[Taken from “Calvary: The Story Behind God’s Gift of Himself”]
One more word is used among the Ancients, which doesn’t translate readily into English [That’s why theologians invent new words]. The Scripture in some places speaks of a covering for sins. The word used in most translations is atonement—a word I am not using because it tends to be overused in translations. To me, atonement is a catch-all word. To atone, says the dictionary, is to make reparations for wrongs done, to reconcile (2 Chronicles 29:24). We have euphemistically interpreted atonement as at-one-ment emphasizing our reconciliation with God (Romans 5:11).
Reconciled or made friends again with God is were Paul, the Apostle, went finally in His understanding of the term. Very often in Ancient Israel, and especially during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, (Leviticus 23:27), sacrifices were made as well ((Leviticus 23:36)). In fact it is hard to think of atonement in ancient Israel without sacrifices. Since Jesus came, He became our sacrifice, so we now just use the word primarily to talk about reconciliation.
Atonement: Cleansing, Purification, from sin
Atonement also speaks of forgiveness but with a condition attached—the person doing the forgiving must be appeased, pacified, conciliated, or in some way made satisfied first (Leviticus 4:26). The result of all this is reconciliation. This word, which I am simply referring to as a covering, but you translated it atonement, speaks of ritual purification (another way of saying, forgiven). When Moses prophesied that God “would cleanse the land for his people” (Deuteronomy 32:43), the basic idea was that God would cover them. This is a euphemism for showing mercy—forgiving them. Some interpret this to mean that God giving Israel a victory over their enemies was a clear sign that He forgave them for all their rebellion, that is, He and they were reconciled.
So, we have one word that seems to mean all kinds of things: a covering, an appeasement or (have you ever heard this word) a propitiation, a cleansing or purification, and a reconciliation. Are you thinking about the Indian proverb again of the elephant and the blind men? I am. Only, it’s not an elephant; it’s an atonement. [Want another big word? Expiation, a word that means God repaired our relationship with Him through the Cross. Much more later, but the dictionary calls it—you guessed it—an atonement.]
Atonement: Need for Forgiveness
Now one more step and we’re there: forgiveness was not thought gratuitous [forgiveness cost God His Son’s life]. Forgiveness was based on some sacrifice that satisfied God on some level (some say appeased God). On a special day each year (usually in our September) offerings of purification were made. This was a ceremonial cleansing to represent God’s forgiveness, “purified in the LORD’s presence from all their sins.” (Leviticus 16:30). Animals were sacrificed for sin on that occasion and the High Priest would go into the inner chamber in the Temple known as the Holiest Place where he would burn incense above what is called “The Mercy Seat” (we’ll look at this shortly.)
This was an elaborate ritual with specified garments for the priests; in fact, every detail was specified. The Mercy Seat ws the lid of the box that contained a copy of the 10 Commandments which itself represented a covenant made between God and Israel. Why mention this? That “lid” was, in reality, a covering (this is our word) that “covered” that covenant from view.; so, instead of calling it a cover or lid, it became known as “The Place of Atonement.”
And why must God put them through their paces with such an elaborate tradition? Could not God have said “You need to repent and be forgiven if you want to become friends again with me” and let it go at that? Words are easily forgotten. But not even you will forget this now, if you understood it. As all Jews understood at the time, “without blood being shed, there can be no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). And since this would someday be God’s Son dying for our sins, God’s love for Israel made it of crucial importance, and to do that, He made it elaborate and ornate. [Read Leviticus chapter 16.] Are there not here hints, at least, that God has His Son on His mind. The price of our salvation was the sacrifice of God’s Son.
Keep in mind that ancient cultures were into sacrificing all kinds of things; so, this wouldn’t have seemed out of the ordinary for Israel at the time. It played right into God’s plan. Almost makes you think that God was behind the evolution of sacrificial systems from the beginning.