Who Shall Atone?
Jehovah gave ancient Israel seven feasts to teach and remind them of certain spiritual truths. The annual rehearsal of those truths helped to bind the Jewish people to God and to one another. To this religious calendar, my people added other holidays not specifically commanded in the Scriptures, but based on events in Israel’s history. Thus, the Jewish people celebrate Hannukah to commemorate the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple, and they celebrate Purim to rejoice in the triumph of Queen Esther and Mordecai over Haman’s wicked scheme of destruction.
Although most Jewish holidays are festive, we do have some solemn days in the traditional Jewish calendar. There are several fast days not commanded in Scripture that commemorate various dark days in Jewish history, but the most solemn fast day of all is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, an observance most definitely commanded by God through the lips of Moses.
Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls.…” (Lev. 23:27)
The Almighty gave this most solemn of all days to Israel for expiation of sin, both national and individual. Those who had seen the smoke on the mountain—had experienced the thunder and lightning and earthquakes—had seen judgment meted out to those who disobeyed—had no problem believing in the holiness of a righteous God and in their need for atonement. They agonized in penitence, contrition and awe as they watched for the High Priest to reappear after entering the Holy of Holies with the atoning blood.
Today there is no Tabernacle, no Temple and no Temple sacrifice. My Jewish people still observe Yom Kippur as a solemn fast day, but much of the awe is gone. In this age when man has harnessed electricity and can generate his own lightning, when people look to antibiotics, not brazen serpents, to cure disease, and the popular philosophy is “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.,” repentance has become a mere formality.
People forego breakfast and lunch and recite pages and pages of synagogue liturgy, enumerating, “We have killed, we have robbed, we have coveted…” without much ringing conviction. The general sentiment is, “I am probably not any worse than the person sitting next to me. Surely, God—if there is a God—will forgive us both because he is merciful. After all, I am atoning for my sins by being here. I didn’t go to work today. I’m sitting here through this long service in a hot, crowded room with my stomach rumbling, and I intend to make some sizeable pledges to charity and the synagogue building fund.” At the close of the service the shofar (ceremonial ram’s horn) is blown and everyone goes home to a sumptuous meal without real assurance, but with a feeling of relief that the ordeal is over and need not be repeated for another year.
Still, there have been some concerned rabbis down through the centuries who have wondered about the bloodlessness of the Day of Atonement since the destruction of the Temple. The Talmud records the question, “Now that we have no prophet or priest or sacrifice, who shall atone for us?” (Tanh. VaYishlalah 10)
The answer, of course, is Yeshua, God’s righteous Messiah. But for those who will not accept him, there is no answer. Because of this problem, Judaism has evolved from a religion of “Thus saith the Lord” to a philosophy of “Who can really know? We do the best we can, and God will reward us for having the proper attitude.” Jewish authorities have decreed that atonement may be accomplished by t’shuvoh (repentance), t’fillah (prayer) and t’zaddakes (righteous deeds). Yet Isaiah 64:6 teaches that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.”
God’s way, or man’s way? Man says, “If my attitude is good, I will be forgiven.” God says, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls.…” (Lev. 17:11)
The Hebrew word for “atonement” is kapporah. It means “covering,” in the sense that clothing covers the body. We may try to construct our own atonement, but it will not be clean enough. In the presence of a holy God, it will only appear as a filthy rag and be an offense to him. Indeed, we all are naked before God as Adam was after he disobeyed. Adam’s nakedness in the Garden of Eden was not because he lacked clothing. He was ashamed before God not because his skin was showing, but because his sin was showing.
As for me, I am not ashamed before God, because my sin is covered by the blood of the Lamb! According to the book of Hebrews, Yeshua the Messiah is the perfect Prophet, the perfect Priest and the perfect Sacrifice. Sadly, most of my Jewish people do not know this truth. Judaism has changed from a religion concerned with sin and salvation to a moral religion concerned primarily with maintaining Jewish identity. Loyalty to one’s people has taken precedence over finding peace and reconciliation with God.
Most Jewish people regard the words of contrition in the Yom Kippur liturgy as nothing more than a primitive folkway that reflects a superstitious era of the past. Humanitarianism—the care for one’s fellow man—degenerates into humanism. Thus the exaltation of the human spirit overrides the theistic concept of an Almighty God who desires a relationship with his created humans.
On the Day of Atonement, many Jews will recite prayers of penitence. One of these prayers reads:
“And to Jerusalem, thy city, return in mercy, and dwell in the midst thereof as thou hast spoken; rebuild it soon in our days…and speedily set up therein the throne of David…Speedily cause the offspring of David, thy servant, to flourish and let his horn be exalted by thy salvation; for we wait for thy salvation; for we wait for thy salvation all the day…Accept, O Lord our God, thy people Israel and their prayer; restore the service to the innermost part of thine house; receive in love and favor the fire offerings of Israel and their prayer; and may the service of thy people Israel be ever acceptable to thee. And let our eyes behold thy return in mercy to Zion. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who restorest thy divine presence unto Zion.”
My people do not realize that when they pray this prayer they are praying for the Messiah Jesus, for he alone can sit upon David’s throne. He alone can bring forgiveness and acceptance.
According to tradition, during the holy season between Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur, God reviews the conduct of each person and decrees whether or not that individual’s name should be inscribed in the Book of Life. As a small boy in Jewish Sunday school, I asked my teacher one day, “If God writes our names in the Book of Life at the beginning of the year, what happens if we sin later in the year? Does he erase our names?”
My teacher looked puzzled for a moment, but she promised that the following week she would have an answer for me. The next Sunday she gave me this explanation: “We repent between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and God writes our names in his Book of Life. But every time we sin, our names fade a little, until if we do too many bad things, the names fade out altogether, and that is why they must be re-written every year.”
I think her source for that answer was a “sanctified imagination”! How thankful I am that in the Lamb’s Book of Life there are no erasures or “white-outs” or fadeouts. I know that my name is written there because I have trusted Yeshua as my Messiah and Savior. How I wish I could tell that to my old Sunday school teacher.
I long to cry out to my Jewish brethren: “There is a Prophet to call us to repentance. There is a Priest to serve as mediator. There is a King to sit on David’s throne. His name is Yeshua, our Messiah. If you have him, you have full atonement. If you have him, your sins are covered. If you have him, you are one with God and your name is written forever in the Book of Life!” Indeed, this is our message of hope and assurance at this Jewish High Holiday time and all year long, and we pray that many will hear and live!