Atonement in Hebrews and 1 Peter

© David Peterson (2009)

Atonement in Hebrews

Atonement through the death of Jesus is a more obvious and pervasive theme in Hebrews than in any other NT book. The writer soon alludes to Jesus’ high-priestly work in terms of his having made ‘purification for sins’ (1:3, καθαρισμὸν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν), using language that would have been familiar to his readers from the LXX (e.g. Ex. 30:10).

Sin is first viewed as a defilement that must be removed because it is a barrier to fellowship with God. The central chapters of Hebrews recall the provisions of the Mosaic Law for cleansing and atonement through animal sacrifice and proclaim a definitive cleansing through the ‘blood’ of Christ (9:13-14, 22-3; 10:2, 22; cf. 2 Pet. 1:9; 1 Jn. 1:7, 9). Most importantly, this cleansing operates at the level of the conscience and not simply externally, as the OT ‘regulations for the body’ did (9:9-10).

In the perspective of Hebrews, the death of Jesus explicitly achieves a once-for-all atonement for sins (e.g. 2:17; 7:27; 9:25-6; 10:11-18), an ‘eternal redemption’ (9:12, 15) and a definitive sanctification (e.g. 10:10, 29;.13:12) that brings believers into a New Covenant relationship with God (Jer. 31:31-4; cf. Heb. 8:6-13; 10:15-18).

Atonement through the blood of Christ

When the writer first claims that Jesus was appointed to be ‘a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God’ (2:17), he goes on to declare that the fundamental purpose of his calling was εἰς τὸ ἱλάσκεσθαι τὰς ἁμαρτίας τοῦ λαοῦ. This is consistent with the later assertion that the essential task of priests is ‘to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins’ (5:1).

In 2:17, the writer uses the verb which is regularly employed in the LXX in the compound form ἐξιλάσκεσθαι to render the Hebrew verb kpr. RSV translates the clause ‘to make expiation for the sins of the people’, taking τὰς ἁμαρτίας as the direct object of the verb, and following the view of many commentators that Christ’s sacrifice is directed at removing sin and its effects (expiation), not at propitiating God.[1] However, the Greek construction can also be rendered ‘to make propitiation with regard to the sins of the people’ (ESV, ‘to make propitiation for the sins of the people’).[2] NRSV/NIV/TNIV translate it, ‘to make atonement for the sins of the people’, thus allowing for the possibility of a propitiatory dimension.

The process of atonement in the Mosaic Law was ultimately concerned with the removal of that which offends God and brings down his wrath. Although purging is a fundamental notion, atonement is not simply a matter of removing guilt or defilement by cleansing but of averting the wrath of God by offering the life of an animal substitute to God. To determine whether any sense of propitiation is intended in Hebrews, it is necessary to discover what the writer has to say about the wrath of God and divine judgment.

Wrath and judgment

The first warning about neglecting the salvation proclaimed in the gospel is based on the observation that, under the Old Covenant, ‘every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty’ (2:2). With a simple parable, the writer then warns those who harden their hearts against Christ in unbelief and apostasy that they will experience God’s curse (6:8). This outcome is later expressed in terms of ‘a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries’ (10:27). Of course, these passages are a warning about God’s intention to judge those who claim to be his people, yet fall away (cf. 10:39).

Nothing specifically is said about the fate of those who have never heard the gospel, though God is described as ‘the judge of all’ (12:23), and Hebrews insists that, ‘it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment’ (9:27). It is surely therefore valid to apply quite generally the warning that, ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (10:31). Salvation in Hebrews thus appears to be deliverance from the wrath of God in order to enjoy the life of God in his presence forever (cf. 9:28; 12:25-9).

In the writer’s vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, it is ‘Jesus the mediator of a new covenant’ who makes it possible for the redeemed to approach ‘God the judge of all’, and it is ‘the sprinkled blood’ of Christ that cries out for acceptance in this context (12:22-4). It is hard to avoid the conclusion from such a passage, and from the writer’s general portrayal of Christ’s work as a fulfilment of the Day of Atonement ritual (e.g. 9:11-15), that the blood of Christ functions in some sense to avert the wrath of God for those who are cleansed, sanctified and perfected by him.

