The Theology of Atonement
In the Old Testament
For reasons only God fully understands, shed blood was a vitally important event throughout the Old Testament. The Blood of Atonement, and its importance are mentioned about one hundred times within the books of Law and the prophets.
What is Atonement? The Hebrew word for atonement, "Kaphar," means to cover, expiate, condone, placate, or cancel. It has been translated as "appease," "pardon," "purge," "make reconciliation," "put off," and of course, "atonement." Another word for atonement, "Kippur", means expiation and is translated, simply, "Atonement."
The primary Old Testament passages that deal with the theology of Atonement include the account of Abel in Genesis 4, the account of Noah in Genesis chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9, Abraham and Isaac in Gen. 22, Israel leaving Egypt, Exodus 12, and Mount Sinai in Exodus chapters 19-30. Leviticus 1-4:1-35 describes the rituals of atonement, and Leviticus 16: 1-33 describes the Great Day of Atonement. Other important passages include Gen. 3:15 and 30:10; Lev. 5:1-19, 6:1-37, 16: 1-34, 17:11, and 23:27-32; 2Ch. 29:24, Isa. 53, and Dan. 9:24-27.
From the first, animal sacrifices were a shadow of the Great Atonement to come. The connection between the two was very real. The Mosaic books, History, Prophets and Psalms, when discussing blood sacrifice, provide prophetic foreshadowing of the atonement the Messiah would make for us all. Beginning with Genesis 3:15, a passage describing enmity between the woman and the snake, we see the first point where we see prophecy and violence occur together.
Blood sacrifice is a clear and well-understood fact of life in the early chapters of Genesis. There is nothing in ordinary way of thinking that would lead men, back then or now, to believe that sacrifice would somehow please God more than anything else. Yet, the first act of worship recorded in the Bible, the animal sacrifice Abel offered to the Lord in Gen. 4, was said to be acceptable to God, and Able is known as the first "Believer." This first mention of sacrifice does not give the impression it was a new invention of Abel's. Shed blood was described in a way that showed it was offered by divine appointment, not just Abel's will.
Next, the Flood in Genesis chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9 was both a clear example of God's deadly judgement on sin as well as another example of the clear understanding early man had concerning sacrificial rites. At the time of Noah, the difference between clean animals and unclean animals was obviously well understood, as Noah classified them as such. In addition, Noah's first act after leaving the Ark was to offer a burnt offering to the Lord.
Bloody sacrifices maintained a conviction of man's guilt and a dependence on God's forgiving grace. They taught that reconciliation could be obtained in no other way but through God's divine justice. But they also symbolized God's mercifulness, in that an animal victim could serve as a substitute. The offending worshipper must die, without possibility of living in fellowship with God, unless a sin offering were offered which removed it. On that ground, the sinner could be restored. From the beginning, as hard as it is for modern man to understand, blood sacrifice was a gracious, God appointed ritual given as a way to reconcile with God.
In Gen. 22, Abraham and Isaac had a divine appointment on Mount Moriah. As much as Abraham grieved the task set before him, he understood that only by killing his son could he be obedient to God. This was not arbitrary. There was a deeper meaning to what was going on than just the task that sat before him. Abraham and Isaac both understood the purpose of sacrifice, as sacrifice had long been a part of their lives, as well as the truth that most men understood at that time: that the only way to be fully consecrated to God was through a death. Blessedly, Isaac's life was spared and a ram was substituted. By the ram's blood, Isaac was figuratively raised from the dead.
In chapter 12 of the book of Exodus, Israel prepares to leave Egypt. What was done for one person on Mount Moriah will now be done for a nation. So the nation of Israel, God's first born, spreads blood from a paschal lamb on its doorposts. Many people die that night, but not God's redeemed people. God had told them, "When I see the blood, I will pass over you." That night, the people of Israel learned that life is possible only with the killing of a substitute lamb and the sprinkling of that substitute's blood. The Passover night illustrates the importance of the blood to God.
