The Day of Atonement was a very special day for the Jewish people. It was called by some the Sabbath’s Sabbath, as it was the most holy day of the year. It was the day everyone looked forward to, because finally they could have forgiveness for their sins.
The word atonement in the Hebrew meant that a payment was made that was equivalent to the offense that was committed. The offense was huge: Sin was open rebellion against Almighty God, it was to spit in the face of our Heavenly Father, it was to slap away His hands that were reaching out to embrace us. Nothing short of a death could atone for that sort of offense!
So the high priest would go through an elaborate ceremony of washing himself and putting on special garments that were only to be worn on this Day of Atonement. Because the high priest was also a sinner himself, his first sacrifice was a bull. The blood from this sacrifice was taken by the high priest into the Most Holy Place of the temple to cover his own sins, before he could even approach God to ask for the forgiveness of the sins of anyone else.
After having completed this step, the high priest could then proceed. He would sacrifice a goat as a sin offering for the people. As he did with the bull’s blood, he would take the goat’s blood back into the Most Holy Place to ask God to show mercy toward people who had sinned, to turn away His holy wrath against their rebellion. Then the priest would lay his hands on a second goat, one that was still alive, and confess all of the sins of the people. This goat (called the scapegoat) was then taken out into the desert. This symbolized the removal of the people’s guilt, making it possible for them to be in relationship with God once again.
This was repeated year after year after year. It was repeated because the people continued to sin. It was repeated because these rituals were only a shadow of what God really wanted to accomplish. David wrote about the futility of these sacrifices—
Sacrifice and offering You did not desire—but a body You have given me—burnt offerings and sin offerings You did not require. Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do Your will, my God; Your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:6-8)
A beautiful thing happened through the ministry of Jesus on earth. Jesus came to be both the perfect high priest (one without sin, who did not need to purify Himself), and the perfect sacrifice. Jesus is called the once for all sacrifice of atonement for us, as He embodied the cry David made nearly 1000 years earlier. Hebrews 10:5-7 says that the words uttered by David prophetically were repeated by Jesus: “Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do Your will, my God; Your law is within my heart. I will be the once for all sacrifice.”
When Jesus told us the the new covenant was in His shed blood on Calvary’s Cross, He was saying that no longer would we have to wait until the Day of Atonement to find forgiveness; no longer would we have to wait upon an imperfect earthly priest to offer a sacrifice for us; no longer would we have to carry around the guilt of our sin and feel separated from God’s presence while waiting for a special ceremony. AT LAST! We can have immediate forgiveness, eternal redemption, and an everlasting relationship with God because of what Jesus did for us once for all!
As you celebrate Holy Week, be thrilled with the truth that Jesus’ death on the Cross makes it possible for you to have complete atonement. Our Savior has redeemed us AT LAST!