Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Atonement: God's Saving work, pictured in the Old Testament

Leviticus 17:11 ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.’

The importance and meaning of the term "atonement"
The Book of Leviticus is valuable to the Christian because of two towering doctrines that are taught throughout the Old and New Testaments: The Holiness of God and The Atonement.  Concerning that second idea, atonement is simply defined as an umbrella term for God's saving work.  Some teachers have described atonement in this way: "At-one-ment".  In other words, God's saving work whereby He makes the sinner to be "At-one" with Himself. 

The term atonement occurs some 16 times in Leviticus 16 and 17.  Without the concept of "atonement" taken from these chapters, the New Testament presentation of Christ's work of salvation would be empty.  Passages such as Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10 use the term "atonement" (NIV) or the older more technical term "propitiation" (NKJV, KJV, NASB).  For our purposes today we will for now stick to the term "atonement".

Three ways to better grasp and communicate the atonement
The atonement, as presented in Old Testament books like Leviticus, pictures for us the ultimate atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ in the New Testament.  In order to better grasp what we're referring to, I will give three headings: The Actor(s) of atonement, the act of atonement and the accomplishment of atonement.  Today's blog will explore these three headings as they unfold in Leviticus 16 and 17.

The Actor(s) of atonement in the Old Testament 16:1-10
The context of Leviticus 16 and 17 is mainly concerned with the Jewish Festival of the Day of atonement - whereby the High Priest was to perform a series of rituals cleansing both the tabernacle system and the people. (Leviticus 16:29-30).  This act of ritually cleansing the people and the sacrifical system is what Leviticus refers to as "atoning" or "atonement".  Without the atoning work, the people's sins and the uncleanliness of the tabernacle resulting from contact with the people would ever be before God.  In order to avoid the outpouring of judgment, atonement or cleansing had to be made.  All of this of course foreshadows the once and for all atoning work of Jesus Christ. 

But in the course of what we see recorded in Leviticus16:1-10, we see the following actor(s) in the atoning sequence of Leviticus 16:
1. The High Priest
2. The Bull
3. The ram
4. Two goats, one sacrificed and one preserved to be the scape goat

The act of atonement - Leviticus 16:11-15
Leviticus 17:11 records - ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.’  As the High Priest performed his function on behalf of the people, he would be dressed in pure white linen - symbolic of the righteousness of God.  He would sacrifice a bull, and then a ram.  Then he would take two goats and bring them before the people.  Lots would be cast and one of the goats would be ritually slaughtered, with the other one being spared.  The blood of the bull and goat would be mingled and sprinkled before the Most Holy Place and upon the Mercy Seat (the lid on the Ark of the Covenant). 

All of this activity, along with other many details, communicate the saga of what God required for He and the people to remain in fellowship - the shedding and application of blood.  The other goat, called the "scape goat", would then be prayed over by the priest confessing the sins of the people.  That goat would then be driven into the wilderness with the people chanting: "Away with the sin-bearer, away with the sin-bearer".  This is but a sample of the details of the day of atonement - all designed to picture in one way or another the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

The chief aim of the atoning work was to cleanse the tabernacle, the people and the sacrificial system so that God and the people could be reconciled and enjoy fellowship for another year.  All of this of course would have to be repeated yet again the following year.

The accomplishment of atonement - Leviticus 16:16-34
The actors of atonement were the High Priest and various sacrifical animals and the act of atonement was the shedding and sprinkling of blood.  The question is: what did all of this complicated ritual accomplish?  According to Leviticus 16:19 and 16:34, the sins of all the people of Israel were cleansed for another year.  As wonderful as all this was, the Old Covenant picture of atonement paled in comparison to what the New Testament would reveal. 

Every Jew living in the Old Testament always had in the back of their mind: 'how long until we never again have to offer another sacrifice?"  According to Leviticus, these rituals were to be a "Perpetual Memorial" in Israel.  God's intent was to provide the basis whereby "Once-and-for-all" atonement would be made available to all who by grace through faith believe on Him.  However, as we'll see in later posts, this "Divine intention" was not going to be accomplished through the system spelled out in Leviticus.  That intention would be fulfilled in the Actor, Act and Accomplishment of Jesus Christ. 

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