PROPITIATION

The Work that Satisfies

I donít like big words. There is something to be said about brevity and simplicity. I think it odd that abbreviation is such a long word. But there are times when long words are both good and necessary and when we need to add such a word to our vocabulary. This is such a case with the term we will be examining today.

Our word is "propitiation." It isnít a term that we regularly use. I dare say that it is possible to go through high school and college and never to learn the meaning of this word.

If we have to learn a big word, then letís do it by giving to it a short definition. We can do that here. Propitiation refers to that which satisfies anger; that which appeases. The Greeks had a word for it. Their term was ĎilastarioV.

These three related words are used several times in the New Testament. An examination of these uses will be instructive.

 

AN APPEASING PRAYER

The first time it is used is in Luke 18. It is in the parable of the two prayers. Jesus told of two men who went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. He was a Reformed Presbyterian. He wasnít just Reformed; he was truly Reformed. He was in church every time the doors were opened and he did good works and he gave good money and he was a good man. There was only one problem. He was proud.

In contrast to this man was a second man. This second man was a tax collector. He had sold his soul to the hated Romans. He had purchased a franchise that gave him the power to overcharge people on their taxes and to keep any surplus to himself.

But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, the sinner!" (Luke 18:13).

You know the end of the parable. The good man went away condemned while the man who prayed in humility went away justified. What made the difference? It was the attitude reflected in the prayer. Notice the words that he uses: God, be merciful (ilaskomai) to me, the sinner!"

Imagine that! A prayer that asks God to be satisfied with a sinner! How can such a thing be? How can God be satisfied and turn his anger from a sinner?

To answer that, we must first know a bit more about the idea of propitiation. The idea of propitiation presumes the existence of anger.

The word ilastarioV and its related cognates was used by the Greeks to describe what took place when the Greek gods became angry with a mere mortal. The Greek gods of mythology were always getting mad at something and, when this took place, it was possible to circumvent that anger by means of a sacrifice. The offering of such a sacrifice would ilaskomai -- it would satisfy the anger and appease the anger. It would be a propitiation.

The Bible talks quite a bit about the anger of the Lord. The Bible teaches us that sin makes God mad.

 

THE ANGER OF GOD

God gets angry. If you donít believe that, then take a look at sweet, gentle Jesus as He comes to the Temple in Jerusalem. The whistling of a whip through the air. Tables overturned. Coins rattling on the pavement. Moneychangers scattering. And in the midst of it, an angry Messiah zealous for the holiness of His Fatherís House.

A jealous and avenging God is the Lord;
The Lord is avenging and wrathful.
The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries,
And He reserves wrath for His enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.
In whirlwind and storm is His way,
And clouds are the dust beneath His feet. (Nahum 1:2-3).

It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:31).

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. (Romans 1:18-19).

Now let me ask you a question. How is the wrath of God revealed? Notice the tense. It is present. It is being revealed right now. Paul says that "the wrath of God is continually being revealed." He is not speaking of a future event. He is speaking about Godís wrath in the present time.

In what ways are Godís wrath being currently revealed? It is revealed in wars and rumors of wars. It is revealed in earthquakes and floods and natural disasters. It is revealed in famines and diseases. But that is not all. It is also revealed in the hearts of men who turn away from God when their hearts are hardened and when they enter a spiraling course into the depths of sin. It is revealed when men deny the truth of God and attempt to suppress it. It is in the release of the individual over to the lusts of his heart (as seen in the three times where "God gave them over" in verse 24, 26 and 28).

For the next three chapters, Paul sets forth how the wrath of God is revealed against sin, whether we are speaking of nice, religious sins or whether we are speaking of gruff and tough pagan sins. This teaching is finally brought to a conclusion in the third chapter.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed (Romans 3:23-25).

That is a long sentence. Indeed, it is a part of an even longer sentence. But we can understand what is being said if we will go through it step by step. First we must note the problem of sin.

"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

The fact that "All have sinned" points to the past. The aorist tense is used. It points to all of the sins of the human race and labels all under sin.

We have all sinned. We have all gone contrary to the will of God. What is sin? The Westminster Catechism defines sin as "any lack of conformity to or transgression of the law of God."

