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 >>

11 Responses to Atonement in the Old Testament Law

  • Two things about the law you have missed, overlooked, or really don’t want to know. There is no case in which any man’s life taken by bloodshed that it is also not, by a binding oath of God, pre-established to be accountable directly to God. There is only one case in which one man’s life taken by bloodshed that, by a binding oath of God, each man too must give an account directly to God. Gen. 9:5 NIV. is the oath and it is referenced in Heb. 6:17. And in 6:18 this oath is is classified as immutable, but there two immutable (not subjected to recall) things.

    Regarding your reference to Jesus’ statement relative to fulfilling the law your conclusion is incorrect. The law has been fulfilled by adding a word to it. Ref. Heb 7:12b NIV “there must (imperative tense) also (relative to a fact) be a change of the law.” and Rom. 5:20 NIV “The (singular, i.e.a) law was added so that the (singular, i.e. a) trespass might (has) increased.” The second immutable thing referenced in Heb. 6:18.

    1 Cor. 2:6-7. Since there was no possibility that the actual or true reason why Jesus was to be crucified could have been discovered, since the true reason was a secret or he would not have been crucified, neither are any pre-existing sources, even if it is the Bible, able to substantiate the true reason why he was crucified whenever the substantiates are solely confined to law issued prior to his crucifixion. An example of this point is found in Acts 18:24-28.

    You are a man like Apollos, a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, OT that is, knowing only the baptism of John, as every other seminary grad does, but it is not adequate to explain the true Way of God.

    Therefore the conjecture that Jesus was crucified as a substitute is a total error just like Apollos’ dissemination and yours must be corrected too or no one can or will be saved by the Way of God in this day and time.

    “It is not those who hear the law who are
    righteous in God’s sight, but it is those
    who obey the law who will be declared

    The word which has been added to the law to fulfill it is Repent. For the crucifixion of Jesus in regard to the fact that his life was taken by bloodshed corresponding to God’s oath of each man being required to give him an account for the life of your fellow man the law was changed. Therefore the only Way the law Repent can and must be obeyed is by the faith of confessing directly to God with your mouth that you are sorry Jesus was crucified and be baptized into this Way to be forgiven of all sins. This Way is the small narrow gate into the kingdom of God and no man will enter God’s kingdom by any other way. For there are no exceptions. It is the requirement of God’s oath and by the law that each man too must give a direct account to God by Jesus’ crucifixion or he will serve the penalty of eternal death for disobeying the law of God.

    “Keeping the law, it’s easy,
    it’s in your mouth.”


  • I’m not entirely sure that I understand your point, but it seems to be that you are affirming that: 1) Christ did not fulfill the law, and 2) that the law remains in effect, with the additional “law” that one is to repent.

    I’ll have to whole-heartedly disagree. Your postulates absolutely disregard the fundamental message of the gospel.

    Your statement that “there was no possibility that the actual or true reason why Jesus was to be crucified could have been discovered” and that “(no) pre-existing sources, even if it is the Bible(??), able to substantiate the true reason why he was crucified” is simply not true. Your use of 1 Cor. 2 is poorly chosen, for it does not speak of the “mystery” of the crucifixion – but the “mystery of God” which corresponds to the secret mysteries of human arguments (who frequently claimed to have some “new” mystery for religious sale.) Even so, if you keep reading, Paul noted that his message was indeed a mystery, but he concluded (verses 9-10) that while “no eye has seen, no ear has heard…” “but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” Mystery solved.

    As to why Jesus was crucified, this was known 750 years before Christ was crucified. Isaiah began prophesying around 740 BC. His prophesy decried the purpose of the crucifixion for the whole world to hear. Isaiah 53:5 (ESV)
    5 But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.

    As to your assertion that Jesus did not fulfill the law, you’ll have to argue that point with some much more heavy hitters than myself: namely, the author of Hebrews, the Apostle Paul, and the gospel writers themselves.

    First, Jesus clearly noted that he had come to fulfill the law and the prophets. While I do not believe he has completed the fulfillment of the prophets (as of yet), he did fulfill the completion of the law; in total. Now, it is true that the law remained in effect while Jesus lived on the earth. However, his crucifixion completed the law, as the entire law was a foreshadowing of that which was to come. Hebrews notes, “Hebrews 10:1 (ESV) 1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.”

    The author continues, Hebrews 10:8-10 (ESV) 8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9 then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

    And concludes the issue with, Hebrews 10:14-16 (ESV) 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds….”

    Paul concurs wholeheartedly in Galatians 3:11-14 (ESV)
    11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

    Paul concluded without condition that Christ had fulfilled the law as he notes:
    Romans 10:4 (ESV) 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
    Galatians 2:15-16 (ESV)
    15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

    Thus, the assertion that Christ somehow failed to fulfill the law – or that this was not the purpose of his crucifixion – is an aberration of the scriptural declarations concerning his death. Missing the point on this issue is not simply a theological “disagreement” but rather is a serious offense to the gospel, complete with its own stern warning:
    Galatians 3:10-11 (ESV)
    10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
    I encourage you to read the book of Galatians from start to finish. Paul dealt very seriously with the issues of people attempting to marry the law and grace as a means to justification.

    You may also consider this series, which addresses the nature of the law in light of Christ’s work on the cross:

    As to your note of repentance being a necessary action, I have no disagreement. Man is called to repent. While there is much disagreement concerning the nature of such repentance (I’ll be writing on that in the continuation of the “Pastoral Soteriology” series) you are hard pressed to argue against the biblical mandate for repentance concerning one’s salvation (be that repentance a part of the work of regeneration or a condition of regeneration – each of which is debated heartily).

