The Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27-32) is the sixth and most somber feast of the Hebrew calendar. This festival constituted one of Israel’s special Sabbaths and was celebrated on the tenth day of Tishri, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. Moreover, this particular feast was “the only day of fasting prescribed for Israel.” The Hebrew for “Day of Atonement” is yôm hakippûrîm (יוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים) which is a combination of יוֹם (yôm – “day”) and a derivative of the verb כָּפַר (kāpar), meaning to “spread over,” “cover,” “appease,” and “make amends.” The most prominent feature of the Day of Atonement was the elaborate ceremony in which the high priest took the sacrificial blood into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled it upon the Mercy Seat.
The Day of Atonement in the Old Testament. Leviticus 16:1-34 and Leviticus 23:27-32 are the two primary passages which detail the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament. This ‘holy day’ was celebrated on the tenth day of Tishri, nine days after the Feast of Trumpets and five days before the Feast of Tabernacles. As stated above, the Day of Atonement was not only a special Sabbath (Lev. 23:27-32) but also a solemn occasion during which every Israelite was to ‘afflict’ themselves, that is to say, fast (Lev. 23:27, 29). Any Israelite who did not observe the Sabbath or participate in this special fast was cut off from the congregation of Israel. The Day of Atonement was the only day that high priest could enter behind the veil which separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was located. After immense preparations (Lev. 16:3-7), the high priest cast lots over two goats. The goat selected by lot would be sacrificed to Yahweh as a sin offering for the people, while the other would be led outside the city as the scapegoat (Lev. 16:8-10).
Prior to sacrificing the selected goat, the high priest sacrificed a bull as a sin offering for himself and his family, took a censer of coals with incense behind the veil, and then sprinkled the blood of the bull seven times upon the Mercy Seat (Lev. 16:11-14). Following this, he would do the same with the goat’s blood as an atoning sacrifice for the people of Israel (Lev. 16:15-16). As the last part of this elaborate ceremony, the high priest took the scapegoat and confessed “over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins” (Lev. 16:21). Another priest led the scapegoat into the wilderness with the animal symbolically ‘carrying’ the nation’s sins. This ceremony was so somber and its implications so serious that there “could be no mistakes, or the result would be a monumental catastrophe and humiliation for the nation- Israel’s sacrifices would be disqualified, leaving the sins of the people uncovered.” Thus, the people were to “afflict” themselves through fasting to remind them to humble themselves before Yahweh on this great day.
Christ: the Ultimate Atonement. The substitutionary atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement. Scott rightly states: “Using Yom Kippur as a type, God presented a picture of His Son- the ultimate atonement, accomplished through the ultimate high priest, at a price of ultimate sacrifice.” Hebrews 9:7-25 overflows with ‘Day of Atonement’ language and effectively serves as the quintessential New Testament commentary on the Day of Atonement in light of Christ. For example, Hebrews 9:11-12 declares: “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) 12he 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.” Verses 24 through 26 continue the Day of Atonement analogy:
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26for 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.
In other words, Christ entered into the heavenly Holy of Holies via His own sinless blood to secure eternal redemption for His people.
Interestingly, the two goats (i.e. one sacrificed and one released) may also find an antitype in Christ being crucified and Barabbas (meaning ‘son of the father’ in Aramaic) being released by Pilate. Additionally, just as the carcasses of the animals sacrificed on the Day of Atonement were taken outside the camp to be burned (Lev. 16:27-28), Hebrews 13:11-14 states the following concerning Christ:
For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
Classical Dispensationalists also teach that the Day of Atonement is ultimately fulfilled in the regathering/repentance of Israel which will occur in conjunction with Christ’s Second Coming. I am in agreement with such teaching provided that it is a regathering of ethnic elect Israel, not a national regathering of Israel in a literal, earthly, millennium.
Harris, Archer, and Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 453.
Howard & Rosenthal, The Feasts of the Lord, 121.
Scott, The Feasts of Israel, 102.
See Scott, The Feasts of Israel, 102-3; and Shepherd, Jewish Holy Days, 10, 69-71.