Posts from the ‘sin’ Category

Fridays are for John Wesley

Welcome to what I hope to make a regular weekly feature here on A Heart That Burns. Each Friday will be devoted to a brief look at some of Wesley’s journals, sermons, or other writings. Enjoy! 

As one reads through the journals of John Wesley, one is struck by the unflinching manner in which Wesley enforced standards among the early Methodist societies. Consider this entry from January 27, 1742:

After diligent inquiry made, I removed all those from the congregation of the faithful, whose behavior or spirit was not agreeable to the Gospel of Christ: Openly declaring the objections I had to each, that others might fear, and cry to God for them.

It’s notable that the standard used by Wesley was the Gospel. This entry is not untypical, and it’s also notable that throughout his journals, Wesley never dwells at length on such incidents.

I found, after the exclusion of some, who did not walk according to the Gospel, about eleven hundred, who are, I trust, of a more excellent spirit, remained in the society. — Monday, February 1, 1742.

I read over in the society, the Rules which all our members are to observe; and desired everyone seriously to consider, whether he was willing to conform thereto or no. That this would shake many of them, I knew well; and therefore, on Monday, 7, I began visiting the classes again, lest “that which is lame should be turned out of the way.” — Sunday, March 6, 1743

… The number of those who were expelled the society was sixty-four: — Two for cursing and swearing. Two for habitual Sabbath-breaking. Seventeen for drunkenness. Two for retailing spirituous liquors. Three for quarreling and brawling. One for beating his wife. Three for habitual, willful lying. Four for railing and evil-speaking. One for idleness and laziness.  And, Nine-and-twenty for lightness and carelessness.  — Saturday, March 12, 1743

Clearly, Wesley was not a man who saw any accomodation with sin. It causes me to think about whether this is true of our churches today, be it the Church of the Nazarene or other Wesleyan denominations. In fact I jokingly mentioned this to a United Methodist pastor friend, whose response was, “Try that in a church and tell me how it works out for you.”

Sadly, I think that we are far from the standards that Wesley held to, and that the Church suffers much for it. We have lost the concept of reproval — gentle criticism or correction — and we seem to have lost the ability to draw a line in the sand beyond which sinful behavior among the Church will be tolerated.

What do you think? Are our standards too low?

From the Archives: The Day of Atonement

This is a reposting from a post originally published on September 14, 2010. Astute readers may notice that Yom Kippur this year also falls on a Saturday. This is coincidence. The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, and days are calculated as being from sunset to sunset. Yom Kippur actually begins this year at sunset on Friday, October 7.

I’ve posted previously on Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. This Saturday, ten days after Rosh Hashanah, marks the holiest day in the Jewish religious year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day that God set aside so that the people of Israel could atone for their sin as a nation.

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. Neither shall you do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no work at all. It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening to evening you shall keep your Sabbath.” Leviticus 23:26-32

Now you’ll notice that that there are two words in the passage which are repeated three times: atonement and humble (which carries the context here of denying oneself). This is the one day when the children of Israel were invited by God to consider their lives before Him and to confess their sin. It was the one day a year that only one man in all of Israel – the high priest – could enter into the one most holy spot, the Holy of Holies in the center of the Temple in Jerusalem. There he would offer a blood sacrifice first for his own sin, then the sins of the nation of Israel. The children of Israel would be gathered around the courts of the Temple, watching and waiting to see if the sacrifice would be accepted by God.

Yom Kippur was tied into the very purpose of the Mosaic Law. God had required that His people to be holy and He had given them the Law at Mount Sinai so that they could be instructed in righteousness. Yet God knew that His people could be not become holy on their own, so He gave them a means to be reconciled to Himself: a sacrificial system. The culmination of this system, by which sinning and rebellious Israelites could have their sin covered over, was Yom haKippurim: the Day of Atonement. On this day the High Priest of Israel would enter into God’s presence where He dwelt within the Holy of Holies, first in the desert Tabernacle and much later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The preparations that the priest had to make in order to purify himself before entering this holiest of places were exacting. Should he make an error it would be doubly disastrous, for the descendants of Aaron would be slain by God should they attempt to stand before Him in an impure state. Even worse, the priest would die without the sins of the nation having been atoned for.

