Wherever you go, in all the churches, whatever you read in Christian literature, the word “Atonement” keeps appearing. It is supposed to be the definitive term to describe what our Lord and Saviour accomplished for us at Calvary. In this paper it will be necessary to investigate the meaning and derivation of this word. It’s not a dull theological wrangle, but something of vital importance. Please stay with us.
The first point to note is that “Atonement” is an Old Testament word. It appears there about 100 times. But have a look in the New Testament, and you will not find the word at all! (Oh yes, it does appear once in the Authorised Version at Romans 5:11, but as all modern versions declare, it is a mistranslation, and should have been rendered “reconciliation.”) Does this come as a surprise? When the whole Christian world has “Atonement” on its lips continually, and by it upholds the great work of Christ with His shed blood, isn’t it passing strange that the New Testament is completely silent in this direction? This unexpected omission is enough to warrant a closer look at the subject. Let’s go back to origins.
The Hebrew word translated Atonement may be expressed in English by the three letters KPR. The verb is pronounced KAPHAR, and the noun KOPHER, with a plural form of KIPPURIM. It is a basic principle used by Biblical scholars that the first occurrence of a word sets the scene for the rest of its usages throughout the O.T. On this principle we shall find something of great value by turning to Genesis 6:14, where the first occurrence of both verb and noun are found together. The A.V. reads as follows – “Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.” The English reader might initially be somewhat puzzled to know where “Atonement” occurs in the verse. But let us investigate further.
The Hebrew Lexicons tell us that KPR has a literal meaning of “Cover”. Genesis 6:14 reads as follows – “Make an ark of GOPHER wood – – – KAPHAR it within and without with KOPHER.” Our English word “Cover” sounds very much like the Hebrew KOPHER. It may be connected. What was Noah told to do? He had to make an Ark of a certain type of wood, and COVER it within and without with a COVERING. Further investigation has revealed that Noah made the Ark from a red-wood that exuded liberal quantities of a gum or resin, and that after doing all the necessary woodwork, he heated up large quantities of this resin, and applied it liberally to all the joints of the timbers, and it married in well, hardened, and provided him with an “ideal covering”, able to keep out the waters of judgment. Perhaps GOPHER was the name given to the wood because of its ability to provide this resin. There is certainly a similarity in the sound of the words.
We now have all the information needed to crack the code of “Atonement”. Just as Noah’s resin provided him with an ideal covering to exclude the waters of judgment, so the shed blood of animals provided the children of Israel with an ideal covering to shield them as sinners from God’s wrath. This is the basic meaning of Atonement, and it fits every occurrence of the word in the O.T. God gave His people instructions on how to provide themselves with an ideal covering, so that He might have continual fellowship with a sinful people. Their sins were not removed, but were “covered”. Those who exercised obedience to God’s laws in this respect were righteous by faith. God was able to perform this necessary function prospectively, knowing that in due time His Son would “take away the sin of the world.”
Before going any further in this study, one further word needs to be said about the verse in Genesis 6:14. The A.V. used the word “pitch” to describe the material Noah used to render his ship watertight. This is a sad misrepresentation of the original. The Hebrew word for pitch is ZEPHETH, and it is found in Exodus 2:3, where the little ark of bulrushes was rendered watertight by “daubing it with slime and with pitch.” See also its use in Isaiah 34:9. There was no “pitch” before the flood.
We must now turn to the New Testament, where we shall find adequate testimony to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. First of all, Hebrews 10:4 provides us with a definitive statement. “The blood of bulls and goats CANNOT TAKE AWAY SIN.” No, of course not. The Atonement was a “covering”, an umbrella to shield God’s people from wrath. But the death and resurrection of Christ has provided fallen man with “much more.” The blood of animals was unable to remove sin, but the blood of God’s Son “takes away the sin of the world.” In Romans chapter 5 Paul gets very excited about the contrast between the Old Testament law of Atonement, and the New Testament fact of sin’s removal. Four times he used the expression “much more” to describe the difference. Here are the verses –
5:19 “MUCH MORE then, being made righteous by His blood, we shall through Him be saved from the wrath.”
5:10 “If being enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, MUCH MORE being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”
5:15 “But not as the offence is the free gift; for if by one man’s offence the many died, MUCH MORE the grace of God and the gift by grace by one Man Jesus Christ, has abounded to the many.”
5:17 “If by one man’s offence death reigned by this one, MUCH MORE shall those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life by One, Jesus Christ.”
The writer to the Hebrews uses the word “Better” to describe the change from the Old to the New Covenant. Here are a few verses.
7:19 “The law made nothing perfect; but the bringing in of a BETTER HOPE did, by which we draw near to God.”
7:22 “Jesus was made the surety of a BETTER COVENANT.”
8:6 “He (Jesus) is the Mediator of a BETTER COVENANT, established upon BETTER PROMISES.”
No wonder the word Atonement is not found in the New Testament! It would be a disgrace to the Man of Calvary to speak of His blood “atoning” for sin. The blood of animals COVERED sin, but the blood of Jesus Christ TAKES AWAY sin. The covering is no longer needed. We are all able to enter into the Holy of Holies by faith in His blood. Whereas the O.T. saints were made righteous by faith in that which obtained under the law, God has now ripped away all the coverings, and rejoices in His ability to fellowship with man based on His Son’s sacrifice. The way to God is open to all men. New Life is a free gift to all, by God’s grace. If you truly believe this, try to remember never again to use the word Atonement when speaking about Jesus’ sacrifice. Slip-shod language is most unbecoming to those who rejoice in the deeper knowledge of God’s ways. Let us rejoice in how MUCH MORE we can rejoice in the Lord through the BETTER COVENANT.
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
This subject, now in new format, was first published by us in January 1987, and appears as Prophetic Telegraph No.10 on our web site. We are indebted to an esteemed friend from 1954, Dr. Clement Carpenter of Sunningdale, Berkshire, who first brought this matter to our notice in a small booklet he published entitled “Much More . . .” “Clem”, as we knew him, was instrumental in helping us to a deeper knowledge of the Bible in those early years. He is now with the Lord, having died in June 1986, aged 91 years.