At-one-ment

Honorificabilitudinitatibus.

William Shakespeare included that 27-letter monstrosity in one of his plays. It means, essentially, “able to achieve honors.” Not only is it one of the longest words in the English language, it is reportedly the longest English word featuring only alternating consonants and vowels. (Just think of how impressed your friends will be if you casually drop that into a sentence!)

You know, we Christians toss around some pretty monstrous words. Though not quite as huge as honorificabilitudinitatibus, many 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. 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.

Atonement.

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 common folk, 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 English Bibles today came from Tyndale (Jehovah, Passover, scapegoat, to mention a few). Atonement is another one of the words 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’s 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, wait. The essence of the word is even simpler. Look what happens when you break atonement down into its different components:

atonement = at-one-ment

That’s it! To be atoned means to be “at one.” To be reconciled. To be in harmony. It’s a big word with a simple meaning. (You can’t just break down most big Bible words and see their meaning like that, because they often came 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? So, next time you see the word atone or atonement, just remember: “at-one” or “at-one-ment.”

Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

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