ISSUE: 2010, Volume 7, Issue 4
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He died an atoning death for thee, He died an atoning death; O wondrous love! It was for thee He died an atoning death! Thomas Dennis The chorus from the old hymn shows the love of the Lord Jesus in His ‘atoning death’. But what do these words mean? Doesn’t atonement belong to the Old Testament? Does this subject have any direct relevance to the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ? Before delving into this great topic, let’s first consider some definitions.
Two definitions No 1 - 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 bloodshedding, the certainty that his sins are all gone, and that God will remember them no more, Concise Bible Dictionary, Hammond, p. 90. No 2 - First, as meeting all the claims of God – the claims of His nature – the claims of His character – the claims of His throne; and, secondly, as perfectly meeting all man’s guilt and all his necessities C. H. Mackintosh, Notes on the Book of Leviticus, p. 226.
The concept of atonement is firmly rooted in the Old Testament. It is first mentioned in Genesis chapter 6 verse 14, where the word for atonement is translated as ‘pitch’. This refers to the ark, which Noah was to ‘pitch, or cover, within and without’. The covering on the ark brought about safety, salvation and protection to those inside, while the world outside was being judged for sin. The simple idea of a waterproof covering on the ark lays a nice basis for our consideration of the topic. It illustrates the preservation and salvation of man in the ark while outside the righteous demands of God are being satisfied. Our brief walk through the subject of atonement will largely centre on Leviticus chapter 16 which describes the Day of Atonement (DoA). Here we can see what this day meant for the nation of Israel and, more importantly, to God. We then will work out what can be learned now, in this present age, from what happened then. The word ‘atonement’ does not actually appear in the New Testament apart from Romans chapter 5 verse 11 in the KJV where all other translations use the word ‘reconciliation’. The full meaning of this great Bible term is most fully seen in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. This is where we want to come to in our study with a consideration of Hebrews chapter 9.
This was an outstanding day in the Jewish calendar. No work was to be done as it was to be a Sabbath of rest. On this day, annually, a temporary covering of sin (atonement) was to be made in order that the people, the priesthood and the place of worship would be clean from all sin and defilement for another year.
Aaron was to take two goats, a ram and a bullock. The ram was for a burnt offering and the bullock for a sin offering. The interesting part was what he did with the goats. A careful look at this will teach us two aspects of atonement.
Aaron was to cast lots upon the two goats, Lev. 16. 8. To ‘cast lots’ was a practice in those days where two stones were written on with two options (i.e., Goat 1, Goat 2). The stones were then put in a container, shaken and then dropped out. Whichever one came out first or upright decided the choice. This method of making decisions seemed to be approved of by God and the use of it is recorded in Proverbs chapter 16 verse 33, and in other passages. The first ‘lot’ was ‘for the Lord’ and the ‘other lot for the scapegoat’.
The Lord’s goat was then offered as a sin-offering sacrifice. The objective was to make ‘an atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel’, v. 17, and the other animals were also sacrificed as directed by God for the same purpose.
The scapegoat was to be dealt with very differently. Aaron was to lay both his hands on the head of the goat and confess all the iniquities of the children of Israel and all their transgressions and all their sins. This was a symbolic act where the guilt of the Jewish nation was transferred to the scapegoat (this is where we get our expression ‘a scapegoat’ i.e., one who takes the blame for another!) The scapegoat was then led into the wilderness, v. 21. It is important to notice both similarities and differences between the two goats. Both were needed because of sin. The scope of the offering of the first goat was because of sin generally. The scapegoat was directly related to the actual sins of the people. The first goat was for the Lord, the scapegoat was for the people. God has been dishonoured because of sin. The picture in the sacrifice of the first goat was that the effect of sin in relation to God was being dealt with. His glory and honour were being maintained. In the offering of the scapegoat, the sins of the people were put away, they were dealt with. They, on the goat’s head, were taken into ‘a land not inhabited’, v. 22, they could never be found. So, on the one part, God is satisfied and, on the second, the sins of the people are covered.
The ‘DoA’ pictures the work of the cross of the Lord Jesus in two ways. One is for God, that is, because the Lord Jesus died, sin in all its awfulness was dealt with, God was satisfied and glorified in maintaining His righteousness. There is also great blessing available to sinners as a result of the cross. A righteous basis for forgiveness has been established. The Lord Jesus gave Himself for me; He died in my place and took the punishment for my sins. All my specific offences against God were borne by the Lord Jesus. These great truths can be seen in many New Testament verses, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’, John 1 29. These words are not teaching that everyone will be saved but that ‘the sin’ (definite article) of ‘the world’ is taken away by Him. As a result, people can be saved. Secondly, ‘And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the . . . whole world’, 1 John 2. 2. Here we see the specific provision of God in dealing with ‘our sins’, this is for the believer and the provision that is available for the whole world. How vast and far reaching is the effect of the cross of Christ!
Given that atonement is such an important doctrine for us to understand and we can see the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ pictured in the ‘DoA’, why isn’t atonement expressly taught in the New Testament? A simple suggestion in answer to this question is that the work of the Lord Jesus is better! Atonement seems to foreshadow the great Bible doctrines of propitiation and substitution which form the basis for reconciliation. Hebrews chapter 9 verses 23-28 contrasts the one offering of the Lord Jesus with the temporary and annual offerings of the ‘DoA’. Notice the differences and consequences for believers in the Lord Jesus: The sacrifice of the Lord Jesus is described as better than those on the ‘DoA’, v. 23. The sacrifices of the ‘DoA’ provided access into an earthly holy place but the sacrifice of Christ provides access into heaven itself, v. 24, see also Heb. 10. 19, 20. An absolute contrast is made between the annual repeated sacrifices over many millennia and the once for all sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, vv. 26, 28. Once was enough ‘to put away sin’ There is a completeness about this statement; ‘He’, the Lord Jesus, has completely, totally and finally ‘put away sin’. Perhaps this is the ‘Lord’s lot’ of Leviticus chapter 16, only better, as there is no need for any repetition; God is completely satisfied by the Lord Jesus offering Himself to put away sin. He has all the glory. Verse 28 describes the specific benefit of the sacrifice to the believer. ‘So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many’. Because He has put away sin and God is satisfied, each believer in the Lord Jesus can say, ‘He bore my sins’. I suggest that here we see the scapegoat of Leviticus chapter 16 bearing the confessed sins into the wilderness, only better! Better here, in that it is full, permanent and once for all. On the ‘DoA’ an Israelite could be satisfied that his sins for that year were covered, but a day, week, month later, he’d be in a different position, with new sins added to his account. How much better that the Lord Jesus Christ has completely dealt with my sin! There is also mention in verse 28 of the coming of the Lord to the nation of Israel when ‘shall he appear.’ At this point, there will be a sense of completion to the picture that is painted in the ‘DoA’. They will then live out the full effect of the ‘DoA’ as it is a day of mourning for the nation, see Lev. 16. 31; 23. 27-29; Zech. 12. 10, which will result in a permanent covering for their national sins. Our brief stroll though the subject of atonement began with the chorus from the old hymn and there we return as the writer sums up what the Lord Jesus has completed, yet challenges us about the response of our hearts to Him! Have you read that He looked to heav’n and said: “Tis finished— ‘twas for thee’? Have you ever said: ‘I thank Thee, Lord, For giving Thy life for me?’
The table contained in this PDF explains the subject of atonement.