Fifty days later, at Mount Sinai, God gave His law as the foundation of His covenant. (Exodus chapters 19-24). The early animal sacrifices were always symbolic, and blood was always known to be sacred and necessary for atonement and forgiveness. This was true of all bloody sacrifices from the beginning, but now, with Mosaic Law, it was especially true. Burnt offerings, originally from the primeval and patriarchal age, were now joined by other forms of sacrifice. With the previous burnt offerings, the worshipper had not yet broken the Covenant God was to have with Israel, and the offering was meant to cover the general sin attached to every man. The new "sin offering" expressed that covenant WAS broken through the offense, and the offering was meant to restore relationship with God.
There are several Old Testament words for sin. The primary ones being looked at here are Chataah, Chattath, Chata, and Chet. They all refer to an offense, a sacrifice for sin, or a sin offering. Chata is a deeper word, and can also refer to the offender himself, to a habitual sin, to forfeit, repent, lead astray, condemn, bear the blame, or purify. Also used in Lev. 4:3b is the word "Ashmah," which means guiltiness, a fault, or the presentation of a sin offering. It is translated as "offend," "cause of sin," and "trespass." "Shagah," used in Lev. 4:13, means to stray, transgress, be encaptured, and is translated as to "err," "be ravished," "sin through ignorance," and "wander." "Peri Amartia" from Lev. 4:35, 5:6, and 6:17 of the Septuagint, meant "sin-offering."
These offerings were not for the sake of man or the state, but for God. (Lev. 4:1-32, 5:1-8). In addition, the law now divided sacrifices into different classes for different purposes and kept them before the eyes of Israel. God demonstrated the importance of the blood at the consecration of the priests, birth of a child, and even high festivals. (Ex. 23:14-18, 29; Lev. 1-4:1-32, 5:1-19, 6:1-37, and 16:33).
After the covenant was read and accepted by the people of Israel, it needed to be established with blood. Several bulls were killed, and their blood was sprinkled on the altar, the book of the covenant, and the people. This event was the first recorded time of blood being sprinkled directly on people, and therefore, intimates greater accountability.
Immediately after this sacrificial rite, the Lord announced that he wanted a sanctuary built and He would dwell among them. (Exodus chapters 25-30.) He gave strict directions for the building of the tabernacle and it was functionally designed for blood sacrifice. God's blueprint included the necessary furniture designed for the purification of worshippers and the killing of animals, as well as the Most Holy Place, where only the high priest could enter - carrying blood.
Later, the fact that the sanctuary furniture was sprinkled with blood during certain sacrifices reminds the Israelites that the sanctuary was an symbol for the way God inhabits His church and dwells among His people. (Lev. 16:16) It wasn't the building itself that was unworthy; the sins of the people made the sanctuary unworthy as a dwelling place for God. However, God could continue to dwell there if He beheld the blood of atonement. That the people needed the reconciliation and not the place is evidenced in the fact the ceremonies were for the transgressions of Israel (Lev. 16:16) and made atonement for the people and the priests (Lev. 16:33)
The importance of the Blood is further illustrated through the description of the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest brought the Blood of the sin offering, which had been collected in front of the people, into the Most Holy Place, where no one but himself was allowed. This illustrates that the Blood offering was for God alone, and the transaction was to take place between only God and His representative. Lev. 17:11.
ALL Bloody sacrifices were atoning. Number one, blood sacrifice was shocking in its character; satisfaction came only through a victim's death. But they also pointed out to the worshipper that he had offended God and God was forced to separate from him. God could not sacrifice His holiness for the sake of His love for the worshipper. So while estranged from God for having broken the covenant, the Israelite was very aware that not only did he have ceremonial guilt and was separated from God's presence, but that death must ensue because the wages of sin is death. The main thought under Mosaic Law was that transgressions violated the order of the universe and had to be punished. No regrets could remove the guilt, so death is the only recourse.