In the Biblical period, rigorous requirements were made of each Israelite on Yom Kippur. They were commanded to humble their souls and present offerings of fire for their sins, or be cut off from the people of Israel. They were asked to set aside their earthly appetites and needs, by fasting from sundown to sundown. They were not allowed to do any work, or risk being completely destroyed. These were far harsher strictures than an ordinary Sabbath rest, and served to point out the absolute seriousness of the Day of Atonement.

Very special offerings were made before God on Yom Kippur. These consisted of incense, a bull, and two goats. Four times the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, beginning with the incense offering. As the incense burned, it formed a cloud which obscured the Ark of the Covenant; between the outstretched wings of the seraphim on its lid was the Mercy Seat, where God’s Shekinah (His glorious Presence) rested. This cloud was not just and offering but was for the protection of the high priest, since no man could see God and live. Next was the sacrifice of a bull. The priest would lay his hands on the bull, acknowledging his own personal sin and that of the priesthood. This process of laying on of hands was the symbolic means by which those sins were transferred to the bull, allowing its death to serve as a substitute for others. The bull was then slain, and its blood taken into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the Mercy Seat.

Finally came the climax of Yom Kippur: the sacrifice of two goats. Two goats were brought before the high priest and lots were drawn. One goat would be for the Lord, and one would be for the sins of Israel as a nation.

The first goat was to be an offering to the Lord, and once more the priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of this sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat. Then he symbolically laid his hands upon the second goat, known by the Hebrew term Azazel, or scapegoat. It was then led from the camp – and later the Temple – into a deserted place, where it would be forced off of a cliff. Jewish tradition holds that people would line the path of the scapegoat and curse at it, strike it, spit at it, and pull out its hair, to encourage it to depart with their sins as swiftly as possible.

Although today Yom Kippur is still considered the holiest day in the Jewish year, modern Judaism observes the day in a radically different fashion. Jews continue to fulfill the command to humble themselves by severe fasting. There is no Temple now, and no sacrifices are offered. Modern Judaism teaches that blood sacrifice is not necessary, and that through prayer, repentance and mitzvot, good deeds, that one’s sins will be forgiven. Yom Kippur is a day on which the practice of charity is encouraged. Observant Jews spend the day praying in the synagogue, where the confession of sin is the high point of the service. The congregation confesses in unison, naming only general sins that cause all men to stumble. There is no mention of specific sins committed by individuals. White clothing is worn to symbolize a contrite and humble heart and confidence in God’s ability to forgive sin. The shofar is blown at the end of the synagogue service to symbolize the closing of the Books of Judgment, and the congregants will gather in one another’s homes to break the fast and share a meal.

In my previous post on Rosh Hashanah, I discussed the sound of the shofar — the ram’s horn — as God’s wake up call for us, calling us to turn away from focusing on the physical world in which we live, and to contemplate the holiness of God and our relationship with Him. If Rosh Hashanah was the wake up call, then Yom Kippur is a day of preparation. Preparation for what? Very simply, preparation to be in God’s presence.

God instructed Moses concerning the Shalosh Regalim, three major festivals when every adult male Israelite would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem and worship at the Temple.

“Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Passover]; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest [Shavuot] of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering [Sukkot] at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.” Exodus 23:14-17

“You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread … You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel.” Exodus 34: 18, 22-23

“Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths …” Deuteronomy 16:16

If Rosh Hashanah woke us up to point us to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, then Yom Kippur is to prepare us for the last of the fall feasts of Israel: Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. As the name of Sukkot implies, we’re preparing to have God tabernacle among us. The Israelites would go up to God’s house, up to the Temple.

But if you’re going to go up to God’s house, you have to get ready. Therein lays a problem. You see, God is holy, and He hates sin. He cannot even look upon us because we have sin. Luckily for us, God took care of this problem. God made sure that Yom Kippur took place before Sukkot, in order that His people could be cleansed of sin and stand before Him. Yom Kippur allowed His people to know that their sin had been forgiven, so that they could go up and enjoy being in the house of God with a free conscience and a clean heart. When Sukkot arrived, they could truly participate in the rejoicing that God commanded for that festival.

