Propitiation is that part of the work of reconciliation which deals with the barrier of God’s holiness, the obstacle erected or caused by man’s sin. Thus, the holiness of God becomes a key part in removing the alienation or enmity against God.
Holiness is the most central and epitomizing character or attribute of God’s being. Not even love or grace surpass it. In defense of this statement we should note that God is called holy more than anything else in Scripture. As an epithet to God’s name “holy” is found the most. In fact, “holy” is one of the names of God. In Isaiah 57:15 we read, “For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy …” (cf. Exod. 15:11; Psa. 30:4, 47:8, 48:1, 89:35; Lev. 11:44-45, 19:2; Isa. 5:16; Rev. 15:4; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).
(1) The Derivation: The Hebrew word for holiness or holy is qadosh which contains the basic idea of separation or apartness, and then “sacred, holy.” The Greek word for holy is hagios which similarly, in its most fundamental meaning, means “separate, set apart.” Hagios was used of what was separated from the secular world to a sacred and set apart place.
(2) The Definition: Negatively, holiness is that perfection in the being of God which totally separates Him from all that is evil and defiling. As we call gold pure when it is free from any dross or other metals, so the nature and actions of God are 100% free from any impurity or evil of any kind. Light is a symbol of God’s holiness and so John wrote, “God is light and in Him is no (none whatsoever) darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Positively, holiness stands for the absolute integrity and purity of the being and nature of God. It means God must always think and act in a way that is consistent with His perfect righteousness and justice, what we might call the executive and judicial branches of God’s pure holiness.
(3) The Description and Application of God’s Holiness in Relation to Salvation: (1) Holiness is an essential and necessary perfection of God. This means God’s holiness is not maintained by an act of God’s will. God does not choose to be holy because He wants to. God always thinks and acts in a holy manner because He is inherently holy. God wills holiness because He is holy and not in order to be holy. He cannot be anything else. (2) God’s holiness means He can never approve of anything evil, but that He perfectly, necessarily, universally, and perpetually abhors evil. (3) God’s holiness in its outworking and manifestation in history has two branches or aspects. There is the legislative side, God’s perfect righteousness, and the judicial side, His perfect justice. (4) Because God is perfect righteousness, He cannot have fellowship with anything less than His own perfect righteousness (Hab. 1:13; Isa. 59:2). God is offended by man’s sin. Thus, because God is also perfect justice, He must by His own character condemn, pass judgment and the penalty of death (spiritual and eternal) and separation upon the sinner who falls short of God’s righteousness (Rom. 3:9-23). Therefore, propitiation is that part of God’s work of reconciliation in Christ which deals with satisfying the holiness of God. Propitiation is toward God.
(4) Definition of Propitiation: Propitiation is the doctrine or truth that the person and death of Jesus Christ appeased, turned away, God’s wrath, satisfied His holiness, and so met God’s righteous demands that the sinner can be reconciled into God’s holy presence.
(5)The Description of Propitiation and the Problem it Solves: The problem of antinomy—the contradiction of opposing laws or attributes—love and grace versus righteousness and justice. God is perfect love and grace and desires to forgive and bless the sinner. He desires to bestow His love and grace on man. But God is also perfect holiness and because of man’s condition in sin, He must judge the sinner. God’s own character or attributes, His holiness and love, stand in opposition to each other. God’s attributes are infinite, absolute, and immutable. This means neither God’s love nor His holiness can be bypassed at the expense of one over the other. All must be satisfied. In His love, God cannot accept the sinner to Himself and bypass His holiness, but neither can God in His holiness bypass His love and send the sinner to the Lake of Fire without providing a solution. All aspects of the character of God must be satisfied. Therefore, in His perfect wisdom, power, love, grace, and holiness, God provided the person and work of His own Son, the Lord Jesus, who by His life and death reconciled the conflict (antinomy) of God attributes.
God’s righteousness is satisfied by the person of Christ and His life. Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law. He was without sin and lived in perfect righteousness and harmony with the will of God. At His baptism, the Father said, “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Here God the Father verified the sinlessness of Jesus and showed that He was qualified by His person and life to begin His ministry. By the miraculous events surrounding the cross, the darkness, the shaking of the earth, the rending of the veil, and the resurrection of Christ, the Father further showed that Christ was not only qualified to be our sin bearer, but that He had successfully satisfied the holiness of God and had dealt with man’s sin (1 John 2:1-2; Heb. 2:17;1 Pet. 1:18).
God’s justice, which requires judgment for sin, is likewise satisfied by the death of Christ as the substitutionary payment for our sin (Rom. 3:25-26). Christ’s death redeemed and expiated man from sin and its penalty by His judicial substitutionary death—the innocent for the guilty. As our substitute He bore our penalty. This satisfied the requirements of God’s justice.
