Published: 12 April 2021

Churchy Words: Atonement

Atonement is a word rarely heard outside of a church service or Bible study. The English word atonement is defined as “the act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing.” The act of atonement brings about reconciliation between two parties when something happened which damaged their relationship.

In the Bible, atonement is used to translate the Hebrew word kipper (כִפֶּ֣ר). The word appears over 100 times in the Old Testament. Just as in English, the Hebrew word kipper denotes the idea of reconciliation or the making of amends. 

Can you cover me?

The most basic meaning of kipper is “to cover with something, meaning to make amends.”[1]Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and M. E. J. Richardson, eds. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Accordance electronic ed., version 3.6. Leiden: Brill, 2000. “Atonement may be a figure of covering over and therefore forgetting (forgiving) sin.”[2]Goodrick, Edward W., and John R. Kohlenberger. NIV Exhaustive Bible Concordance. 3rd ed, Zondervan, 2015. 

What does covering have to do with reconciliation? Has anyone ever asked you to cover for them? Perhaps you’ve eaten at a restaurant with a friend who realizes they left their money at home. They might ask you to cover the bill for them? Covering for them keeps them out of trouble with the person they owed a debt to. In a similar way, we need someone or something to cover for us for when we come up short with God.

Atonement required blood

Atonement is closely related to the Old Testament sacrificial system and is a prominent theme in the book of Leviticus. Half of the occurrences of the word atonement in the Bible appear in the book of Leviticus! Leviticus has been called a “tech manual for priests” because so much of it was about instructing the Levitical priests how to carry out their duties. 

One of their chief duties was to offer sacrifices which atoned for the sins of the people. What did the animal sacrifices accomplish? They accomplished two things: (1) purifying sacred space and objects, and (2) the forgiveness of sins. You see, whenever the people sinned, not only were they guilty of damaging their relationship with God, their sins also defiled the temple.

Sins defiled the temple

The tabernacle/temple was polluted by the sins of the people:

He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it [the altar, v. 18] from the uncleanness of the Israelites. (Lev. 16:19 NIV)

And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see still greater abominations.” (Ezek. 8:6 ESV)

In other words, the sins of the nation defiled the holy space and made it a stench in God’s nostrils. Just like none of us wants to live in a house filled with garbage and foul odors, neither does God. This is why the temple had to be purified.

The Tabernacle was impure due to the sins of Israel and blood from the animal sacrifices was needed to purify it. When blood was sprinkled on the altar and other sacred objects of the tabernacle they were cleansed of the pollution Israel’s sins had caused.

15 “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. (Lev. 16:15–16 ESV)

By cleansing the impurities from the holy place God could remain “at-one” with it. 

Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness

Did the animal sacrifices really result in the forgiveness of sins? Yes they did:

He must do with the rest of the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; this is what he must do with it. So the priest will make atonement on their behalf and they will be forgiven. (Lev. 4:20 NET)

Then the priest must offer all of its fat up in smoke on the altar like the fat of the peace offering sacrifice. So the priest will make atonement on his behalf for his sin and he will be forgiven. (Lev. 4:26 NET)

For the sake of brevity I have only quoted only two verses from Leviticus chapter four. A careful reading of Lev 4 & 6 will reveal this idea of atonement and forgiveness repeated over and over. Animal sacrifices did indeed result in forgiveness. 

Blood is the life of the flesh

It is really, really hard for the modern Western mind to intuitively understand this. How was blood supposed to cover sin and defilement? The explanation may be related to the statement that blood is the life of the flesh (Lev 17:11). The “life” being sprinkled on the altar and other holy things covers the death (impurity, sin) that has polluted them. Likewise, the death of the animal covered the sins of the people. 

While the blood of animals could bring about the forgiveness of sins, it could never take away sin (Hebrews 10:1-4). There is a big difference between forgiving sins and erasing them. The word forgive carries the idea of canceling a debt, giving up a claim against someone or being released from a penalty. When someone offered an animal sacrifice, God forgave them, but the animal’s blood did not take away their sins. 

The sins were still there but they were “covered up by the blood,” so to speak. It was like painting a dirty wall. The dirt is still there, you just can’t see it once it’s painted over. This form of reconciliation was only temporary; the people had to continually sacrifice animals throughout their lifetime to make amends for their sins. 

It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Heb. 10:4 NIV)

God wanted sins removed, not covered!

God didn’t want the sins of the people merely covered, He wanted them to be taken away as if they had never happened. This meant the animal sacrifices were lacking and a perfect sacrifice was needed. Jesus’s death on the cross was that perfect sacrifice. Jesus’s sacrifice not only resulted in the forgiveness of sins, but also took them away! The sins of those who follow Jesus are gone as if they had never been committed!

so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Heb. 9:28 NIV)

Since Jesus’s death actually took away our sins (not merely covered them), is it correct to speak of Jesus’s sacrifice as atonement? That question is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that those who are disciples of Jesus can rejoice in the knowledge that their sins have been completely erased.

References

References
1 Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and M. E. J. Richardson, eds. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Accordance electronic ed., version 3.6. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
2 Goodrick, Edward W., and John R. Kohlenberger. NIV Exhaustive Bible Concordance. 3rd ed, Zondervan, 2015.