On the Hebrew calendar today marks the holiest day of the year, Yom Kipur, The Day of Atonement. As followers of Jesus, you and I would do well to better understand the significance of this most sacred day. It is a day of judgment that the prophet Joel describes this way:
It is a day of darkness and gloom, a day of thick clouds and deep blackness. . . That is why the LORD says, “Turn to me now, while there is time. Give me your hearts. Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning. (Joel 2:2, 12 NLT)
The following is taken from my book God's Clock: Jesus within the LORD'S Appointed Times.
What is atonement? It has often been described based upon it’s English spelling as “at-one-ment.” The article from the WebBible Encyclopedia actually describes it this way:
The meaning of the word is simply at-one-ment, i.e., the state of being at one or being reconciled, so that atonement is reconciliation. Thus, it is used to denote the effect which flows from the death of Christ.[i]
Unfortunately, “at-one-ment” even defined as reconciliation falls short of this word’s rich meaning.
We can understand reconciliation because it is a reality we have experienced. Whether it was a playground fight with a childhood friend, a conflict with the boss or colleague at work, a sibling rivalry, oran argument with your spouse, we have experienced personal relationships moving from brokenness to wholeness through reconciliation. We need to understand atonement through simple concrete realities and actions with meaning that we can teach to our children.
We think of atonement as an abstract theological idea. However, it has deep meaning for us, making known the Jesus we never knew. Remember, Hebrew thinking was not abstract, but was based in concrete realities. Thus atonement is based in a truth with substance that gives it meaning; an understanding lost to many of us as Western thinkers.
Atonement comes from the Hebrew word kapharand literally means cover. Kapharor cover has three primary meanings: providing protection or security, hiding from sight and/or knowledge, and a covering as a lid.[ii]The idea of providing protection, like when big kids protect the little kids on the playground from the school bully, also leads to the idea of atonement meaning “ransom.” If someone is taken captive a strong friend will seek to provide a ransom. In Hebrew this parallels the word padah,meaning redeem, which is literally to atone by offering a substitute.[iii]
So what then does atonement mean in regards to our sin and disobedience?
Let’s start by answering the question, “What is sin?” The Apostle John describes sin saying, “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness”(1 Jn. 3:4). We don’t like to think of sin that way; we would rather water it down and just say we made a mistake. But in God’s eyes sin is lawlessness, a rebellion against God’s authority. Little wonder then that sin is also described as evil, depravity, and wickedness.
Thus when we think of our sin, atonement literally means covering our lawlessness and hiding it from God’s sight. How is our lawlessness covered? It is through the ransom paid: Jesus died in our place covering our sin with His blood. The blood of Jesus makes atonement an effective covering of sin, so an omniscient, all-knowing and all-seeing God will no longer “see it.” This is why the Lordsaid, “atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you”(Lev. 16:30 ESV). The atonement covering is so complete that in God’s sight it is as though we never sinned; we’re cleansed.
Atonement then is a covering that cleanses the stain of sin. This is why the Lordsays, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool”(Is. 1:18).
And so we express the idea of atonement as cleansing from sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation, but we must be careful not think of it as an abstract idea. Atonement is the concrete reality of our sin being covered or hidden from God’s sight; the ransom is paid cleansing us from sin by Christ’s sacrificial blood. Atonement is the act of God covering His eyes to the offenses made against Him as the blood of Jesus cleanses us of our sin.
Remember, the imagery of the Day of Atonement is the dominant theme within Hebrews 8-10. Understanding atonement as a concrete reality based in God’s action on our behalf helps us better understand why “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). Jesus’ action to cover our sin or provide the security we need by paying our ransom is why the Lordsays, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” (Heb. 10:17). This is the atonement the Jesus we never knew has given us – a covering of protection that completely cleanses from sin.
Understanding atonement will do more than just help us to know the Jesus we never knew. It will also help us to forgive others when we find it hard to forget what they said or did. We can choose to cover the offense and hide it from our sight, which means we won’t dwell upon it or talk about it because from our vantage point the offense has been wiped away and no longer exists. The one who offended us is under our protection from vengeance, and the door to reconciliation is opened. This is why after His resurrection Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld”(Jn. 20:23 ESV). By His sacrifice we can choose to apply His blood to the sin of others made against us and provide atonement for it by faith. This is a mystery, but Jesus said that when we offer forgiveness to others, they are forgiven and the sin is atoned for – the sin we forgive is covered from sight (both ours and God’s), and the sinner is protected from retribution. However, the opposite is also true. When we refuse to forgive the sin of others it remains unforgiven – uncovered in plain view for everyone to see, and without protection from those seeking revenge.
Yes, atonement is more than just “at-one-ment” or reconciliation. Atonement covers sin from sight and provides protection from vengeance. In this way sins are forgiven and reconciliation is made possible.
[ii](Benner, Ancient Hebrew Dictionary, 2009, p. 34)
[iii](Parsons, Yom Kippur)