Interestingly, the sins that the Mosaic sacrifices atoned for were not moral sins, such as murder, adultery or idolatry, but offenses against ceremonial law and theocratic purity, including involuntary oversights and sins of ignorance. (Lev. 12:7-8, Num. 6:11). The Law was an external, arbitrary law, and external, arbitrary atonements could cover the resulting offenses to the Law. The Law and its atonement had come into being at the same time, in order to relieve the worshipper, to develop the idea of sin, and awaken consciences to the fact of sin. The same authority that instituted the ceremonial rites could cancel the offenses.
This was not mere penitence. The mediating priest and the laying of his hands on the worshipper's head indicates that the guilt was transferred vividly. The effect of the sacrifices was remission of the penalty, independent of contrition and remorse. Nor was it renewal of homage. It had nothing to do with a friendly feast, but was intended to transfer the sinner's guilt on to a victim. It was meant to prevent penalty that had been earned, and to secure remission of sin (Lev. 4:20)
Three hundred sixty four days a year, the priest was present during the first three acts of a sacrifice, but began his function only after the blood was received for sprinkling. However, on the Day of Atonement, the priest performed all parts of the sacrifice. Lev. 23:27-32
In the first part of the sacrifice, the sinful worshipper brought his live, unblemished sacrifice to the elevated altar, just as our sinless Christ was raised up on the cross.
During the second part, the offensive worshipper laid his hands on the scapegoat or victim's head. This action has always been understood to be a communication between one party and another, and in this case, it was a symbolic transfer of guilt to the substitute. On the Day of Atonement, it was accompanied with the confession of sin. Lev. 16: 20-22, 2 Chr. 29:24
The third part was the killing of the animal. Only through the death of one can another live. This was also done on most days by the hand of the worshipper. Just he, who had laid his hand on the victim, could perform the slaughter. In the same way, the Lord Jesus met his violent death by the hand of the Sinners he was dying for.
The fourth part of the sacrifice involved the sprinkling of blood. This was where the priest, who had usually been standing aside as a witness, took his role. Without the priest, the sacrifice could not be offered correctly. Receiving the blood, he made it his own, and poured it on the horns, the altar's highest point, the foot of the altar and the mercy seat. The priest, in his proper vestments and sanctification, shadowed the holy righteousness of God. In stepping in at this time and accepting the blood as his own, he is portraying that what was done to the victim was supposed to have been done to him. Ex. 30:10
The fifth and final act was the burning of the victim. The first fire for Aaron's first sacrifice was a holy fire from heaven, never to be extinguished (Lev. v. 6-7). Rising to heaven with a sweet smelling savor, the burnt offering was recognized as an acceptable sacrifice. Some also surmise that the smoke is a shadow of the Holy Spirit.
But the frequency and repetition of the sacrifices reflected their inadequacy. David (Ps. 40:6 and 51:16) Asaph (Ps 50:8), Micah (6:6) and Isaiah (1:11) give clear testimony that the sacrifices were inadequate. The blood of lambs and goats could never take away the stain of moral sin or spiritual guilt.
The New Testament:
There needed to be a way to remove the stain of moral and spiritual guilt. This method had to be a way that would cleanse us of totally from every sin. Isaiah 53 and Daniel 9:14-27 prophesied that the Coming Messiah would be the Great Atonement for all of our sins. Our Lord Jesus himself taught that He was that Messiah. (Matt. 26:28).
Isa. 53:10 (Sept.) states, "He (the Messiah) came in the likeness of sinful flesh because He was a sin offering." Isaiah is called the Old Testament Evangelist because of his vivid descriptions of Christ's suffering, atonement and reward. (Isa. 42:1-7, 53:1-12) Christ's soul was to be given as an offering for sin. This passage, with recurring reference to the Messiah as the "Servant of the Lord", proves that Isaiah, and probably other Israelites, believed that the Messiah would come as a suffering substitute with the goal of redeeming man. In ancient Israel, it was known that this passage was referring to the Messiah. More modern interpretations, which claim that the passage refers to the state of Israel rather than a man, fail to explain why the writer would refer to the state in the third person, and to the citizens in the first person. If modern interpreters were to be correct, it would only makes sense if the writer would have referred to all as the state.
