Atonement in the Old Testament Law

This entry is part 9 of 13 in the series Pastoral Soteriology

Atonement in the Old Testament Law

As noted in the last post, the Penal Substitution Theory of the atonement is by far the best and most accurate understanding of the work Jesus provided on the cross according to the scriptures.  While the nature of the atonement has been observed, a true understanding of penal substitution requires a comprehension of the underlying principles which had been put into effect by God prior to Jesus’ work on the cross. 

Jesus stated,

Matthew 5:17-18 (NIV)
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

Fundamentally, it must be understood that Jesus’ work on the cross was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.  This was Jesus’ own testimony; that he had come to fulfill the law, and that the law would remain in effect until “everything is accomplished.”  It is thus the law itself which one must understand in order to properly connect the dots as to how Jesus provided atonement via his crucifixion.

The law was essentially Israel’s national legal system by which God revealed himself and enforced his standards of holiness.  Israel was a theocracy.  God was her King, and his law was her law.  While the law is a complete unit and cannot be divided against itself, for the sake of study it can be noted that there were several categories of requirements within it.  There were “ceremonial” commandments which provided the proper means by which God was to be worshipped and his people were to conduct themselves with regard to ceremonial cleanliness.  There were “moral” commandments which revealed that which was sinful in God’s sight.  There were also “legal” commandments which prescribed penal ramifications for those who broke the law.  The Law of Moses was literally Israel’s constitution and bylaws.  It was what people were judged by when they committed a public (or private) offense.

Beyond mere human legal structure, the law also prescribed the system of atonement by which man would have his sins atoned for in God’s sight.  God’s sentence for sin was made clear in the Garden of Eden, and it has never changed.  “The day you eat of it you will surely die.”  The New Testament concurs, as Romans 6:23 notes, “the wages of sin is death.”  An essential component of a valid soteriology is the knowledge that sin yields death.  Period.  And, as all have sinned, all are guilty of breaking God’s law and are thus deserving of his penal sentence.

Even in this hopeless state, God demonstrated his grace in that he provided a system of atonement through the Law, which would later be fulfilled in Christ.  He provided a means of substitution for the prescribed penalty of death for one’s sin.  According to the law, a worthy sacrifice could be offered on man’s behalf, whose blood would pay the guilt of man’s sin.

The Sacrificial System

Concerning the sacrificial system, this week’s post will focus on general provisions.  Next week’s post will be more detailed concerning the application of the sacrificial blood to the sinner’s account; which Christ fulfilled permanently by his own sacrifice.

The Root Provision:  Blood Sacrifice

The heart and soul of the Law’s sacrificial system involved the spilling of blood.  God’s sentence for sin is death to the offender, yet his grace provided that an animal’s blood may be spilled as a substitution for man’s offense.  Thus the vicarious – or substitutionary – nature of atonement is visible clearly in the Law itself.  The Lord noted,

Leviticus 17:11 (NIV)
11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

The term “atonement” is translated from the Hebrew term, kapar (kaw-far’), which essentially means “to cover.”  This Old Testament understanding of atonement as a “covering” of man’s sin is different from the New Testament Greek term for atonement, which means “reconciliation.”  These distinctions will be observed in detail in a future post.

Essentially, the shedding of sacrificial blood in the Old Testament translated to one’s sins being covered, or hidden, from God’s sight – that they may not be held against the sinner.  Christ’s fulfillment of the sacrificial system wrought a thorough cleansing and removal of sins, however, as will be examined in a later post.  Yet, the foundation for understanding Christ’s work is this very sacrificial system of the shedding of vicarious blood.

In Exodus, the process is generally explained:

Exodus 29:10-14 (NIV)
10 “Bring the bull to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head. 11 Slaughter it in the Lord’s presence at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 12 Take some of the bull’s blood and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and pour out the rest of it at the base of the altar. 13 Then take all the fat around the inner parts, the covering of the liver, and both kidneys with the fat on them, and burn them on the altar. 14 But burn the bull’s flesh and its hide and its offal outside the camp. It is a sin offering.

God’s prescription for a sin offering then, was the shedding of substitutionary blood.  Blood sacrifices provided a cleansing; for both ceremonial purposes and for the atonement for sins.

Hebrews 9:22 (NIV)
22 In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

The Frequency of the Sacrifices

Set apart from the sacrifice of Christ, who once and for all died for sin, the Old Testament sacrifices were a daily part of Jewish life.  As man continually sinned, so sacrifices had to be continually offered.

The “regular” daily offering consisted of the slaughter of two male lambs; one each morning and one each evening. 

Exodus 29:38-39 (NIV)
38 “This is what you are to offer on the altar regularly each day: two lambs a year old. 39 Offer one in the morning and the other at twilight.

In addition to the daily offerings were weekly Sabbath offerings.  On each Sabbath two male lambs were slaughtered in addition to the regular offerings.

Numbers 28:9-10 (NIV)
9 “‘On the Sabbath day, make an offering of two lambs a year old without defect, together with its drink offering and a grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil. 10 This is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its drink offering.

Additionally, each new month began with the sacrifice of two bulls, a ram, seven male lambs and a goat.

Numbers 28:11 (NIV)
11 “‘On the first of every month, present to the Lord a burnt offering of two young bulls, one ram and seven male lambs a year old, all without defect.

Numbers 28:15 (NIV)
15 Besides the regular burnt offering with its drink offering, one male goat is to be presented to the Lord as a sin offering.

Added to the continual slaughter of animals for regular calendar cycles were numerous offerings which were made at each of Israel’s annual feasts.  Not all offerings were specifically “sin offerings,” which atoned for man’s sin, yet all offerings were necessary because of man’s sin.  Such continual spilling of blood was unavoidably required for man to approach God in worship.

Literally, twenty four hours of every day, sacrifices were being offered on man’s behalf.  In many cases, priests were little more than specially trained butchers, continually slaughtering animals to provide atonement for man’s continual sin.  As Old Testament atonement did not actually remove sins, they necessarily were recurrently offered.

Hebrews 10:11 (NIV)
11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.

Essentially, according to the law, blood was necessary for the atonement (covering – not removal) of sins.  God’s justice demanded that the penalty of sin be paid.  Yet, by God’s grace, he allowed a substitution to be offered for the death which man had earned by his sin:  the substitution of a worthy sacrificial offering.  This entire system was a foreshadowing of Christ’s own substitutionary death.  While the Old Testament sacrificial system did not remove sins, it covered man until such a time as Christ would apply the final, permanent and worthy provision of his own blood.

Hebrews 10:1-4 (NIV)
1 The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4 because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Yet, as a foreshadowing, this system revealed the substitutionary nature of Christ’s own sacrifice which was to come.  For Christ to have fulfilled the law, his death necessarily must have provided the means of permanently fulfilling the requirements of blood sacrifice according to the Law.


Series Navigation<< The Penal Substitution Theory: On the MarkYom Kippur – The Foreshadowing of Christ >>

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