The meaning of the Day of Atonement
When I was a kid, I was told that the meaning of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) was “at-one-ment”, or becoming one with God. For something that’s a linguistic lucky coincidence, it’s surprisingly not too far off in terms of the end result, but it’s also a massively over-simplistic view of the Day of Atonement and misses a lot of the day’s meaning.
In fact, as a kid I always had trouble connecting this idea of “becoming one with God” or drawing near to Him (which seemed like a good thing) with the command to fast on this holy day (which seemed like a bad thing, like I was being punished somehow).
The day’s name itself tells us that there’s more to the story, though. Kippur means “expiation”—making amends for something, reparation of guilt and that guilt being cancelled, or when another takes the punishment for sin. Kippur comes from the root word kaphar, which means to placate, reconcile, extend mercy, cancel, or cover over. The Israelites were told that the Day of Atonement was a sabbath of solemn rest, when they were to afflict their souls and the priest was to make atonement (literally “covering”) for them, to cleanse them from all their sins (Lev. 16:30-31).
It’s the concept of “covering” that this study dives into. Like two sides of a coin, there are two separate-but-related “covering” aspects of the Day of Atonement and drawing near to God. The first is Christ’s sacrifice covering the sins of (by finally being applied to) the whole world, while the second involves removing the covering (or veil) that Satan has cast over the whole world to separate them from God.
One way to look at God’s holy day plan is as two harvest seasons that kind of mirror each other—the firstfruits in the spring, and the rest of mankind in the fall. In this scenario, the Day of Atonement is really the flip side, or final fulfillment, of the Passover. When Jesus gave His life and was resurrected, He made it possible for humans to receive God’s spirit, have their sins wiped clean, and eventually become spirit beings as God’s children in the kingdom. As He breathed His last, the veil on the temple sealing off the Holy of Holies was ripped from top to bottom, granting initial individual direct access to God.
However, this access to God’s spirit is currently only extended to a small group of people, His firstfruits. In the final fulfillment of the Day of Atonement after Christ’s return, His sacrifice will be applied to all mankind, their sins will be blotted out, and the dark veil that shrouds the world (along with its creator, Satan) will be entirely, permanently removed (Is. 25:6, Lev. 16, Rev. 20).
Christ’s blood covering the sins of the world
Jewish tradition says that man was created on the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hoshanah), and that it was on the Day of Atonement ten days later when the serpent deceived Eve, Adam sinned, and man handed dominion over to Satan—rejecting God and erecting a barrier between God and mankind. If this is true, it’s especially fitting that this same day pictures Christ’s sacrifice covering the sins of all mankind and the ultimate reconciling of man to God.
A separation has existed between God and man since the minute Eve gave in to the serpent’s temptation and Adam followed her. At that moment, humans ceased to be the eternal offspring of God that they were intended to be, and death became an inevitability of the human condition (Heb. 9:27). Death was the consequence of choosing a path apart from God.
Adam and Eve felt this separation the minute that they ate of the fruit, and their first instinct was to put a barrier between themselves and God. The bible tells us that “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings,” then hid in the garden so God couldn’t find them (Gen. 3:7). They made clothes to cover themselves and their sin, and later God killed the first animal to make clothes from the skin, the first blood shed to cover the consequences of human sin (Gen. 3:20).
Under the old covenant, the Day of Atonement was when the children of Israel collectively came before God, and the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the people’s sins. Sacrifices were made, blood was sprinkled, and the sins were forgiven.
And in the Old Testament, this was all that was possible—sins could be forgiven or covered over through animal blood being shed, but this had to be a continual process. We know that it is blood that makes atonement for sin (Lev. 17:11) and that without the shedding of blood there is no remission for sin (Heb. 9:22), but Paul clearly states that it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Heb. 10:4).
Because of that, it was determined in the beginning that Christ would have to come to earth, empty Himself of divinity, and be “offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28). In living a perfect existence and willingly sacrificing His life for us, He paid the death penalty for us—that is, He kept our non-cancelable appointment with death. And so we’re told that now “when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices” (NLT; Heb. 10:18). The word translated “forgiveness” here (or “remission” in the NKJV) is aphesis, which means freedom, pardon, forgiveness, or liberty.
Here’s where the final fulfillment of the Day of Atonement comes into focus. At the beginning we covered the meanings of kippur and kaphar, which speak to extending mercy, making amends, cancelling debt, and reconciliation. Christ, however, told His disciples that He came not to destroy but to fulfill the law—literally to perfect, fill to the fullest, or as we might say today, “take it to the next level”.
He began by announcing His ministry with a passage from Isaiah about proclaiming liberty to the captives and the oppressed (Luke 4:18). He uses the word aphesis not once, but twice, in this passage. I believe this was a very conscious choice on His side, since the original passage in Isaiah uses two different Hebrew words, not one. He was basically giving them a preview of what was coming soon.
They were so used to the concept of sin offerings, of temporary reconciliation to God through constant rituals presided over by physical priests, but He was hinting that there would soon be a better and more permanent way available—instead of merely making amends, they could receive a full pardon.
This wasn’t an entirely new concept—there were glimpses of this kind of permanent removal of sin in the Old Testament. David speaks of God removing our transgressions from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12); Isaiah says that God has “cast all my sins behind Your back” (Is. 38:17); and Micah says that He “will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19). So while this concept of complete removal of sin wasn’t brand-new, it also wasn’t a part of their reality and relationship with God.
