The challenge of communication is not simply knowing what someone said—it’s understanding what they meant by their words. That’s why we tend to listen more carefully or speak more precisely with people we don’t know well. We want to make sure we hear their words or they hear ours in the proper context. With those we know well, it tends to be a different story. Because we know them, we already have some context for their words and the demand on us as listeners (or speakers) isn’t as great. And yet, who hasn’t heard this from or said this to your spouse or a close friend: “Well, that’s not what I meant by that.” And with that we’re back to this basic truth that it’s not what is said, but what is meant that is of ultimate importance.
This is never more true that when we think about atonement. The Scripture tells us that Jesus died for our sins, He gave Himself as a sacrifice and His life as a ransom, He bore our sins, His blood was shed for the forgiveness of our sins, etc. All of this is indisputable. But what exactly is meant by these things? It means indisputably that we have life with God because of what Jesus did. But beyond that, what does it mean to say that Christ bore our sins or gave Himself as a sacrifice? He did these things through His death on the cross of course—but exactly how did this bring atonement?
Atonement carries the meaning of being in a state of “at-one-ment.” It’s is to be one with God. God, in Christ, accomplished this at the cross (2 Corinthians 5:18-19 NASB). But how was this done? What does the Scripture tell us that provides us with insight as to how this was accomplished?
The covenant God made with Israel is a good place to begin since what we find in the New Testament builds upon it (this is especially developed in the book of Hebrews). McGuiggan reminds us that the arrangement under the old covenant involved three essential things:
1. The priest–the person who atoned for sins.
2. The altar–the place where sin was atoned.
3. The offering–the atoning sacrifice.
The priests are spoken of as those who “bear iniquity” (Leviticus 10:17; Numbers 18:1 ESV). In the context, they bore Israel’s sin through the mediating work they performed in offering sacrifices. It was God’s intent that the Israel’s atonement for their sin not be accomplished on their own as solely a personal and individual matter, but through the work of the priesthood. When the priest did such work of behalf of others (and themselves) they were bearing sin. Note that their bearing of sin had nothing to do with Israel’s sin being literally transferred to them or them being punished for the nation’s sin.
In regard to the atoning sacrifices, not all of the offerings were related to sin but those that were were blood sacrifices (Leviticus 4-5). Leviticus 17:10-12 speaks to what was at the center of these sacrifices:
“I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing
among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people.
For the life of a creature is in the blood, I have given it to you to make
atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes
atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of
you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.”
There are a number of things that flow from this text.
1. It’s clear that blood is representative of life (v. 11). While it’s literally true (and emphasized in the text) that without blood there is no life, this is also true of many other things (our major organs, water, oxygen, etc.). Nonetheless, it was God’s choice that blood be the designated token of life in the sacrificial system. Whenever we hear of blood then, we need to think of what it represents: the life that is being sacrificed/offered. Texts like Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:22 or Revelation 1:5 aren’t to be understood as saying there is anything magical or mystical about blood—they have to do with life. You can substitute the word “life” for “blood” and see this. Blood = Life.
2. Blood sacrifices made atonement in the sense that they represented the principle of a life for a life—the life of the sacrifice in place of the life of the sinner. We see this principle as early as Genesis 3 where Adam and Eve are covered by God with animal skins so the innocent dies to clothe the guilty. (See this applied to Christ and us in Galatians 3:26-27). It is found later in Genesis 22:13 and in the Passover as well.
3. But it’s not harmful and can be helpful to step back and ask, “Why is this so?” Why did putting an animal to death clear things up with God? The answer is simple: because God said it did.
We do know that it involved a life-for-life arrangement and because that principle is so ingrained in us, we tend to stop here in our thinking under the assumption that this is in harmony with some deep and abiding legal principle of the universe. But there’s nothing axiomatic, obvious or mandatory that connects the death of an animal with the forgiveness of the guilty. After all, if you you went out and robbed a bank, the judge isn’t going to tell you that sacrificing a few animals will put everything right.
If our answer is that the animal just prefigured Jesus offering His life, it still doesn’t solve the dilemma of what other judicial system operates by this principle? People are responsible for their own crimes. God is on record as saying this (Deuteronomy 24:16). So we’re back to the truth that life for life brings atonement ultimately because God declares that it does. And with this we learn something very important—atonement doesn’t have to make perfect legal sense to us and that’s certainly not the criteria we should use to judge it. In the end atonement is relational—not legal. It is not ultimately about a Judge and criminals—it is about a Father and His children. Atonement exists because it expresses and satisfies His will—not because it meets the standard of some higher law that even God is subject to.
4. As with the priests, there’s nothing to suggest that the sins of people were literally transferred to the animal sacrifices. There was clearly representation (the blood of the animals represented their life that was being given) and substitution (the “innocent” animals life was given in lieu of the guilty sinners)—but that’s it. You have to read the idea of transference into the text and when you do, it distorts the picture. And because there is no transference, the animals suffer but are not punished. Punishment is reserved for someone who has done something wrong. These are important concepts to grasp.
5. Finally, to quote McGuiggan, “God did not accept the sinner without his sacrifice but neither did He accept the sacrifice without the sinner.” This applies to us equally today.