Propitiation: God’s Not Angry At You
March 5, 1995
You never know where you are going to find spiritual truth. I found some the other day in the pages of USA Today. It was about a month ago during the height of the questions surrounding Newt Gingrich’s book deal. They published an article by former Speaker of the House, Jim Wright. You may remember the story that back in 1989 Jim Wright resigned as Speaker under a kind of ethical cloud having to do with some book deals that he had made while he was Speaker of the House. He argued that he had done nothing wrong, but certain people thought he had. When he resigned, he made a long speech to the House of Representatives, stating his reasons behind his resignation. When he wrote the article about a month ago, he recalled what had happened back in 1989, offering his advice to the new Speaker of the House. He commented on the fact that there had been so much ill will generated and so much controversy, that he had resigned in 1989 “as a propitiation for this season of ill will.” That may be the only time in history that the word propitiation has been tied in with U.S. politics and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
I will dare say that in all of America there is not one in one hundred people who has actually ever heard the word propitiation before and maybe not one in one thousand who really understands what it means. It is a rare word, a word that is not used in conversation very often, yet when you come to the pages of the New Testament, you discover that the word propitiation is a key word that is used six times in various forms relating to the effects of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
I am happy to say that the former Speaker of the House did indeed use the word in a basically correct sense. The definition of the word propitiation is this: to propitiate means to turn away wrath by the offering of a gift.
What is propitiation?
So what Jim Wright was saying is that there was so much ill will, so much animosity, so much anger in the House of Representatives, that he thought to appease that wrath and turn it away, by offering up himself or his job as a propitiation so that that wrath would be completely turned away and the demand for justice would be satisfied.
Let me explore with you the meaning of the word in some other context. In ancient Greek, the word sometimes was used for pagan religious ceremonies. It was used for the offering of animals for blood sacrifice. It was used for the idea of appeasing an angry God. It was used for the idea of bringing an offering and placing it before an idol because you thought the idol you worshipped was angry at you and you hoped that by giving blood or food, that the anger of the god would be turned away. In fact, in Haiti today, the followers of voodoo still practice this. In my trips down there, I have heard the stories of how the practitioners of voodoo will to this very day sacrifice a dead chicken and will pour its blood out and put it in a saucer. They will put the dead chicken carcass outside the door. It is their way of hoping to appease the god who stands behind voodoo. That is the pagan idea of propitiation.
We also may see propitiation on another level. Here is a man who is married. As men are prone to do, he has made a mistake. He has offended his wife. He has said something he shouldn’t have said or done something he shouldn’t have done. Or he has left undone that which he ought to have done. He is pulling off the freeway, and as he does so, at the stop light he sees one of those people selling flowers. Suddenly, when he sees the man with the flowers, the light bulb goes on in his head. And before the light turns from red to green, he pulls out his wallet, shoves $3.00 or $4.00 through the window, grabs his flowers, puts them on the seat beside him, goes straight home, gets out of the car and goes inside. And before his wife can say a word to him, he presents the flowers to her. She smiles, he hopes, and the offering of the flowers has turned away the wrath of his wife. That is propitiation. That is a doctrine every husband can understand and has practiced at one time or another.
How does the Bible define propitiation?
If you want a biblical, non-theological example of propitiation, you could go back to the book of Genesis, to the story of Jacob and Esau. Remember how Jacob cheated Esau out of his inheritance, then ran for his life. Genesis 32 tells the story of how, after 20 long years, now Jacob wants reconciliation with his brother. He sent a message to Esau saying, “I, Jacob, your brother, am coming to meet you at such and such a time and at such and such a place. Will you come and meet me?”
So he sends out messengers with the word and back they come with good news and bad news. The good news is Esau’s coming. The bad news is he’s bringing 400 soldiers with him. Jacob, being a very wise and cunning man, decides that he will offer a gift, hoping to pacify his brother’s wrath. Genesis 32 says he made the following gift: 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 15 female camels with their young, 40 cows and 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys and 10 donkeys. He sent all of those animals on up ahead. He instructed the one in the lead, “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘To whom do you belong and where are you going and who owns all of these animals in front of you?’ then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my Lord Esau. He is coming behind us.’ “ That is to say, Jacob thought to send a gift ahead of him and he would come behind the gift. He thought by the gift to turn away the wrath of his brother. In fact, this is what Jacob thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead. Later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.”
