Pronouns communicate a good deal, pay attention to them, especially when reading the Bible. Culture and context are also vitally significant. Another often disregarded principle in theological interpretation is that God operates most often through mediatorial means.
For instance, in Colossians 1:13-14 Paul, speaking of the God of Israel, the One true and only God, writes:
For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
I have heard this passage used in an attempt to prove that Jesus’ death on the cross was for the atonement of sin. However, the exegesis here is not based on the text itself, but rather on theological assumptions of what atonement is. Paul – in this text – is pointing out that it is God, Yahweh, the Father, the one and only true God who is the deliverer and the one responsible for making us citizens of the kingdom. Paul says that God is he who rescued and he who transferred us into the kingdom of his son, who is Jesus.
Another relevant part of this passage is that the kingdom is said to be the “kingdom of his son.” Paul believes that Yahweh is the initiator, not his son. But Paul informs us that it is through the son that Yahweh is doing this work of redemption. This had happened before, Moses was seen as the hand, arm and mediator of Yahweh, the one used to deliver his people. The Torah tells us that not only were they Yahweh’s people, but they were also Moses’ people. Interestingly, we find Paul equating redemption with forgiveness of sins. Not only Paul, but the Matthean writer seems to allude to this as well:
“you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Atonement is a broad and somewhat elusive subject, but does Paul here mean that Jesus died in order to redeem us, for atonement? These verses speak nothing of atonement. Paul is saying here that there were events put in motion by Yahweh, and it is his son who carried them out. Paul does not here connect those events to the cross. The background to Paul’s claim is raising awareness pertaining to the kingdom. Was forgiveness available only after the crucifixion? How was it that Jesus was extending forgiveness before his death, or was that forgiveness still covered by the Levitical sacrificial system?
The writer of Hebrews has much to say on this topic of atonement. Unfortunately, most atonement theories have kept their distance from discussing covenants at all. I believe this is a disastrous error, which has propounded distorted perspectives ultimately culminating into theories regarding the nature of God and even Christology. Yahweh’s promise to forgive is embedded in what covenant represents, and covenant by nature is related to blood, and these are subjects deeply rooted in OT theology and phraseology. The often times metaphorical and midrashic language exhibited by NT writers will not be understood properly without the OT theological framework with which they constructed their arguments in an attempt to show Jesus as the promised Messiah, the bearer of the new and better covenant spoken of by Jeremiah and thus the deliverer commissioned by God to “save” his people once again.
Blood, covenant and sacrifice has everything to do with atonement. Frankly, I can’t see how an atonement investigation can be properly addressed without the context in which the Hebraic idea of sacrifice, blood, covenants and at-one-ment existed.
Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.
Jesus in the NT is often depicted as being the prophet like Moses and the representative of a greater covenant. Therefore, it should be no surprise to see passages resembling this idea. The Synoptic gospels and Paul in 1 Cor. - with Jesus own words- connect the Jeremiah 31 new covenant with Jesus’ blood. The book of Peter picks up this imagery and applies it to what was done with Jesus’ blood:
to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood
1 Pe. 1:2
The writer of Hebrews with an intricate knowledge of the inner workings of the Levitical system connects the blood to a better covenant (cf. Heb. 9:18-20):
and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.
In Hebrews 9, the writer directly ties Jesus’ metaphorical entrance into the Holy of Holies as a high priest with his own blood for redemption to the new covenant, while at the same time seeing a disconnect between Jesus’ first coming that dealt with sin and his second which is for salvation:
so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him
Every covenant was ratified with blood. My own atonement inquiry has pointed me in the Hebraic direction. I can’t accept the notion that the thoroughly Jewish NT writers deviated from the foundation of the God given and ordained system. They are however redefining it with Jesus’ work taking center stage. This is a misconception that has caused great confusion. The OT Levitical system was still rooted in God’s forgiveness, not a legalistic, works oriented religion as so many believe today (in contrast to a New Covenant that is grace instead). They were still at the mercy of their God to blot out transgression. God covenants with his people and forgives. This imagery is replete throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament. The sacrificial system was to be a reminder of the forgiveness God had promised within that covenant. This goes all the way back to the covenant with Abraham.
In much later, post apostolic and developed orthodoxy (finalized at Chalcedon), the hypostatic-union (dyophysitism) declared that Jesus was fully God and fully man. While the proto-orthodox wrestled with this, they were all over the board in their theories (e.g. Tertullian and Novatian). Some said God was murdered or crucified, other declared that the God nature died and still others that only the human nature. Tying it to atonement, and although completely absent from NT theology is the almost universal opinion of modern proponents of orthodoxy that “only God dying could atone for sin.” The thought is that only a being of infinite value could pay an infinite price. Yet, out of the other side of the mouth, orthodoxy holds that the “Word” - incarnate in the man Jesus - lived on, meaning that only the flesh and blood, human nature died. How then, can it be in the truest sense “God dying”? Was he one hundred percent man in his human nature or not? Are we to make sense of this, or is this another inexpressible paradox that must be accepted on faith?
Perhaps we have been asking the wrong questions. What if we have been trying to filter later metaphysical speculation into theories of atonement and forgiveness? This conundrum carries with it a great deal of theological significance. Most of Christianity believes that atonement took place in connection to the cross, end of story. While I am not minimizing the importance of the cross, nor of the blood it signifies, what if there was something more powerful at work?
We cannot disregard or twist what Jesus and the apostles (and the author of Hebrews) said in favor of traditional atonement theories. There have been attempts to push the crucifixion into any text where Paul and other writers speak of salvation, redemption or atonement. This can also cause alterations as to what Paul wrote concerning Yahweh, his God who brings about redemption through the actions of his son.
The first century Jews would not have had these difficulties because atonement always involved Yahweh and his interaction with the High priest and accompanying sacrifice. From a Hebraic point of view, Jesus did not replace the objective, which was iniquity being removed resulting in restoration and rightness with God, he rather has become the ultimate means through whom God is doing this. The covenant is God’s, not Jesus’.
Jesus is the way by which God is covenanting with his people. The prophecies of Isaiah regarding this eschatological servant - interpreted later by NT writers to be Jesus (e.g. Matt 12) - stated:
I am the LORD [Yahweh], I have called you [servant] in righteousness, I [Yahweh] will also hold you [servant] by the hand and watch over you [servant], and I [Yahweh] will appoint you [servant] as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations
Thus says the LORD [Yahweh], "In a favorable time I [Yahweh] have answered You [servant], And in a day of salvation I [Yahweh] have helped You [servant]; And I [Yahweh] will keep You [servant] and give You [servant] for a covenant of the people, To restore the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages