The Jewish context of the life and ministry of Jesus the Messiah is the source of a constantly renewed sense of wonder. We marvel at the mystery of the Incarnation as we contemplate the earthly life of the Lord and the Jewish trappings that accompany it. And we are struck by the part played by the Temple, its services and the other Jewish observances that are so carefully described in the Gospels. This is the world that Jesus entered, we remind ourselves. This is the world that His presence reshaped forever.

Rosh Hashanah in the Time of Jesus

The Hebrew month of Tishrei is the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. In truth, there are several anniversaries in the Jewish cycle of months that might be thought of as “New Year” dates, and Rosh Hashanah (the Head of the Year) could be thought of as the anniversary of Israel’s civil year. Although not specifically named, Rosh Hashanah and the ten intervening “Days of Awe” leading up to and concluding with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are described in Leviticus 23:23-28:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work on it; and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD.’” And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God.”

Although Rosh Hashanah’s main emphasis has come to be repentance, other themes are also stressed during this time. As early as First Temple times, the Kingship of God was emphasized, perhaps with the chanting of the royal psalms. Covenant is also a prominent theme, as Israel prays that God will remember His promises to Israel. In the Book of Nehemiah, “all the people gathered together as one man” at the newly rebuilt Temple on Rosh Hashanah: “So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month” (Nehemiah 8:2).

Rosh Hashanah in the time of Jesus was an elaborate and moving affair. The sound of the Shofar reverberating from the Temple Mount would have been truly awe-inspiring. A priest trained from his youth would blow three blasts, which would be followed by the piercing notes of silver trumpets sounded by two other priests standing nearby. It was considered a religious duty to hear the notes of the Shofar and to respond to its call to repentance.

Yom Kippur and the Ritual of Sacrifice

Life is in the blood (Genesis 9:4). This is one of the fundamental truths of Israelite faith. Even before Temple times, when Israel worshiped in the Tabernacle during the wilderness wandering, the Lord made provision for the covering of Israel’s sin through the offerings spelled out in the sacrificial system. The sin offering for atonement was of utmost importance-otherwise the cloud of sin would prevent Israel from continuing in fellowship with the Lord.

“And Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonement; once a year he shall make atonement upon it throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD” (Exodus 30:10).

By the first century, the services at Herod’s Temple had far surpassed the rituals described in the Hebrew Scriptures in terms of complexity. But the fundamental truth had not changed. It still has not changed. Only through the sacrificial shedding of innocent blood may our forgiveness be procured. In Jesus’ day, the High Priest, after lengthy and painstaking ritual preparation undertaken for days before, performed the sacrifice and entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur just as his predecessors had done.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, Judaism was faced with a crisis that would require it literally to remake itself. For if sacrifice was the cost of forgiveness, and that cost could no longer be paid, how could God’s forgiveness be obtained? Repentance, prayer and works of mercy became a substitute for sacrifice in Judaism. But it is a substitute that we know to be inadequate.

Atonement and Fulfillment in Messiah

Scripture does not tell us if Jesus observed either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur in the Temple. But the Gospels show us that Jesus was no stranger to the Temple. He taught there and He worshiped there. Indeed, although his hearers misunderstood the meaning of His words, He proclaimed His own body to be the Temple when He said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

The correspondence that the Messiah draws between the Temple and Himself is only one of many ways that Jesus indicates His ministry of atonement and reconciliation among us. Another example is John 17, the “High Priestly Prayer,” when Jesus prays for Himself, His earthly family of disciples, and for all who believe in Him throughout time. As He prepared to go to the Cross, He paralleled the prayer of the High Priest in Leviticus 16as he ministered in the Holy of Holies.

From the Book of Genesis forward, God has always provided a means through which our sins could be forgiven and our fellowship with God restored. The sacrificial system had its part to play in preparation for the coming of Messiah. Now, it is God’s will that we be redeemed through faith in Him, for “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God…” (Hebrews 10:10-12).

Sources consulted:

  • Glaser, Mitch and Zhava, The Fall Feasts of Israel (Moody Press, Chicago), 1987.
  • Hammer, Reuven, Entering Jewish Prayer (Schocken Books, New York), 1994.

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