Terms of Atonement in the Old and New Testaments

Featuring Worshipedia Posted on May 1, 2010

The idea of atonement relates to the need to be shielded from the wrath of a holy God, yet not in the moral sense alone (that God is good and man is evil); rather it is because God is God, the Creator, and the worshiper is a finite creature that the gap between them must be bridged by some atoning act. The Creator is of surpassing worth; in contrast, the worshiper is as nothing before him. Atonement is a covering (the basic meaning of the Hebrew kafar) that provides a cleansing or consecration for the worshiper, enabling him or her to enter the presence of God and to have fellowship with him. Thus, by sacrifice atonement is made for priests, the people, and even for the sanctuary and the altar (for example, Leviticus 16) that the profane might venture to approach the sacred and serve God‘s purposes. In another connection, a leper who is cleansed must have atonement made through the slaughter of a male lamb (Leviticus 14:1–20). The concept of atonement defies rational explanation but belongs to the realm of the numinous, or supra-rational, intuitively experienced aspects of the holy. 

The word atonement is not found in the New Testament, although a suggestion of its basic meaning is found in Peter‘s statement that love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). But the concept of atonement underlies the apostolic proclamation that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3), and the New Testament theologians approach the mystery of the atonement using symbols drawn from Israelite worship. In this respect the apostles were following the example of Jesus himself, who had told them that the Son of Man had come to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). The term lutron, ransom, relates to the Israelite concept of the redemption of the firstborn. The firstborn of clean animals were to be offered on the altar (Numbers 18:17), but the firstborn of humans and of unclean animals were to be redeemed by a payment (Numbers 18:15–16). As understood by the early Christians, however, the concept of ransom goes deeper, as a symbol interpreting the atonement of Christ. 



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