The Day Of Atonement


On the Jewish calendar, in evening at sundown begins the holiest day of the year Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day ‘eating, drinking, washing, anointing, with oils, putting on sandals, and marital intercourse are forbidden.’ Mishnah, Yoma 8:1

Like on the Sabbath, no work is to be done, and special holiday candles are lit before sundown. In the Old Testament, the Day of Atonement took place on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei,Leviticus 23:26-28.

This was not a pilgrimage festival, and so large crowds did not gather at the Jerusalem Temple. It was such a serious task that the people were warned that those who refused to practice the Day of Atonement would perish, Leviticus 23:29-30.

The Old Testament Ritual

While the nation was fasting and praying, a remarkably complicated sacrificial ceremony was taking place in the Temple, Leviticus 23:1-28. The high priest, the chief officiant, had been set aside for seven days to ensure his ritual purity, Mishnah, Yoma 1:1. Then after a ceremonial bath, for ritual purity, he dressed in simple white linen robes, setting aside his usual exquisite high priestly attire, to begin sacrificing a bull for himself and the priesthood, Leviticus 16:3-6.

Once this was completed, he took live coals in a censer from the altar of sacrifice along with two handfuls of incense and carried them into the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, inside the temple, a place forbidden to all but him, Leviticus 16:11-14.

After this the high priest repeated the process, this time sacrificing a male goat for the sins of the people, Leviticus 16:15-19.

The high priest took a second live goat, laid his hands on its head, and would ‘confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel,’ Leviticus 16:20-22. This goat, also known as ‘the scapegoat’,  Leviticus 16:8-10 / Leviticus 16:26.

It was then driven out into the eastern wilderness to show that God had driven Israel’s sins away. You need to remember that throughout this day while the high priest was doing his work, all the people of Israel were fasting and praying, participating thoughtfully in the work of atonement transpiring in the Temple.

This ceremony remained unchanged in the time of Jesus with but a few exceptions. Only the stone, ‘foundation stone’, on which the ark rested remained, and so the priest rested the incense censer and sprinkled the blood on this stone. Today, over this very stone, stand the Muslim holy place known as the Dome of the Rock.

Two goats were brought to the high priest for inspection before the ceremonies on the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16:7-10. According to the Mishnah, these two goats were to be equal in ‘appearance, height, and value’, Yoma 6:1

The High Priest shook a box that held two lots, or stones, in it, Yoma 4:1-2. During the ceremonies, the scapegoat was presented to the high priest, and he laid his hands over the animal and prayed, Mishna, Yoma 6:2. When the scapegoat was sent into the wilderness, the crowd assembled at the Temple then cried out, ‘Bear our sins and be gone! Bear our sins and be gone!’, Yoma 6:4

Select non-priestly men then drove the goat over the Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem and deep into the wilderness of Judea.

Two observations about this ceremony.
1. Though this solemn ceremony was repeated for nearly 1500 years, from the time of Moses till the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, all of the blood of those bulls and goats put together could not forgive a single sin, they only withheld the judgment of God for another year.

2. If the high priest who performed this ceremony was still alive the following year, he got to perform the ceremony all over again, and when he died, his descendants would carry out the same services till they died.

The New Covenant

Imagine being a new Jewish Christian living in Jerusalem in around A.D.45, about fifteen years after the ministry and death of Jesus. The rich ceremonies of the Temple were still continuing and on the Day of Atonement you and your family wonder if you should participate. Jewish Christians in the early days of the church were wondering if they should return to their ancient sacrificial festivals.

The book of Hebrews was penned to warn Jewish Christians not to lapse back into Judaism as if such ceremonies and festivals would provide a more assured salvation. In Hebrews 9-10, we find a full description of the Temple ceremonies and a remarkable critique, Jesus is our High Priest, Hebrews 9:11-13.

Hebrews contracts the ongoing, and futile, efforts of the High Priests, who annually bring the blood of bulls and goats into the inner sanctuary, with Jesus, who brought, His own blood into a heavenly sanctuary, the true house of God.

Because the content of His sacrifice was superior and the venue of its offering superior, Jesus has ‘obtained eternal redemption’ for us, Hebrews 9:24-26.

Why look to the Day of Atonement in Jerusalem when Jesus has accomplished an eternal work that makes all earthly works obsolete?

‘But in fact, the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.’ Hebrews 8:6


These Jewish Christians were also being persecuted for their failure to abide by religious custom, Hebrews 10:32-39.

One day at Calvary outweighed the hundreds of complex sacrifices on Yom Kippur that had been going on for centuries.



"Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;'"

John 11:25