If you break it down, our word atonement is a combination of three parts: at+one+ment. It is unclear if this is the actual etymology of the word, but there does seem to be a connection with a medieval Latin word for “unity.”
My own definition for the word atonement, or rather the act of making atonement, is “paying the necessary reparations to bring together two parties (people) who had been separated because of a wrong done or an injury.”
There may be a better definition for the word, but that is mine. With that, we can see that although the word atonement is much different than kippur, both describe the act relating to paying a ransom in order to redeem someone. And, by that act, we are bringing together two people who were separated. It is an at+one+ment.
We live in days of international terrorism, and we often hear of people being kidnapped and held for ransom by some terrorist organization. In our country we have a policy similar to that of many countries, in that “we will never negotiate or pay ransom to terrorists.” I agree with that policy, but I admit that it seems a rather cold and detached way of dealing with the fact that someone has been separated from the people that they love.
Living with the Threat
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s our family lived in Venezuela near the Colombian border. These were the years of extreme terrorism being carried out by the then strong Colombian drug cartels and terrorist organizations, such as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The border between Colombia and Venezuela was quite porous, so the Colombian guerillas passed easily between the two nations.
Kidnappings were not infrequent in the area of our frontier town, especially in the last couple years that we lived there. These were mostly kidnappings of people from wealthy families who were then held for ransom. We were not wealthy, so I did not feel that we were in too much danger—at least I did not until in the final months, when the kidnappings began to take on political overtones. It was then that kidnapping a family member from the only American family living on that area of the border could have its motivations.
It began to become worrisome for Vivian and me. In the final weeks that we were in that town, I began to form the habit of walking around town to visit the panadarias (bakeries) to have a bit of coffee and to find out the overnight local news from the various shopkeepers. The panadarias were the only places open in that time of day, so it was like getting the early morning local news.
I would say that at least once a week, a child or wife of some family of the area had been kidnapped and held for ransom. One morning the shopkeepers told me of one family receiving an envelope containing the severed finger of one of their sons, along with the ransom note.
I do not know what the official policy of the government was toward ransoms, but it almost did not matter. The families had been separated from their loved one, and they would pay whatever was necessary to be reunited. The terrorists received a lot of their funding by this method.
It was when the kidnappings took on more of a political twist that Vivian and I began preparing a rather hasty departure. Thankfully, no one from our family had been kidnapped during those final months. We were spared from that sort of agony.
But living with that danger for that time caused me to think a lot about the different aspects paying a ransom, and the wisdom of doing so. Speaking from cold logic, perhaps we all would agree that it is counterproductive to reward the terrorists for their kidnappings. It only encourages more kidnappings, as it seemed to have done in our town.
But that is the cold logic. From the heart, we all know that if someone we loved had been taken from us, we would do anything to get him or her back, and to be reunited. When love is involved, logic and practicality must take a back seat.
We see this with the concept of atonement. Last Sunday I spoke of how Adam and Eve first rebelled against God and allowed themselves to be ruled by sin. Since these two people represented the fountainhead of all humanity, this rebellion has spread to all of us and has become our very nature. In effect, Adam and Eve had been kidnapped by Satan, although they were willing victims. We all have been kidnapped and we all have willingly followed.
I suppose that the logical thing for God to do, the practical thing, would have been to take the attitude that mankind had chosen its path and leave it at that. After all, it is not as if God needs us in order for himself to exist, so if we have decided that we don’t need him to live, then let it be. We made our beds, so let us lie on it. We must now suffer the consequences of our actions.
But praise be to God that He is a God of love more than he is a God of practicality. When the price was put for our release from the slavery to sin, he decided that he must pay the ransom. No price was too high.
“This is how the love of God was revealed to us,” John writes, “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. This is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).
Propitiation? Here is a word that probably did not spring up in any conversations that you had during the week. What is a propitiation?
Propitiation is the word for the sacrifice needed for our atonement. It is the price paid for our redemption.
