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This article is taken from, Just Paul: comments on Romans by Jonathan Mitchell, Harper Brown Publishing, 2014, which is available on this website.
A variety of church theories and doctrines about the concept of atonement have been embraced and presented by different scholars over the centuries, from the time of the early church fathers on to our present day. Many books have been written on this topic.
In this study, I will suggest an alternative to all the traditional church theories – those from such as Origen, Anselm and Calvin, and those of our current scholars that have posited one, or a combination, of the varieties of these theological constructs that continue being debated. Let us return to the sources, and look again.
The concept of atonement, in the Jewish-Christian traditions, comes from Israel’s Torah (Law), and thus we should base our understanding upon its use in the OT Scriptures, if we are to apply it to the work of the Messiah (which concept also derives from this same source).
The English word “atonement” first appears in Ex. 29:36.
The NASB reads:
“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 Concordant Version (CV) reads:
“A young bull, as a sin offering, shall you offer day by day for propitiatory shelters; you
will make a sin offering on the altar [Rotherham reads, here: a sin-cleansing for the altar] when you make your propitiatory shelter on it. And you will anoint it to hallow it”
Then vs. 37 reads:
“Seven days shall you make a propitiatory shelter on [other versions: make atonement for] the altar, and [thus] you will hallow (or: consecrate) it. Thus the altar becomes a holy
of holies. All that touches the altar shall be holy.” (CV, additions, mine)
The Hebrew word for “atonement” is kaphar, which means “to COVER.” It is first used in Gen. 6:14 where it is rendered “pitch [it]” – KJV – but the CV more correctly reads “… with nests shall you make the ark, and you will shelter it from the inside and from the outside with a sheltering [coat].” But it is noteworthy that the LXX uses the word “bitumen,” along with its verb form, in this verse. Elsewhere, the LXX uses either hilasmos, hilasia, or exilasetai for the word normally rendered “atonement,” or its verb form.
In the OT, we find this word and concept almost entirely associated with tabernacle/temple cultus, in the books, Ex., Lev. & Nu. It is next used in 2 Sam. 21:3 to make atonement for Saul having killed Gibeonites, and because of this Yahweh had brought three years of famine to the land. Here the atonement was made by giving over seven men of the sons of Saul to be hanged by the Gibeonites. Next, in 1 Chron. 6:49, we find a reference back to Aaron and his sons offering both burnt and incense offering “to make an atonement for Israel” (note the corporate effect that this cultic ritual had; cf the cleansing of the temple in Hezekiah’s day, and atonement being made “for all Israel” – 2 Chron. 29:24). Then there was the time of covenant renewal when the exiles returned to Jerusalem (Neh. 10:33).
On the Day of Atonement – the first part of the third great feast of Israel, the Feast of Taberancles (or: Booths; Ingatherings), held in the seventh month – the chief priest was to go into the holy of holies of the tabernacle, and Yahweh was to “appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat” (Lev. 16:2). This day included the sacrifice of a ram, a bullock and a goat – another goat taking the sins of Israel outside their camp and into the wilderness. He was to
“make an atonement for the holy [place], because of the UNCLEANNESS of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation that remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness” (Lev. 16:16).
The Day of Atonement was a corporate issue that happened once a year for the entire nation. In vs. 21-22 we read how the chief priest,
“shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat and shall send [it] away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon it all their iniquities (or: depravities) into an inaccessible area (or: wilderness)…”
UNCLEANNESS – from transgressions, sins and depravities – seems to be the main issue for this day. It was a cultic way of getting rid of the effects of what the nation had done wrong during the previous year. It made the nation clean, and covered over their mistakes. Vs. 20 speaks of atoning the holy area, the tabernacle and the altar. Everyday-living polluted everything. All needed to be cleansed on this annual, corporate reconsecration.
On the topic of Atonement in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Sanders instructs us,
"Thus in IQS 11:14, God is said to 'atone for' the hymnist's iniquities and to 'cleanse' him.... In IQS 3:6-8, the passive verb 'be atoned for' alternates with 'be cleansed,' and the agent is said to be 'the spirit of true counsel,' 'the spirit of holiness,' and the 'spirit of uprightness and humility'" (ibid p 299).
