The Atonement Issue
We still have one more issue. The dynamic between God and humanity is still unresolved.
God initiates the relationship by calling to Moses/Israel/humanity (Vayikra, "And He called"). He miniaturizes and adapts His glory to live in a tent so that He is somewhat approachable and can dwell on earth with people (the glory issue). This dwellingplace must be a meticulously holy space because He is holy (the holy space issue). Yet there remains one last unresolved problem: the sinfulness of the actual people. God can be the initiator, sure, God's glory can be calibrated down to fit humanity, sure, the space around Him can be made holy, sure, but for actual people to enter His space and remain in His space they have to be made holy too. So God lays out to Moses a system of atonement, a way to temporarily solve the problem of sin, a way to make people compatible with God so they can be in some form of a relationship with Him.
To understand the Levitical atonement system, and the key Levitical phrase "a soothing aroma", you will need to understand Psalm 7:11 and God's disposition and feeling against the unatoned for.
Psalm 7:11, God is Angry with the Wicked Every Day?
Psalm 7:11 (NKJV): God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day.
Pretty scary scripture. It reveals God's disposition and feeling towards individuals that are unatoned for. This verse helps us understand why the Old Testament sacrifices were "a soothing aroma" to God. This phrase is massively important. You have to understand it to understand atonement fully, especially from God's side of the equation. The phrase "a soothing aroma" is used thirty-nine times in the Torah: Genesis (1), Exodus (3), Leviticus (17), Numbers (18). It is used four more times in Ezekiel, for a grand total of forty-three times.
A Soothing Aroma
The crucial Hebrew word in the phrase "a soothing aroma" is nichowach, which literally means "soothing, quieting, tranquilizing". It is derived from the root verb nuah, which means "to rest or cause to rest, settle down, make quiet". Nuah is used in the sense of resting physically on the Sabbath (Ex 23:12) or the whole world made restful and quiet after the Antichrist is dealt with (Isa 14:7).
This literal definition of nichowach/nuah is important theologically. In some English Bibles nichowach is translated "sweet", resulting in the phrase "a sweet aroma" instead of "a soothing aroma". Do you see the theological difference between a sweet aroma and a soothing aroma? The literal translation, a soothing aroma, is the correct translation because it pairs with Psalm 7:11 and reveals an important truth. That truth is, God is perpetually angry with the wicked (anyone unatoned for), but when the Old Testament sacrifices were offered to Him that anger was temporarily soothed, quieted, made to rest. The sacrifices soothed God's wrath every time they were offered, but only temporarily until Jesus could come and sacrifice Himself once and for all.
Old Testament Atonement: Temporary, Representational, Blood-Centered, & Mediatorial
Four words summarize Old Testament atonement: (1) temporary, (2) representational, (3) blood-centered, and (4) mediatorial. That is a mouthful, so I will be concise and simple.
The Old Testament sacrifices could only atone for sin temporarily. The precise theological language is that they merely covered sin temporarily, but did not and could not remove sin permanently. Think of covering a carpet stain with a piece of furniture instead of deep cleaning that stain and removing it entirely.
The Old Testament Hebrew word used to convey the idea of atonement is kaphar, which means "to cover or cover over". It is first used in regards to Noah's ark in Genesis 6:14 (NASB, underline mine): Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch. The next time kaphar is used is metaphorical, when Jacob tried to "appease" or "pacify" or "kaphar" Esau with gifts (Gen 32:20). Jacob was trying, literally, to "cover" or "coat with pitch" Esau's anger.
These two verses in Genesis help us understand kaphar when it is used regarding the Levitical system. The sacrifices temporarily covered sin, metaphorically coating it with pitch, so to speak. Furthermore, they temporarily covered, appeased, and pacified God's anger; it got a nice coating too. Both the sin and God's Psalm 7:11 anger were temporarily covered or coated.
An important New Testament scripture that summarizes the aforementioned concepts--temporary atonement in light of Jesus' permanent atonement--is Hebrews 10:1-4,11-14. We will get into that in the section below, Covering Sin vs Removing Sin.
The Old Testament sacrifices were representational, meaning, the animal was sacrificed in the place of the person seeking atonement. The animal represented the person. The Lord Jesus, the perfect and permanent sacrifice, did the same. He represented humanity through His atoning sacrifice.
The only atoning sacrifice God will accept is one that contains blood. Even non-animal offerings had a touch of blood because they touched the blood already on the bronze altar from previous animal sacrifices. Therefore they, too, went up to God with blood. Two scriptures articulate that only blood can atone for sin. Leviticus 17:11 (NKJV): For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.
