Tonight at sundown marks the beginning of the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur also known as the Day of Atonement. For most Jews the next 25 hours will be spent in prayer and fasting as they observe this holy day. For the Jewish people, this is the day when the priest enters the holy place, sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice across the lid on the Ark of the Covenant, and ask for the forgiveness of the people’s sins for the year. And for Christians, this day represents a portion of the Bible (Leviticus 16) we often breeze through with little to no regard concerning its spiritual implications. But in my opinion, the Day of Atonement represents one of the most vivid picture of justification found in the Bible… that is, if you understand a little about Jewish history and the Old Testament.
As I said before, the Day of Atonement is when the animal sacrifice was poured out on the Ark of the Covenant. Now all throughout the Old Testament the Ark was representative of the presence of God (hence why the priest could only approach it once a year). Inside the Ark were three important items in the life and history of the Jewish people: the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s budding rod. These items represented two things. First, they represented God’s provision for his people. God provided his people with a moral law, with food in the wilderness, and with a priest to lead them. Sadly, these items also represented the people’s rejection of God’s provision. The Israelites had sinned against God, by breaking God’s law, grumbling against God’s provision, and ultimately rejecting God’s chosen man. The Ark represented both God’s presence and the people’s sins. Now, Exodus 25 tells us that the Ark of the Covenant was covered with a lid known as the mercy seat (literally translated “propitiatory covering” or “place of propitiation”) and over this lid was perched two golden cherubim with outstretched wings and heads pointed down, looking into the Ark. While contemporary culture has portrayed cherubim as cute winged babies wearing diapers, they are far from that in the Bible. In Scripture, cherubim are angels of fire and of judgment, which is what makes the imagery of the Ark so cool!
You see, the cherubim are looking down into the Ark judging all they see, and what is inside the Ark? The sins of Israel. But on the Day of Atonement, the priest enters the holy place and sprinkles the blood of the sacrifice on top of the mercy seat, which is the lid of the Ark. Now instead of seeing the sins of the people, the angels see the blood of the sacrifice, which covers the sins of the people!
In the same way Romans 3 teaches us that Christ has become our mercy seat or place of propitiation. When God looks upon a believer in Jesus Christ, rather than seeing the sinfulness of that person, he sees his son whom he put forth as a propitiation on our behalf. How cool is that!? The sacrifice of Christ covers all who place faith in him.
The Day of Atonement was a foreshadowing of the day when all sins would be justified by the grace of God at the Cross of Christ, once and for all. For the Christian, the Day of Atonement is not once a year, but once in a lifetime. As the hymn writer said, “how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”