It is interesting that when the Greek translators of the Old Testament came to the Genesis 32:14, they use the Greek word hilaskoma which literally means “I will propitiate him with these gifts I am bringing.” So to propitiate, whether in secular or theological terms, means to turn away wrath by the offering of a gift. Alongside that you can write down Proverbs 16:14, “A king’s wrath is a messenger of death, but a wise man will appease it.”
In order to understand propitiation in its fullest biblical sense, especially as it applies to the days of Jesus Christ, you have to understand the Old Testament background. To do that, you have to go back to one of the least read books of the Bible, the book of Leviticus.
In Leviticus 16 we read the story of the activities of the Day of Atonement. Remember in the Old Testament the Day of Atonement came up just once a year. On the Day of Atonement the High Priest would take off his regular regalia and put on a different uniform. On the Day of Atonement he would take a goat and offer it up as a sacrifice. Then he would take the blood of the goat and very carefully he would go inside the tabernacle into the Holy Place, behind that curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Taking the blood of the goat into the Most Holy Place, there he would come to a strange looking box, called the Ark of the Covenant. Inside the Ark of the Covenant there was placed a little bit of manna, Aaron’s rod that budded and, most importantly, a copy of the Ten Commandments. On top of the Ark of the Covenant there was a lid made of pure gold and there was the sculpture of the wings of the cherubim from one side of the ark to the other. There in the middle, on the top of that golden lid, the High Priest would take the blood of the goat and he would sprinkle it, surrounded by the clouds of incense. The Bible says in Leviticus 16 that on the Day of Atonement, just once a year, when the High Priest would take the blood of the goat into the Most Holy Place, when he sprinkled it on the mercy seat, on the lid of the ark of the covenant, God would look down from heaven and atonement, or forgiveness, the covering for sin, would be made.
What does it represent?
During the other days of the year when God looked down from heaven to the ark of the covenant, what he saw was the Ten Commandments on the inside. The Ten Commandments stood as God’s standard, as a testimony against the sins of the nation of Israel. But on the Day of Atonement when the High Priest would take the blood of the goat and sprinkle it on top of that golden lid, what God looked down and saw was not the broken law of God but the blood of the sacrifice. And the blood of the sacrifice covered the sin of the people of Israel. On that day and for that entire year, the sins of the people of Israel were atoned; they were forgiven, covered by the blood of the sacrifice.
There is only one problem. It only lasted for a year, because it was just the blood of a goat. We know that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin at all. The only efficacy in the blood of an animal was that it pointed to something that would happen later. That is why every year, year after year, the High Priest would go in and do it all over again. There was no permanent forgiveness for sin in the Old Testament system. It only pointed to something else.
So you come into the New Testament and find that Jesus Christ died on the cross and shed his blood. You discover that this word propitiation is the word that is used to describe the effects of the death of Christ. Read from Hebrews 2:17, “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful High Priest.” Jesus was like the High Priest who brought the blood in. “That he might become a merciful and faithful High Priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement.” You could literally translate it, “That he might make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
When Jesus died on the cross, the blood that he shed was like the blood on the mercy seat.
It turned away the wrath of God and covered the sin of the people. Turn to I John 2:2, which shows another side of the truth, “He is the atoning sacrifice.” That is from the same family of Greek words. You could translate it, as other versions do, “He was the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Put these two passages of scripture together and what you have is a truth like this: Jesus Christ, in his death on the cross, on one hand is like the High Priest who made the sacrifice, who offered the blood on the mercy seat. On the other hand, Jesus Christ is also the sacrifice itself.
Jesus Christ is also the sacrifice itself.