We become acceptable to God, not simply because of his work in us, but because of his work for us. The crucified and glorified Christ ‘entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf’ (9:24, ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν). The representative nature of Jesus’ work is certainly highlighted in Hebrews (cf. 6:20; 7:25), but is there any indication that he died as a substitute for us, to pay for our sins?

Redemption through the blood of Christ

The claim that Jesus ‘tasted’ or experienced death ‘for everyone’ (2:9, ὑπὲρ παντὸς γεύσηται θανάτου), is followed by the insistence that he was perfected as ‘the pioneer of their salvation’ through sufferings and that by this means God brings ‘many sons to glory’ (2:10).[3] In other words, Jesus’ death uniquely qualifies him to save others from death and from the judgment of God that follows (9:27).

Jesus’ death is also said to be the means by which ‘he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’ (2:14-15). There is a redemptive aspect to Jesus’ death that liberates believers from the power of death and the devil.

The background to Hebrews 2:5-17 is Genesis 1-3 and the teaching of prophetic and apocalyptic writers about the restoration of paradise in the End time. Implicit in this context is the assumption that death is the divine penalty for sin that Satan wields as a power over human beings within the divine economy, hindering them from sharing in ‘the coming world’ (2:5). The devil is deprived of that power because Jesus dies as the perfectly innocent one (4:15; 7:26-7), and opens the way to ‘the promised eternal inheritance’ (9:15) for all who trust in him. People are released from ‘fear of death’, and thus from Satan’s power, by coming to experience the redemption achieved by Christ.

Hebrews is more interested in the result of Christ’s sacrifice than in the theory or doctrine behind it. Nevertheless, the progress of the argument in 2:5-17 suggests that his atoning work involves paying the penalty for sin by means of his death, thus liberating his people from all the consequences of sin. Dealing with sin and its penalty is the focus of his high-priestly work.

Again, in 9:11-12, having portrayed Christ’s death and heavenly exaltation as the fulfilment of the Day of Atonement ritual, the writer proclaims that he has secured ‘an eternal redemption’ (αἰωνίαν λύτρωσιν). Redemption from the power and consequences of sin is meant. Indeed, in 9:15 it is specifically declared that his death has made possible a ‘redemption’ from ‘the transgressions under the first covenant’. This suggests that the sacrifice of Jesus actually makes effective the atonement promised to those who engaged with repentance and faith in the sacrificial rites given to Israel.

Furthermore, picking up the wider implications of redemption from Exodus, Hebrews goes on to show how Jesus as ‘mediator of a new covenant’ by his blood has made it possible for ‘those who are called to receive the promised eternal inheritance’. With the big sweep of Biblical Theology in mind, the writer envisages Christ bringing believers into the enjoyment of everything anticipated by the exodus under Moses and the conquest under Joshua. Christ’s sacrifice rescues from condemnation and death as the Passover sacrifice did, thus initiating ‘those who are called’ into the benefits of the New Covenant. At the same time, his sacrifice and high-priestly work fulfil the provisions of the Law for sustaining God’s covenant people in a relationship with him.

The significance of blood

At first sight it is puzzling to see how Hebrews lumps together the daily sacrifices of Judaism (7:27; 10:5,6,8), the annual Day of Atonement sacrifices (9:6,7,12,21,23,25; 10:1-3), the sacrifices inaugurating the Sinai covenant (9:18-20) and allusions to the red heifer ceremony (9:13; 10:22). However, what all these sacrifices have in common is the single point of blood. Without blood there is no access to God, no inauguration of the covenant and no forgiveness (9:22; cf. Lev. 17:11).

In the writer’s thought-world, sacrificial blood has a direct, immediate potency. The blood of Christ is the most powerful of all, because he offered himself without blemish to God, as the true and final offering for sin ordained by God (10:5-10).[4] His blood cleanses from the defilement of sin and sets people free to serve God ‘with reverence and awe’ (12:28; cf. 9:13-14). Jesus’ blood enables us to find acceptance before ‘God the judge of all’, to escape the judgment of death, and to live in his presence forever (12:22-4).

