John's Gospel shows how the annual festivals of Israel picture important aspects of the mission and attributes of Jesus of Nazareth. For instance, Jesus' Passover miracles and teaching recorded in John 6 reveal him as the Bread of Life. Likewise, his words during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:37-39; 8:12) proclaim him to be the source of the living waters of the Holy Spirit and the true Light of the World.
Though John makes no explicit mention of the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), there are some indirect references to important aspects of that solemn occasion in his accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection that are fascinating. These allusions relate especially to the duties of Israel's high priest described in Leviticus 16.(1)
According to the Torah, the high priest was to be clad in a colorful robe when he carried out his duties (Exod 28:31-35). This beautiful garment was to "have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening" to prevent it from tearing (v. 32). But on the Day of Atonement, the only day of the year on which he entered the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle or temple, he wore simple white linen garments as he made atonement for the sanctuary and the people (Lev 16:1-4; 29-34).
These details about priestly attire remind us of similar details in the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, concerning the garments of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion. On that day Roman soldiers mocked Jesus by dressing him in a purple robe (John 19:1-3). Later they removed all of his clothes, including the robe. The high priest's plain dress on the Day of Atonement looks forward to Jesus' humility as he went naked to the cross.
John carefully notes that Jesus' tunic was "woven in one piece from top to bottom," and that the soldiers decided not to tear it (vv. 23-24). This description reminds us of Exod 28:32 and connects the tunic of Jesus with the high priest's robe. The Greek word for "woven" in John 19:23, hyphantos, is only used twice in the Bible—here and in the Septuagint translation of Exod 27-36.(2) The high priest put aside his usual robe on the Day of Atonement to make a sin offering for Israel, and so Jesus lost his regular garment and humbled himself to die for the sins of humanity (Phil 2:6-8).
After the high priest had offered this unique, annual sin sacrifice for the nation on the Day of Atonement, he left his white linen garments in the tabernacle or temple and changed back into his ritual robe to offer burnt offerings for himself and the people (Lev 16:23-24). The Hebrew word for burnt offering, olah, means "that which ascends." The smoke from burnt offerings ascended to God from the altar.
Again, we see remarkable analogies with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus died, his body was wrapped in linen burial clothes and placed in a tomb (John 19:40-42). After God's power had raised him, he left those grave clothes in the tomb just as the high priest left his linen clothes in the tabernacle; and he emerged with a new glorified body just as the high priest changed into his beautiful God-designed garment.
John goes on to describe an encounter between Mary Magdalene and the resurrected Christ (20:11-18). When Mary recognized Jesus, he said to her, "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father." He then tells her to, "Go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Jesus could have been telling Mary that she did not need to cling to him because he was not yet leaving. On the other hand, he may have been saying that she would have to accept the fact that he would soon be leaving. More to the point, Jesus clearly indicates that his rising to the right-hand of God the Father was necessary. Here lies another potential link with the Day of Atonement. The high priest's burnt sacrifices were only complete when the smoke rose to heaven. Could it be that the completion of Jesus' sacrifice for the world occurred when he ascended and presented himself before God?
John also reports that Mary "saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet" (v. 12). Here he seems to compare the tomb of Jesus to the Ark of the Covenant, which had cherubim on either side of its lid called the mercy seat (Exod 25:19). Consider that the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sin offering on the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement and the fact that Jesus' bloody body lay in the tomb. The Ark was covered in cloth when it was transported (Num 4:5-6), and the body of Jesus was wrapped in cloth when laid to rest. The Ark was anointed with oil containing myrrh (Exod 30:23,26), and the body of Jesus was anointed for burial with spices including myrrh (John 19:39-40). Finally, God's glory was present between the cherubim on the mercy seat; while Jesus, God incarnate, was glorified by dying and then rising from the tomb.(3)
John proceeds to highlight one significant contrast between the Ark and the tomb of Jesus. Access to the Ark was quite restricted. The high priest only ministered before it once a year, protected by a cloud of incense (Lev 16:13), and the male Levites who transported it had to do so very carefully (Num 4:15, 20). On the other hand, Jesus' disciples, who were not restricted to the tribe of Levi and were both male and female, were able to freely enter the tomb and have contact with their resurrected Lord. With this contrast, John portrays the open access to God's presence available to New Covenant believers.
We typically only associate the themes of the Day of Atonement and the priesthood of Jesus—the sacrificial nature of his death and the believer's opportunity to freely approach the throne of grace—with the book of Hebrews. In his Gospel, John presents these same themes in his Jewish way of thinking, deeply immersed in and making allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures.
(1) See the article, "Jesus, the Ark, and the Day of Atonement: Intertextual Echoes in John 18:38-20:18" by Nicholas P. Lunn, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 52, No. 4, 2009, pp. 731-746.
(2) Lunn, p. 742.
(3) For further connections see Lunn, pp. 732-734.
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