sermon: What is Atonement?
Covering, Wipe Away - Kippur
John W. Ritenbaugh
Given 14-Sep-13; Sermon #1177; 63 minutes
The Day of Atonement is the least looked forward to holy day. The word atonement alters in meaning as we change the context in which it is used. When we parse the morphology, looking at the suffix "-ment" which changes a verb into a noun, suggests the means by which something is altered or changed, we find that atonement denotes the way something bad done in the past can be made good, or the means to which harmony is achieved, making the entire world at one or reconciled with God. Sin has separated mankind from God, forcing God not to listen to them. Man's estrangement is wholly beyond dispute, and totally man's fault. We cannot expect to reconcile to God on our own terms. Man is not God's equal; His sovereignty must be recognized at all times. The context of "covering" in the Old Covenant did not get rid of or purge sins, but merely covered them. The sacrifice of unblemished animals typified the type of life that Christ would lead: sinless. Sadly, our forebears kept these holy days mechanically, not regarding the significance or the meaning of a "sinless" offering. No heart to heart contact was ever made with God; no atonement could be achieved if they never repented or changed. Sin could be considered a violation of relationship, brought about by idolatry, adultery, or fornication. When we realize that God alone can forgive sin, we understand that human love in Proverbs 16:6, does not atone for sin, but it allows the person offended the opportunity to protect or safeguard the reputation of the offender. The context of atonement in the New Covenant is to totally purge or wipe away the sins, only possible through the blood sacrifice of a perfect life, namely Jesus.
Of all the holy days Atonement is the one that I feel is the least looked forward to and at the same time the least understood, especially by the world. Even in the church the fasting associated with it is not something we most eagerly anticipate doing, and our grasp of the day’s importance has been both cleverly and forcefully hidden by Satan. Of all God's holy days, it is the one that he wants to hide or deceive man about.
Even the name, Atonement, is vague to many of us. To atone simply means to make up for something or to make amends, to make good, or to take some good action which cancels out some former bad action. Indeed it does have that implication, but ‘atonement’ is a word whose meaning has shifted during the centuries and the result might be that we are not getting as clear and full a meaning as we need to fully appreciate what this day represents.
First we are going to look at the suffix on this word atonement—“-ment.” Now this is a suffix that changes a verb into a noun and it indicates the product or result of some action. For example: achievement. Maybe you are more familiar with this one: government. It is the process or result of governing. Atoning is the instrument or means of atonement. Atoning is an action, atonement a noun. It is what is produced as a result of atoning. Now overall “-ment” indicates a state or condition resulting from a specific action.
Let us go back to the root “atone.” It is actually two words that are written and pronounced today as one. It originated as: at one, thus indicating unity, harmony, peace, and therefore atonement means the state or condition resulting from the specific action of at-one-ment. If you were careful in listening you would have seen that atonement is used in two different ways in the Bible. It indicates either and sometimes both of these ways. Number one is, it indicates the means by which harmony is achieved, that is by expiation or payment. Number two, it indicates the state or condition that is achieved, that is harmony.
The Day of Atonement is the day of harmony, it is the day of unity. It is a day of oneness and it is observed by fasting and paying attention to the means by which this is achieved, that is by expiation or payment. And it is by this means then that the harmony, the state or being at-one, is achieved. It memorializes the time when the entire world is going to be at harmony within itself and also with God.
You may have heard me say: “the entire world” and it is very important to get the right direction on the Day of Atonement because there are parallels between Atonement and Passover. But a major difference exists in that Passover pertains to an individual’s reconciliation with God, in contrast with Atonement’s universal reconciliation with God. So Passover pertains to you repenting and accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior and receiving God's Spirit, and that makes you at-one—a singular individual at-one with Jesus Christ and with the Father as well. But the Day of Atonement is the entire world qualified to be at-one with God and in reality at-one with Him. So in its scope Atonement is far, far greater than the day of Passover.
If you were to study atonement in the Bible by beginning to look into a concordance to find where the word appears in the Bible in order to study it in some kind of order and also within its context, you would be hit by a very interesting fact, and that is, in the King James version the word appears only one time in the entire New Testament and in most versions it does not appear at all.