Believers in Jesus Christ have received atonement once and for all through His sacrificial death on the cross. The blood of God’s own Son, Himself sinless in nature, was the only sacrifice sufficient to make final atonement for sin. Interestingly enough, we have confirmation of this from an extra-biblical Jewish source. The Talmud records that on the Day of Atonement a scarlet thread would be hung outside of the Holy of Holies. If the scapegoat, the sacrifice for sin, was accepted by the Lord the thread would turn from scarlet to white, making real the words that the prophet Isaiah had written 700 years before:

“Though your sins are scarlet they shall be white as snow.” Isaiah 1:18

The Talmud goes on to record that each year on the Day of Atonement the thread might turn white or might not, reflecting the changing spiritual state of the nation of Israel. This continued for many years, until 40 years prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, after which the thread never turned white. It remained scarlet every year, until the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. This tractate of the Talmud bears evidence to the fact that somewhere around 30 A.D. – the approximate date when Jesus was crucified – the animal sacrifices offered by the high priest of Israel were no longer accepted by God! This is because the blood of bulls and goats could never atone for sin for more than a short time. They were only shadows of a final sacrifice, a once and for all atonement for sin – the sacrifice of our Messiah Jesus on the cross. Jesus is the fulfillment of Yom Kippur, as both our great high priest and a sacrifice for all of our sin. In Him our sin is truly forgiven and our conscience cleansed.

This Saturday my wife and I — as we have done in years past — will observe Yom Kippur. In our own way we’ll follow the tradition of fasting, albeit not a fast from food. Since neither of us are allowed to fast from food for 24 hours due to health issues, we will be fasting from some other normal aspect of life, such as the use of the computer (which is a sacrifice for two people who can’t seem to go an hour without checking email). Why do we do this, if we know that we’ve already achieved atonement? We do it to honor my Jewish heritage, and we do it to acknowledge and honor what Christ went through to atone for our sins. The solemn gravity of Yom Kippur has taken on for us a great joy as well, because we know that our sins are forgiven and that we have eternal life through Jesus.

On Gossip

I started a new job recently, and during my orientation session a significant discussion was held on the subject of gossip. My orientation group was informed in no uncertain terms that employees who were found to be engaging in gossip would be disciplined, possibly even terminated from their position with the company. This certainly held no fears for me, as I staunchly detest gossip. Yet I found myself surprised to encounter a business that takes such a strong stand on the subject, and pleased to be part of an organization that values relationships so highly as to take a stance against gossip.

I’ve written previously on this blog on this subject, sharing how my grandfather chided me when I was a kid for gossiping about another child in the neigborhood. “When you gossip,” he told me, “you’re killing people! You’re killing yourself, you’re killing whoever listens to you, and you’re killing the person you gossip about.” I didn’t really understand what he meant until I was older, and was astounded to discover that my grandfather had actually been paraphrasing something from the Talmud.

In John Wesley’s sermon, The Cure of Evil Speaking, Wesley labeled gossip as a very common sin.

“… how extremely common is this sin, among all orders and degrees of men! How do high and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish, learned and unlearned, run into it continually! Persons who differ from each other in all things else, nevertheless agree in this. How few are there that can testify before God, “I am clear in this matter; I have always set a watch before my mouth, and kept the door of my lips!” What conversation do you hear,of any considerable length, whereof evil speaking is not one ingredient? and that even among persons who, in the general, have the fear of God before their eyes, and do really desire to have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward man.”

 Wesley admitted that the very commonness of the sin of gossip made it almost unavoidable, yet he was greatly concerned that the early Methodists should avoid evil speech. His Scriptural guide in this was Matthew 18:15-17, a passage in which Christ laid forth a blueprint for transparent relationships between Christians.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

How well do you personally live out this passage? I think many of us come up with all sorts of excuses for not following the express command of our Lord Jesus — I’ve been guilty of it myself. One customary excuse seems to be something along the lines of, “I’m just not comfortable approaching that person.” That may seem reasonable to our 21st-century ears, but Matthew 18 doesn’t concern itself much with our personal comfort zone so much as it does seeking the repair of broken relationships in the Body of Christ.

