Its Rituals and Purpose
For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It shall be a sabbath of rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls, by a statute for ever. And the priest, whom he shall anoint, and whom he shall consecrate to minister in the priest's office in his father's stead, shall make the atonement, and shall put on the linen clothes, even the holy garments:and he shall make an atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the tabernacle of the congregation, and for the altar, and he shall make an atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation. And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make an atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year. And he did as the LORD commanded Moses." (Leviticus 16:30-34 KJV).
The word "atonement" in the scripture above is translated from the Hebrew word "kippurim", a derivative of "kaphar", which means "to cover over, reconcile, appease, or forgive". It carries the idea of appeasing by making an equal payment in exchange, such as a ransom, or by making an adequate recompense for an offense.
The Rituals and Purpose
Chapter 16 of Leviticus describes the Day of Atonement as the most holy day of the Jewish year. The need for atonement arose from the fact that the sin of Israel, if not atoned for, would subject them to God's punishment and wrath. Therefore, the purpose of the Day of Atonement was to make a comprehensive sacrifice for all the sins of Israel which may not have been atoned for during the year. The people would be cleansed of their sin, thus avoiding God's wrath, and maintaining fellowship with Him. The writer of Hebrews declared, "For a tabernacle was prepared, the first, in which was both the lamp-stand, and the table, and the bread of the presence--which is called 'Holy;' and after the second veil a tabernacle that is called 'Holy of Holies,' having a golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid all round about with gold, in which is the golden pot having the manna, and the rod of Aaron that budded, and the tables of the covenant, and over it cherubim of the glory, overshadowing the mercy-seat, concerning which we are not now to speak particularly. And these things having been thus prepared, into the first tabernacle, indeed, at all times the priests do go in, performing the services, and into the second, once in the year, only the chief priest, not apart from blood, which he doth offer for himself and the errors of the people." (Hebrews 9:2-7 YLT).
Because it has always been the desire of God to save Israel, to forgive them of their iniquities, and to reconcile them to Himself, He provided a way of salvation by accepting the death of an innocent life. Thus, the the goats used the ritual bore their penalty and guilty, and covered their sins with its blood.
On this day, the high priest would adorn himself in sacred garments, and prepare himself for service through washing and cleansing. First, he would offer a bullock for his own sins (Leviticus 16:3-4). Next, he would take two goats. After casting lots, one goat would become a sacrifice, and the other became a "scapegoat". In American culture, the term "scapegoat" is used as slang to describe a person who takes the blame for someone else's wrongdoing. If you have ever wondered where the term originated, it came from the rituals performed on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:8-10). The priest would kill the first goat, take its blood, and enter into the Holy of Holies behind the veil. He would then sprinkle the blood upon the mercy seat, thus placing the blood between the symbolic presence of God and the law, which was contained with the ark of the covenant. It is these laws which Israel had miserably failed to keep, but now they were covered by the blood of the sacrifice. Finally, the priest then took the other goat, laid his hands upon the goat's head, and confessed over it all the sins and iniquities of the people, and then sent it away into the wilderness, symbolizing that the sins of Israel were being carried out of the camp (Leviticus 16:18-22). David would pen in the Psalms, "(God) made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us." (Psalms 103:7-12).
For Israel, the Day of Atonement was to be a solemn assembly, a day for the people to fast and humble themselves before the Lord. In verse 31 of Leviticus 16, God commanded the people, "It shall be a sabbath of rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls, by a statute forever." The word "afflict" in the verse means to humble, to be downcast or bowed down, or to be preoccupied. By humbling themselves, and fasting, and carrying throughout the day a mood of solemness, it denoted the seriousness of sin, and that the atoning sacrifice was for those who had a repentant heart and perservering faith. In the law, God promised to cut off and destroy from among the people any person who worked on the Day of Atonement, or who disregarded the day by not fasting and humbling themselves (see Leviticus 23:27-32).
Christ and the Day of Atonement
The Day of Atonement is full of symbolism which points to the ministry and work of Jesus Christ. The purpose of the atoning sacrifice was to provide a covering for sin, but God wanted to take their sin away. The author of Hebrews states that the laws and rituals were "a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things." He further stated the rituals and sacrifices which had to be performed year after year could not make one perfect, nor could they take away sins. But concerning Christ, the writer said that "we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God." (read chapters 9 and 10 of Hebrews).