Atonement vs Expiation

The term “atonement” is used over and over in the Old Testament to describe the purpose for and result of the Sinaitic (or Mosaic) sacrificial system. Many Christian theologians extrapolate the Old Testament concept into the New Testament setting and speak of the “atoning work of Christ on the cross.” This usage, however, obscures the very real difference between Old Testament atonement and New Testament expiation, propitiation and reconciliation. Atonement, in the Biblical sense, is a temporary covering up of sin, or guilt. A “stay of execution”, so to speak. Expiation means “to extinguish guilt incurred”. Propitiation is roughly the same, but with the additional dimension of appeasement of anger. Reconciliation means to “reestablish a close relationship” between two entities or concepts. Expiation and propitiation accurately describe what the death of Messiah did, while reconciliation, an accounting term, describes the resulting balance of our relationship with God. Cause and effect. Sin is paid for in full and permanently expunged from the record, God is appeased, and of our relationship with Him is restored.

Model of the Ark of the Covenant. ©Leen Ritmeyer

The Hebrew terms for “atonement” are variations from the root kaphar, which all carry the idea of “covering”; for example, covering a ship’s hull with bitumen to prevent leakage, or covering a stain in a hardwood floor with a rug. Orthodox Jewish males today cover their heads with kippot, the skullcaps or yarmulkes (Yiddish) that we have all seen. The “lid” of the Arc of the Covenant was called the kapporah, and it, too, is a covering. Atonement for sin, then, becomes a means of covering, or obscuring, it from sight, without actually expunging or removing it. The guilt remains, but God has provided a means of temporarily “sweeping it under the rug” pending permanent expungement by means of Messiah’s crucifixion.

Aside from references to the Jewish feast, the Day of Atonement, the words atone, or atonement appear seldom or not at all in most translations of the New Testament. In the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek version of the Old Testament used by Paul, translated, apparently, by 70 Jewish scholars in Elephantine, Egypt, in the 2nd Century, BC), the word “atonement” is rendered as hilasterion, because there apparently was not a Greek equivalent for “atonement”. Where the feast day is intended, the Greek hilasterion is thus also used in the New Testament for “atonement”, or even for “Mercy Seat”, referring to the covering of the Ark of the Covenant; otherwise, hilasterion is correctly translated as expiation or propitiation. Where the Greek katallagē is used, the proper translation is reconciliation.

Though most New Testament translations are generally okay in this respect, Christian writers and speakers continue to refer to phrases like, “the atoning blood of Christ”, which is a theological non-sequitur. Atonement is decidedly not what His crucifixion accomplished! The confusion arises because most Christians believe that the sacrifices were means of salvation under the Jewish Torah. But this is taught nowhere in scripture. Atonement by means of the sacrificial system is never said to make anybody “at one with Christ” or with God. Atonement is not “at-one-ment” as many have claimed. Salvation is permanent, whereas atonement is only temporary.

In discussing the superior sacrifice of Jesus, Heb 10:4 states that

Hebrews 10:4 (CJB)
[4] …it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.

Many passages in the Tanach (Old Testament) also discuss the inadequacy of sacrifice in the presence of a sinful heart. For example

1 Samuel 15:22 (CJB)
[22] Sh’mu’el* [Samuel]said,
“Does ADONAI* take as much pleasure
in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as in obeying what ADONAI* says?
Surely obeying is better than sacrifice,
and heeding orders than the fat of rams.

Psalms 40:7 (CJB)
7Sacrifices and grain offerings you don’t want;
burnt offerings and sin offerings you don’t demand.
Instead, you have given me open ears;

Psalms 51:18 (CJB)
18For you don’t want sacrifices, or I would give them;
you don’t take pleasure in burnt offerings.

Proverbs 15:8 (CJB)
[8] ADONAI* detests the sacrifices of the wicked
but delights in the prayers of the upright.

Isaiah 1:11 (CJB)
[11] “Why are all those sacrifices
offered to me?” asks ADONAI*.
“I’m fed up with burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fattened animals!
I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls,
lambs and goats!

Jeremiah 6:20 (CJB)
[20] What do I care about incense from Sh’va* [Sheba]
or sweet cane from a distant land?
Your burnt offerings are unacceptable,
your sacrifices don’t please me.”

Hosea 6:6 (CJB)
[6] For what I desire is mercy, not sacrifices,
knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

Hosea 8:13 (CJB)
[13] They offer me sacrifices of flesh and eat them,
but ADONAI* does not accept them.
Now he will recall their crimes and punish their sins—
they will return to Egypt.

Hosea 9:4 (CJB)
[4] They will not pour out wine offerings to ADONAI*;
they will not be pleasing to him.
Their sacrifices will be for them like mourners’ food—
everyone eating it will be polluted.
For their food will be merely to satisfy their appetite;
it will not come into the house of ADONAI*.

Why did God not want the sacrifices that He, Himself, had demanded? Just as we believe that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are a response of obedience by someone already saved, and useless to the unsaved, so were the sacrifices a response of obedience. Salvation then, as now, was “by grace through faith.” Sacrifice had no efficacy except to those who were already the recipients of God’s grace. The purpose of the sacrifices was to ritually “cover”, or hide from God’s eyes, the guilt of the sinner who, by his obedient sacrifice, was “making amends.”

