We should never underestimate the importance of that aspect of the work of the Lord Jesus at Calvary which is known as propitiation. This is because the honour of God, the blessing of men, the introduction of Christ’s millenial kingdom, and the new heaven 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 the covering of sins to God’s satisfaction”.
There are seven references to this subject in the New Testament, and they are as follows- Luke 18:13, (“merciful”); Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17, (translated “reconciliation”); Hebrews 8:12, (“merciful” means propitious); Hebrews 9:5, (“mercy-seat” means place of propitiation); 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10
As we consider this subject in the light of the Scriptures, we could ask ourselves three main questions-
1. Why was propitiation necessary?
2. How was propitiation achieved?
3. What are the results of propitiation?
1. 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, Isaiah 6:4. His reaction to sin and iniquity is to turn from it, for He is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and who cannot look upon sin, Habakkuk 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 that suggests 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 have gone unpunished. Sentence against an evil work has not been executed speedily, Ecclesiastes 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 them despite their uncleanness, Leviticus 16:16. So also when Christ was down here. It was only because God was not imputing trespasses so as 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. See 2 Corinthians 5:19.
Because if men are to be shown mercy, have their sins forgiven, and be reconciled to God, there must be a solid 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” demands that this be done, but “God is love” too, 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 fall, and new creations, then there must be that established which is once for all, giving the complete answer to the question of sin. Unless this complete answer is given, the new heaven and earth will not be safe from disturbance.
We may now ask our second question:
HOW WAS PROPITIATION ACHIEVED?
The ceremonies of the Day of Atonement as described in Leviticus chapter 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 comparison as well as by contrast. Second, that Christ’s ministry is in connection with a sanctuary which is “not of this building”, Hebrews 9:11. That means it is not part of the creation of Genesis chapter one. So even whilst acting on earth, He was operating in relation to a sphere that is not subject to the limitations of time, space, or matter.
For instance, 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. 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 say then that in one sense time is irrelevant as far as the work of Christ was 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. Place is irrelevant, too.
And so is matter irrelevant. 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, (or, 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 those major parts of the ceremonies of that day which contribute towards making propitiation, the great end for which they were carried out.
A SUITABLE SIN OFFERING WAS BROUGHT NEAR
We must remember that the word “offer” that is used 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”, Hebrews 9:10. That is, He presented Himself for sacrifice in all the spotlessness of His person, confident that He met the approval of His God. We are reminded of the words of the psalmist when he said, “Search me O God, and try my heart”, Psalm 139:23. The Lord Jesus is the only one who could utter such words in the confidence that nothing contrary to God would be found in Him. In this He is so different to Aaron, or as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, He is “separate from sinners”, for Aaron could not present himself to God, he must present a substitute, Hebrews 7:27. Nor could that substitute bring itself, having no consciousness of God’s demands. Christ has no such limitations, however, for He offered Himself, as Aaron could not do, and as an animal would not do.
AN OFFERING WAS MADE FOR SIN
In Leviticus 16:9 a different word for offer is used, one which simply means to make. So the animal, having had the sins of Aaron and his household figuratively transferred to it, is by that act made to represent those sins. Whatever happens to the animal subsequently happens to the sin. The apostle Paul takes up this thought in 2 Corinthians 5:21 when 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”. It is exceedingly solemn to think that whatever God’s reaction to our sin was, became His reaction to Christ as the sinner’s substitute. So we may learn in the fullest sense what God’s reaction to sin is by looking to the cross where He forsook His Son and poured out His wrath upon Him. 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”, 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, Leviticus 6:17, but He was made sin as our representative.
THE OFFERING WAS SLAIN AND ITS BLOOD SHED “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul”, Leviticus 17:11. Such are the words of God to His people, teaching us that the shedding of blood is vitally important, for “Without shedding of blood is no remission”, Hebrews 9:22. Accordingly, that sins might be dealt with, Christ “poured out His soul unto death”, Isaiah 53:12. He willingly laid down His life in accordance with His Father’s commandment, John 10:18.