The Suffering Servant

Hebrews 9:26-8 significantly links the notion of Jesus as high priest with that of the Suffering Servant.[5] The eschatological significance of his self-sacrifice is indicated by the fact that he appeared ‘once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself’ (9:26). The parallel expression in v. 28 speaks of his having been offered once ‘to bear the sins of many’ (ε͗ις τὸ πολλῶν ἀνενεγκεῖν ἁμαρτίας), recalling the words of Isaiah 53:12 (ἁμαρτίας πολλῶν ἀνήνεγκεν) about the vicarious suffering of the Servant of the Lord. In Hebrews, although suffering retains a role in the redemptive process (2:9-10; 5:7-9), it is Jesus’ death which is paramount, because his ‘blood’ makes possible his entrance into the heavenly sanctuary, there to ‘intercede’ for ‘those who approach God through him’ (7:25).[6]

Bearing the sins of others in Isaiah 53 must refer to the punishment of the Servant for the sins of others. The prophet is clear about the Servant’s innocence and the guilt of those for whom he is wounded. Hebrews similarly insists on the sinlessness of Jesus (4:15; 7:26) and the fact that he has no need to offer sacrifices for his own sins (7:27). Servant Christology makes it possible for the writer to combine the images of Jesus as victim and priest. By his willing self-offering in death, Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice (9:14, 26), thus fulfilling and replacing every aspect of the sacrificial system provided under the Mosaic Law (10:5-10), and making him the eternally effective high priest of the New Covenant (10:11-18).

Sanctification through the blood of Christ

The teaching about Christ’s atoning work in Hebrews encourages us to believe that God will maintain us in a New Covenant relationship with himself. This is the logic of making the Day of Atonement ritual a key to understanding the significance of Jesus’ death and heavenly exaltation. We have continuing right of access to ‘the sanctuary’ of God’s presence, ‘by the blood of Jesus’ and because of his ongoing priestly rule ‘over the house of God’ (10:19-21; cf. 7:25).

The challenge is therefore to keep on approaching God ‘with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water’ (10:22; cf. 4:14-16). However, the writer also shows how the death of Jesus is the means by which we come to share in the benefits of the New Covenant in the first place.

The notion that God sanctifies or consecrates a people to himself through Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice for sins is stressed by the words ‘we have been sanctified’ in 10:10 (͑ηγιασμένοι ἐσμεν). The Greek indicates a state or condition made possible by the self-offering of Christ in death. No further sacrifices or rituals are required to keep us in that sanctified condition. The preceding context suggests that this involves a once-for all cleansing from sin that the law of Moses could not provide (10:1-4). As in OT teaching, purification and sanctification are closely related in the argument of Hebrews (cf. 9:13-14). Purification is the basis of sanctification. By his sovereign action in Christ, God sets apart and binds to himself those who have been purified from the defilement of sin.

In 10:11-18, the writer goes on to show how Jesus’ perfect sin offering inaugurates the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31-4. Under the terms of that covenant, God writes his law in the hearts and minds of all his people, enabling them to know him and serve him in a new way. Such dedication to God is made possible by the sacrifice that allows him to ‘remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more’ (cf. Heb. 10:17-18). As in Jeremiah’s promise, so also in Hebrews, a once-for-all forgiveness of sins is the basis of a new commitment to God on the part of his people.

10:10-18 suggests that the verb ‘to sanctify’ is primarily employed in a covenantal sense. Christ’s sacrifice binds men and women to God in a new relationship of heart-obedience. The covenantal dimension is highlighted again in 10:29, where we are told that the readers were sanctified by ‘the blood of the covenant’.[7] The writer recalls the language of Ex. 24:1-8, where the relationship between God and Israel was confirmed as Moses poured ‘the blood of the covenant’ on the altar and on the representatives of the people gathered with him on Mount Sinai.

Hebrews 9:18-21 actually speaks about the first covenant being ‘inaugurated’ by Moses on this occasion. By implication, the New Covenant was inaugurated by the shedding of Jesus’ blood. This also appears to be the message of 13:12, where we are told that he suffered outside Jerusalem, ‘to sanctify the people by his own blood’.

The cultic dimension to the sanctifying work of Christ is more specifically developed in other passages. Those who come to him as ‘the mediator of a new covenant’ and trust in the cleansing power of his ‘sprinkled blood’ experience the benefits of his sanctifying death (12:24; cf. 9:13-14; 10:19-22). As the eternal high priest ‘according to the order of Melchizedek’, Jesus offered himself as a holy, blameless and undefiled sacrifice for sins (7:17-28). He entered once for all into the heavenly sanctuary for us, having obtained ‘eternal redemption’ (9:12). By the single offering of himself in death, ‘he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified’ (10:14).


