Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalm 32)
Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, the day in which atonement was made for the sins of the entire community under the old covenant. Before we can begin to understand the meaning of atonement we first need to answer the question, what is sin?
What is sin?
Is sin a particular act of transgressing the Torah, or is it an inherent condition of mankind, which through the perfect law of God is made abundantly evident?
David Baron wrote the following with regard to the definition of sin as revealed in the Old Testament: “There are three [Hebrew] words used to describe the terrible malady of sin. They are:
(3) Avon — “iniquity,” describing the inward perversion of our nature; the depravity of our being manifesting itself in misdeed.
These three words are found in all the great Old Testament Scriptures dealing with the foundation doctrines of Sin and Atonement. They are the three attributes of that deadly moral plague, the roots of which are in the heart of every human being; and the spiritual doctrine of the universality of sin is amply confirmed by experience. At first our conscience becomes awakened, perhaps, to the guilt of some act of transgression; but as the terrible question presses itself more and more upon our attention we are finally faced by the painful conviction that behind the isolated acts of transgression and the manifestations of sin there is iniquity, the natural depravity of our being.”1
Sin is first and foremost transgression against God – it is His law that we have transgressed and His holy character that we have offended. The apostle Paul wrote, “I would not have known what sin was except through the law” (Romans 7:7) and the apostle John wrote, “everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Rabbinical Judaism teaches that even Yom Kippur helps us to atone only for sins committed against God, but that sins perpetrated against our fellow men will not be forgiven until we have made reparation for any damage we have caused. However, after King David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then compounded his sin by orchestrating the death of her husband, he confessed his sin to God saying: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” (Psalm 51:4).
The rabbis in more recent years have taught that men are not born with an inherent sinful nature, this despite the fact that even King David confessed, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). One Rabbi, commenting on this verse, suggested, “David did not mean that he was born with a sinful nature, but rather that he confessed that he had not resisted the sins to which all men are liable by virtue of their humanity.” Whether or not we acknowledge our inborn inclination to iniquity, we cannot deny that all men do sin. Pride may cause us to deny the “disease” but none can deny the symptoms. The Torah was given to curb the symptoms and although it is perfect, it was powerless to cure the disease. Isaiah prophesied of God’s righteous servant, the Messiah, by whose stripes we would be healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
When an archer aims his arrow for a target and misses, the same word, “sin,” was used to describe missing the target. In this context the fact that he has “sinned” does not imply deliberate wickedness, but simply that he missed the target that he was aiming for. Some people resign themselves to an “acceptable” level of sin and often rationalise their own sin by pointing to the hypocrisy of others. There are others who revel in their sin and wilfully disregard the mark of God’s holiness. However, the truth of the matter is, that both those who aim for a level of righteousness and those who resign themselves to sin, all miss the mark of God’s righteousness. Whether a person misses the mark by a long way or a short way, they still miss the mark.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
Sin is the most serious plight that mankind faces and it separates us from a holy God. It cannot be carelessly brushed aside or excused as merely human failing. It must be atoned for according to God’s prescribed way, which is through the shedding of innocent blood for the guilty. There are many who try to conceal their sin beneath a veneer of religious piety but they remain separated from God if their sin is not dealt with according to His law. Those who deny the sinful condition cannot receive the healing through the atonement made by Jesus the Messiah. Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). The Holy Spirit convicts the world of guilt in regard to sin, specifically because men do not believe in Jesus the Messiah, the one who was sent to atone for their sin. We are all in need of God’s atonement for sin and once we acknowledge that need, he reveals his abundant grace:
Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: (Romans 5:20)
Death entered through sin
Adam and Eve were created innocent, shielded from the deceitfulness of sin, having no perception of good and evil. Adam was faced with the simple choice of obedience to God’s word. The LORD God commanded Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die”(Gen.2:16). Having eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and all his descendants to come, were banished from the Garden of Eden and thrust into a world in which they were required to discern between good and evil. Man could not survive in such a world and was destined to die. The soul who sins is the one who will die (Ezekiel18:20). For the wages of sin is death,…” (Romans 6:23) As soon as Adam and Eve became conscious of their nakedness and shame before God they made a feeble attempt at covering their own nakedness. However, the LORD himself provided a covering for them with garments of skin, thus providing a graphic illustration of the terrible consequence of sin, and showing them that sin had to be atoned for by the substitutionary death of an innocent animal.
