The Profound Prophetic Significance of the Day of Atonement

By: Karen Engle, ICEJ USA Managing Editor

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. … You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings” (Leviticus 23:27–32; also Leviticus 16).

The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, both in biblical times and today. Though other feasts, like Passover, dealt with the individual, Yom Kippur was specific to the nation of Israel. In biblical times, it was the one day, once a year, when the entire nation’s sins were forgiven for the previous year.

Among the law God gave Israel at Mount Sinai was His detailed instruction for how to celebrate Yom Kippur. It was to be a feast kept forever—meaning, even today Israel should be keeping the feast. Israel was to humble or “afflict” their souls (fast or abstain from food), repent of any sin from the previous year, and rest. The high priest was to offer blood sacrifices to “make atonement” for the sins of the people, the priesthood, and the nation committed during the previous year. It was like starting a new year with a clean spiritual slate.

However, because most versions of the Bible translate the original word kippur as “atonement,” and because “atonement” is often inaccurately understood as the removal of sin or the reconciliation between God and man through Jesus’ sacrificial death, the profound meaning of what this feast is about for the nation of Israel is often lost for modern-day Bible readers.

The original Hebrew word translated as “atonement” is kippur (and its verb form kaphar). Kaphar means “To cover over, to reconcile, to conceal (sin).” The same word is found in the original Hebrew name for the Mercy Seat that covers the ark of the covenant—and it’s also the same Hebrew word for the English word “pitch” that God instructed Noah to cover the ark with, helping to protect the precious cargo inside. (Already, you can see how knowing the true meaning behind the word “atonement” might dramatically impact how we understand Yom Kippur.)

For this reason, Yom Kippur is known as the “Day of Covering.” And because it was also the day God judged the sins of the entire nation, it became known by another idiom: the “Day of Judgment.”

In modern Judaism, Yom Kippur follows 10 days of repentance from the start of Yom Teruah (also called Rosh Hashanah) known as the “Days of Teshuvah” or “Days of Awe.” For those 10 days, Jewish people confess sin and do good deeds in hopes their names will be found in the Book of Life before the gates of heaven close.

Yom Kippur in the Old Testament

Back when Israel was wandering in the desert, on this holiest day of the year on the Hebrew calendar, Israel’s high priest (a “type” or “shadow” of Jesus) had the main role for the day as an emissary for the entire nation—and all activity centered on the tabernacle (and later the temple in Jerusalem). God gave specific instruction for the high priest regarding cleansing, sacrifices, and clothing.


Yom Kippur was heavily focused on cleansing. Throughout this holy day, the priest bathed no fewer than five times and washed his hands and feet ten times in a golden basin—purifying himself after each sacrifice. But the people and the priests also needed cleansing from sin, and because the people’s sins made the tabernacle (and later the temple) unclean, God’s earthly sanctuary also needed cleansing. All this was done through the shedding of blood, for God had said, “It is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11).


On Yom Kippur, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to approach God as Israel’s “mediator” with sacrifices to kaphar (cover) his sins and the peoples’ sins for one year, in effect closing the gap between God and His people and drawing them close. In addition to the regular daily offerings, the priest made 15 other offerings to the Lord. But the three primary offerings were:

  • two goats – one sacrificed for God that would cover Israel’s sins and the other that would be let go into the wilderness for “Azazel”
  • a bull – a symbol of strength, sacrificed for the priest
  • incense – symbolic of prayer

After casting lots to determine which goat would be sacrificed and which goat released, the high priest slaughtered the bull and sprinkled its blood on the east side and in front of the Mercy Seat (a “shadow” of the heavenly throne of God) to cover his sins, his family’s sins, and the sins of the entire priesthood. He then poured incense onto hot coals before the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, filling the entire chamber with smoke. Next, he slaughtered the goat of the sin offering and did the same with its blood to cover the people’s sins. Finally, after the high priest laid his hands on the head of the goat for Azazel, confessing onto the goat the sins of the people, another priest took this “scapegoat” into the wilderness and pushed it off a cliff.

The congregation of Israel waited with bated breath outside the tabernacle: if God accepted the sacrifices, Israel’s sins would be covered for another year; judgment would be held off. Thus, what started on Yom Teruah—repentance and self-evaluation—culminated 10 days later on Yom Kippur as Israel’s sins were temporarily covered for the next year but not permanently removed. The animals’ blood also purged the earthly sanctuary of impurities as the priest combined the bull’s and the goat’s blood and sprinkled it on the horns of the altar in the courtyard.


