Today we take a look at the word propitiation. I’m sure you probably went like propi-what? Yup you heard right; propitiation. Today we’re going to explore its use in scripture. What the biblical authors seek to communicate when they use the word and how it all finds its full meaning and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Great, let’s jump right into it.
Propitiation is the action of appeasing a god, spirit or a person. It means to satisfy or ease the anger of an aggrieved party. It refers to the actions taken to make sure the aggressor regains the favor of the aggrieved party. In the Old Testament the word propitiation is not directly used, however the word commonly used that captures the concept of propitiation is the word atonement. The meaning is in the word; ‘At-one-ment’. It means to bring together two estranged parties and make them ‘one’.
When humanity sinned we committed high treason against God. We took the splendor of the created order he had put in our care and handed it over to the enemy. We filled God’s good world with violence and chaos. As such the wrath of God was directed at us. The apostle Paul puts it this way;
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
When the Biblical authors speak about the wrath of God, it should not be understood as an uneasy passion in God like an individual who cannot control his temper. The wrath of God refers to the displeasure of His righteousness, which expresses itself in the punishment of the ungodly and the unrighteous. Remember our post on righteousness? It is precisely because of God’s righteousness that He cannot overlook our unrighteousness. God’s wrath finds its basis in His nature and not mere emotions. It seeks out justice and not vengeance. Its sole aim is to restore God’s world to its good and righteous state.
The Hebrew word for ‘atone’ in the Old Testament is the word kaphar. It conveys the idea of covering. Covering in the sense of concealing and also covering for someone so that they avoid punishment. For instance when Adam and Eve sinned, their shame drove them to hide from God when they realized they were naked but God in response covered their nakedness. For the Biblical authors, because God was the one against whom all sin was committed, only God had the power to cover our sin. They viewed it as a great blessing because the one whose sin God covered was delivered from punishment.
King David in Psalm 32 pens these words with the same view;
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit.
(I’m sure you saw the three key words for sin feature in here didn’t you? Lost? Catch up here )
In the OT atonement for sin was made by sacrificing an unblemished animal on behalf of the one who had committed the sin. This was done by the priest. The unblemished innocent animal was paying the price of death on behalf of the man who presented it. Beyond this, there was also a national day of atonement where the entire sin of the nation was to be dealt with. It involved five sacrificial animals (one bull, two goats and two rams), incense and the purification of the tabernacle of meeting. The blood of the sacrificial lamb would be sprinkled and presented on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant and God would in turn cover the sins of the nation for the year. The mercy seat because of its function became associated with the place of God’s satisfaction. The elaborate nature of these sacrifices, together with the request for unblemished animal substitutes attest to the gravity to which the Old Testament views sin. The downside however is that these sacrifices were a temporary fix to a far-reaching problem. In Hebrews chapter 10 we read;
The old system under the Law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year.
According to the author of Hebrews and the other New Testament authors, the entire Old Testament sacrificial system found its fulfilment only in Christ. In the New Testament three Greek words are often translated propitiation in our English Bibles. They all have the same root word but carry variations of meaning. They are “Hilasmos”,”Hilasterion” and “Hilaskomai”. Hilaskomai is a verb which means to be propitious or to make propitiation for. In other versions it is rendered to be merciful. In Hebrews chapter 2:14-17, the writer concludes that the reason why it was necessary for Christ to become human like us was to make propitiation (hilaskomai) for the sins of humanity. But how exactly did Christ do this? That’s where the other two words come in.
Hilasmos which is a noun and also translated as propitiation in our English Bibles actually means the sacrifice that is used for the act of propitiation. Remember the elaborate sacrifices in the OT? The sacrifice that was required was an animal without spot or blemish. In Jesus Christ, God himself took our place and paid the ultimate price that would meet the demands of justice and righteousness. John the Baptist saw this and described Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. He was the man who knew no sin, the Lamb of God without spot or wrinkle.
We see the apostle John use this word when he is encouraging believers in his 1st epistle. In 1st John 2 we read;
1 John 2:1-2
My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation (Hilasmos) for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
The last of these words is Hilasterion. This one is an interesting one. In its usage it can be substituted for either hilasmos or hilaskomai but it literally means the place where propitiation is made. It carries the idea of location. When the Jewish scholars were translating the Hebrew old testament into Greek, this is the word that was used to translate the Hebrew word “kapporet”. Kapporet was the name of the covering of the Ark of the Covenant (the mercy seat). It was the place where the blood of the lamb was sprinkled in the Old Testament and God would in turn cover the sins of the nation. When Paul the apostle describes what God did for us in and through Jesus this is the word he uses.
In Romans 3:24-25 he says;
…being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation (Hilasterion) by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,.
For Paul, Christ was the place where God finally dealt with the penalty of our sin once and for all. He satisfied the demands of God’s justice. The wrath of God was poured on Him that we may receive mercy. Jesus is our mercy seat!!! When we combine these three words we see that Jesus Christ is God’s act of propitiation, He is the sacrifice for the propitiation and He is the place for propitiation. In Christ God became one of us. That act alone showed God’s seriousness in showing humanity favor. As a sinless man He took upon himself the punishment for our sin. He was the perfect Lamb of God and in Him God now passes over all the sins of those who in faith submit their lives to him.
Today we present to you Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
We hope you make the right choice.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The New King James Version (NKJV).
VOS – Vocabulary of Salvation