Wesley most certainly understood that circumstances might prevent one from communicating in person, and offered such alternatives as a personal, trusted messenger or writing a letter. Yet he also noted that the first step — approaching the one who has sinned against you — must be seen as compulsory, stating,

“It should be well observed, not only that this is a step which our Lord absolutely commands us to take, but that he commands us to take this step first, before we attempt any other. No alternative is allowed, no choice of anything else: This is the way; walk thou in it. It is true, he enjoins us, if need require, to take two other steps; but they are to be taken successively after this step, and neither of them before it: Much less are we to take any other step, either before or beside this. To do anything else, or not to do this, is, therefore, equally inexcusable.”

Do you find it challenging to obey this command?

Whose Justice?

In 1995, I was a public school teacher. My afternoon classes were interrupted on the afternoon of October 3, when the principal at my middle school came over the PA system to announce that a “not guilty” verdict had been issued in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Absolute pandemonium broke loose, as even my sixth-grade students howled with outrage at what seemed an unjust and unbelievable verdict.

Yesterday, I experienced a heart-stopping emotional flashback to that day, when a similar verdict was handed down in the Casey Anthony trial. Anthony, in case you don’t follow any news at all, is the young woman who was on trial for the alleged 2008 murder of her two-year old daughter Caylee. After a much publicized trial — and to much surprise — a jury found her not guilty of any of the charges against her related to the murder of the toddler.

I’ll admit that like many, my initial reaction was anger. It makes me sick to my stomach that someone who by all appearances seems to have murdered their child will go scot-free. Like many, I was forced to ask, “where is justice?” Now that I have had time to absorb and more importantly, time to pray, I realize I have asked the wrong question. My question should have been, “Whose justice has been served – man’s or God’s?”

How you answer this question depends on which of two camps you might fall into:

  • You feel that justice hasn’t been served and you are angry. If you are in this camp, you probably feel sick inside, just as I did when the verdict was announced. Your internal sense of justice screams that something more needed to be done about  the fact that a little girl was murdered and her body dumped in swamp like garbage.
  • You are upset that other Christians are angry. If you are in this camp, your internal sense of grace is loudly telling you to ask those who are screaming for Casey Anthony’s head why they are not willing to extend a grace that they received. After all, justice would be for you and me to die for our sins, yet instead we received God’s forgiveness. Who, then ,are we to demand justice?

After a day spent working through my own emotions and thoughts, here are some observations on this subject. I pray these might help you to put things in perspective if you are wrestling with how you personally should feel about the Casey Anthony verdict.

  • It is right to have strong emotions about events such as this.  In 1 Samuel 13:14, David is described as a man after God’s own heart. This was the result of David seeking to have emotions like God’s own emotions. When we commit to following Christ, it is essential for us to do as David did, and cultivate hearts that feel as God does towards people and circumstances.
  • There is nothing wrong with desiring  justice. One of the most frequent admonitions found in Scripture is that we be people who love justice. Scripture calls over and over for the wicked to receive punishment that is proportionate to their crimes or sins. Romans 13:1-7 is a clear call for us to allow the administration of justice on earth to be in the hands of human governments, who are to “punish those who do wrong,” as per 1 Peter 2:14 .
  • Grace and justice serve the same ends. As I’ve observed the reactions of fellow Christians during the last 24 hours or so, one thing I have taken note of is an attitude of “either/or” that seems to be present. Either justice must be served (meaning that crimes/sins are punished) OR grace must be given (meaning forgiveness is extended). But grace and justice go hand in hand; if you have no sense that wrongs must be punished, you’ll never feel that anything needs to be forgiven.
  • Overriding all else, it is offensive to the Gospel itself if we do not pray for and earnestly desire Casey Anthony’s salvation. If what goes through our heads in this tragic set of circumstances is more of “I want to see her get what she deserves” than “Lord, may your salvation come to her,” then we reveal that we have hearts that are wicked, not hearts full of the grace of God that was extended to us through the Gospel in Christ. In fact, to do other than pray for her salvation is sin, as Jesus himself made clear through Matthew 5:21-22 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

