The concept of atonement permeates virtually every page of Old Testament sacrificial law. According to God’s gracious provision, the Israelites were commanded to bring the appointed sacrifices to the tabernacle or the temple to atone for their sins (Ex. 29:33-37; 30:10-16; Num. 15:28; 2 Chron. 29:24). To atone means to make amends, reparation, or satisfaction for a crime committed. That is, the prescribed and accepted sacrifice reconciled the sinner back to God by meeting His demand for justice. Since God’s initial command to Adam and Eve contained the penalty of death for disobedience (Gen. 2:17), it is death that God’s justice required every sinner to pay (Ezek. 18:4).
The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, was the most solemn of Jewish annual feast days and was, quite literally, a day of death (Lev. 16:1-34). On the tenth day of the seventh month (late September or early October), the prescribed animals were slain on behalf of sinners. A bull was offered for the sins of Aaron, the priest, and his family; the High Priest offered rams as burnt offerings for his own sins as well as the sins of the people whom he represented; and two goats were sacrificed. The first goat was slain for the sins of the people and the second goat, the scapegoat, was sent into the wilderness—after the sins were transferred to it—in order to picture the removal of sin. This annual ritual covered the sins of God’s people for one year, until such time it had to be repeated. This repetition was intentional on God’s part in order to remind the people of their sins (Heb. 10:3); reveal the inadequacy of animal sacrifices (Heb. 10:1, 4); and to point forward to, and create anticipation for, the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as an offering for sin once for all (Heb. 10-11-14). This He did “not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood” (Heb. 9:12). As a result, the one who now places his faith in Jesus Christ as their Sin-bearing Savior has “confidence to enter the holy place,” the very presence of God, by His blood (Heb. 10:19).
For this reason, the single New Testament occurrence of the word atonement in the King James Version is translated reconciliation in many other translations (E.g. NASB, NKJ, ESV) and speaks of the sufficiency and finality of the death of Christ as having brought about the reconciliation (Rom. 5:11). That is, the bloody death of Christ on the cross met the demands of God, thus removing the offense which formed a barrier between us and God. Henry Thiessen writes, “In whatever God does, his justice must be maintained; Christ’s death fully satisfied the just demands of God. As in the case of state criminals, if the offender suffers the penalty prescribed by the law, he is no longer liable to condemnation.” Consequently, for the eternal benefit of our souls, atonement is the divine means by which the penalty for the offense of sinners—criminals against the laws of God—is fully paid for by Jesus in order to bring about reconciliation with God. “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). The purity of God’s love for us moved Him to give His only begotten Son (Jn. 3:18; Rom. 5:8), and the purity of Christ’s love moved Him to take our sins upon Himself and lay down “His life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16).
As the promised Savior, Jesus died as the righteous substitute for sinners like you and me in order to remove the penalty from us and restore us to fellowship with our holy Creator whom we sinned against. In short, Jesus was condemned so that we would not have to be. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Are you “in Christ Jesus”? Have you come to God in repentance and to Jesus in faith? If not, do so now. Today is the day of salvation. Do not harden your heart. If you hear His voice, respond in faith. For the Scripture says, if you “confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).