This is an easy-to-follow study of some key Hebrew and Greek words, all transliterated into English.
In English the word literally means “at-one-ment,” or reconciliation, being at one with God (the -ment suffix means the “result of”).
It is the extensive and costly process of reconciling sinners to God.
But its definition can be expanded in Hebrew and Greek.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, so let’s explore, in a very basic way, some key words.
The Hebrew verb is kapar (used 102 times) and is generally translated as “to atone,” “to wipe clean,” and “to appease.”
When this verb is not used in the context of sacrifices in Leviticus, it can mean wiping clean, such as wiping away a king’s wrath (Prov. 16:14). Jacob appeased the wrath of Esau, in the sense of wiping off the anger from Esau’s face (Gen. 32:20). As it turned out, Esau was not angry because time healed his wounds, and he was prosperous. The main point, however, is that sacrifice and gifts atone for or wipe away just wrath. The sacrifice of an animal during the sin offering (Lev. 4:1-5:13), for example, was to atone for the worshiper’s own sins, by blood manipulation primarily. Then God’s judicial wrath would be lifted and he would smile on his people again. Jacob and Esau were reconciled, and God and his people were reconciled. In the same way, God’s judicial wrath was lifted from his people, and he would smile on them, and they were reconciled to him.
In the sacrificial system, God wipes away sins through sacrifices (Lev. 1:4; 4:20, 26, 31; Jer. 18:23). When we approach God and are aware of our sins, God wipes them clean (Ps. 65:3; Ps. 78:38).
In Lev. 16, the day of atonement was a day of purging away sins from the sanctuary. Throughout the year, the priest sprinkled blood of sacrificial animals in front of the curtain (Lev. 4:6). This transfers the sins of God’s people into the holy place. Now the sins have been accumulated in that place. So the high priest on the day needed to clean the place by sprinkling blood on various sacred objects. In the final stage of the ceremony, the priest placed his hands on a goat and so transferred the sins of the people on to it, and let it go out into the wilderness. Now there was room for the sins of the next year.
Jesus is our once-and-all sacrifice that does not need to be repeated year by year. His sacrifice is eternal.
In Hebrew the noun is kapporet, which is used 27 times and almost exclusively in Exod. 25 and 35 in the building of the ark of the covenant, where two cherubim were placed, with outstretched wings. In Lev. 16, the noun describes the golden cover placed on the ark, which formed the earthly throne of Yahweh. “Since he ‘lived’ there, the Holy Place had to be filled with the cloud of incense on the Day of Atonement” (p. 45), so the priest could not see God and die. Now we have the presence of God living in our hearts, through the Holy Spirit, in Jesus’s name.
The concept of sacrifice and atonement is explored in Exod. 12, where the blood of the lamb is sprinkled on the doorpost, so the death angel of judgment can pass over the household and execute God’s justice-wrath-judgment. Jesus is our Passover lamb and protects us from God’s justice-wrath-judgement, which we deserved.
The concept of atonement has shaped the Servant Songs in Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 53; cf. 61:1-3). In those songs the Suffering Servant will be crushed and sacrificed and pierced for people’s iniquities, like a lamb to the slaughter. He will make intercession for many transgressors. Yahweh will sprinkle the nations, which presumably refers to sacrificing and sprinkling blood in the Levitical system. All of this points to Jesus and his substitution of dying on the cross in our place, his sacrifice, his cleansing, and his mediation.
The New Testament
The New Testament was written in Greek, but many of the same concepts were transferred from the Old to the New, but fulfilled ultimately and finally in Christ.
The verb in Greek is hilaskomai (pronounced hih-lahs-koh-my), and it is used only twice. It means “to atone,” “have mercy on,” “to make atonement for,” “propitiate (satisfy).” Since it is used only twice, we have to look at its meaning in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, done in the third to first century B.C., and is called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX for the 70 scholars who translated it).
In the LXX, God is always the subject of the verb, and half the time it means “God forgives” (see 2 Kings 5:18; Ps. 25:11; Dan. 9:19). The other half means that “God turns away his wrath from people” (see Exod. 32:14; Ps. 78:38).
