In order to understand propitiation, we must first grasp the fact that all that God has done, is doing and will ever do, has one object in view—His own glory. Glory is difficult to define but can be described as the display of distinctive excellence. Scripture asks of God “Who is like unto thee, glorifying thyself in holiness?” (Ex. 15: 11), and in the world to come “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of Jehovah as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2: 14). Unsurprisingly, glory is also closely related to the idea of renown or name, since this idea carries with it the concept of both character and authority. Thus not only do we often read in Scripture of “the name of God” and the “name of Jehovah”, but we also find God’s name is indissolubly linked with His glory such that we read of “the name of thy glory” (Neh. 9: 5) and “Give unto Jehovah the glory of his name; worship Jehovah in holy splendour” (Ps. 29: 2, see also 1 Chron. 16: 10, 29). The importance of God’s glory and God’s name in connection with propitiation will become apparent as we proceed.
Man’s Blessings and God’s Glory
All Christians know something of the blessings that have been secured for them by the sacrificial work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, we have the forgiveness of sins, redemption, salvation, and reconciliation to name but a few. The gospel or glad tidings (which in today’s language means simply good news), is sometimes described in terms of these blessings—so that we have “the glad tidings of your salvation” and the “glad tidings of peace” (Eph. 1: 13; 2: 17; 6: 15). However, the gospel is also called “the glad tidings of the glory of the Christ” (2 Cor. 4: 4). This raises an interesting question: How is the glory of the Christ good news to you and I? The answer is because it expresses the absolute delight that God has in all that Christ has done—so much so that He has glorified Him by setting Him down at His own right hand in glory (see Acts 2: 34; Rom. 8: 34; Eph. 1: 20; Col. 3: 1). But this is not all, for this same good news is also described as “the glad tidings of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1: 11).
How then is the gospel the good news of the glory of God? I can have no real answer to this question if my thoughts about the gospel are just limited to my own blessings! If, however, I get a hold of what we began with, namely that God always works for His own glory (and that the gospel, therefore, is for that end) then I am beginning to learn something about propitiation. God, being God, must have the priority in all things, and so He must be glorified first before man can ever be blessed. All believers, when they first come to Christ, are understandably taken up with all that has been done for them and are deeply appreciative of the One who has brought it all about. But there is another and far more important aspect to the work of Christ and that is what He has done for God and for His glory. Thus, the Lord could say to the Father, “I have glorified thee on the earth” (John 17: 4). This aspect of the work of Christ completely transcends our blessings. God being glorified is the pre–eminent thought. Thus, anticipating the cross, the Lord said, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (John 13: 31). But how was God “glorified in him”? The answer lies in the truth of propitiation.
OT Examples of Propitiation
Propitiation is so important that without it man would be eternally lost. What is it then? The general idea of propitiation is found in the relationship between Jacob and Esau. Jacob cheated his elder brother Esau out of both his birthright and blessing, and, as a result, “Esau hated Jacob” and said “I will slay my brother Jacob” (Gen. 27: 41). To prevent his death, Jacob was sent away to his uncle Laban. Years later, Jacob is about to meet Esau face to face for the first time since their separation and we read that Jacob said, “I will propitiate him with the gift that goes before me, and afterwards I will see his face: perhaps he will accept me” (Gen. 32: 20). One party, Esau, was deeply offended, and the other party, Jacob, sought to change the attitude of the aggrieved party towards him by offering gifts as an appeasement. From this incident it can be seen that the basic idea of propitiation is appeasement.
In the remaining two occasions in the OT which speak directly of propitiation the offended party is God Himself. In both instances He had been offended by the conduct of Israel and He displayed His displeasure, firstly by a famine upon the land, and then by a plague. In the first we read “And they did all that the king had commanded. And afterwards God was propitious to the land” (2 Sam. 21: 14). In the second we have “And David built there an altar to Jehovah, and offered up burnt–offerings and peace–offerings. And Jehovah was propitious to the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel” (2 Sam. 24: 25). On both occasions, God was appeased and was therefore “propitious to the land”. Previously unfavourable, His attitude was now favourable. It is important to bear in mind, however, that this appeasement was only in relation to the governmental ways of God with the nation of Israel on earth and in time. It had nothing to do with eternal matters. In the OT we often read of God repenting (see Gen. 6: 6 etc.) but this is always in relation to His governmental dealings on earth. Regarding His eternal purposes, the matter is very different for “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither a son of man, that he should repent. Shall he say and not do? and shall he speak and not make it good? (Num. 23: 19). Thus, these OT examples of propitiation while helpful, are of limited value when considering how God is glorified in dealing fully and finally with sin.