Hebrews 9:18-22 is a bit longer, but it is an impeccable summary of blood atonement. I urge you to read it. The final verse is the theological bottom line (v22 YLT): And with blood almost all things are purified according to the law, and apart from blood-shedding forgiveness doth not come.
The Old Testament sacrifices were mediatorial, meaning, God used a go-between or middleman to administer the atonement mechanism. This was the high priest, who at the time of Leviticus, was Aaron. Leviticus 8-10 describes this position.
The first time the word "messiah" (Hebrew mashiyach) is used in Scripture is in reference to the high priest here in Leviticus (Lev 4:3,5,16). This tells us that the most foundational sense of the word "messiah" is one who mediates atonement between God and humanity. Psalm 2:2 and Daniel 9:25,26 are when mashiyach is used to refer to Jesus, the perfect and permanent Mediator High Priest.
What does this tell us, especially regarding mashiyach's first use in Leviticus in reference to the high priest? That Jesus is first and foremost our Mediator High Priest--before He is our Lord, King, Healer, Provider, or any other special role. He is the one who mediates between humanity and God, making an eternal relationship with Him possible. 1Timothy 2:5 (NASB): For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. Hebrews 4:14 (NASB): Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God...
The Old Testament sacrifices, from the very first animal sacrifice to the perfect Lamb of God, were mediatorial. There was a human go-between or middleman or mediator to administer the atonement mechanism.
Covering Sin vs Removing Sin
As I explained above, the Old Testament sacrifices could only atone for sin temporarily. They merely covered sin temporarily, but did not and could not remove sin permanently. Think of covering a carpet stain with a piece of furniture instead of deep cleaning that stain and removing it entirely. The Old Testament Hebrew word used to convey the idea of temporary atonement is kaphar, which means "to cover or cover over".
Removing, Taking Away Sin
Something extraordinary happened, however, because of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ: a person's sin could be removed permanently, not merely covered or coated temporarily. I will let the explanation in Hebrews speak for itself. As you read look for the two concepts: covering sin temporarily versus removing or "taking away" sin permanently. Hebrews 10:1-4,11-14 (ESV):
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. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins...And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God...For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
The Future Removing of Israel's Sin
Sadly, most of Israel rejected the First Coming and the initial New Covenant offer, leaving them in their sins (Jn 8:24). Several prophecies, however, tell us a future day is coming when Israel will recognize Jesus as her Messiah, and therefore, enter the New Covenant reality and the removal of their sin (as opposed to simply covering it). That future day is at the Second Coming and right before the Millennium.
Zechariah 12:10-14 & Ezekiel 36:26,27, 11:19
Zechariah 12:10-14 describes this day of nationwide repentance and conversion. Regarding that day, God says (v10 NKJV), "And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn."
This event will be their Acts 2 Pentecost moment, so to speak, their born-again experience, their New Covenant entry, when their sin is removed, when their spirit is instantly born-again, made new, perfected (Heb 10:14, Jn 3:6). God foretold this event to Israel in Ezekiel 36:26,27 (NIV, underline mine): I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you... And 11:19 as well: I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.
Other prophecies add texture to this event with additional details.
Isaiah 1 is a searing rebuke of Jerusalem and Judah's sin. In verses 24-26, the message briefly flashforwards to the end of human history. God says at that time He will vent His wrath on His enemies (v24), the unsaved world and the armies of the Antichrist, but then He adds, "I will also turn My hand against you, and smelt away your impurities as with lye; and I will remove all your slag" (v25 NASB), referring to Israel. Notice God's vocabulary here: He promises to "smelt away" and "remove" their sin, not merely cover it, bringing them into the New Covenant system. The result of this atoning, born-again event for Israel is that Jerusalem "will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City" (v26 NIV), something Scripture says will only happen during the Millennium (Isa 2:3,4, 62:1-4, Zec 8:22,23, 14:16).
Isaiah repeats the same storyline in chapter 27. Verse 1 sets the context, telling us about a day when the Lord will punish Satan with His sword. Sword is a key word here. The description refers to the Second Coming, when Jesus returns and slaughters the Armageddon armies led by Antichrist, Satan's direct human vehicle at that time, with the sword of His mouth (Rev 19:15). At that time Satan is bound with a great chain and locked into the Abyss for the Millennium (20:1-3). This is the punishment Isaiah is referring to here; it establishes the timestamp of the entire prophecy.
