READ : Romans 3:23-25
Today we look at one of the most profound explanations of what our salvation cost, by way of a most unusual part of the Bible.
Romans 3:21-26 is among the most important passages in the Bible. At its heart is this crucial sentence:
. . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
We are justified by God’s grace as a gift. Forgiveness is free to us, but not free for God, for Paul adds that justification is only made possible “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Christ had to do something in order for us to be redeemed — delivered, set free, ransomed — from sin and its consequences. And then comes the explanation of what that something was: “whom” — referring to Christ — “God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” This is the critical phrase — whom God put forward as a propitiation, to be received by faith. Understanding those words is the key to understanding the gospel.
The Ark of the Covenant
I want to begin to try to understand them by turning to a part of the Bible that might seem an unusual place to look — the book of Exodus. From that Old Testament story I want to focus on one particular detail. It is an object, part of the furniture of the Tabernacle, the wonderful tent that God directed Moses to build as a house of worship for the people as they journeyed along the way. This object, in fact, was the reason the whole Tabernacle (and later the Temple) was made. Everything about Israel’s place of worship drew the observer toward its inner sanctum, the “Holy of holies,” where the sacred object rested. That object was called the Ark of the Covenant.
The ark of the covenant was a gold covered box, about four feet long, two feet wide and two feet high. The ark had a cover made of solid gold, on which figures of two angels called cherubim were mounted. They faced each other, and their wings stretched forward to meet one another, overshadowing the top of the ark. The ark of the covenant symbolized the presence of God among his people. “He sits enthroned upon the cherubim,” wrote the psalmist (Psalm 99:1.) It also served as the meeting place between God and his people. “There I will meet with you,” the Lord said to Moses, “and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you . . . ” (Exodus 25:22). We learn one further crucial point about the ark from some later instructions given in the book of Leviticus. Once each year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the high priest was commanded to enter the Holy of holies and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificial animal on the cover of the ark. Only thus could an infinitely holy God be approached.
The Mercy Seat
Now the most important part of the whole ark was that lid, that golden cover with its cherubim. This was the spot that represented God’s throne; this was the place where God and humans could meet. And this was where the blood of the sacrifice was to be applied, so that the people’s sins would be atoned for and God could forgive them. The lid on the ark was the key to everything.
The term used in the book of Exodus for that lid isn’t easy to translate into English. The Hebrew word is kapporeth, which in its verb form means “to make atonement.” Kapporeth has a secondary meaning of “cover,” both in the literal sense of the cover on a box, and the figurative sense of the atonement that “covers” people’s sins. So various English versions of the Bible struggle to get at all these meanings as they translate this important word. The New International Version, for example, calls it the “atonement cover.” In The Message it is the “lid . . . [the] Atonement Cover.” The New Living Bible translates kapporeth as “Cover . . . place of atonement.” Martin Luther was the first person to translate the entire Bible into a modern western language. Scholars tell us that his grasp of Hebrew was somewhat shaky, but he had a gift for vivid language and an unerring grasp of the gospel. He translated the word kapporeth into German as Gnadenstuhl, the “seat of grace.” The early English versions, including the King James Bible and its successors, followed Luther and called the lid of the ark “the mercy seat.” God sits upon the mercy seat; that is where he dwells. He meets his people at the mercy seat, by virtue of the atoning blood that is sprinkled there.
When we turn back to Romans 3 we run into more translation struggles. Here’s the key phrase once again: “. . . Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” The crucial term there is the Greek word hilasterion, which is translated “propitiation” in the version I just quoted. But in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, hilasterion is the word used for kapporeth. Christ Jesus is the hilasterion, the kapporeth, the propitiation, the mercy seat, whom God put forward to be received by faith.
The question, you see, is this: how do we draw near to God? How can we, as sinners, enter the presence of the infinitely Holy One? And how can God receive us, sinful as we are? Some people think there’s no problem at all. You just sort of show up and waltz in, as if you’re doing God a favor by gracing him with your presence. Others, with more sense, know there is a problem with us. We must acknowledge our sin, confess it, and ask God for his mercy and forgiveness. Our hearts must be changed, and unless we repent, we will not be saved. But the full message of the Bible, proclaimed in the symbolism of the ark and its mercy seat, is that something more even than our repentance has to happen. Something must be done — something objective, outside of us — about our sins. Something has to happen for God as well as for us in order for sins to be forgiven. That something is called propitiation — the offering of the sacrifice that makes atonement, satisfies justice, and settles God’s wrath.
Propitiation means to pacify an offended party by the offering of a payment or a sacrifice. Now it’s true that many modern people don’t like this word when it’s used in connection with God. They say it’s too crude, too primitive, even unworthy of God. It conjures up an image of an angry, vengeful, bloodthirsty god, a god who must be placated — bought off with blood — before he will turn from his wrath. This is a picture, they say, more appropriate to some pagan idol than to the God of grace and love whom we see in the Bible.
I agree. It’s also not the picture of God we find that lies behind Romans 3:25. God is not an angry tyrant screaming for blood. Jesus doesn’t intercede with the vengeful Father and plead, “Don’t hurt them, hurt me instead!” Look at the grammar of this verse:
whom — that’s Christ, the object;
God — he is the subject of the sentence;
put forward — there is the verb, the action God has performed;
as a propitiation (a hilasterion);
by his blood — that’s the predicate, the purpose for which God put Christ forward;
to be received by faith.
If propitiation is demanded before sins can be forgiven (and who are we to say it isn’t necessary!) then let us at least do God the honor of recognizing that he does the propitiating himself. He is the subject of the sentence. He provides the sacrifice, and the sacrifice is himself. The Father isn’t angry and the Son gracious; rather, the Father is gracious, and the Son obedient. We don’t offer anything to God to make him forgive us; we simply receive by faith the forgiveness he offers. And all the careful instructions about the crafting of that ark with its beautiful cover, and all the sacrificial blood of all the animals applied to it by all the high priests down through the centuries, it all points to Jesus Christ, the true mercy seat, the meeting place between God and sinners.
“Whom God put forward . . . to be received by faith.” It isn’t our sacrifices and rituals that save us; it is simple trust in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice, offered in our place and on our behalf. I think about those words, “put forward.” When and where did God put Christ forward as the sacrifice for sin? Surely, it was on the cross. To whom then did he offer this propitiation? Was it to Satan? Surely not! Was it to himself? Was it to some concept of justice, some abstract principle? We aren’t told, and so we cannot say. But we can say this: God still puts Christ forward today — to us. Every time the gospel is proclaimed, every time the message of the cross is explained, every time the story of salvation is told, God is putting Christ forward to the whole world as the mercy seat, the place of atonement made not with the blood of animals but with his own blood, the place where forgiveness is found, where God can be met, to be received by faith.
That’s the real issue. Do you so receive him? Is Christ your mercy seat?