When we are asked by leaders in our congregations to do something or to believe something in regards to Scripture, we should always be like the Bereans and test everything against Scripture itself (Acts 17:11)... the whole of Scripture
(2 Timothy 3:16-17). If a person feels "led by the spirit" to speak, behave, or believe a certain way, they should test that spirit (1 John 4:1) and see whether what that spirit is telling them to do is in agreement or disagreement with Scripture.
Let us take a journey together through Scripture and see what it says about the matter of atonement... a "walk in the Word" so to speak. As we take this walk, may we say, believe, and do what is right, be merciful in our speech and actions, and walk humbly with the Lord (Micah 6:8).
Included as an appendix to this article are references to most (if not all) verses in Scripture directly related to atonement. If you find a verse that is not referenced and think it should be, please contact the author.
Scriptural quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted. Bolded text or other emphases in the Scriptural references are the author's.
What Does Atonement Mean?
There are two words in the Hebrew language for "atonement": the verb kaphar (Strong's #3722) and the noun kippur (Strong's #3725). The verb kaphar means "to cover" and is found 92 times in Scripture. The noun kippur means "a covering" and is found 8 times in Scripture. Of the 92 verses where the verb kaphar is found 44 of them roughly 50%) are found in Leviticus.
When the words kippur or kaphar are translated as "atonement" their literal meaning of "covering" is laced with the connotation of something that covers over an offense in order to permit reconciliation to occur. Similar to the manner in which a garbage bin lid covers and hides the stench of trash within it so an act of atonement covers the stench of sin before G-d. It does not, however, remove the garbage causing the stink. We will find that sin is not the only thing for which atonement is necessary, however.
There is only a single word used in the Apostolic Writings which is closest in its literal meaning to the Hebrew word for atonement. It is found in James 5:20:
...let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
1 Peter 4:8 uses the same Greek word in a very similar manner:
1 Peter 4:8
Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love [agape] covers a multitude of sins.
The Greek word used in these verses is the verb kalupto (Strong's #2572) which means to hide or veil. It literally means "to hide" and, as it is used in these verses, has the sense of something that hides a sin in order to permit reconciliation. However, this word is not translated as atonement nor do these instances completely convey the same sense as the Hebrew kippur.
The King James Version is the only common translation that makes use of the English word "atonement". The reference is found in Romans 5:11 but the Greek word used there is katallage (Strongs #2643) which means reconciliation rather than atonement and does not carry the sense of "covering" but rather "exchange".
In the Septuagint there are three Greek words used as a translation for the Hebrew kippur or kaphar but none of these words has the meaning of covering with the sense of enabling reconciliation:
- hagiazo (Strongs #37)- which means "to sanctify"
- hilasmos (Strongs #2434)- which means "propitiation" or "reconciliation"
- execheo (Strongs #1837)- which means "to sound forth" [used most frequently to translate kaphar/ kippur]
In summary, we find that the Hebrew words for atonement, as used in Scripture, means "a covering" with a connotative sense of covering an offense or sin to allow for reconciliation.
First Use of Kaphar
The first time the word kaphar is used is in Genesis 6:14 when speaks to Noach.
Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover [kaphar] it inside and out with pitch.
The first time the word kippur is used (in an "atonement" sense) is in Exodus 29:33 in regards to Aharon and his sons:
Thus they shall eat those things by which atonement was made at their ordination and consecration; but a layman shall not eat them, because they are holy.
What "things by which atonement was made" were they to eat? The ram and bread offerings made for the consecration of Aharon and his sons into the priesthood. Let's examine these offerings by which atonement was made.
Offerings For Atonement
What offerings were authorized?
- Animals from the herd or flock (Leviticus 1:2)
- Birds (Leviticus 1:14)
- Grain (Leviticus 2:1)
We find in Leviticus that the offering was to be commensurate with the person's income (see Leviticus 5:7, 11, 14:21, 22). If a rich person brings an offering it should be a bull or a ram but if a poor person brings an offering it should be a mere measure of grain? Where is the justice in that? Shouldn't equivalent sins be penalized in an equivalent manner regardless of personal income? If we thoroughly examine Scripture we never find that the purpose of an offering was to bring about justice or to be payment for sin. What else can we discover regarding offerings?
Where were the offerings to be taken?
"Be careful that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every [cultic] place you see, but in the place which the LORD chooses in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you."
If the purpose of the offering was punitive as payment for sin, why not just turn in the offering to the local Levite or magistrate?
Why a specific location?
Let's keep searching.
Does G-d really desire an offering?
