According to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, the English word "atonement" appears eighty times in sixty-nine verses of the Old Testament. The original Hebrew word was "kaphar" and its literal meaning was to cover something with bitumen or pitch. The concept of covering something was further understood by the Hebrews to cancel or obliterate the thing that was covered. Hence, when applied to sin, the word indicated something that had been done to remove or expiate them. Moreover, this sense of the word implied that the person was thereafter pardoned, forgiven and reconciled to God.
This Old Testament word, and all that it implied, is remarkably consistent with what Jesus Christ accomplished with his sacrifice. However, before we explore that in more detail, it is necessary to look at some of the other principles related in those scriptures relative to sin.
In the theology of the Old Testament, it is a common theme that the people's sins separated them from their God. This concept is apparent from the very beginning of the story of mankind's interaction with the Divine. Notice that Adam's and Eve's sins resulted in their expulsion from the garden and God's presence. (Genesis 3) In other words, their sins separated them from God.
If the Israelites followed God's instructions and obeyed "His" commandments, God promised to live among them and be their God. (Exodus 29:45) When Moses outlined the blessings associated with obeying the terms of the covenant, it was implicit in everything he said that God would be actively blessing the people in all aspects of their life. (Deuteronomy 28:1-14) Likewise, when he outlined the curses associated with disobedience, Moses made clear that the people would not enjoy God's favor, protection and blessings. (Deuteronomy 28:15-68) In other words, their sins would separate them from their God.
When David sinned with Bathsheba, he understood that his sins could separate him from his God. He prayed: "Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me." (Psalm 51:11)
The prophets were also very familiar with this concept. Isaiah wrote: "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear." (Isaiah 59:1-2) When the Israelites persisted in their sins throughout the kingdom period, God's glory (presence) eventually departed from the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel 8-10) When the prophets looked to the future, they often spoke of a time when God would actually live among "His" people. (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:20, 37:23, 27; Zechariah 8:8) The clear implication being that God was currently separated from them.
In addition to this understanding, Old Testament theology clearly anticipated the need for a reconciliation between the sinner and his God. David wrote: "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin." (Psalm 51:1-2) He continued: "Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me." (Psalm 51:9-10) David clearly understood that the sins were the problem in his relationship with God, and that those sins had to be removed to effect a complete reconciliation with the Divine. Indeed, he praised God for removing our sins from us "as far as the east is from the west."
In this connection, one could also say that the entire sacrificial system (such an integral part of the Old Covenant) looked to the removal and forgiveness of the people's sins. This was nowhere more apparent than in the ceremony prescribed for the Day of Atonement. (Leviticus 16)
Although the Serpent was clearly punished for its part in what transpired in the garden, it is also important to note here that Satan's role in persuading Adam and Eve did not excuse them of personal responsibility for their sins. (Genesis 3) This principle is further underscored by the prophet Ezekiel. He wrote: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him." (Ezekiel 18:20) Clearly, "the devil made me do it" is not an acceptable excuse before God. It isn't Satan who has separated us from our God, it is our sins!
This is where Jesus Christ comes into the equation. Isaiah wrote of the Messiah: "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:3-6)
When John the Baptist saw Christ approaching him, he said, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." (John 1:29) In other words, he saw Jesus Christ as the one who would remove our sins - the very things that had separated us from our God. Hence, this act would effect our reconciliation to God.
Interestingly, this conclusion finds overwhelming support in the theology of the New Testament. Paul wrote to the Romans: "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement." (Romans 5:8-11) Likewise, Paul wrote the saints at Corinth that God had reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 5:18)
How did he reconcile us to God? The answer should be obvious at this point: Christ reconciled us to the Father by removing the things that had separated us from Him - our sins! Paul said that Christ died for our sins. (I Corinthians 15:3) He told the Galatians that Christ gave himself for our sins. (Galatians 1:4) The author of the epistle to the Hebrews wrote that Christ had purged our sins. (Hebrews 1:3) Peter said that Christ had borne our sins in his body. (I Peter 2:24) John called Christ the propitiation for our sins (I John 2:2), and that Christ "was manifested to take away our sins." (I John 3:5)
Brethren, don't let anyone ever tell you that Satan has any part to play in our reconciliation to God. Although Satan has played a role in persuading us to sin, we are personally responsible for those sins before God. Those sins have alienated us from "Him." Jesus Christ lived a sinless life and sacrificed himself so that those sins could be removed as an impediment to our relationship with God.
Paul wrote to the saints at Colosse: "For it pleased the Father that in him (Christ) should all fulness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight." (Colossians 1:19-22)