Today (9/13/13 beginning at sunset) the Jewish people, and many Messianic Jews, celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Like most Jewish feasts the traditions of today are not the same as they were in Biblical times due to the absence of the Temple, but there is rich meaning in the events that were to occur on this day.
The Day of Atonement is the only ‘sad’ feast, and the only one that requires a 24 hour (from sunset to sunset) fast. Why is this feast different from the others? Because this is a day of repentance for all of Israel, and there are sacrifices prescribed for the priests, the leaders and the people. No one is without sin, and those who hold a position of respect are required to do more to repent.
This is the day when the high priest, who has washed and remained awake all night so that he may not sin accidentally, goes behind the curtain of the Temple and sprinkles the blood of bulls and goats (guilt offerings for the priests and people) behind the veil in the Holy of Holies, and it is hoped that God would give him a message for the people. In the year that Jesus was crucified, God did just that, and the message that Caiaphas received was that it was better for one man to die for all the people. (John 11:50-51) (He, of course, misunderstood what was being said exactly, but that is another story…)
On the Day of Atonement two goats are brought to the Temple. Lots are drawn and one goat is sacrificed while the other becomes the scapegoat. A bull is also sacrificed for the sins of the priests. These sacrifices are unique because although the blood of the animals is sprinkled seven times on the altar, as well as in the Temple, the entire animal is burned outside the camp, rather than on the altar itself. This imagery fits with Jesus, who is our lasting atonement, being sacrificed outside of Jerusalem as well.
The other goat, known as the scapegoat, has a red ribbon tied to its horns. The Talmud reports that a portion of the ribbon was then cut off and placed on the Temple gate. By morning it would turn white indicating that God had accepted their sacrifices. (After Jesus’ death the ribbon ceased turning white.) The scapegoat is then taken outside the camp and let go to signify that the people of Israel wish to have their sins taken as far away from them as possible. Since the goat occasionally wandered back into the city, it became customary to drive it off a cliff to prevent its return. But Biblically, it is to go free.
Now the Day of Atonement only removed one’s debts to God. Fixing relationships with others continues to this day to be something that requires getting up from the altar and going to another for forgiveness. This is why, when we come to Christ and our sins are forgiven, we may go to heaven (since our relationship with God is fully restored) but there are still consequences and relationships that need to be rebuilt here on earth. The sacrificial system at the Temple, and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, which replaced it, are for repairing a relationship with our Creator. Our debts to others require paying the debt, or asking for forgiveness from others. And God believes fixing relationships with others is so important that He tells us to leave our gifts (offerings) at the altar and deal with the people we have hurt before doing anything extra for Him. (Matthew 5:24)
Today the Day of Atonement is a day of reflection and asking forgiveness. Since there is no Temple, and since Jesus’ sacrifice makes the need for additional sacrifices obsolete, the blood of bulls and goats is no longer necessary. Examining your relationship with God and others however is always a good idea, so if you wish, put aside time on this day, and fast from sunset to sunset, and allow God to show you how you need to change.
Scapegoat references: http://www.calvaryoxnard.org/studies/nt/Mark/The%20Torn%20Veil.htm