THE CARCASE WAS BURNT
Having been presented to God as a living animal at the altar, and having been slain and its blood retained, the animal’s corpse must be taken to the outside place, that it may be subjected to the fires of Divine holiness until nothing is left. How significant the contrast to Christ. For He was subjected to the Divine Fires whilst still alive, on the cross. How He must have suffered! Can we begin to take it in? Will not all eternity be needed to set forth what He was prepared to endure in love for our souls? But endure He did, and exhausted the fire of God’s wrath against our sins.
THE BLOOD WAS SPRINKLED
We come now to the central action on the Day of Atonement, the sprinkling of the blood both of the bullock for Aaron and his house, and the goat for the nation of Israel, on the mercy-seat, or “the place for the covering of sin”. If God covers sins, then they are put completely out of His sight. We ought not to think of this covering as a temporary thing, or else we shall have difficulty understanding why God declared that Israel was cleansed from all their sins that day, Leviticus 16:30. It is true that the Scripture says that “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins”, Hebrews 10:, but what that blood symbolises, even the blood of Christ, can. And that not only after Calvary, but before as well.
Now when the writer to the Hebrews referred to this mercy-seat, he used the Greek word which means propitiatory, the place where God is propitiated in regard to sins, and where those sins are atoned for. This makes clear that he did not see a distinction between covering and propitiating. There was a two-fold significance to this, however, as indicated by the two-fold sprinkling of each kind of blood, that of the bullock and of the goat. The blood sprinkled on the mercy-seat was to satisfy the demands of God, so that instead of anger because of sins, He could be merciful in dealing with them. This was because the blood was a reminder to God that a suitable sin-offering had been slain, and burnt in the fire. The blood sprinkled before the mercy-seat was to meet the needs of the Israelites, for it established a footing for them in the presence of God based upon the shedding of blood.
So with the work of Christ. He has fully met every demand that God could make about sins. As one of the Persons of the Godhead, He has Divine insight into God’s requirements, and He has fully met those requirements. We are assured of this because He has set Himself down with confidence at the right hand of the Majesty on high- He purged sins in harmony with the Majesty of God. But He has also established a sure footing in the presence of God for those who believe, so that the apostle Paul; can speak of the grace wherein we stand, Romans 5:1. So dominant is the idea of grace with regard to that position, that the apostle uses the word grace to describe it. Only those who have “received the atonement”, Romans 5:11, are in that secure place before God.
THE SINS WERE CONFESSED AND CARRIED AWAY
The sin-offering for the people consisted of two goats, one for the Lord’s interests, and one for theirs. One, as we have seen, was slain so that blood could be sprinkled on the mercy-seat. The other was called the scape-goat, or goat that was dismissed and went away. There was no double sin-offering for Aaron and his house, for he had seen the blood on the mercy-seat, and since he had not died, he knew it had been accepted, and his sins were gone. The rest of Israel did not have that experience, however, and so to reassure them, they were able to see Aaron lay his hands on their goat, confess over it their sins, and then watch the goat, which carried its dreadful load of their sins, disappear into the wilderness, guided by a man whose fitness lay in his ability to take the animal to a place from which it could not return. The writer to the Hebrews takes up these things in Hebrews 9:25-28, where he speaks of Christ appearing to “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself”- this is the counterpart of the blood on the mercy-seat. Then he speaks of Christ “bearing the sins of many”, and now he is thinking of the scapegoat. When the Lord Jesus was forsaken of His God upon the Cross, He was in a moral position equal to that of the scapegoat, which was accepted as an offering, but rejected because of the load it bore.