God’s way of atonement
The Hebrew word kaphar which in English is rendered “to atone” literally means “to cover” and the essential idea contained in it is the covering or hiding of sin so that it becomes invisible to a Holy God who cannot look upon sin. God prescribed the acceptable means of atonement for sin long before He entered into a covenant with Israel through which the Torah was given.
“In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:3-7)
The sacrifice of an innocent animal was a graphic reminder that the penalty of sin was death, but also that sin could only be atoned for by the blood of an innocent substitute. One of the clearest pictures of how God intended to provide atonement for the sins of mankind is seen in Genesis ch. 22, in the account of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah when God tested Abraham’s faithfulness and obedience by calling upon him to sacrifice his son Isaac. When Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering,” he was speaking not only of the present but was also looking down the centuries and prophesying about the lamb of God who would be sent as the sacrifice to take away the sins of the world. Biblical Judaism was based upon a sacrificial system. The Passover, The Day of Atonement and the continuing sacrifices required throughout the year were all graphic portrayals of the penalty of sin pointing to the ultimate sacrifice through which the sin of mankind would be atoned for through the blood of Messiah.
How does blood atone for sin?
According to the Torah sin can never be atoned for without the shedding of blood:
“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement (a covering) for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” (Leviticus 17:11).
The life is in the blood, therefore the blood of the innocent offering covers the life forfeited by the guilty one, i.e. life covers life. On Yom Kippur there were two sin offerings for the people (see Leviticus ch.16). The first goat, la-Jehovah – meaning for Jehovah – had to be slaughtered and its blood sprinkled upon the mercy seat in the Most Holy Place to atone for the people. Afterwards the high priest laid his hands upon the live goat, la-Azazel (the goat of removal) and confessed over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat which was then sent into the wilderness – “And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.” (Lev. 16:22) Why did God place such importance on the manner in which sins were to be atoned for on the Day of Atonement? Can the blood of bulls and goats really cover our sins? The Torah was only a shadow pointing to the ultimate atonement which God intended to make through the suffering and death of the Messiah.
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming; not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb.10:1-4)
The blood of animals could never completely atone for man’s sin, it could only temporarily cover them while pointing to the guilt offering of the Messiah and Redeemer, who alone could provide complete cleansing and atonement for the sins of Israel and the nations. Those who put their faith in Him will never be put to shame. Such faith upholds the Torah by embracing the Holy One of Israel to which the Day of Atonement pointed. In Him the two-fold aspects of the Day of Atonement are fulfilled. Like the goat that was slaughtered, He who knew no sin became our sin offering…because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth he hath poured out his soul unto death, and he bare the sin of many, because, just as the high priest laid upon the live goat the iniquities of the people, the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all… yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering…” (Is.53)
The Torah requires atonement to be made even for the most pious and righteous people. During the time of the second temple the confession made by the high priest on the Day of Atonement was as follows:
“O Jehovah! They have committed iniquity; they have transgressed: they have sinned—thy people, the House of Israel. O Jehovah, atone for the iniquities, transgressions, and sins which thy people, the House of Israel, have wickedly committed, transgressed and sinned before Thee.”
