What Is Atonement?

What is atonement? Is it only a holy day commanded in the Old Testament, or is there a deeper meaning and fulfillment of this biblical word?

Have you ever considered what “atonement” really is? What it means? It’s a word used 99 times in the New King James Version of the Bible, and it’s the name of a commanded holy day of God:

“Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation [gathering] for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD” (Leviticus 23:27).

In addition to being the name of an annual holy day, atonement is also an often-misunderstood biblical concept, and many have an understanding that falls short of its full meaning.

A rabbi asked me about Atonement

Years ago I was asked a question by a rabbi of Reform Judaism who discovered I kept the Day of Atonement. He asked me what I believed the Day of Atonement meant.

I gave him a short but thorough description of my belief. I explained that in Leviticus 16 this day was observed with rituals involving two goats. The first goat was sacrificed, representing Christ, who gave His life for the forgiveness of the sins of each of us individually and for the world.

The second goat was not killed, but was sent into the wilderness, an uninhabited land or desolate place. This goat represented Satan, who is the source of all the sins of mankind, and on whose head the sins of mankind will be placed.

This ceremony was outlined in Leviticus 16:7-10, 15-22, and will be fulfilled by the event described in Revelation 20:1-2. (See our articles “The Day of Atonement: Removing the Enemy, Reconciling All to God” and “Leviticus 16 and the Day of Atonement.”)

A different interpretation of the Day of Atonement

I asked the rabbi what he believed the Day of Atonement meant, and I was surprised to find a much different interpretation.

He told me that in preparation for the Day of Atonement, if you had done something to someone that was wrong, you had to make it right. For instance, if you had sold someone a car with a bad tire, you should buy the person a tire to make it right and make the relationship good.

The rabbi wasn’t wrong in one sense, but the meaning of this word, and of the holy day, has far more to it than simply making something right with our neighbor.

Meaning of atonement

The Hebrew words kippur (noun) and kapar (verb) translated “atonement” are “intimately linked in the Bible with the forgiveness of sin and with reconciliation to God” (Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, “Atonement”).

Kapar is defined as “to cover over” and most uses of the word “involve the theological meaning of ‘covering over,’ often with the blood of a sacrifice, in order to atone for some sin” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, “to atone”).

The rabbi was describing how people might try to make atonement for their own sins to restore relationships with their neighbors. Restitution and trying to reconcile with others are certainly good things to do, but there is something even more important in the overall scheme of things.

Atonement provides a way for us to be reconciled to God through His forgiveness of our sins. The annual Sabbath called the Day of Atonement symbolizes removing of the instigator of sin—Satan the devil.

The etymology of the word helps us understand its meaning. “Atone” means to “be in harmony, agree, be in accordance.” And “-ment” is a suffix indicating the result of the action (etymonline.com/word/atonement). So, atonement means being in harmony—or “at one”—with God through a restored relationship.

But how does that reconciliation take place?

The book of Isaiah tells us that sins separate a person from God (Isaiah 59:2). So in order to be restored to a right relationship with our Creator, our sins must be forgiven. But there is nothing we can do to make restitution to God. Nothing we can do can pay for our sins and the death penalty they incur.

On the Day of Atonement we are commanded to “afflict [our] souls” (Leviticus 23:32). The word translated “afflict” means to humble or weaken oneself by fasting. The purpose behind fasting is not to do penance, but to humble ourselves before God as we seek His forgiveness.

The process of reconciliation

Where does reconciliation come from, and what does it mean to be reconciled to God?

The word reconcile means to restore to friendship or harmony. In other words, to “be at one with” again. When discussing reconciliation and atonement with God, we see that such can only come from one place.

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Romans 5:8-11).

God tells us that when we seek reconciliation, we must repent of our sins and accept the shed blood of Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for our sins. As Peter explained, we are to be “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [forgiveness] of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). To follow this process is to seek God’s mercy, and that unmerited gift of forgiveness leads to a right relationship with God. Only then can a person be truly “at one” with God.

Psalm 79:9 says: “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; and deliver us, and provide atonement for our sins, for Your name’s sake!”

Similarly, we read in the book of Romans, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin” (Romans 4:7-8).

Receiving atonement from God is a very personal and special gift. It means having our sins forgiven and being in a right relationship with our Creator.

Atonement is a shadow of a day prophesied to come

The symbolism of the Day of Atonement described in the Old Testament lays out the meaning of an event that will take place after Jesus Christ returns to establish God’s government on the earth. This event is prophesied near the end of the book of Revelation.

After Jesus Christ returns and Satan is put away, forgiveness and reconciliation will become available to all throughout the earth.“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while” (Revelation 20:1-3).

The symbolism of the Day of Atonement included a ceremony during which the sins of the people were put on the head of the “scapegoat” (Leviticus 16:21-22, 26). In our language today, a “scapegoat” is one who is unfairly made to bear the guilt of others. But the Hebrew word used here doesn’t mean that. It is azazel, which can be translated “goat of departure.” Some scholars believe Azazel is the name of a demon inhabiting the wilderness (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, p. 326). This would describe Satan, the one whom the live goat, azazel, represents.

Then this live goat was sent into the wilderness, or an uninhabited place. The fulfillment of this symbolism is revealed in Revelation 20:1-3, when Satan is confined in a “bottomless pit” for having deceived mankind. God will hold him accountable for tempting mankind to sin.

When Satan is bound and no longer able to deceive mankind, Jesus Christ will teach God’s law and way to all mankind.

Are you in need of atonement?

In the meantime, God calls on us to repent and be reconciled to Him—to have our sins atoned and to be “at one” with Him. One of His most powerful calls for repentance is found in the book of Joel:

“‘Now, therefore,’ says the LORD, ‘turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.’

“So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm.

“Who knows if He will turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him—a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God?” (Joel 2:12-14).

God is ready to forgive and wants to have a relationship with those who now humble themselves before Him, who repent of the sins that they have committed, who seek to be reconciled, who accept the blood of His Son Jesus Christ for the remission of sin, and who seek to be “at one” with Him.

After Jesus Christ returns and Satan is put away, forgiveness and reconciliation will become available to all throughout the earth.

This is the meaning of atonement and the Day of Atonement.

About the Author

Paul Carter

Paul Carter is pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California. He is a contributing writer for Life, Hope & Truth, as well as the director of two summer camps for teens and preteens in the Southwest. He is married with three wonderful children, and enjoys the outdoors including hunting, fishing, hiking and volleyball.

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