By contrast it appears 80 times in the Old Testament and 15 times in Leviticus 16 alone. And though the word by itself is not present in the New Testament, the concept that it expresses is constantly present in the New Testament, but it is replaced by words like reconciled, redeemed, justified, cleansed, and purged. What you are beginning to see here is some of the alternate meanings of the word atonement. It wears many different suits in its trip through the Old Testament.
Genesis 3:22-24 Then the Lord God said, Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever—therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. So he drove out the man; and placed Cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way of the tree of life.
Now that is the introduction of a very clear separation between God and man. We are going to Isaiah 59 and the separation has grown in magnitude by many times.
Isaiah 59:1-2 Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear.
The picture of these two verses is that beginning with Adam and Eve it becomes very clear that sin drives apart man and God and from Isaiah 59 it remains a barrier. So these are the two of the few places in the Old Testament where the separation between man and God is directly stated. I mean it is very obvious that they are separated, but this is one of the few places that it is directly stated that man and God are separated. It is something that the writers took for granted and they assumed that their readers understand that man and God are separated and therefore there is a need for an atoning action to be taken if the breach is to be healed, and that is something that the Bible writers also assumed as being obvious.
We are in the book of Isaiah so let us go to the front of the book of Isaiah to chapter one. We saw clearly what is written in Isaiah 59, the separation between man and God. Now here right at the beginning of the book:
Isaiah 1:12-15 When you come to appear before Me, who has required this from your hand, to trample [notice the words—"to trample"] my courts? Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to me; the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure, the iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; and even if you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood.
In this context the existing separation is something that God is actively maintaining. You got that? He is actively maintaining it. That is clear through what He said there in Isaiah. And note how strong God's words are. Notice He says He “will not hear.” He says similar things in other places. He told Jeremiah, “Do not pray for these people”.
So God sometimes takes the position that He is not going to hear people. That is not going to stop His overall work, but there is a reason why He does that. He can literally hear. That is not the problem. What He is meaning by this is, “I will not respond” and the reason He will not is that mankind is giving no indication that they want to be reconciled.
Now mankind wants God to do things for them, but they do not want to do what is necessary to do on their part to heal the breach. So what must man do? The answer is simple and but we are going to go over it anyway. Back in the book of Acts it is very clear.
Acts 2:37-38 Now when they heard this, they were cut to their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Turn over one page or so, Peter is preaching. He says:
Acts 3:19 “Repent therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that the times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”
Well, it is very clear what God wants. It is also very clear why He will not hear, and that is because man, though he wants things from God and may cry out to God, he is not doing what is necessary to really attract God's attention. He has to change his ways. So what is the conclusion we can reach from this? We are driven to it actually, and that is that they are unwilling to settle the dispute that is between them and God because they will not meet the terms that God wants them, requires of them to do.
So the Bible approaches man’s estrangement from God as a fact beyond dispute, and it also accepts as a fact beyond dispute that man is wholly to blame for the problem. The fact is that our disobedience to His will has alienated Him from us and this must somehow be remedied if a right relationship is going to be restored. So mankind is willing to be reconciled to God but only on his own terms.
We desire a situation in which we have our cake and eat it too, and it would be a situation in which man is equal with God. This is very important. This would indicate a situation in which man is equal with God, a situation in which God’s sovereignty is not recognized and God must keep His distance, not interfering with man’s desires. It is no wonder that He spoke the way He did in Isaiah and Jeremiah. Man is not God’s equal. God is the Creator and man is the created, God is the Master and man is the servant. We do not stand before Him in equal setting with Him. He demands for our good that His sovereignty be recognized.
Let us depart from this line of thought and go back to the book of Genesis once again. God giving instructions to Noah:
Genesis 6:14 Make yourself an ark of gopherwood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch.
The usual Hebrew word translated 'atonement' is kawphar. Only one other word in the Old Testament is translated atonement and it is used only 5 times. It is the word kippur. The word kippur is derived from kawphar and in the New King James the word kawphar is translated here in Genesis 6:14 as ‘cover.’ In the King James Version that same word is translated as pitch.
"Atonement" is used in the sense of the action that accomplishes a task. That is, in Genesis 6:14 in the sense of covering. It is covering the wood with pitch that prevents the ark from leaking. There is the first definition that we run into. Kawphar means to cover. They went kind of wild there in the King James Version when they used the word pitch.
The reason I said earlier that the word atonement has changed its meaning fairly often through time is because depending upon the context in which it appears it can be applied so many ways it is almost amazing.