At this point, regardless of whether the preponderance of evidence points to it, no one can say for certain whether Casey Anthony murdered her own daughter. We may never know for certain who did. That is Man’s justice. But God’s justice is so much bigger than that. If she did murder little Caylee, our hearts can find a place of peace in the knowledge that God’s justice is centered on a grace so deep that God gave up His own Son that we might find forgiveness. God’s justice has been accomplished already at the foot of the cross. If the person who murdered Caylee Anthony trusts in Christ, then God’s wrath for the crime was already poured out on Calvary and His justice was done. If that person does not trust in Christ, then we can be certain that a future Judgement yet awaits, in which the administration of God’s justice will be done.

Zombie Land – Guest Post by Jeff Skinner

This guest post is by Jeff Skinner, a Nazarene church planter and pastor of EaglePointe Church of the Nazarene in Auburn, Alabama. I met Jeff when we took a preaching course together at Trevecca Nazarene University, where we’re both studying for Master’s degrees. I know Jeff to be an inventive preacher who manages to be both whimsical and entertaining without ever sacrificing solid Biblical teaching or core Wesleyan doctrines. He’d be the first to tell you that taking too many graduate courses at the same time may turn him into a zombie. 

 It seems these days zombies and vampires are all the rage. While I have not  seen any college  courses on vampires, I have seen a few on zombies. Columbia  University has a course  entitled,  “Zombies in Popular Movies.”  Baltimore  University has an English 33 course on  Zombies.  There is even an Ipad app:  “Plants vs. Zombies”. Xbox, Wii, PS3, all of them have  Zombie  themed games.  Even the Disney Channel is even getting in the Zombie action. One of  their  popular shows had a “zombie dance.”  Zombies appeared in the latest  installment  of The  Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, “On Stranger  Tides.”  There seems to be a  fascination  with zombies.

I know what you’re thinking, “What do zombies and burning hearts have in  common?” Well it turns out a good bit. In the beginning we were created  in the image of God (Imago Dei). In other words YHWH took a lump of clay and sculpted it into His own image. We are sculpted by the hands of YHWH as a testimony to the greatness of Him. Other kings had graven images/idols made in their honor, but those were made of wood, gold or something else.  Humanity was made out of flesh and blood. Humans are living, breathing, willing testimonies to our Creator. This is quite the contrast to other graven images.

You know the story. Humanity sinned and that perfect image of YHWH called human, was no longer human. Adam blames both God and Eve for his sin and Eve blames God’s creation (Genesis 3:12-13). As a result of this “fall,” our relationship with God, each other, and creation was broken. One might say the result for humanity was we became zombies — sub human. From that point forward humanity would devour everything in its path–especially each other.

Centuries later YHWH made a new relationship with Abraham. Every man child would circumcise the flesh of his foreskin at eight days old as a token of the covenant between YHWH and Abraham. This would be the beginning of the restoration of our humanity.

Then through Jeremiah the Lord told His people:

 31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people  (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

In effect, this would be the circumcision of their heart.

For Wesley, circumcision of the heart was a spiritual circumcision that removed our inclination to sin. The circumcision of the heart is “a right state of soul: ‘a mind and spirit renewed after the image that created it,’ is one of those important truths that can be ‘spiritually discerned.’”  No longer would humanity be relegated to the class of the “walking dead.”  Our image of YHWH is fully restored; making us fully human again. This is what we in the holiness movement call entire Sanctification.

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10b).

It is not the will of YHWH for His creation to walk around in a zombie-like existence, devouring everything in our paths. It is His desire for us to live; not merely exist. Unfortunately millions of people choose to exist as zombies instead of living life to its fullest. In the West we are even proud of this zombie existence, referring to ourselves as “consumers.” But once you have tasted life, you will never be happy with your inhumanity.

“O taste and see that the LORD is good; how blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him” (Psalm 34:8).