Skip to verse 9 and see what else happens at the time of the Second Coming and Satan's millennial punishment: Israel's sin is removed. Verse 9 says (NKJV, underline mine): Therefore by this the iniquity of Jacob will be covered; and this is all the fruit of taking away his sin...
Notice the two words I underlined: covered and taking away. God says, at that time, Israel's sin will be both covered and taken away (removed). The Hebrew word for "covered" is kaphar, the word we analyzed previously. Remember, in the Old Testament, God was only covering Israel's sin, not taking it away or removing it. The second word I underlined, "taking away", is the Hebrew word sur, which means "to remove" when referring to something being taken away or detached completely. What God is saying here is, in that day, the time when Jesus punishes Satan/Antichrist with the sword of his mouth, He will both cover and remove Israel's sin. In the Old Testament era He covered their sin only, but at that time He will cover and remove it. This second and perfect atoning work, what we know as the born-again experience and the New Covenant, is what will be truly new to Israel (aside from the individual Jews who are being born-again now, during the church age).
Other verses in Isaiah 27 clarify and confirm the timing of Israel's sin-removal event is indeed the Second Coming and immediately afterwards. Verse 6 says (NIV), "In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit." That has never happened--not in Israel's distant past, recent past, or present. It will, however, happen after the Second Coming during the Millennium, several detailed prophecies tell us: Isaiah 2:3,4, 62:1-4, Zechariah 8:22,23, 14:16, Hosea 14:5-7, Ezekiel 36. Verses 9-11 (of Isaiah 27) say Israel's sin will be removed at the time the entire land is a crushed and devastated wasteland, the result of Antichrist's wars and destructiveness just before the Second Coming. Verse 13 nails it in the clearest language, telling us when all these things will happen: And in that day a great trumpet will sound. Those who were perishing in Assyria and those who were exiled in Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem. In other words, the Second Coming and afterwards.
With all these timestamp verses in Isaiah 27 we can rightly establish when verse 9 will happen, when Israel will have her sin sur or removed or taken away (not merely covered), when she will finally repent and mourn for the only Son she pierced, when she will have her born-again New Covenant entry experience, when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on her and in her.
Isaiah 59:20,21 & Romans 11:25-27
Isaiah continues the same storyline in chapter 59, with even more details. The entire chapter is about the profound sinfulness of Israel. (Paul borrows part of the chapter to make the same point about the whole world in Romans 3:17.) Verses 16 and 17 describe the First and Second Coming, verse 18 describes the wrath poured out at Armageddon, and verse 19 describes the Millennium. Thus, verses 16-19 give us the time frame of what is about to follow in verses 20 and 21.
In verse 20, the Lord declares (NKJV): The Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob...
Paul tells us this prophecy is eschatological. He loosely quotes Isaiah 59:20,21 and explains in Romans 11:25-27 (ESV):
...I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, "The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob"; "and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins."
Read Paul's words carefully. He is saying Isaiah 59:20,21 have not happened yet. The full number of Gentile converts has not come in yet, and "all Israel" has not been saved yet. His vocabulary is critical in the second part of this passage. He says the Deliverer "will banish ungodliness from Jacob" and God will enter a "covenant with them when I take away their sins". That covenant is the New Covenant, where sin is not merely covered but banished and taken away, thereby creating a new and perfect born-again spirit where the Holy Spirit can dwell literally.
All these scriptures are telling the exact same story--Zechariah 12:10-14, Ezekiel 36:26,27, 11:19, Isaiah 1:24-26, 27:9, and now here in Isaiah 59:20,21 paired with Romans 11:25-27. That story is, Jesus will return a second time to execute wrath, at which time Israel will repent and embrace her Messiah, have her New Covenant entry experience, have her sins taken away and removed, given a new and perfect born-again spirit, given the indwelling Holy Spirit, and a Millennium inaugurated.
In a remarkable experience between Joshua and an angel, Zechariah writes that Joshua's filthy garments were taken off and replaced by rich garments, illustrating the full removal of his sin. Zechariah 3:4 (NKJV, underline mine): Then He answered and spoke to those who stood before Him, saying, "Take away the filthy garments from him." And to him He said, "See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes."
Remember the Hebrew word sur from the Isaiah 27:9 subsection above? It means "to take away, remove" when referring to something being taken away or detached completely. Sur is used again here to describe the removing of Joshua's sin, not merely the covering of it. But this experience with Joshua was still in the Old Testament era, so why is God removing Joshua's sin at that time, instead of simply covering it? It was a real-life prophecy of what was to come in the New Covenant.
