What Christians Should Know About the Day of Atonement

For many Christians, little is known about the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Yet, this biblical festival is one that points directly to and prophecies the work of Christ on the cross. Learn what every Christian should know about the Day of Atonement.

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The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is filled with prophetic imagery of our Messiah’s work on the cross. Every year the high-priest was to enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle blood on the ark of the covenant, as found in Lev. 16. This act had many functions but the temporal aspect was to make the nation of Israel right before God. This was done on a national level, although the prophetic nature of this day points directly to our personal relationship with Christ.

Every aspect of Aaron’s work can be linked to the sacrificial offering Christ made for His people. The day of atonement comes ten days after the Day of Trumpets (Yom Teruah/Rosh HaShanah). If Yom Teruah signifies the coming of the King (please see my post on What Christians Should Know About the Biblical Festivals), then Yom Kippur is the time when we stand before that King and give account. For believers, this day is bittersweet as we have been redeemed by the blood of the lamb and have an advocate with the Father, namely Christ. At the same time, as sinners, we continue to fall and realize the need for our savior. The day of atonement is a day to take stock of our own lives and turn our hearts to the Lord in true repentance.

The Torah gives two main texts that discuss the day of atonement. Lev. 16 covers how Israel is to celebrate this day and the duties and obligations of the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. Leviticus 23:26-32 speaks specifically to the people and how they are to turn their hearts to the Almighty on this day.

Lev. 16

This chapter begins by setting the context. Verse 1 states:

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died, (Leviticus 16.1 ESV)

In Lev. 10 Nadab and Avihu attempt to offer fire to the Lord, but they do not approach God correctly and are struck dead:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Leviticus 10.1–2 ESV)

The temple itself is the place where God and man meet in-person to commune with one another. This sacred space points back to the Garden of Eden before the fall where God and man are able to dwell in harmony. The fact that sin has entered the world and man is now marked by it is something the temple brings front and center. The priest is not able to enter the Holy of Holies unless a death takes place first. Payment must be made for uncleanness before one can enter the presence of the Almighty God.

God will give specific instructions on how man can approach Him in this holy space. This passage looks at how the nation of Israel as a whole will be made righteous before God, but it also is a foreshadow of the coming Messiah and how each individual is cleansed from their own sin. My father and teacher writes:

In the narrative structure of Leviticus, the various types of sacrifices have been delineated, showing the prescribed manner in which God could be approached through the mediation of the appointed priests. The story of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and the errant manner in which they performed their duties, is given prior to our parashah in order to emphasize how serious the whole priestly function was, and to show that there was only one way in which God could be approached. Any deviation from the pattern given by God was completely unacceptable. Mankind could not devise his own methods of atonement. Only God’s way would be acceptable. Thus Moses reminds us of the death of Aaron’s sons to emphasize that His way of atonement was the only way sins could be removed. [note]Tim Hegg, Studies in the Torah – Leviticus (TorahResource, 2015) p. 107 [/note]

Approaching God

God restates the reason for the specific laws given in this passage, so that Aaron “may not die” (v. 2) when he enters the Holy of Holies. Verse three states that “with this” (בְּזֹאת) Aaron should enter the most holy place. “With this” is a reference to the multiple commands that follow, i.e. a bull as a sin offering, a ram for a burnt offering, wearing linen garments, with his body washed. All of these elements represent the work that Jesus would do. The sin offering was a representation of Christ’s death in place of Aaron who represents each individual. The lamb represented the acceptable sacrifice of Jesus in His perfect life that would be accepted by God. The linen garments represent the pure state of a believer once the sacrifice of Christ has been made so that they can approach and dwell with the living God, and Aaron’s washed body represents the washing away of sin, cleansing, and purity.

Aaron also represents Jesus as He (Christ) is the one who ascended to heaven to present His own blood to the Father in the Holy of Holies not made with hands:

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9.11–12 ESV)

Aaron sacrifices the bull outside the inner sanctuary as a sin offering, representing Christ’s death as the atonement for our sins. Ritualistically, Aaron’s debt has been paid with this sacrifice and he can now enter the presence of the Almighty.

Aaron is Still Human

The fact that Aaron had to offer a sacrifice for himself along with his family highlights the point that Aaron is not the ultimate high priest but is an earthly representation of the ultimate high-priest, Jesus. Although Aaron represents Christ in many ways, he also shows the fallen nature of humanity and the fact that we as fallen man are unable to atone for sins. It is only God that can bring about atonement.