Just as there are two goats for the people, so there are two men acting on their behalf. There was Aaron, who went into the sanctuary with the blood of the slain goat, and there was the fit man, going into the wilderness with the live goat. The return of Aaron from the presence of God signified that sins were dealt with satisfactorily Godward, for he had not died. The return of the fit man, without the goat, signified that the burden of sin was removed from the people. An alternative rendering of the expression “fit man” is “a man standing ready”. So before John the Baptist announced the Lord Jesus to be the lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world, he described Him as “one standing among you”- He was standing ready to do the work of Calvary at the time of His Father’s appointment.
WHAT ARE THE RESULTS OF PROPITIATION?
THE DEMANDS OF GOD WERE FULLY MET
To satisfy God as the Moral Governor of the universe, an adequate and final answer must be found to the question of sin. The demands of His holiness and righteousness are such that every sin must be responded to. Only Christ is adequate for this situation. He it is who has “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself”, Hebrews 9:26. To put away in that verse means to abolish. As far as God is concerned, and in this context, sin is not. No charge can henceforth be made against God that He has ignored the presence of sin. On the contrary, He has taken account of each and every sin through his Son’s work at Calvary. John wrote, “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world”, 1 John 2:2. Of course “the sins of” is in italics in that verse. But the words must be supplied because they are implied in the “ours” of the previous statement. If John had written “not for us only”, then he could have continued “but also for the whole world”. Since, however, he uses the possessive pronoun “ours”, then “the sins of” must be inserted. Now the apostle will write later that “we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness”, 1 John 5:19. He sees mankind divided into two clearly defined sections, believers, and the whole world. The same whole world whose sins God took account of at Calvary.
GOD’S DEALINGS WERE VINDICATED
In Old Testament times God blessed men by reckoning them righteous when they believed in Him. Romans 3:24,25 indicates that the propitiatory work of Christ vindicates God for so acting. In can be seen now that God was blessing anticipatively, crediting believers with the results of Christ’s work before they had been achieved. He also remitted, or passed over, their sins in forbearance, holding back from judging those sins in virtue of what His Son would do at Calvary.
GOD’S GLORY IS FULLY DISPLAYED
There is no attribute of God which has not been fully expressed at Calvary. This is why the apostle Paul speaks of rejoicing in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement, Romans 5:11. Atonement in this verse means reconciliation, one of the effects of propitiation. By His sacrificial work at Calvary Christ has brought the character of God out into full and glorious display. Those who are brought by faith into the good of that work are enabled to behold that display, and rejoice in it. Would we know Divine holiness, or righteousness, or love, or wrath, or any other aspect of the Person of God? Then we must look to the cross for the sight of it. We shall not be disappointed.
GOD’S MERCY IS AVAILABLE
The repentant sinner who called upon God to be merciful to him, is the first person in the New Testament to use the word propitious- “God be merciful to me on the basis of propitiation”. He went down to his house justified, Luke 18:13,14. Under the terms of the New Covenant, God promises that “I will be merciful (propitious) to their unrighteousness, Hebrews 8:12. The mercy-seat was the same width and breadth as the ark, telling us that the ark (the person of Christ) and the mercy-seat, (the work of Christ), were perfectly matched. But we are not told the thickness or depth of the gold of the mercy-seat, for there is an infinite supply of mercy for those who believe, enough to keep them secure for all eternity.
GOD’S FORGIVENESS IS ASSURED
In Hebrews 10:5-8 we have the Spirit of Christ in the psalmist telling of His work of sacrifice. Then we have the Spirit’s testimony telling us of the results of that work, Hebrews 10:15-17. God promises emphatically that He will not remember the sins and iniquities of His people any more, since He brought those sins into remembrance at Calvary, and Christ dealt with them effectively there. “No more” means in no way, nor at any time. Note that God pledges to positively not remember, not negatively to forget. We may forget, and then remember again, whereas God promises never to remember for ever.
GOD’S PEOPLE ARE PRESERVED
The Lord Jesus spoke in the Upper Room of His brethren, then indicated that He was about to “ascend to My Father, and your Father, to My God, and your God”, John 20:17. Thus He would still be the link between his people and God, maintaining them in His dual role of Advocate with the Father, and High Priest in things pertaining to God.