Thomas Jay Oord Review of “Love Wins”

Thomas Jay Oord, whom I have a lot of respect for, has posted a review of Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins. Oord is very positive about the book; in fact, he says it is a great book. I have not yet had a chance to read the book but since I have previously posted a link to a Kevin DeYoung review which did not view the book so positively, it seems fair to post a link to a review which takes an opposite stance. I remain concerned about the vitriol which has characterized discussion of the work – it just seems to me that it violates the Great Commandment.

Have you read the book? And what did you think of it?

The Day of Atonement

I’ve posted previously on Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. This Saturday, ten days after Rosh Hashanah,  marks the holiest day in the Jewish religious year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day that God set aside so that the people of Israel could atone for their sin as a nation.

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. Neither shall you do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no work at all. It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening to evening you shall keep your Sabbath.” Leviticus 23:26-32

Now you’ll notice that that there are two words in the passage which are repeated three times: atonement and humble (which carries the context here of denying oneself). This is the one day when the children of Israel were invited by God to consider their lives before Him and to confess their sin. It was the one day a year that only one man in all of Israel – the high priest – could enter into the one most holy spot, the Holy of Holies in the center of the Temple in Jerusalem. There he would offer a blood sacrifice first for his own sin, then the sins of the nation of Israel. The children of Israel would be gathered around the courts of the Temple, watching and waiting to see if the sacrifice would be accepted by God.

Yom Kippur was tied into the very purpose of the Mosaic Law. God had required that His people to be holy and He had given them the Law at Mount Sinai so that they could be instructed in righteousness. Yet God knew that His people could be not become holy on their own, so He gave them a means to be reconciled to Himself: a sacrificial system. The culmination of this system, by which sinning and rebellious Israelites could have their sin covered over, was Yom haKippurim: the Day of Atonement. On this day the High Priest of Israel would enter into God’s presence where He dwelt within the Holy of Holies, first in the desert Tabernacle and much later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The preparations that the priest had to make in order to purify himself before entering this holiest of places were exacting. Should he make an error it would be doubly disastrous, for the descendants of Aaron would be slain by God should they attempt to stand before Him in an impure state. Even worse, the priest would die without the sins of the nation having been atoned for.

In the Biblical period, rigorous requirements were made of each Israelite on Yom Kippur. They were commanded to humble their souls and present offerings of fire for their sins, or be cut off from the people of Israel. They were asked to set aside their earthly appetites and needs, by fasting from sundown to sundown. They were not allowed to do any work, or risk being completely destroyed. These were far harsher strictures than an ordinary Sabbath rest, and served to point out the absolute seriousness of the Day of Atonement.

Very special offerings were made before God on Yom Kippur. These consisted of incense, a bull, and two goats. Four times the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, beginning with the incense offering. As the incense burned, it formed a cloud which obscured the Ark of the Covenant; between the outstretched wings of the seraphim on its lid was the Mercy Seat, where God’s Shekinah (His glorious Presence) rested. This cloud was not just and offering but was for the protection of the high priest, since no man could see God and live.  Next was the sacrifice of a bull. The priest would lay his hands on the bull, acknowledging his own personal sin and that of the priesthood. This process of laying on of hands was the symbolic means by which those sins were transferred to the bull, allowing its death to serve as a substitute for others. The bull was then slain, and its blood taken into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the Mercy Seat.

Finally came the climax of Yom Kippur: the sacrifice of two goats. Two goats were brought before the high priest and lots were drawn. One goat would be for the Lord, and one would be for the sins of Israel as a nation.

The first goat was to be an offering to the Lord, and once more the priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of this sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat. Then he symbolically laid his hands upon the second goat, known by the Hebrew term Azazel, or scapegoat. It was then led from the camp – and later the Temple – into a deserted place, where it would be forced off of a cliff. Jewish tradition holds that people would line the path of the scapegoat and curse at it, strike it, spit at it, and pull out its hair, to encourage it to depart with their sins as swiftly as possible.

