Leviticus 1:1-4; Ephesians 2:11-22
Can an ex-offender atone for his crimes? Can a sportswoman atone for her blunder? Can a husband atone for his callous remark?
If we answer ‘yes’ it’s usually because we think that the guilty party can make amends. But the Bible has a fresh angle on the question of atonement.
Atonement is a word that was invented by William Tyndale for his 1526 New Testament translation. It means exactly what it looks like – it’s about re-uniting God and man, so that they are “at one”.
So, what does it take to be “at one” with God Almighty?
We have already seen an early description of “atonement” in the Golden Calf incident. Moses ascends the mountain saying,
“now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin.” (Exodus 32:30)
There he asks to be blotted out of the Father’s book so that his people will not (v32). Perhaps now is the time for that long-promised sacrifice from Genesis 22. Perhaps Moses will be the sacrificial Lamb of God dying for his people. But no. It was not time for the mountaintop atonement. And Moses was not to be the sacrifice.
The next time we read of “atonement” is in Leviticus, the book detailing the regulations for tabernacle worship. 49 times the word appears in Leviticus and almost always in the context of blood. The tabernacle was many things – a portable tent, the dwelling place of the Glory of the LORD, a multi-media gospel presentation, a working model of how God and man can meet. But there’s one thing the tabernacle definitely was: it was a slaughterhouse.
How many millions of gallons of animal blood were shed at the altar, as Old Testament worshippers were shown the cost of atonement? But here is a key verse about that bloody atonement:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. (Leviticus 17:11)
In these dramatizations of the future atonement, the LORD makes it clear that He gives the blood to make atonement for their sins.
And this is what is so different about the LORD. Our sin does indeed demand blood. We, who dwell in sin and death, cannot be at one with our God. There is a reckoning for our sin. But the LORD does not demand our blood. Instead He provides blood. The blood of a substitutionary sacrifice which He gives to us. It’s the blood of another that makes atonement.
So over and over again the Israelites are being shown what atonement means. I am guilty. I am worthy of death. But the LORD wants to be at one with His people. So He provides the blood. He pays the cost. And every worshipper at that tabernacle should have looked forward with awe and gratitude to the Real Atonement. All of this was pointing them to the time their LORD would come as a Lamb – the Lamb of God to atone for the sins of the world.
In the book, Atonement, by Ian McEwan, a girl makes a dreadful mistake for which she longs to make amends. She desperately wants a happy ending where her sins are made up for and everyone can be “at one.” But in McEwan’s vision, this ending is a fairytale, not reality. Atonement just doesn’t happen in real life. We make mistakes, people drift apart, things disintegrate and then we die. That’s life… apart from Christ!
With Christ, however, atonement is a reality. Not simply atonement with others – we can be “at one” with the living God! None of our sins can ever prove too great an obstacle for this union. At the cross, the ultimate offering has been made – not simply the blood of animals, not simply the blood of men, but the blood of God! (Acts 20:28) If Christ stands between you and God, then nothing else does – no sins, no guilt, no shame. Christ Himself is your peace, He makes you one with the Father of lights:
Now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13)
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