by Andrew H. Trotter, Jr.
That the Bible’s central message is atonement, that is, that God has provided a way for humankind to come back into harmonious relation with him, is everywhere apparent in Scripture. From the first stories in Genesis to the last visions of Revelation, God seeks to reconcile his people to himself. Atonement, however, cannot be usefully discussed in this way, and translators have settled on it, and its cognate expressions, as a translation for a relatively circumscribed number of nouns and verbs in the Bible.
The Old Testament. In the Old Testament atonement, and related phrases, such as sacrifice of atonement, most often translates the Hebrew piel verb kipur [ruPiK] and two related nouns, one,kippurim, found always in the plural and signifying the noun equivalent of kipur [ruPiK], and the other,kapporeth [t,roP;K], meaning the so-called mercy-seat or the place where the sacrifice of atonement happens. These occur with meanings related to atonement around 140 times, almost always in the context of the cults, as a sacrifice for sins and to provide reconciliation to God.
The breadth of the use of the concept in the Old Testament is striking. Atonement is provided for inanimate objects such as a mildewing house, the altar in the temple, the sanctuary (i.e., the Holy of Holies within the Tent of Meeting), the holy place, and the tent of meeting/temple itself. In one place atonement is also provided for an animal, the scapegoat used in the atonement rituals found in Leviticus 16. Sacrifice accomplishes atonement “for sins” in many places, though these passages always mean atonement for people “because of” their sins rather than atonement “on behalf of” sins, as if sins were being personified and therefore in need of redemption. Of course, the majority of all the references are to atonement on behalf of people, either individually or as members of the community of Israel.
Atonement for inanimate objects is found twelve places in the Old Testament: Exodus 29:36-37; Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 8:15; Leviticus 14:53; Leviticus 16:10, Leviticus 16:16, Leviticus 16:18, Leviticus 16:20; Ezekiel 43:20, Ezekiel 43:26; Ezekiel 45:20. Eleven of these passages refer to cleansing either the tent/temple, one of its rooms, or the altar inside it. The lone exception refers to the cleansing of a contaminated house. In one of the stranger passages of the Law, God instructs Moses and Aaron about the purification rites they are to apply to a house that has “a spreading mildew” and declares that, if a house responds to the treatment, then it can be declared clean ( Leviticus 14:33-53 ). The priest cleanses the house by sacrificing a bird, and dipping cedar wood, hyssop, scarlet yarn, and a live bird in the blood of the dead bird, then sprinkling the blood on the house seven times. He then is to release the live bird into the open fields outside the town. “In this way he will make atonement for the house, and it will be clean” ( Leviticus 14:53 ).
Primary among the objects of atonement in the Old Testament are the people of God, but the means of atonement can vary. Goats, sheep, and birds are listed among the acceptable animals to be sacrificed, but there were also grain, oil, and drink offerings. Ransom money can provide atonement for the lives of the people; God commands at least one census to be made of the people at which each participant pays the same amount to buy his life and the lives of his family from God, who promises no plague will harm them when they do pay ( Exodus 30:11-16 ). Significantly, the money is to be used to support the services of the Tent of Meeting, hence tying it to the sacrifice of blood for atonement, if only in a tangential way. The other nonanimal sacrifices are often equally tied to atonement by blood.
The New Testament. The so-called ransom saying, found in the Gospel of Mark ( Mark 10:45 ; cf. the parallel saying at Matthew 20:28 ), has been much disputed as to its authenticity, but its theological content is clear. Speaking in the context of the apostles’ dispute over which of them is the greatest, Jesus relates his mission to two things: serving all and giving his life as a ransom for many. Like many of the teachings of Jesus, the saying dramatically extends the answer to an immediate question or problem (that of the selfishness and pride of the apostles) to include something that no one would have linked to that problem (the ransom nature of the cross). The saying of course primarily relates the death of Christ to the metaphor of service; giving his life is the greatest example of servanthood that can be imagined. The fact that his death is also a ransom links the idea of atonement to the servant spirit of the Christ, probably in the light of the famous servant song of Isaiah 53.
The second Gospel passage relating to atonement appears in the eucharistic words of Jesus recorded in all three Gospels ( Matthew 26:26-29 ; Mark 14:22-25 ; Luke 22:15-20 ). At Luke 22:19-20, Jesus asserts that both the bread and the wine symbolize the fact that his death would be “for you” (huper humon [uJpevruJmw’n]), a phrase not found in the other Gospels (though the notion of the blood of Christ being “poured out for many” is found in both Matthew and Mark). The key element linking the passage in all three Gospels to atonement is the sacrificial nature of the language; the poured-out blood is the blood of the lamb of Leviticus 16, sacrificed “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
To discuss Paul on atonement is, again, to make a choice between a thorough discussion of Paul’s soteriology and limiting oneself to a discussion of the meaning of hilasterion [iJlasthvrion] in Romans 3:25. Space does not even allow for a full evaluation of the latter in this article. The preponderance of the evidence weighs in favor of a translation that recognizes the background of Leviticus 16 in the crucial passage. Some now argue that Paul intends a quite specific reference to the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant and that hilasterion [iJlasthvrion] should be translated “mercy seat.”
In any case the passage occurs in a clear context of God’s righteous, wrathful judgment against the sins of humankind (Romans 1:18-3, Romans 1:31; cf. esp. Romans 1:18; Romans 2:5) and declares God’s merciful action of atonement on behalf of his people. He takes an action that is rightly called “substitutionary, ” putting his Son in our place and so remaining just but also demonstrating his mercy (Romans 3:25-26). This shuts out any possibility for humankind to boast of its having saved itself (Romans 3:27). Thus the themes of sovereignty, mercy, and comprehensiveness that we saw present in Leviticus 16 are paramount in the mind of Paul too.
The same applies to the rest of the references to hilasterion and its cognates (hilaskomai[iJlasmov”], hilasmos [iJlasmov”]) in the New Testament. Hebrews 2:17 points squarely at Jesus as the high priests of Leviticus 16 who offers a sacrifice of atonement (hilaskomai [iJlavskomai]) for his brothers and is therefore a merciful and faithful high priest, but who is of course also the very sacrifice he offers, suffering so that he is able to help those who are tempted in their time of need. The oneness both between Jesus and the redeemed and between God and humanity is emphasized by the family metaphor used throughout the context of the passage (Hebrews 2:10-17). Similarly, in 1 John 2:2 Jesus’ sacrifice of atonement (hilasmos [iJlasmov”]) is powerful enough to heal the sins of the whole world and unite it to God, but it is only “Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1) who can accomplish this. God’s sovereignty and love in atonement are clearly seen in 1 John 4:10 and cap the New Testament teaching on this essential doctrine: our love for God is not the issue, but rather his for us and it is this love that has both motivated and produced the sacrifice of atonement (hilasmos [iJlasmov”]) necessary for healing the relationship of God to man. So the biblical teaching about atonement is summed up: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
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