In my last article in this series, we looked at the word justification, or justified. In this article, we’ll consider another “big, churchy” Christian Speak word: propitiation.
When we think about the good news (i.e., the gospel) that is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we need to think about why He is good news. One aspect of why Jesus is good news is that on the cross, He paid the penalty for our sins. It’s important to note that God never overlooks sin; by His nature, He must punish sin. Although all believers escape God’s wrath and suffer no condemnation, God still had to punish our sin. He did this by pouring out His wrath on His Son, wrath that we deserved. 1 John 4:10 states this very well: “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.”
The original Greek word for propitiation is hilasterion (pronounced hil-as-tay'-ree-on). It means “relating to an appeasing or expiating, having placating or expiating force, expiatory; a means of appeasing or expiating.” In other words, Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on the cross was an acceptable payment for the punishment of our sins; His sacrifice appeased God’s wrath.
While most versions of the Bible use the word propitiation, some translate this word differently. For example, the NIV translates it as “an atoning sacrifice” rather than propitiation. Although this does not present the full force of what Christ has done for us (in my opinion), it does use language that points back to the Old Testament and the shadow of the Law that pointed to Christ.
Hebrews 9 says, “1 Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. 2 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. 3 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 Aaron’s 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.” The same Greek word that is used for propitiation is used for the words “mercy seat” in v. 5.
In Leviticus 16, God gave instructions in the Law that provided atonement for the high priest (Aaron at the time) as well as for all Israel. This was accomplished by sprinkling the blood of a bull (for Aaron’s and his family’s sins) and the blood of a goat (for the people’s sins) on the mercy seat. It reads, in part, as follows: “15 “Then he shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 He shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel and because of their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and thus he shall do for the tent of meeting which abides with them in the midst of their impurities.”
What a beautiful picture of Christ this is! The ceremony that was done by the high priest once a year in the tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies, pointed to what Christ would do on the cross. Under the Law, this had to be done every year, which served as a constant reminder to the Israelites that they were sinful and that God’s wrath had to be appeased. This was accomplished by sprinkling the blood of bulls and goats on the “mercy seat”, which served as a picture of the true sacrifice that would be the real propitiation for our sins.
Unlike the Law, however, God’s New Covenant is better. Rather than types and shadows, Christ is the reality to which the Law pointed. Hebrews 10 puts it this way:
“1 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. 5 Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, But a body You have prepared for Me; 6 In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure. 7 “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (In the scroll of the book it is written of Me) To do Your will, O God.’” 8 After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), 9 then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. 10 By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Note also that this sacrifice was a one time sacrifice. Hebrews 10 goes on to explain:
“11 Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, And on their mind I will write them,” He then says, 17 “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” 18 Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
Brothers and sisters, it simply does not get any better than this! Christ’s once for all time atoning sacrifice, His propitiation for our sins, has perfected us who believe in Him. Because we have forgiveness, there no longer needs to be further offering for sin. Notice also that God’s forgiveness is not passive, but active. He says He will remember our sins no more. He does not forget; rather, He actively remembers them no more. Our God is an awesome God!
Well, now you have yet another word in your Christian vocabulary. Consider all of the above, and how much that God has done for us in Christ is wrapped up in that one single word, propitiation. Now, when you hear this word, not only will you understand what it means, but you’ll also have an expanded appreciation of our sin and just how much Christ’s death on the cross meant to appeasing the wrath of God that we deserved.