The Day of Atonement in the Old and New Testament

Except from God’s Festivals in Scripture and History: Part 2 – The Fall Festivals by Samuel Bacchiocchi available for download here. For an in-depth study of the Day of Atonement by Samuel Bacchiocchi, please read God’s Festivals in Scripture and History: Part 1 – The Spring Festivals by Samuel Bacchiocchi available for download here.

The Day of Atonement in the Old Testament

The Day of Atonement was the grand climax of the religious year in ancient Israel. The rites performed on that day concluded the atoning process of the sins of the Israelites by removing them permanently from the sanctuary. The record of forgiven sins was kept in the sanctuary until the Day of Atonement because such sins were to be reviewed by the heavenly court during the final judgment typified by the Feast of Trumpets. The Day of Atonement was the culmination of the judgment process in which God executed His judgment by giving life to those who had confessed their sins and availed themselves of the divine provision for their atonement. It was also a day of death for impenitent sinners who rejected God’s provision for the cleansing of their sins.

The sacrificial rites of the Day of Atonement provided total cleansing from all the sins of God’s people. The totality of the cleansing is emphasized several times in Leviticus 16 by the expression “all your sins” (Lev 16:16, 30, 34). In contrast to the sacrificial rites of the bull and Lord’s goat, the rite of the scapegoat was non-sacrificial. Its function was to dispose of the sins of God’s people in a desert region where there is no life.

The emphasis of the Day of Atonement on judgment and cleansing, sin and atonement, fasting and prayer was designed to drive home important lessons to the Israelites. It showed them the seriousness of sin and the divine provision for its eradication through confession, sacrifice, recording, judgment, and final disposition. It taught the Israelites that before their sins could be cleansed and permanently eliminated on the Day of Atonement, they had to be repented of, forsaken, and judged by the heavenly court.

The Day of Atonement in the New Testament

In the New Testament, the Day of Atonement is alluded to several times, especially in the books of Hebrews and Revelation. Its antitypical fulfillment is associated especially with the cleansing and removal of sin by Christ at His Second Coming. Hebrews recognizes that the work of cleansing and removing sins typified by the cleansing of the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement has a past, a present, and a future aspect.

In the past, Christ “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:26). In the present (“now”), Christ “appears in the presence of God on our behalf” (9:24). In the future, Christ “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (9:28). The last of these is accomplished by Christ at His Second Advent when He will appear, like the High Priest at the close of the Day of Atonement, not to atone for sins but to save the believers and punish the unbelievers.

The past, the present, and the future ministries of Christ are in Hebrews ideologically connected because they are all dependent upon the same “once for all” sacrifice on the Cross. It is the same atoning sacrifice that enables Christ to fulfill the two phases of His ministry in the heavenly sanctuary: intercession and judgment.

In Revelation, the vision of the Day of Atonement (Rev 11:19) occurs immediately after the announcement of the judgment (Rev 11:18), with the opening of the most Holy Place of the heavenly temple where the ark of the covenant is seen . “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of the covenant was seen within the temple” (Rev 11:19). This is the first and clearest allusion to the Day of Atonement because only on that day the door to the Most Holy Place was open and the High Priest could see “the ark of the covenant” while he officiated in front of it.

The opening of the Most Holy Place of the heavenly temple on the Day of Atonement is accompanied by the manifestation of the cosmic signs of the Second Advent. “There were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” (Rev 11:19; cf. Rev 16:18; 6:12-14). The association of the cosmic signs of the Second Advent with the ritual of the Day of Atonement suggests that Christ’s coming is seen as the antitypical fulfillment of the disposition of sin typified by the Day of Atonement. The sequential order in Revelation, namely, announcement of the judgment, opening of the Most Holy Place, and the Second Advent, corresponds to the progression from the typology of the Feast of Trumpets to that of the Day of Atonement.

The vision of the Day of Atonement in Revelation 11:19 plays a pivotal role in the structure of Revelation. It functions as a dividing point between the first half of Revelation which reflects more the daily liturgy of the temple and the second half of the book which mirrors more the annual ritual of the Day of Atonement. The visions of the second half of Revelation focus inside the Temple where the central activities of the Day of Atonement took place (Rev 14:15, 17; 15:5, 6, 8; 16:1, 17).

These visions portray humanity in two groups: those who worship the true Trinity (introduced in Rev 1:4-5) and those who worship the counterfeit trinity (the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet (Rev 16:13). Such a division along spiritual lines reflect the divisions that took place on the Day of Atonement. “ On that day,” writes Jon Paulien, “individuals chose between two types of atonement, the one offered by the service and the one represented by their own ultimate death. In the Apocalypse the entire world is represented as facing such a life-and-death decision (cf. Lev 23:29, 30).”[1]

The last and climactic judgment visions of Revelation 19 and 20 reflect in a unique way the typology of the Day of Atonement. Just as the High Priest wore a special white linen robe on the Day of Atonement, so Christ wears a special robe at His coming. “He is clad in a robe dipped in blood” (Rev 19:13), a reminder of the blood used by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement to cleanse the sanctuary. Christ does not carry blood like the High Priest but wears a robe dipped in blood because it is His own blood that cleanses the sins of His people. The latter is indicated by the fact that those who accompany Christ are “arrayed in fine linen, white and pure” (Rev 19:14).

The outcome of the coming of Christ is also similar to that of the Day of Atonement. Christ destroys the wicked by His “sword” (Rev 19:21), a reminder of the impenitent who were “cut off” on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:29). Satan is bound and thrown into “the pit” (Rev 20:3), a reminder of the sending of Azazel into the desert (Lev 16:21). The righteous are resurrected and reign with Christ, a reminder of the cleansing of God’s people on the Day of Atonement which resulted in the jubilee celebration of new beginnings (Lev 25:9). This amazing correspondence between the typology of the Day of Atonement and its antitypical fulfillment at Christ’s Return, shows how important is the Day of Atonement in the New Testament for understanding the events associated with the coming of Christ.

The Day of Atonement in the Old and New Testaments embodies the Good News of God’s provision for the cleansing of sins and restoration to fellowship with Him through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. At a time when many are experiencing the crushing isolation of sin, the Day of Atonement has a message of hope. It reassures Christians that Christ will soon appear the second time, like the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, to punish unbelievers, to bind Satan, to cleanse believers and restore them to an harmonious relationship with Him. Such a hope gives us reasons to encourage “one another, and all the more as . . . [we] see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:25).

Endnote:

[1] Jon Paulien, “The Role of the Hebrew Cultus, Sanctuary, and Temple in the Plot and Structure of the Book of Revelation,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 33 (1995), p. 257.

 

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