THE DAY OF ATONEMENTBack to Alphabetical Index | Back to Chapter Index
The Day of Atonement is the fifth annual festival, and is probably one of the most complex, mysterious, and misunderstood of the festivals celebrated in ancient Israel. However, God has preserved the knowledge and understanding of his plan of salvation in all of the annual Festivals which he revealed to the Israelites after he brought them out of Egypt. In order to fully understand the meaning of the fifth festival, it is important to begin by understanding that Israel's physical deliverance from Egypt was prophetic of being freed from the bondage of sin and its death penalty through the atoning blood of Christ's sacrifice.
Delivered for a Purpose
The Creator God brought the Israelites out of Egypt because he had a job for them to do and a purpose for their existence as a nation. In order to help ensure their success in what he had planned for them, he needed to dwell among them and guide them. In order to dwell among them, he had to protect them from the power of his spirit-presence.
God Dwells with Israel
The dwelling of God with his people was one of the major reasons for the celebration of the Day of Atonement.
In his instructions to Moses, God said that the Israelites should build a sanctuary for him because he was going to dwell among them:
"And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them" (Ex.25:8 KJV). See also Deut.23:10-14.
Because God was going to dwell among the Israelites, there were certain things that he required them to do in order for him to be able to continue to dwell among them.
God Is Holy
God is a spirit-being from the spirit dimension of existence, and there are certain laws that govern his ability to interact with the physical dimension of existence when he is in his spirit-form.
From what is said in the scriptures pertaining to the Day of Atonement, it is apparent that one of these laws concerns the protection of the physical world from the energy of God's spirit-presence:
"For I am the Lord your God: you shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. For I am the Lord that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy" (Lev.11:44-45 KJV).
"And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev.19:1-2 KJV).
"And you shall be holy to me: for I the Lord am holy, and have severed you from other people, that you should be mine" (Lev. 20:26 KJV).
God is a holy righteous being whose very nature and being requires that all things that come into close contact with him be of the same quality of existence. The death of Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu is an example of what happens when there is a violation of the strict laws concerning the interaction between the physical and spiritual worlds.
Any deviation or violation of these laws is defined as sin, which is in opposition to the nature and being of God. Therefore, any thing or person that is not in harmony with these laws or does not exhibit a holy and righteous nature cannot interact with God in his spirit-presence without being destroyed unless God himself protects or shields the physical thing or person from the power of his spirit-presence.
This process of being protected or shielded from the power of God's spirit-presence and the ultimate transformation of humans into spirit-beings are two of the awesome lessons that are taught through the Day of Atonement.
Israel to Worship God
God gave Israel a worship system through which they could remain in a redeemed (physically justified) condition. The sin offerings were a type of grace through which God set aside the penalty for their sins and covered or removed their physical defilement, which allowed them to come into his presence and commune with him. See Lev.4:27-31.
Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest went behind the veil to make an atonement for the whole nation of Israel. It is through the Day of Atonement rituals that Israel was reconciled with God, and it is through this festivals prophetic and symbolic meaning that those who have an agreement with the Father during the gospel age of salvation can find great comfort, assurance, and hope.
Exactly What is the Meaning of This Day?
The central theme of the Day of Atonement (past and present) concerns the process by which sin is removed from God's chosen people in order for God to be able to dwell in his spirit-presence among and within them. The following are the central concepts contained in this festival:
Without an understanding of these important concepts, the Festival of Atonement makes no sense at all. Therefore, in order to clearly understand the meaning of the Day of Atonement, we must first understand exactly what the word 'atonement' means, why atonement is necessary, and the things for which atonement is being applied.
Why Is Atonement Necessary?
"Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that he cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear" (Isa.59:1-2 KJV).
The prophet Isaiah was inspired to record that sin separates a person from fellowship with God. It is because of this separation that God devised a method by which this barrier (sin) between him and his people could be removed. The removal of this barrier makes it possible for there to be communication and fellowship between God and humans.
The scriptures clearly show that, when the spirit-presence of God comes into contact with impurity, the impurity is destroyed. Therefore, the Israelites were given very strict rules as to how to perform the necessary rituals to remove physical contamination in order to be protected from destruction while being in close contact with God's spirit-presence.
Through a sacrificial system and the rituals of purification, God is able to alter, transform, or shield people and things from the power of his spirit-presence in order to dwell or commune with them in his spirit form.
The Word 'Atonement'
The English word 'atonement' is not a translation of the Hebrew word 'kippurim' or 'kippur' nor does it mean 'at-one-with', as some assume. The word 'atonement' is only an interpretation of the Hebrew word 'kippurim' and it is a purely theological concept, which refers to the process by which physical defilement (impurity) and spiritual and moral sin is covered or set aside.
The English phrase 'Day of Atonement' is the Hebrew phrase 'yom kippurim' or 'yom kippur.' 'Yom' means 'day' and 'kippurim' comes from the root phrase that basically means 'to cover up'. It may also mean 'expiation', which is defined as the extinguishing of guilt by the suffering of a penalty. 'Kippurim' encompasses the means by which a person who is estranged from God is placed back into harmony with him and the result of being in harmony with him.
Atonement is Both Method and Result
Therefore, the conceptual meaning of atonement (kippurim) contains both the method by which something is done and the result of doing it. When an atonement was made through the sacrificial system (the method), the breach between God and man was healed (i.e., the result of sin was removed). God and man were then in harmony (the result). Therefore, the sacrifice of animals as an atonement for sin was required to restore and maintain the relationship between God and man.
Physical And Moral Sin
It is important to understand that the word 'kippurim' and its cognate verb forms are applied to the purging away of ceremonial and physical defilement as well as setting aside the penalty of spiritual and moral offenses.
Often, when reading scriptures concerning sacrifices for sin, it is difficult to determine whether it is physical or spiritual and moral defilement (i.e., sin) that is being addressed. There is a great distinction made in the sacrificial system between those things that were done in order to cover or remove ceremonial and physical defilement and those that were done to set aside the penalty for spiritual and moral defilement.
However, the purpose of atonement was the same for each type of sin, whether physical or spiritual. The goal was to keep the tabernacle or temple and the Israelites in a pure and sinless condition in order for God to dwell among them and commune with them:
"You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so that they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them" (Lev.15:31 Para.).