He further states that in IQS 9:4-6, "The community itself has an atoning function," and in IQS 1:3, "the 'men of His Council who keep His Covenant in the midst of iniquity' atone for 'the Land'.... It may also be that the establishment of the community is considered to 'atone'." (ibid p 300, 302)
John Gavazzoni comments:
“The altar is where God meets with man, and is that place which initially is the opening to communion with God at the point of our conscience. We should consider not seeing the conscience and the blood of Christ at the deepest level, as two things, but one. That is, the life which is in the blood IS our true conscience. It is our altar. It's the only "place" where we can meet with God, i.e., at the place of HIS reckoning of us.”
There was also an individual aspect to the concept. In Ex. 30:12-16 we read,
“When you take up the sum of the sons of Israel by their mustered ones, then each man will give a sheltering ransom for his soul [= life; person] to Yahweh…. a half shekel… the half shekel shall be a heave offering [LXX: tax] to Yahweh… [for] ones from twenty years old and upward…. You will take the sheltering ransom silver from the sons of Israel and give it to (or: for) the service of the tent of appointment [LXX: witness] that it become for the sons of Israel a memorial before Yahweh to shelter [= make atonement concerning] your souls [= lives; persons].”
So here, each man ransomed his own soul/life as his own atonement/shelter – and in this way the priests had operating money “for the service of the tent.”
Lev. 1:2 begins instructions for a man bringing an approach present to Yahweh. Verse 4 says, “And he shall lay his hand on the head of the offering, a thing acceptable to him to atone for him” (LXX). Lev. 4:13-21 gives instructions re: inadvertent sins of the whole congregation of Israel – a bull calf is to be offered, its blood appropriately applied, then it is burned outside the camp – and this became a shelter for the assembly. Lev. 6 addresses issues of trespasses between members of the community: restoration plus a fifth more was to be given to the wronged person and then a ram was to be offered for an atoning shelter (vss. 2-7). Many other examples involving shelter/atonement are given in both Lev. and Nu. My point is: atonement was a central part of their cultic existence. Through the various rituals and sacrifices it was a way of cleansing individuals and the entire nation of offenses and mistakes. It was individual and group catharsis. It was a means of handling guilt, reciprocity and equity within the community. This was a part of the Way that was pointed out to them, the path of covenant membership.
The word is not used, but the action of COVERING is seen in the prophet’s description of Yahweh choosing Israel,
“… I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness…. I bathed you with water and washed off the blood from you… clothed you… etc.” (Ezk. 16:8-10)
So how is this theme taken up in the NT? We read in Heb. 9 about how Christ, as the chief priest of the new order – that of Melchizedek – fulfilled that of which the Day of Atonement was a type and a shadow (Heb. 10:1, 10-14). In 10:22 the writer speaks of “the hearts having been sprinkled from a misery-gushed consciousness of what is evil or unserviceable (or: a joint-knowledge full of labor; a conscience in a bad condition)…” Heb. 9:24 tells us that,
“Christ did not enter into set-apart places made by hands (= by humans) – representations (things formed after a pattern) of the true and real things – but rather into the atmosphere and heaven itself, now to be manifested (exhibited to view; caused to appear in clear light; made apparent) by the presence of God over us (or: in God's face and countenance [being] on our behalf).”
Yes, we are the temple into which He has entered:
“folks gathered, laid-out and chosen in accord with and down from Father God's foreknowledge (or: corresponding to a previous experiential and intimate knowledge possessed by God, who is a Father), within a setting-apart of spirit (or: in union with the process of being set apart from common condition and use by [the] Spirit; or: in the midst of a sacred differencing which is a Breath-effect) [leading] into an obedient hearing (or: [focused] to being centered in a listening and paying attention with compliance) and a sprinkling with Jesus Christ's blood (or: a sprinkling of blood, which is Jesus Christ)” (1 Pet. 1:2).
