Day Of Atonement – What Does This Old Testament Ritual Teach Us About Christ?


יום הכיפורים, Yom HaKipurim

Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement is still celebrated by Jews today. It is their most important holiday. It comes on the tenth day of the first month. So it is ten days after their New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Thus, it comes at a good time for them to practice self-evaluation and repentance at the beginning of the year.

It is referred to as Shabbat Shabbaton, “Sabbath of Solemn Rest” or “Sabbath of Sabbaths.”

Old Testament Scriptures

Leviticus 16:2-6 the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.
“Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house.

Leviticus 16:20-22 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

Leviticus 16:29-34 He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.

Procedures For The High Priest To Follow

A. Do NOT come at any time into the Holy Place. (16:2). Even the high priest did not have free access to the Holy of Holies, which represented the presence of God. The high priest, like all of the people, was a sinner. And God is absolutely holy. Because of that, there was a separation. “Your iniquities have created a separation between you and God.”(Isaiah 59:2). The veil, which separated the rest of the tabernacle from the holy of holies, was a visible symbol of the gap between God and man. God was so serious about the methods used to worship Him, when two of Aaron’s sons used their own ways to approach God, they were killed. Therefore, unrighteous man can only approach a holy God through the way that He has prescribed. The high priest could only come in to the holy of holies once per year on the day of atonement. And very specific procedures were given for him to follow before he was allowed to approach God. This day, and the procedures to follow are as we will see a picture of the gospel message. Sinful man cannot approach God through his good deeds, devices, or methods. There is a wall separating us from Him that can only be bridged through His mercy. (And it was the mercy seat that the high priest approached.)

B. Wear holy linen garments (16:4) – To signify the solemnity of this even the high priest had special garments to wear. It was a solemn and serious thing to approach a holy God. The high priest could not roll out of bed in the morning and just casually or sloppily enter into God’s presence. He had to ready himself. He had to wear the garments approved by God. This showed that he respected God’s commands and his own role in representing God’s people as a mediator. Jesus would later tell a parable, teaching His followers that you cannot attend the wedding feast wearing your own clothes. We cannot approach God by our own efforts, but only by what He provides us. The “holy garments” are an outward picture of that reality.

C. Bath – “He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on.” (Leviticus 16:4) Before the high priest could even put on the clothes, he had to first bathe. The physical bath would remove outer dirt and impurities, things unfit to take into God’s presence. That reminds us that a person has to be clean and pure in order to approach God. The outer washing is a picture of that spiritual transaction that has to take as we must be consecrated and cleansed to come in to God’s presence.

1 Peter 3:21 – Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

  • As we see, many of these rituals point to New Testament truths that God would later reveal to us as part of the New Covenant. Like the high priest’s bathing, baptism is an outward washing, a picture of the spiritual reality of a cleansed heart (Titus 3:5).
  • The high priest would not only have to consecrate himself with this special bath, but every single time before entering the tabernacle he would have to wash his hands again in the bronze laver outside the door.

That is a reminder that sanctification is an ongoing process.

D. Aaron (and future high priests) first offered a bull offering for himself and his family (16:6) – The high priests themselves were sinners. So how could they be representatives of the people and come before the Lord as their mediator? Their own sins had to be dealt with first. So before Aaron could even come into God’s presence or offer a sacrifice for the people, he had to offer one for himself and his own family.

E. Two goats (16:7-10) – Next the high priest would take two goats and bring them to the entrance of the tabernacle. Lots would be cast. One would be chosen for the sacrifice. The other would be chosen as the scapegoat. After the other sacrifices were made, the priest would lay his hands on the scapegoat, and confess the sins of Israel, ritually removing them from Israel and putting them onto the innocent animal. That animal would then be sent into the wilderness away from the Israelite camp. It was another physical picture of the spiritual reality taught in Psalm 113:12, ” As far as the east is from the west so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” Their sins were symbolically imputed to the animal who took the suffering for them.

  • This ritual also points us to Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
  • John describes Golgotha, the hill where Jesus died, as being “near the city” in John 19:20. Just as the scapegoat was taken out of the city, so Jesus was taken out of the city to be killed. It is a visible picture that the sins and uncleanness are being removed from us and then put on to Him.

F. Censer with coals from the altar and two handfuls of sweet incense – The high priest was to offer up incense before the Lord INSIDE the veil. The text says, “so that he does not die.” The incense cloud would cover the mercy seat and God would show mercy. Incense often represents prayers in the Bible. And we are reminded from this that Jesus as our high priest also offers intercession for us that we may receive mercy from God. (Romans 8:34)

G. Sprinkle blood from the bull offering – In the next step, the priest would take some of the blood of the bull sacrifice and sprinkle it on the mercy seat that is on top of the Ark of the Covenant. The bull’s blood was offered for the high priest and his own family. Only after first receiving forgiveness could he represent the people. He would sprinkle the blood seven times. Seven represented the number of perfection or completeness. So it reminds us that God’s forgiveness is complete. Those whom He cleans, are completely clean.

