Atonement: Then and Now

Yom Kippur begins Monday evening and continues until Tuesday evening. It’s the perfect time of year to talk about how sins were forgiven before the Messiah Jesus came, and how they can be forgiven today.

Here’s a common question asked of me: “During Old Testament times, how did the Jewish people experience forgiveness?” It’s a good question because the Messiah Jesus had not yet come and hadn’t provided atonement with His death and resurrection. It’s especially significant during the Fall High Holy Days, with Rosh Hashanah this past week and Yom Kippur coming up.

The simple answer is that people always experienced God’s forgiveness the same way: We have always been forgiven by grace through faith in the revealed will of God. It says in Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” When the nation of Israel lived under the laws described in the book of Leviticus, what was the revealed will of God then? They were called upon to believe that the sacrifices they offered would provide atonement. They were also to trust that the Messiah would come someday. So what was Yom Kippur about?

On Yom Kippur, the High Priest would first offer a bull for himself and his family and then offer a goat for the sins of the people of Israel. Leviticus 16:15 reads: “[The High Priest] is to sprinkle it against the mercy seat and in front of it.” These two sacrifices (the bull and the goat) provided ritual cleansing for the whole Tent of Meeting, the Holy Place and the altar. Additionally, Leviticus 16:17 says they made atonement (a word that means “wipe away” or “cover”) for the sins of the priest, his family, and the people of Israel. These sacrifices provided a covering for the sins of Israel until the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) came, died for sin and rose again. And with His death and resurrection, Yeshua became the ultimate sacrifice for sin, taking sin away completely, which the blood of bulls and goats never did.

It worked like this: I might buy stuff with a credit card, and then when the bill comes, I can’t pay it, so I pay the minimum monthly payment at the due date. This keeps the bank at bay. My debt is paid for a month. But when I increase my debt during the next month, more interest is added. And the next month, when the bill comes, I only pay the minimum again, never dealing with the principle. That’s how sacrifices were—they covered the debt, from Yom Kippur to Yom Kippur, but never paid the principle debt to God. When Messiah Yeshua came, His death atoned for all sin; He paid the principle and the interest for all past debts and even future ones. His resurrection proved He did that. That’s why we’re forgiven by grace through faith in Yeshua and Yeshua alone. God has provided and revealed forgiveness through Yeshua the Messiah.

Hebrews 9:11 says of Yeshua, our High Priest, “He entered the most Holy Place once for all, not by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” Hebrews 10:12 says of Yeshua the Messiah, that “after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, he sat down at the right hand of God” showing that the work of atonement was complete. The Yom Kippur sacrifices, in fact, all the Torah’s animal sacrifices, pointed forward to the Messiah’s ultimate sacrifice. Yeshua the Messiah’s offering of Himself was that ultimate sacrifice. Today, we don’t trust in bulls and goats to give us a covering for sin. Rather, we believe in Yeshua and all our debt to God is removed forever and ever.

Contemporary Jewish people observe Yom Kippur without sacrifices because the Romans destroyed the Temple in AD 70. All over the world, Jewish people pray sorrowful penitential prayers. Jewish people make sure to reconcile with those whom they may have hurt. They fast from food to show their sorrow for sin. But, for the most part, they don’t believe in the Messiah Yeshua and don’t have any assurance of forgiveness. That’s why Messianic Congregations across the globe are so significant. Messianic Jews come together to observe Yom Kippur, not to plead for forgiveness but to celebrate the true forgiveness available only by faith in the Messiah Yeshua and to proclaim this good news of Yeshua to all people, especially their Jewish friends and family.

When I was in college, I typed papers for my profs. If there was an error, I used a little White Out to correct them. It provided a covering but didn’t really take away the errors. When I went to seminary, I’d type on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and it would suck the errors of the page but still leave an imprint; you could still see the errors, and then I’d type over those areas. But, when I did my doctoral dissertation, I used a computer. Now, with a computer, I could delete wrong files and they would be gone forever. In fact, it was possible to format a hard drive completely, so its contents could never be found again. That’s a picture of what the Messiah Yeshua’s atonement did for us—it wiped the hard drive of our guilt before God, so that our sins would never be held against us again. That is ultimate and true forgiveness that we can now celebrate and proclaim on Yom Kippur.

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