Atonement

Romans 5:10-11; Hebrews 2:17; Numbers 35:33; Isaiah 47:11; Exodus 29; Exodus 30; Exodus 32; Leviticus 1; Leviticus 4-10; Leviticus 12; Leviticus 14-17; Leviticus 19; Leviticus 23; Numbers 5; Numbers 6; Numbers 8; Numbers 15; Numbers 16; Numbers 25; Numbers 28; Numbers 29; Numbers 31; 2 Samuel 21:3; 1 Chronicles 6:49; 2 Chronicles 29:24; Nehemiah 10:33; Psalm 4:6; Psalm 32:1; Proverbs 10:12; Leviticus 4:20; 1 Samuel 12:3; Exodus 21:30; Numbers 35:31; Leviticus 14:4-7; Leviticus 16:7-10; Numbers 19:1-22; Exodus 30:11-16  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 8
The word “atonement” occurs but once in the New Testament and there it should be “reconciliation,” and the verb in the preceding sentence is so translated: “If when we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.... through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the reconciliation,” καταλλαγή (Rom. 5:10-1110For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. 11And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement. (Romans 5:10‑11)). On the other hand, in Hebrews 2:1717Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17) the AV (KJV) has “to make reconciliation for the sins of the people:” here it is “propitiation,” ἱλἀσκογαι. If the word atonement is not found in the New Testament, atonement in its true meaning is spoken of continually, as “ransom”; “bearing our sins in his own body on the tree”; “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us”; “Christ.... being made a curse for us”; “He suffered for sins, the just for the unjust”; and, to use the language of faith, “with his stripes we are healed”; “He was delivered for our offenses”; “He was manifested to take away our sins.”
In the Old Testament we have the word “atonement” continually, but “propitiation” not at all; “expiation” twice in the margin (Num. 35:3333So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. (Numbers 35:33); Isa. 47:1111Therefore shall evil come upon thee; thou shalt not know from whence it riseth: and mischief shall fall upon thee; thou shalt not be able to put it off: and desolation shall come upon thee suddenly, which thou shalt not know. (Isaiah 47:11)). But the same word, kaphar, though generally translated by make “atonement,” is employed for “purging” and occasionally for “cleansing,” “reconciling,” “purifying.” The word kaphar is literally “to cover,” with various prepositions with it; the ordinary one is “up” or “upon.” Hence in “atoned for him” or “his sin:” he or his sin is covered up: atonement is made for him or for his sin. Atonement was made upon the horns of the altar: the force is “atonement for.” With the altar of incense, atonement was not made upon it, but for it; so for the holy place, and for or about Aaron and his house: the preposition is al.
The same is used with the two goats. The sins were seen on the sinless goat, and expiation was made in respect of those sins. The how is not said here, but it is by the two goats making really one, because the object was to show that the sins were really laid upon it (that is, on Christ), and the sins carried away out of sight, and never to be found. If we can get our ideas, as taught of God as to the truth, into the train of Jewish thought, there is no difficulty in the al. In either case the difficulty arises from the fact that in English for presents the interested person to the mind; on is merely the place where it was done, as on an altar; whereas the al refers to the clearing away by the kaphar what was upon the thing al which the atoning rite was performed. Clearly the goat was not the person interested, nor was it merely done upon it as the place. It was that on which the sins lay, and they must be cleared and done away. The expiation referred to them as thus laid on the goat. As has been said, the how is not stated here, but the all-important fact defined that they were all carried away from Israel and from before God. The needed blood or life was presented to God in the other, which did really put them away; but did much more, and that aspect is attached to them there. This double aspect of the atoning work is of the deepest importance and interest, the presenting of the blood to God on the mercy seat, and the bearing away the sins. The word kaphar, to make atonement, occurs in (Ex. 29; Ex. 30; Ex. 32; Lev. 1; Lev. 4-10; Lev. 12; Lev. 14-17; Lev. 19; Lev. 23; Num. 5; Num. 6; Num. 8; Num. 15; Num. 16; Num. 25; Num. 28; Num. 29; Num. 31; 2 Sam. 21:33Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the Lord? (2 Samuel 21:3); 1 Chron. 6:4949But Aaron and his sons offered upon the altar of the burnt offering, and on the altar of incense, and were appointed for all the work of the place most holy, and to make an atonement for Israel, according to all that Moses the servant of God had commanded. (1 Chronicles 6:49); 2 Chron. 29:2424And the priests killed them, and they made reconciliation with their blood upon the altar, to make an atonement for all Israel: for the king commanded that the burnt offering and the sin offering should be made for all Israel. (2 Chronicles 29:24); Neh. 10:3333For the showbread, and for the continual meat offering, and for the continual burnt offering, of the sabbaths, of the new moons, for the set feasts, and for the holy things, and for the sin offerings to make an atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God. (Nehemiah 10:33)).