This shows an acceptance and acknowledgment of the sinful condition of man. Humanistic philosophy denies or excuses the sinful condition. Falling short of God’s glory cannot be atoned for by adjusting the mark in order to reduce the measure by which we fall short. The Torah sets forth God’s righteous requirements, but it also makes provision for atonement because all men fall short of God’s glory. When God gave the Torah, the LORD promised life and blessing only for obedience. There is not a single person, apart from Jesus the Messiah, who is without sin and who is able to attain eternal life by perfect obedience to the Torah. The apostle Paul wrote:
“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the Torah, Messiah died for nothing! ….For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” (Galatians 2:21, 3:21)
Rabbinical Judaism, not understanding a righteousness that is by faith, perceives Christianity to be a lawless religion, and rejects the atonement through the blood of Jesus the Messiah. They fail to see that the atonement through the blood of Jesus the Messiah is the very goal to which the Torah pointed through the entire sacrificial system. From the first instance in which man sinned, Eve longed to see the Redeemer who would be born from her seed and who would crush the head of the serpent. Moses, whom God chose as his servant to bring the law to Israel, pointed to the time when God would send the Messiah who would speak the word of God to Israel. The Torah says that whoever rejects His word will be called to give account for their sins (Deuteronomy 18:18–19). That is why Jesus said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin.” (John 15:22)
The disciples who recognized that Jesus was the prophet of whom Moses spoke, said to Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”(John 6:68).
When the LORD promised a new covenant with the house of Israel he said that he will “…remember their sins no more.” (Jer.31:34) It is clear that this new covenant would be unlike the covenant given through Moses because the Torah required ongoing sacrifices as a constant reminder of sin. Speaking of the New Covenant through the prophet Ezekiel (16:62) the LORD says plainly that it is He who will make atonement for Israel.
“So I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the LORD. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign LORD.”
The angel Gabriel also revealed to Daniel that the Messiah would “put an end to sin and atone for wickedness.” (Daniel 9:24)
He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Messiah was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:26-28)
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
There is an ancient Jewish prayer adapted from Isaiah 53, once part of the liturgy on the Day of Atonement, which reveals that the ancient synagogue understood that atonement would be made through the suffering of the Messiah:
“Our Righteous Messiah has departed from us,
We are horror stricken, and have none to justify us.
Our iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions
He carries who is wounded because of our transgressions.
He bears on his shoulder the burden of our sins
To find pardon for all our iniquities.
By his stripes we shall be healed.”
The Religion of Cain
The religion of Cain is a bloodless religion. Every religion that is based upon mans effort to atone for his own sin, while rejecting the atonement that God has provided, is the religion of Cain. Rabbinical Judaism, in rejecting the atonement, has become a religion with an emphasis on good works. Following the destruction of the temple and the cessation of sacrifices, the Rabbis have downplayed the requirement of the shedding of blood to atone for sin. The Day of Atonement, which used to be a day of sacrifice and shedding of blood combined with self-denial and repentance, now consists only of fasting and penitence, which alone is inadequate. Jewish people scattered throughout the world feel obligated to turn from their sins and to make a commitment to good works. However, “good works” is not the obedience God requires. For atonement to be made there has to be obedience to the word of God. When Jesus was asked, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” he answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28). He was echoing the command from Deuteronomy 18:18, that everyone who does not listen to the Messiah will have to give account. True repentance means turning to Jesus the Messiah to whom both the law and the prophets pointed.
On Yom Kippur a public declaration, traditionally known as Kol Nidre – (All Vows) is made. Kol Nidre is the cancellation of all forced or harmful vows, but it cannot cancel Israel’s obligation to the law, because the law is supposed to lead us to Messiah. God allowed the destruction of the temple after the coming of the Messiah (as foretold to Daniel by the angel Gabriel), so that all men would be bound over to disobedience by force of circumstance. God did this in order that through the atonement made by the promised Messiah, He may have mercy on all who trust in Him (Romans11:32).
Whilst ever we attempt to conceal or justify our own sin it will never be covered by God. There are many religions which seek to be reconciled to God through rules and regulations for moral conduct, but they do not provide atonement for sins. In fact, what all humanistic religions do is to minimize or deny the existence of sin, or the consequences of sin, thereby dispensing with the need for atonement. Rabbinical Judaism, in rejecting the atonement of blood made by Jesus the Messiah in the new covenant, has followed the way of Cain by substituting the blood sacrifice with fasting and an offering of good works. Life and blessing cannot be attained through good works and as the LORD said, “He who eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will surely die.”
