We Christians toss around some pretty monstrous words. Many important biblical words are frighteningly long. Think about, for example, propitiation. Or forbearance. Then, of course, there’s justification. Righteousness and unrighteousness. Reconciliation.
Each of these words is rich with theological meaning. Scholars spend hours analyzing and exploring the intricacies of their definitions. And if you’ve ever done a word study, you know that it can be a rewarding but formidable task. Often, it’s hard to wrap our minds around those big Bible words.
Well, let’s consider one word that, you’ll be happy to know, has a beautifully straightforward meaning.
In last month’s post, I shared “the history of redemption”—a message that consists of dozens of Bible passages all woven together. One of those passages is Psalm 78:36-38 (ESV):
[The Israelites] flattered [God] with their mouths; they lied to him with their tongues. Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not faithful to his covenant. Yet he, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath.
It’s a beautiful passage, but what exactly does “atoned for their iniquity” mean? What is atonement?
Well, the history of this word starts with William Tyndale. Tyndale is considered the father of the English Bible—he was the first guy to translate the Hebrew and Greek biblical texts into English. His translation of the Bible became wildly popular, because it was clear and lucid and understandable. However, church authorities were furious that Tyndale made God’s word accessible to the commonfolk, so they strangled him to death and then burned his dead body.
Despite his gruesome death, Tyndale’s legacy lives on. About 80% of the King James Bible is the same as Tyndale’s rendition. Many of the words and expressions we read in our Bibles today came from Tyndale. Including atonement, which is a word he first popularized.
Nowadays, you’ll find the word atonement sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. Atonement was an important concept for the Israelites. They would offer sacrifices and give offerings to make atonement for their sins (see Leviticus 5:17-18 for an example of this). There was even a Jewish holy day named after it: the Day of Atonement (a.k.a. Yom Kippur).
“To make atonement” basically means to make amends or reparations for a wrongdoing. So, in offering those sacrifices, the Israelites hoped God would forgive them of their sins. They hoped he would accept them.
But that’s not all. Look what happens when you break down the word into its different components:
atonement = at-one-ment
To be atoned means to be “at one.” By analyzing the word’s components, we easily see the meaning. You can’t do that with many big Bible words, because they often come from Latin or some other old foreign language. But because atonement originated in English, it’s easy to see the etymology. Isn’t that cool?
As I mentioned, most long Bible words are difficult to fully unravel. But when you see the word “atone” or “atonement” in the Old Testament, just remember: “at-one” or “at-one-ment.”