The fact that "All... fall short of the glory of God" is an indication of our present status. This time the tense is in the present. It is not merely that we have sinned in the past. We continue to sin in the present.

Notice that this is a definition of what sin is. It is falling short of the glory of God. The picture is of an archer who shoots an arrow, aiming at the bullís eye. But the arrow falls short, missing the mark to which it was intended. Sin is like that. Sin is missing the mark of what God has demanded.

These two definitions are in parallel. They are saying the same thing.

Sin

=

Falling short of the Glory of God

The mark is perfection. And no one has been perfect. Our tendency is to look only upon relative righteousness. It is as though we decided to have an Olympic event to see who could jump across the Niagara Falls. One man might only be able to jump two feet. I would be able to go further and I might look down my nose at the one who only jumped a short distance and think that I had done very well. And then, an Olympic athlete would come and take a running start and jump a distance of 32.7 feet. His feat was much better than mine. But the goal was to clear the falls. And none of us did that.

God is perfectly righteous. God demands perfect righteousness. The good news is that freely gives that which He demands.

"...being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith." Romans 3:24-25a).

Paul begins this section by saying that we were justified. Weíll speak of what that means in a moment, but before we do, I want you to note the order in which these are presented.

(1) Being Justified...

(2) As a Gift by His Grace.

(3) Through the Redemption in Christ.

(4) Who was Displayed as a Propitiation.

Are these given in the order in which they take place? NO!!!! These are the REVERSE order in which they take place. Paul is starting with justification and going backwards to see what brought about justification and what brought about that thing that brought about justification and what was before that.

Justification

Presupposes that we were previously...

Condemned

Grace

Without merit

Redemption

Enslaved

Propitiation

Deserving of wrath

1. Justified.

What does it mean to be "justified"? If we were to listen to the Roman Catholic Church, we would think that it describes an "infusion of righteousness" - that God saves you and makes you righteous so that you are now acceptable before God.

But this is not what justification is at all. To be justified means that one is "declared to be righteous." This is seen in Luke 7:29 where Jesus is preaching and we read that...

"And when all the people and the tax-gatherers heard this, the ACKNOWLEDGED GOD'S JUSTICE, having been baptized with the baptism of John" (Luke 7:29).

The phrase translated "acknowledged God's justice" is literally, "they JUSTIFIED God." Now, this certainly does not mean that they infused God with righteousness. There is nothing that they could do to make God more righteous than He already is. They did not MAKE God more righteous. They merely declared that He already WAS righteous. And that is what God has done with us. He has declared us to be righteous.

Alfred Dryfus was a Jewish soldier in the army of France, serving on the general staff. In 1894, he was accused and arrested on the charge of selling secrets to the enemies of France. He was tried and condemned as a traitor, court-martialed and sentenced to the French penal colony on Devilís Island.

The friends of Dryfus were unsatisfied with the trial and, because of their protests, a second trial was granted in 1899. Dryfus was again found guilty.

This time, the public dissatisfaction with the trial caused such an outcry that the president of France granted Dryfus a pardon. He was released from Devilís Island and permitted to come home.

However, the stigma of being a traitor still rested upon Dryfus and in 1906 a third trial was held in which Dryfus was completely vindicated. He was declared to be righteous in the eyes of the law. He was reinstated in the French military, promoted to the rank of major, and awarded the French Legion of Honor. This illustrates the difference between a pardon and justification.

Pardon

Justification

Says that you are guilty but suspends the penalty of that guilt.

Declares you to be righteous and without guilt

God does not merely pardon. He justifies. This brings up another question. How can God do this? How can He declare me to be righteous when I am not righteous? It is a gift of His grace.

2. A Gift by His Grace.

Justification is the outgrowth of GRACE. What is grace? Grace is the unmerited favor of God. It is a gift which you have neither earned nor deserved.

Think of this! You were declared to be righteous apart from any merit of righteousness that was in you. You didnít earn your justification. You didnít deserve it. It is a GIFT.

3. Through the Redemption.

The gift of God involved a purchase. This is seen in this word "redemption." This isnít a word we use a lot today. But I can remember a time when Publics Grocery Stores used to give out green stamps. You would collect these stamps until you had a certain amount and then you would go to a special store and you would REDEEM certain items - you would PURCHASE them with the stamps.