1 John is the only place in the NT where hilasmos is used;
2:2. And He Himself exists continually being a cleansing, sheltering cover around our mistakes and errors, sheltering us from their effects so that we can be in peaceful and rightwised relationships (or: being the act by which our sins and failures are cleansed and made ineffective, effecting conciliation [to us]), yet not only around those pertaining to us (or: having their source in us), but further, even around the whole ordered System (secular realm and dominating world of culture, economy, religion and government; or: universe; or: aggregate of mankind)!
4:10. Within this exists (or: is) the Love, not that we ourselves have loved [other MSS: not that we ourselves love or accept] God, but in contrast, that He Himself loves us and sends (or: urged toward reunion with us and sent) His Son as a Representative (Emissary): a cleansing, sheltering covering around our sins (failures to hit the target, errors, mistakes, deviations).
The verb, hilaskomai, is used twice:
Lu. 18:13 But the tax collector (or: tribute contractor), standing far off (= remaining at a distance, in the background), continued unwilling even to lift up his eyes to heaven (or: unto the atmosphere or sky) – and in contrast kept on beating (striking) his chest, repeatedly saying, 'O God, at your mercy seat let me, the failure (the one who has deviated and missed the goal; the sinner), be sheltered and cleansed!'
Heb. 2:17 Wherefore, He was indebted (or: obliged) to be assimilated by (or: made like or similar to) the brothers in accord with all things (or: concerning everything; = in every respect; or: in correlation to all people), so that He might become a merciful and a faithful (or: loyal) Chief Priest (Leading, Ruling or Beginning Priest) [in regard to] the things toward God, into the [situation] to be repeatedly and continuously overshadowing the failures (mistakes; errors; misses of the target; sins) of the People with a gentle, cleansing shelter and covering.
The noun, hilasterion, is used twice, once in Rom. 3:25, but I shall quote 23-26 to see the context:
23. You see, all people at one point veered off the mark (or: all folks deviated; or: everyone fails; all humanity sins), and so they are continually posterior to, falling short of, inferior to and wanting of, God’s glory (of a manifestation of God which calls forth praise; of a reputation which comes from, and has the character of, God; of God's opinion and imagination; of [having] an appearance of God; of the glory from God),
24. while being folks presently and progressively being made right, freed from guilt, placed in solidarity within the Way pointed out, and continuously set in right relationship (or: being [all] one-after-another rightwised; being ones habitually turned in the right direction; being [all] presently justified [by covenant inclusion]) freely (as a gift; gratuitously) by His grace (or: in His joyous favor; with His grace; to His favor) through means of the releasing-away (redemption; setting-free) because of the payment of the ransom which is resident within Christ Jesus (or: which is centered in [the] Anointed Jesus),
25. Whom God publicly set and places before [us] (or: before put-forth; purposed) [as] a sheltering, cleansing cover (mercy seat; lid of the ark; = atonement) through the faithfulness (or: the trust, faith and loyalty) resident within His blood – into a demonstration which points out the proof of His rightwised solidarity (or: His fairness in covenantal, relational rightness, and His just act which accords with the Way pointed out), on account of (or: because of) the letting flow-aside, and the passing by, of the effects of errors (or: the results of sinful acts; offenses against the Law; effects of mistakes) having previously occurred (being ones having been before brought into being) during the midst of God’s tolerant forbearance –
26. toward the demonstration which points out the proof of His rightwised solidarity, with fair and equitable dealing (His justice; His righteousness; His compliance with the Way pointed out), within the present season (in the current fitting situation; in union with the current fertile moment), for Him to be just (or: One in covenantal solidarity that accords with fair and equitable dealings which comprise the Way pointed out) and the One progressively turning in the right direction, making just and freeing from guilt while constantly placing in the Way pointed out which is righted, covenantal relationship (or: The Right-wiser and Justifier of) the person [issuing; being born] forth from out of the midst of Jesus’ faithfulness (or: from [the] trust, loyalty, and trustworthiness [emanating] from, and [the] faith which is, Jesus)!
