I’m a Marvel fan. As a teenager, I bought Marvel cards and comics, soaked in everything of this fictional world, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to live in the Marvel Universe?” But then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) brought to “life” my heroes.
My MCU admiration grew because these heroes’ tensions felt close to my world. So, to some extent, the Marvel Universe materialized in my universe. All of this led to that climatic scene in the movie “Endgame” where Tony Stark, wearing the infinity gauntlet, snaps his fingers to undo all of what Thanos (the villain) did while saying, “I am Iron Man.” The hero sacrificed himself to bring “order” to the universe, the dead back to life and salvation. His selfless action was perceived as a “No worries. I’ve got you covered” moment and instantly wrongs were made right.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word kipper/kopher (translated as “atonement” in many Bibles) means to “cover,” “repay a debt” and “purify.” In Leviticus, the term is associated with animal sacrifices. More than 2,000 years removed from the biblical ancient near Eastern civilization, animal offerings and blood topics may sound barbaric and weird. However, God spoke to his people in ways they could understand according to their time and context.
Israel’s God provides his people a way to approach him through a general practice of animal sacrifice, not to appease or gain favor, but to cover Israel’s sin and clean their land symbolically. This act of covering for sins through animal blood is what the Bible calls atonement. A symbolic practice that’s supposed to turn people away from sin, pay for improper behavior, purify the environment and allow God to remain with them.
Since humanity’s fall in Eden, we must remember that we’ve stained ourselves with sin and defiled our surroundings (Genesis 4:10-12, Romans 8:22-23). Since then, God’s set a plan to restore humanity and all creation. Sin won’t be the ultimate champion over this world and its inhabitants; God is.
Through the story of Israel, we observe God reaching out to a people and showing them his holiness, power, justice, love and mercy in multiple ways, including living among them in the tabernacle — later, the temple. We don’t have to go deep into the story to see a predicament. Israel wasn’t perfect; through the Old Testament, we see the Israelites breaking God’s law in many ways. For instance, deceiving others, mistreating foreigners and widows, even substituting God with handmade idols. God is holy; Israel isn’t.
Therefore, how can God’s sacred presence remain within unholy, sinful people? If sin is something within humanity and something humanity participates in, how can God get rid of evil without getting rid of humans? God had it covered. Rather than eradicating Israel from the face of the earth or receding somewhere else away from them, God provided a way to symbolically cover their sins and purify the environment — atonement through animal sacrifices.
For the Israelites, life was found in the blood (Leviticus 17:11). The animal’s death was a visual reminder of the consequences of sin. The spreading of the blood was a symbol of how an innocent life covers or cleans the effect of death brought by sin. Consequently, God remained within his people because sin was atoned.
Although animal sacrifices were offered year after year, they were only a symbol — something that pointed beyond itself to something else and participated in the reality it represented. It meant something but didn’t necessarily do something. Isaiah observed that sacrifices became meaningless to God because people continue to do evil to others and live with their backs to God (1:11-20). But it’s also Isaiah who wrote about hope, a servant king who would atone once and for all the sins not only of Israel but of all humanity (Isaiah 11, 53, 61). And this is where Jesus enters the scene.
John the Baptist (John 1:29), the apostle John (1 John 4:9-11), and the author of Hebrews (9:6-14) made it clear that Jesus was the lamb of God, the only one who could make the perfect atonement, once and for all. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God’s love for us motivates sending Jesus. Jesus voluntarily offering his life (Philippians 2:5-11) is the real and ultimate “something else” that Israel’s sacrifices pointed to. His sacrifice did and continues to do something to and in all who believe in him. It makes us his children (John 1:12), gives us eternal life (John 3:16), reconciles us with God (2 Corinthians 5:19), frees us from the bondage of sin (Romans 6:6), gives us a new life (Galatians 2:20), reverses the fall of humanity (Romans 5:15), sets us apart for him — sanctifies us (1 Corinthians 1:30), forgives us (Hebrews 10:1-18) and heals us (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross isn’t a temporary covering of sins as the ancient practice of animal sacrifices were. It’s the final and only sufficient atonement offered to humanity through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ so we live according to God’s original purpose for our lives. He showed us how to live the life we ought to live and did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.
Ultimately, I don’t have to live in another universe like Marvel to feel that someone “has me covered.” No matter how amazing superheroes are, none could ever come close to Jesus Christ, who intercepted our universe, our story and has us covered, now and forever.
Resources to explore atonement are The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (McNall), Five Views on the Extent of the Atonement (Louth et al.) and the BibleProject. A good practice is to read and discuss these topics with others — community enhances understanding and helps strengthen our faith. So, see you on the way!
Yamil Acevedo is executive vice president of Wesley Seminary, Marion, Indiana. He’s married to Yaremí Alicea and has two teenage children. For leisure, he loves to travel, learn about cultures, meet people, read, and drink coffee.
Questions for reflection and conversation
- The Hebrew word kipper/kopher is translated as the word atonement which means to cover, repay a debt, and purify. When we look at the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, we see what we would consider in this day and age the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice which God instituted to cover the sins of mankind. Why do you feel that God used this method to help his people understand the result of sin?
- In what ways throughout the story of Israel did God reach out to his people to show them his holiness, power, justice, love and mercy?
- How can God’s sacred presence remain with unholy sinful people? What has God done to make that possible?
- God’s people Israel offered animal sacrifices year after year. However, the sacrifices were only a symbol that did not necessarily do anything, but represented something. What did these sacrifices represent?
- Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice that paid the price and made atonement for all our sins once and for all. It was a sacrifice that will never need to be repeated. We need only to believe and place our faith in Christ. How does this assurance give you hope and security in your faith walk?
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.