I have a dream. Not a compelling-vision-for-the-future sort of dream, but a sleeping-in-my-bed sort of dream. And I have this dream often.
In my dream, I am my current self (married with children), but I’m also a full-time college student. The semester is half-over, and I come to realize that I’ve forgotten a class. I’ve been faithfully attending most classes, but there’s one course I completely forgot. I never went to class. I haven’t taken any exams. I haven’t read the books or written the papers.
And I missed the deadline for dropping the class. So I’m now stuck with an abysmal grade.
But that’s not all. In my dream, when I discover the neglected class, I try to rectify the situation by attending the next scheduled class period. And when I arrive, something else comes to my attention.
I’m wearing nothing but my underwear.
We Need Covering
I cannot overstate the relief I feel when I wake from this dream. Few things are worse than an I’m-neglecting-significant-areas-of-responsibility dream. One such thing is an I’m-utterly-exposed-and-can-do-nothing-about-it dream.
When Adam and his wife ate the forbidden fruit, they knew their guilt and felt exposed. Their gut instinct was to cover up. So they tried fig-leaf briefs, and they ran and hid (Gen 3:7-9).
The Lord exposed them further so he could help. He coaxed them out from hiding and talked through the problem. He promised to deliver them. Then he covered them. He took their pitiful fruits of the loom and replaced them with his own fur and leather body suits (Gen 3:21). He uncovered their coverings that couldn’t cover and covered them instead with coverings that truly covered.
And so began humanity’s need for divine covering. Because of sin, exposure brings shame. But the Bible paints picture after picture of God’s merciful act of covering.
- Noah’s sons cover the shame of their senseless father (Gen 9:23).
- God allows Moses to see his glory, but only after covering him with a protective hand (Ex 33:20-23).
- David didn’t cover his own sin (Ps 32:5) but trusted God to cover it for him (Ps 5:12, 27:5, 32:1).
- One mark of a loving friend is the covering of offenses (Prov 10:12, 17:9).
- Those who reject Christ will feel so exposed that they’ll seek any covering they can find (Luke 23:30, Rev 6:16).
- True believers are clothed with Christ (Gal 3:27).
The primary Old Testament word for this covering is “atonement.” Can you explain atonement in plain language?
We Need Atonement
The Old Testament uses the term “atonement” often to describe the covering of sin and shame or guilt. Sometimes we use “atonement” interchangeably with “reconciliation” or “restoration,” but its primary meaning has to do with covering (though reconciliation is the general result of atonement).
The best place to look at the concept is Leviticus 16, which describes the annual Day of Atonement.
On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would take a bull to “make atonement” for himself. He would kill the bull for his own sin (Lev 16:11), burn incense (Lev 16:12-13), and splash the bull’s blood on the ark of the covenant in the most private room of the tabernacle (Lev 16:14). The incense would create a cloud to cover the ark, so the priest would not be exposed and die (Lev 16:13). The splashed bull’s blood substituted for the priest’s own blood. When there’s sin, someone must die. But the priest was covered.
Then the purified priest would get two goats. One would live; one would die.
The dead goat would also be taken into the private chamber and splashed on the ark of the covenant (Lev 16:15). Then the priest would go back to the outer room and splash the blood on the altar where he burned the incense (Lev 16:16-19). This ceremony would “make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel” (Lev 16:16). With everything sufficiently covered, he’s ready for the live goat.
He’d put his hands on the live goat and confess all the sins of Israel. This goat, figuratively covered with the sins of all the people, would be taken out and set free in the wilderness (Lev 16:20-22).
All throughout, the priest must be very careful about his clothes (Lev 16:4, 23-24). The priest must not be improperly covered.
What is the point?
- Atonement involves the covering of our impurity so we can be reconciled to God.
- This covering must come from God and not ourselves. Even the Old Testament priests needed to be covered themselves before they could help to cover the people.
- This covering requires a substitute.
- This substitute must be both dead and alive (thus requiring two goats).
Jesus Our Atonement
All these things teach us about Jesus. Jesus came and took our place. He both died and was raised. He now covers us with his righteousness so our sin won’t ever be held against us.
And he didn’t need his own covering (Heb 7:27). No, he was stripped naked so he could provide our covering (John 19:23-24).
Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Heb 9:19-22). And those who have been covered by Christ’s blood wait for him to return and bring their final salvation (Heb 9:27-28).
Trust in Jesus, and his promise of atonement is: “I’ve got you covered.”