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The Need for Atonement

The word atone is a theological term that has its origins in the English language. Translating the Bible in the sixteenth century, William Tyndale conveyed the Hebrew word kippur as “atone,” meaning to be united, in accord with, or “at one” with God. It conveys the idea of reconciliation between God and His creation.

That theme of reconciliation, or “at-one-ment,” between God and His people is central to the prescriptions for the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. Once a year the high priest needed to enter the Most Holy Place with animal sacrifices for atonement. The entire ritual addressed the problems of sin and death. The priest washed with water before and after the ceremony, symbolizing the need for cleansing. Likewise, sin offerings and burnt offerings were made in place of the death of sinners, both the Israelites and the priest alike.

Central to the Day of Atonement, however, was the ritual of the scapegoat. Taking two goats, the high priest cast lots. One goat was offered as a sin offering to the Lord; the other was chosen as the scapegoat for the people. Taking that second goat, the priest was to “confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head” (v. 21). Then, in a gesture full of symbolic meaning, the goat was sent into the wilderness, carrying on itself “all their sins to a remote place” (v. 22).

The Day of Atonement was an annual ceremony. It was a continual reminder that sin and death separated people from God. Yet by God’s grace, “on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins” (v. 30).

Apply the Word

In our Lord Jesus Christ, we have effective and perfect atonement for our sins. As John the Baptist declared: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Write that verse on a notecard and place it somewhere visible as a reminder that, because of Christ, we can now be “at one” with God.

BY Bryan Stewart

Bryan A. Stewart is associate professor of religion at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. His particular interests are the history of Christian thought and the way that early Christians interpreted the biblical canon. He is the editor of a volume on the Gospel of John in The Church’s Bible series (Eerdmans), and he has done extensive research on the ways that the early Church preached on this Gospel. He is an ordained minister. 

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