Day of Atonement Connections in John 19-20


by Doug Ward

The Gospel of John shows how the annual festivals of Israel picture important aspects of the mission and attributes of Jesus of Nazareth. For example, Jesus' Passover miracles and teaching recorded in John 6 reveal him as the Bread of Life, and 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.


John makes no explicit mention of Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement, in his Gospel. However, there are a number of indirect references to key aspects of that solemn occasion in John's accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection. These references relate especially to the duties of Israel's high priest described in Leviticus 16.1


Typological Attire

According to the Torah, the high priest normally was 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 instead 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 corresponding details in the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, about the garments of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion. On that day Roman soldiers had 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 humble dress on the Day on Atonement looks forward to Jesus' humility as he went naked to the cross.


Moreover, John 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. Such a connection is supported by the fact that the Greek word for "woven" in John 19:23, hyphantos, appears in the New Testament only in this verse and in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures only in Exod 27-36.2 As the high priest put aside his usual robe on the Day of Atonement in order to make a sin offering for Israel, so Jesus lost his usual garment and humbled himself to die for the sins of mankind (Phil 2:6-8).


After the high priest made the special sin offering for the nation on the Day of Atonement, he left his white linen garments in the tabernacle or temple and changed back into his elaborate 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, there are analogies with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus died, his body was wrapped in linen grave clothes and placed in a tomb (John 19:40-42). Then when he was resurrected, he left those grave clothes in the tomb, as the high priest left his linen clothes in the tabernacle; and he emerged with a new glorified body, as the high priest changed into his sumptuous robe.


The Gospel of John describes 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; but go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. " (v. 17). Jesus may 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. In addition, Jesus was saying that his Ascension was necessary, and here there may be a connection with the high priest's burnt offerings on the Day of Atonement. Those offerings were only complete when the smoke ascended to heaven. Analogously, Jesus's sacrifice for the world may have been completed when he ascended and presented himself before God.


The Tomb and the Ark

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 John seems to compare the tomb of Jesus to the ark of covenant, which had cherubim on either side of its lid, the "mercy seat" (Exod 25:19). This is a fitting comparison for a number of reasons. The high priest sprinkled the blood of the sin offering on the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement, and Jesus' bloody body was placed in the tomb. The ark was covered in cloth when it was transported (Num 4:5-6), as the body of Jesus was wrapped in cloth. 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 also highlights one major contrast between the ark and the tomb of Jesus. Access to the ark was quite limited. The high priest only ministered before the ark once a year, protected by a cloud of incense (Lev 16:13), and the male Levites who transported the ark 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 usually associate the themes of 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. John in his Gospel presents these same themes in his own Jewish way, through allusions to the Torah.


1See 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.

2Lunn, p. 742.

3For further connections see Lunn, pp. 732-734.

Issue 32


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