Hebrews consistently portrays the atoning work of Christ as the fulfilment of the Day of Atonement ritual. At the heart of this portrayal is the presentation of Christ as the sinless saviour, who ‘bears the sins of many’ in his death, and delivers those who are cleansed and sanctified by his ‘blood’ from the awesome judgment of God. Allusions to the fulfilment of other blood rituals help to expand the picture. Jesus’ death and heavenly exaltation accomplish an eternally effective redemption from sin and its consequences, inaugurating all the benefits of the New Covenant. Since he continues forever as a heavenly high priest, he is always able to apply the benefits of his once-for-all sacrifice to those who draw near to God through him (7:25). One sacrifice replaces the many sacrifices of the Old Covenant used to maintain people in a relationship with God and bring them into God’s new creation.

Atonement in 1 Peter

The theme of eschatological salvation is introduced in Peter’s opening paragraph, where an inclusion is actually formed by the use of the word ‘salvation’ (1:5, 9). Christ’s resurrection is first identified as a cause of this salvation (1:3), which is then specifically defined as ‘an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you’ (1:4). OT terminology is adapted to compare and contrast Israel’s experience of being brought into the inheritance of Canaan with the Christian hope of being part of God’s new creation.

Peter continues to focus on the importance of Christ’s resurrection as the basis for Christian faith and hope (1:21). It is therefore the basis of salvation, because it makes possible an effective ‘appeal to God for a good conscience’ in baptism (3:21).[8] Peter also highlights the importance of Jesus’ ascension in the securing of this eternal inheritance for believers (3:19, 22). In fact, the whole sequence of suffering, death, resurrection and ascension is necessary for our salvation. But, for our purposes, it is Peter’s teaching about the achievement of Jesus in his death that is of particular interest.[9]

Redemption at a price

Peter’s second paragraph goes on to specify that the means of this salvation was announced long ago by the prophets as ‘the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory’ (1:11-12). The ‘sufferings’ are then described in terms of their redemptive outcome in 1:18-19 and the glory is mentioned again in 1:21. There is an echo of Isaiah 52:3 LXX in the claim that Christians were redeemed without ‘perishable things like silver or gold’ (1:18). This echo is significant because the verb λυτροῦν is used in both texts to mean ‘ransom’ or ‘redeem at a price’ (cf. Tit. 2:14). But it is highly likely that Peter is also recalling the teaching of Jesus about his death being ‘a ransom for many’ and working with a long-established Christian tradition in this connection.[10] God has ransomed a people for himself, at the cost of ‘the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish’ (1 Pet. 1:19). Moreover, Christ was destined by God for this purpose ‘before the foundation of the world’ (v. 20).

Passover allusions can be argued from the terminology in 1:19 (cf. Ex. 12:5), though there is not a precise parallel with the LXX. Peter’s thought more generally seems to parallel the OT pattern of redemption from bondage in order to serve God and enter his appointed inheritance.[11] But there is also a possible allusion to the silent and faultless lamb of Isaiah 53:7-9, especially in view of the argument to come in 1 Peter 2:21-5.

As in the writings of Paul and in Hebrews, there is a blending of several strands of thought in 1 Peter to proclaim the significance of the cross.[12] Jesus the Suffering Servant offers a redemptive sacrifice that pays the price for sin and liberates those who believe from the ‘futile ways’ inherited from their ancestors (1 Pet. 2:18). This enables them to live for God with the sure and certain hope of entering the glorious inheritance already secured by Christ in his death and resurrection. The implications for Christian living are clearly set out at the beginning and end of this passage (1:17, 21-2).

Bearing the punishment for sin

Peter returns to the theme of Christ’s sufferings in 2:18-25, where a pattern for discipleship is said to have been established by Christ in his pathway to glory (cf. 3:9; 4:12-19; 5:10). Christ’s example is an encouragement to ‘endure pain while suffering unjustly’ (2:19-21), not retaliating but entrusting oneself ‘to the one who judges justly’ (2:22-23). However, even such a focus on the exemplary dimension of Christ’s sufferings leads Peter back to the redemptive power of the cross to transform the human situation (2:24-5).