The other place where this noun is used is in Heb. 9:5, in the context of the Day of Atonement:
“but up above her [i.e., the ark] [are] cherubim, which have the character and quality of and express [the] glory, continuously overshadowing the mercy seat (the place of gentleness and graciousness), concerning which things (or: ones) there is now nothing to be saying corresponding to [that] part (or: down from, or in accord with, a part; = in detail).”
The “mercy seat” of Heb. 9:5 relates to the “sheltering, cleansing cover” of Rom. 3:25, above. So Christ is the lid of the ark, the mercy seat, and His blood shelters us, covers us, and cleanses us. His cross was the Day of Atonement for Israel. And since Israel was the conduit for Abraham’s blessings to come to all the nations, their atonement became humanity’s atonement. As Christ represented Israel in this cultic metaphor, so Israel represented Adam and His atoning work became ours, as well.
Dan Kaplan has pointed out that the mercy seat, the lid to the ark, was a covering over the contents that were, for a time, kept in the ark: the Law written in stone; the rod of priestly authority within that bygone religious system; the pot of manna that spoke of Israel’s wilderness wandering. Mercy was to reign above it all, and this type foreshadowed the place of Christ – as Paul points out – and His cleansing “judgment seat.”
As we saw in Lev. 16:30, atonement was associated with cleansing. In the Gospels, Jesus’ healing of lepers was termed cleansing them. In demonstrating a disciple’s role as a servant to the body of Christ, Jesus washed their feet (a figure of the walk of daily living). But He told Peter,
"The person being one having bathed himself or herself (or, as a passive: being one having been washed and cleansed) does not continue having a need to wash himself or herself – except [his] feet – but rather she or he continues to exist being wholly clean. And you men continue being clean folks…” (John 13:10)
I suggest that Acts 10:15 is an echo of the Day of Atonement which Christ fulfilled on the cross. In reference to the Gentiles of the house of Cornelius, the Lord tells Peter,
"You are not to continue making, or considering, common [the] things which God cleansed (or: cleanses) and made (or: makes) clean!"
This referred to the Gentiles (and by implication, all humanity) now being clean.
John’s 1st letter picked up this theme, and we read in ch. 1:7,
Yet if we keep on walking about (= continue living our life) within the midst of and in union with the Light, as He exists (or: is) within the Light, we constantly have common being and existence (or: hold common fellowship, participation and enjoy partnership) with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, keeps continually and repeatedly cleansing us (or: is progressively rendering us pure) from every sin (or: from all error, failure, deviation, mistake, and from every [successive] shot that is off target [when it occurs]).
This presents the practical, living application in the new creation covenant community as it walks the path, following Jesus, who is the path, the truth and the life. Atonement was a work that was finished by Christ on the cross, but it is also a living experience through His Spirit. It was a maintenance feature for cleansing Israel, and by the Spirit it is the figurative “life within the blood” that continues to cleanse and nourish His body.
We see a different word, but the act of covering in Rom. 4:7 where Paul quotes Psalm 32,
“Happy and blessed [are] the people whose lawlessnesses (transgressions; violations of the Law; lawless deeds) were and are sent away (dismissed; discharged; divorced; pardoned) and whose failures (errors; situations of missing of the target; sins) were and are covered over (concealed with a veil or lid)!”
I will quote one more verse, from 1 Pet 4, where he quotes Prov. 10:12,
8. Before all people (or: = More than anything), continue being folks constantly holding the outstretching and extending love (unambiguous, uniting acceptance) unto yourselves (i.e., into each other) – "because love is constantly covering (habitually throwing a veil over; progressively concealing; [and with other MSS: will be covering]) a multitude of failures (mistakes; errors; misses of the target; sins)."
This calls to mind Yahweh’s covering the nakedness of Adam and Eve. Also, the covering (roof) of the Tabernacle was with skins (a figure of the incarnation: God dwelling in a house/tabernacle that was “covered with” skin). Covering (atonement) extends all the way to Paul speaking of clothing ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27), with immortality (1 Cor. 15:54), with the new humanity (Eph. 4:24) and with the whole suit of armor, which is God (Eph. 6:11). Rev. 3:4 gives the promise of walking with Him in white; those in 6:11 were given white robes; 19:8 tells of the Lamb’s wife arrayed in clean, white fine linen (the effects of His fair and equitable deed, and the rightwised Way that He pointed out to His set-apart folks).