Are offerings really what G-d wants? Is He just an angry Deity needing appeasement for our sinful actions? If we search Scripture we find that offerings and sacrifices are not what G-d desires. We find a consistent message throughout Scripture and especially in the writings of the prophets:
With what shall I come to the LORD
And bow myself before the G-d on high?
Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings,
With yearling calves?
Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams,
In ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your G-d?
1 Samuel 15:22
Samuel said, "Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
"What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?" Says the LORD. "I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.
"When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts?
"Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies-- I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.
"I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them.
"So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.
"Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow.
"Come now, and let us reason together," Says the LORD, "Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool.
"If you consent and obey, You will eat the best of the land;
"But if you refuse and rebel, You will be devoured by the sword."
Truly, the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Then the Lord said, "Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote...
Rather than sacrifices or offerings it appears that G-d desires heartfelt obedience to His instruction (acting justly, kindly, and humbly).
Like parents desire for their children to choose to do what is right rather than pay the consequences of discipline and correction, so our Heavenly Father desires for us to choose to do what is right as well.
...burnt offerings and animal sacrifices were never able to remove sin...
What purpose did the offerings serve?
It is often assumed in Christian theology that the offerings and animal sacrifices covered sin temporarily and that temporary covering was their purpose. "The only difference after the sacrifice was knowing that G-d had temporarily put a hold on his personal sin payment for a while."1
This seems to be a far too common misunderstanding within mainstream Christianity regarding the purposes of the offerings and sacrifices.
If we take a closer look at Scripture, however, we find burnt offerings and animal sacrifices were never able to remove sin:
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
But what about Scripture verses that appears to state that offerings provide forgiveness like this one in Leviticus:
So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin which he has committed, and it will be forgiven him.
First, let us not forget that it is not a "what" but a "Who" that provides forgiveness of sins:
"Why does this man [Jesus] speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but G-d alone?"
And let us not forget how that forgiveness should be obtained:
1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
By recognizing these important facts and examining Scripture closely we may yet find clues to the answer to the question "what purpose did the offerings serve?"
What exactly is an "offering"?
There are specific types of offerings described in Scripture such as a "wave offering" (Hebrew: tenufah), a "heave offering" (Hebrew: terumah), and a "sin offering" (Hebrew: chata'ah) each of which has a specific purpose but the generic Hebrew word for offering is korban (plural korbanot).
The word korban comes from the Hebrew root karab which means "to bring near". It might be assumed that it is the offering, itself, that is "brought near" to G-d but Biblical commentators suggest that the sacrifice, "...if offered in the right spirit, is the medium whereby man attains closer nearness to the divine"2. It is via the offering that man is brought near to G-d... not the sacrifice itself.
This idea can be supported by several observations:
- The first instructions regarding korbanot in Leviticus chapter 1 immediately follow the closing events of Exodus:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
If the "glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle" so that even Moses (who had already previously entered into G-d's presence) could not enter into G-d's presence what would likely be the next instruction He would provide?
How to come near to him in that place!
And, indeed, the very next thing we find in Scripture. In fact, the next several chapters of Leviticus are G-d's instructions on how to draw near (karab) to him in the place of his earthly presence (the tabernacle) via the korbanot.
- The first time "atonement" via sacrifice is mentioned is after the Lord delivers His people, Israel, from Egypt (Exodus 12), after they come to Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19), and after He instructs them on the tabernacle (Exodus 25). Since the time of Adam's sin there had always been a need for reconciliation with G-d.
Why was a method for atonement only provided at the time of the Exodus?
What was different?
G-d's presence (the manifestation of His presence on Earth) was dwelling among them in the tabernacle!
- Since it is G-d alone who provides forgiveness of sins it would be incumbent upon anyone who desires that forgiveness to come before G-d to repent of their sin and request forgiveness from the only Source it can ever be obtained. With the manifest presence of G-d in their midst (in the tabernacle) the appropriate place to go would be the tabernacle.
- The problem is that in our sinful state, G-d does not hear us. Our iniquity is a barrier between sinners and G-d:
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your G-d, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.
This does not mean that G-d is unaware of us. Notice that the verse says He does not hear. It does not say that He cannot hear. In His absolutely Holy and righteous nature He cannot act as if our sins did not exist.
This is where atonement comes in!
As defined above, atonement (kippur) is a covering that allows reconciliation to occur. In the face of needing to draw near the manifest presence of G-d (the physical expression of His Holiness) in the tabernacle, a physical kippur was required to cover the sin. Noach is the first story in Scripture that mentions atonement... let's see what can be found there.
