Let us open our Bibles to this dramatic entrance of chapter 16 of Leviticus. Let’s read vs.1, The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the LORD and died. How does the service begin? By speaking about the death of 2 priests, a death mentioned twice within this short verse. Not very inviting.
But what is most intriguing, is that back in Leviticus 10 when the death of these two priests is detailed, no one could pin-point the reason why these two were suddenly killed. What was this strange fire they had offered to the Lord? One can count some 12 different rabbinical explanations on what might have happened there.
But the reason is not to be found in what they were doing or achieving. The reason for the death penalty was what the Lord saw what was going on, on the inside of these two priests: it was the condition of their heart. This is something that has been emphasized over and over in the Bible; the importance of the condition of the heart of those who approach God.
Their names were Nadab and Abihu. These two sons of Aaron did not approach God as sinners but instead as self-righteous, something which we will see that the LORD cannot accept.
It is with this example that the Yom Kippur service at the Tabernacle begins, but now, the information given to us in vs.2, makes it even more solemn for it does not speak of the regular priests anymore, but now points to the High Priest himself, the one person in Israel who represented the entire nation before God.
The High Priest was responsible for the people in such a way that if he sinned, the consequences of his sins would fall on the whole nation.
Let’s see that stern warning found in vs.2a The LORD said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron (he was the High Priest) that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, or he will die”.
We see that the most important person in Israel, the High Priest could not even approach God in just any way he thought was appropriate, nor just at any time it was convenient for him. He alone was to enter the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence was, represented by the Ark of the Covenant, and this was done only once a year on Yom Kippur.
So here in Leviticus 16, we find out that even the High Priest, the most important religious figure, the closest man to God, could only approach the presence of the Almighty in the Tabernacle under very stern and stressful regulations and only during the Feast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Let’s take a moment to consider this humbling truth. If it was so complicated for the High Priest to approach God, then how much more difficult would it be for us? If no Israelite, except that one man, the High Priest, could enter the presence of God and only on one specific day of the year, and under the watch of many stern regulations, how could anyone else have even the slightest chance of meeting God? Do you begin to see where this feast is leading us to and how it begs for a better and more superior mediator? After all, this human mediator, like Aaron, could fail us because of his own natural frailties.
Let us first pay attention to the high demands made on the human High Priest during this day. We do this in light of the fact that Jewish authority took this day, and all the restrictions connected to it, with utmost seriousness.
For instance, the Talmud in the Book of Yoma relates how in the 7 days before Yom Kippur, they moved the High Priest to a special apartment in the Temple to rehearse, over and over, all the required actions he needed to perform during the course of that special day. They were fearful that the High Priest would get struck dead as did Aaron’s two sons back in Leviticus chapter 10.
And during the night before the eve of Yom Kippur, they kept the High Priest awake all night long, fearing he could possibly be defiled by some dreams he might have. To avoid him dozing off, these are some tricks they used. From M. Yoma 1:1-7, we read, The other priests would keep him awake by snapping their fingers, but avoiding any contact with him, and if he could not keep his eyes opened, they made him walk on the cold pavement of the Temple courtyard.
Tired or not, he needed to be ready for the day of Yom Kippur itself, for on this day, the High Priest had to undergo five changes of clothing along with complete immersions. There were also ten acts of washing of the hands and feet. All this needed to be done for he was to enter the Holy of Holies three times during that day and every time it required ritual cleansing.
And these changes of clothes and washings had to be done both solemnly and quickly for the day was filled with other sacrifices and ceremonies as well. It must have been the most exhausting day of the year for the priests. And why change his clothes five times on Yom Kippur? Here we are given a strong hint concerning the manner into which we must approach God.
On Yom Kippur the High Priest had two garments The gold garment was made of 8 pieces, 4 of which contained gold. The other was a simpler white garment composed of 4 pieces as we see in vs.4. “He shall put on the holy linen tunic, and the linen undergarments…, Then he shall bathe his body in water and put them on”.
This was the uniform he had to wear when he appeared in front of God’s footstool, the Ark of the Covenant. By ordering the change from the rich garment made of gold, rare gems and costly fabrics, to a simple linen cloth, it showed the humility and lowliness required when approaching God. The first thing we see here is that when one comes to God, it should be done stripped of all pretenses, pride or arrogance. This is what is at the core of effective prayers and repentance. This is the heart of Yom Kippur.