Just when we think this experience was about Joshua, the Lord says in verse 8 (NIV, underline mine): "Listen, High Priest Joshua, you and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch."
The Lord Himself says this old garment/new garment experience for Joshua was "symbolic of things to come". In the next phrase He says, "I am going to bring my servant, the Branch"--Jesus the Messiah. Put it all together: the Branch or Messiah is coming and will bring with Him the full removal (sur) of sin, not merely the covering of it. In that day, whosoever will can have an old garment/new garment change in their very being like Joshua.
This prophecy is referring to the First Coming, hence Jesus' parable about sewing a new patch on an old garment. Jesus was expanding on the illustration from Zechariah 3. However, only a few in Israel accepted the First Coming, so Zechariah's prophecy leaps ahead to the Second Coming when Israel as a whole will accept her Messiah and her sin will be removed, literally in one day, on that day. God says in verse 9 (NKJV): ...And I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day. As all the above passages keep telling us, especially Zechariah 12:10-14, that day will be when Jesus returns and Israel grieves and repents for the Son she pierced. In one day, on that specific day, the sin of the land of Israel will be removed.
To make sure we are concrete certain that Israel's sin will be removed, not merely covered, on that special day, the Holy Spirit uses three different Hebrew words in Zechariah 3 to articulate that removing. Three! Those words are sur, abar, and mus.
We have already looked at the word sur (used in verse 4, "...Remove the filthy garments from him..." NASB). It can be used in a variety of senses, but it means "to remove" when referring to something being taken away or detached. The second word is abar (also used in verse 4, "...See, I have taken away your sin..." NIV). It means "to pass on, pass away, take away". The third word is mus (used in verse 9, "...I will remove the sin of this land in a single day." NIV). It means "to remove, depart".
Zechariah 3 is an extraordinary prophecy about First and Second Coming happenings, but more specifically, about how God will finally remove and take away the sin of Israel, not simply cover it. It will be like a dramatic and total change of garments in their spirit, illustrated by Joshua's experience with the angel.
Clarifying Unclear or Dilemma Scriptures
Some Old Testament passages can seem to suggest that the removing of sin, in the New Covenant sense, happened in the Old Testament. These verses can be clarified with a bit of hermeneutics. Some are simply inaccurate or imprecise translations of the original language.
In Numbers 19:9, the NASB renders the last phrase like this: ...water to remove impurity; it is purification from sin. On the surface this seems to suggest the removing of sin in the New Covenant sense. However, the Hebrew of "water to remove impurity" is mayim nida, precisely translated "water of impurity". In other words, the water's purpose was to cleanse impurity in the Old Covenant sense. The NASB adds a footnote to clarify this, telling us the literal translation mayim nida is "water of impurity". Thus, the imprecise translation "water to remove impurity" can be misleading theologically.
In Deuteronomy 21:9, Israel is commanded to "remove the guilt for innocent blood from your midst" (NASB). If you read the full context (v1-9), you will see this verse is not referring to the removing of individual sin from an individual's spirit in the New Covenant sense, it is referring to removing the guilty status hanging over the nation because of an unsolved homicide. (In verse 8, kaphar or "to cover" the sin is used.)
In Deuteronomy 21:21, Israel is commanded to stone an inveterate son "so you shall put away the evil from among you" (NKJV). This verse is not referring to the removing of individual sin from an individual's spirit in the New Covenant sense, it is referring to removing an evil family and social influence through the death penalty.
In Job 22:23 (NIV) we read, ...if you remove wickedness far from your tent. The key word here is "tent", the Hebrew word ohel, the normal Hebrew word for "tent, tabernacle, dwellingplace, home". This verse, therefore, is not referring to the removing of individual sin from an individual's spirit in the New Covenant sense, it is referring to removing practical sin from one's family environment. It is actually a verse for fathers to lead the purification and godly culture-setting in the home.
In Psalm 103:12, David makes a famous statement that sounds like God was removing the sin of individuals, not merely covering it, in the Old Testament. David writes (NKJV), As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. So, did God remove sin, not merely cover it, during the Old Testament period? A bit more information will clarify what David was and was not saying.
In verse 9, David shifts the context to a future day (NIV): He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever. The Old Covenant was a system of God's holy and just accusations against Israel/humanity through the Law. Many scriptures say this, here are some clear and easy ones. Romans 2:15 (NIV): They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. And Romans 3:20 (NIV): ...through the law we become conscious of our sin. And Romans 4:15 (NASB): ...for the Law brings about wrath. This is why Paul called the Old Covenant a "ministry of condemnation" in 2Corinthians 3:9 (NKJV): For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory.