A short notice of some other Hebrew words may help. We have nasa, “to lift up,” and so to forgive, to lift up the sins away in the mind of the person offended, or to show favor in lifting up the countenance of the favored person (Psa. 4:66There be many that say, Who will show us any good? Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us. (Psalm 4:6)). We have also kasah, “to cover,” as in Psalm 32:11<<A Psalm of David, Maschil.>> Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. (Psalm 32:1), where sin is “covered”: sometimes used with al, as in Prov. 10:1212Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all sins. (Proverbs 10:12), “love covereth all sins,” forgives: they are out of sight and mind The person is looked at with love, and not the faults with offense.
But in such words there is not the idea of expiation, the side of the offender is contemplated, and he is looked at in grace, whatever the cause: it may be needed atonement, or simply, as in Proverbs, gracious kindness. We have also salach, “pardon or forgiveness.” Thus it is used as the effect of kaphar, as in Leviticus 4:2020And he shall do with the bullock as he did with the bullock for a sin offering, so shall he do with this: and the priest shall make an atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them. (Leviticus 4:20). But kaphar has always a distinct and important idea connected with it. It views the sin as toward God, and is ransom, when not used literally for sums of money; and kapporeth is the mercy seat. And though it involves forgiveness, purging from sin, it has always God in view, not merely that the sinner is relieved or forgiven: there is expiation and propitiation in it. And this is involved in the idea of purging sin, or making the purging of sin (ιλάσκεσθυι, ἐξιλάσκεσθαι, ιλυσμὸν ποιεπιν); it is in God’s sight as that by which He is offended, and what He rejects and judges.
There was a piaculum, “an expiatory sacrifice,” something satisfying for the individual involved in guilt, or what was offensive to God, what He could not tolerate from His very nature. This with the heathen, who attached human passions or demon-revenge to their gods, was of course perverted to meet those ideas. They deprecated the vengeance of a probably angry and self-vengeful being. But God has a nature which is offended by sin. It is a holy, not of course a passionate, one; but the majesty of holiness must be maintained. Sin ought not to be treated with indifference, and God’s love provides the ransom. It is God’s Lamb who undertakes and accomplishes the work. The perfect love of God and His righteousness, the moral order of the universe and of our souls through faith, is maintained by the work of the cross. Through the perfect love not only of God, the giver, but of Him, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, propitiation is made, expiation for sin; its aspect being toward God, while the effect applies to us in cleansing and justifying, though it goes much farther.
Expiation is more the satisfaction itself which is made, the piaculum, what takes the wrath, and is devoted, made the curse, and so substituted for the offender, so that he goes free. And here the noun kopher comes to let light in on the inquiry. It is translated “ransom, satisfaction,” and in 1 Samuel 12:33Behold, here I am: witness against me before the Lord, and before his anointed: whose ox have I taken? or whose ass have I taken? or whom have I defrauded? whom have I oppressed? or of whose hand have I received any bribe to blind mine eyes therewith? and I will restore it you. (1 Samuel 12:3) a “bribe.” So in Exodus 21:3030If there be laid on him a sum of money, then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatsoever is laid upon him. (Exodus 21:30) a kopher (translated “sum of money”) is laid upon a man to save his life where his ox had killed his neighbor; but in Numbers 35:3131Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. (Numbers 35:31) no kopher was to be taken for the life of a murderer; for (Num. 35:3333So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. (Numbers 35:33)) the land cannot be cleansed, kaphar, but by the blood of the man that shed blood as a murderer. This clearly shows what the force of kopher and of kaphar is. A satisfaction is offered suited to the eye and mind of him who is displeased and who judges; and through this there is purgation of the offense, cleansing, forgiveness, and favor, according to him who takes cognizance of the evil.
