The Day of Atonement

The Day of Atonement, as a Christian festival, reminds us that the atoning sacrifice of Christ is not only for individual Christians in this age but for the forgiveness and reconciliation of all people.

What was the significance of the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel?

"This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls [by fasting], and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD" (Leviticus 16:29-30).

On the Day of Atonement each year the nation of ancient Israel was figuratively cleansed from its sins. This figurative cleansing was only a type of a spiritual cleansing that will occur first for the people of Israel, and then for the rest of the world, after Christ returns.

How will this universal reconciliation with God be brought about?

Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you'" (Zechariah 8:22-23, NRSV).

Starting from Jerusalem, in a restored and spiritually cleansed nation of Israel (Ezekiel 37:21-28), Christ will begin the process of extending this reconciliation to all peoples until the whole world repents and is at one with God.

What is the real and permanent atonement for a person's sins?

"In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10, New Revised Standard Version).

"This righteousness [justification] from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood" (Romans 3:22-25, NIV).

Jesus died as the reconciling sacrifice for the sins of every human being so that humanity—the entire world—can at last be reconciled to God. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). The Day of Atonement represents the fifth step in God's master plan for the salvation of mankind.

This part of God's plan was depicted on the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel by two special sacrificial animals that were ceremonially set apart to represent reconciling the people to God, for figuratively cleansing them of their sins. But no animal sacrifice is adequate to cleanse us from our sins. "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4).

Two goats were figurative bearers of guilt. Both had all the sins of the people symbolically placed on them. One goat was left alive but banished to a wilderness. The other, representing Jesus, was killed as a sacrifice for sins (Leviticus 16:6-10, 15-16). In this drama the banished live goat represented Satan's part in the people's sins. The slain goat, picturing Christ, represented Him taking on Himself the penalty for the people's sins.

Ceremonies on this day even pointed to the cleansing, or forgiving, through an atoning sacrifice, of sins committed in ignorance.

"But into the second part [of the tabernacle] the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people's sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing" (Hebrews 9:7-8).

Why was the "Holiest of All," the inner room of the tabernacle that symbolized direct access to God, not opened to the entire congregation "while the first tabernacle was still standing"? Because the atoning sacrifice of Christ had not yet been made. Only His sacrifice, not the sacrifice of animals, can truly atone for our sins. Anciently the Day of Atonement signified that Jesus would become the atoning sacrifice for humanity.

How do we know Christ's death is the atoning sacrifice for mankind?

"... We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:1-2, New Revised Standard Version).

Paul confirms that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them ..." (2 Corinthians 5:19, NRSV). The American Heritage Dictionary, electronic edition, defines the theological meaning of the word atonement as "reconciliation or an instance of reconciliation between God and human beings." The Day of Atonement points to the time in the future when God will reconcile humanity to Himself through Christ. "Atone," in English, means literally "at one." The Day of Atonement represents the time when humanity will at last be at one with God, no longer separated from Him.

Why is atonement for mankind necessary? It is required for two reasons. First, "the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ ..." (2 Corinthians 4:4, NIV). Second, humans are "darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart" (Ephesians 4:18, NRSV). People's hardness of heart, caused by a combination of ignorance and human nature together with Satan's influence, has led them to sin and fall short of God's glory (Romans 3:23).

When will God remove Satan's influence?

"And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended" (Revelation 20:1-3, NIV).

Immediately after Christ returns, God will banish Satan for 1,000 years. This will fulfill God's earlier pledge, in the presence of Adam and Eve, that the coming Seed (the Messiah) would "bruise" (impair and disable) Satan's "head"—his leadership and influence over mankind (Genesis 3:15).

How will God begin to remove mankind's hardness of heart?

"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, NIV).

With Satan banished and his deceptive and destructive influence removed, Christ will begin dispelling the hardness of heart caused by ignorance and human nature by teaching everyone how to repent. The Day of Atonement, as a Christian festival, reminds us that the atoning sacrifice of Christ is not only for individual Christians in this age but for the forgiveness and reconciliation of all people. This atonement paves the way for Christ to gather all people—as many as are willing—into God's Kingdom during Jesus' 1,000-year reign after Satan's banishment.


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