The basis of His advocacy is two-fold. His person, for He is Jesus Christ the righteous, and His work, for He is the propitiation for our sins, 1 John 2:1,2. The apostle John was concerned about believers sinning. The sins of believers are just as obnoxious to God, and just as deserving of wrath, as those of unbelievers. But we are “saved from wrath through Him”, Romans 5:9, as He pleads the merits of His work. He is, says John, the propitiatory offering for our sins. Not was, but is. In other words, the one who acts for us in heaven as our advocate, is the very same one who hung upon the cross as a sacrifice for our sins.
He is also our High priest. The language of Hebrews 2:17,18- “Wherefore in all things it behoved Him to be made like unto His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted”. These verses form a bridge between chapter two, with its emphasis on the reasons why the Lord Jesus took manhood, and the way in which Israel were tempted in the wilderness. Note in particular the word “for” which begins verse 18-too little attention has been paid to this word, and hence the connection between verses 17 and 18 is often lost. The reason why we have a high priest who is merciful and faithful is that He has been here in manhood and suffered being tempted. When His people pass through temptation, then He undertakes to deal with their cause. Because He has been here, and has been tempted in all points like as we are, He is able to help us when we cry to Him for help. The word for succour is used by the woman of Canaan in Matthew 15:25 when she cried out, “Lord, help me”. He is able to point us to the ways in which He overcame in the wilderness temptation, and thus we are strengthened to resist temptation.
But what if we fall, and sin? In that case He comes to our aid in another way. We see it typified negatively in Leviticus 10:16-20. The priests were commanded to eat the sin-offerings, if the blood thereof had not been brought into the sanctuary. But at the end of the consecration of the priesthood, Moses was angry on God’s behalf, for the priests had failed in this. Moses said, “God hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord”, Leviticus 10:17. One of the functions of priesthood, then, was to personally identify with the sin-offering by eating it, and by so doing bear the iniquity of the congregation, taking responsibility for their failure, but doing so safeguarded by the fact that a sin-offering had been accepted by God. As they did this the scripture explicitly says they made atonement for the people, Leviticus 10:17. We see then what the writer to the Hebrews means when he talks of Christ making reconciliation or propitiation for the sins of the people. He is indicating that Christ personally identifies Himself with His sin-offering work at Calvary, and thus takes responsibility for the failures of His people under temptation. This is acceptable to God, and His people are preserved, despite their failure.
GOD’S PURPOSE FOR THE EARTH IS FURTHERED
When Adam the head of the first creation fell, all creation had to be subjected to vanity, or else a fallen man would have been head over an unfallen creation. Now that He has obtained rights over the earth by His death, the Lord Jesus is able to bring in new conditions for God. He can now righteously deliver the present creation from the bondage of corruption that the fall of man brought it into, Romans 8:19-23. Colossians 1:20 assures us that on the basis of the blood of His cross, all things, whether in earth or in heaven, can be reconciled to God, for that alienation between God and His creation which took place at the Fall, can be remedied.
GOD’S INTENTION TO CREATE A NEW HEAVEN AND A NEW EARTH CAN BE REALISED Unless the sin which has marred the first creation is dealt with, God cannot righteously introduce an eternal earth and heavens, for it would not have been evident that He was able to deal with the fall of the first creation. Having dealt with it through Christ, He is able to bring in new things that will never be spoiled. Daniel was told that Messiah the Prince would bring in “everlasting righteousness”, Daniel 9:24, and this He will do, on the basis of His death. It only remains for God to announce “Behold, I make all things new”, Revelation 21:5, and a “New heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness”, will be established, 2 Peter 3:13. At last there will be a settled and congenial place for righteous to dwell in, after all the turmoil brought in by Adam’s sin. At last those profound words spoken by John the Baptist will be fully brought to pass- “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”, John 1:29.