A Jewish Believer and Atonement
I still remember vividly the Day of Atonement from my tenth year. Though I was not yet bar mitzvah, I insisted that I, too, would fast and take part in the synagogue services, despite my parents’ objections. After all, I wanted my sins forgiven!
With childish zeal, I entered into all that made up the service of the day. I listened attentively to the reading of the Holy Scriptures, recited as I was able the ancient Hebrew prayers and was stirred to my depths by the cadence of the cantor’s voice as he chanted the psalms. With my whole heart I sought the forgiveness of sins that I believed was to be gained by the observances of the day. A sense of God’s approval of me, if it were to be gained by sincerity, was certainly assured.
But even as I returned home that night, walking with my father through the darkened streets, haunting questions remained: Has God really heard my prayers? What real assurance do I have that my sins have been forgiven? In the years to come, God would lead me to an answer to these questions, for I longed for peace of mind and the truth that would quiet these intruding thoughts.
The answers I received from my Jewish teachers from time to time in response to my questions proved not to be sufficient, for they did not assuage my doubts. Eventually, as I entered my teenage and young adult years, I stopped asking the questions that seemed to have no answers. I pursued studies in science, engineering and philosophy and participated in life’s pleasures. My religious training kept me away from falling into the grosser sins, but I ended up as an agnostic since the various philosophers did not provide me with meaningful answers.
Yet, with all the searching, I still considered myself a Jew. Below the surface, ready to be aroused when the time of challenge would come, were the unanswered questions: Who am I? Can I know God? What follows death? Can I have the positive assurance that my sins are forgiven?
I completed my education in engineering, took a job and found myself working with a technical assistant who was an impassioned and vocal believer in Jesus. He lost no time in sharing his faith. I, in return, wasting no words, told him that such belief disgusted me. I was offended by his intrusion on my belief, acquired in earlier training, that Jesus was an imposter according to traditional Judaism. I suggested in no uncertain terms that religion was a taboo subject between us.
However, it proved impossible for me to avoid the daily encounter with the story of my technician, his radiant manner and the force of his convictions. He challenged me one day to give the Scriptures, including the writings called the New Testament, an honest reading. To a challenge like that I felt that my only real defense would come through a Jewish understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. Certainly that was the only background against which I could give a hearing to the New Testament and to this man Jesus whom I felt to be an imposter. I was piqued by my helper’s insistence that he knew” that he had atonement for his sins, for it caused the old haunting question to return to me: How could I know that I had forgiveness of my sins? I really couldn’t deny that if God were a reality, then sin also was a reality between God and myself.
As I began to read the Hebrew Scriptures, I discovered something that struck me forcefully concerning my ancestors. I found that they had an intimate and personal relationship with God. Abraham and Moses spoke with God; Jacob wrestled with him; David wrote of an assurance of his presence; Solomon sought and gained wisdom from him; Elijah heard him speak, even calling for signs and miracles. They saw the Almighty active in their lives—so why not I? Where was God in my life? Yet, Judaism places God so far away from the individual that one despairs as to where to find him. This was an area that had to be disentangled in my mind—what were the Holy Scriptures saying, and what were the rabbis’ interpretive additions of tradition?
It was a source of distress and frustration that my gentile friend, believing in Jesus, spoke as familiarly of God as had these people about whom I was reading. The old questions about God, forgiveness of sin and my relationship to the God of my fathers were raised again, this time not in a child who could set the problem aside, expecting an answer to be found later, but in me as an adult. I knew that this time I had to resolve my religious questions; more than that, I had to assert my integrity as a responsible being, able to study, able to reason, able to ask—able to choose.
Out of the religious lessons harking back to my childhood, I recalled the place to begin. A holy God could not countenance sin. I restudied the Scriptures dealing with atonement. In Vayikra (Leviticus) chapter 16, the Yom Kippur observance is described. The requirements of the holiest day in the Jewish calendar are set forth in detail by Moses. Briefly, the high priest first made an atonement for himself and his family through the sin offering sacrifice. Then the atonement for the sins of the people was made. For this, two goats were chosen and the high priest cast lots upon them, one for the Lord and the other for Azazel (scapegoat).
The priests slaughtered the goat chosen as the Lord’s and sprinkled its blood on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies and also in front of the mercy seat. The main emphasis as to this goat was that inasmuch as it was representative of the people before the Lord, it bore the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement. When the high priest killed the goat, our people vividly saw that the penalty of sin is death. God, however, in loving kindness, provided a substitute who died in place of our people.
This was only half of the lesson, however. There was also the tremendous offer by the mercy of God that in the death of the Lord’s goat, it gave its life to our people as a whole. This was then an “exchange of life,” the very heart of atonement. The picture is vivid in that the sinful lives of our people had been placed on the goat, and this caused the death of the goat. But in the death of this goat, the life of the animal was given to the people. God then saw Israel as cleansed from sin and as having a new life.