The Reason for Propitiation
Scripture defines sin as lawlessness (1 John 3: 5)—the refusal to be subject to the will of God. It is the will of the creature set against the will of the Creator and is an affront to God for it challenges the authority of His name and besmirches the excellence of His glory. Hence God must be vindicated about sin—sin must be punished. Scripture testifies in the OT that “the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ez. 18: 4, 20) and in the NT that “the wages of sin [is] death” (Rom. 6: 23). However, the word is not merely that “all have sinned” but that they have all “come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3: 23). God’s standard is His own glory.
In heathen religions, propitiation assumes that that the nature of the various deities addressed can be changed by appeasement from one of hatred to man to one of favour. This is incompatible with the biblical doctrine of propitiation for God’s attitude to sin cannot be changed for “I Jehovah change not” (Mal. 3: 6). Now of course God’s love is also unchanging (it being His nature—see 1 John 4: 8, 16), but God cannot exercise that love unless His glory has been satisfied concerning sin. In speaking about God, Scripture exhorts us “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1: 16; see Lev. 19: 2) and it follows that God’s love must be a holy love—which is why sin cannot be ignored. Those who think that because God is love He can therefore overlook sin have both a false gospel and a false god. Sin must be paid for before God can express His love to all. No wonder Paul can say “For I am not ashamed of the glad tidings: for it is God’s power to salvation” (Rom. 1: 16, my emphasis)—that which enables Him to save. In order for the gospel message to be with a view to the blessing of all, whosoever (see John 3: 16), God must be propitiated, for in being propitiated He is glorified. Accordingly, we have “the glad tidings of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1: 11). It is no surprise then to read “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4: 10, my emphasis).
Propitiation in John’s First Epistle.
What do we learn from 1 John 4: 10? Firstly, that propitiation has its source in God’s love—the divine nature. Secondly, that the One who is the propitiation is identified as the Son of God. Observe, however, that the passage does not say anything of what He has done—it simply identifies the One who is the propitiation. Also note that the benefits of propitiation here are limited to believers—the Son was sent as a propitiation for our sins. What, however, does the word for actually mean in this verse?
This question is more important than it first appears because whilst for in English is often used in a way that is far from precise, the Greek is much more specific. Thus in 1 John 4: 10 the form of the preposition peri means for in the sense of on account of. Hence this verse does not say that in propitiation, the Son of God bore our sins. It simply tells us that our sins were the reason for propitiation (that is, propitiation took place because of our sins). This distinction is of great importance otherwise we will muddle up propitiation with what people call substitution—Christ taking our sins upon Himself. With this in mind, let us now look at the other verse in 1 John that speaks of propitiation.
1 John 2: 2 says “and he is the propitiation for our sins; but not for ours alone, but also for the whole world”. As in 1 John 4: 10, the One who is the propitiation is identified: the emphatic pronoun he refers back to the previous verse: “Jesus Christ [the] righteous” (v1). However, this time propitiation is not limited to believers but is “also for the whole world”. This presents a difficulty to some. Now it is perfectly true that the words the sins of as given in the AV (“And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world”) are omitted in the original Greek text. Many scholars, however, justify the omission not merely on textual grounds but for theological reasons, namely that if Christ is said to be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (as in the AV), then men have nothing to answer for to God. The argument is well–meaning but also defective. Why? Because it wrongly assumes that propitiation involves the bearing of sins. The word for occurs in 1 John 2: 2 three times and on each occasion the Greek preposition is peri, which, as already stated, means for in the sense of on account of, not for in the sense of instead of (that would be anti). So, on account of what has propitiation taken place? The text may not actually say ‘for the sins of the whole world’, but that meaning is implied, and, in fact, there is nothing else that propitiation can be said to be on account of! It must be for sins. A sinner is not held responsible by God for being born sinful (see Ps. 51: 5). Instead, the judgment on men is “according to their works” (Rev. 20: 12), that is, what men have done—their sins—not what they are. Propitiation was therefore needed on account of sins—and it is immaterial whose sins are in view. Hence propitiation is not limited to believers but is for “the whole world” (1 John 2: 2). It has to be universal in its application otherwise the gospel could not go out to all men!
We have seen that propitiation and the bearing of sins are not the same and with this in mind it is now time to distinguish Christ’s death for men universally, and Christ’s death for believers. To do this we need to consider the relationship between the word for and the words all and many in the Scriptures.