God is now free to bestow His love and grace on the unworthy sinner and still act in harmony with His holiness because Jesus Christ satisfied the demands of God’s holy character (Rom. 3:25-26). The cross is much more than the display of God’s love; it is also the supreme display of God’s absolute holiness. It shows that God could by no means still be just and accept the sinner apart from the person, life, and death of Christ.
(6) The Greek words used for propitiation and their significance:
Hilasmos: This word occurs two times, once in 1 John 2:2 and once in 1 John 4:10. It means “an appeasement, a satisfaction, or a propitiation.” It may also refer to the means of propitiation or satisfaction. Jesus Christ is the means and only means of satisfying God’s holiness and appeasing His holy wrath.
Hilasterion: This noun occurs twice also, once in Romans 3:25 and once in Hebrews 9:5. The ending of this word, terion, often indicates a place of something, i.e., the place of propitiation or satisfaction. Hilasterion is used in Hebrews 9:5 of the mercy seat which covered the ark. The mercy seat was the lid to the ark of the covenant which stood in the Holy of Holies into which the High Priest of the Old Testament could go but once a year and then not without the blood of an animal that had been shed at the altar of sacrifice. This all foreshadowed and spoke of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
First, there was the location of the ark. The ark was located in the center of the Holy of Holies just as Jesus Christ is the center of life and the heart of our salvation. All things revolve around and depend on Him; He is the center of our life.
Second, there were the materials of the ark. It was a wooden box of acacia wood overlaid within and without with gold. Acacia wood was practically incorruptible and this naturally spoke of Jesus Christ in His humanity without sin, without corruption. It was a product of the earth, but it was not subject to any chemical action which could cause it to rot. Thus, the Lord had a real human body, but by the virgin birth He was not subject to the normal laws of genetics and the inheritance of a sinful nature. The gold, of course, spoke of His deity. So as the gold and the wood were united into one, yet separate and distinct, they spoke of Jesus Christ as the God-man. The gold within and without spoke of Christ’s perfection and glory.
Third, there was the function of the ark. The ark represented God’s throne. He did not sit upon it in a literal sense, but He dwelt between the cherubim which stood on top of the ark on the mercy seat. In Psalm 99: we read, “The LORD reigns, let the peoples tremble; He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake!” This naturally represented the holy presence of God.
Fourth, there were the contents of the ark. Hebrews 9:4 tells us that it contained three items all of which spoke of Jesus Christ, of God’s provision, and of man’s sin and failure.
The Golden Jar holding manna: This spoke of Christ as the bread from heaven, the life-giver and prophet of God who came to earth to reveal the Father (John 6:32-35). But it also stood for and reminds us of man’s sin and failure. In view of Israel’s history in the desert, it spoke of the leanness of soul, or soul barrenness and spiritual revolt that occurs when men seek their happiness in this world and its things rather than in the Lord and His Word (Deut. 8:3; Num. 11:1-6; Psa. 106:15 [KJV]).
Aaron’s rod that budded: Aaron was the High Priest and the budding of his staff spoke of Christ as our priest offering Himself and representing man before God as our great High Priest. The budding speaks of Christ’s resurrection, His authority, and the eternal nature and validity of His priesthood. The resurrection proves that the Father was satisfied with both the person and work of Jesus Christ and that He continually remains our means of access and acceptance with God. Let us not forget, however, that the occasion for the budding of the rod was the rebellion of Korah and the grumbling of Israel against God’s authority and appointment of His servants to positions of authority (Num. 16:-17:10). Again, it stands for man’s sin and rebellion.
The Tablets of the Covenant: Literally “The stone tablets.” These tablets represented the Law and stood for the fact that Israel was a theocracy under the rule and authority of God. As such, they also spoke of Jesus Christ as King and of His right to rule over the earth as King of Kings. He was born a King, He lived as a King rejected, He died as a King, and He returned as King of Kings in His Parousia (AD 66-70), and now and forever reigns on His heavenly throne in the unseen realm over the reunited Kingdom (seen/church realm and unseen/heavenly realm)(Eph. 1:10 fulfilled).
The Law also stood for the Holiness of God, but it also pointed to the sinfulness of man, hopelessly separated from God in himself.
We can see, therefore, how each item first spoke of Jesus Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King, but also we must see how it spoke of man’s failure and need of Christ as that One who reveals God, represents us before God, and who alone can reign over us in perfect righteousness.