    However, to note that repentance is somehow an addition to the law misses the point entirely. It is not an addition to the law. Rather, repentance is to turn whole-heartedly to Christ – and Christ alone – for the remission of the sins which Hebrews notes (repeatedly) that the law cannot cleanse.

    I do thank you for writing. I mean no offense in my response, but write so much in hopes that you will reconsider your position according to the scriptures.

  • Well then I guess the apostle Paul was wrong in 1 Cor. 2:6 and Rom. 5:20. And maybe the writer of Heb. made a mistake in Heb. 7:12.
    At any rate I can see that even tho Jesus does say “few find it” and the proponents of your conviction number in the millions I think you disagree with him too. For hasn’t he said that God has prepared a table before him in the presence of his enemies? When you preach look down in front of yourself at a sharp angle. What do you see?
    Still think Jesus is wrong about that table? It’s sitting there isn’t it and what? Would you dare even think or much less say God did not put it there? “Look and live’, friend, “LOOK and live.”
    Even if I raise the dead you are not going to believe me, but in the end you’ll not hesitate to wish you had have.

    Theodore A. Jones

  • RE. I most certainly did not say that Jesus did not fulfill the law. What I did say is that the law has been fulfilled by having a word added to it as the Scriptures say. Suppositionally I did not see him do it, but it is in the record that an addition has been made to the law.
    RE. Mystery. In the text I use it is the secret wisdom of God not revealed prior to Jesus’ crucifixion but afterward. There is no indication that what was unknown before Jesus was crucified which would have prevented his crucifixion has not been revealed. But all the information present prior to and at the time of Jesus crucifixion was missing at least one very critical respondent to only Jesus’ crucifixion. The thought was beyond comprehension, beyond wildest dreams even, that it was remotely possible that the law of God could be changed much less would be. For without this change the salvation of a reprobate like you would be absolutely impossible.

    Theodore A. Jones

  • (The following is a response to multiple comments by Theodore on two differing posts, found here and here .)

    I’m trying to follow you, Theodore. But, I just can’t accept the connection I think you are making.

    You note Heb. 7:12, stating, “The law of God was changed after Jesus was crucified. A word has been added to the law.”

    Heb. 7:12 does note, “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.” However, this singular sentence is not the full summary of the point. It is rather an important, but short sentence of a much bigger thought. This sentence notes a change of the law – true – but it never asserts your position that “a word” has been added to the law. It says nothing of the sort. Rather, Hebrews 7 details the “normal” course of the priesthood. In particular, it speaks of the succession from Aaron through the tribe of Levi. He then states that Jesus is a new priest in the order of Melchizedek, who was a non-Levite priest. The point is that Jesus is bringing a new tribal line to the priesthood. The very next verse says (13), “he of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. (14) For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.”
    I agree that the law changed, per Heb. 7:12.

    Yet, that text says absolutely nothing about your postulate that the law changed by “a word” being added to it. The law changed because the priesthood changed. The law of Moses was replaced by the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). Such is the subject matter of my “The Law and the Believer” series posted here:

    Your next quote, from Rom. 5:20, is “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” I’m not totally sure why you’re quoting this in your argument, but if you’re attempting to say that this text refers to “an addition” to the law, clearly this is not the case contextually. Romans 5 is a discourse on how Adam brought death and Christ brought life. It says nothing of the nature of “a word” being added to the law. Rather, it speaks of “the law” as that which condemned man’s sin. It was the law which was added that man might be utterly exposed for the sinner that he is. Paul explained the scenario again in Rom. 7:13, “…in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it (the law) produced death in me through what was good, so that throught he commandment sin might become utterly sinful.”

    Lastly, it seems by your quoting of Rom. 2:13, that you are asserting that this new law – (your version, with the mysterious “added word”) – is responsible for one’s salvation. You quote Rom 2:13 as if this law is the source of salvation. Yet, clearly Romans 2:13 is arguing utterly against the premise of one being saved by the law of Moses (which is the law in question). You must read the entire chapter! Focus on Rom. 2:12-16. Paul’s declaration is not that one will be saved by observance of the law, but that one will be judged as guilty by the law. Only by Christ will anyone be judged as righteous by the law- for only Christ fulfilled it. Paul continues his discourse to its climactic resolution in Rom 3-

    Romans 3:21-25 (NIV)
    21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–

    The righteousness from God is “apart from the law” of Moses. It is a new law of Christ by grace through faith; for Christ had fulfilled the law (Mat. 5:17-18) – and rendered it inoperative for the believer (Rom. 10:4, Gal. 2:15-16, Gal. 3:24-25).

    I’m sorry, but there is not “additional word” added to the law in any of the passages you’re referencing. I encourage you to read from testament to book; from book to chapter, from chapter to paragraph, etc. Context is utterly essential to prevent us from eisegesis (reading into the text), which I believe you have mistakenly done.
    Best wishes-

  • Do you know what method was used to kill the animals that were sacrificed under the mosaic law?

  • You have done a very thorough job in synthesizing the analytical truth and foundation of the true ramifications of Christ’s death. Many people just don’t understand the impact of what Christ did on Calvary in taking upon Himself the sins of the world and the penalty of those sins. This sacrifice was and is completed in Him. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. God never said that the atonement for sin was repentance; as you so adequately stated, blood is the atonement for sin. Christ shed blood was the one time atonement for the world’s sin; it was and is thorough and complete. We must accept His completed work by faith, as daily through our practical living situations and circumstances our ‘old man’ (our Adamic nature)is crucified that Christ will more and more live His life through us because He lives in the believer!!

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