Jesus’s is our sacrificial lamb, and His sacrificial death on the cross and blood spilled is the final and complete atonement for our sins. He was a sacrifice, not because his killers thought of him as such and were in a worshipful, repentant mode when they nailed him to the cross, but because He, without sin or blemish, went willingly to the cross. Jesus, in His heart, took all man's sin upon Himself and bore the punishment others deserved. He sacrificed Himself for man's sake. In Romans 8:3, (Sept.) "Amartia" is used to mean, "made sin," not a "sinner." The term "sinner" can never be used in reference to Christ, who is sinless and a "sin bearer". The term "sin" in reference to Jesus is abstract, without an article - an abstract noun for the concrete. Jesus is "made sin" for men in the same way men are "made righteous" for God: by a judicial act of God. And God, in His righteousness, accepted Jesus's bloody sacrifice of Himself.
This is hard for people of the 20th Century to understand. Man tries to comprehend the importance of the blood, but doesn't understand why it is important. But the blood isn’t for man in the first place; it is God that values the Blood. This is where man needs to have faith that the Blood is important simply because God says so.
According to Evangelist Watchman Nee, the Blood is meant to forgive and wash away sins in the lives of men. The cross is to do away with the power of sin in the lives of men. The Blood is an atonement, and sinners are forgiven not because God overlooks the sin, but because he sees the Blood. Therefore, the Blood is primarily for God, not for man.
It’s important to have faith AND clear conscience toward God, which can only come by the blood, and not anything else. Being extra kind or patient one day does not bring one closer to God. Man can never be good enough. The Blood is unchanging and is man's only hope for safe ground to stand on. The only important matter is that God values sacrificial, righteous blood shed.
The last aspect of the purpose for the Blood is the part “the accuser” plays. When Satan entered after the fall, man became separated from God. As long as sin was present in the life of man, God couldn’t be approached and Satan had a field day. Without atonement, God couldn’t do anything to help. He couldn’t come near. But the blood changed that. God can stand next to man now.
But the Blood doesn't “cleanse” hearts. The flesh is too bad for cleansing, and it must be thrown out, crucified, and replaced with a whole new heart. This is why the animal sacrifices alone were never adequate. Death and rebirth is still necessary. The old hearts were “sprinkled with an evil conscience”, and that caused a barrier between God and man. When man tried to approach God, he felt guilt and unworthiness. This is why man needs both the Blood and a death - a tossing out of that old heart so a new one could be put in its place. Man must die on the cross, with the Messiah, Jesus, in order to gain new life. When a sinner believes this from the Word and accepts Christ's gift of death into his heart, his conscience can be cleared and the guilt removed.
The Book of Romans shows us that
The Grace of God, our Divine Judge, is the giver and justifier of our full atonement.
The blood of Christ is the basis of our full atonement
Faith is the receptive organ for our full atonement
Justice and Grace will be the end result of our full atonement
Old Testament sacrifices were a foreshadowing of the redemption Jesus Christ was going to bring about on the cross. For reasons only God can fully understand, Christ's shed blood on the cross is a vitally important event, and the only event, which brings about reconciliation and atonement for all sinners who believe and receive it.
Murray, Andrew. The Blood of Christ. Minneapolis: Bethany House
Nee, Watchman. The Normal Christian Life. Eastbourne, England: Kingsway Publications,
Angus Kinnear. 1961
Smeaton, George. The Apostles' Doctrine of the Atonement. Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Strong, James. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers
Nave, Orville J. Nave's Topical Bible. Mclean: McDonald Publishing Company
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02055a.htm. March 14, 2004, 2:30 am