Arguably, the most important truth in the Bible is revealed to us by the word propitiation. Propitiation, which means “satisfactory sacrifice,” is found four times in our English Bible. Three times it is translated “propitiation” and once it is translated “mercy seat.”
- “Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:25-26)
- “And He himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
- “In this is love, not that we love God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
- “And above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; of these things we cannot speak in detail.” (Heb. 9:5)
The Need for Propitiation
In the Garden of Eden, Adam willfully sinned against God. God’s holiness was violated, and His justice demanded a response. His response was to judge Adam’s sin by giving him the death penalty. God had told Adam that in the day that he sinned, He would die (Gen. 2:16-17). Not only did Adam die for his sin, but God’s judgment of death was indelibly stamped upon the soul of every human heart that would ever beat.
“In Adam all die.” (1 Cor. 15:23)
Thus, every member of Adam’s race from that day until now is born physically alive but spiritually dead. And so death became God’s just judgment for man’s violation of His holiness.
God’s holy law contained a continuous stream of sacrifices and offerings, which graphically pictured that only by death could a sinful human being hope to approach a holy God and live.
“Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin” (Heb. 9:22).
No Levitical Offering Satisfied God
Not one law kept, not one sacrifice offered, not one offering given, and not one ornate ceremony observed, ever really satisfied God. If the final sacrifice on the final day had permanently satisfied a holy God, then the whole system would have immediately been abolished. The penalty for sin would have been paid in full, because God would have been permanently satisfied. But the law gave a glimpse of the righteous demands of God and of good things to come.
“For the law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of the things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshippers, having been once cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin.” (Heb. 10:1-4)
As long as the sacrificial system remained in operation, it stood as a continuous reminder that man was still guilty before God. The blood sacrifices were to remain a temporary covering for sin until God’s righteousness was fully and finally satisfied.
Shadow Reflects God’s Permanent Remedy for Sin
“Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lamp stand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant. And above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot speak in detail.” (Heb. 9:1-5)
In order to understand the true meaning communicated to us by the word propitiation, we must look closely at the Old Testament use of the mercy seat. The Day of Atonement was the Jews’ High Holy Day. It was probably filled with a combination of anxiety, fear, awe, and mystery. It was upon this day that the great and awesome Jehovah God, the great “I Am,” the sovereign, eternal King of all the earth, visited with the people whom He had chosen. It was a day unlike any other when the people realized their awful sinful condition before such a holy God.
How was it possible for a Holy God to commune with such vile people? It was possible because of what happened upon that small piece of furniture called the mercy seat.
“And you shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I shall give to you. And there I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.” (Ex. 25:21-22)
The Mercy Seat
The ark of the covenant was a small box made of acacia wood. On top of this box was a solid gold rectangular plate called “the mercy seat.”
Located on each end of the ark of the covenant were two replicas of angels which were pictured as looking down upon the mercy seat of gold. These angelic sentinels were there to symbolically protect the holiness of God. They were poised and ready to destroy any invader who dared approach their Creator unlawfully.
Inside the acacia box were three items that Exodus calls “the testimony.” What were these items and what were they meant to symbolize? The first article was the tablet of God’s Law which was broken by Moses when he came down off Mount Sinai. These stone tablets testified that Israel had rebelled against God’s law.
Also in the ark was Aaron’s rod that had budded. Some of the wilderness-wandering Jews were rebellious against Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership. Wanting to appoint their own leadership, they selected the family of Korah to become priests over the Levitical priesthood.
God graphically demonstrated that He, not the people, would choose the leaders in Israel. He commanded that the people place a rod in front of the tent of each of the heads of the families. He then commanded that Aaron’s name be written upon the rod in the front of the tent of the Levites. God then made His point by causing Aaron’s “dead” rod to bud with new life. This budding rod was placed into the ark as a testimony of Israel’s rebellion against God’s order (Num. 17:1-10).
Last was a gold pot filled with manna. Throughout Israel’s desert wandering, God had daily met their need for food and water. The food, called “manna,” was the temporary desert fare until they found their way to the land flowing with milk and honey. The people grew weary and impatient with God over the manna and once again rebelled against Him. Fragments of the manna were placed into the ark as a reminder of the people’s rebellion against God’s provision.
As a nation, Israel had rebelled against God’s Law, His order, and His provision. The cherubim, God’s holy guardians, stood staring down at these symbols of rebellion and seemed to whisper, “Condemned, condemned, condemned!” Because of their obvious sin, God would have been right and just to give them what they deserved, which was death. That is exactly what we deserve today. The wages of sin is still death.
The High Priest Alone
“Now when these things have been thus prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle, performing the divine worship, but into the second only the high priest enters, once a year, not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation.” (Heb. 9:6-10)
God did not destroy Israel for their sin because of a private meeting that took place on the special Day of Atonement. This meeting was an extremely private one between God’s appointed high priest – the human representative – and Himself. What happened inside was for God’s eyes only.
After careful preparation of ceremonial cleansing, special clothing, and prayer, the high priest went alone into this small room. He sprinkled blood upon the golden mercy seat for his sins and for the sins of the people. The blood was a precious commodity because it symbolically came between the judicial eyes of the cherubim and the symbols of the sins of the people. This special ceremony upon this special day provided a temporary covering of man’s sin, satisfying God’s demand against the nation for another year. It was God who needed to be propitiated, not man. This ceremony was for God and God alone.
Good Things to Come Finally Came
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all having obtained eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9:11-12)
Here is the real truth to which all of the shadows and object lessons in the Old Testament Law pointed. Here is the unveiling of the permanent and final sacrifice for all ages. Notice carefully that the Lord Jesus Christ, as the representative of the human race, entered a greater and a more perfect tabernacle which was not made with hands. He did not take with Him the blood of any animal, but He took His own blood and He entered the tabernacle mentioned here once for all.
“And according to law one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” (Heb. 9:22-24)
The earthly tabernacle was just a physical copy of a real heavenly temple where God the Father dwells. Jesus Christ carried His blood into the real Holy of Holies into the very presence of God.
“Nor that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood not his own. Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages he has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” (Heb. 9:25-26)
In the quietness of heaven, far from any human eye, God the Son stood before God the Father. In His glorified human body He became the representative High Priest for Adam’s fallen race and with His own sinless blood in His hands He provided the real and permanent sacrifice for our sin forever. He was truly the Mediator between God and man.
“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 2:5)
It was God alone who demanded propitiation, and it was Christ alone who achieved propitiation. God the Father accepted finally and forever the once for all sacrifice of His Son for our sin. It is finished!
What Does the Truth of Propitiation Mean to Us?
Christ’s death marked the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who will believe. Because God is completely satisfied with the death of Christ for sin, He is free to declare right before Him all who believe. He will be forever satisfied with all who have been placed into His Son because of personal faith in Him.
“Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly a propitiation in his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness because in the forbearance of God He passed over sins previously committed.” (Rom. 3:24-25)