A word may be added as to the comparison made between the two birds (Lev. 14:4-74Then shall the priest command to take for him that is to be cleansed two birds alive and clean, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop: 5And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running water: 6As for the living bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water: 7And he shall sprinkle upon him that is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose into the open field. (Leviticus 14:4‑7)), and the two goats (Lev. 16:7-107And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. 8And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. 9And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. 10But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:7‑10)). The object of the birds was the cleansing of the leper; it was application to the defiled man, not the kopher, ransom, presented to God. It could not have been done but on the ground of the blood-shedding and satisfaction, but the immediate action was the purifying: hence there was water as well as blood. One bird was slain over running water in an earthen vessel, and the live bird and other objects dipped in it, and the man was then sprinkled, and the living bird let loose far from death, though once identified with it, and was free. The Spirit, in the power of the word, makes the death of Christ available in the power of His resurrection. There was no laying sins on the bird let free, as on the goat: it was identified with the slain one, and then let go. The living water in the earthen vessel is doubtless the power of the Spirit and word in human nature, characterizing the form of the truth, though death and the blood must come in, and all nature, its pomp and vanity, be merged in it. The leper is cleansed and then can worship. This is not the atonement itself towards God, though founded on it, as marked by the death of the bird. It is the cleansing of man in death to the flesh, but in the power of resurrection known in Christ who once died to sin.
So also the Red Heifer (Num. 19:1-221And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, 2This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke: 3And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face: 4And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times: 5And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn: 6And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. 7Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even. 8And he that burneth her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the even. 9And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin. 10And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever. 11He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days. 12He shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean. 13Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him. 14This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. 15And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean. 16And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. 17And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel: 18And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead, or a grave: 19And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even. 20But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the Lord: the water of separation hath not been sprinkled upon him; he is unclean. 21And it shall be a perpetual statute unto them, that he that sprinkleth the water of separation shall wash his clothes; and he that toucheth the water of separation shall be unclean until even. 22And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even. (Numbers 19:1‑22)), was not in itself an act of atonement, but of purification. The ground was there laid in the slaying and burning of the heifer. Sin was, so to speak, consumed in it, and the blood was sprinkled seven times before the tabernacle of the congregation. When Christ died sin was, as it were, all consumed for His people by the fire of judgment, and all the value of the blood was before God where He communicated with the people. All that was settled, but man had defiled himself in his journey through the wilderness, and must be cleansed. The witness that sin had been put away long ago by Christ undergoing what was the fruit of sin was brought by the living power of the Holy Spirit and the word, and so he was purified. But the act of purifying is not in itself atonement; for atonement the offering is presented to God. It is a kopher, a ransom, a satisfaction, to meet the infinite, absolute perfection of God’s nature and character, which indeed is there alone brought out. Thereby atonement is made and the very Day of Atonement is called kippurim. The priest made an atonement in respect of the sins; and it had the double aspect of presenting the blood before God within as meeting what He was, and bearing His people’s sins and carrying them away never to be found. We must make the difference of an un-rent veil and repeated sacrifices, and a rent veil and a sacrifice offered once for all. This is taught in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
There is still one case to be noticed, but it was merely a principle confirming the real character of the kaphar, making atonement. In Exodus 30:11-1611And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 12When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them. 13This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahs:) an half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord. 14Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the Lord. 15The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls. 16And thou shalt take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation; that it may be a memorial unto the children of Israel before the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls. (Exodus 30:11‑16) it was ordered that when the people were numbered, each, rich or poor, should give half a shekel as a kopher, ransom, for his soul or life. This had nothing to do with sin, but with ransom, that there might be no plague — a recognition that they belonged to God all alike, and could have no human boast in numbers, as David afterward brought the plague on Israel. This was offered to God as a sign of this, and shows what the force of kaphar, making atonement, is.
We have no atonement in connection with the meat offering: we get the perfectness of Christ’s person, and all the elements that constituted it so as man, and there tested by the fire of God, which was even to death, the death of the cross, and all a perfect sweet savor, and perfect in presenting it to God a sweet savor, but no kopher, ransom: for that we must have blood-shedding.
The essence then of atonement is, firstly, a work or satisfaction presented to God according to, and perfectly glorifying, His nature and character about sin by sacrifice; and secondly, the bearing our sins; glorifying God even where sin was and in respect of sin (and thus His love is free to go out to all sinners); and giving the believer, him that comes to God by that blood-shedding, the certainty that his sins are all gone, and that God will remember them no more.