The distinction between All and Many
“Christ has died for [the] ungodly” (Rom. 5: 6) and as all are ungodly, we also read that Christ died for all: “having judged this: that one died for all, then all have died” (2 Cor. 5: 14). Now as propitiation is needed for all, and as these verses tell us that Christ died for all, they also tell us what John’s epistle did not tell us, namely, that Christ’s death is the means of propitiation. In perfect keeping with the universality of His death, the Greek preposition for in the phrase “died for” in both the verses just quoted is uper. We have had peri (on account of), and anti (instead of), but uper means for in the sense of on behalf of. It simply tells us that all men were in view when Christ died, not just those who would believe. The distinction between uper and anti is clearly seen elsewhere. For example, the Lord said that the Son of man came “to give his life a ransom for (anti) many” (Matt. 20: 28; see also Mark 10: 45). Here we have anti meaning instead of because only believers are in view as the thought is substitution. However, when Paul says “Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for (uper) all” (1 Tim. 2: 6) he uses uper meaning on behalf of because there all are in view (not just believers) and there is no limitation. Similarly, the words many and all themselves are always carefully distinguished in the Scriptures in connection with man’s blessing (see Rom. 5: 12–19 etc.).
Now just as the Bible carefully differentiates many and all, so the bearing of sins, essential for the eternal blessing of man, is presented as entirely distinct from propitiation. Propitiation is on account of sins, irrespective of who committed them. It is thus universal in its application so that the gospel can go out to all. Propitiation has nothing to do with the bearing of sins, which is only for the many who believe. However, we must not forget that the object of propitiation is not the blessing of man but the glory of God. It is Godward, not manward.
Propitiation in Hebrews
Previously we have seen that Christ is the propitiation (see 1 John 4: 10) and that it is His death by which it is achieved (see 2 Cor. 5: 14). This latter point is confirmed when we read in Heb. 2: 9 “but we see Jesus, who [was] made some little inferior to angels on account of the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; so that by the grace of God he should taste death for every thing”. Again, the word translated for is uper and means on behalf of (not anti—instead of). Furthermore, the words “every thing” could just as legitimately be translated as “every one”. It is Christ’s death in its universal aspect and has nothing to do with the bearing of sins. It is propitiation, even though the word itself is not in this verse.
As readers would expect, an epistle written to the Hebrews would be largely built on references to God’s dealings with Israel in the OT and based on their history. Accordingly, in Heb. 2: 17 we read of Christ being made high priest “in things relating to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people”. Now the form of the Greek verb to make propitiation expresses purpose in itself and thus includes the sense of for (so in this case no Greek preposition is required for the English word for). Hence once again, as in 1 John 2: 2 and 4: 10, the reason for propitiation is on account of sins. Those words “relating to God” show us clearly that the act of propitiation has God in view, that is, it is Godward, and not manward.
The book of Hebrews also provides us with several examples of a principle that is of great importance, namely that the offices and functions that were separated in the OT often coalesce in Christ in the NT. Thus, in the OT Moses was the apostle and Aaron the high priest of the old order, but now we read “Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of [the] heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession” (Heb. 3: 1). The two offices are thus both occupied now by Christ. Another example is in Hebrews 9 where we read of the “blood of the Christ, who by the eternal Spirit offered himself spotless to God” (v14; see also Heb. 7: 26, 27)—Christ is thus both the offering priest and the sacrifice itself.
The separation of the various offices and functions in the OT is very important however, in giving us a deeper appreciation of what Christ has done. Thus, in the NT, while we have the one sacrificial work of Christ on the cross, in the OT we have the different aspects of that work separated for us such as the burnt offering in Lev. 1 and the sin offering in Lev. 4. Of course, the Lord only made one offering for “he, having offered one sacrifice for (uper—on behalf of) sins, sat down in perpetuity at [the] right hand of God” (Heb. 10: 12). However, distinguishing the various aspects of that one sacrifice is critical—hence our next consideration will be the day of atonement where we have what is for God in propitiation and what is for man in the bearing of sins clearly differentiated.
Propitiation in Leviticus 16
The day of atonement was a unique annual event on the calendar of the nation of Israel, being one of the seven feasts of Jehovah (see Lev. 23). On that day, detailed in Lev. 16, the two great aspects of the single sacrificial work of Christ—propitiation and sin-bearing—are clearly separated. Aaron, as a type of Christ is prominent throughout, but while he has to offer firstly “for himself, and for his house” (Lev. 16: 6)—a fact Paul refers to in Heb. 7: 27—the Lord Jesus has no such need being sinless. As our subject is propitiation, we do not need to consider the feast in its entirety but can limit ourselves to the details concerning the two goats.
The first point to note is an obvious one, in that there were two goats and not just one. Despite this, together they were classed as one sin–offering: Aaron was to “take two bucks of the goats for a sin–offering” (Lev. 16: 5, my emphasis). Thus, both aspects of the one sacrificial work of Christ—propitiation Godward and the bearing of sins manward—are in view.
