January 15, 2011
One of the most used words by Christians – those with a Calvinistic view, those with an Armenian view and those everywhere in between – is the Old Testament word atonement. Why not? It is a strong Bible word. Atonement is first used in Exodus. “They shall eat those things with which the atonement was made, to consecrate and to sanctify them; but an outsider shall not eat them, because they are holy” (Exodus 29:33). It is last used in Ezekiel 45:20. “And so you shall do on the seventh day of the month for everyone who has sinned unintentionally or in ignorance. Thus you shall make atonement for the temple.”
In my mind, the most important word translated atonement is the Hebrew word “kaphar.” It means simply “to cover.” It is found first in Genesis 6:14 to describe the work of the tar or pitch used between the boards of Noah’s ark to cover and waterproof the boat. No matter how many times it was used and in whatever version it is found, its basic meaning is “to cover or to hide.”
This word permeates the entire Old Testament sacrificial system. The blood of all of the sacrificial animals shed by the sinner, or by the priest on behalf of the sinner, was done in order to symbolically hide the consequences of the sin from the eyes of a holy God. Its primary use culminated with God establishing the holiest day of all to the Jews, the Day of Atonement, or “Yom Kippur.” This special day is mentioned first in Leviticus 23:26-28. Once a year God commanded that the high priest take blood from a kid goat into the holiest part of the tabernacle or the temple. There he would sprinkle the blood upon the mercy seat on top of the ark of the covenant. The blood symbolically came between the judgmental eyes of God represented by two replicas of cherubim located at each end of the ark. They were looking down upon that which was beneath the gold mercy seat. There rested three items: the broken tablets of the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s rod that had sprouted buds, and a pot filled with manna. These articles represented Israel’s rebellion against God’s law, His order, and His amazing provision. Together they revealed the depth of Israel’s sin against God.
The blood came between the eyes of the cherubim and the sin of the people. The blood symbolically hid the consequences of sin (death) from the eyes of God. Thus, the blood became the “atonement” for sin before God. The blood never satisfied the just demands of a holy God on behalf of the people. It merely revealed that such satisfaction was necessary. It became a temporary shadow indicting that God was going to deal with the sin of man by the shedding of blood.
Hebrews 10:1-5 says clearly:
For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.
So, what is the value of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross? Two schools of thought have emerged among serious Bible students. Both groups teach that God used Christ’s death on the cross as the atonement for sin. Then what remains is to decide what the extent of that atonement is. Did Christ’s death provide atonement for the entire sin debt of Adam’s race, or did Jesus’ death just atone for the sins of the elect, His beloved sheep? Was Christ’s blood shed for all men, even those whom God created, knowing that they would reject His Son, or was Christ’s blood shed for those whom God has chosen even before He created this world.
I believe that God did not use Christ’s death to be an atonement for sin at all. His death did not merely temporarily cover sin, nor was it to foreshadow anything. His death actually paid sin’s price in full, and it is an eternal payment. The author of Hebrews says that if any Old Testament sacrifice actually satisfied God, then the worshipers, those who were making the offerings, would have no more consciousness of guilt before God. The writer goes on to say that when Jesus came into the world He said that God did not desire the sacrifices or the offerings but that God had prepared a body for Him (Jesus). It would be the sacrifice of His body as the Lamb of God that would actually take away sin, not merely cover it (Hebrews 10:5-10).
The entire sacrificial system made clear God’s just demand against sin but the cross work of Jesus Christ met the demand. God had determined before He created this world that He was going to die in order to pay our sin debt. But God is eternal life and eternal life cannot die. So, amazingly, God took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ in order to die in our place. As a man, He suffered the death of the cross becoming the Lamb of God (Philippians 2:7).
People saved in the Old Testament were given divine insight into the real meaning of the myriads of sacrifices and the shedding of their blood. God opened the eyes of their heart look beyond that which was seen and believe that He was going to pay their debt in ful. “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way, but the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
In a strange way all Old Testament saints were saved on credit with the bill finally coming due and being paid in full on the cross of Calvary. So, technically speaking, Christ’s death was not an atonement at all but a propitiation. The word propitiation (Greek, “hislesterion”) means “satisfactory sacrifice.” Like atonement, propitiation is a Bible word that for the most part is seldom used. It is applied to Jesus Christ as our faithful High Priest making propitiation for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2:17).
It is true that the word “mercy seat,” in Hebrews 9:5 is the word that is often translated “propitiation,” but it points directly to the finished work of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:11-15). It clearly connects the dots, so to speak. Christ – unlike all of the Old Testament sacrifices – offered one sacrifice for sin forever (Hebrews 10:11-12).
The word propitiation, not atonement, explains the value of Calvary’s cross. Therefore, the issue concerning the worth of Christ’s death on the cross should not be “limited or unlimited atonement,” but “limited or unlimited propitiation.” But there can be no such thing as an unlimited propitiation. Since Christ’s death – unlike the sacrifices in the Old Testament – actually takes away the consciousness of guilt before God, then it has to be limited to all those who are to trust the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. People do not go to hell with God permanently freeing them from the guilt of their sin. That would be ludicrous! Propitiation explains clearly that Jesus Christ died to really satisfy His Father’s demand against sin and it will accomplish His purpose of saving those who trust in Jesus Christ alone. Christ’s shed blood has immeasurable worth. His blood does not simply give members of this fallen race a chance to be saved but actually saves those who believe (Hebrews 10:13).
Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:24-26)
And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)