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The High Holy Days: Reflecting on God's Forgiveness
Too often repentance, prayer or works of mercy don't seem to achieve the forgiveness that Jewish people long for. Who will intercede for them?

Isn't it true that the joy of the Lord can sometimes fill us with a burden for others to know that same joy? That is how I feel in the autumn, when the Jewish people celebrate the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).These Jewish observances, often almost the only hint of "religion" in so many Jewish lives, fill me with a desire for the Jewish people to grasp the truth to which Israel's Holy Days point—their fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah.

Shofar—a ram's horn.

The High Holy Days and repentance

The High Holy Days begin with a sound that has echoed through the centuries—the blast of the Shofar (Ram's Horn).This ancient ritual has served as a call to repentance. "Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful … " (Joel 2:13) is the watch cry of the New Year. In Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah, God's Book of Life is opened and our lives are weighed in the balance.

The traditional Jewish New Year greeting, "L'shanah tovah tikatevu" ("May you be inscribed for a good year"), expresses the hope that when that book is closed on Yom Kippur, our names will be written for good things.

Along with prayer and works of mercy, repentance is one of the "Three Pillars" of the Jewish faith. These three principles of action are meant to take the place of sacrifice in an age when the destruction of the Temple has made it impossible to offer the sacrifice. And yet, Scripture makes it clear that sacrifice is the only effective means through which sins can be forgiven.

The High Holy Days and forgiveness

The ten days that separate Rosh Hashanah from Yom Kippur are known as the "Days of Awe." During this time, observant Jews examine their lives and diligently seek to correct any ways in which they have offended God and others.

It is a time when amends are made, so far as it is possible, with those whom we have offended. And on Yom Kippur, which is a day of fasting, much of the day is spent in the synagogue in prayer for God's forgiveness. The ancient liturgy of Yom Kippur poses weighty questions. "Who will be born and who will die, who will be serene and who will be disturbed, who will be poor and who will be rich, who will be humbled and who will be exalted?"

Who will be inscribed in God's favor and who will not? Many Jewish people of conscience cannot help but feel a sense of dread during this time, for deep down, we know that no amount of repentance, prayer or works of mercy can tip the balance in our favor. Our sin is too weighty. But who, if not the High Priest, can intercede for us? And what, if not the sinless offering of sacrifice, can suffice to bring us release from the just judgment of our righteous God?

Yom Kippur closes with another blast of the Shofar. But so often, even a glimpse of the forgiveness that the Jewish people long for seems as far off as God Himself.

Messiah and the high priesthood

Have you looked into the book of Hebrews lately? It is a wonderful exploration of Messianic fulfillment. Its message is especially powerful during the High Holy Days because it speaks so beautifully to the relationship between our need for sacrifice and how completely Messiah has met this need. It also shows how the ministry of Messiah fulfills the earlier covenants God made with Israel, enabling us to grasp them more fully in light of what Messiah has done.

Much of the book of Leviticus is devoted to the subject of sacrifice, for one of the most basic truths that the Scriptures convey to us is that our sinfulness creates a distance between us and God that can only be bridged from His side to ours. This is why the provision of sacrifice is so important, for only through sacrifice may our sin be blotted out and our peace with God be restored.

Leviticus 16 describes the High Priest's duties on the Day of Atonement: "Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel … that he may make atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel" (Leviticus 16:15-17).

It is against this background that the ministry of Messiah, our High Priest, comes to fruition: "But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come … Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" (Hebrews 9:11-14).

May you be inscribed

How wonderful it is to see that Jesus, our High Priest, need not sacrifice every year because He became our sacrifice once and for all time. The offering He makes is not the blood of goats and calves, but His own blood, shed once for the sake of our lasting reconciliation. So, in good Jewish tradition, I say to you, "L'shanah tovah tikatevu."

May you be inscribed, not only for a good year, but also for eternity; not through your repentance, prayers or good works—worthy as those things are—but because of your faith in the Messiah who died for you so that you might live with Him forever.

Dr. Mitch Glaser, is a Jewish believer and president of Chosen People Ministries Inc., a 114-year-old mission sharing the Good News of Messiah Jesus in Jewish communities around the world.

Originally published in The Chosen People, September 2004.

 

 
 
 
 

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