Isaiah 53:9 is cited in 2:22, to stress the sinlessness of Jesus and thus the injustice of his suffering. The allusion in 2:24 is to Isaiah 53:11-12, where the prophet declares that the Servant of the Lord will ‘bear’ the sin of others. Indeed, much of Peter’s argument in 2:21-5 can be regarded as midrash or a paraphrase of Isaiah 53:4-12 LXX.[13]

With the words ‘he himself bore our sins in his body on the cross’ (2:24, ͑ὸς τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν αὐτὸς ἀνήνεγκεν), we have an assertion from Isaiah 53:12 (αὐτὸς ἁμαρτίας πολλῶν ἀνήνεγκεν) modified with words from Isaiah 53:4, interpreted in the light of its fulfilment (ἐν τῶ σώματι αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τὸ ξύλον). The word usually translated ‘cross’ is literally ‘tree’ (ξύλον) and recalls Deuteronomy 21:22, with its claim that ‘anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse’ (cf. Gal. 3:13). Without explicitly noting this connection, Peter points out that Jesus’ death was penal and substitutionary. He was not a passive victim, or executed for his own sins, but an active sin-bearer.

The verb ἀνήνεγκεν can mean ‘bore’ in the sense of ‘carried away’. Thus it is true to say:

Sin in 1 Peter is not simply ‘atoned for’ or ‘forgiven’ with the tacit implication that if remnants of it persist they will be overlooked, and forgiveness guaranteed in any case. Rather, sin is literally taken away, carried to the cross and left there. It is assumed that the redeemed have ‘parted with those sins’ and are ready to ‘live for what is right’.[14]

But in what sense is sin ‘carried to the cross and left there’? Isaiah 53:12 LXX renders the Hebrew חֵטְא־רַבִּים נָשָׂא.  Similar expressions are widely used in the Massoretic Text, as are variations of the parallel expression in Isaiah 53:11 (τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν αὐτὸς ἀνοίσει). When different combinations of these words are applied to persons or animals, and when their meaning is clear, the normal sense is that the subject bears guilt and punishment.[15]

Leviticus 16:22 specifically means that guilty Israel is freed from the punishment of sin when the scapegoat symbolically bears the punishment in their place. The context in Isaiah 53 confirms that both the above expressions must be taken in their normal sense of bearing punishment. The Servant is punished for the sin of others, and that punishment is atoning, since it brings them wholeness, healing, and righteousness. It is this perspective that Peter reflects when he employs the language of Isaiah 53 so precisely.

Like Isaiah, Peter uses the metaphor of healing to describe the effect of this sin-bearing work (‘by his wounds you have been healed’). This healing has important lifestyle implications. Those who have ‘died to sins’ (ταῖς ἁμαρτἰαις ἀπογενόμενοι, lit. ‘parted with sins’) can now ‘live for righteousness’ (2:24). The verb here means literally ‘to be away’ or ‘parted from’, and it is used by classical Greek writers to describe the dead as ‘the departed’.

The idea is that, Christ having died for sins, and to sin, as our proxy or substitute, our consequent standing before God is that of those who have no more connection with our old sins, or with the life of sinning. Henceforth we are free, and are intended, to live unto righteousness (cf. iv.2; Rom. vi. 11-13, 18).[16]

Put another way, the atoning work of Christ makes it possible for those who were ‘going astray like sheep’ (cf. Is. 53:6) to return to the shepherd of their souls (2:25). As in the Pauline writings, atonement makes reconciliation with God a possibility and leads to a new life of faith and obedience.

A further critical passage about Christ’s redemptive work in 3:18-22 flows out of another exhortation to suffer for doing what is right (3:13-17). This passage makes Jesus an example to the readers in a broader sense than 2:21-5. With reference to his death, resurrection and ascension, it makes him ‘an example not merely of suffering for doing good, but of suffering followed by vindication, the single dominant theme of the last half of 1 Peter’.[17]

Whatever the prehistory of the creed-like statements in 3:18, Peter uses these affirmations to confirm some of the teaching already given and to set the stage for what follows in vv. 19-22. Beyond that, he also uses these affirmations as the basis for an exhortation to finish with sin in 4:1-6.

