Mankind has offended against his Creator God. Adam’s trepass in Eden brought defilement into that beautiful scene, spoiling that which Elohim had just pronounced “very good”. The man and the woman exercised their wills in independence from God, succumbing to the temptation of Satan in the form of a serpent, whose earlier offense of pride and independence had already defiled the heavens, that is, the spiritual realm. From that time up until now, even “the heavens are not pure” in God’s sight, and the earth manifestly suffers under the curse brought about by sin.¹
God has been dishonored by His creatures; His rights or claims over them have been called into question, and the surpassing glory of His name has been profaned. Scripture texts such as Leviticus 20:3 make clear to us that man’s wickedness brings both defilement to God’s sanctuary, where He dwells, and the profaning of His holy name. This state of things in the universe could not continue to subsist without remediation. God’s holiness and His glory could not allow it. In Isaiah 48:11, we find that Jehovah must, for His own name’s sake, maintain His own exclusive glory and the sacredness of His name. Based on relevant scripture passages which give us insight into God’s purposes and ways, we can suppose (with no desire to limit Him) that He had perhaps only two alternatives: He could choose to annihilate the universe He created, banishing all the spirits of men and of angels to that “place prepared for the Devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), and dwell forever alone in that realm of “unapproachable light”. Or God could choose to find (and praise be to Him forever that He has found) a righteous means of propitiating Himself with respect to the dishonor done to Him, so that His glory among His creatures might be vindicated; so that He could after all cleanse the defilement of evil from the heavens and the earth; and so that He would be able to righteously reach down to sinful man, offering mercy and pardon where man’s sin and rebellion had ruined everything.
What does it mean for someone to be propitiated? It is not a word or concept that we often use, but an attempt to explain it simply might go like this: When a person is propitiated, his anger is appeased by means of a sacrificial act or gift, so that his attitude or demeanor is changed from anger to good-will toward the one(s) who wronged him.* So, God set forth the Lord Jesus Christ as a propitiation (Romans 3:25-26), in order that, on the principle of faith in Jesus’ blood, God can both “be just (righteous), and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” Christ became the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world (I John 2:2). Every sin ever committed against God, defiling His sanctuary and profaning His name, received a righteous answer when Christ fully glorified God by dying on the cross and shedding His infinitely precious blood. As a result, God can now righteously show mercy and offer forgiveness and reconcilation to all members of the fallen human race.
On the great Day of Atonement, two goats were needed to adequately (though not perfectly) portray that which the suffering and death of Christ on the cross would accomplish for God and for man. The first goat was specifically for Jehovah, and the second goat was for the people, called the “scapegoat”. (The scapegoat aspect of the atonement has to do with man’s need of Christ’s sin-bearing or substitutionary work, which is not the subject of this article, but may be addressed in the future.) After the high priest made atonement for himself and his household, he was to kill that first goat and bring its blood into the holiest of all, sprinkling it on the mercy-seat, a term that translates into Greek as hilastérion in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, showing it to be synonymous with the term propitiation.² The priest’s act of sprinkling the blood would propitiate Jehovah with respect to all the sins His people had committed in the previous year. “And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness” (Leviticus 16:16). The sanctuary, where God dwelt in the midst of Israel, was defiled, and needed to be ceremonially cleansed each year in order that the honor of His name and the glory of His majesty might be maintained among His people, who were to bear testimony of Him to the nations (Deut. 4:5-8).
The dishonor done to God by the sins of His creatures has defiled both the earth and the heavens, but the propitiatory work of Christ now provides the righteous basis for Him to “take away the sin of the world”, including the removal of the effects of sin from creation in a future “restitution of all things.” And just as it was necessary that “the figurative representations of the things in the heavens should be purified with” the blood of calves and goats, ceremonially, so also “the heavenly things themselves [must be purified] with sacrifices better than these”, in a spiritual and eternal manner.³
Sins and trespasses had also resulted in alienation and enmity between men and God, and a great gulf lay between Creator and created, seemingly unable to be crossed. But when the fullness of time had come, God was found in Christ “reconciling the world to Himself, not reckoning to them their offences” (II Corinthians 5:18-19). This stay of judgment, and this offer of mercy and good-will on the part of God to reconcile men to Himself, could only be proclaimed in view of Jesus Christ being set forth as a propitiation or “mercy-seat”, much as the sprinkling of goat’s blood on the mercy seat in the tabernacle in the wilderness allowed Jehovah to dwell among His people and be merciful to them.
The Man Christ Jesus gave Himself a “ransom for all” (I Timothy 2:6), and now the gospel of the grace of God can be proclaimed to all nations, for “whosoever will” may come to God by faith in Christ. This is how God wonderfully worked out, before the entire universe of angels and men, and for His own glory, the spiritual principle recorded for us in James 2:13: “Mercy glories over judgment.”
¹ Genesis 1-3; Ezekiel 28:11-19; Isaiah 14:12-17; Job 15:15; Ephesians 2:2
² Leviticus 16:15; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 9:5
³ John 1:29; Acts 3:21; Hebrews 9:22-24
* God has always been disposed in good-will toward man, but His righteousness required propitiation for that good-will to be manifested toward man in declaring men righteous, while He is shown to be righteous in doing so (Romans 3:21-26).