The ArtScroll Tanach series, Ezekiel vol.1, pg. 302, commenting on Ezek. 33:12-13 says: “There is a basic difference between life and death: life cannot endure without sustenance; bereft of food life ceases. But death is absolute; nothing is needed to sustain it, and nothing in nature can reverse it. The sinner has already ‘died’. For him to commence upon a regimen of repentance and good deeds would logically resemble feeding and medicating a corpse. That repentance does achieve spiritual resurrection is a gift of God that is truly unique.”
This harmonizes perfectly with New Testament teaching where the apostle Paul declares, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23), and elsewhere he says, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions … For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:5-9).
All have sinned and therefore all died. Only God who is the giver of all life can bring to life that which was dead. That life is not given on the basis of meritorious deeds. It is the gift of God to all those who trust in the atonement that God has provided in the Messiah. No-one will attain life if they try to bypass the atonement that God has made.
Many rabbis teach that God would not have given the Torah to Israel unless it was possible for Israel to attain life and righteousness through obedience. They argue that God would not have given the Torah to frustrate his people with an unattainable standard of perfection. They overlook the fact that the Torah also demanded sacrifices as a constant reminder of how imperfect we are and how we inevitably miss the mark no matter how zealous we may be for the Torah. Furthermore, the Torah stipulated that no person could be declared righteous by their own good deeds and that everyone, including the high priest, required atonement for their sins in order to worship God who alone is holy.
Many Jewish people take offence at the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, saying that it implies that their religion is inadequate. They fail to understand that the Torah, while curbing our sinful tendencies, was not given as a means to attain righteousness, but rather to show men that they are sinful by nature and therefore desperately in need of atonement through God’s mercy alone:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus the Messiah to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Messiah Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. (Romans 3:19-25)
The rabbis now teach that the Messiah is not a personal Saviour and Redeemer and that each person must save themselves by atoning for their sins through performing mitzvah (good deeds). Nothing we can do will merit eternal life and our mitzvah are worthless if we are disobedient to the will of God.
“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)
The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, not because Abel’s own righteousness exceeded that of Cain’s, but because Abel was obedient to the will of God. Like Cain, many people are indignant if it is suggested that their self-righteous deeds are not good enough and are likened to filthy rags in the Scriptures. God has provided only one acceptable means of atonement for our sin. However commendable our deeds are, they are the fruit of our own labour and can never cover our sin.
Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven (literally borne away), whose sins are covered (atoned for through the blood of Messiah). Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him (because it has been put upon the head of the sin-bearer) and in whose spirit is no deceit (because he does not attempt to conceal his sins or stifle his conscience but confesses his sins to him who is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.) Psalms 32:1-2
Faith in Jesus the Messiah and his atonement is not opposed to the Torah and a life of faithfulness is based neither on strict legalism nor on lawlessness. Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15) Faith expresses itself through works. Good deeds do not atone for sin, but they are the natural response to God’s mercy and love. Jesus said that those who love him will obey his commands and that those who have been forgiven much, will love much. There is no atonement for intentional, deliberate and persistent rebellion to the will of God.
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26-29)
The Talmud expresses the same idea in these words: “If a man is guilty of sin and confesses it and does not change his way, what is he like? He is like a man who holds a defiling object in his hand even while he immerses himself in purifying waters. All the waters in the world will not avail him. He remains unclean because he clings to his defilement.”
No-one who intends to deliberately keep on sinning, will have the faith to approach God with a contrite and broken heart. No-one who clings to, or attempts to conceal sin will have the assurance of forgiveness in their heart. Someone expressed this well by saying, “He only has his sins covered who does not himself cover them. Forgiveness of sin from God is in proportion to the confession of it to Him.”
1. David Baron and the Hebrew Christian Testimony to Israel