Atonement in Symbols: Part 2

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Seventh-day Adventists tend to think of the biblical sanctuary/temple primarily as a place for dealing with sin and atonement. But its primary function was to make God's presence accessible within human space and time (Exod. 25:8; compare Heb. 4:14–16), given the constraint that his presence was like a nuclear force that would consume faulty people unless they were shielded (Exod. 33:20). The sanctuary was the earthly palace of the divine King with a throne room (holy of holies) and living room (outer apartment). There the Israelites could interact with him in all kinds of ways.

One of the main ways the Israelites interacted with God was through sacrificial worship. Sacrifices were extensions of the concept of hospitality (Gen. 18:1& #150;). At the sanctuary, they provided God with regular service to maintain his presence there (Exod. 30:7–8; Num. 28:1–8) and remedied impediments to the divine-human covenant relationship that arose from human faultiness (Lev. 4–5, 12–16, and so forth).

There were two major kinds of human faultiness: (1) moral faults that violated God's laws and (2) physical ritual impurities that represented aspects of the birth to death cycle of mortality that results from sin (Rom. 6:23). The ritual system addressed sin as both action and state, prefiguring redemption from sin and provision of eternal life through the once-for-all, truly efficacious sacrifice of Christ (John 1:29; 3:16; compare Heb. 7–10).

Rituals to remedy faultiness teach us differences between God and fallen human beings. They also outline steps in the process of divine-human reconciliation, known as "atonement" (at-one-ment). People who sinned bore their own burden of culpability (Lev. 5:1). If a sinner repented and brought a sacrifice, the culpability was removed (vv. 5–6) so that God could forgive the person (compare v. 10; 4:26, 31). When a priest ate his portion of a purification offering (so-called "sin offering") on behalf of a layperson (a female animal for an ordinary layperson [Lev. 4:27–35], showing that a female can represent Christ), he bore the offerer's culpability (10:17). In this way, the priest participated with God, who bears the culpability of sinners when he forgives (Exod. 34:7—literally "bearing culpability and transgression and sin").

The sanctuary, representing God's administration (his "White House"), also bore the results of human faultiness. Purification offerings carried sins or impurities from those who offered them (Lev. 4:26 "expiation from (Hebrew preposition min) his sin"; 6:27–28; compare treatment of defilement in 11:32–35; Num. 31:23) and were put on God's altar, thereby affecting the whole sanctuary, of which the altar was a part. Consequently, the residue of accumulated evils had to be purged from the altar and the rest of the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:16, 18–19) so that God's presence would continue to abide among his people.

On the Day of Atonement, ritually purging the sanctuary with sacrifices, which foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ (so the typology of the Day of Atonement begins at the cross), accomplished a stage of atonement beyond forgiveness (Lev. 16—nothing about forgiveness here). This purging represented justification/vindication of God, represented by his sanctuary, for treating his nominal people justly when he forgave or condemned them according to their loyalty to him).1 All had sinned (Rom 3:23), but they were judged according to how they received the gift of reconciliation that he offered.

Notice the following points that help us gain a balanced understanding of how God saves people:

  1. As our Melchizedek High Priest, Christ bears our culpability or punishability. But unlike the Aaronic priests, he has borne it all the way to the punishment of death as the victim sacrificed on our behalf (Heb. 7–10). Christ's combination of the two roles of priest (bearing our sins) and victim (dying for those sins) proves that he died as our substitute.
  2. Reconciliation with God requires both objective (or "legal/forensic") and subjective (or experiential) components. Sinners must rely on what God does for them by providing a sacrifice and a priest, but they must also participate by accepting the provision that he has made.
  3. The Hebrew verb traditionally translated "make atonement" (Piel of kpr) refers to expiation as removal of an impediment to the divine-human relationship through sacrifice officiated by a priest, prerequisite to completion of the process of reconciliation (at-one-ment) by forgiveness directly from God (Lev. 4:26, 31, and so forth). So atonement is a process. Death of the sacrificial victim was only the beginning of the process and did not complete expiation, let alone reconciliation, by itself. So when Christ died, his once-for-all sacrificial death was finished to make provision for the salvation of all who would believe (John 19:30; Heb 9:28). But he needed to resurrect and serve as priest to mediate the expiatory benefits of his sacrifice so that individuals could be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20; Heb. 9:12–14; 1 John 1:9–2:2).
  4. When God extends mercy by forgiving guilty people, he is in danger of compromising justice because a judge is only supposed to condemn the guilty and vindicate the innocent (Deut. 25:1; 1 Kings 8:32). This was David's dilemma when the woman of Tekoa asked him to grant amnesty to her son, who had committed murder. David agreed because she said the culpability would be on her and her father's house, but the king and his throne would be "clean," that is, blameless (2 Sam. 14:9). So culpability in the sense of judicial responsibility for forgiving a guilty person can affect a royal judge and his administration, represented by the place of his enthronement. This explains how God's sanctuary, the place of his enthronement that represented his administration, could become metaphorically "defiled" so that it would need to be purged on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), meaning that it would be "justified" (Dan. 8:14).
  5. The Day of Atonement was Israel's judgment day, when the loyal were vindicated through vindication of the divine judge who had forgiven them, but the disloyal were condemned (Lev. 16:29–31; 23:29–30). Similarly in the antitype, God is justified (Dan. 8:14) at a time of judgment before Christ's second coming (7:9–14—equivalent within parallel structures of Dan. 7 and 8). It is true that Christ's sacrifice already makes it possible for God to be just when he justifies those who believe in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). But the remaining question in the pre-Advent judgment is: who believes? God knows, but the judgment is to inform his created beings, who cannot read thoughts. Therefore, God uses records of works (Dan. 7:10; Eccl. 12:14), which are the visible part of the faith experience (James 2:28; Gal. 5:6), as evidence of faith or its lack. In this way, he shows that he is fair and responsible by saving the right people, perfectly balancing justice and mercy (Ps. 85:10), the two sides of his character of love (1 John 4:8).

Notes and References

1. Roy E. Gane, Cult and Character: Purification Offerings, Day of Atonement, and Theodicy (Eisenbrauns, 2005).

Roy E. Gane is professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern languages, at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at