Although today Yom Kippur is still considered the holiest day in the Jewish year, modern Judaism observes the day in a radically different fashion. Jews continue to fulfill the command to humble themselves by severe fasting. There is no Temple now, and no sacrifices are offered. Modern Judaism teaches that blood sacrifice is not necessary, and that through prayer, repentance and mitzvot, good deeds, that one’s sins will be forgiven. Yom Kippur is a day on which the practice of charity is encouraged. Observant Jews spend the day praying in the synagogue, where the confession of sin is the high point of the service. The congregation confesses in unison, naming only general sins that cause all men to stumble. There is no mention of specific sins committed by individuals. White clothing is worn to symbolize a contrite and humble heart and confidence in God’s ability to forgive sin. The shofar is blown at the end of the synagogue service to symbolize the closing of the Books of Judgment, and the congregants will gather in one another’s homes to break the fast and share a meal.

In my previous post on Rosh Hashanah, I discussed the sound of the shofar — the ram’s horn — as God’s wake up call for us, calling us to turn away from focusing on the physical world in which we live, and to contemplate the holiness of God and our relationship with Him. If Rosh Hashanah was the wake up call, then Yom Kippur is a day of preparation. Preparation for what? Very simply, preparation to be in God’s presence.

God instructed Moses concerning the Shalosh Regalim, three major festivals when every adult male Israelite would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem and worship at the Temple.

“Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Passover]; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest [Shavuot] of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering [Sukkot] at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.” Exodus 23:14-17

“You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread … You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel.” Exodus 34: 18, 22-23

“Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths …” Deuteronomy 16:16

If Rosh Hashanah woke us up to point us to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, then Yom Kippur is to  prepare us for the last of the fall feasts of Israel: Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. As the name of Sukkot  implies, we’re preparing to have God tabernacle among us. The Israelites would go up to God’s house, up  to the Temple.

But if you’re going to go up to God’s house, you have to get ready. Therein lays a problem. You see, God is holy, and He hates sin. He cannot even look upon us because we have sin. Luckily for us, God took care of this problem. God made sure that Yom Kippur took place before Sukkot, in order that His people could be cleansed of sin and stand before Him. Yom Kippur allowed His people to know that their sin had been forgiven, so that they could go up and enjoy being in the house of God with a free conscience and a clean heart. When Sukkot arrived, they could truly participate in the rejoicing that God commanded for that festival.

Believers in Jesus Christ have received atonement once and for all through His sacrificial death on the cross. The blood of God’s own Son, Himself sinless in nature, was the only sacrifice sufficient to make final atonement for sin. Interestingly enough, we have confirmation of this from an extra-biblical Jewish source. The Talmud records that on the Day of Atonement a scarlet thread would be hung outside of the Holy of Holies. If the scapegoat, the sacrifice for sin, was accepted by the Lord the thread would turn from scarlet to white, making real the words that the prophet Isaiah had written 700 years before:

“Though your sins are scarlet they shall be white as snow.”  Isaiah 1:18

The Talmud goes on to record that each year on the Day of Atonement the thread might turn white or might not, reflecting the changing spiritual state of the nation of Israel. This continued for many years, until 40 years prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, after which the thread never turned white. It remained scarlet every year, until the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. This tractate of the Talmud bears evidence to the fact that somewhere around 30 A.D. – the approximate date when Jesus  was crucified – the animal sacrifices offered by the high priest of Israel were no longer accepted by God! This is because the blood of bulls and goats could never atone for sin for more than a short time. They were only shadows of a final sacrifice, a once and for all atonement for sin – the sacrifice of our Messiah Jesus on the cross. Jesus is the fulfillment of Yom Kippur, as both our great high priest and a sacrifice for all of our sin. In Him our sin is truly forgiven and our conscience cleansed.

This Saturday my wife and I — as we have done in years past — will observe Yom Kippur. In our own way we’ll follow the tradition of fasting, albeit not a fast from food. Since neither of us are allowed to fast from food for 24 hours due to health issues, we will be fasting from some other normal aspect of life, such as the use of the computer (which is a sacrifice for two people who can’t seem to go an hour without checking email). Why do we do this, if we know that we’ve already achieved atonement? We do it to honor my Jewish heritage, and we do it to acknowledge and honor what Christ went through to atone for our sins. The solemn gravity of Yom Kippur has taken on for us a great joy as well, because we know that our sins are forgiven and that we have eternal life through Jesus.

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