If you spend much time around the scriptures or those who spend their time teaching the scriptures, you’ll invariably come across this word, atonement. Atonement is usually defined as the transaction that neutralized the sin debt of mankind, through the death of Christ; and more specifically, the blood of Christ. Does this satisfy all aspects of atonement? I think if we explore and think on these things, we’ll come to see that atonement deals with more than just death.
The basic idea of atonement is found in the Hebrew word from whence it comes – kaphar, which essentially means ‘to cover’ or ‘to pitch’. In Genesis 6:14, for example, we find that the ark was to be covered with pitch (a waterproofing substance). It would be odd to describe this as ‘atoning’ the ark, but wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect to say so. However, the idea of covering/atoning becomes much more prevalent as it relates to sin throughout Israel’s history.
The first time we see this word used in relation to Israel is in Exodus 29:33.
Exodus 29:33 And they shall eat those things wherewith the atonement was made, to consecrate and to sanctify them: but a stranger shall not eat thereof, because they are holy.
This is in the midst of a passage where the priests of Aaron are being consecrated unto the Lord – they are being “holified.” Before Aaron and his sons could minister to God in the priests office, they had to be clean – set part from their sin. A sacrifice of consecration was made and Aaron and his sons were to consume the sacrifice that provided their atonement. (Curious symbolism to Christ, the atonement sacrifice for mankind, who tells His disciples to take the bread and EAT for that bread IS HIS BODY, broken for them.) This atonement covered their sin – it created a “clean space” or a “buffer” between sin and God that the priests were then free to minister the things of God to the people. Yet, this clean space only existed temporarily for they would need to do this each time before ministering in the priest’s office. The sacrifice ‘covered’ the priests – not just their sin but provided cover for them to operate in.
From this standpoint, we certainly find the idea of atonement centering around a death. But, did you notice that Aaron and his sons didn’t die – something else died in their place, yet Aaron and his sons LIVED in the righteous space that sin’s atonement created. This is really what I want to get at with this post. Atonement is a two-fold concept. One side of this coin is death, but the other side is life. Atonement is the ENTIRE COIN. This certainly doesn’t negate the death aspect of atonement, but this actually completes the story. When we discuss atonement, if we are stopping on the death side of the coin, we are leaving the story unfinished. I might suggest that the LIFE side of the coin is the MORE IMPORTANT side for the death only happens to allow for life. Recall Paul’s words to the Corinthians in 1Corinthians 15 that if Christ be not raised, then they were dead in their sins and their faith was in vain. He doesn’t say if Christ had not died, but if Christ is not RAISED. It is the resurrection to LIFE that culminates Christ as the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is His resurrection that exalts Him far above all principality and power. His death was a necessary transaction – no question about it; but His death, like our death, was swallowed up in victory by His resurrection. There are plenty of examples and types of this in the Old Testament, but this is on full display in the book of Leviticus when we read about the scapegoat.
Leviticus 17:11 records that the LIFE of the flesh is in the blood and it is this LIFE-containing blood that has been given to Israel for ATONEMENT. This is why God didn’t want Israel (or any strangers staying with them) to consume blood. Blood was hallowed in the eyes of God because of the LIFE it contained and He didn’t want Israel treating it flippantly. This is important to remember as it relates to the scapegoat.
(Read Leviticus 16)
One of the sin offerings that Aaron was to administer was the taking of two goats and casting lots to determine which would be sacrifice and which would go free. In verse 8, we see that the goat upon which the sacrificial lot fell was the sacrificial goat UNTO THE LORD, and the other is the scapegoat. When the sacrificial goat is sacrificed, the BLOOD (Liquid of Life) was to be put on the HEAD of the scapegoat and that scapegoat is to be taken into the wilderness and set free. Notice a few things: Fist, the blood wasn’t put on just any part of the goat but specifically upon his head. In Colossians 1:18, Christ is described as the “head” of the church, which is His body. This is Christ’s headship – His rightful seat as Chief over His domain. It is the symbol of the totality of Christ. It isn’t an accident that the blood of the sacrifice is put on the goat’s head – signifying the TOTALITY of the sacrifice’s application. In other words, the scapegoat was TOTALLY covered and TOTALLY set free.
Second. the scapegoat was taken to a NEW LOCATION. The goat’s freedom didn’t exist in the place the sacrifice was made. He was to have the sacrifice applied and then experience freedom elsewhere. In Adam, we die, Paul writes; yet in Christ shall all be made alive. Our freedom isn’t in the body of sin and death that Christ became at Calvary – our freedom is in the Body of Life He resurrected in. Christ effectually was both the sacrificial goat and the scapegoat. He was the sacrificial goat through His death, and the scapegoat through His resurrection. By His resurrection, He fostered a new location for those of faith to live in – a location not repressed by the cruel rulership of Sin and Death, but one of gracious righteousness and love – a true location of freedom.
In Leviticus 16:10, it records: But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented ALIVE before the LORD, TO MAKE AN ATONEMENT WITH HIM, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.
Did you see it? The scapegoat is to be presented ALIVE and ATONEMENT is made WITH him. In other words, the sacrificial goat was only one side of the atonement story. Atonement wasn’t complete until the blood of the sacrifice was applied and LIFE was consecrated thereby. When we think about the atonement of Christ, it is imperative that we not short change the story and just speak of His death, because the LIFE atonement brings is of greater consequence and importance to the story. Defining Atonement by just a death is like a gospel without a resurrection. Atonement serves as the means of creating the “safe space” that believers can LIVE in and Christ created this “safe space” within HIMSELF by breaking the chains that held us captive (through His death), and allowing us to go free as we walk, albeit not in the wilderness, but in the newness of life.