So Jesus, when he offered himself, was both the High Priest and the sacrifice offered up to God. How could that be? It is not so hard to understand. In the Old Testament it is the blood of bulls and goats, in the New Testament it is the eternal blood of Jesus Christ which has eternal value and eternal efficacy in the eyes of Almighty God. So when Jesus hung on the cross, you remember the moment when in great agony and great pain he cried out to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in that moment something we don’t fully understand happened. In that moment all the wrath of God was poured out. It was as if the sewer pit of hell were emptied on Jesus. He became sin for us and all of your sin and all of my sin and the sins of the whole world were poured out on Jesus and in that moment God turned his face away from his only begotten son. In that moment, Jesus took the wrath of God for us.
Jesus took the wrath of God for us.
Let me give you three truths to summarize the effects of propitiation.
1. Because Jesus Christ died, God’s justice is now satisfied.
2. Because Jesus Christ died, God’s wrath has now been turned away. The price for sin has been paid.
3. Because Jesus Christ died, God’s mercy is now freely available to anyone who wants it.
I close with four implications for your life and mine.
1. This doctrine of propitiation means that God’s essential nature has now been fully revealed.
So many people live in cowering fear. They live in fear that God is angry, trying to hurt them, to get even with them. You hear people say to pray for the opposite of what you want, because God always gives you the opposite of what you pray for. What a perversion of the character of God. The doctrine of propitiation teaches us that what ought to be a judgment seat has now through the blood of Jesus been turned into a mercy seat. And what ought to be a throne of judgment has now, for the believer, become a throne of grace. That is why Hebrews says, “That he might be a merciful High Priest.” Now we see God’s essential character—that he is merciful and gracious toward us on the basis of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.
2. We now see clearly the absolute necessity of the blood of Christ.
Just as the blood must be sprinkled in the Old Testament, even so must the literal, physical blood of Christ be shed on the cross. Don’t believe the people who say that in these modern days we can’t talk about the blood of Christ. That comes from people who are faintly ashamed of what the New Testament says. For the blood of Christ is in the Bible. If you take out the blood of Christ, you’ve taken out the gospel of Christ.
3. Since Christ bore the full weight of God’s wrath, we now enjoy the full blessing of God’s mercy.
If you are a Christian and you are living with a guilt complex because you think God hates you, how little you understand of the cross of Christ. The table of the Lord is God’s final proof that he is not angry at you. He loves you and is merciful towards you. His wrath has been turned away.
4. For those who reject Christ, there is nowhere else to turn.
By that I simply mean the gift of Christ is so great, his sacrifice so magnificent, his death so awesome in its benefits, that if you decide to go someplace else, what you will find is there is no place else to go. If you turn from the cross and go back into the world, or if you think you can do it on your own and save yourself, if you turn from Jesus Christ, you will discover there is no place else to go. There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.
Some 200+ years ago there was a man in England by the name of William Cowper. He is a man who was of nervous disposition. All the biographers talk about that. He struggled with nervous problems, depression. It looks from reading his story that he suffered from what we would call a form of manic depression, given to some great difficulty in his life. At one point in his life, by his own testimony, he was depressed, upset and fearful that he was under the wrath of God. He said, “I flung myself into a chair by the window and there saw the Bible on the table by the chair. I opened it up and my eyes fell on Romans 3:25, which says of Christ, “Whom God has made a propitiation through faith in his blood.” William Cowper said, “Then and there, I realized what Christ’s blood had accomplished and I realized the effects of his atonement for me. I realized God was willing to justify me and then and there I trusted Jesus Christ and a great burden was lifted from my soul.” Looking back on that day, William Cowper wrote a hymn several years later that is in our hymnbook today. “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stain.”
I wonder if you have ever been plunged beneath the flood of the blood of Jesus Christ. God’s Son has made propitiation. He has turned away the wrath of God. He shed his blood and what was a place of judgment is now a mercy seat for people like you and like me. I urge you right now in the name of Jesus Christ, to run to the cross. Cling to the bloody cross of Golgotha and there you will find that your sins are forgiven and you will find the forgiveness that you seek. God help you to run to the cross and cling to Jesus today.
Our Heavenly Father, in these moments grant by your Holy Spirit to draw seekers to the Savior. Grant by your Holy Spirit the blessing now that someone would come to Jesus Christ and find the forgiveness they need. We pray in his name, Amen.