We are only going to concentrate on the spiritual sense and so we will find in the Bible that the word kawphar is translated as purged, not just cover but purged, clean, expiate, pay for, make acceptable, hide, placate, appease, and cancel out.
What this means is that when you run across the word atonement always look at the context in which it appears because that will give you a pretty good idea of the way God intends it to be understood. Since it is capable of so many different applications it is very good to look at in the context in which it appears.
As we move through history given in the Bible and other details of what Christ accomplishes, the same term is better understood—now catch this one—as "wipe away." It does not appear in the Old Testament but that is the way that many Protestant denominations have applied the word to mean "wipe away," and incidentally it is a good application of the word and there is a reason for that. They have used that besides merely "cover" because "cover" can be misleading. Look at the way it is used in Genesis 6:14. Cover wood. What does that have to do with sin? That is not what we are really interested in. That is kawphar.
So make sure you are looking at it in its context because it may require variation of what the word means. In the words there are shades of difference used in the emphasis. To Judaism the Day of Atonement became the most important holy day largely because of their history of going into captivity or wandering, which pictured to their rabbis their separation from both God and their homeland.
But I can understand why "wipe away" became more prominent in Protestantism, rather than "cover," because merely covering something indicates that what is covered still exists. It is merely hidden, but wipe away indicates the cause of the disharmony is totally dealt with, it is completely gone. Is that not more how you would like your sins to be in relation with God? Completely wiped away, gone. Not merely covered, not merely hidden from view but gone, totally.
You see here we begin to get into the meaning as it is applied frequently in the New Testament, clean, we are cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ. The sins are not merely covered, they are wiped away. We are clean, they no longer exist. We are purged from sin. The sinful nature is washed away from us.
In the case of sin it pictures something foul, filthy, and dirty that lies between God and man, actively keeping the two separated and that man is responsible for that foul thing’s existence. God does not sin. Covering it is sometimes a means of bridging a separation. If it is merely covered it is not dealt with sufficiently to take it from one’s conscience, and thus guilt remains and the relationship is still being negatively affected. That is another reason why the Protestants changed the emphasis to "wipe away." We want our conscience cleaned.
So covering is similar to sweeping something under the rug and thus the problem with the Old Covenant sacrifices was that they became merely mechanical operations which enabled people to feel better about themselves because what they did in meeting the law’s requirement felt good to them, but it made no real spiritual difference in their lives because sin was not wiped away. This is an important point.
Exodus 29:36 And you shall offer a bull every day as a sin offering for atonement. You shall cleanse the altar when you make atonement for it, and you shall anoint it to sanctify it. Seven days you shall make atonement for the altar and sanctify it. And the altar shall be most holy. Whatever touches the altar must be holy.
What we see here is the typical Old Testament application. Now if you are thinking when you are reading this you might be led into a measure of confusion by how the word is used. I say this because we almost invariably think of Atonement and Christ’s death for our sins. You see in that context, where is sin mentioned here in relation to Atonement? It is not. It is inferred, which I will get to in a little bit, but it is not mentioned.
So here in this context atonement has the same sense of cleansing, a sense of purification in this dedication service so it is fit for use with God. Things do not sin but man does and man touches the instruments that are going to be used in the service of God and so he symbolically transfers his sins to the instrument he has touched. So, in order to get rid of what was brought to it by man, it is wiped clean. There is no blood mentioned at all. You are going to see the word atonement many, many times in the Bible and that is how it is being used. It is cleansing from the contact of the hands of man.
Death and atonement becomes ingrained in our minds so that death and atonement appear to go hand in hand. Now there is nothing wrong with this, it is certainly a valuable truth from God's Word. Death and cleansing, and death and atonement are almost inseparably linked in our minds, not only because of Christ’s death, but also because we become familiar with its associations with the sacrifices in Leviticus as well.
But the emphasis of the sacrifices in Leviticus, though the death of an animal is mentioned very often, it in a way becomes somewhat misleading to us because the emphasis of the sacrifices in Leviticus is not on the death of a victim, but rather on the giving of a life lived.
