The following sermon is heavily influenced by Scot McKnight’s book, A Community Called Atonement. It seemed good to me to explore what atonement is really about on this Day of Atonement.
It’s a word coined in middle English from the words “at one.” Atonement is about being AT ONE with God.
Atonement is not really the translation of any Biblical word. The primary Biblical word is kipper, which means cleansing or wiping away. The sacrificial blood in the temple wiped away the stains of sin from the altar.
So why do many Bible translations say that the blood made atonement? In a sense, the blood in the temple was part of making atonement. The need to purify the altar and keep it clean of the stains of sin and impurity brought people near to God. People came to get close to God and blood made the closeness possible. In that sense, people became at least partially AT ONE with God.
But the blood of bulls and goats could never really finish the job. Something bigger and better was needed.
This is what the life, death, and resurrection of Messiah are all about. Messiah came to make complete atonement. He came to make us completely AT ONE with God.
So, as we pray on Yom Kippur, crying out to God for mercy, as Messiah instructed us to do, how should we understand atonement? What is atonement all about?
There are some distorted ideas about atonement, Messiah, and God. Jews sometimes misunderstand what the atonement of Yeshua is all about. Christians often have some less-than-helpful ideas as well. One way of viewing atonement, Messiah, and God is to think that God is angry and ready to destroy the world. Messiah, the Son of God, steps in and appeases the anger of God the Father so he won’t destroy us all.
The angry Father and the merciful Son. The merciful Messiah who averts the decree of death by the avenging God. If this is your idea of atonement, you have not yet understood atonement.
Extreme descriptions of atonement like that have led some critics to call the very idea divine child abuse. The Father, the critics say, is depicted as abusing the Son in a bargain intended by the Son to save his friends. This is hardly what we believe and the very fact that people could accuse us of this shows we need to understand what atonement really is.
Similar to these distortions is the sort of notion of God as bi-polar. One side of God is angry and wants to kill you. The other side is love and wants to rescue you. A good view of atonement will understand that wrath and grace spring from the same character. The same goodness hates evil and desires to rescue people from it. God is neither an abuser nor bi-polar.
On the other side, we have some traditions that view atonement in a very weak manner. The death of Yeshua is an example of ultimate love and nothing more. The sole purpose of Yeshua’s death was to melt our hearts and lead us to do good in following Messiah’s example. This is not sufficient. Atonement is far more than a heroic death that stirs us to goodness.
To settle into this topic of atonement, it is good for those of us who have experienced it to muse on how it came to us.
What sense of need did you have for a rescue? How did you come to believe that God alone could give you that needed rescue? How are you changed as a result?
I grew up unpersuaded that I needed to be atoned for. I searched first for meaning to life and discovered in the process that atonement was the crucial step. The beginning for me was something other than atonement — I just wanted to know that life was about more than survival.
Reading the Hebrew scriptures, I came to believe that God is real. I saw God’s vision of goodness and morality. My life began to look different when I shed my agnostic assumptions and looked at my life through the lens of God’s reality.
I had two different memories that formed my early thoughts about God and judgment and love. One memory was of a kindly black woman, who was my first grade teacher. The other memory was of an angry white preacher who would stand on the corner in Mableton, Georgia.
The kindly black woman had given me a lingering image of God as loving and ready to forgive. The angry white preacher gave me a lingering image of God as damning and willing to save only those who also became angry preachers toting Bibles and distributing booklets.
The kindly black woman gave me a New Testament with John 3:16 underlined. And she was a public school teacher. Yet in the government run school, against all the rules, I heard a message of a loving God.
The angry white preacher, he handed out booklets that were designed to make me fearful of hell. He gave me an image of God as a hard taskmaster.
Then, after some years, clarity came. An engineering colleague named Casey gave me C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
I grasped several things I had never seen before. Most importantly I grasped a crucial point about atonement: the loving God had done the hard part already, but the same God did expect something of me, namely faith, repentance, and a readiness to change.
Atonement made sense to me all of a sudden. I still carried that fear of hell ingrained in me by the angry white preacher. Yet I also sensed the love of God ingrained in me by my first grade teacher. And so, for a while, I saw God as bi-polar, ready to squash me like a bug while at the same time wanting to rescue me.
But I found atonement. And most times understanding follows experience.
We cannot fully understand atonement. It is a mystery.
Several great theologians in recent years have written to tell us that the mystery of atonement is the very reason God explains it to us in metaphors. I am particularly grateful to Scot McKnight, who explains the metaphors of atonement in his book, A Community Called Atonement.
McKnight says a metaphor is like a lens through which we view things. The metaphor is a simple picture of something more complex. Let me give you an example. What if I were to say, “Messiah is the light in the darkness”? Would you agree with that statement?
What if I then asked you to tell me specifically, thoroughly, and accurately everything that I mean by light and darkness? You couldn’t do it. This world is darkness in a thousand ways. Messiah is the light in ten thousand ways. You understand the metaphor, but you could never exhaustively explain it.
Theologian Hans Boersma says that the Bible explains atonement with metaphors because it would be arrogant for us to think we could understand this unfathomable mystery:
Metaphors are a divinely given means to avoid idolatrous claims of knowledge. Metaphors are nonliteral descriptions of reality. They are an acknowledgment that we need to access the world around us in an indirect fashion, and that the idea of direct and complete access is an arrogant illusion.
