In Shakespeare’s historical play ‘Richard the Third’, the Duke of Buckingham makes the following comment to the queen, ‘Ay, madam: he (Richard) desires to make atonement between the Duke of Gloucester and your brothers’. Our modern understanding of this would be that the king wanted to resolve the differences between the parties and effect reconciliation. This play was written in the sixteenth century, and provides evidence that the noun ‘atonement’ in English often came to mean ‘reconciliation’, hence the reason why the translators of the King James Bible, following Tyndale, chose to translate the Greek word katallagé in this way in Romans chapter 5 verse 11. But, technically, katallagé was not equivalent to the main Hebrew term kaphar, translated atonement in the Old Testament. Tyndale chose to use the word katallagé in his 1534 New Testament to emphasize the idea that reconciliation brought ‘at-one-ment’ between parties, so it would have been the best New Testament word to describe the purpose of the atonement, i.e. reconciliation.1 The correct dynamic Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word kaphar is hilasterios used in the Septuagint (LXX) to translate the mercy seat, Exod. 25. 17, which formed part of the Ark of the Covenant. It was here that the High Priest sprinkled the blood on the Day of Atonement, Lev. 16. 14. The word hilasterios can also mean to placate someone’s anger, e.g., Jacob propitiates Esau, Gen. 32. 20.
In Judaism God is thought to be reconciled to man by the exchange of His wrath for grace. This is illustrated in 2 Maccabees chapter 1 verse 5, where God is reconciled to His people through prayer, and, in chapter 7 verse 33, where the chastening of God towards His people ultimately leads to their being reconciled to Him. Rabbinical tradition follows this broad concept by applying it to both reconciliation with God and fellow man. Josephus records how Samuel besought God all night to be reconciled to Saul, and not be angry with him.2 What these occurrences suggest is that the term reconciliation was used generally in antiquity to describe a change of state or relationship, whereby some form of hostility was replaced by friendship. And we will see that it is in this sense that the noun katallagé, and its associated terms, are used mainly by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, providing us with one of the most profound themes in the whole of the Bible. As James Packer writes, ‘For it is not too much to say that to Paul reconciliation was the sum and substance of the gospel. In his hands, reconciliation became in effect a theological technical term, describing and interpreting the central fact of the Christian message – the saving work of God wrought through the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ’.3
In terms of its use in the New Testament, the word occurs in Matthew 5 verse 24 to describe the reconciliation of individuals where an offence has been committed by one party. The text indicates that the responsibility to achieve reconciliation is placed directly on the party who caused the offence. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians chapter 7 verse 11, an estranged wife is commanded not to remarry (‘stay as you are’) or, better still, be reconciled to her husband. The inference here is that as the wife has been disobedient to the Lord’s commandment, i.e., there has been a failure to obey verse 10; the responsibility is placed upon her to be reconciled to her husband. So in both instances, it is the offender who is obliged to make reconciliation. This is in stark contrast to Paul’s use of the word when he speaks of reconciliation between humanity and God. It is man who has given the offence to God, Col. 1. 21, yet it is God who, though offended, takes the initiative by providing a means of reconciliation through the death of Christ, Rom. 5. 10. In his clarification of justification by faith, Paul states that reconciliation is one of the many benefits that we receive through our Lord Jesus Christ, Rom. 5. 11. But this gift of reconciliation was not achieved through an exchange of money; it came, as James Packer states, ‘by means of a judicial exchange; him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in him’, 2 Cor. 5. 21 RV. Paul has just affirmed that reconciliation means the non-imputation of their trespasses to the trespassers; here he shows that the ground of this non-imputation is the imputing of their trespasses to Christ, and His bearing God’s holy reaction to them’.4 Not only are we reconciled to God through Christ, but Paul reminds us in Colossians chapter 1 verse 20 that this reconciliation is both cosmic and universal in its comprehensiveness. It has also made it possible for both Jew and Gentile to be reconciled to God, and to become one unique body in Christ, Eph. 2. 11-19.
What, then, should our response be to God who has taken away this enmity between us through the cross of Christ? Surely it must be that as we have been reconciled to God, so we need to be exercised in the ministry of reconciliation, and, as ambassadors for Christ, plead with men and woman of our generation to be reconciled to God, 2 Cor. 5. 19-21!
His word shall not fail you He promised;
Believe Him, and all will be well:
Then go to a world that is dying,
His perfect salvation to tell.
Helen H Lemmell
Note that W.E. Vine rejects this view as being entirely fanciful, but there is no doubt that historically this is thought to be the most likely explanation – see for example the comments of R. C. Trench at pages 273/274 in Synonyms of the New Testament.
The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 6 /Chapter 7 (143) Whiston Edition.
18 Words – The Most Important Words You Will Ever Know, pg. 117
Op cit, 120
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