Noach and atonement
Let's examine the story of Noach in Genesis chapter 6 and the verse where kaphar is first used. The world was corrupt and filled with violence (verse 11) so G-d decided to destroy mankind with the Flood (verse 13). Then in verse 14 we see G-d's instruction for atonement:
"Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover [kaphar] it inside and out with pitch.
What did the pitch do to the ark? It covered and sealed the ark and its contents (Noach and his family) against the waters of the Flood. The Flood was G-d's execution of righteous judgment against the sin of the world.
Here is the concept:
How can we draw near to G-d in our sinful state? It would be akin to showing up at the White House seeking a Presidential pardon and approaching the President fresh from wallowing in the local sewer in our filthiest clothing. We cannot just try to hide our stench and our uncleanness to allow us to enter into his presence to seek his pardon. We can't just spray on a bit of eau de toilette and think it will be adequate. Our offense is too obvious!
We must meet with him on his Presidential terms. In a similar manner we must meet with G-d on His own terms. We must have something that will completely mask (but not remove!) our sin in order to enter into His Holy presence. Something He has said will completely mask our sin: the blood of an innocent life.
Let's follow Leviticus 5:10 in detail and see how this works:
So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf...
The Israelite brings an offering (korban) which the priest uses to make atonement (kippur) which then provides a temporary covering (but not payment!) for the sin. With this kippur in place the "stench" of our sin no longer prevents us from coming before G-d.
...for his sin which he has committed...
The petitioner then has the opportunity to communicate to G-d, confess his sin (1 John 1:9), express his sincere repentance, and request forgiveness for violating G-d's commands.
...and it will be forgiven him.
This is the pattern G-d gives us in Scripture over and over again. If we sin against someone then we must go and resolve the issue with that person face to face. In this case, "face to face" with G-d, himself!
Atonement for uncleanness
Those who are familiar with Scripture may offer a hearty "hold on a minute!" at this point (if they haven't done so already) and note that it is not only sin that requires atonement but people (or things) that are unclean (Hebrew: tamei):
"And each day you shall offer a bull as a sin offering for atonement, and you shall purify the altar when you make atonement for it; and you shall anoint it to consecrate it."
"The priest shall next offer the sin offering and make atonement for the one to be cleansed from his uncleanness. Then afterward, he shall slaughter the burnt offering."
Tamei is the Hebrew word meaning "ritually unclean". It does not mean "you have mud on your shoes; go take them off" nor does it mean "you have something on your hands; go wash them". Simplifying for the purpose of this article, tamei is the condition of something (or someone) being ritually impure. That impurity can be caused by something (or someone) coming into contact with:
- death (by touching a dead animal or a dead body) as in Leviticus 5:3, and Leviticus 11:24, or
- animals defined as unclean (tamei) Leviticus 11:26
Detailing every instance that can cause a person or a thing to be tamei is not in the scope of this article. Again simplifying greatly: the barrier between G-d and man caused by sin (Isaiah 59:2) is similar to (but not the same as!) the barrier caused by being tamei.
Did Yeshua Serve as Our Atonement?
It has been said that Yeshua was our "atoning sacrifice" but Scripture does not explicitly make such a statement. The only place that comes close is the King James translation of one verse in Romans:
And not only so, but we also joy in G-d through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.
The word translated "atonement" in this verse is the Greek word katallage (Strong's #2643). The meaning and sense of this Greek word is not that of "covering" but that of "exchange" or "reconciliation". Most other translations use the word "reconciliation" instead of atonement.
I would suggest that Yeshua did not serve as our atoning sacrifice. The definition and purpose described above regarding atonement does not fit with the purpose of His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension:
- Redemption (recovering ownership by paying a specified price)
- Reconciliation (reestablishing our relationship with G-d)
- Intercession (mediating with the Father on our behalf)
Rather than covering our sin as an atonement, He has paid for our sin (Matthew 26:28), cleansed us (1 John 1:7), and reconciled us to G-d (Romans 5:10). The "cleansing" of 1 John 1:7 is more in line with the concept of "atonement".
Scripture informs us that atonement is the temporary covering for sin or cleansing ritual uncleanness. The purpose of this temporary covering or cleansing is to allow a person to physically enter into the presence of G-d's Holiness. In the case of sin, it allows the sinner to come into G-d's presence to ask forgiveness from the One against Whom he has sinned.
Now that G-d's presence is no longer physically manifest on earth like it was during the times of the Tabernacle and Temple there is no longer a need for a physical atonement since we can no longer physically enter into His presence. When the Temple is restored and G-d's presence dwells there once again then we will once again need a kaphar to enter into His presence.