Yom Kippur (occurring this year September 18-19) is a biblical feast full of deep, prophetic significance. It points magnificently to the ministry of Yeshua in both His first and second comings. Here are some basic aspects of this special, holy day and ways you can engage meaningfully with God during it.
“The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present an offering made by fire to the Lord. Do no work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God. Those who do not deny themselves on that day must be cut off from their people. … This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a sabbath of rest for you and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your sabbath.” (Leviticus 23:27-32)
Yom Kippur is translated in English as the Day of Atonement. The word “atonement” likely came into use specifically to convey the unique at-one-ment with God resulting from Israel’s adherence to His commands for this day. (Leviticus 16 and 23:26-32, Numbers 29:7-11) The purpose of these commands was not the impassive, outward-only performance of ritual, but the restoration of intimate relationship between a holy God and His beloved, covenant people.
A summary of Yom Kippur as prescribed and practiced in ancient Israel can be read in Leviticus 16 and then at https://hebrew4christians.com/Holidays/Fall_Holidays/Yom_Kippur/yom_kippur.html. This levitical feast required a highly precise sacrificial offering of bulls and goats, together with blood cleansing, by Israel’s high priest. As the high priest conducted the annual and most solemn ceremony, his fellow Israelites fasted and prayed that God would accept the sacrifice and grant atonement for the nation.
When God graciously instituted the New Covenant promised to Israel in Jeremiah 31:33, the sacrificial system was no longer needed. The singular, blood sacrifice of Messiah Yeshua accomplished atonement for all humankind. “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when He offered Himself.” (Hebrews 7:27) In this transformational reality today, Christians do not always know how—or even whether—to observe Yom Kippur and rightly honor the Lord through it. May I suggest that as a 1 Peter 5 holy priesthood, Messianic believers can engage intimately with YHVH on this sacred day in at least five ways—by grace through faith—if they feel so led.
(1) Yom Kippur is a designated Sabbath assembly. It is a day to do no work but assemble before God, focusing attention on Him. If you can not join a live assembly on Yom Kippur, you can assemble before Him by yourself—or join a Messianic service online. (Tree of LIfe Messianic Congregation in San Diego livestreams their service at https://www.treeoflifeca.org/live-stream/)
(2) Fasting. Since before Yeshua’s time, the Jewish people have fasted on Yom Kippur as one fulfillment of the command to “afflict” or “deny” ourselves. Could fasting or self-denial be appropriate or relevant this day for Messianic believers? Yeshua assumed His disciples would fast. (Matthew 6:16-18) He further said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) God does not want our lives focused on self-examination or affliction throughout the year. But He does call us to judge ourselves regarding sin. By rightly judging ourselves and turning from sin, we avoid coming under His judgment or chastening. (1 Corinthians 11:31)Yom Kippur could be an especially appropriate day for this. On a somewhat related note, recall that Israel’s high priest had to atone first for his own sins before he could minister to God’s people. Do you desire God’s gracious gifts of conviction, repentance, and renewed holy love relationship? Might He be calling you to consecrate this Yom Kippur as a Sabbath on which to humble yourself, fast, and ask Him to search your heart—then serve in a renewed capacity as a holy, intercessory priesthood?
(3) Yom Kippur may involve personal sacrifice beyond fasting. As New Covenant believers, how do we rightly offer God sacrifice? Romans 12:1 exhorts: “I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” Hebrews 13:15 says, “Let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess His name.” Yom Kippur is a highly appropriate day to spend in sacrificial praise and worship.
The crowning highlight of Yom Kippur is the celebration of Messiah’s sacrificial atonement. He is worthy of our worship! We are eternally thankful that Yeshua is our once-for-all atonement: “When Messiah appeared as [High Priest] …. He entered into the Holies once for all—not by the blood of goats and calves but by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:11-12, TLV) Therefore, throughout the day on Yom Kippur we praise, magnify and celebrate Yeshua. For those trusting in Him, He has marvelously done away with sin, not just covered it, as implied in the word “kippur.” But bear in mind that for praise to be sacrificial it must cost something, such as time, resources, energy—or pride.
Lastly, a Messianic or Christian observance of Yom Kippur can involve sacrificial giving to others. “Do not forget to do good and share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” (Hebrews 13:16) One of many ways to “do good and share with others” is to pray for them. Yom Kippur can—and I believe should—be a day on which we offer a sacrifice of focused prayer the salvation of others, especially that of Israel and the Jewish people.
(4) Intercession for Israel’s salvation. In Israel and around the world, Jews will gather in synagogues on Yom Kippur to fast, recite Scripture and confess their sins. They will conclude the day hoping those sins were forgiven. Meanwhile, God yearns for His ancient covenant people to be reconciled to Him by grace through faith in Messiah. You are part of a royal priesthood that can effectively intercede this day for Israel’s salvation. “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” (Romans 10:1)
(5) Prophetic foreshadow of Judgment Day. The shofar blast of Yom Kippur carries future prophetic significance that is understood by some traditional Jews, as well as by Messianic believers. A final, heavenly trumpet heralds and releases the coming Day of the Lord (Judgment Day). This is the glorious yet fearsome day of Yeshua’s return. Many believe Yom Kippur prophetically foreshadows either the Second Coming, or day of Israel’s national salvation, or both. Yeshua will return as Judge and King on an incomparably magnificent, future Yom Kippur. Until then, we are to encourage ourselves and others with the hope of His glorious appearing. (1Thessalonians 4:16-18)
For Messianic believers today, Yom Kippur can be a day of profound blessing in at least 5 ways. (1) It is a Sabbath on which to assemble before God and commemorate Yeshua’s atonement. (2) We can fast and receive the grace of personal repentance and renewed intimacy with God. (3) It is a day to offer Him our genuine, joyful sacrifice of praise. (4) Intercession for the salvation of Israel (and others) is highly appropriate on Yom Kippur. (5) Celebrating the promise of Yeshua’s return and hope of His coming is perfect for Yom Kippur!