On the tenth day after the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is celebrated comes the Day of Atonement, better known as “Yom Kippur.” It is an event commanded by Christ in the book of Leviticus and further detailed in Numbers 29:7-11. It calls for everyone to fast (in this the year 2014) between dusk on October 3rd and dusk on the 4th. It is a time when the entire nation of Israel seeks forgiveness of its sins against each other and the Lord. As you will see below the high priest holds a pivotal role in the event but the people had something to do as well.
To achieve this forgiveness from the Lord the people were to first make amends with anyone they had transgressed against. This requirement of ‘Teshuvah’ meant they had “to return or repent”, by actually approaching those they had wronged and reconcile with the person(s). Simply having a guilty conscience, or regret in one’s heart and mind was not enough.
You can learn for yourself in Leviticus 16, what the ritual function of the high priest was, or read a description of it below:
[D]uring the rest of the year the other priests would offer the sacrifices, but on the Day of Atonement,  the high priest would have to do all the work. If you count the number of animals and all that he had to kill and butcher, and offer, it comes to some thirty some animals that he had to deal with, plus he had to bathe five times.1
Given that his duties involved the use of blood it was a considerate command of Christ that the high priest was not to wear his finest vestments for this ceremony as verse 4 tells us.
Now on this particular day, he did not wear the beautiful garments of the high priest, the ephod, and the blue mitre, and all that. [O]n this day he wore just the plain linen of the robes of the priesthood.2
The high priest was directed to enter “the Holy Place inside the veil” for this one day of the year with these blood sacrifices and incense materials. Literally after passing through a curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple he would sprinkle the blood of a slaughtered bull or goat before and on the mercy seat, and top of the Ark of the Covenant. He would also rub some of the blood onto the four corners of the altar. At an appropriate time he would burn the incense upon a vessel holding hot coals. It is believed that the resulting cloud from the burning incense was meant to hide the manifestation of the Lord from the priest’s view so that he would not die. For it was known that no person could ever see the Lord and live.3
As he went about this process the high priest prayed to purge himself of his own sins and then those of the Jewish people for another year. Of course, Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians disagree with their friends of the Jewish faith in that a permanent forgiveness of sin is received only from Christ to all who accept and follow him. Yet the symbolism is clearly seen between the role of the high priest and Christ.
Of course, as you look at this, it is all looking forward to Jesus Christ.  For Jesus did not have to offer any sacrifice for Himself [since he was] sinless. There’s no New Testament equivalent to that. But Christ has become our High Priest, and He entered into the heavens of which the earthly tabernacle was only a model. Not with the blood of goats, but with His own blood. His was not an annual affair, for the high priest must each year offer, but Jesus once and for all, and is forever sitting down now at the right hand of the Father, until His enemies are made His footstool. But in the work of Aaron on the Day of Atonement, you find tremendous symbolism to Christ our great High Priest, going in and offering for us, and for our atonement before God.4
So that was what happened on the Day of Atonement. The entire population was not working. They were fasting, praying to the Lord and the high priest was performing the blood rituals.
Today, same as then, no work will be performed. All persons who are physically able will not eat or drink for the full period. They attend their local synagogue and say prayers to the Lord seeking forgiveness for sinning against their neighbors. There are even certain restrictions that may seem a bit unusual. For instance there is no washing and bathing, no anointing one’s body with cosmetics, deodorants, etc., or even wearing leather shoes. Sexual relations are also forbidden. As a custom they wear white symbolizing purity and the promise that their sins shall be made as white as snow (Is. 1:18). Some people even wear something called a kittel, a white robe the dead are buried in.
The concluding service of Yom Kippur, known as Ne’ilah, is one unique to the day. It usually runs about 1 hour long. The ark (a cabinet where the scrolls of the Torah are kept) is kept open throughout this service, thus you must stand throughout the service. There is a tone of desperation in the prayers of this service. The service is sometimes referred to as the closing of the gates; think of it as the “last chance” to get in a good word before the holiday ends. The service ends with a very long blast of the shofar.5
Christ dictated in the final verse of Leviticus 16, that the Jewish people were to celebrate Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, forever. In fact the Hebrew word found in the ancient texts of the passage is “chuqqâh” meaning ordinance, or statute.6 It was something Christ created, commanded the Jewish people to honor, and undoubtedly he honored in his earthly walk.
It is my hope that we Gentile Believers in Christ become more aware of and better honor what our friends in the Jewish faith hold so dear. May this new awareness and respect for them enrich our understanding of Christ’s earthly walk, and our relationship with Him. May it also shorten the distance between our hearts and those of that special race of people He declared to be his chosen. Shalom!
- Leviticus 16 Commentary by Chuck Smith, Sr., Pastor Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, courtesy of Blueletterbible.org
- Chuck Smith commentary on Leviticus 16:4
- The Wycliff Bible Commentary on Exodus 33:20, ©1962, the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.
- Leviticus 16 Commentary by Chuck Smith.
- Courtesy of jewfaq.org, © Copyright 5756-5771 (1995-2011), Tracey R Rich.
- The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, ©1990 by Thomson Nelson Publishers.