The sacrifice was also intended to be made personal. As individuals personalized the “exchange of life” for themselves, their personal sins were forgiven.
The other aspect of the Day of Atonement sacrifice served to bring into sharper focus the personal forgiveness of sin. The high priest laid his hands upon the second goat, symbolically transferring to it the sins of the people. Then the goat was driven into the wilderness, thus making clear God’s intent to remember no more the sins against his people. This illustrated that renewal, a new beginning, was possible and that the past did not cling to the community or individual forever. Those who grasped this for themselves were assured of forgiveness of sins and were brought into a personal relationship with God.
As I read and pondered God’s instructions to Moses concerning atonement, I realized that I was face to face with the answer to the question I had asked myself as a boy. The barrier between myself and God was my sin, and only God could take away that sin—this I knew.
I knew what most Jewish people would say to this presentation by Moses. Some would reply, “We don’t follow this procedure anymore because we no longer have a temple and besides, we need to be concerned with ethics and what is right, not with these ancient rituals.” Many of our people would add that the rabbis have developed the ways and means by which we are to approach God in the time of Yom Kippur.
But here is where I had a major problem. When did God change the concept in Leviticus of the “exchange of life”? Did God ever say that this was to be turned into an atonement of repentance, prayers and good deeds only? Certainly this is never seen in the Written Law (the Hebrew Scriptures).
It is in the Oral Law, the Jewish traditions, where our rabbis accommodated a templeless Judaism (70-90 C.E.). The explanation given is that through the repentance of our sins, a life of prayer and doing mitzvah (good deeds), we hope to have the atonement for our sins. I know that the rabbis use halachah (development of new laws) to reinterpret the Written Law so as to make it livable from generation to generation. But did God ever sanction these decisions concerning the basic doctrine of atonement or give his stamp of approval on the change from the biblical principle of the “exchange of life”?
When my technician friend shared with me his faith in Yeshua (Jesus), he described the concept of a suffering, dying and resurrected Messiah. Obviously, this did not square with what I was taught as a boy. However, after studying closely Moses’ description of atonement and checking closely Yeshua’s claims of being the promised Messiah, I could see a relationship between what Moses was picturing and the ministry of Yeshua. The New Testament teaches that there was one called Yeshua who became the Lord’s sacrifice and who alone can take our sins from us. In other words, he came to do exactly what is described in the Yom Kippur services in Leviticus.
Many Jewish people shy away from the name of Yeshua and claim that he started another religion for the gentiles. But listen to what Yeshua himself taught as he lived as a Jew among his generation of Jewish people: “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
He also declared, “‘Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself'” (Luke 24:26-27).
In his struggle with the symbolic cup of our sin before he died, he groaned in his prayer, “‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done’…And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:42, 44).
When it comes to Paul, too many of my people want to shun him, claiming that he not only Hellenized Jewish beliefs but even took pagan beliefs and started a new religion as well. But notice how Paul’s explanation of atonement is based squarely on what our teacher Moses had already taught. He saw the connection between why Yeshua died and the death of the animal substitute in the Day of Atonement picture.
“God made him [Yeshua as the Lord’s sacrifice] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The basic question that confronted me when I examined the New Testament and the history of our people in the first century was whether Paul and thousands of other Jewish people in that day changed the concept of the “exchange of life” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Did the Jewish writers of the New Testament do this? No, they did not! Rather, they continued on with just what the Hebrew Scriptures had precisely lain out. The only difference was that instead of a goat sacrifice and a scapegoat, it was the Messiah himself who (1) died as the substitute by taking our sins upon himself, (2) in his death gives us a new life if we will receive it and (3) takes away our sins from us so that we never have to be charged with them again.
This is an atonement by which we know that our sins have been forgiven. It is a redemption by which we have the assurance that our names are recorded in the Book of Life, not for just one more year, but for all eternity. My study led me to these conclusions. The forgiveness of sins that I had begun to seek as a child was accomplished through Yeshua.
I found that in receiving this “exchange of life,” I now have the Shechinah, or Holy Spirit, living in me and enabling me with a dynamic to live to the moral code. In walking with the Lord for many years, I have come to appreciate all the more this dynamic that makes life a triumphant experience. It is not God’s will that life be nothing more than a legalistic drudgery. Neither does he expect us to search for some mystical experience that only continues to raise the haunting and vexing question of whether a relationship with God is truly possible.
People who are lonely, despondent, with no hope and feeling guilty will never find meaning in this world apart from a living personalized relationship with God who is, in fact, personal. In realizing atonement for sin we can experience what is not possible in this world’s philosophies. We can also have a hope that someday we will be with God when we leave this life. God intended for us to have this experience, and it is ours merely for the asking.