E.P. Sanders, in commenting on The Psalms of Solomon, states that,
"God's forgiveness is described as his cleansing the repentant transgressor (9:12), and similarly God's chastisements are said to cleanse one from sin (10:1f)" (ibid. p 397; emphasis his).
When commenting on Jubilees and the Day of Atonement, he quotes 34:18f,
"And this day has been ordained that they should grieve thereon for their sins, and for all their transgressions and for all their errors, so that they might cleanse themselves on that day once a year" (ibid. p 379).
In his section on Paul, Sanders makes an insightful comment on 2 Cor. 5:14 ("one has died for all; therefore all have died"):
"Here the significance of Christ death 'for all,' huper panton, is not primarily that it is expiatory. We note here the ease with which Paul uses categories of participation to explain his meaning: 'therefore all have died,' NOT 'therefore all have had their sins expiated" (ibid p 464).
Vs. 15 continues:
"And further, He died over all humanity (over [the situation] of, and for the sake of all) to the end that those living may (or: could; would) no longer live for themselves (to themselves; in themselves; by themselves), but rather for (or: in; by; to; with) the One dying and then being awakened and raised up over them (over their [situation]; for their sakes)."
His death had in view His giving of His life to us so that we could LIVE. As Atonement in the old covenant gave Israel a new start every year, so His covering us and cleansing us with His Life and His love makes all things new for us.
Richard Rohr makes these comments in Adam's Return; The Five Promises of Male Initiation, (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004):
"We ended up with a horrible atonement theory that makes God the Father into a petty ogre who is not organically related to his own creation. God needed to decide to love us, but only if the payment was high enough and the suffering great enough. No wonder we have had so few Christians who loved and trusted God, and so many who feared and even disliked God. Is this not at the heart of Western atheism? Fortunately, Blessed John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan theologian of the thirteenth century, taught what is now common sense. Jesus was not paying any debt, except possibly to the hardened human psyche. He did not have to die to get God to love us. His death allowed us to love and trust God. He died so we could see in his body what God was like -- to understand self-sacrificing love. Jesus was not changing God's mind about us, but changing our mind about God!" (p 178-9)
"We made the Jesus symbol [the cross] into a mechanical and distant substitutionary atonement theory instead of a very personal and intense at-one-ment process, the very stages of love's unfolding. Jesus became a cosmic problem solver, God became a petty autocrat unable to naturally love what he created, and Christian practice became a polite and fearful standoff instead of a cosmic love affair. We missed out on the positive and redemptive meaning of our own pain and suffering. It was something Jesus did for us (substitutionary), but not something that revealed and invited us into the same pattern." (p 38)
John Gavazzoni gives a good summation of this topic:
“A conscience, sprinkled with the blood of Christ, thus void of offense, surrounds, covers, and undergirds us as a propitiatory shelter. The God who provides a shelter by the blood of His Son, rather than a god who demands to be appeased by that blood, is the True God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In regard to Christ be the representative of humanity in God’s eschatological act of the deliverance of mankind, Campbell insightfully puts it, “[J]ust as Christ is God’s movement toward humanity, so too Christ recapitulates and represents humanity to God… [in] Christ’s identification with humanity…” (ibid p 212)
Rudolf Schnackenburg, in commenting on the Blessing in Eph. 1:2, says, “‘Grace,’ the compassion newly shown, and ‘peace,’ the salvation which embraces all humankind, [has] come from God, our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ…” (The Epistle to the Ephesians – A Commentary, T & T Clark, 1991, p 43; brackets mine). Grace and peace are the coming and the outflow of Christ’s Atonement of humanity.
“If one has a gracious God, then everything is good” (Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles, 33, 1537, cited in Campbell, ibid p 269).
To God be the glory,
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GOD'S MESSAGE OF
WHICH BRINGS GOD'S
GIFTS OF HIS SPIRIT,
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FAIRNESS, HIS PEACE
AND HIS LOVE