After completing the daily sacrifices on Yom Kippur, the priest changed from his regular colorful clothing into a white linen turban, robe, tunic, trousers, and sash—white representing purity. Every time the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, he bathed and changed into new linen garments, for they would be covered in blood from previous sacrifices. When all the Yom Kippur sacrifices were done, the high priest bathed again and changed into golden garments and completed the evening sacrifices.

Is Yom Kippur in the New Testament?

Just after Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, during which time Jesus, interestingly, neither ate nor drank, Luke tells us He went to a Nazareth synagogue and was handed the Isaiah scroll to read. Not coincidentally, He opened the scroll and began reading from Isaiah 61:1:

The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because the He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:14–19)

Jesus then closed the scroll and said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

That day, in His hometown and to his own brethren, Jesus claimed to be Israel’s Messiah and declared how His first advent on Earth was fulfilling Isaiah’s words. The phrase “preach the gospel to the poor” summarizes well His earthly ministry when Jesus proclaimed liberty to the captives and literally gave sight to the blind. However, Jesus inserted a phrase not found in Isaiah 61: “set at liberty those who are oppressed.” It comes from Isaiah 58:6.


Doing so was common in first-century Judaism. Rabbis would weave various verses and passages together to communicate a principle. So let’s consider that phrase in its context:

You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:4–6)

In this passage, Isaiah notes that God will one day “let the oppressed go free” on “an acceptable day to the Lord.” This phrase was only declared on Jubilee, when every fiftieth year, on Yom Kippur, Israel was to proclaim freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. Debts were to be forgiven, sold-off property returned to its original owner, and slaves returned to their clans; the land was also to lie fallow.

By inserting that phrase drawn from Isaiah 58 “set at liberty those who are oppressed,” Jesus was alluding to what would soon come: His crucifixion and shed blood on the cross that would release anyone who believed from being enslaved to sin—Jew or gentile. However, we mustn’t miss some other words Isaiah used—specifically, “fast” and “afflict,” code words for Yom Kippur. Because Jesus quoted from Isaiah 58, which likely points to Yom Kippur on a Jubilee year, and because He declared Scripture was “fulfilled in your hearing,” some scholars believe Jesus was reading Isaiah 61 during a first-century Yom Kippur service.

But don’t miss another profound detail in Luke: Jesus stopped mid-phrase in verse 2 of Isaiah 61, closing the scroll. If we pick up there to the end of verse 3, we read:

… and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they [Israel] may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.

Beneath Jesus’ declaration in Isaiah 61 of being Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, there’s a call to corporate repentance. Jesus’ first coming was as the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) to the individual. Vengeance for God’s enemies would come later—on a future Yom Kippur when He returns to the Mount of Olives to right all wrongs and fight Israel’s enemies. Isaiah says on that day He will comfort His people who are mourning in Zion (Jerusalem) and replace their sorrow with gladness and joy—and Israel will be the “trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord” He always intended for them to be.

And it will be all for one reason: that He may be glorified.

What Yom Kippur Points To

Yom Kippur provides prophetic insight regarding Jesus’ return, the restoration of national Israel, and the final judgment of the world. Every year on Yom Kippur the high priest entered the “copy” of the heavenly Holy Place. But the writer of Hebrews says when Jesus ascended to heaven, it was as Israel’s Great High Priest, the mediator of a new covenant; He entered the Most Holy Place in the heavenly tabernacle, not by the blood of goats and calves to cover sin for one year but “once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). Jesus’ sacrifice accomplished not just a covering for sin but the removal of it.

On that day when Jesus comes out of the heavenly tabernacle upon which the earthly pattern was based, now cleansed by His blood—giving His people access into the heavenly Holy of Holies—Zechariah 12:10 tells us that national Israel will see Him as He truly is: “They will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son.”

Those who put their faith in Jesus and His death on the cross experience removal of sin the moment they believe. Redemption for the individual is done, but God’s promises for Israel’s national restoration remain. Paul teaches in Romans 11:26–27 that when God’s people embrace Jesus as their Messiah, acknowledge their offense, and seek God’s face, He will not just cover their sins but remove them as far as the east is to the west: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.”

This is the prophetic fulfillment of Yom Kippur—when Jesus returns to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, is received by His people, and secures victory over their enemies. It’s a day for Israel Zechariah foresaw, when fasts like Yom Kippur will become times of joy:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh [Yom Kippur], and the fast of the tenth, shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah. (Zechariah 8:19)

Though Jesus was indeed a suffering servant at His first coming, He will return as Isaiah prophesied on “the day of vengeance of our God” and fulfill Yom Kippur as conquering King. The spiritually dead will be judged, but he who is victorious, says the apostle John, will be dressed in white (Revelation 7:9), cleansed by the blood of the Lamb—and never blotted out from the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5).