A Survey of the Cross: The Atonement, Part 1

Recently I finished a book written by Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence entitled, It is Well – Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement.  This book peaked my interest because nearly a year ago I began to think deeply about what the Bible has to say regarding Christ’s accomplishments on the cross, namely the work of Christ.  This interest came about as I wrestled with what many call the Doctrine of Limited Atonement, or perhaps more accurately described as Definite Atonement/Particular Redemption. 

Maybe you, like me, have always been taught a summarized version of what Jesus did on the cross, that He died for “our” sins and maybe even a common verse like Romans 5:8 or John 3:16 was used to express that idea.  While these passages are absolutely true in their assertions, we must remember their context and realize that there is more to the story.  To our discredit, many of us have developed what I call a “tract-theology”, sadly resulting in a truncated Gospel as well as a misunderstanding and misapplication of Scripture.    

Because of this, it seems to me that very few of us professing Christians are able to articulate the Gospel, much less talk intelligently about the cross of Christ, and I count myself among that number.  Since it is the central tenet of our faith, it seems reasonable to me that we should all be aware, at least on an introductory level, of what the Bible has to say about this.  When we biblically examine the nature, intent, and actuality of the work of Christ it magnifies God in our lives and opens up His glory to be put on display through us, essentially making Jesus a forethought instead of an afterthought.  Perhaps one reason why so many professing Christians have been classified as “nominal” is because they lack knowledge concerning the foundation of their faith and have become too comfortable worshipping a small God who saves through an even smaller cross than the ones most wear around their neck.

That being said, I’d like to devote several posts to these thoughts as we search through Scripture, to unfold the glorious nature of the cross.  Instead of just hearing “Jesus died on the cross for our sins” a saying most of us have heard since childhood and are likely numb to, maybe if we actually took the time to understand what the Bible said it would not only humble us, but magnify the Lord in our lives.

For today, let’s simply begin with the word Atonement.  The Oxford English dictionary defines it as, “as the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ.”  In Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, he prefers to define it as including the “life and death” of Jesus, which alludes to His obedience in life as well as on the cross.  Sufficient for our discussion today will be the ESV Study Bible definition of, “The making of enemies into friends by averting the punishment that their sin would otherwise incur.”  The Bible defines this punishment in a two-fold manner: 1) The wages of sin is death, primarily in an eternally spiritual sense (Romans 6:23), but also physical death as a consequence of the Fall. Genesis 2-3. 2) The wrath of God.  The Bible makes clear that unrepentant sinners will suffer in Hell under God’s wrath for all eternity. (Romans 2:5, Revelation 6:10-11, 14:10).  So there is something that Jesus did on the cross which provided an “atonement” or a turning away of the punishment, namely death and God’s wrath in hell for eternity, that somebody deserved.

No true biblical study of the atonement of Jesus would be complete without looking at the historical nature of this action, particularly as God defined for the Israelites in Leviticus 16.  As we’ll see, this liturgical practice was actually a foreshadowing of Christ’s atoning work on the cross.  The following passage is long, but take the time to read it carefully:

The Day of Atonement

 1 The LORD spoke to Moses after(A) the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died, 2 and the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. 3 But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments.  He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. 5 And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.

 6 “Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel.  9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.

 11 “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. 12 And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. 14 And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.

 15 “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. 17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. 18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. 19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.

 20 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

 23 “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. 24 And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. 26 And he who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. 27 And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. Their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned up with fire. 28 And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.

 29 “And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. 30 For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. 31 It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever. 32 And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments. 33 He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Moses did as the LORD commanded him.”

If you’re like me, you may have either never read that passage before or never realized its significance, which is too often the case with Old Testament passages.  Nevertheless, there is a ton of information packed into this chapter.  First, let’s note that atonement shows up in verse 6, as Moses is instructed to tell the High Priest, Aaron (his brother) the very precise nature of his duties, beginning with the sacrifice of a bull for his own sins.  Next Moses is to tell Aaron to cast lots over 2 goats, essentially flip a coin, resulting in one being the sin offering and the other for Azazel, an unusual Hebrew word that can be thought of best as referring to the “scapegoat”.  The Oxford Dictionary defines this familiar term as, “a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency.”  In short, Aaron has two goats, one for a sin sacrifice and the other to be released upon the “transfer of sin” to it as the “scapegoat”.

While there is a lot of significance in verses 11-14, let’s skip ahead to verse 15-16 where we see Aaron’s duty was to sprinkle the blood of the bull (his offering) and the blood of the goat (sin offering for the people) on the mercy seat.  It’s likely this looked something like the picture to the right and we first learn of what the mercy seat is in the following passage from Exodus 25:17-22

17 “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. 18 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. 21 And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. 22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.”

Returning to our passage in Leviticus, we’ll next look at verses 20-22 as we see the fate of the second goat, which we’ve already identified as the “scapegoat”.  Here Aaron is instructed to lay his hands on the live goat in order to transfer or “impute” the sins of the people of Israel onto it.  Then the goat is sent off into the wilderness with the idea being that it has taken away the sins of the people to an area outside of the camp of Israel with the implication that it too will die.

Summarizing the biblical historicity which we’ve looked at so far we see that the atonement contains several components.  First, Aaron, the high priest, made atonement for himself and his house through the blood of a bull.  Next, he made atonement for the people of Israel through the blood of a goat sprinkled on the mercy seat.  Finally, we read of Aaron placing his hands on the scapegoat as a transfer or imputation of the sins of Israel onto the goat as it was lead outside of the camp into the wilderness.

Lord willing, next time we’ll look at how all of this relates to Christ’s own atonement.