You will notice that John does not say that practicality was paramount in God's thinking when he paid the price to redeem us. He was not trying to be frugal and get by on the cheap. There was not a I-do-not-negotiate-with-terrorists clause in his plan for rescuing us. He was willing to do whatever it took—even the price of the life of his own Son.
Certainly, if there was another way to redeem us, God would have done it. Apparently, there was not. Jesus himself prayed shortly before his crucifixion, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39).
As I said, there was no other way. The propitiatory sacrifice had to be paid.
The Price of the Ransom Note
To us it may seem a simple transaction. Jesus paid the price for our redemption. For those of us who have asked to be included in this ransom, we are granted freedom from our bondage from sin and freedom from eternal death. We are given eternal life. Nothing more is required of us. Indeed, nothing can be required of us, because we have no ability to do anything about it at all. We are slaves and captives of the kidnapping, and simply at the mercy of higher powers.
But just because it is easy and uncomplicated for us, this does not mean that it is a simple affair.
A few weeks ago, I briefly told the story of how the Israelite man Boaz redeemed Ruth, the Moabite woman, so that he would have the right to marry her. I will not retell the story here, but I did mention that in order to redeem Ruth, Boaz needed to fulfill a series of cultural and financial obligations, as well as legal proceedings. It was not a simple proposal and acceptance.
Neither was our redemption a simple matter. Not only did it come at great cost to God, but there were also certain other requirements that needed to be fulfilled. We often speak of our salvation as a matter of “Jesus dying for our sins.” Of course, that is correct, but there was much more involved.
Last Sunday I closed the sermon by quoting the New Testament writer of Hebrews when he asked, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great of a salvation?”
Questions Involving Atonement
We might ask ourselves, if the only matter that required our redemption was that fateful day on the cross of Calvary, why did Jesus go through all the other things that he did on this earth? Why was he born in such a humble manner and into a poor family? Why was he born at all? Could he not just have suddenly materialized from heaven? Could he not simply have appeared for a few days, pay the ransom price by dying for us, and be done with it in a matter of a few hours rather than more than thirty years?
Why did he have to live such a difficult life? Why did he have to fast for forty days in the desert and then be tempted to the extreme by Satan. Why did his death have to be in such a brutal manner? Could he not have simply taken a drink of some poison hemlock, as did Socrates?
Why, why, why? There is no end to the whys. And the problem is that any attempt to answer one of them only opens up another host of questions.
The Legal Procedures Begin
In order to at least give us a sense of what was involved with paying the price of ransom to free us, this same writer of the book of Hebrews who asked how shall we escape if we neglect the salvation offered to us, points out a few matters concerning this salvation.
First of all, did you realize that this same salvation is not offered to everyone? Humans were not the only beings involved with Satan’s revolt against the authority of the Eternal God. Other created beings were also led in rebellion. We think perhaps one-third of all God’s angels also believed Satan’s lie and joined him.
But unlike for you and me, God has not offered to pay any ransom for those rebellious angels. As far as has been revealed to us, these fallen angels, these demons, will at the end of the age be thrown into the depths of what we are told is a fiery pit.
Although we were just as complicit in the rebellion as the worst of the demons, this same fate does not necessarily need to be ours. Why God offered to pay the ransom for our souls and not those of the angels, we do not know. It certainly was not because our souls were of more value than was theirs.
In the entire universe, why did God intervene to rescue us? The writer quotes King David when he wrote in the Psalm, “What is man that You are mindful of him?”
David wrote, “When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place—what is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4 BSB)
Cutting Off the Head
The writer of Hebrews continues to tell of some of the legal matters that had to be fulfilled in order to redeem us. There was more to the fact that Jesus was born and lived as a man than we can know. Apparently, there was a compulsory and legal necessity for him to do this. It all has to do with the penalty imposed because of the rebellion against the Creator God.
“The wages of sin,” Paul tells us, “Is death.”
To nullify this penalty, Jesus had to do at least two things. The primary of these was that he had to destroy the one who led the rebellion. He had to cut off the head of the uprising. He had to destroy Satan.
Why is it So Difficult?
