One of the most common questions Christians ask our ministry is, “What do Jewish people do today to find forgiveness for sin without the existence of the Temple and the ability to offer a blood sacrifice?” Coming from our perspective as believers in the Lamb of God whose sacrificial death atoned for our sins, the question is natural. However, most Jewish people do not give a second thought as to whether or not a blood sacrifice is necessary today for atonement.
As followers of Jesus who believe in the authority of both Testaments, we are well familiar with the words of Moses who wrote, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement” (Leviticus 17:11; 16:34).
At one time, the faith of the Jewish people, as revealed in Scripture, was centered upon the Temple and priesthood in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in AD 70, the Jewish people were forced to rethink nearly everything about their way of life and approach to God. What were the Jewish people to do now that over half of the five books of Moses were impossible to be observed without the Temple and an active priesthood?
For Jewish believers in Jesus, this question was not difficult. Yeshua came to His people offering a New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), a better priesthood, and an atoning sacrifice that accomplished all that the Temple was meant to accomplish. As the writer of Hebrews notes, “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
How did the Jewish leaders respond to the destruction of the Temple and the inability to offer atoning sacrifices on the Day of Atonement? In the years following the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish leaders, who never ceased to mourn the destruction of the Temple and remember what was lost and destroyed by the Romans, developed a series of substitutes for the Temple sacrifices. These “substitutes” for sacrifice continue to our present day.
Their solutions to finding redemption without a Temple can be summarized in three broad categories: relaxing the biblical commands because of the inability to obey them in light of the destruction of the Temple, transcending the biblical commands, and substituting for the biblical commands.
One common rabbinic response was to relax the commandments that were now impossible to perform, including the commandments to sacrifice. The rationale was that God had temporarily suspended those commandments until the Messianic era by allowing the Temple to be destroyed.
Many sages pointed to repentance as having the power to provide atonement, thus transcending the need for a blood sacrifice. They emphasized repentance, as found in the Prophets, but downplayed the message of Leviticus, which emphasized sacrifice. However, the Bible still teaches that both are necessary for atonement. The sages had not considered that God had fulfilled His promises to send a perfect sacrifice that became the ultimate sacrifice for sin for all of Israel and for the Gentiles as well.
The Jewish leaders tried to help the Jewish community survive and find a relationship with God apart from the Temple and priesthood. They innovated new ways to help their fellow Jewish people fulfill what had become impossible commands to obey. Some said that praying three times a day would be as if they performed the three daily sacrifices. Others said that merely studying the impossible commandments would be considered as if they had actually performed them. Suffering for righteousness was considered as if such suffering were the suffering of a sacrificial animal. Acts of charity would be considered fulfillment of the impossible commandments. In rabbinic literature and traditional prayers, there is little that is not considered a substitution for the impossible commands.
Consequently, most religious Jewish people believe that their sins are atoned for without a literal sacrifice. How do we pray for the salvation of our Jewish friends and loved ones, especially during the High Holiday season when Jewish people are seeking atonement (Hebrews 10:1-10)? Specifically, we pray that the once-for-all sacrifice of Yeshua the Messiah will be found to be the soul-satisfying path to forgiveness for our Jewish friends and family at this time of the year. As Isaiah promised, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isaiah 53:6).