YOM KIPPUR – The Difference between Forgiveness & Atonement

YomKippurYOM KIPPUR (or “The Day of Atonement”) is the holiest day of the year in Judaism and in this year of 2014 it falls on this coming Shabbat, from sundown on Friday through sundown on Saturday, October 4th.

The commandment about Yom Kippur is as follows:

 And this shall be a law to you for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall   practice self-denial, and you shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.  For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord.  It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you and you shall humble your soul.  It is a law for all time.  Lev. 16:29-31

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. Lev. 23:27

Forgiveness vs. Atonement

Some people mistakenly think that Yom Kippur implies that the Jewish people can only receive forgiveness once a year.  This opinion betrays a lack of understanding between forgiveness and atonement.

God promises in many scriptures that when we repent, He forgives us, anytime day or night.  For example:

If My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  II Chron 7:14

Forgiveness from God is available to us 24/7 in direct response to our repentance for doing wrong.

Atonement means “repairing the damage done to the relationship by the sin we have committed.”  For example, suppose you have a white carpet in your living room.  Someone visiting carelessly spills a few drops of red wine or grape juice on your white carpet.  The visitor may immediately say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.  How clumsy of me.”  He or she is genuinely ‘repentant’.  You may graciously forgive them on the spot.  However, atonement means that the one who spilled the wine, gets a rag and a bucket of cold water with white vinegar, kneels down and scrubs the spot away.  By that act of ‘repairing the damage’ he has just made ‘atonement’ for the ‘sin’ of spilling wine on your white rug.  Get it? Sin has consequences that often ‘dog’ us even though we have been forgiven.

On the Day of Atonement, it is God Himself who ‘makes atonement’ for us – in His amazing mercy and compassion, He repairs the damage that our sins of the past year  (already forgiven) have inflicted an our relationship with Him, enabling us to draw closer to Him in the days ahead. THAT, my friends, is ATONEMENT.

FASTING on Yom Kippur

The phrase “you shall humble yourselves” literally means, “afflict your soul.” While Yom Kippur is observed with a 25 hour complete fast, meaning no food and no water.  So, some may ask, is fasting the only way to do so?  Why has fasting been chosen as the appropriate interpretation for this phrase?  Applying the principle that scripture is best interpreted by related scriptures:

Psalm 35:13 David writes, “I humbled my soul with fasting.”

Isaiah 58:3, 10  “Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?” Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and drive hard all your workers. And if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday.”

But “afflicting one’s soul” is more than just fasting from food and water. What else might it entail?

The goal of the holiday is to deepen our bond with our heavenly Father.  Therefore, in addition to denying ourselves food and water, we do well to refrain from talking about how hungry we may feel or how thirsty.  This defeats the purpose of Yom Kippur.  The ‘humbling of our souls’ should serve a much higher purpose.

A day of rest from our physical appetites enables us to come to grips with our need for God. It is a day that He gives us to commune with Him in the most intimate and unrestricted way possible. By fasting, we force ourselves to desire only Him, to focus only on Him.

As the holiday comes to a close, the final service in the synagogue is the most moving of the entire year.  The literal cleansing of the soul which God Himself accomplishes within us, not because we deserve it, but because He promised He would do so “for all time” is palpable.  We emerge from the day as spiritual ‘newborns’.  The slate is wiped clean and we have a brand new start.  What an awesome gift.

However you choose to identify with this holy day, may you experience the love of God which energizes the soul, the peace of God which calms the soul and the atonement of God which births a new season of relationship with Him.

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