H. The second goat of the sin offering (16:14-16) – After the high priest was cleansed, he would then offer the goat sacrifice for the people, following the same ritual of sprinkling the blood on the mercy seat seven times ” Leviticus 16:17 – “has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel.” After sprinkling the mercy seat, he would then go back outside the tabernacle and sprinkle the horns on the altar. Something interesting I noticed is that not only did the people need atoning for. The altar itself, the holy place, and even the tabernacle needed atoning for. ” Leviticus 16:20 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar.” That is very revealing. There is nothing holy apart from God Himself. The most beautiful and holy-looking things themselves were unclean.

  • Going through this text, you start to get an idea of the problem with the Old Testament sacrificial system and why it wasn’t sufficient as a long-term solution. The high priest, even with his holy robes and his baths, was inherently unclean and unable to be a proper mediator. The tools being used were themselves unclean. The altar, the tabernacle, and even the most holy place were all unclean. They were built with unclean hands and unclean materials. And the animal sacrifices were insufficient to fully wipe out sin, only covering it temporarily.
  • God never meant these things as a long-term solution. He designed all of it specifically to point to Christ. Christ would fill up everything that was lacking. He would do what the most painstaking procedures and rigorous sacrifices could not. He was the fulfillment of all of these things, which were only ever meant to be a shadow pointing people to Him.
  • The law is like a mirror. It shows us who we are. It shows us our sins in crystal-clear clarity. And it tells us that we need some help because we have never, and can never satisfy God’s righteous requirements.

Atonement meaning –

  • Satisfaction or reparation for a wrong.
  • Payment or reparation for sin.
  • A wrong has been committed. Someone must pay. After a war, the wrong party is sometimes required to pay reparations to the one they have wronged. The thing is, we can never pay the amount of reparations required. The constant sacrifices were something like interest payments. Some people get into such large amounts of debt that the monthly payments they can scrounge together only cover part of the interest they owe. The principal, the chunk of money they owe, never actually goes down, but keeps increasing and they get farther and farther behind. Such people have to continually make monthly payments forever in all of perpetuity. From their own salary and ability, they would never be able to pay down the debt and be free. In fact, their debt goes up even as they make monthly payments. The sacrificial system of the Old Testament was like this. On the one hand, it shows us God’s mercy. Even with their debt of sin, He didn’t wipe them out. He kept giving them extension after extension year after year. And He never demanded full immediate payment, though He could have. And of we course we know that is because He had a plan to intervene on their behalf. On the other hand, it reminds us of the sheer weight of the burden of sin and the need for a permanent solution.

What word does the sacrificial system bring to your mind?

For me, it is TEDIOUS. We have only covered a few of the many regulations of this ONE DAY per year. Rules for bathing. Rules for how to wear clothes. Rules for animals. Rules for sacrifices. Rules for the tabernacle. Rules for going in to the holy place. Rules for sprinkling. And many rules aren’t even mentioned here. Rules for the exact composition of ingredients of the incense. Rules for the exact dimensions and materials for the veil and tent. Also, there had to be atonement for so many people, atonement for the high priest first, atonement for the altar, atonement for the tent, atonement for the holy place (atonement for the things used to bring atonement to others)! This specific ritual had to be done every year, over and over and over and over again. And that is only one day per year. The rest of the year was filled with other sacrifices, repeated again and again and again. Praise God we can read and study this and understand God’s plan. But brothers and sisters, we also praise God that we are not under this anymore. Why? Jesus.

All of this was designed to point us to Christ.

Symbolism and Pointing to Christ in the NT

Hebrews is like the New Testament Leviticus. The writer shows us how God used these Old Testament rituals, which were temporary, to point us to something far greater, which is permanent.

Hebrews 9:11-15 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

Hebrews 9:25-26 – Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

Hebrews 10:11-12 – And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.

If you have studied Hebrews before, you probably are aware of the theme. The writer’s thesis is simple: Jesus is superior. He goes through many different things and proves that Jesus is superior to them all. Jesus is superior to the angels. Jesus is superior to Moses. He is superior to the priests. He is superior to Old Testament leaders. His sacrifice is superior to the Old Testament sacrifices. His covenant is superior to the Old Covenant. Jesus is far greater than everything else that has come before (or will come after). Those things, however, serve their purpose. What is their purpose? The lead us to Christ. By being compared to Christ, they reveal to us how glorious He is.

Think about it this way. If the Old Testament sacrificial system was never established, people would not be aware of how serious their sins are. Nor would they have the same level of gratitude for and awe of Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice. These things very existence glorify Jesus who outshines them.
Jesus could do in one man and in one moment what thousands of men and millions of sacrifices could not accomplish in hundreds of years. When you look specifically at the tabernacle and the Day of Atonement, you see that Jesus is everything.

