Today, the 14th of September/10th of Tishrei is the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. It is, as far as my research can find, considered the holiest day of the Jewish year. That does not, however, mean this important day holds no significance for Christians. Like the rest of the Old Testament, God’s Holy Days were given to man for a purpose that did not expire when Jesus Christ instituted the New Covenant. Some things were replaced/filled to the fullest, such as animal sacrifices being fulfilled by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 7:26-28). Others were updated to be understood in a spiritual light, which is what I touched on in “Righteousness by Faith” and “Purpose of the Law.” In the case of God’s Sabbaths and Holy Days, we have ample evidence that Jesus Christ kept these days as Holy and that the New Testament church followed His example.
Loose The Bonds of Wickedness
The Day of Atonement is specifically referred to as “the Fast” in Acts 27:9. But knowing that Paul and his fellow believers observed the Day of Atonement only gives modern Christians an example to follow. That in and of itself is not an explanation for why this day should be observed. For that, we have to take a look at the Old Testament observance.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God.For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people.And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people.You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.” (Lev. 23:26-32)
Leviticus 23 lists the most important days of the year in God’s calendar, yet Atonement is the only one where the people are told they will be “cut off” and/or “destroyed” if it is not properly observed. A possible reason for the significance placed on this particular day lies in the symbolism of fasting. In my Google searches looking for descriptions of the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, I stumbled across a Christian website that had the following to say about Atonement. (To provide proper attribution, here’s the link [but I didn’t finish reading this article and I don’t know anything about the site].)
An Israelite’s refusal to fast, which resulted in the offender being cut off from the community (Leviticus 23:29) is the Old Testament’s equivalent of a person today refusing to repent, which will result in the offender being cut off from eternal life (Luke 13:3). Fasting is outward proof that the person doing the fasting is serious about repentance, which is vital for forgiveness.
This idea fits in nicely with the purpose of fasting. In Isaiah 58, God answers Israel’s question about why He has no respect for their fasts by describing an acceptable fast. “Is this not the fast that I have chosen,” He asks in verse 6, “To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?”
Undo The Heavy Burdens
When we fast, it serves as a reminder of how much we need God and of the severity of our struggle against sin. Going without food or water for 24 hours (or 25, in the Jewish tradition) reminds us how weak we are as human beings. The reminder of how much we need physical food and water — which is provided by God (James 1:17) — also helps us realize how much we are dependent on God for spiritual things. We are to hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matt. 5:6), but does my soul always long for God as much as my throat longs for water today?
As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. (Ps. 42:1)
O God, You are my God; early will I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. (Ps. 63:1)
Fasting should also remind us of our daily struggle against sin. I’m so used to drinking and eating that I have to consciously remind myself not to grab a drink of water or open my dark chocolate and cashew stash today. While we were without God in the world, we were in a similar state of sinning without really thinking about it. But now that we have been redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, we are to walk in newness of life and must make an effort to run away from sin and toward Christ (Rom. 6:4). Without His divine aid, we would slide back into sin.
Let The Oppressed Go Free
As we know, Jesus Christ’s sacrifice is what frees us from the heavy burden of sin (John 8:31-36). If freeing people from wickedness is also the purpose of fasting, it makes sense that fasting under the New Covenant would be related to the subject of repenting and accepting Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.
In the Old Testament, the Day of Atonement was the only day of the year on which the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle or temple (Lev. 16:2-10; 16:29-34). It is, therefore, this day that is referred to in Hebrews when the writer says,
the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. …
But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:6-8, 11-14)
Christ’s sacrifice supersedes the physical animal sacrifices by a human priest, just as His priesthood supersedes the Levitical system. But doing away with the animal sacrifice does not do away with our need for repentance. Christ said His servants would fast (Mat. 6:16-18; Matt. 9:14-16), and our obedience to this (particularly in the commanded fast on the Day of Atonement) reminds us of our need for redemption. Fasting helps us draw near to God, shows us how much we need Him, and is a physical sign of our willingness to obey His commands.
Break Every Yoke
The third main element of the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament involved the “scapegoat” or the “Azazel goat.”
“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Lev. 16:20-22)
In the churches I’ve been a part of, this has traditionally been read as symbolic of Satan being bound so that he “so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished” (Rev. 20:1-3. Permanently removed in verse 10). I see no reason to contest this interpretation. Though God’s people have been freed by Christ’s sacrifice, we still have to deal with living in a fallen world subject to Satan’s influence. The “whole creation groans” and is subject to “the bondage of corruption” until the time of Christ’s return and Satan’s removal (Rom. 8:21-22), which will finally fulfill the Day of Atonement. Today reminds us of the incredible hope God gives us that someday, the entire world will be released from Satan’s yoke and enjoy the true freedom found in being a part of God’s family.