The second point to note is that one goat was to die, while the other was to remain alive. Hence, the high priest was to “take the two goats, and set them before Jehovah, before the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for Jehovah, and the other lot for Azazel” (vs 7, 8). Man had no part in the choice—the choice was put to Jehovah by lot. Again, one lot is for Jehovah—the goat that was to die; the other lot was for Azazel—the scapegoat. Thus, the two aspects of the sacrifice are distinguished in the type. Note also that Jehovah’s lot had priority: nothing was to be done with the scapegoat until Jehovah’s goat had been offered, and Aaron had finished his work in the sanctuary. Only then do we read “And when he hath ended making atonement for the sanctuary, and the tent of meeting, and the altar, he shall present the living goat …” (v20)—the goat that was to bear away Israel’s sins. Once again God’s glory in propitiation must take priority over man’s need.
Let us, however, consider first the scapegoat: “and Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the living goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, and he shall put them on the head of the goat, and shall send him away to the wilderness by the hand of a man standing ready” (v21). The high priest thus completely identified himself with the scapegoat by laying both hands on its head. Furthermore, he confessed over it the sins of the people. This OT type was fulfilled perfectly when the Lord Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2: 24). Thus, just as the scapegoat was sent “away into the wilderness” (v21) so in perfect keeping with the type, the Lord Jesus was forsaken: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27: 46). Note that the scapegoat was neither killed, nor its blood shed, for while the Christ was “once offered to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9: 28) and “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2: 24), this work was during the three hours of darkness (see Matt. 27: 45) and was finished before He died (see John 19: 30). However, though the bearing of sins did not involve His death it did involve His suffering “for Christ indeed has once suffered for (peri—on account of) sins, [the] just for (uper—on behalf of) [the] unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3: 18).
Returning now to the goat of Jehovah’s lot, there was no laying on of Aaron’s hands and there was no confession of sins. Instead this goat was killed, and its blood shed: “And he shall slaughter the goat of the sin–offering, which is for the people, and bring its blood inside the veil, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy–seat, and before the mercy–seat” (Lev. 16: 15). What Aaron did for the sanctuary in cleansing “it from “the uncleanness of the children of Israel” (v16), the Son of God did as He “made [by himself] the purification of sins” (Heb. 1: 3). However, despite the goat being killed, all that was taken into the tent of meeting and the holiest of all was the blood: “and he shall slaughter the goat … and bring its blood inside the veil” (Lev. 16: 15). Blood is the testimony in Scripture that death has taken place: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17: 11, AV) and the blood is for God alone. Thus, on the Passover night God said, “when I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Ex. 12: 13, my emphasis). Hence “there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he goeth in to make atonement in the sanctuary until he come out” (Lev. 16: 17). While the blood that propitiated was on account of the people, the propitiation was only for “the sanctuary, and the tent of meeting, and the altar” (v20)—and the blood was only actually applied to the mercy–seat and the altar (see vs 15, 18, 19). In passing, it is of interest that there is a close proximity between the words for mercy–seat and propitiation in Greek. This indicates that Paul had the day of atonement in mind when he speaks of Christ Jesus as the One “whom God has set forth a mercy–seat, through faith in his blood, for [the] shewing forth of his righteousness, in respect of the passing by the sins that had taken place before, through the forbearance of God” (Rom. 3: 25)—for that mercy–seat was shadowed by “the cherubim of glory” (Heb. 9: 5) ensuring that what was placed there met the divine standard.
SummaryThe two goats in Lev. 16 clearly distinguish for us the two parts of the sacrificial work of the Lord Jesus: propitiation for God and the bearing of sins for man, with the former taking precedence over the latter. Propitiation must be preeminent because it is for the glory of God, and all that God does is for His own glory. Sin is an affront to Him, and He must therefore be vindicated in relation to sin—and propitiation is the means by which God is glorified in having His righteousness satisfied. All this has been brought about by Christ’s sacrificial death, of which the blood is the testimony. However, while propitiation is exclusively for the glory of God, without it there would be no gospel, no spiritual blessing and man would be eternally lost. As propitiation is on account of sins, and as sins are universal, Christ’s propitiation is on behalf of all men and is thus for the sins of the whole world. This enables God to exercise His love towards all men, making the gospel universal. Not all will be saved of course, for Christ only bore the sins of those who believe, the “many” (Heb. 9: 28). Those particular sins were born “in his body on the tree”, before death, when He “suffered for sins” (1 Pet. 2: 24; 3: 18, my emphasis).