Tonight the Day of Atonement begins, the 10th day of Tishri, the 7th month of the Jewish calendar, from sundown to sundown. The Day of Atonement was the one day in all the year that the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies, that inner sanctum behind the veil that contained the Ark of the Covenant overshadowed by two cherubim with outstretched wings who look down upon the Mercy Seat, the covering of the Ark.
The instructions given for the high priest that day were very specific (found in Leviticus 16). He was to bathe, then dress in all white linen garments. Afterward he entered the Holy of Holies three separate times. First, he entered with a censer of burning coals taken from the altar and a handful of incense. Once behind the embroidered curtain that shut that most sacred place off from all other eyes, the high priest put the incense on the hot coals to fill the room with a cloud of sweet perfume, a symbol of our humble prayers rising to God in acknowledgement of our great need of Him. Then the high priest would come out and kill a bull on the altar, a sacrifice for the high priest's own sins. A bull was always required to cover the sins of a leader of God's people for they carried greater responsibility. Taking some of the blood in a basin, he would re-enter the Most Holy Place and sprinkle some of the blood on top of the Mercy Seat and some at his feet before the Mercy Seat. Coming out again, he cast lots between two goats, one for the Lord and the other for a scapegoat. The scapegoat was led into the desert and released, alive. The other goat was killed on the altar for the sins of the people. For a third time, the high priest went behind the thick curtain with atoning blood for the people, sprinkling it on and before the Ark of the Covenant.
For another year the sins of God's people was covered, atoned for. It was the highest of all the holy days of the year. Jewish tradition tells us that the high priest had a rope tied around his ankle. If the sacrifices for himself and the people were not accepted, he could be killed by the consuming fire of God's Presence. If that were to happen, no one dared to enter to retrieve the body, but they would have to pull him out by the rope. If he came back out, the people knew the sacrifices had been accepted and their sins were covered for that past year.
The writer of Hebrews explains this ritual in Hebrews 11:23-10:23. I encourage you tonight or tomorrow to read this section of Scripture. When Christ died, He did not enter the physical, earthly temple; but carrying His own blood, He entered the real, heavenly Temple, of which the earthly one was but a shadow. Hebrews 10 shows clearly that the rituals on the Day of Atonement could never with the sacrifices of animals make God's people perfect. For this reason, the sacrifices had to be made year after year. God did not delight in the slaughter of animals; they only provided a picture of the truth of what our sins lead to, what is required for absolution, and what Christ to do to completion and perfection. The one sacrifice of Christ would make those who believe in Him PERFECT forever!
The Day of Atonement is a blessed reminder of ALL Christ has won for us, of sins forgiven, and God's righteousness imputed to us. It is also a sobering day to reflect on our sins, to repent, to contemplate the sacrifice of Christ, who knew no sin, nor was any impurity ever found in Him, yet He willing gave Himself in our place that we might be set free. And it is a day to remember that one day we will all stand before the just Judge of all the earth. Both II Corinthians 5:10 and Acts 17:31 tell us that Jesus will be the Judge, the very One who paid the sacrificial price.
When we stand before Christ on that Day, He will be resplendent in all His glory. Revelation 1:13-20 gives us a description of what Jesus will look like on that Day. His voice will be as the sound of many waters, both thundering and commanding, as well as inviting and invigorating. His eyes will blaze with fire. I Corinthians 3:12-16 tells us that on that Day all the things we have done in this life will be put through the fire to reveal whether they were really of and for Christ or of and for ourselves. Those things that were generated from our own flesh and selfish, sinful desires will be burned up; those things that were generated by His Spirit and done out of obedience to Him and a desire to please Him will be transformed into everlasting jewels. That DAY will reveal it. Sobering? Very.
For those who believe in Jesus, I Corinthians goes on to ask, "Do you not know that you ARE the temple of God and that the Spirit of God—that Most Holy Spirit who dwells in the Most Holy Place—dwells in you?" Though it is the most holy, most awesome place, it is also the place of mercy. Take some time to read through Nehemiah chapter 9 and note the contrasts between what the people did and what God did for them. Underline the words mercies/merciful in that chapter. Close your eyes and picture that most holy place within you, and let our heart stand in hushed awe at the mercy of God.
When I pass through the veil of this life and step into the next, I imagine standing face to face with Jesus. His eyes, burning with purifying fire, will look into mine and see clear through me; He will, in that moment, expose everything about me. All my sin and self-centered will be burned to ashes in that illuminating moment. I can hardly wait: forever done with the struggle with selfishness and all that goes with it, forever clear-sighted with all my blindspots gone eternally. At last, truly and forever free.
Use this Day of Atonement to meditate on that coming Day. Let the blazing eyes of Jesus look into your eyes, your heart, your life, NOW, on this most holy day.