The Day of Atonement

The Day of Atonement

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What was the significance of the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel?

“This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls [by fasting], and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD” (Leviticus 16:29-30 Leviticus 16:29-30 29 And this shall be a statute for ever to you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojournes among you: 30 For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD.
American King James Version×
).

On the Day of Atonement each year the nation of ancient Israel was figuratively cleansed from its sins. This figurative cleansing was only a type of a spiritual cleansing that will occur first for the people of Israel, and then for the rest of the world, after Christ returns.

How will this universal reconciliation with God be brought about?

Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’ ” (Zechariah 8:22-23 Zechariah 8:22-23 22 Yes, many people and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the LORD. 23 Thus said the LORD of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you.
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

Starting from Jerusalem, in a restored and spiritually cleansed nation of Israel (Ezekiel 37:21-28 Ezekiel 37:21-28 21 And say to them, Thus said the Lord GOD; Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, where they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land: 22 And I will make them one nation in the land on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all. 23 Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions: but I will save them out of all their dwelling places, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God. 24 And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them. 25 And they shall dwell in the land that I have given to Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelled; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. 26 Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the middle of them for ever more. 27 My tabernacle also shall be with them: yes, I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 28 And the heathen shall know that I the LORD do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the middle of them for ever more.
American King James Version×
), Christ will begin the process of extending this reconciliation to all peoples until the whole world repents and is at one with God.

What is the real and permanent atonement for a person’s sins?

“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10 1 John 4:10Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
American King James Version×
, New Revised Standard Version).

“This righteousness [justification] from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:22-25 Romans 3:22-25 22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ to all and on all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
American King James Version×
, NIV).

Jesus died as the reconciling sacrifice for the sins of every human being so that humanity—the entire world—can at last be reconciled to God. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16 John 3:16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
American King James Version×
). The Day of Atonement represents the fifth step in God’s master plan for the salvation of mankind.

This part of God’s plan was depicted on the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel by two special sacrificial animals that were ceremonially set apart to represent reconciling the people to God, for figuratively cleansing them of their sins. But no animal sacrifice is adequate to cleanse us from our sins. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4 Hebrews 10:4For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.
American King James Version×
).

Two goats were figurative bearers of guilt. Both had all the sins of the people symbolically placed on them. One goat was left alive but banished to a wilderness. The other, representing Jesus, was killed as a sacrifice for sins (Leviticus 16:6-10 Leviticus 16:6-10 6 And Aaron shall offer his bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make an atonement for himself, and for his house. 7 And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat. 9 And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. 10 But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.
American King James Version×
; Leviticus 16:15-16 Leviticus 16:15-16 15 Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the veil, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat: 16 And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remains among them in the middle of their uncleanness.
American King James Version×
). In this drama the banished live goat represented Satan’s part in the people’s sins. The slain goat, picturing Christ, represented Him taking on Himself the penalty for the people’s sins.

Ceremonies on this day even pointed to the cleansing, or forgiving, through an atoning sacrifice, of sins committed in ignorance.

“But into the second part [of the tabernacle] the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing” (Hebrews 9:7-8 Hebrews 9:7-8 7 But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: 8 The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing:
American King James Version×
).

Why was the “Holiest of All,” the inner room of the tabernacle that symbolized direct access to God, not opened to the entire congregation “while the first tabernacle was still standing”? Because the atoning sacrifice of Christ had not yet been made. Only His sacrifice, not the sacrifice of animals, can truly atone for our sins. Anciently the Day of Atonement signified that Jesus would become the atoning sacrifice for humanity.

How do we know Christ’s death is the atoning sacrifice for mankind?

“… We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2 1 John 2:1-2 1 My little children, these things write I to you, that you sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: 2 And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for our’s only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
American King James Version×
, New Revised Standard Version).

Paul confirms that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them …” (2 Corinthians 5:19 2 Corinthians 5:19To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them; and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
American King James Version×
, NRSV). The American Heritage Dictionary, electronic edition, defines the theological meaning of the word atonement as “reconciliation or an instance of reconciliation between God and human beings.” The Day of Atonement points to the time in the future when God will reconcile humanity to Himself through Christ. “Atone,” in English, means literally “at one.” The Day of Atonement represents the time when humanity will at last be at one with God, no longer separated from Him.

Why is atonement for mankind necessary? It is required for two reasons. First, “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ …” (2 Corinthians 4:4 2 Corinthians 4:4In whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine to them.
American King James Version×
, NIV). Second, humans are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18 Ephesians 4:18Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart:
American King James Version×
, NRSV). People’s hardness of heart, caused by a combination of ignorance and human nature together with Satan’s influence, has led them to sin and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23 Romans 3:23For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
American King James Version×
).

When will God remove Satan’s influence?

“And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended” (Revelation 20:1-3 Revelation 20:1-3 1 And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. 2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, 3 And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

Immediately after Christ returns, God will banish Satan for 1,000 years. This will fulfill God’s earlier pledge, in the presence of Adam and Eve, that the coming Seed (the Messiah) would “bruise” (impair and disable) Satan’s “head”—his leadership and influence over mankind (Genesis 3:15 Genesis 3:15And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; it shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
American King James Version×
).

How will God begin to remove mankind’s hardness of heart?

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 2 Peter 3:9The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

With Satan banished and his deceptive and destructive influence removed, Christ will begin dispelling the hardness of heart caused by ignorance and human nature by teaching everyone how to repent. The Day of Atonement, as a Christian festival, reminds us that the atoning sacrifice of Christ is not only for individual Christians in this age but for the forgiveness and reconciliation of all people. This atonement paves the way for Christ to gather all people—as many as are willing—into God’s Kingdom during Jesus’ 1,000-year reign after Satan’s banishment.