Bill McFarland

April 4, 2004

The movie "The Passion of The Christ" has impressed people with the kind of violence which was involved in the process of scourging and crucifixion. In fact, the comment that is most often heard about that movie is in reference to the graphic violence it portrays.

Suppose you were to take a friend with you to see it - someone who knew nothing about the scheme of redemption which is set forth in scripture and had no idea of any reason why that kind of suffering might have needed to have been involved in the Lord's ministry. He watches and sees these events as they are portrayed, and then wonders only one thing: Why? What does all of that mean? It is touching. It is moving. It is powerful. But why did it need to happen? The Bible teaches on this theme, of course, but it uses a term which is not very familiar to us. The word is propitiation.

I dare say that is not a word that any of us use much in everyday life, though it is not necessarily just a religious term. It is an idea which is behind so many of the events that are described in scripture, and which is illustrated by many bible practices. It is an idea which is right at the heart of the entire gospel message.

I want to ask you this morning to not be scared away of the term "propitiation." I know a lot of you have made yourself acquainted with terms that are unfamiliar to me. In music there are words like pitch and tone that have meanings that I can't fathom, but I know they mean something that people can understand. With your computers, a lot of you have made yourself aware of what terms mean that to the average person just a few years ago would not have been very familiar at all. You fellows who are involved with sports, those of you who know something about football, you know what a blitz means or you know what a draw play is. Those are terms that are special in a certain area, but you have grasped their meaning. Maybe the reason propitiation strikes us as being strange is that we just haven't thought of it very much.

With that in mind, I want you to be aware of the concept which is in this profound Bible term, propitiation. I tried to think of how to communicate the idea so that it won't be quite as intimidating and so that we will get the message. Finally I settled on just exploring the idea in the five New Testament passages where it occurs.


The first passage is Luke 18:13. This passage helps us to understand our human need. This is the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee, of course, congratulates himself on his own righteousness and his lack of need. In fact, he almost congratulates God for having someone like him. On the other hand, there is the tax collector, the fellow who comes face-to-face with his own sinfulness and his own deep need. He says in verse 13, as he stands far off and doesn't even lift up his eyes to heaven and hits himself on his chest, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." The word that is translated "be merciful" there is the verb form of the same word translated "propitiation." What he is saying is, "God, be gracious to me." Be propitious, if you will, toward me. Turn away your anger from me and cleanse me and accept me. That is the idea which is there.

And right away, we meet one of the Bible facts here which helps us to understand the idea behind propitiation. A lot of people over the years have objected to the very idea because they confuse it with some pagan conceptions of propitiation. For example, many centuries ago in connection with the Greek wars, there was a legend in which Prince Paris had carried off Princess Helen to Troy, and the Greek expeditionary force had taken a ship to recover her. They were held up about half way along by persistent, contrary winds. So, Agamemnon, the Greek general, is suppose to have sent home for his daughter, and then he ceremonially slaughters her as a sacrifice to mollify the evidently hostile gods who had turned the winds against him. The move paid off. The west winds blew again, and the fleet reached Troy without any further difficulty. The pagan idea was that there are all of these gods who are in charge of different natural events or different realms in the world. And anytime any of these things turn against you, it means that particular god is unhappy. He has thrown a temper tantrum about something, and you had better pay him off or pacify him in order to get along with him. And so man takes the initiative and offers some particular payoff to get that god off his back, so to speak. You can understand why, if someone had that idea of propitiation, he would have a hard time conceiving of how it would have any place in the scheme of scripture.

But notice our passage here. This tax collector in Jesus' story is not trying to mollify a god who has thrown a tantrum. This man recognizes his own sinfulness, being aware of the fact that when one sins he separates himself from God and alienates himself from the holy God. He realized also that he in his sinfulness had brought himself under, not just separation, but condemnation. From the very beginning, God has taught that the wages of sin is death. "The soul that sins, it shall die" and "the day you eat of the fruit of this tree, you will die." The whole reason for that is that a holy and righteous God must act in judgment against sinfulness. He must hold it accountable because of his own nature. And so, this man in our story is not trying to pay God off. He is asking God to provide. He is asking God to be merciful to him. Seeing his need he knows that God must address it or it can't be dealt with. The beginning point of the Biblical idea of propitiation, then, is that it is something God must do to meet man's need and not merely for God to suit himself or for God to be paid off.


