Today is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. For Christians, it’s a reminder that repentance is more than an event. It’s a lifestyle.
Among the most striking images in Christianity is that of God the Judge, presiding in a courtroom where each of us will stand trial for everything we’ve done while in the body. For most Christians today, it’s an image of something far in the future—an eschatological moment following the resurrection and preceding the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
That’s all true, of course. These are distinct, future events. We confess every time we recite the creed. But the reality of a coming judgment can sometimes obscure the fact that God is even now the Judge of all the earth, and we—guilty of offenses against Him—must seek and acknowledge His forgiveness regularly.
That’s an area where we could learn something from our Jewish friends, who recently marked Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and who celebrate Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—beginning this evening.
Writing at the Wall Street Journal, Orthodox rabbi and theologian Jonathan Sacks reflects on the meaning of these High Holy Days, which are rooted in the commands of Leviticus 23.
The ten days of repentance following Rosh Hashanah, explains Rabbi Sacks, are the “holy of holies” on the Jewish calendar. They open with a blast on the shofar—a ceremonial ram’s horn—announcing that God’s court is in session. Faithful Jews use this time to reflect how God judges each according to his or her life, and inscribes their fate in the Book of Life.
It all culminates on Yom Kippur, when the repentant recite alphabetical litanies of prayers, “throwing themselves on the mercy” of the Judge. Many Jews spend all day in services, refraining from work and pleasures until the shofar blows once more, marking the adjournment of God’s court. It’s a time of “cautious hope,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “We have admitted the worst about ourselves and survived.”
This concept of a merciful God who is our judge is the unique contribution of the Hebrews—a transition in history “from fate to faith.” For ancient polytheists, the gods were cruel and capricious, often more interested in making mortals suffer than in forgiving them. The best one could hope for was to appease the fickle deities.
The God of the Jews, however, was different. Not only did He readily forgive His worshipers for their offense, but He was actively fighting for them. He loved them, because they were each created in His image, bearing moral responsibility and freedom like His own. More important still, the Israelites were his covenant people.
This unique idea of a righteous, forgiving God also changed the way the people of Israel thought about their own moral standing. Unlike the pagans, who saw their problems as primarily external, or “out there” in nature or with their enemies, Jews came to understand mankind’s problems are chiefly internal, or “in here” because of their moral guilt.
“The key fact about us, according to the Bible,” write Sacks, “is that uniquely in an otherwise law-governed universe, we are able to break the law—a power that we too often relish exercising.”
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are beautiful reminders that God forgives those who repent of their sins.
But Christians believe that the ultimate picture of God’s forgiveness is found in the Person of Jesus Christ, who is both the agent and the means of God’s mercy—the Priest and the sacrificial Lamb. Christ atoned for our sins not simply by dismissing them, but by taking them on Himself along with their due penalty.
His work is once for all, the just for the unjust, and He calls us as His followers intentionally and regularly to remember that the Judge forgives, and that we ought turn from our sins in regular repentance, especially when we gather around the communion table.
God’s court is in session, the Book of Life is open, and so let’s throw ourselves on the mercy of the Judge who has entrusted all judgement to Jesus, who sacrificed Himself once for all (Heb 7:27).
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: We Have a Forgiving Judge
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace. . . (Ephesians 1:7)