We think of Yom Kippur as the Day of Judgment, which comes after ten days of difficult introspection about all our sins and frailties. On the other hand, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement when our sins are forgiven.
For judgment to have meaning, there must be an uncomfortable penalty of God’s wrath. So, what is the relationship between judgment and forgiving atonement? I suggest the answer is in the concept of “change,” and one cannot fully appreciate the meaning of Yom Kippur without understanding change within the context of the Hebraic sense of time.
Two Aspects of Salvation
Salvation means to be saved from something to something. There are two aspects of salvation in Scripture, one from death (the penalty of sin) to life, which requires righteousness without sin. Christians tend to focus on this aspect of salvation because, as Gentiles (non-Jews), they did not belong to God until they believed in his son. That gift, which is called eternal life, is hard to wrap around, so Christian theology tends to dwell on this aspect of salvation as the promise of future eternal life with God.
Not so with Judaism. There is a second aspect of salvation that results from a daily walk of righteousness, which rescues us from the trials and tribulations of the world. One is not truly “living” if one is walking in sin. True “life” is to drawn near to God, and to receive the benefits of that relationship (love, joy, peace, and other fruit of the Spirit that we read about in Gal 5:22-23). Christians call this second aspect of life “sanctification,” which unfortunately often receives little attention. In contrast, Jews focus, not on future eternal life (try to explain that to a Jew and you might have some problems), but on sanctification. Let me explain why.
Jews know from Scripture that they belong to God, who calls them His firstborn son (Ex 4:22) and refers to Himself as their Father (Dt 32:6). God gave them the Law so they could learn how to draw near to Him. Listen to Isaiah. “Now, O Lord, You are our Father, we are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand. (Isa 64:8). David expresses the joy of drawing near to God. “How blessed is the one whom You choose and bring near to You, to dwell in Your courts (Ps 65:4).
Two Aspects of Judgment
As there are two aspects of salvation, one a future promise of eternal life with God and the other a daily walk of sanctification that enables us to draw near to God now, so there are two aspects of judgment. The first is a gift that God bestows on His children when they first belong to Him. The gift is the promise of eternal life, which results from God seeing His children as righteous. We can understand this principle from the natural world because all newborn children come into this world in a perfect, sinless condition.
The second aspect of judgment requires work, and must be earned. For Jews, the process of sanctification comes from walking in the ways of the Law. For Christian believers, both Jew and Gentile, the Law has been written on their hearts (2 Co 3:3), which lies dormant until they activate it by their love and faith in Christ (Gal 5:6). Now we can return to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Judgment and Salvation in Yom Kippur
Jews perceive Yom Kippur as an opportunity to acknowledge their sins and repent. This is the process of sanctification, which they must work out during the coming year. They know that forgiveness is not automatic, but is contingent on a sincere desire from the heart to change. True repentance requires fasting (Mishnah, Yoma 8:1) and a day of affliction (Lev 16:29, 31). True repentance requires change, which the New Testament calls a “new creation” (Gal 6:15). Since we cannot be perfect yet, this process of sanctification that Yom Kippur represents must be repeated from year to year.
Unfortunately, Christians rarely even consider Yom Kippur. But when they do, they tend to focus on the Hebrew word kippur, which means a covering. Thus, God has “covered” the sins of His people, thus making atonement for them by forgiving their sins when they first belong to God. Yes, that will happen at some time in the future (the first aspect of salvation that we call eternal life). And Christians point (correctly) to the sacrifice of Yeshu, who covers our sins when we first believe in him.
However Jews, who focus on the second aspect of salvation and judgment in Yom Kippur, which is daily sanctification, are missing the wonderful work of God’s Messiah that not only adds Gentiles into God’s community but also bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit through their faith in Christ.. And Christians who focus mainly on the first aspect of salvation and judgment, which is future eternal life, are tragically missing an opportunity to grow close to God in their daily lives,
To fully appreciate Yom Kippur, let us reflect on both aspects of salvation and judgment.
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