Fifth, there was the lid to the Ark, the mercy seat and the cherubim of glory. There were actually two articles of furniture in the Holy of Holies. They appeared as one, but on closer examination they were two, the Ark and the mercy seat which furnished a top for the Ark. Its material was solid gold, including the cherubim which were seen coming out of the mercy seat on either end. The Hebrew word for mercy seat is kapporeth which meant a propitiatory place or a covering. It formed a covering for the Ark and was the place where the blood was to be sprinkled. This pictured the covering of sin by the blood which propitiated God’s holiness and thereby represented God as passing over sin. This was done, however, with a view to Christ’s death which would remove the sin problem once and for all and satisfy the holy demands of God (Rom. 3:25-26). The emphasis of the word “mercy seat” is not that of a covering or lid, but a place of propitiation.
The mercy seat typified the divine throne and the place where God communed with Israel. God did not sit on the mercy seat but hovered above it between the two cherubim in the form of the Shekinah cloud or glory, the manifestation of the divine presence of God.
The two cherubim stood with wings outstretched and forward over the mercy seat. This portrayed the holiness of God. Undoubtedly one cherubim represented the perfect righteousness of God, signifying that God, as perfect righteousness, could not have fellowship with sinful man. The other represented His perfect justice and signified that He must condemn and judge man in sin as represented in the contents of the Ark.
The lid or seat was transformed from a throne of judgment to one of propitiation and mercy by the action of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. On this day, blood that had come from the offering of a bullock and a goat on the altar of sacrifice was brought within the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the mercy seat and before the Ark. This was done first for the High Priest himself and then for the people. The blood satisfied the holiness of God because it represented the merit of the person and work of Christ symbolized by the bullock and the goat which had been offered on the altar of sacrifice. Christ as our substitute satisfied the holiness of God, therefore, God would pass over the sin of the Old Testament saints with a view to who Christ would be and what He would do as the means of propitiation (Rom. 3:24-26).
Hilaskomai. This is the verb form and the final word used for the concept of propitiation. It means “to make propitiation” or “be propitiated.” It is used in Hebrews 2:17 and in Luke 18:13. The Luke passage is especially significant. This is the passage of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax collector). The Pharisee thought in his own self-righteousness that he had something by which he could be received before God, something which could change God’s attitude toward him and make him acceptable to God. By contrast, the Publican literally said, “Oh God, be propitiated to me, a sinner.” This man realized because of his sin and God’s perfect righteousness that he had nothing that could satisfy and meet the just and righteous demands of God. By his prayer he was confessing his sin and, by faith, he was trusting in the Levitical offerings which, portraying the death of Christ, could alone propitiate or meet the holy demands of God. Christ said that this man, the Publican, went down to his house justified.
Propitiation is the Godward aspect of the value of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Redemption, as we will see, is sinward, reconciliation is manward, and propitiation is Godward. Therefore, because God is propitiated by the work of Christ, He is free to justify the sinner and accept him into His presence (Rom. 3:25-26).
Propitiation: The atoning death of Jesus on the cross, through which He paid the penalty demanded by God because of man’s sin, thus setting mankind free from sin and death. The word comes from an old English word, propitiate, which means “to appease.” Thus, propitiation expresses the idea that Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for sin which a holy God demanded of man the sinner. Not only did Jesus pay the price for our sins, but redeemed us by His physical shed blood on the cross. We have been bought! Although Jesus was free of sin, He took all our sins upon Himself and redeemed us from the penalty of death which our sins demanded. Jesus Christ is the Propitiation for the sins of all faithful believers.
Propitiation is the mercy of God shown towards those who deserve death. It is vindicating us sinners. It is recognizing that sinful man owes a debt to God who was wronged, and payment being made in full to appease the earned and deserved wrath of God. It is settling our account in full with God. It is accomplished by Jesus Christ doing all of the atoning work for us. It is the concept of God be appeased and showing mercy and yet doing so by fulfilling His justice.
“21But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a PROPITIATION by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed.” (Rom. 3:21-25).
Apostle John wrote that Christ was the Propitiation for the sins of those to whom he was writing; and not only them but for all faithful believers in the world. All Christians are shown mercy and saved from punishment, while at the same time God’s justice is served. All of this is only through Jesus Christ our Savior.
“2And He Himself is the PROPITIATION for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2).
“10 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).
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became a human that He might be the merciful and faithful High Priest to atone once and for all the full payment for sin, which is then applied to every faithful believer for the full payment of their sins. His Propitiation is for all faithful believers (Jews and Gentiles; rich and poor; etc., who put their faith in Christ). It applies to any faithful believer in the whole world going forward in human history.
“17Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make PROPITIATION for the sins of the people.” (Heb. 2:17).
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[For a more in-depth study see salvation/soteriology “Study Series 1 Meaning, Need and Scope of Salvation”]