Now this is a major, monumental, gigantic difference between the two. Reconciliation is not effected merely because a death occurs, but because of the quality of the life that preceded the death that was given. Do you get that? That is a very important distinction and this is a very important reason why clean animals were always sacrificed. Animals cannot sin and so they represent in those sacrifices, those symbolic sacrifices, the way we are supposed to be living our life without sin and what Jesus Christ actually did. He was an acceptable sacrifice because He lived His life without sin and therefore it was acceptable to God because that was the only kind of life where its sacrifice can actually pay for sin.
Please get that, because it sets Christ’s sacrifice apart from all the other sacrifices that are mentioned in the Bible. It is absolutely unique; it will never be done again while mankind is on earth. So every time you see sacrifices in the Old Testament they are a sinless sacrifice representing Jesus Christ being sacrificed but very important for our understanding.
This became very important in the relationship between God and Israel, and it is their lack of understanding of this point that we just went through that caused much of God's anger towards Israel.
We are going to the book of Amos. I think I mentioned before that Israel was just doing things mechanically. They were just going through the motions. They were not making their sacrifices and so forth with the kind of understanding that was necessary for them to be acceptable before God. We are now going to Amos 5. It sounds very similar to Isaiah in chapter one.
Amos 5:21 I hate, I despise your feast days.
Let us look closely here. We are keeping a feast day and we are going to be keeping the Feast of Tabernacles. Let us not do what the Israelites did. They were keeping them. That is also very clear in Isaiah 1. "I hate your feast days," He says. "I hate your Sabbaths"; they were keeping the Sabbaths, but God was not pleased at all.
Amos 5:21-27 “I hate, I despise your feast days. I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer me [They thought they were making offerings to God.] burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them [just like He would not hear their prayers], nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs [they were singing the hymns], for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down [here is the key sentence] like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. Did you offer Me sacrifices in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel? You also carried your Sikkuth, your king, your Chiun, your idols, the star of your gods, which you made for yourselves. Therefore I will send you into captivity beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.
This is an especially clear example of why no atonement was ever reached. There was no heart-to-heart oneness existing with God. They were clearly going through the motions of attending the feast but the fact that they never turned from their idolatries (verses 26 and 27), was clear evidence that they were not at-one with God. They were not giving their lives in terms of living heartfelt repentance and practical change of the quality of the way of life lived, and therefore there was no wiping away, no harmonization, no at-one-ment occurred because they were not meeting the terms of the agreement.
Many times I heard Mr. Armstrong warn the church that it is not a social club and an organization and its holy days and Sabbath have serious purpose beyond mere enjoyment. These Israelites were keeping the feasts of God, but He still scattered them in captivity because their use of the feasts did not glorify Him because they never repented and changed. It is that simple. And so justice did not flow down, as He said, and righteousness did not rise up.
Turn with me to Matthew 3. They just kept living life as they always did. In Matthew 3 and beginning in verse 7. We are listening to John the Baptist preaching here:
Matthew 3:7-12 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say unto you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who comes after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into His barn and He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
This is really a stern warning that unless there is change and growth in the right direction, the direction God instructs us in within the time He allots for us, and we know that He is tremendously merciful, it can be downright dangerous.
I just happened to think of something. You are probably getting tired of me going through the book of Ecclesiastes but what have I told you, I do not know how many different times, that even though Solomon never uses the words I am going to say to you, it is what he is preaching from beginning to end about life. He is saying: everything matters! He is saying, do not brush off any part of life or any requirement that God has for us because everything matters. And we have to meet the God of judgment.
So Solomon saw very clearly the way mankind was keeping the life that God had given to them and that he himself had involved himself in. God inspired him to be wise enough to see the problems that arose.
I do not want to minimize the importance of death, so I want you to go back to Hebrews 9. Of course it is a special death that is pictured in all of those sacrifices. It is indeed a special offering that Jesus Christ gave.
Hebrew 9:22 And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no remission [that is the important phrase there.]
And Jesus Christ shed His blood in order that we might have access to God and to be able to truly repent before Him. So the Bible shows in both Leviticus and Numbers that some things are indeed cleansed by water and others by fire, but spiritual cleansing, through the forgiveness of sin that leads to spiritual atonement, absolutely requires the shedding of blood and thus a death.
Now back to the book of Genesis again as we continue to expand your understanding of this word atonement and the many kinds of contexts in which it appears, so that when you read the Old Testament and you see atonement you carefully consider the context that it is in and so what is being exercised there. In Genesis 32, Jacob is speaking to his helpers:
Genesis 32:20 And also say [this was when he was leaving Laban. Stealing away from him, taking with him all the things he had earned and his wives and children too], “Behold your servant Jacob is behind us.” [Who is he saying this to? Who is he telling them to tell it to? He is telling them to tell Esau.] For he said [listen to this], “I will appease him with the present that goes before me, and afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me.”
