Words of Life – “Atonement” (Part 1)

“What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!” If you’re like me, you’ve sung this refrain (and others like it) countless times. The idea that Jesus is our “atoning sacrifice” and that “there’s pow’r in the blood” to cleanse the soul from sin is a well-established motif in Christian teaching and art. Yet, the origins and deeper implications of these ideas beckon further exploration. This week’s Word of Life is a big one; “Atonement,” and I have decided to split this topic into two posts. This week, we’ll delve into what the Bible has to say about this topic. We’ll look at its origins with the Levitical “Day of Atonement” and explore how New Testament writers reinterpreted this notion in light of Jesus’ crucifixion, infusing it with renewed theological depth and relevance for believers then and now. Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the most common versions of the “doctrine of atonement” within the church today and its enduring significance among believers across centuries. Let’s dig in.

Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement

Leviticus chapter 16 provides a vivid account of the Israelite ritual known as the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur; a form of which is still practiced by observant Jews today. At the original heart of this holy day lay the meticulous purification of the Tabernacle or Temple and its sacred implements. In fact, the Hebrew word “kippur,” translated as “atonement,” could more precisely be translated as “purification” or “cleansing.” This is an important distinction to keep in mind since in English, “atonement” often implies making reparations or accepting punishment for wrongdoing. The emphasis of Yom Kippur, however, was not on punitive measures or debt repayment. Instead, these sacrifices centered on cleansing the temple and community of the stain of sin, reconciling them to God, and purifying their hearts and minds in rededication to God’s righteous commandments.

The Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur | Berean Bible JourneysOn the Day of Atonement, the high priest would first offer a bull as a “sin offering” for his own purification. This, too, is a somewhat misleading translation. According to Dr. Michael S. Heiser, author and ancient Semitic language scholar, the verb translated as “sin” here… “means not to miss the mark. It doesn’t mean to offend. What it means is to cleanse. It means to purify…The better translation would be purification offering or I would even suggest decontamination offering.” In other words, the high priest begins with an offering to purify himself as the spiritual representative and mediator before going on to perform the rites for the community. (Note that all of the sacrifices in Leviticus are explicitly stated as effective for unintentional sin and physical impurities unrelated to sinful behavior only. There was no procedure given in the Hebrew bible to atone for what the KJV calls “heavy handed” sin; deliberate rebellion against God. Typically, the only prescription given to purify the community of that kind of sin was for the perpetrator to be put to death.)

the two goats of leviticus 16 Archives - Truth SnitchOnce the high priest was himself purified, he would cast lots over the two goats: one designated for sacrifice and the other “for Azazel,” often referred to as the “scapegoat” (we’ll come back to that later.) The chosen sacrificial goat would be slaughtered, and its blood ceremonially sprinkled within the Holy of Holies—the innermost sanctuary of the Tabernacle or Temple. This act symbolized purification, aimed at cleansing the spiritual contamination resulting from the temple’s proximity to fallen humanity. The sacrificial blood was perceived as a cleansing agent, essential for maintaining ritual purity and facilitating the divine presence within the sacred space. Another interesting point is that sinful behavior was not the only focus of this cleansing. Physical impurities and other ritual “uncleanliness” was also in view. The focus seems to be to remove the taint of anything brought on by man’s fallen state. Thus, the sacrifice of the bull and the first goat served the purpose of upholding the sanctity of the temple environment, ensuring that it remained a fitting abode for God’s presence. Subsequently, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the second goat, confessing the sins of the people. It would then be sent away into the wilderness; away from the presence of God symbolizing the expulsion of sin from the community.

What Does the Day of Atonement Have to Do With Jesus Christ? | United Church of GodThe precise identity and meaning of “Azazel” in Leviticus 16 are debated among scholars. However, one common theme among ancient Near Eastern cultures (including Jewish mythologies common at the time of Jesus) is that the wilderness (much like the sea) was perceived as the domain of the demonic and chaotic adversaries of God. It was a place of spiritual danger. Multiple Jewish texts outside the Bible reference Azazel by name as a notable demon, perhaps even the Devil himself. This adds an interesting backdrop to the Gospel accounts of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). It’s crucial to clarify, however, that the goat designated for Azazel was not an offering or sacrifice made in worship of Azazel, as if the Israelites were engaging in a dualistic practice of offering sacrifices to both God and the Satan. Rather, the underlying concept emphasizes the unsuitability of sin in the presence of God. The second goat served as a symbolic vessel of sin stamped “return to sender.” In expelling this goat out into the wilderness, the Israelites were symbolically returning their unwanted spiritual “junk” back to the one from whence it came.

Thus, sacrifices of “Atonement” in the Old Testament were not about “paying” for sins or giving recompense. Rather, these offerings were a means by which sin, as something like a contagion or infection, was removed from the community to make it a space fit for God to dwell among His people. With that in mind, let’s fast forward to the New Testament treatment of “Atonement.”

Atonement in the New Testament

Foundations of My Faith: The Pharisee and the Tax CollectorMost of the New Testament was written in Greek and a majority of New Testament quotations of the Old Testament derive from the Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. The Greek word used for “atonement” in the Septuagint version of Leviticus 16 and elsewhere in the New Testament is “hilasmos.” While this word can refer to cleansing and purification; it was more frequently used in Greek writings to refer to “appeasement of the gods” or propitiation for some offense. In relational terms, hilasmos conveyed the idea of “making amends” or “reconciliation.” For Greek-speaking Jews, a form of this word also came to be used in reference to the mercy seat; the covering of the Ark of the Covenant that sat between the cherubim where blood was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement. Unsurprisingly, the concept of “atonement” has come to have a very broad and indistinct meaning in Christian theology spanning a wide spectrum of doctrines about how exactly we should understand God’s handling of our sin problem. If we are to view Christ’s death as the fulfillment of Old Testament atonement typology, however, it is vital that we keep purification and cleansing at the forefront of our interpretation.