We might think that this would be a simple matter for God. He created Satan. All eternal power resides in God. Could God not simply crush Satan under the heel of his foot, as we might crush a cockroach?
Indeed, that is what will happen, but there is more to this process than we may at first think. God will crush Satan with his heel, but we might remember God’s words of punishment to Satan in the Garden of Eden. God told Satan that he will indeed crush him under his heel, but in the process, the heel of God will also be bruised (Genesis 3:15).
Why? Why is it so complicated? Of course, we cannot know. These truths involve eternal matters that go far beyond our ability to understand. However, I believe that it is because it involves the matter of a unique gift given to us of the earth. The process of defeating Satan once and for all time also involves the question of our own wills.
Satan’s rebellion, and our own, was the corruption of God’s greatest endowment to us. God bestowed upon us our own wills. He has given us the ability to choose our own destinies. Of all God’s creation chosen to inhabit the earth, we are the only ones to whom God gave this greatest of gifts.
Regrettably, what we have done with this supreme gift was to spurn it—to despise it. We threw it in God’s face and told him that we did not need him. The rebellion was complete. The insurrection had far-reaching and eternal consequences. The upheaval was deep and absolute, and to undo all of it also involves very deep and eternal matters.
The Requirement to Become One with Us
To begin with, God had to intervene with earthly matters. It is true that this rebellion began in the heavenlies with Satan and the fallen angels, who then became the demons of the devil. For those evil angels, God offers no salvation. But by the abundant grace of God, he has offered to rescue and forgive us of the earth for this rebellion. He has offered to redeem us. He has offered us atonement.
What does this atonement involve? The writer of Hebrews tells us it required God to be born as a man. We are of flesh and blood, he writes, so God also had to “share” in our humanity.
The writer continues, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17 ESV).
There’s that word again—propitiation. It is the legal payment that is necessary to redeem the one who rebelled. It was required that Jesus be born as a man child—not to a wealthy ruling class, but among the lowest of society. He identified with the lowest of us.
He identified with us not only in his flesh and his blood, but perhaps more importantly, he identified with us in the test of his will. After a forty day fast in the wilderness and experiencing every form of weakness in the flesh of man, Satan came to him with every form of temptation.
As we read the account of the temptations in Matthew chapter four, it is important to notice that it was the “Spirit” who led Jesus into the wilderness to undergo this test of his will. It was a necessary step for the redemption of our souls. Jesus was tempted to extremes of which none of us would ever endure.
This also was done for our benefit. The writer of Hebrews continues: “Because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18 BSB).
The result of this act of Jesus was that, as the writer says, Jesus might “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15).
The Fear of Death
The fear of death does not only mean to be afraid of the act of dying on a hospital bed or is some other manner. Being “afraid to die” is not the same as being “afraid of death.” The fear of dying is being afraid of the moment that you will die, but the fear of death has wider implications. The fear of death is the idea that our lives consist only of these few years that we have on this earth. This fear causes us to live in a manner where we believe that after death comes to our bodies, there is nothing more. As we live our lives with this fear of what is to come, we think that anything that we could hope to gain in life must be gained now, in this present existence. The fear of death is a slavery to the “now.”
But what Jesus did was give freedom to those who are held in that slavery. What Jesus offers is freedom from the fear of death. He instead has given us hope. He has shown us that our meagre existence of these few years on earth are not the end. Indeed, our few decades of life on this earth are an infinitesimal small part of lives.
Are you still in this slavery? When you take an honest look at your life, are you afraid of death? Many say that they are not, but they live in a manner that shows plainly that they are. They have a “bucket list”—a list of things that they want to do before they die. Entertainment is their goal. They try to pack as much fun stuff in before they die.
But Jesus tells us that our bucket list should not be in this life, but in eternity.
“Seek first the kingdom of God,” he tells us, “And all these other things will be added for you.”
Compared with what God has in mind for his people in eternity, the “fun” of this present life is meaningless and mindless diversion.
You can choose not to live in slavery and the fear of death. Jesus went to great lengths to rescue you, but you must choose to allow him to untie the cords that bind you and to be released.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”