert by the hand of a fit or ready man. Thus the sins and iniquities of Israel were borne away into a land of separation. They were removed from the immediate presence of God. Whilst Aaron was so engaged, the nation was deeply engaged in soul searching. They were also, no doubt, anxiously awaiting the reappearance of their high priest from within the tabernacle. This, then, according to the scriptures was the vivid scene on the day of atonement.

The Typical Significance. What did our Saviour atone for at the cross? We believe that in the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, He Himself became the propitiation (mercy seat) for our sins and the whole world, 1 John 2.2; 4.10; John 1.29; 1 Tim. 2.6. We were redeemed by the Saviour’s blood, but He also made atonement for us based upon a completed work already accepted by His God and Father. In the two goats we see two aspects of the work of Christ before God. The blood of the first goat is typical of Christ as the propitiation for sin, but in the second goat we see typically the vicarious death of the Son of God bearing our sins in His body on the tree. The first goat speaks of propitiation being made for all, while the second goat speaks of the results of that work to those whose sins have been borne away.

A brief note is necessary, we feel, on the word translated “atonement" in Romans 5.11. The Greek word katallagen does not mean atonement but reconciliation. This would then agree with the idea illustrated for us in the Old Testament where Jacob propitiated his brother with a gift. Trench points out, in his book Synonyms of the New Testament, that the English word atonement has gradually changed its meaning, “When the Authorized Version was made it signified reconciliation, or the making up of a foregoing enmity, but now the word has come to be accepted as equivalent to propitiatory sacrifice”. We therefore believe that the atonement of Christ is the means of bringing sinful men into new relations with God; see 2 Cor. 5.18-20; Luke 18.13.

Before closing this very important aspect, let us not forget the other pictures painted for us on this feast day. What a lovely picture Aaron portrays of the humility of our Saviour when He puts aside the garments of glory and beauty and only wears fine linen garments. Can we not see here a picture of the One who humbled Himself before all, veiled His glory for a while, and made atonement for sin?

The Prophetic Significance. This feast points on to the day which is spoken of by Zechariah in the latter half of chapter 12 of his prophecy. Israel has rejected her true Messiah but the day is fast approaching when her Great High Priest, who already has made atonement for her sins, will come out of the divine presence of His God and Father and will be received as the true Messiah of Israel. The feast of trumpets spoke of the regathering of Israel after the rapture of the Church. After this anticipated event, Israel will enter into great tribulation, and will only be saved from destruction by the coming of their true Messiah. When He appears, the nation will mourn and lament. The words of Isaiah 53.5 will be the expression of the nation in their grief. The true Joseph will then be revealed to His brethren.