By Jon Wren
Beginning this Tuesday evening [October 8, 2019], over a period of the next 24-plus hours, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur. The holiday has its origins in Leviticus, where God instructed the Israelites to observe a “day of atonement,” which served to remind the people that sin separates them from God, and they cannot atone for it on their own. Over many centuries, the Jewish people have developed traditions and customs for observing Yom Kippur, and many of them come directly from Leviticus 16.
One custom came from the instructions God gave the high priest concerning how to observe the ritual. In contrast to other ceremonies involving elaborate robes and richly decorated clothing, on Yom Kippur the high priest was to wear a simple outfit of white linen. It became a custom, then, for all Jews to wear clean, white clothing that day—and that was a significant challenge in Bible times.
Laundry soap wasn’t developed until the Industrial Age and bleach wasn’t invented until the late 18th century. For most of human history, clothing was “washed” but wasn’t really “cleaned.” That meant stains and smudges on garments never really went away. This dynamic served to remind the people of the permanence of sins’ stain, and how it’s almost impossible to remove.
Yet, five simple words point to God’s ultimate plan to deal with sin forever: “On this day atonement will be made for you” (Leviticus 16:30, author’s emphasis). From the beginning of Yom Kippur, God clearly indicated that forgiveness of sins would never come from human effort, perfection, or ritual. Instead, forgiveness would be the work of God alone.
As believers, when we take Communion, we remember and celebrate that through the work of Christ, atonement has been made for us once and for all. There is no way we can clean or remove the stain of sin on our own power. Only through Jesus is the promise of Yom Kippur fulfilled where “before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins” (v. 30).
Jon Wren works with the Office of Civil Rights, addressing the impact of gentrification on school desegregation. He loves history, college football, and once got a ticket for driving too slowly.