The Atonement that had been in God’s plan since eternity and foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament found its fulfillment in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the climax of God’s redemptive plan for man.

It’s a significant fact that the Gospel writers spend considerable time going into the details of Christ’s suffering and death, while spending virtually no time on the first 30 years of His life. Time and again they write of the Passion in the context of numerous Old Testament prophecies, showing that they considered the event of primary importance.

1. Atonement: Fact

The death of Jesus was no accident. He was not murdered. His life and ministry were not “cut short.” The truth is, the suffering and death of Jesus were not unfortunate surprises; Jesus was not “caught off guard.” He knew from the very beginning that His suffering and death were all part His destiny. He knew that He “must suffer.”

And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Luke 9:22 NIV84)

Jesus knew He was no mere victim of blind fate. Without a doubt Jesus knew that He was the linchpin of God’s plan for the redemption of mankind.

At His baptism, Jesus and many others heard the stirring words: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22 NIV84). These words were stirring because with one sentence, Jesus’ Sonship and His deity were confirmed in public. They were also the fulfillment of two prophecies:

I will proclaim the decree of the Lord:He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. (Psalms 2:7 NIV84)

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1 NIV84)

The Servant mentioned in Isaiah 42 is the same Servant spoken of in Isaiah 53. In the latter chapter, He is the “Suffering Servant.” So even at His baptism, Jesus would have been aware of His identity (the Son of God and the Messiah), His mission, and His destiny (suffering and death). The baptism of Jesus could be regarded THE turning point in human history because at that moment, the sinless Son of God completely identified Himself with the sinful people He came to save. His work of Atonement began the moment He came up out of the waters of baptism.

Many times during His earthly ministry, Jesus talked to His disciples about His mission and His sufferings:

“…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28 NIV84)

During the Last Supper, our Lord left His disciples with instructions on how to commemorate His atoning Work. The Communion Service Christians celebrate is not dissimilar to Passover, which the Jews celebrate.

The disciples, however, were unable to grasp the necessity and the scope of Jesus’ mission and words. It wasn’t until after the Resurrection and the Ascension that the divine light dawned on them.

2. Atonement: Necessity

Why did Jesus do what He did? Couldn’t God have found a less severe way to save mankind? The need for atonement is based upon two undeniable facts: God is holy and man is not. The result of these facts is that the two parties, God and man, cannot in any way co-exist in the same time and space.

God is absolutely holy in every way, from His character to His conduct. God as the great Creator of all, fashioned man and his world according to a set of very definite laws. We may think of the “law of gravity,” for example, but it goes even deeper than that. Consider Romans 2:14, 15–

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. (Romans 2:14-15 NIV84)

When God made man, He placed His set of laws into man’s innermost being. Whether man is aware of this or not or whether man acknowledges it or not, it is a fact. Because of this fact, all men are responsible for how they live their lives; they are responsible to the One who placed His laws in him.

For in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:28 NIV84)

Sin has made it impossible for man to live by God’s laws imprinted on his heart. Sin has completely ruined the kind of relationship God wanted to have with His creation. Because God is holy, unrepentant human beings cannot be in His presence. Therefore, when unrepentant man dies, he is not allowed to be in God’s presence. He is, in fact, cast out of God’s presence forever.

God is not unfair in dealing with man this way. God is sovereign; He is the Creator. But beyond that, God has, through the ministry of His prophets and in His Word, made it clear that one who is righteous (like God) is unable to have fellowship with one who is unrighteous.

Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so? (Amos 3:3 NIV84)

All sin is an act of rebellion against God; it is violence against the law of God under which man is to live. Sin separates man from God:

But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. (Isaiah 59:2 NIV84)

Because unconverted man is a lawbreaker and that sin is, at its core, a frontal attack on God’s honor and holiness, there is no possibility for that man to have any kind of fellowship with His Creator. However, God still wants to have fellowship with him, therefore atonement must be made; that sinner must be made right.

If the New Testament teaches anything it’s that atonement is possible and necessary. It is possible, not because man is able to do it for himself but because God, in grace and mercy, makes it possible on his behalf. Man cannot atone for himself, so Jesus did it for him at Calvary. On the Cross, sins are atoned for, God’s honor restored, and His law satisfied.

3. Atonement: Nature

When we say, “Christ died for our sins,” we are talking about the essence of “atonement.” The very word means, “to cover.” What is covered? In the atonement of Christ, both the sins and the sinner are covered. When sin is covered, God no longer sees it and it is no longer a cause of His wrath.