Let’s look briefly at five metaphors of atonement in the New Testament. These are five very helpful ways of looking at what Yeshua has done for us — how he has made us AT ONE with God.
Atonement is a sacrifice.
Atonement is redemption.
Atonement is justification.
Atonement is reconciliation.
Atonement is ransom.
When we say atonement is sacrifice, here is what we have in mind: It is like we are standing in front of the awesome temple trembling to be so near to a mighty God. We bring with us a gift, a sacrifice, to make that nearness possible. The sacrifice dies a substitutionary death for us since we know we are liable to death for approaching this mighty God. Afterwards, we are able to stand in God’s presence without fear.
When we say atonement is redemption: We think of ourselves as trapped in a form of slavery. Someone from the outside brings the price of our freedom. After redemption we have two things: first, we have freedom and second, we have a greater worth as one who has been raised up from the lowness of slavery.
When we say atonement is justification: We think of being guilty and coming before a court for prosecution and sentencing. We think of fear of guilt and punishment. Then we have an advocate on our side. And the judge declares us innocent. Afterwards we have complete freedom from guilt and the fear of punishment is gone.
When we say atonement is reconciliation: We think of being alienated from someone. That someone then steps in with sacrificial love. They overlook the alienation and make the first approach. We find surprising acceptance and a desire for intimacy from this someone. We respond to their gesture with love in return. And we have friendship and all alienation is gone.
When we say atonement is ransom: We have in mind a military situation. We are held hostage by a hostile power. A high price is set for our freedom. Someone pays the price to set us free. Afterwards, we experience freedom and continuing life.
None of these metaphors exhaustively explains what atonement is. Each one of them is a moving picture. Each one is a lens through which we can grasp some part of the mystery of atonement, of being made AT ONE with God.
Now, it should occur to us to ask, what did God do for us to make all these metaphors of atonement a reality?
It seems to me that God did four things for us:
He called us into covenant relationship, especially through Abraham.
He became one of us and identified with our experience as one of us.
He died in our place and identified with us right down to the experience of death.
He defeated death and evil by his resurrection from the dead.
The last three of those steps are especially the crux of how God made us AT ONE with him. In the incarnation, he became like us to identify with us. On the cross, he died in our place and identified with us right down to death. In his resurrection he defeated the powers of evil and chaos forever.
Theologians call these three atoning actions of God: 1) recapitulation, 2) penal substitution, and 3) Christus Victor.
Recapitulation is about God becoming man. He became like us so we could become like him. It means that we are not only forgiven, but that we are to be transformed to be like God. We are to grow into divine love and goodness and to be like him.
Penal Substitution is about God clearing our guilt. He died in our place so that no claim of guilt can be laid against us. It means we have security in knowing that all condemnation has been removed and we are innocent.
Christus Victor is about God defeating death and the evil one from within. He experienced death in order to defeat it and to triumph over the powers of evil. It means we see death and evil not as things to fear, but to conquer. Because we are now part of the community that overcomes death and evil.
Atonement is a wonderful thing. But here on Yom Kippur, as we represent the remnant of Israel, following Messiah at the vanguard of Israel’s turning to Messiah, we might ask, what does atonement have to do with Israel?
Atonement is what Israel needs as revealed by Torah and the prophets.
Listen to the voice of Isaiah, crying out poetically for what we now know is available in Messiah:
This is why justice is far from us,
and righteousness doesn’t catch up with us;
we look for light, but see only darkness,
for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope for the wall like the blind;
like people without eyes we feel our way;
we stumble at noonday as if it were dusk,
we are in dark places like the dead.
We growl, all of us, like bears
and moan pitifully like doves;
we look for justice, but there is none;
for salvation, but it is far from us.
For our crimes multiply before you,
our sins testify against us;
for our crimes are present with us;
and our sins, we know them well:
rebelling and denying ADONAI,
turning away from following our God,
talking about oppression and revolt,
uttering lies which our hearts have conceived.
Think about the understanding Isaiah had. Think about the understanding the righteous in Israel had. These words are all about sin-guilt, darkness, injustice, slavery, and alienation from God.
But did Isaiah and the righteous in Israel imagine a solution coming to this problem? You bet they did:
Then a Redeemer will come to Tziyon,
to those in Ya‘akov who turn from rebellion.
God told them he would answer the cry of the righteous for atonement.
God said a redeemer would come. The redeemer is none other than God himself.
This is why, mystery of mysteries, when Messiah did come, we found out surprisingly that he was God who became a man. Israel’s redeemer is God himself. Yet Israel’s redeemer must be a priest who identifies with Israel from within.
Israel’s redeemer must be God and man.
This Yom Kippur consider: Messiah Yeshua is the only atonement and Messiah Yeshua is complete atonement.
It is what the writer of Hebrews told us so eloquently 2,000 years ago:
Therefore, since the children share a common physical nature as human beings, he became like them and shared that same human nature; so that by his death he might render ineffective the one who had power over death (that is, the Adversary) and thus set free those who had been in bondage all their lives because of their fear of death.