Can you tell me who said this first, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That’s right! John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness of Judea and calling all of Israel to repent and prepare the way of the Lord! But then that’s what we would expect of John! He was a fanatic preaching hellfire and brimstone demanding that the people repent, confess their sins, and be baptized or suffer the wrath of God to come. In fact, if he showed up preaching like that today, we’d think he was a nut.
But wait a minute! What’s this I find in the very next chapter? The Lord Jesus beginning His public ministry, and what’s the message He proclaims? Matthew 4:17—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That’s the very same message John preached. I point that out because we hear a lot today about believing in Jesus, and we ought to hear a lot about it because that’s the only way to be saved. Acts 16:31—“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!”
But what’s often forgotten and left out of the gospel message today is the fact that true faith involves repentance. That was the message of both John and the Lord Jesus! Consequently, I’m no one’s judge, but if the Jesus we believe in doesn’t call for repentance, we are believing in is a different Jesus than the one revealed in the Bible and our salvation may be something we’ve made up in our own minds. Is it any wonder, then, that many who claim to be Christians today are living like the devil! They’ve left out of their conversion experience the absolutely vital component of repentance.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor hanged for his opposition to Hitler 23 days before the end of the war, put it like this: “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without contrition. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
“Wow! You sure sound judgmental!” you say. No, not really, not when you realize what sin has done to us. It has infected our minds, mutated our bodies, divided our families, and broken everything in the world around us. Anything that causes pain and suffering can be directly traced back to sin! Whereas true repentance and faith—they bring the healing of God which is able to restore everything that sin has broken!
I love how Pat Summerall put it. Do you remember him? He was the great sportscaster who dedicated 50 years of his life to professional football—10 years as a player for the Chicago Cardinals and New York Giants. Then upon retiring, he became a sportscaster, first for CBS and then FOX sports. He died earlier this year. But did you know that before he did, he repented and turned to Christ. A lifetime alcoholic, Summerall was told to give up drinking or die. So he checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic where his counselor urged him to seek a better life through faith.
So he did. He started reading the Bible and going to church, he put his faith in Christ, and at the age of 64 was baptized. You see, there’s something about expressing your repentance in front of others that makes it real. Listen to how he described the experience. He said, “When the minister leaned me back in the water, I never felt so helpless. I knew that I had just become a Christian. After my baptism, I felt so clean. I knew what people meant when they talked about being born again. I had that feeling. I had a feeling of peace. I felt smarter, lighter, and quicker. It was a feeling I’ve never had before. I can’t tell you how great life has been since then.”
What does this have to do with today’s study? It’s both the point of our study and what Christianity itself is all about—the repentance of our sins and faith in our Lord Jesus. Over the last several weeks we’ve been studying the feasts of Israel. But as we’ve seen, the feasts aren’t about Israel. They’re about Israel’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, each one picturing something He either did to obtain our salvation at His first coming (His death, His burial, His resurrection, and the gift of His Holy Spirit)—or something He’s about to do for us in the future. Last week, for example, we looked at the Feast of Trumpets which pictures His return and rapture of the church.
But today we come to the most solemn feast of all—one that calls for humility, self-examination, and repentance of our sins. The feast is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. As we seek to understand it, there are three key facts I want us to look at—its purpose, its celebration, and its coming fulfillment by Jesus Christ.
Listen, first, to how Leviticus 23:26-28 describes it. It says, “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.
1. Its Two-Fold Purpose
The purpose of this feast, then, is two-fold: affliction and atonement. In fact, that’s what the phrase Yom Kippur means. It means “day of covering,” because that’s what atonement does for us. It covers our sins with the blood of an innocent sacrifice. In Israel’s case, that was accomplished by the high priest who entered the holiest place in the Temple once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer a sacrifice on behalf of his people. He was the only one permitted to enter that holy place. Before he did, he’d offer a bull as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering, and then bathe his body in water and put on white linen garments as a sign of purity and humility, because if he dared to enter God’s presence in an unworthy manner, he’d immediately lose his life. There the first thing he did was offer incense as a sweet-smelling fragrance to God.
Then it was time to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat located on the top of the Ark of the Covenant between the wings of the cherubim. Seven times he sprinkled the blood, for seven is the number of perfection. And then when he came out of that holy place, he would announce to those who were waiting, “It is done!”
Does that sound familiar to you? It should, for those were the final words Jesus spoke from the cross when He finished atoning for our sins as our Great High Priest. John says after accepting sour wine on a sponge from one of the soldiers, He cried out with a loud voice, “It is finished,” then bowed His head and gave up His spirit.