The word "appease" is kawphar and so the word "appease" carries with it somewhat why atonement is necessary. Now listen carefully to what sin is and why there has to be some measure of appeasement.
What is sin? Sin is an act of disloyalty against a relationship and of course our relationship is with God. It is act of disloyalty against God and it because of this relationship, and what occurs is it is driven apart and it is for this reason why God calls sin—especially idolatry—fornication and adultery. And even as fornication and adultery drive apart a one-flesh relationship, idolatry destroys the spiritual relationship with God, and so there is a similarity in the destruction of a relationship.
Among all sins I would have to place idolatry as the worst of all. It is not the most committed sin, but it is the worst. The destruction of a relationship factor is why Jacob expected Esau to be angry with him. And why would Esau be angry? Well, because Jacob’s deceitful chicanery in stealing the birthright and the blessing.
Jacob knew he was the one who caused the problem. Esau had his weaknesses but that did not open the door for Jacob to take it away from him, and so the relationship seemed beyond repair and Jacob knew he was the major cause. So he hoped to expiate his guilt and appease, cover, or wipe away Esau's anger by giving Esau a gift. He was going to bribe him. He did bribe him.
This was before Jacob was converted and I think the time of Jacob’s conversion came when he wrestled with Christ, which was just a little later, so in this case a material sacrifice of wealth was what Jacob gave in order to be at-one again. That takes place an awful lot in business.
Let us go to the book of Proverbs. We are going to look at two proverbs here just to clarify something.
Proverbs 16:6 In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity; and by the fear of the Lord one departs from evil
There is the appearance of the word atonement. In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity.
I Peter 4:8 And above all things, have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins
Now back to Proverbs again and we will explain these three verses. They all are very simple because many people wonder: is it possible for my love to cover someone else’s sin?
Proverbs 10:12 Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins.
Well, let me tell you now right up front something you should know; that there is no way that we humans can atone for another person’s sins because sin is against God. So sin is committed against a real Person and it is His law that is being broken regardless of when and where we choose to sin. The only acceptable sacrifice for Him is Christ’s sacrifice, and He will not accept us making a sacrifice in order to cover somebody else’s sin even though it be against us and thus get expiation from God. The answer is that will not occur at all. God is the only One who will forgive sin, the breaking of His law, and He will do it by the blood of Jesus Christ.
So one thing we have to notice there, it does not say that our love forgives sin, it only says love will cover a multitude of sins. But cover there cannot be used in the sense of atonement.
The best way to look at it is this way I think: if someone sins against us what is to be our response? Do we sin back? Do we commit something against them in retaliation? Do we spread to others what they have done and thus gossip how bad a person this is to other people and destroy their reputation? Absolutely not!
What is God saying? Even though the sin might be against you or me or whatever, what are we to do? We are to respond to those people in love, treat them with kindness, do something that is appropriate to building them up, to letting them know that you do not hate them, and so what does it do? He is telling us that in a situation like that love does not forgive the sin but the act of love covers the sin so that it goes no further than right there.
It is just between the two principals that are involved in this and it is not spread out to the congregation. It does not break up the congregation; it is simply stopped from progressing any further than it already has. It covers it, it sweeps it under the rug, and in that way it is being shown that it is a good use. Another way of putting this, even if someone sins against you, you bear it in silence.
Turn back to that very famous I Corinthians 13 and we will see what love does. This is the kind of love that he is talking about there in those proverbs and in I Peter 4. This is the way God expects us to act.
I Corinthians 13:4-7 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up, does not behave rudely, does not seeks its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
We can forgive another person’s offense against us, but that does not mean that we atone for them in the sense of them securing God's forgiveness. That forgiveness can only come from Jesus Christ. Remember, Hebrews 9:22 tells us that without the shedding of blood there is no remission. I know that there is a practice within the Catholic Church in which people believe that the priest has the power to forgive sin. He does not. The Bible proves that beyond the shadow of a doubt. He can only forgive sins against himself but he cannot forgive sins in the sense that Jesus Christ’s blood forgives sins.