Who has been purchased in this passage? WE have! This is the language of a slave market. Slavery was common in the ancient world. A slave had few rights. And he had no hope of freedom - UNLESS - someone were to purchase him and then set him free.

This is the language of liberation! It is popular to speak of liberation theology today, but THIS is true liberation theology! We have been set free from our enslavement to sin.

4. Displayed as a Propitiation.

We have already seen that this term "propitiation" describes the idea of that which appeases or satisfies anger. It is a "satisfaction." An "appeasement." The offering of a sacrifice which satisfies and appeases the wrath of an angry God.

 

PROPITIATION ILLUSTRATED IN THE TEMPLE

Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17).

When you speak of Jesus being a high priest, that takes you back to the Temple and to the greatest function of the high priest. The day of the high priestís ministry took place once a year on Yom Kippur -- the day of atonement.

Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest of Israel would enter into the Holiest of Holies to come before the presence of God. He would bring with him a cup of blood from an animal freshly slain. He would sprinkle that blood upon the Mercy Seat. And that blood would serve as the satisfactory sacrifice for the sins of the nation. A common prayer among the Jews was that "God be to me a Mercy Seat."

The setting for this ministry is described in Hebrews 9.

Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary.

For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place.

Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, 4 having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaronís rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant; 5 and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot now speak in detail. (Hebrews 9:1-5).

Notice the phrase "mercy seat" in verse 5. That is the Greek word ilasthrioV. Neither is this an unusual translation, for every time you see a reference to the Mercy Seat in the Old Testament, it is translated in the Septuagint in this same manner.

What was the Mercy Seat? It was the top of the Ark of the Covenant. This was the seat of God. It served as the throne of God within the Temple. It was called a "seat" in that this was considered to be the throne of God. On either side of this "seat" there were statues of angels. Their wings overshadowed the seat and their faces gazed down toward the seat.

The Ark itself was nothing more than a wooden box overlaid with gold. It originally held the broken pieces of the ten commandments, a pot of manna, and Aaron's rod. Each of these were symbolic.

Once a year, on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the High Priest would enter past the two veils into the Holy of Holies. He would come to the mercy seat. He would sprinkle the blood of goats and calves onto the mercy seat. This would be a satisfactory payment for the sins of the nation - until next year when it all had to be done over again.

This is a picture of what Jesus did for us. He is both sacrifice and high priest.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered in through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; 12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11-12).

Jesus did not offer the blood of animals in a temple. He gave His own blood on the cross.

And then He entered, not a temple, but heaven itself. And He is there today as our High Priest.

In the ancient world, when one thought that he had committed some offense against one of the deities, he would go and offer a sacrifice of appeasement. By doing so, he would try to assuage the anger and the wrath of that deity. Thus, propitiation refers to satisfying the wrath of one who has been offended.

Your sin has offended God. It makes you deserving of the anger and the wrath of God. That is the bad news. The good news is that Jesus was the satisfaction. He satisfied the righteous judgment of God.

On the wall of the Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. is the motto: "When the guilty is acquitted, the judge is condemned."

If God is to be a just God, then He cannot simply forgive sin. It must be judged. Our sin was judged at the cross.

Means

Death of Christ

Place

The Cross

Result

The Remission of Sins

In the Old Testament, the sheep died for the shepherd. In the New Testament, the Shepherd died for the sheep.

 

IMPLICATIONS OF PROPITIATION

My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2).

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10).

The implications of understanding this teaching of propitiation is to know that God isnít angry with you any longer. You are called to cease from your sin, but even if you do sin, you need to know that Jesus has taken the righteous anger of God upon Himself and God has announced that He is satisfied.

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14).

Notice the movement of the passage. It goes from death to life. The most that the Law could ever do was to bring about a ritual cleansing. But Christ does so much more. He cleanses you from the inside out. The result is not that you might go out and "live as you please" but rather that you might go out and live as HE pleases ó that you might serve the living God.


About the Author
Return to the John Stevenson Bible Study Page
Have a Comment?