But that wasn’t the end of the high priest’s work that day. What followed was just as important. Leviticus 16 says of him, “He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.”
The way the high priest did that was to lay his hands on the head of the scapegoat and confess the sins of the people. Then one of the priests would lead the goat away to a designated spot, twelve miles outside the camp in the wilderness where he would push the goat that bore their sins over a cliff to its death.
This is where it gets interesting because the Talmud says once the scapegoat was chosen, the high priest would take a scarlet-colored cord, cut it in two, and tie half of it to the head of the scapegoat that was to be sent into the wilderness and the other half to the door of the sanctuary. When it plunged to its death, bearing the sins of the people, both the thread tied to its head and the thread tied to the door of the sanctuary would, by a miracle of God, turn white, assuring them that their sins were forgiven. Wasn’t that gracious of God! As Isaiah promised, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow; though they be red as crimson, they shall be as wool.”
Of course, as believers in Jesus, we know it isn’t the death of a goat that takes away our sins. All of that was meant to foreshadow the death of Jesus, God’s Scapegoat, who takes away the sins of the world. Isaiah says of Him, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” That’s another meaning of kippur, by the way. It can also mean “ransom,” describing the high price Jesus paid to save us from our sins.
This, then, was and is the most solemn day of the Jewish year calling for great humility, soul-searching, and repentance, which is the second purpose of this day—not only atonement, but also affliction. Did you notice that in the passage we read earlier? The Lord said to Moses, this day “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… 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.”
So it is both in Israel and throughout the Jewish community around the world today. Absolutely no work is done on this day. Cars are parked, shops and cafes close, business, commerce, and public transportation come to a grinding halt, cell phones and computers lie dormant, TV and radio stations stop broadcasting, and all of Israel goes into prayer and fasting for the next 25 hours until they hear the sound of the shofars Saturday evening at sunset that are blown in all the synagogues across the country.
Because of Leviticus 16, which tells them to deny themselves, most Jews also forego normal pleasures this day like eating and drinking, bathing and washing, marital relations, wearing perfume or lotions, and even wearing leather shoes. Leather shoes are apparently a sign of luxury. So many Jews wear cloth slippers instead. In fact, polls say that even Jews who aren’t religious often fast on this day because according to the rabbis, this is the day when God’s people are either forgiven or face judgment because of their sins. Devout Jews suffer great anxiety wondering where they stand with God. Aren’t you glad that as a believer in Jesus you no longer have to worry about that knowing your sins are forgiven because of what He did for you on the cross!
Five services are traditionally held this day—a confessional chant on Friday evening, an early morning service on Saturday where Leviticus 16 is read, a midday service where they read about the Day of Atonement, an afternoon service where they read from the book of Jonah, reminding them of God’s forgiveness and mercy. That’s interesting because you’ll remember Jesus said that was the only sign that’d be given to the people of Israel. He said, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet, for as Jonah was in the belly of the fish 3 days and 3 nights, so the Son of Man will be 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth.” Finally, there is the evening service when the books are closed, the shofar is blown, and people return home for a “break-fast” meal.
So it’s a solemn and sad day because it’s without any hope. The Jewish people engage in prayer, good works, and acts of charity trying to assuage the guilt of their sins. But it brings no lasting relief. In fact, one of the traditions that began, when the Temple was destroyed and sacrifices were no longer possible, is the Kapparot. In this ceremony, a devout Jewish man takes a white rooster, holds it by the right hand and swings it over his head three times while reciting this prayer, “This fowl shall be in my stead, shall be my atonement; it shall go to death so that I can attain a good life and peace.” The people of Israel yearn for God’s forgiveness but they have no assurance of it because they haven’t yet found new life and forgiveness in Jesus the Messiah.
Another sad fact recorded in the Talmud is what happened following the work of Christ on the cross. It says, “During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the lot for the scapegoat never again came up in the priest’s right hand (which was a sign of God’s favor), nor did the scarlet cord tied to the scapegoat’s horn and the doors of the Temple ever again turn white.” Instead, you know what the Talmud says began to happen? Remember how the veil was torn was torn from top to bottom when Jesus died indicating that God’s presence is now open to everyone who believes in His Son? The Talmud says the same thing happened to the Eastern gate leading to the inner court of the Temple. This gate was made of brass and so heavy it took twenty men to close it. It also rested on a base of iron and was fastened deep into the stone floor with bolts. Yet from that day on, it was found open of its own accord at the sixth hour of the night, the very hour Jesus died. The westernmost light on the candelabra also refused to burn indicating that the light of the Temple was about to go out.