A second great Bible passage that deals with this is Romans 3:25, 26. Having thought of man's need, we move now to God's answer, to God's provision for that need. Remember that in Romans the apostle Paul in his describing for us the gospel, starts with God's wrath. In Romans 1:18 he says, "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." He goes ahead to describe in chapter 2, verse 5, that "a hard and impenitent heart stores up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed." In verse 8, the point gets even stronger. "For those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury." Do you get the impression that Paul is saying that the gospel message starts with recognition of God's wrath against sin? A holy God is revulsed by evil.

Let me take a stab at illustrating the point. This past week in Iraq, in the city of Fullujah, one day those who are involved in terror, killed people who were there as independent contractors. You will remember the pictures of how the vehicle was burned and the bodies were drug through the streets and then burned and hanged from a bridge. Most anybody who would see anything of that kind of a picture would be naturally repelled by it. There is just a natural revulsion to that kind of ugly violence. That's how a completely holy God feels about those things which contradict his nature and are evil. I had a teacher who used to illustrate it by scraping his fingernails on a blackboard and noticing how we all responded to that and saying that is God's reaction to want what is morally opposite of his nature. He must deal with it.

And that is how Paul starts. God has to judge. It would be just as wrong for God to overlook evil as it would be for injustice to be done. God can't let that happen. And yet, as the book of Romans goes along, in chapter 5:9 we read, "Since therefore we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God." Now what has happened in between? We started out with the wrath of God being revealed, with the certainty of God's wrath against sin, and now here we are reading that we are saved from God's wrath through him! What has happened?

Look at chapter 3:25, 26. The passage says of Jesus, "Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance, he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness in the present time so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." Here is the idea of God's wrath against sin - not a fit of temper but his settled, holy response to what is contradicting his nature. And that God wants while judging sin to justify sinners. How can he do both at the same time? How can God deal with evil and yet forgive evil doers? How can God be true to himself and maintain his integrity in which he both has a holy love and a holy righteousness at the same time? The Bible teaches that in God's wisdom he developed the idea of setting forth his Son to be a propitiation for our sins - for the price to be paid in the sacrifice of his Son and then life offered to us through his Son.

There is no adequate way, I am certain, to illustrate this point. There have been a number of stories which have made efforts to do so. One of them is a story that was told originally by John Muir in his book, Travels in Alaska. Muir told the story of a bitter war between the Stickeen and Sitka tribes in that area that had lasted all summer. In the fall of that year with a harsh winter about to come upon the people, one of the Stickeen chiefs came up out of his fort and shouted that he wanted to speak to the leader of the Sitka tribe. When the leader was produced, the first man said, "My people are hungry. They dare not go to the salmon streams or berry fields for winter supplies, and if this war goes on much longer, most of my people will die of hunger. The Sitka chief replied that the Stickeens owed his tribe 10 lives, and he needed to balance the blood account before he would make peace. "Very well," replied the chief, "you know my rank. You know that I am worth 10 common men and more. Take me and make peace." He stepped forward and was shot and died so that his people might live.

Now that is a moving story of one man offering himself as a substitute to pay the price for the whole tribe. It is an effort to illustrate the point, but it doesn't do it justice. Because, you see, in the case of the Bible, it is a situation where the offense committed against God's holiness has been real and undeniable, and Paul demonstrates that in Romans 1-3. Secondly, it is a situation where it is not merely a spiteful war between two parties, perhaps both of whom could have been guilty. Thirdly, it is a situation, not where one comes to the other pleading for some sort of an answer, but where God takes it on himself to provide the answer, and from eternity prepared a way, all the images and pictures of the Old Testament sacrifice helping us to see what it means for just judgment against sin to be turned away by a sacrifice. All of those pictures prepared us for a time when God would set forth a propitiation - Jesus.

Now observe carefully that this says that God does this to show his righteousness. Someone might say, "But God you passed over all of those sins before. There are people sinning right now and you are not doing anything about it. What's just about that?" And God would say, "I have paid the price and I can justify on the basis of that price. I can redeem. I can forgive. I can set free on the basis of that price."


