Why Does Yom Kippur Matter?
A practical guide to the Day of Atonement
To Seventh-day Adventists, the Day of Atonement has always held special significance—and with good reason. The very inception of this church is firmly linked to this event, providing its theological identity. Ellen White called the sanctuary doctrine one of our “landmarks,”1 and the church lists it among its 28 Fundamental Beliefs.
But why would Yom Kippur (or the Day of Atonement) matter to me personally? How do the math and history behind Daniel 8 and 9 translate to everyday life?
We may have a fairly clear understanding of the events transpiring in heaven since 1844: According to Daniel 8, Jesus entered the Most Holy Place, where He restores the gospel to its rightful state, accomplishes the cleansing of the sanctuary, and vindicates the character of God. But while I’m always eager to learn more about our Lord, whatever happens in heaven doesn’t seem to affect my Christian experience.
We have to keep in mind that God’s Word speaks purposefully into this world and into our lives. So, then, how can my twenty-first-century Christian experience be different from that of faithful Christians who lived centuries ago and were unaware of 1844? How can Yom Kippur enrich my daily walk with Jesus to a degree beyond what even faithful martyrs of old experienced?
Our understanding of Yom Kippur relies heavily on the celebration of the annual feast of the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel. While we have no known account of the actual celebration of the Day of Atonement ritual (which exists only in prescriptive form in Leviticus 16 and 23), enough information is available to piece together the puzzle.
Let’s consider the experience of Ehud, an imaginary Hebrew with a fairly common name. The name, meaning “beloved,” was a continuous reminder of just how much Yahweh cared for him. Nevertheless, like most of us today, Ehud was not always faithful. His conscience told him that not everything was right. To humble himself to the point where he would make his error known by going to the priest to offer sacrifice was, however, an altogether different matter. Weeks and months went by, and he learned to live with the consequences of his sin. In fact, he often forgot about it. Things seemed all right.
Until Ehud heard the trumpets. He had been totally caught up in his work of securely storing the last remains of his crops and had completely forgotten that it was the first day of Tishri, the Feast of Trumpets. The countdown to the great Day of Atonement, only 10 days away, had begun. About this day the Lord said:
“The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the Lord. Do not do any 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. I will destroy from among their people anyone who does any work on that day. You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a day of sabbath 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” (Lev. 23:27-32).
Ehud had seen the might of the Lord and had witnessed people being “cut off” because they had refused to humble themselves.2 The memory of his sin came back with greater force than ever! Ten days to live! Not many of us get to know our final day with such precision and imminence! It is for this that the days leading up to the great Day of Atonement were also known as “days of awe.”
On the morning of Yom Kippur, Ehud finally surrendered. He knew he was guilty. Guilty of wasting time, guilty of neglecting all the good he could have accomplished had he stayed within God’s reach. But he also knew that he was forgiven, because he finally had humbly confessed his sin and had it—according to God’s law—transferred to the sanctuary. He had peace, and it showed. Better to be broken than cut off. Unlike others, he survived!
From Knowledge to Salvation
We should not assume that Ehud would have been indifferent toward the finer details of that day’s theology. He knew full well that the Day of Atonement was when the high priest went into the Most Holy Place for its yearly cleansing. He knew about the specific regulations and procedures; he had witnessed them year after year. But it wasn’t rational, theoretical knowledge that saved him that day.
Yom Kippur Today
The Bible is a practical book. God didn’t give us theoretical knowledge for its own sake. He is trying to save us, urging that knowledge must flow into actions.
There is at least one major difference between the Yom Kippur at the time of Moses and its antitypical fulfillment: whereas, back then, the time of its completion was always specifically known to be at the end of the tenth day of Tishri, it seems open today. How would the knowledge of our untimely death in 10 short days change our attitude and actions? The fact that it often takes a terminal illness or another tragedy for people to truly experience God’s forgiveness and peace speaks volumes.
Nevertheless, we are living in the great antitypical day of atonement. Is it possible that our reaction to God’s long-suffering grace and patience is indifference? What would happen if each of us accepted Jesus’ command (and invitation) to “deny himself, and take up his cross” (Matt. 16:24, KJV)?
Remember Ellen White’s thought-provoking statement? “Had Adventists, after the Great Disappointment in 1844, held fast their faith, and followed on unitedly in the opening providence of God, receiving the message of the third angel and in the power of the Holy Spirit proclaiming it to the world, they would have seen the salvation of God, the Lord would have wrought mightily with their efforts, the work would have been completed, and Christ would have come ere this to receive His people to their reward.”3
The antitypical Yom Kippur was supposed to end a long time ago. Jesus wanted to return. Many terrible events that transpired during the last 170 years could have been avoided. We may think we are waiting for God’s return when, in fact, He is waiting for our willingness to cooperate!
As preposterous as it may sound—it is this movement, tiny and insignificant though it may seem, which in part holds the keys to the biggest event ever to take place. Not because God isn’t omnipotent, but because the eternal happiness of the universe depends on certain laws by which God operates. In the plan of salvation, God is dependent on the response of human beings and He works with them. While He never willed sin, He patiently dealt with it for thousands of years. I am afraid He has also dealt with Seventh-day Adventists for longer than He wished.
This is the true raison d’être for Adventism. There is ample reason to care about 1844. It may be the greatest prerogative ever given to a group of people—as well as the greatest responsibility. Pentecost demonstrated the effects of the power of God acting in conjunction with humans willing to sacrifice everything for God. This experience of the early rain will be repeated in even greater force and is referred to as the “latter rain.”4
Let’s humble ourselves so it can be soon! Let’s seek God’s presence daily, hourly—in fact, always! We are privileged to be part of God’s final mission to Planet Earth.
- Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 30.
- Or “afflict his soul.” As Matthew Henry puts it in his commentary on Leviticus 23:27: “The humbling of our souls for sin, and the making of our peace with God, is work that requires the whole man, and the closest application of mind imaginable. . . . He that would do the work of a day of atonement in its day, as it should be done, had need lay aside the thoughts of every thing else.” That’s the reason the day was called a “sabbath” and doing any work was completely prohibited.
- Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1882), p. 299.
- Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), p. 121.