Jesus provides us with the garments to wear, giving us white robes. Jesus’ blood purifies us from our sin. Jesus is the high priest coming into God’s presence and offering a sacrifice on our behalf. And He Himself is that perfect sacrifice. He is the one who tears down the veil. He is the altar. He is the lampstand. He is our intercessor. He is our mediator. He represents us to God as our advocate. And He reveals God to us.

There are a couple of differences though between Jesus’ sacrifice and the Day of Atonement. Jesus did not need to purify Himself or offer sacrifices for Himself as Aaron did. He was already perfectly holy. Therefore, He is a better mediator. Also, His sacrifice is better. Once was enough. His blood is absolutely perfect and infinitely valuable. So one sacrifice for all time is sufficient. It never needs to be repeated. Also, He can go into the Holy of Holies at any time because He Himself is holy.

He is better than the scapegoat, because the scapegoat only took the people’s sins away (and that symbolically and for a short amount of time). Jesus’ actually imputes His righteousness to us. So not only can He can in to the Holy of Holies at any time, but those in Him can too. We can boldly approach God’s throne of grace directly at any time as His children because of Christ’s work for us.

What the people would do?

Leviticus 23:26-32 – And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. And whoever does any work on that very day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall not do any work. It is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves. On the ninth day of the month beginning at evening, from evening to evening shall you keep your Sabbath.”

We have looked at the priest’s role, I want to briefly look at what the people would do on this day.

  • Sabbath – It was their Sabbath of Sabbaths, though it did not always occur on a Saturday. They were to do no work, but focus completely on the Lord.
  • Self-affliction – What does it mean to afflict yourselves? – Some translations render this “self-denial.” From other Scripture references, it is likely this referred to fasting. By denying themselves, they could better focus on and worship God.
  • Repentance – It was a time for the people to confess their sins before God. Devout Jews still do this on Yom Kippur each year.


Every part of the Bible is useful and rich, even Leviticus!

There is great value in studying the Old Testament sacrificial system and feasts (below), but we do not have to go back to the Old Testament law. The rules for this festival and the others we have studied are found in Leviticus. Leviticus gives us the Old Testament law. If you are under the obligation to observe the feasts, then you are under obligation to obey the whole law. We are not. We are under Christ. We are free of this tedious system, which was never intended to be permanent, but which always was intended to point us to something better, that is Christ.

Having said that, there is great value in studying this and the other feasts. What?

  • Having a visible picture of the spiritual transactions Christ made on our behalf.
  • Seeing the sheer cost of sin helps us become more appreciative of Christ’s sacrifice.
  • Makes our own inability to ever approach God on our own clear.
    • That makes us humble.
    • That makes us grateful.
    • That makes us worship
  • Understanding the progressive nature of God’s plan and revelation from beginning to end.
  • Understanding Christ’s various roles as our priest, mediator, intercessor, sacrifice, and scapegoat.
  • Being reminded of important truths such as: repentance (here), Christ’s return (trumpets), giving God the first and best (firstfruits), etc.
  • God intentionally designed these festivals to point to Christ. We should also intentionally point people to Christ. We should also consider how to do that in our daily lives. How can an art class point people to Christ? How can a frisbee game point people to Christ? How can my response to Covid tests point people to Christ?

How to celebrate the Day of Atonement today?

A. We don’t need to keep the day of atonement the same way they did in the Old Testament. And in fact, it would be impossible for us to do so since there is no temple or sacrificial system in place today. That was something that had to be repeated over and over every year in order to provide a temporary cover for sins. God designed it to point to something far greater, far more superior. Christ.

B. We should remember Christ’s sacrifice every day. We celebrate this all the time because there is nothing more important.

C. We should also have times of repentance and self-denial (fasting.) We should do that regularly as a lifestyle. And we should also have times when we set aside to do it. That is one benefit of having a set day for everyone to practice repentance and self-evaluation together. At the same time, all doing it together can become legalistic and less personal. So today, we need to make time to repent on a regular basis.

D. We should regularly confess our sins and seek forgiveness. It is an amazing privilege that cleansing is available to us so we should not take it for granted.

Today we have seen some of the background for the Day of Atonement. And we have seen that this festival points us squarely to Christ who is superior in every way.

If I could leave you with one thing from today’s study it is this: I hope you will be in complete awe of Jesus.

Prayer Points

  • Confession for our sins individually and corporately.
  • Prayer for those things which are hindering us from coming into His presence.
  • Thank God that we are not under the temporary Old Testament law anymore.
  • Thanks for Christ’s sacrifice, mediating, and intercession on our behalf.
  • Prayer for the unsaved among us, that they would approach God through Christ’s sacrifice.
  • Praise for Christ who is superior to everything and to the Father for His amazing plan.
  • Prayer that we would diligently study ALL of God’s Word and dig deep to see what truth He wants to reveal to us.
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