How do we account for these things? I believe there were signs from God that Jesus, His Lamb and Scapegoat, finished the work of salvation and that heaven is now open to whoever believes in Him. But the Jewish community doesn’t have this hope. Listen to this prayer written in the Talmud by Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakkai, one of the members of the counsel of rabbis in Jerusalem who set the rules for future generations to follow once the Temple was destroyed. “Now I am being led before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He who lives and endures forever and ever! If He is angry with me, He is angry forever. If He puts me to death, He puts me to death forever. I cannot persuade Him with words or bribe Him with money. Moreover, there are two ways ahead of me: one leads to paradise and the other to hell, and I do not know which one will take me. How can I do anything but weep?” That’s the heart cry of every devout Jew who faces this day without a Savior in Jesus, because it’s only in Jesus that we have peace with God and forgiveness of our sins. So pray for the peace of Jerusalem and that one day soon, as Paul promised, all Israel will be saved.
3. Its Coming Fulfillment
Now onto the prophetic implications of this day! What we see right away are several parallels between the Day of Atonement and the Return of Jesus. Remember, first, what we learned about the Feast of Trumpets. It is a two-day feast that takes place eight days before the Day of Atonement. So how did the high priest use his time that week leading up to this feast? He and the other priests went into hiding for seven days to prepare themselves for the Day of Judgment to come. Likewise the Bible says that Jesus, our High Priest, is going to take us believer-priests who make up His church, home to heaven for seven years before the judgment of God is poured out on the earth.
That is also in keeping with the Jewish wedding custom whereby the groom would return for his bride and take her home to the bridal chamber he’d prepared for her in his father’s house. There they’d celebrate their union for seven days before the wedding feast began. In like manner, Jesus is going to return for His Bride, the church, and take us home to the place He’s prepared for us in heaven for seven years before we return to celebrate the Wedding Supper of the Lamb in His new kingdom on earth.
Several other parallels are also found in the book of Revelation where Jesus, our Great High Priest, acts out in a literal way and on a global scale the Day of Atonement. For example, Revelation 8:1 says when He breaks the seventh seal, there’ll be silence in heaven for about half an hour, which is how long the high priest was in the Holy of Holies while the people waited outside in silence to see what the outcome would be. In this case, the outcome isn’t good. Because the world has rejected Jesus, God’s Lamb, judgment is poured out until a voice finally rings out from heaven saying, “It is done,” which is the same thing the high priest said when he finished his work in the Temple.
It is at that point Jesus returns to earth with two very different outcomes for mankind—judgment of His enemies, but salvation for Israel and all who love Him. Revelation 19 describes the action like this: “I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war.…From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron…And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” So there will be judgment for His enemies. But no one has to be in that camp. We can freely choice this very day to surrender our lives to Christ and enjoy His love and forgiveness forever.
But what about the people of Israel! The prophet Zechariah gives us the most information on this topic. He says that even though two-thirds of the people will be cut off and perish like most of the world at that time, one-third will remain alive until the coming of the Lord. At which point the Lord says, “And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn.” So there will be great mourning in Israel when they realize that the One they have rejected for so long is their true Messiah. But that grief will soon turn to joy when Jesus, their Great High Priest, washes away their sins by the power of His blood. Zechariah adds, “In that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and uncleanness (and)…they will call on My name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘This is My people,’ and each one will say, ‘This is my God.’”
Then will come about what you and I have been praying for all of our lives. God’s kingdom will come and His will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. That’s also what’s pictured in the Year of Jubilee, which begins on the Day of Atonement.
But more about that next time! Today I finish with this question: Is repentance an integral part of your relationship with God? Having lived with this topic for a week, I’ve realized that no, I’m not nearly as repentant as I ought to be. Yes, I repented of my sins over forty years ago when I trusted Jesus as my Savior. And I invite you to do the same thing today if you never have before. But for the rest of us who’ve known Jesus a long time, I believe there’s a tendency to become too casual with Him and forget that He’s a Great King and that if we stood before Him today, like Peter, John, or anyone else who’s seen Him in His glory, we’d immediately fall down at His feet in worship. Consequently, I’ve decided to join our Jewish friends this Yom Kippur in a time of fasting, repentance, and prayer because that’s the only way to bring the Kingdom of God into our lives—to repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!
Sources used in this sermon series: “The Seven Feasts of Israel” by Zola Levitt, “Celebrating Jesus in the Biblical Feasts” by Richard Booker, “Unlocking the Secrets of the Feasts” by Michael Norten, “Life Principles for Worship from the Feasts of Israel” by Rick Shepherd, and “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” by Alfred Edersheim.