Forgiveness. What more comforting word could there be, especially when we know how much we are in need of it? Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel message. The sinful woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with the tears accumulated over the course of a lifetime understood. And her love for Him overflowed to such an extent that He declared, “Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:47).
The gift of forgiveness, the Apostle Paul says, is not like the offense that calls forth its necessity. “…For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many” (Romans 5:15).
But where does forgiveness come from? What are its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Judaism? How does it find fulfillment in the life and teaching of the Messiah?
The Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish Tradition
One of the most important things to remember about the teachings of the Jewish faith is the larger framework in which they operate. This larger framework may be called God’s covenant with Creation. Everything follows this single, consistent thread of continuity throughout Scripture. The Lord created the universe and humanity for the purpose of a loving and harmonious relationship. Therefore, anything that hinders the quality of that relationship must be dealt with.
This is the primary purpose of the sacrificial system and the priesthood. It was instituted to implement God’s statutes: “…So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him” (Leviticus 4:26). Therefore, forgiveness is the means through which the balance of peace (shalom) in creation is restored.
But unlike other systems of sacrifice in the ancient Near East, there was nothing inherently powerful about the priesthood or the sacrifices. “Whereas the required ritual is carried out by the priest, it is desired and is granted solely by God.”1
Moreover, the attitude of the penitent sinner was of great importance. Sacrifice must be offered in humility and accompanied by repentance. One of the most striking features of the message of the prophets is Israel’s casual assumption that going through the motions of sacrifice would be enough to please a just and righteous God.
Still, the topic of forgiveness is a constant theme in the literature of Judaism throughout the centuries. The Talmud confidently asserts, “He who sins and regrets his act is at once forgiven” (Hagigah 5a, Berakhot 12b).2 Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish sage who did so much to shape the thought of his time and for centuries to come, wrote, “Even if a man has sinned his whole life and repents on the day of his death, all his sins are forgiven him” (Yad, Teshuvah).3
The Day of Atonement in Judaism Today
There is no more solemn observance in the Jewish calendar year than the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Coming at the end of the ten-day period known as the “Days of Awe,” it is the culmination of an intense time of introspection during which the faithful Jewish person seeks amends not only with God, but also with others whom he or she might have offended in the past year.
The Day of Atonement begins with fasting at sundown and an evening synagogue service. It continues the following day and culminates in the evening when worshippers stand for an hour-long service to conclude the long day of prayers and fasting. The liturgy of the synagogue for the Day of Atonement is filled with pleas for forgiveness and restoration of relationship with God.
The focus of Yom Kippur is upon worship, the need for forgiveness and deliverance from the just judgment of the Lord against our unrighteousness, and upon the hoped for restoration of relationship. There is much Scripture woven into the synagogue services, particularly from those Psalms which emphasize the exaltation of God and the supplication of sinners. The spirit of the day is summed up in the ancient prayer that begins with the words “Selach Lanu,” Forgive Us:
“And for all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement…For thou art the Forgiver of Israel and the Pardoner of the tribes of Jeshurun in all generations, and beside thee we have no king to pardon and forgive our sins.”4
But from the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, there has been no prescribed sacrifice to accompany the Jewish plea for forgiveness. And without sacrifice, how are such pleas to be answered?
The High Priest of the Book of Hebrews
If we are conscious of having sinned, it follows that we long for our sins to be forgiven and to be reassured of the good graces of our Creator. And while the Book of Hebrews confirms these comforting truths, it also reveals to an even larger extent the scope of the ministry of Messiah as our eternal High Priest.
Among other things, the Book of Hebrews patiently spells out the superiority of Messiah to all that has come before him. Each year Israel’s High Priest entered the Most Holy Place with the blood of animal sacrifices. However, as Hebrews reminds us, “…now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
The office of High Priest was a temporary provision, as were the annual sacrifices that needed to be repeated over and over so that our sins could be wiped from our slate. Now, however, we have a High Priest Who not only brings the perfect and sufficient offering, but is Himself that offering–not year after year, but once and for all through the sacrifice of Himself.
Knowing this, all who have placed their trust in Him may rejoice. No longer must we wonder how or even if we are forgiven and restored. The promise was on His lips even as He died for us when he spoke His final words, “It is finished” (John 19:31).
1. Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972), volume 6, p. 1435.
3. Mishneh Torah. Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1
4. Davis, Arthur and Adler, Herbert M., eds. Synagogue Service for Day of Atonement (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co.,1959) p.10.