Now read Psalm 103:9 in the light of these verses. When David said a day was coming when God would no longer accuse and harbor anger at unatoned for sin, he was referring to the New Covenant age. Those who enter the New Covenant have their sins removed from them as far as the east is from the west; they are relieved from the accusation and wrath of the Law. In other words, Psalm 103:9-12 is David prophesying of a future time, he is not referring to his day, the Old Testament era.
One might ask the question, "Then why is David speaking in the past tense, if he is prophesying of the future New Covenant?" This is where hermeneutics becomes fun and fascinating.
Romans 4:17 says God "calls those things which do not exist as though they did" (NKJV). When God foretells something that is unconditionally predetermined (it will happen no matter what), sometimes He speaks it in present tense language or past tense language because it is so irrevocably, absolutely certain. The medieval Hebrew grammarians called this the "prophetic perfect tense". Hebrew maven Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius (1786-1842) described this creative way of revelating: "...serves to express actions, events, or states, which the speaker wishes to represent from the point of view of completion, whether they belong to a determinate past time, or extend into the present, or while still future, are pictured as in their completed state."
David, in prophesying by the Spirit of the Lord about the future New Covenant day, spoke in the so-called prophetic perfect tense. He spoke of that thing which did not exist in his day as though it did. It was that irrevocably, absolutely certain that one day God's Law-driven accusations and anger would be subsumed by a new covenantal reality in which sin is removed as far as the east is from the west, not merely covered.
In Proverbs 20:30, Solomon writes (NASB), Bruising wounds clean away evil, and blows cleanse the innermost parts. This is an interesting proverb because it certainly describes the removing of sin on some level, but what level might that be? The second phrase says suffering and painful consequences "cleanse the innermost parts".
Solomon is not referring to the cleansing of sin in the spirit of Old Testament individuals (i.e., the born-again experience), he is referring to the soul (heart, mind, and will) and practical transformation of it. This level of cleansing, transformation, and "removing sin" absolutely happened in the Old Testament, but at the soulical/psychological level. Jesus, at His first coming, introduced the removing of sin at the spirit level--removing it entirely, perfecting it, causing a new spirit to be birthed (the born-again experience). See John 3:6 and Hebrews 10:14. Like Old Testament individuals, however, we still need to proactively cooperate with the transformation of our soul (heart, mind, and will). Solomon, therefore, is not referring to the cleansing of sin from the spirits of the Old Testament believers, but to their souls, their heart, mind, and will. And how right he is that suffering and painful consequences have a unique ability to cleanse wrong emotions deep down, cleanse wrong thought structures rising from them, and adjust our will.
Other Old Testament scriptures also discuss cleansing sin at the soulical level. Proverbs 22:15 (NASB) says, Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him. This proverb is conceptually identical to 20:30. Here Solomon says "the rod of discipline" (painful consequences) will remove foolishness far from the heart of a child. Same idea as 20:30. Proverbs 27:22 (NIV) says, Though you grind a fool in a mortar, grinding them like grain with a pestle, you will not remove their folly from them. Here Solomon refers to a fool who resists and resists and resists the psychology-transforming power of suffering and grinding consequences: their folly does not get removed from their soul, but stays there and generally gets worse. Same idea as 20:30, but highlights a person's freewill ability to resist and reject soulical transformation. In Ezekiel 24:11-13, God uses a dramatic illustration--a cooking pot with hard-to-remove scum in the base--to describe these types of transformation-resisting individuals in Jerusalem.
What we learn here from Proverbs 20:30, 22:15, 27:22, and many other Old Testament scriptures is that soulical or psychological transformation was possible and commanded in that era. Sin could be cleansed or removed at the soul level, which means the heart (emotions), mind (intellect), and will (inner resolutions to action). However, the distinction between soul and spirit is crucial here. Our Old Testament counterparts were not experiencing the removal of sin from their spirit and the instantaneous perfecting of it, resulting in the John 3:6 and Hebrews 10:14 born-again experience. The cleansing was happening at the soul level, identically to us today who are cooperating with God for the deep and full cleansing of our souls too.
In Isaiah 1:16, the Lord says (NASB), Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Stop doing evil. Similar to the aforementioned proverbs, soulical and behavioral transformation is in view here. God specifies that it is "the evil of your deeds" (behavior) that He wants removed, cleaned, and washed. He is not referring to the removing of individual sin from an individual's spirit in the New Covenant sense, He is referring to removing behavioral sin, which has its motivations in a person's soul or psychology.