The introductory words in 3:18 (͑ότι καὶ Χριστὸς ͑άπαξ περὶ ἁμαρτιῶν ͗έπαθεν) are similar to the words that introduce Christ as an example of suffering in 2:21 (͑ότι καὶ Χριστὸς ͗έπαθεν ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν).[18] However, addition of the phrase ‘for sins once for all’ (͑άπαξ περὶ ἁμαρτιῶν) limits the reference to redemptive suffering. Christ’s suffering is unique with respect to its timing and the fact that its purpose is fully accomplished (cf. ͑άπαξ in Heb. 9:26, 28 and ἐφάπαξ in Rom. 6:10; Heb. 7:27; 9:12; 10:10). Moreover, Christ’s suffering is sacrificial and deals with the problem of human sin definitively.[19]

The significance of his self-offering ‘for sins’ is then further explained. With the phrase ‘the righteous for the unrighteous’ (δίκαιος ὑπὲρ ἀδίκων), Peter reaffirms the innocence of Jesus (cf. 1:19; 2:22-3) and once more asserts the penal and substitutionary nature of his suffering (cf. 2:21, ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν). The outcome of all this is reconciliation to God (‘in order to bring you to God’), and newness of life in obedience to his will (4:1-6).[20]


1 Peter blends several emphases when talking about the cross of Christ. There is clearly the exemplary aspect of his suffering, which is highlighted to encourage Christians to persevere in the face of injustice and persecution. There is a redemptive aspect to the cross, which delivers believers from servitude to sin, to the world and its values, and sets people free to serve God in a new way. However, fundamental to this redemption is the sin-bearing work of Christ, which is presented in penal and substitutionary terms and which reconciles sinners to God.

[1] E.g. Attridge, H. W., The Epistle to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 96, note 192. Cf. Büchsel, F., TDNT 3:314-17; Lyonnet, S., & Sabourin, L., Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study (AnB 48; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1970), 120-48.

[2] Lane, W. L., Word Biblical Commentary Volume 47A Hebrews 1-8 (Dallas: Word, 1991), 65-6. With this reading, if God is understood as the implied object of the verb, τὰς ἁμαρτίας (‘with regard to the sins’) will be an accusative of respect.  Cf. Kistemaker, S., ‘Atonement in Hebrews’, C. E. Hill & F. A. James (ed.) The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological and Practical Perspectives (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 163-67.

[3] Although the expression ‘the pioneer of their salvation’ could be taken to mean that Jesus goes ahead as leader in a journey where others may follow, the context implies a unique achievement by which he makes salvation possible for others. The expression thus captures the sense of 5:9 (α͗ίτιος σωτηρίας) as well as 6:20 (πρόδρομος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν). Cf. Peterson, D., Hebrews and Perfection, SNTSMS 47 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1982), 57-8.

[4] Note the range of technical terms used in the citation from Ps. 40:6 (LXX 39:7) in Heb. 10:5-7. θυσία (‘sacrifice’), while capable of referring to any kind of animal sacrifice, is used in the LXX with more special reference to the peace-offering. προσφορά (‘offering’), while also used in a general sense, is restricted in the levitical terminology to the ‘cereal offering’. ὁλοκαυτώματα is the standard term for the ‘holocaust’ or ‘burnt offering’ and περὶ ἁμαρτίας is the usual technical translation for the ‘sin offering’. Cf. Bruce, F. F., The Epistle to the Hebrews NICNT (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1964), 233-34.

[5] It is possible that the Servant Christology, which was already current in early Christian circles, was one of several converging elements that actually brought the author of Hebrews to see Jesus’ death as a priestly act in the first place. Cf. Schaefer, J. R., ‘The Relationship between Priestly and Servant Messianism in the Epistle to the Hebrews’, CBQ 30 (1968), 359-385.

[6] The idea that the Servant ‘made intercession for the transgressors’ is clear in the Hebrew of Is. 53:12. On the relationship between Christ’s intercessory work and his once-for-all atonement for sins, cf. Peterson, Hebrews and Perfection, 114-116.

[7] The aorist passive participle ἡγησάμενος is used in a summary way, to indicate how the readers came to share in the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice.

[8] The Greek (συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν) can also be rendered ‘a pledge to God from a good conscience’.