Yet he was merciful;he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. (Psalms 78:38 NIV84)

In this way the priest will make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:20 NIV84)

In reference to Leviticus 4:20, when the sacrificial blood was applied to the altar by the priest, the offerer was assured of the promises made to his forefathers:

The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. (Exodus 12:13 NIV84)

According to numerous verses throughout the Old Testament, the effects of the sacrifice of atonement – the covering of sin – included the following:

Jeremiah 18:23; Isaiah 43:25; 44:22 – the sin was blotted out.
Isaiah 6:7 – the sin was removed.
Psalm 32:1 – the sin was cast into the depths of the sea.
Isaiah 38:17 – the sin was cast behind God’s back
Psalm 78:38 – the sin was pardoned.

All these components taken as a whole teach that the Old Testament atonement, which itself foreshadowed Christ’s ultimate Atonement, covered up a sinner’s sins, nullified their effects on both the sinner and on God, and made the sinner as if he had never sinned.

Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross has the same effects on all sinful men who by faith appropriate its effects. But in addition to “atonement,” there is an other part to Christ’s work on the Cross: propitiation.

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… (Romans 3:25 NIV84)

The phrase “sacrifice of atonement” is translated “propitiation” in other translations and carries with it the idea of “being brought near” to God. So then, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross not only has the effect of covering up and removing the sin from the sinner, it brings man closer to God. How is this possible? It’s because Christ’s sacrifice, His propitiation, takes away that which causes God’s wrath: our sin. Access to God, the greatest of all privileges afforded mortal man, was bought at a great price: the precious Blood of Christ. And this was foreshadowed in the Old Testament. James Denney sums it up:

Just as in the ancient Tabernacle, every object used in worship had to be sprinkled with the atoning blood, so all parts of Christian worship, all our approaches to God, should consciously rest upon the atonement. They should be felt to be a privilege beyond price; they should be penetrated with the sense of Christ’s passion, and of the love with which He loved us when He suffered for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.

The work of Christ was atoning. It was a propitiation. It was also substitutionary. The animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were substitutionary; they did on the altar what the Israelite could not do for himself. The altar represented God; the priest represented the sinner; the sacrifice was the Israelite’s substitute, which God accepted on his behalf.

Can you see how what Christ did was so similar? Christ did on His Cross what we could never do for ourselves. Christ, in His work, was both the Priest and the Sacrifice. When He offered Himself on the altar of His Cross and shed His precious blood, He bore our sins, literally not figuratively, lifting them off us and carrying them away from us. Jesus came between God and man, stood, as it were, in front of God’s wrath, absorbing it all so none of it could ever touch us. Never could there have ever been a more perfect sacrifice.

4. Atonement: Results

There are two big results of Christ’s Atonement. First, redemption. This comes from the idea of “buying something by paying a price.” Consider:

…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28 NIV84)

Our redemption was costly, it cost the Son of God His very life’s Blood. Many Christians take their redemption for granted, something that caused Paul to write this to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20 TNIV)

Jesus taught something very profound when He said this:

What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26 NIV84)

Our Lord taught that the soul – the essence of a person – could be lost and that there was no way it could ever be bought back. The Psalmist supports this teaching:

No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a sufficient ransom – the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough… (Psalm 49:7, 8 TNIV)

Every human being living without Christ is literally “owned” by sin; they have forfeited their very souls. They are eternally lost. These lost souls are what the Son of God came to save.

…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28 TNIV)

This was why Jesus came into the world: to lay His down His life as a ransom payment so that those who had forfeited their lives may get them back again.

The second great result of the Atonement is our reconciliation.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18, 19 TNIV)

Sinful man is God’s enemy. Through the Atonement, we who were at war with God have been brought into a peaceful relationship with Him. The Atonement is like a great, eternal peace treaty between God and man.

It should be stressed that God’s anger was not such that He stood far off from the sinner waiting to have that anger assuaged. It wasn’t God that was reconciled to the sinner; the sinner was reconciled to God. God was the offended One, not man. God was the One who made the very first overture when Adam and Eve sinned: He clothed them; He reached out to them. God continues to reach out to sinful man today. God is the author of our atonement, our redemption, and our reconciliation.

Say to them, `As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, house of Israel?’ (Ezekiel 33:11 TNIV)

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