So here is man's deep need. Here's God's wonderful provision, and then look with me over at Hebrews 2:17. Here is the purpose of Jesus' coming in the flesh at all. The Hebrew writer says, in a passage that we have used many times to show how blessed we are to have a great high priest, that the purpose of Jesus' ministry in this world was actually propitiation. "Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to make propitiation for the sins of the people."

The word for propitiation is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures of the mercy seat -- the covering for the Ark of the Covenant which was kept in the most holy place. When the high priest went there on the Day of Atonement, he would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on that mercy seat to obtain redemption for his people - to make propitiation - to atone for his people.

That ceremony involved two goats. One of the goats was killed and his blood was brought there to be sprinkled. The other goat had the hands of the priest laid on his head and the sins of the people confessed over him, and he was sent off into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people, so to speak, away from them to show God had provided for them. Now here is the interesting thing. In the book of Hebrews Jesus represents the priest, the goat that was sacrificed, and the scape goat who was sent off into the wilderness. Jesus represents all three in this book. He is the one who offers the sacrifice that can produce eternal redemption, but that sacrifice is his own blood. And in so doing, he has provided once for all for our sins. That is the theme of scripture.

In the Old Testament in Leviticus 17:11 it made the point that God gave them blood sacrifices to make atonement because the life was in the blood. God gave them a way for atonement to be made for them. Life was in the blood. But the Hebrew writer says, "Without shedding of blood there is no remission (Hebrews 9:22) and yet it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to provide remission of sins (Hebrews 10:4)" and hence the need for what the Hebrew writer says here. Someone has to come who is of higher value than a sheep or a goat. In order to obtain eternal redemption for those made in God's image, it will have to be someone who has equal relationship to God and to man. Jesus coming in the flesh is the only answer to that problem.


The fourth passage that I call your attention to I John 2:2. In this text John is encouraging Christians to understand that there is an answer for our sin problem. Once we become a Christian, it doesn't mean that we immediately become people who are perfect and have no flaws. What are we to do about that? What is the answer for our problem? John says, "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."

Jesus has a heavenly ministry now. As he ministered on this earth, he did so to make propitiation, but now he is before the face of God to make intercession for us as the propitiation for our sins. He is the one who gives us a right relationship with God, who provides for our weaknesses as we walk in the light. He is an advocate. He is also the propitiation for our sins through his blood. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, Paul said in II Cor. 5:19. He made peace through the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20). And what John is saying in I John 2 is that here is the relationship that we need. We can have fellowship with God if we will walk in the light as he is in the light. If we will confess our sins when that needs to be done, and repentance, then Jesus is the propitiation for our sins.


And then the fifth passage, also in I John, is in I John 4:10. Here it shows the true reflection of love that is found in propitiation. There is the need of man, the provision of God, the ministry of Jesus on earth, the work of Jesus in heaven, and all of this is the result of the deep love of a holy God. John says in this text, "In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." The whole idea starts with the very God whose holiness has been offended and whose wrath has to be expressed toward ugliness and sin. That God satisfies, provides for, pays the price for his own wrath by giving his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

What kind of love is this that God would so care about us and our plight before him that he himself would pay the price for us to have a relationship with him? Love is not just looking at terrible evil and saying, "That's alright. Go ahead. I will love you anyway." Love is recognizing the plight and paying the price and offering us the gift. John says, of course, that this has to have an effect on how we live. Verse 11 says, "Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought to also love one another." That is inarguable. Back in chapter 2 he is arguing for righteous living. And Paul argued in Romans for faithful service to God. Those three things ought to characterize us because of propitiation - brotherly love, righteous living, and faithful service to God.

The great purpose of the cross was propitiation. It is a theme that is big enough to take a lifetime to try get hold of it. It is simple enough that you can see the point - God gave someone for us in our place. We ought to appreciate that enough to accept the gift and involve ourself in making it known to other people.

Maybe you are here this morning and you, like that tax collector, needed God to be merciful. God is, and he extends that mercy to us through the gospel. If you are here today and you would like to confess your belief in what Jesus has done for us and be baptized into him for the forgiveness of sins, we encourage you to act on that good intention. If you are a brother or sister and for some reason you have need for the prayers of your family in the Lord, then we would love to help with that. If you are a faithful Christian and you want it to be known that you would like to work and worship with the church here, this would be a good time to let that be made known, too. If we can help in some way, won't you come while we stand and sing together?