[9] Cf. McCartney, D. G.,‘Atonement in James, Peter and Jude’, in C. E. Hill & F. A. James (ed.) The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological and Practical Perspectives (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 176-89

[10] The related noun λύτρον is used in Mat. 20:28/Mk. 10:45. Paul uses the noun ἀπολυτρώσις in Rom. 3:24; 8:23; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:7, 14; 4:30; Col. 1:14. The latter is also used in Heb. 9:15; 11:35. Cf. Mundle, W., & Brown, C., NIDNTT 3:189-200, on the meaning and use of this terminology.

[11] Cf. Davids, P. H., The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 72-3.

[12] Sprinkling with the blood of Christ is another image in 1 Pet. 1:2. This may echo the rite in Numbers 19, but it is likely in the framework of Peter’s redemption-inheritance thinking that the parallel is more specifically with the covenant affirmation ceremony in Ex. 24:3-8 (cf. Heb. 9:18-21).

[13] Cf. Michaels, J. R., Word Biblical Commentary Volume 49 1 Peter (Waco: Word, 1988), 136-7, who argues that there is no need to posit an early Christian hymn behind these verses.

[14] Michaels, 1 Peter, lxxi. Cf. Michaels,148-49.

[15] Williams, G.,‘The Cross and the Punishment of Sin’, in D. Peterson (ed.), Where Wrath and Mercy Meet, Proclaiming the Atonement Today (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), 68-99, shows how both verbs are often paired with either noun, so that there are four possible combinations to investigate.

[16] Stibbs, A. M., The First Epistle General of Peter (London: Tyndale, 1959), 121. Michaels, 1 Peter, 148-9, follows Kelly, J.N.D., The Epistles of Peter and of Jude (London: Black, 1969), 123, in arguing for the sense ‘having broken with our sins’. But Davids, First Epistle of Peter, 113, is less troubled with the idea of a Pauline parallel here and argues like Stibbs for the translation ‘having died to sin’.

[17] Michaels, 197.

[18] Although some manuscripts read ‘died’ (ἀπέθανεν) instead of ‘suffered’ (͗έπαθεν) in 3:18, the latter is used elsewhere in 1 Peter 11 times and sustains the argument from the preceding paragraph more naturally. Christ’s death or blood-shedding is clearly the heart and climax of his suffering (cf. 1:18-19; 2:23-4), but ‘suffered’ is more probably the original reading in 3:18. Kelly, Epistles of Peter and of Jude, pp. 147-8, argues that ‘died’ is the harder reading and therefore more likely to be the original.

[19] The phrase ‘for sins’ (περὶ ἁμαρτιῶν) is used with a sacrificial reference in Heb. 5:3; 10:26 (cf. 1 Jn. 2:2), along with ὑπὲρ ἁμαρτιῶν (Heb. 5:1; 10:12) and περὶ ἁμαρτίας (Heb 10:6, 8, based on Ps. 40 [LXX 39]:7; also 10:18; 13:11; cf. Rom 8:3). The last of these expression is the most frequent in the LXX and occurs in Is. 53:10 for אָשָם, presumably with the meaning ‘guilt offering’.

[20] There is some textual uncertainty about whether ‘you’ or ‘us’ should be read in this clause. But ‘you’ is most probably the original reading. The verb ‘bring to’ in 3:18 (προσαγάγη) implies introduction or access to God’s presence. Although it is not strictly a term for reconciliation, the related noun is used in contexts where reconciliation is in view (e.g. Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:18; 3:12).


2 thoughts on “Atonement in Hebrews and 1 Peter

  1. John Smuts

    Hi David,

    John from Petersham Baptist here.

    I’m preaching on Hebrews 9 on Sunday and Tim Bradford suggested it might be worth asking you my question – I’m struggling to articulate the difference between shadow and reality when it comes to the new covenant. Have you considered helpful analogies? The writer seems to describe heaven less as a place and more as an alternative reality. Even the NIV translation tends to emphasize the contrast of ‘earth’ with ‘heaven’ in a platonic sense. Have you thought about the best way to communicate this clearly?

    Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Yours in Christ,



    1. John, I think the analogy of preparing a model of something before constructing the real thing might help (e.g. an architect’s model). The model truly anticipates the finished product but lacks the same overall dimensions, content and significance. Although Hebrews sounds Platonic sometimes, the write makes it clear with other terms that he is think about a new creation in the age to come (e.g. 2:5, ‘the world to come’;6:2, ‘the resurrection of the dead’; 13:14, ‘the city that is to come’). So ‘heavenly’ represents the idea that it is not of this world or this age.


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