I will forever remember my brother and God’s servant, Chuck Horner, sitting in my Bible class. I, being a “green” Bible student, was talking about the Day of Atonement. Brother Horner raised his eyes with a twinkle and told me, “Brother Andy, you’re saying it wrong….” I thought “ah-TOHN-ment” was the correct pronunciation. He said, “it is in fact ‘AT…ONE…ment’.” I have never forgotten that, nor have I ceased in my preaching and teaching from saying it both ways.
The word atonement is used 99 times in the Bible. Tellingly, it is only ever used in the Old Testament. The closest relative in the New Testament is the word “propitiation” used only a handful of times (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:1, 4:10). By far and away, the book that uses the word most is Leviticus (45x out of 99 in the New King James Version). As an observation, in a book like Leviticus describing how a sinful man can approach a holy God, it is wonderful that the word “at-one-ment” is used at all. The word itself means, “to purge; to make reconciliation; to pacify.” As to meaning, atonement is overwhelmingly used in its various Old Testament contexts as “covering over” something: specifically and almost exclusively, it covers over sin. Look at four fascinating facets of atonement:
It involves perfection. The requirements of God in the sacrifices of the Old Testament involved very strict standards, usually having the caveat, “without blemish”
(Ex. 12:5, 29:1; Lev. 1:3, 10, 3:1 etc.). The looking for the perfect sacrifice would be done because of the requirement of God for atonement.
It involves sacrifice. Atonement could never happen except for the willingness of the individual to give something that would cost something (cf. 2 Sam. 24:24). It did no good towards atonement if the individual had a sheep or bull which was perfect if it was not sacrificed. In order for there to be atonement, something must die as an offering (Lev. 1:3).
It involves acceptance. God’s Old Law mediators, the priests, would be the first in line to evaluate the offering and make sure it was according to the standards of God before the sacrifice would take place and it would be accepted by God (Lev. 1:4). God is the One who ultimately gives His approval for an acceptable offering (cf. Mal. 1:8).
It involves satisfaction. God in His righteousness must punish sin and must judge the guilty. Yet, when God accepts the sacrifice, “at-one-ment” happened in the Old Covenant (Lev. 1:4). What God, in essence, says is, “I’ve accepted the payment for your sins and transgressions. My wrath is satisfied. You and I are good.” The desire of God to bless does not negate God’s holy nature against sin. His wrath must be satisfied not because He is evil, but because sin is evil (2 Chron. 30:8; Rom. 1:18).
Looking at these four qualities under the Levitical system, it is important to realize atonement was made, but under an imperfect system. In fact, as time went on, men would neglect the quality and quantity of the offerings for atonement to be made. (The Levitical priesthood were perpetually busy with the blood of animals in continually making atonement for the sins of the people AND his own sins (Heb. 5:1-4). The system was weak because it depended on the work of men who were subject to frailty and corruption (cf. 1 Sam. 2:13-14; 2:27-29).
Here is the beauty: Atonement under the New Covenant is permanent because it was not dependent upon the work of any fallible man to offer or to mediate (Heb. 5:1-5). Our atonement is based on the work of the One who is perfect (Heb. 4:14-16). Our atonement is based on the sacrifice of the One who is the Lamb without blemish (1 Pet. 1:18-19). Our atonement is based on the acceptance of His sacrifice by God (John 19:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 1:3). Our atonement is based on the satisfaction of God’s wrath that He provided (1 John 2:1). Thanks be to God for the wonderful perfect sacrifice of Jesus that God has accepted! Praise God for AT-ONE-ment through Jesus.