Atonement in the Gospel of Luke

Only four New Testament books explicitly use a form of the word “hilasmos;” Luke, James, Romans, and Hebrews. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in which the tax collector…

“stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful (hilaskomai) to me, sinner that I am!”

Luke 18:13 (NET)

It seems unlikely that this is a reference to the Day of Atonement, but rather an humble plea for reconciliation with God. Still, this is a valuable example of the diverse ways in which this word can be translated.

Atonement in the First Epistle of John

John uses the word twice in his first epistle in reference to Jesus. In 1 John 2:1-2, John comforts his readers by saying: 

1My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One, 2 and he himself is the atoning sacrifice (hilasmos) for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.”


1 John 2:1-2 (NET)

Later, in 1 John 4:9-10, he encourages his readers to follow Jesus’ example of sacrificial love: 

9By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God has sent his one and only Son into the world so that we may live through him. 10 In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice (hilasmos) for our sins.” 


1 John 4:9-10 (NET)

In both of these passages, the word “sacrifice” is an interpretive addition by English translators and is not present in the Greek. It is reasonable to think that John is referencing the Day of Atonement or the Mercy Seat here; and that this passage should be interpreted as saying that Jesus is the personification of our “purification” from sin or that Jesus was indeed an “atoning sacrifice” foreshadowed by the sacrificial goat of Yom Kippur. Of course, it is also possible that John’s intended meaning is Jesus’ death appeases of God’s wrath or that he is our propitiation for sin which would align more closely with the way the Greek word was typically used outside of scripture. Such an interpretation would suggest that the Jesus’ death was indeed punitive; and that God inflicted on him the punishment that we deserved. This passage simply does not provide enough context to illuminate the intended meaning other than to clearly state that Jesus himself is the means by which our sin problem is ultimately resolved. Given the historic focus on purification and reconciliation in the Hebrew scriptures, however, it seems appropriate to assume that meaning as well. 

Atonement in Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Paul’s use of “hilasmos” in Romans is a bit more explicit in the way it interprets Jesus’ death as the ultimate fulfillment of Yom Kippur. In Romans 3, after meticulously demonstrating that all people (both Jews and Gentiles) are sinners, Paul writes the following:

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (although it is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed— 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat (hilastērion) accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.”

Romans 3:21-26 (NET)

Sovereign Truth: Theology: Study 5 - The AtonementIn this passage, we pick up the themes of Righteousness and Justification where we left off last week. If you read that post, then you will no doubt recognize God’s “Righteousness” in this passage as both His justice and His capacity to “set things right.” Paul then immediately connects God’s justification (that is; his declaration that believers are righteous before God) to Jesus’ crucifixion. God is able to truthfully declare us righteous in part because, according to Paul, the cross of Jesus is the mercy seat of a new covenant where the blood has been sprinkled on our behalf for the purification of sin. The implication is that the day of Jesus’ crucifixion is the true, once-and-for-all Day of Atonement. Now, some translations interpret verse 25 as a statement of delayed punishment. The Greek, in fact, gives no indication that the focus here is in any way punitive. Rather, the verse is simply saying that God had patiently waited for the proper time to ultimately deal with the problem of sin. It is my conclusion that in this passage, Paul is identifying Jesus as the true essence of that which was prefigured in the sacrificial goat of Yom Kippur. His blood shed on the cross is the ultimate purifier of sin which has been made accessible to the world through faith in Him.

Atonement in the Book of Hebrews

What Paul implies through dense, theological treatise; the writer of Hebrews states clearly and even poetically. Hebrews provides the clearest theology of Jesus’ death as the true fulfillment of the Day of Atonement found in scripture. First, in Hebrews 2:17, the author focuses on Jesus, not as the sacrifice itself, but as the high priest who is able to represent the community of God’s people before the Most High. He states that because Jesus experienced a human life with all its temptations and struggles, he is able to identify with us and make an atoning sacrifice on our behalf. Unlike those high priests, however, Jesus does not offer a bull or goat for our atonement, but his own life-blood. In doing so, he defeated “the one who holds the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). This idea becomes the central focus in chapter 9 and the writer returns to the motif periodically throughout the rest of the book. (By the way, if you haven’t read through chapter 9 of Hebrews recently, let me encourage you to do so. It is a truly beautiful piece of writing made all the more precious if the reader is part of God’s covenant people washed in the blood of Jesus!) As in our other examples; the focused here is primarily on cleansing and purification by blood, not on satiating God’s wrath through vicarious punishment or appeasing His divine sense of justice by punishing the innocent in place of the guilty. 

What is the Purpose of Baptism in the Christian Life?There are certainly other passages throughout the New Testament that speak of themes associated with atonement, but the ones we’ve reviewed today explicitly use the language of the Levitical Day of Atonement in reference to Jesus. There are also many passages throughout both the new and old testaments which state that the penalty for sin is death and that Jesus died in our place. However, in the context of Atonement, Jesus’ death is seen primarily as a source of cleansing and purifying sacrificial blood rather than a stand-in for our just condemnation. I would also argue that, where sins have been washed away, there is no condemnation! That purification is available to everyone. If you long for God’s presence in your life; if you desire communion with the divine; the offer of atonement still stands. Jesus died so that you could be purified; cleansed from all unrighteousness that separates you from the Father. Come to him in faithful obedience and he will wash your sins away and welcome you into the Kingdom of God!

Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the most prevalent views of the atonement among churches today and throughout Christianity’s long history. We’ll consider the scriptural basis for each and assess the theological continuity that each one has with an exegetical reading of God’s Word. Until next time, God Bless!

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