But notice this: that every single one of the atoning sacrifices was for incidental, or unintentional, sin; in other words, for sins committed in ignorance, accidentally, or under duress. There was absolutely no means of sacrificial atonement for willful sin—except for God’s grace! On Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement” the Cohen HaGadol (high priest) would lay his hands on the forehead of Azazel, the scapegoat, symbolically transferring to the goat all further, willful, sin.

When Jesus was crucified, He fulfilled not just the Passover sacrifice, but all other sacrifices, thus permanently expunging guilt for all unintentional sin. More than this, He also brought God’s full grace, by removing sin “from the camp” on the back of the scapegoat. The goat would be led outside the “camp”, never to be seen again!

The Fall Feasts and the Rapture

Updated February 2022; original posted January 2013.

1 Thes 4:16
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.

Most of the modern world celebrates the new year with revelry and decadence. Not so among devout Jews, for whom Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, heralds God’s judgment of His chosen people for their deeds, both good and bad, committed during the preceding year. Yamim Noraim, the ten “Days of Awe” beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are devoted to sincere individual and national confession of sins and t’shuvah, or repentance. While the temple stood, on Yom Kippur all the people gathered on the Temple Mount for the ritual sacrifices that would roll the sins of the truly repentant back for another year. Since there is no temple now, and thus no legitimate place for blood sacrifices, the gatherings are in the synagogues, and what is offered are “sacrifices of prayer.” After Yom Kippur, there is an immense sense of relief, as the people begin preparations for the joyous eight-day Feast of Tabernacles that begins on the 15th of the month of Tishri.

Since long before Yeshua’s (Jesus’) day, the Days of Awe have, in practice, begun thirty days earlier, on the first day of the Jewish month Elul. T’shuvah is too important to put off until the last minute, so forty days are devoted to it, rather than the ten required by Torah. On Elul 1, Jews would flock to the mikvot (baptisteries) of the temple and synagogues, and to the “living waters” of streams and rivers like the Yarden (Jordan), to immerse themselves for ritual purification. Then would follow forty days of prayer, fasting and introspection. In the years preceding AD 30, it seems that many had become preoccupied with the politics and woes of the Roman occupation, and such customs were being neglected. Into this scene stepped Yochanan, who we now call John the Baptizer, calling Jews to baptism and t’shuvah.

5416_1038757307694_1937647_a
The Pinnacle of the Temple: the “Place of Trumpeting”, above the Royal Porch and Robinson’s Arch.

I believe that the events of Mt 3:13-17, describing Yeshua’s baptism and anointing by the Holy Spirit, took place on Elul 1. Though of course He was sinless, His baptism, followed by forty days of prayer and fasting, were consistent with and required by the customs of the season. Interestingly, this theory places Him on the Pinnacle of the Temple (Lk 4:9-12) on Yom Kippur. This was the highest and most visible structure on the Temple Mount; either the southeast corner, which was the highest structure above the ground level as it dropped off into the Kidron Valley to the east, or the southwest corner (the “Place of Trumpeting”), almost as high, and overlooking the shops and gathering areas near the entrance gates used by most worshipers. If He had accepted Satan’s temptation to throw Himself off and allow the angels to catch Him, all the Jewish world would have witnessed the destruction of His public ministry on the very day it began! Certainly, this was Satan’s plan!

As mentioned above, Rosh Hashanah, also known as Yom Teruah (The Feast of Trumpets), is the Jewish “judgment day”. On this day, Jews believe that God judges among his people, dividing them into three groups. One group is the “wholly righteous”, whose names will certainly be written in the Book of Life. A second is the “wholly wicked”, who will be written into the Book of Death. The final group is comprised of “those in between”, whose fate will be sealed by the quality of their t’shuvah over the next ten days, with final judgment reserved until Yom Kippur.

While this doctrine is certainly not Biblical, the fact that the holiday recognizes a separation of people from people is very significant since it prophetically depicts the coming day of Rapture. In this regard, and in light of 1 Thes 4:16, the blowing of the trumpet (actually, a shofar, or ram’s horn) on Yom Kippur is particularly interesting. The shofar (accompanied by actual metallic trumpets in temple days) is blown at mid-morning after the morning prayers, in three series of four distinctive notes: tekia (“blast”); shevarim (“broken notes”); teruah (“shout”—thought of as “the shout of an archangel”); and tekia gedolah (the “great blast”). The first series is tekia, shevarim, teruah, tekia, repeated three times. The second is tekia, shevarim, tekia, repeated three times. The final series is tekia, teruah, tekia, repeated three times, followed immediately by tekia gedolah, referred to in 1 Cor 15:52 as “the last trumpet”.

I am forever thrilled at the beauty of God’s timing! I believe that many of the events connected with Jeshua’s First and Second Advents actually occurred or will occur on the precise day of the Feast that pictures the event. Could it be that He will return for his Church at the exact moment of the “Last Trump” on the Feast of Trumpets (as God indeed said He would!), which is prophetic of the Rapture? Is it possible that He will return in judgment at the end of Tribulation on the Day of Atonement, the very day when God is thought to seal His judgment of His people? I am convinced it is so!