Now let’s go to the two occurrences in the NT. In Luke 18:13, the despised and outcast tax collector asks God to have mercy on him, to forgive his sins, and reconciled to God. In Heb. 2:17, Jesus is identified as the high priest of the OT. In the OT, the priest used blood from sacrificial animals to turn away God justice-wrath-judgment, so the people’s sins are atoned for, wiped out and forgiven. Now Jesus does this once and for all, eternally, not yearly.
The NT Greek nouns are hilasmos (used twice and pronounced hih-lahs-moss) and hilastērion (also used twice and pronounced hee-lah-stay-ree-own).
The first noun appears in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 and means “an atoning sacrifice, propitiation.” Propitiation means “satisfaction” or “appeasement.” Jesus is the sacrifice that atones for sins. Our sins destroyed and separated us from God, but the sacrifice of Jesus reconciles us to God (1 John 1:6-7).
Why was a sacrifice needed? God’s justice-wrath-judgment had to be satisfied or appeased. Either we do this ourselves by shedding our own blood, or Jesus does this in our place by shedding his blood.
Why the shedding of blood? It simply comes from the OT culture and animal sacrifices, and God instituted this in the Hebrew Bible. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission (release) of sins” (Exod. 29:21; Lev. 8:15; Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22).
The other noun means the “atonement cover” or “sacrifice of atonement.” In Heb. 9:5 it is the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant, where God lived in the Most Holy Place. In Rom. 3:25 Paul sees Jesus as the place of atonement on the ark. He is the sacrifice of atonement or satisfaction or propitiation through the shedding of his blood. As related to the OT, Jesus is the person or place where God passes over our sins without punishing them. God’s justice-wrath-judgment has been placated.
Bottom line: Jesus performs the atonement sacrifice (verb hilaskomai), is himself the sacrifice of atonement (noun hilasmos), and the place where the atonement happens (hilasterion). The sacrifice of Christ expiates (lifts or removes) guilt and satisfies and appeases and turns away God’s justice-wrath-judgment.
Is Christ’s Death on the Cross Divine Child Abuse?
To forestall objections that falsely accuse God of being primitive or petty and a divine child abuser, please see this post:
The OT states clearly that the shedding of blood is for the remission (release) and forgiveness of sins. On the Day of Atonement the sins of the people were transferred to the animal that shed its blood for us and instead of us receives punishment for our sins from God’s justice-wrath-judgment, which has been appeased and satisfied. But this is God’s love, as seen below in this section.
See my posts:
Those first three links teach that God’s wrath is not like this:
But like this:
That is a picture of God in judgment, showing his protective wrath and love over his people. In other words, God’s wrath is judicial.
The NT authors, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also teach the atonement. Christ’s shedding of his blood remits our sins, when we have saving faith in him. This teaching may seem passé and foolish, but it is an important biblical truth.
Here is what atonement means in its essence, as we look at the NT fulfilling the OT.
Christ was our substitute on the cross, the place of execution. He was unjustly put there, but our sins would have put us there justly. Instead, he took our place. Since he shed his blood, we have the forgiveness of sins, for without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins. The result is to take away the penalty of our sins.
This describes the substitutionary, penal aspect of Christ sacrifice. But it flows out of the love of God, because God himself, in the person of Jesus, was on the cross. So let’s ask again: does this imply that God’s wrath was satisfied? Only if we see God’s wrath as judicial and not emotionally out of control. How God created the moral universe demands that people suffer the consequences of their sins. Either they do or someone or something else does, like a sacrificial animal. In this case Jesus did this for us, as the Second Person of the Trinity, God himself, in self-giving, sacrificial love for humanity.
How does this post help me grow in Christ?
Someone may ask: Isn’t all the blood in the Bible outdated and foolish for postmodern man? The reply is that maybe for him it is, but not for believers who wish to be biblical and counter-cultural and who don’t accept every tiny, single thing in postmodern life. We can rise above our culture and accept Scripture.
Let’s never abandon Jesus on the cross, as the postmodernists would have us do. If we do, our salvation and faith are empty because we have bypassed his salvific sacrifice and created our own brand of Christianity.
Let’s receive Jesus’s sacrifice by faith, so we can be declared righteous. And then let’s work out this declared righteousness so that we actually do righteous things.
What Does ‘Atonement’ Mean?
At that link look for: EDT, 3rd ed. and Mounce.