Day of Atonement

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken September 19, 1999

For the Jewish community, tonight marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Of all the high holy days in the Hebrew calendar Yom Kippur is the most somber. Tonight many Jews will gather in synagogues to read Scripture and to chant the Kol Nidrei, a melancholy prayer in which worshipers ask God to absolve them for all the vows they have broken during the past year. The service always closes with the sounding of the shofar, the ram's horn. When it is blown on Yom Kippur, what the ram's horn symbolizes is the closing of heaven's gates. What pious Jews hope is that before the gates close, their names will be sealed into the Book of Life.

There is one thing that is conspicuously absent on Yom Kippur, and that is a sacrifice for sin. In other words, most Jews celebrate the Day of Atonement without offering atonement.

Some orthodox Jews observe a custom called Kapporot which involves swinging a chicken over one's head and reciting these words: “This is my substitute, this is my pardon, this is my atonement, this rooster goes to death and I shall enter a long, happy and peaceful life.” Other rabbis say that the rooster is unnecessary because the day itself is what atones for sin. By observing the Day of Atonement through prayer, repentance, fasting, and charity, the worshiper is absolved from moral guilt.

What is more common, however, is for Jews to deny the need for atonement at all. This may explain why one of my Jewish friends once explained Yom Kippur as the day when you “forgive yourself for your sins.” A similar view was defended in a recent editorial in Philadelphia's Jewish Exponent. According to the newspaper, “Jews have no need for expiatory sacrifice. Indeed, as we have learned over the past 2,000 years, Jews have no need for sacrifice whatever… . As we begin to prepare for the High Holidays, we are especially reminded that Jews do not rely on expiatory sacrifice, human or otherwise, for personal salvation. We rely on reconciliation, prayer and generosity to overcome sin.”

Anyone who knows the Torah and the other Hebrew Scriptures can see that these attempts to achieve salvation by human effort are ultimately unsatisfying. What God has always required by way of atonement is a blood sacrifice for sin.

The regulations for a proper celebration of the Day of Atonement are outlined in Leviticus 16. First the High Priest sacrificed a bull to make atonement for his own sins (v. 6). Then he took two goats and cast lots between them (v. 7). One goat became the sacrifice of atonement. It was slaughtered on the altar as a sin offering, and its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Most Holy Place (vv. 15-17). The other became the scapegoat. The High Priest placed his hands on the scapegoat, confessed the people's sins, and then sent it out into the wilderness (vv. 20-22). These ceremonial actions symbolized and secured the removal of Israel's sins. “On this day,” the Scripture says, “atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins” (v. 30).

Sadly, although many Jews will hear these words on Yom Kippur, they will not receive what we all need so desperately, which is atonement for sin. Our message to the Jewish community is that what the Torah teaches is right. The requirements of God's law have not changed. Human beings still need atonement, a blood sacrifice to pay for their sins. But what has changed is this: God has now provided himself one permanent sacrifice for sin, the atoning sacrifice that the Messiah Jesus made when he died on the cross. “Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2), for Jews and Gentiles alike.

These days it is generally considered bad manners to tell people—especially Jewish people—that they are sinners who need atonement for their sins. Last week the Southern Baptist International Mission Board released a prayer guide containing tips on how to evangelize Jews, tips like “Pray each day for Jewish individuals you know by name,” and “Build authentic friendships with Jewish people.” The guide was met with a storm of protest. In the minds of some, it was not a gesture of love, but an act of hatred. Whenever Christians start talking about “converting Jews to Christianity,” they said, it might might well lead to another Holocaust.

It is true that the Christian church has a long and sordid history of hating Jews. In fact, there is some evidence that the Kol Nidrei was originally written by Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity against their will, and thus felt that they had violated their covenant with God. The past sins of the church ought to make us especially careful about adding our own personal offense to the Gospel. Yet the Gospel is our greatest treasure, and we must not hesitate to invite anyone to receive the gift of forgiveness through God's Messiah, Jesus. Indeed, the Bible tells us that this treasure is “for the Jew first, then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16).

Perhaps it would help if Christians understood the true meaning of conversion. According to the Bible, conversion is a supernatural work of God's Spirit (John 3:5-6), brought about the intrinsic power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). Therefore, conversion is not something that one human being can do to another, it is something only God can do in a sinner's heart. Whenever Christians forget this, and try to convert people by their own efforts, they inevitably become dishonest, coercive, and even abusive in their evangelism.

Instead of trying to convert people, what we are to do instead is hold out to the Jewish community—and to anyone else who will listen—an invitation to discover what the Bible says about the atoning death of Jesus Christ. If people will not listen, we respectfully tolerate their right to believe as they choose, and will simply love them with the love of Christ. If they will listen, we will trust God to do what he has done for us, but what we cannot do for anyone else, which is to convert sinners to himself.

Information for this Window on the World was provided by Reverend Fred Klett of Chaim Ministries, who can be reached at 215.576.7325

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