What relevance does the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur have for New Testament
believers? Biblically, quite a lot! Jews around the world will soon celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. I still remember vividly the Day of Atonement while growing up. Unlike most of the Jewish holidays we celebrated, the Day of Atonement was no festive event. It was a national day of mourning and repentance. This was a day when we were to “humble our souls” to atone for our sins of the past year.
Reference to the Day of Atonement comes from the book of Leviticus. We learn that within the Old Testament tabernacle was an inner room called the “Holy of Holies”. This was the most sacred place on earth, the special place that symbolized God’s special dwelling place in the midst of His people. Only one individual had special permission from God to enter that inner room: the High Priest. And even he could only enter on one special day of the year — the Day of Atonement — in order to to make atonement for himself and for the nation of Israel. Only on this one proscribed day would God allow the High Priest to enter behind the veil, the thick curtain that separated the Holy of Holies, and into this innermost court of the tabernacle. But even the High Priest, God’s chosen mediator, could only pass through the heavy veil after the sacrificial blood had been shed to cover his own transgressions and those of the Hebrew people. Only then could he appraoch the mercy seat and receive assurance that God had sanctified the sacrifice for sin. We read in the Hebrew Scriptures:
“No one is to be in the Tent of Meeting from the time he goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel. Then he shall come out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the goat’s blood and put it on all the horns of the altar. He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites. … this day of atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.” (Leviticus 16:17-19, 30)
But toward the end of the Second Temple period, the people began to realize more and more that the sacrifice of Yom Kippur did not have the power to cleanse their sinful
hearts. Yet God will never go back on His word. He has not cancelled out the Torah principle that blood must be shed before there can be remission of sins. In fact, it can easily be said that the whole of the Law revolves around this one statement, indicating that without the shedding of blood there can be no atonement:
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.” (Leviticus 17:11)
THE NEW TESTAMENT
The Day of Atonement in the Hebrew Scriptures foreshadowed and anticipated a greater,
permanent cleansing of God’s people, which was to be accomplished by a better high
priest, who offered a better sacrifice. The New Testament, particularly the Book of Hebrews, stresses the superiority of the death of Christ, in contrast to the Old Testament sacrifices. In fact, the book of Hebrews in the New Testament is the counterpart to the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. It was written by a Jewish Christian to a group of other Jewish Christians to illustrate the superiority of the sacrifice and priesthood of Christ.
The author of Hebrews explains: In Christ we have a “merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb 2:16-18), able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” and “yet was without sin” (Heb 4:14-5). “The former has been set aside because it was weak and useless — for the law made nothing perfect — and a better hope is introduced by which we draw near to God” (Heb 7:18-19). Christ’s priesthood is “superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and founded on better promises” (Heb 8:6). “By calling this covenant new, he has made the first one obsolete and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” (Heb 8:13). For “the law is only a shadow of the good things to come, not the realities themselves” (Heb 10:1). This new covenant is not based on “the blood of goats and calves” but on “his own blood”, and brings “eternal redemption” rather than temporary atonement (Heb 9:11-15). While the human high priests where temporary and transitory as they would all eventually die, the priesthood of Christ is eternal and permanent (Heb 7:23-24). And while the animal sacrifices had to be offered again and again year in and year out, Christ’s sacrifice was “once for all” (Heb 7:26-27). As a result, “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” and by “a new and living way opened for us through the veil, that is his flesh” (Heb 10:19-20). We can now boldly enter into God’s presence, “the inner sanctuary behind the veil, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf.” (Heb 6:19-20).
Within this same letter to the Jewish Christians, the author also quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures the prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied that a time was coming when God would make a ”new covenant” with Israel. This prophecy was recorded 600 years before the birth of Christ. God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, says:
“The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, declares the Lord. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:7-12)
The author of Hebrews interprets the suffering and death of Christ as the means by which
believers in Christ may now enter the heavenly Holy of Holies. But unlike the human high priests who were only allowed access on the one special day of the year, now it is possible for every believer — Jew and Gentile alike — to have direct access to God through the blood of Christ, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And unlike the high priests of the Old Testament who would enter with fear and trepidation, and only after sacrificial blood had been shed to cover their transgressions, we may enter God’s presence “boldly” and “with confidence” — not because of anything we could ever do, but because of what He has already done for us.
The presence of God remained shielded from man behind a thick veil during much of Israel’s history. However, Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross changed that. The New Testament tells us that the moment he died, the veil in the Temple was torn in half from
top to bottom (Matthew 27:50-51). Only God could have carried out such an incredible feat because the veil was too high for human hands to have reached it, and too thick to have torn it. Says Alfred Edersheim, in his seminal work, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, “the veils before the Most Holy Place were 40 cubits (60 feet) long, and 20 (30 feet) wide, and of the thickness of the palm of the hand”. This event is of the utmost importance became it established Christ as the new high priest. No longer must there be an annual offering for sin on our behalf. Instead he has made restitution for us “once and for all” (Heb 10:10). Christ’s fulfilment of the Day of Atonement is why we are forgiven and cleansed from our sins.
From the book of Hebrews — and the whole of the New Testament — we learn that the Christ of the New Testament is the Messiah of the Old Testament. Everything in the Old Testament said to be true of the Messiah in terms of his first coming was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The entire New Testament completes the Hebrew Scriptures so that the New Testament without the Old is as impossible as the second floor of a house without the first, and the Old without the New as unfinished as a house without a roof. In fact, every major New Testament doctrine is clarified, amplified or illustrated in the Old Testament. The conclusion of both the Old and New Testaments is that the means of redemption was by blood and the permanent blood sacrifice was of the Messiah himself. That is why the Messiah had to die according to the Old Testament. And that is why Jesus did die according to the New Testament.