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Propitiation (1)

Martin Hayward, Faversham, England

We should never underestimate the importance of that aspect of the work of the Lord Jesus at Calvary known as propitiation. This is because the honour of God, the blessing of men, the introduction of Christ’s millennial Kingdom, and the new heavens and the new earth all depend upon it. When thinking of this vital matter, we need to be clear as to what propitiation actually is. It may be defined as follows: “Propitiation is that aspect of the work of Christ at Calvary whereby He gave to God complete answers to the questions raised by the existence of sin.”

The following verses give seven instances where forms of the word ‘propitiation’ are used:

“God be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk 18.13).

“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” (Rom 3.25).

“That he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2.17).

“For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness” (Heb 8.12).

“And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercy-seat” (Heb 9.5).

“And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn 2.2).

“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4.10).

As we consider this subject in the light of Scripture, we could ask ourselves three main questions:

Why Was Propitiation Necessary?

Because sins offend God

As God is the absolute standard of righteousness and holiness, all deviations from this standard are highly offensive to Him. Such is the intensity of His holiness that the simple mention of it is enough to make the posts of the doors of the temple in Heaven move (Isa 6.3-4). His reaction to sin and iniquity is to turn from it, for He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Hab 1.13). The very presence of sin in the universe is a grief to God.

Because, as Moral Governor of the universe, He must be seen to deal with sins

God has enemies, both devilish and human, and He must be clear of any charge which they may level against Him, suggesting that He has ignored sins or, at least, ignored some sins. Eternity must not be allowed to run its course without this matter being settled. God deals with some sins instantly, but the majority seem to go unpunished. Sentence against an evil work has not been “executed speedily” (Eccl 8.11), since God is longsuffering, and waits to be gracious. This situation might give rise to the charge of indifference to sins, and so God must act to defend His honour.

Because God must have a just basis for continuing to have dealings with sinful men

One of the main purposes of the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement in Israel was that God might continue to dwell amongst His people, despite their uncleanness (Lev 16.16). So it was, also, when Christ was down here. It was only because God was not imputing trespasses, to instantly judge them, but rather was working to reconcile unto Himself, that He was prepared to have dealings with men in the Person of His Son (2 Cor 5.19).

Because if men are to be shown mercy, have their sins forgiven, and be reconciled to God, there must be a righteous basis upon which these things can happen

God declares Himself to be a Saviour God. He cannot be fully satisfied solely by judging men. The fact that “God is light” (1 Jn 1.5) demands that this be done, but “God is love” too (4.8, 16), and delights to manifest Himself in grace.

Because the cycle of sin must be broken

In other words, if there is not to be an eternal succession of creations, falls, remedies for falls, and new creations, then there must be that established which is once-for-all, giving a complete answer to the question of sin. Unless this complete answer is given, the new heavens and new earth will not be safe from disturbance.

How Was Propitiation Achieved?

The ceremonies of the Day of Atonement, as described in Leviticus 16, will help us here. We need to be very careful in our interpretation of them, however. We should remember two things. First, that the Old Testament teaches by way of contrast as well as by comparison. Second, that Christ’s ministry is in connection with a sanctuary which is “not of this building” (Heb 9.11). This means it is not part of the creation of Genesis 1. So, even whilst acting on earth, He was operating in relation to a sphere that is not subject to the limitations of time, space and matter.

In accordance with this, the writer to the Hebrews indicates that the going forth of the Lord Jesus outside the camp was the counterpart of the carrying of the carcase of the sin offering from the altar, where it had been slain, to a place of burning outside the camp (13.11-12). But this particular ritual took place almost at the end of the Day of Atonement proceedings, whereas the Lord Jesus went outside the camp before He died. We may thus say that, in one sense, time is irrelevant as far as the work of Christ is concerned.

Again, what took place at the altar in the court of the tabernacle, before the ark in the Holiest of All, outside the camp at the place of burning, and in the wilderness where the scapegoat was taken and let go, all typified some aspect of the work of Christ. Therefore, place is also irrelevant, and matter is irrelevant too. Christ needed no visible ark to enable Him to convince His Father that His blood had been shed. When the repentant man of Luke 18 appealed to God to be merciful to him (to be gracious towards him on the ground of propitiation made), he went down to his house justified, despite the fact that there was no ark in the temple. With these cautionary remarks in mind, we look now at Leviticus 16, and note the major parts of the ceremonies of that day which contributed towards making propitiation; the great end for which they were carried out.

A suitable sin offering was brought near

We should remember that the word “offer” that is used of the bullock for Aaron and his household in Leviticus 16.6 means ‘to bring near’. A sacrifice must be offered before it can be laid on the altar. The blood that purges the conscience of God’s people is the blood of One who “offered himself without spot to God” (Heb 9.14), that is, of One who presented Himself for sacrifice in all the spotlessness of His person, confident that He met the approval of His God.

An offering was made sin

In Leviticus 16.9, in connection with the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, we are introduced to an additional thought, for a different word for “offer” is used; one which simply means ‘to make’. So, since the Hebrew word for ‘sin’ is the same as the word for “sin offering”, we could think of the phrase “offer him for a sin offering” as meaning ‘make him sin’. This being the case, we may learn God’s attitude to sin by His attitude to the animal. The apostle Paul takes up this thought when, referring to Christ’s work at Calvary, he declares that God “hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5.21).

It is exceedingly solemn to think that God’s reaction to sin became His reaction to Christ. Such is the intensity of God’s hatred of sin, and such is His determination to deal with it, that He “spared not his own Son” (Rom 8.32); not shielding Him at all from the fury of His anger, not lessening the penalty, nor relieving the pain. Who can tell the agony of Christ’s soul when He was dealt with by God as if He were sin! Of course, He remained personally what He always had been, pure and holy, just as the sin offering is said to be most holy (Lev 6.17), but He was made sin as our representative.

(To be continued …)


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