Then after Christ’s death covered our sins and His resurrection made possible our future eternal life, the apostles expanded even further on this concept of forgiveness. Shortly after preaching to the crowd on Pentecost in Acts 2 about repentance and the remission (aphesis) of sins, Peter is again addressing a crowd and exhorts them to “repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). The word used here is exaleipho, which means to blot out, smear out, wipe away, or obliterate—the implication is to erase something so completely that it’s as if it never existed in the first place.
This is the promise God makes us if we follow Him. Paul speaks of it as “having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us,” the death sentence we had brought on ourselves as a result of sin (Col. 2:14). The word exaleipho is also used in the promises that God will wipe away all tears and sorrow and pain—an assurance that He will erase them from our memory so thoroughly it’s as if they never happened (Rev. 7:17, 21:4).
Under the old covenant, God would cover and forgive sins, but there was no true remission or reconciliation because the source of sin was still there. Sin is a product of man’s corrupt nature (Matt. 15:11, Rom. 7:20, Jer. 17:9). Until this corrupt nature is cut out and replaced by the spirit of God, there is no way for man to reconcile to God.
By paying the price for—covering—our sins, Christ made it possible for us to repent and receive God’s spirit. Paul speaks of this as a kind of spiritual circumcision, removing the physical “body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,” and says that we are buried with Him in baptism and made alive again with our sins wiped away (Col. 2:11-14). By virtue of having His spirit living in us, we have the right to come directly before God’s throne as His children (Rom. 8:15-17; Heb. 4:16).
When the temple veil tore at Christ’s death, it signified the new covenant God was going to make with His chosen ones. Gone were the days of a physical high priest as the intermediary for God’s people, only allowed to come before God’s symbolic throne once a year to atone for their sins. Instead, the door was opened for ongoing, intense, personal relationship with the Father through His Son.
For those of us with God’s spirit today, we have the ability to come before His throne alone, with Jesus as our intermediary High Priest. And at the final fulfillment of the Day of Atonement when Christ’s sacrifice is applied to all of humanity and Satan’s presence is removed for good, this will be true for the whole world.
“Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:19-22)
This act of covering the world’s sins, blotting them out, makes possible once and for all the removal of a different kind of covering.
The veil of blindness—removing the “covering cast over the world”
The idea of a covering in the bible is generally used to convey protection, refuge, or caring for someone or something. Noah’s ark was not complete until a covering was added. The cloud of the Lord covered the tabernacle. Satan, before his fall, was called the “cherub who covers” the throne of God. And we’re told that God will cover us with feathers and shelter us under His wing, just to name a few.
There are quite a few words that are translated “covering” or “cover” throughout the bible, and each word tends to be used very distinctly. Some, like masak, mikseh, orel, or poreketh, are used when talking about the various hangings or coverings in the tabernacle or temple. The word sakak sakak, which means to entwine, fence in, protect, or cover over, is used quite a bit throughout the Old Testament in more of a figurative sense of protection or defense (Ps. 91:4, Ps. 5:11, for instance).
And then there’s lote, meaning veil. This word is unique in that it’s only used once in the entire bible, and it signifies a covering not of protection, but one that separates humanity from the light of God. In prophesying about the coming kingdom, Isaiah says that “He will destroy the covering [lote] cast over the world” (Is. 25:7).
Isaiah gives further explanation about this veil later on, saying that “they do not know or understand; for He has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts so that they cannot understand” (Is. 44:18). It is our iniquities, he says, that separate us from God, and He hides His face from our sins so He can’t hear us (Is. 59:2).
When Moses returned from Mount Sinai after receiving the second set of tablets, his face shone from being in the presence of God’s glory. The Israelites, however, were afraid to look at him or come near, so he had to put a veil on his face to hide the light (Ex. 34:29-35). To their carnal minds and without God’s spirit living in them, it was safer to have that glorious, terrible light hidden, to have a protective layer between them and God.
No matter how many times God warned them about the consequences of disobedience, it never got through to them. We’ve all seen the same thing. All of us have, at one time or another, been frustrated when we’ve explained our beliefs or a particular doctrine to a friend or loved one and they just don’t get it. To us it’s crystal clear, but because there is a veil covering their minds, they literally cannot comprehend what we’re saying—it can’t penetrate. Paul reveals the reason for this to the Corinthians:
“Therefore, since we have such a hope, we use great boldness of speech—unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded…But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the spirit of the Lord…
But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them…For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 3:11-4:6)
The majority of the world is not called to salvation right now, and he says that they are still in darkness, “in futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Eph. 4:17-18).
Satan’s effect on the earth is to bring darkness, but to those in the world it’s not darkness, it’s just normal. When God’s light shines into our minds, we are told that we have to make a clean break with our old carnal ways. The same will be true of (and possible for) all of mankind when the veil over their minds is removed, which is what the Day of Atonement pictures.
In prophesying about His return, Christ talks about “when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:30), the word “revealed” being apokalupto which means “to take the cover off”. When that cover is lifted when Christ returns and removes Satan’s poisonous influence, Isaiah tells us that, “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness” (Is. 29:18). God sends His Son “to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house” (Is. 42:7).
Every fiftieth year in ancient Israel, the Year of Jubilee was proclaimed on the Day of Atonement. Debts were forgiven, shackles were loosed, and inheritances were reclaimed. This day, with its themes of humility, mercy and judgment, and reconciliation to God, proclaims the Year of Jubilee for rest of the world. Their debt of sin—eternal death—will be forgiven, the bondage of a lifetime of sin will be loosed, and the rest of mankind will be allowed to claim an inheritance in God’s kingdom.
Jesus summarizes this to Paul on the road to Damascus, telling him that he was being sent to “open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18).
“And in this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees…and He will destroy on this mountain the surface of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces; the rebuke of His people He will take away from all the earth” ~ Is. 25:6-8