BreakPoint: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

We Have a Forgiving Judge

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)



The Challenge of Jewish Repentance
  • Jonathan Sacks | Wall Street Journal | September 15, 2017

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  • Lynwood Johnson

    Very aptly expressed, John, and Shane – thank you for this important reminder and insight.

    Most Christians and Jews are unaware that there exist a growing number of Messianic Congregations across the US and other parts of the world – and approx. 130 in Israel currently. This is literally the unfolding of end-time prophecy. The Messianics worship Him in very clear awareness we are forgiven and cleansed of our unrighteousness only by Y’shuah Ha Mashiach (aka ‘Jesus the Messiah’), and not by our ‘deeds of righteousness.’ As our own voluntary offering to Him, we pay heed to God’s Law and Word which stand forever (the Torah, aka Pentateuch). We observe the feasts He prescribes in Leviticus, both as historical remembrance, and celebration of the awareness that Jesus Himself personally fulfilled the first three spring feasts in order. Examples: Pesach, or Passover – “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” said “it is finished!” approximately the same time that the high priest had finished inspecting the passover lambs in Jerusalem, and announced the completion of his inspection with the very same words. “First Fruits” celebrates the ingathering of the barley harvest 3 days after Passover; the same day “Christ was raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep,” as Rabbi Shaul described Him in 1 Cor. 15:20.

    Shavuot, or Pentecost fifty days later was one of three key feasts where all the men were commanded to attend at Jerusalem. This feast celebrated the first of the wheat and other summer harvests. Here, with a huge crowd of faithful Jews from around the world, Y’shuah Jesus granted His Ruach HaChodesh (Holy Spirit) in power to His apostles and others, “and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Acts 2:41.

    And so, John and Shane and readers, the Messianics anticipate with excitement His Return at or near Rosh Hashana (Feast of Trumpets) every year. He Personally fulfilled the three spring Jewish feasts. Has He begun a pattern to then abandon it? The watchword surrounding Rosh Hashana is “no man knows the hour.” Remember Rabbi Shaul in 1Thessalonians 4 talking about the trumpet of God and the dead in Christ rising first? Hint, hint!

    And Yom Kippur is as significant to the Messianics as the Lenten season is to Catholic and other Christians – a time of introspection and assessment. Indeed, Celebration in His Atonement, doing for us what is impossible for us to do for ourselves. “He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God.” (Heb 10:12, NASB)

    Something of an extended riff, I’m aware – but, grist for great Celebration and Rejoicing! Thank you again, John and Shane, for calling it out.

  • Anne S.

    Me. Stonestreet– I listen to your commentaries frequently and appreciate your insight, greatly; however, I heard something in today’s broadcast, concerning Biblical chronology in end times, and must say, your facts are wrong. I am not sure what theological school of thought assumes the assumption you’ve voiced, but the Marrsige Feast of the Lamb precedes Christ’s return to earth and the subsequent appearance of the Great White Throne, when the earth and heaven cease to exist and the dead arise for judgement. God does not judge His living Bride.

    Anne S.

  • Philip B.

    Thank you for this article which affirms and expounds the Jewish roots of our need for repentance or Teshuvah as we name it. It brought a smile to my face when you wrote,…” when the repentant recite alphabetical litanies of prayers, throwing themselves on the mercy of the Judge.” Yes, the Yom Kippur services are long and arduous when fasting; one side benefit of our prayers: it takes our mind away from food and drink!
    I am a Messianic Jew (we believe Yeshua/ Jesus is the revealed Messiah of Israel to the Jew first and to the nations) from a congregation in Needham MA. We hold to Jewish traditions and way of life as something that we are called to do instead of assimilating into the church. Jewish identity is not something to be lost. One of our leading theologians refers to this as “bilateral ecclesiology”.
    Again, thank you for your insightful article. It warmed my heart as someone who also feels a deep connection to the Body of Mashiach/Messiah.