Aaron will now bring the two goats to the entrance of the tent and cast lots over them. The two goats are taken from “the congregation of the people of Israel” (v. 5) signifying the Messiah would, who would be the ultimate atoning sacrifice, comes from the people of Israel.

The goat that is designated by lot to the Lord is killed and its blood, along with the blood of the bull, will be brought into the holy of holies and sprinkled on the ark of the covenant. The priest also takes some of this blood and sprinkles it on the altar outside the tent of meeting.

Once this has been accomplished the priest now turns his attention to the second goat. This goat is sometimes translated “scapegoat” which is taken from the Greek Septuagint ἀποπομπαίῳ apopompaio) meaning to “carry away”. The Hebrew literally says this goat is for “Azazel” (עֲזָאזֵל), a term that has been largely debated among scholars.

What is Azazel?

Some believe the term “Azazel” is a reference to a place and suggest this word comes from the Arabic word עזעז meaning “rough ground or terrain.” Perhaps the most predominant view is that Azazel is a reference to a demon or desert god. This view is taken by Keil and Delitzsch who state:

“We have not to think, however, of any demon whatever, who seduces men to wickedness in the form of an evil spirit, as the fallen angel Azazel is represented as doing in the Jewish writings (Book of Enoch 8:1; 10:10; 13:1ff.), like the terrible field Shibe, whom the Arabs of the peninsula of Sinai so much dread (Seetzen, i. pp. 273-4), but of the devil himself, the head of the fallen angels, who was afterwards called Satan; for no subordinate evil spirit could have been placed in antithesis to Jehovah as Azazel is here, but only the ruler or head of the kingdom of demons. The desert and desolate places are mentioned elsewhere as the abode of evil spirits (Isa. 13:21; 34:14; Matt. 12:43; Luke 11:24; Rev. 18:2). The desert, regarded as an image of death and desolation, corresponds to the nature of evil spirits, who fell away from the primary source of life, and in their hostility to God devastated the world, which was created good, and brought death and destruction in their train.” [note] Keil, C. F. and Delitzsch F. Commentary on the Old Testament. Accordance electronic edition, version 2.6. 10 vols. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.[/note]

This view is not without its problems. Hegg notes:

Some rabbinic sources, as well as many modern commentators, take Azazel to be the name of a pagan, desert goat demon, and suggest that the iniquities of the Israel are carried back to their pagan source via the live goat. Though this has become the dominant interpretation among modern commentators, it seems far more based upon modern theories of the history of religions than upon historical and textual data. The support for the word meaning “the goat that departs,” and by extension, “the goat that carries away evil” seems quite adequate. [note]Tim Hegg, Studies in the Torah – Leviticus (TorahResource, 2015) p. 112 [/note]

No matter the meaning of the term “Azazel,” the live goat (like the goat that is sacrificed) represents Christ. Verse 21 states:

And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. (Leviticus 16.21 ESV)

Representation of Christ

The innocent goat takes the sins of the people of Israel and bears them. It is led outside the camp and the sins of the people are taken away. This is a direct revelation Christ, the spotless and innocent one, taking on the sins of His people outside the city as He submitted to death.

I was once asked which goat in this text represented Jesus? The answer is both. The goat that lives represents Jesus who takes on our sins and endures the punishment meant for us. The goat that is sacrificed and whose blood is taken into the holy of holies represents our Messiah’s death and His blood being presented before the Father in the heavenly temple. The priest that presents the blood in the most holy place represents Jesus as well, who is our high priest and has taken His own blood inside the heavenly temple to make atonement for His people.

This solemn day is one that points in every way to the sacrifice of our King on the cross for our sins. It is interesting that a celebration of the work to bring God’s people to Himself has been set aside by the mainstream Church. Although this festival at one time pointed to the work the Messiah would do on the cross and in the heavenly temple, it now points back to the salvation we have because of that work. Every Christian can learn and celebrate the pictures that are given to us in this passage. We should all mourn our own transgression against God, but we turn our hearts to the Lord and ask forgiveness for our sins. But we should also rejoice and celebrate the fact that God has loved us so much that He came to pay the price for us. His death has taken the place of our eternal punishment and we are now free to enter His presence with thanksgiving. We can now commune with the Almighty because of the work of Christ.


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