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Propitiation: God, The Divine Provider
1 John 4
Last week we began to talk about light, and we said light seems to be pretty simple when you first look at it. I mean, light is light. Doesn’t seem to be any more to it at first glance. But we pointed out last week how several centuries ago, Sir Isaac Newton took light, and he passed it through a prism. When he did that, it refracted that light out into a spectrum of colors. All of those colors really are the elements that make up light.
That’s really what rainbows are, by the way. I don’t know if you realized it or not, but really what you have in a rainbow is simply light passing through water droplets, who serve to be tiny prisms. As those tiny prisms have light come into them (those water droplets), they refract that light out into those various colors. So the rainbow really is a beautiful atmospheric reminder that there are multiple elements that make up what we call light.
Last week we said there are a lot of parallels between light and salvation. Salvation just seems to be salvation, but really there are multiple elements to it. Christ’s death that earned so great a salvation for us is so vast, it cannot be conveyed with one single concept. So then when we, through the lens of Scripture, refract salvation out, we find there are several elements involved to it. We listed a number of them…redemption, propitiation, reconciliation, justification, and imputation. As we look at these various elements, our appreciation for the scope of salvation grows. We have a greater understanding of just how great our God is as He provides for you and me salvation.
Now last week we took a look at redemption, which we said tells us about God, The Divine Emancipator. We saw how we were slaves of sin, and Jesus Christ was our kinsman redeemer. He purchased us out of the slave market of sin. He earned for us permanent freedom or, as it says in the New Testament, eternal redemption. Not only are we no longer slaves of sin, but we have been adopted as children, as sons and daughters of God.
Now this morning, we want to look at another aspect, another facet, another element, of our salvation. That element is the element of propitiation. In propitiation, we see God, The Divine Provider. Since we’re open to 1 John, chapter 4, I want to read verse 10. In verse 10 we have the mentioning of propitiation. Notice verse 10 says, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” I think the NIV says, “To be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Now the term propitiation is not an everyday term in our culture. But once you understand it, you will fall in love with it. Here is the plan for today. We’re going to look at four things. Number one, we’re going to look at the concept of propitiation. Secondly, we’re going to look at our situation that leads to our need for propitiation. Then we’re going to look at God’s solution where we unpack the passages that talk about propitiation. Then we’re going to end with two pictures of propitiation…one that finds its roots in the Old Testament and one that is clearly mentioned in the New Testament. So that’s our plan for today. Let’s better understand our salvation by looking at the element of propitiation.
So let’s begin by looking at the concept. To propitiate means to appease. It means to placate. It means to atone for. It means to square things with someone else. That’s the idea of the concept. The implication is that someone is angry and upset, and thus there is a need to placate or to appease. Now while we don’t use the word in everyday life, we see the concept in everyday life. I mean, it’s just reality.
For example, a husband messes up in some way, or he offends his wife in some way. What does he do? He may choose to bring her flowers, or he may buy her a gift, or he may say to her, “Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do that. I will do that to (if I could put it this way) turn away your wrath. I want to placate… I want to appease you in some way.” Now there is a classic illustration of that in the Bible of propitiation. It’s found in the Old Testament quite a bit back to your left in 1 Samuel, chapter 25. So I invite you to turn to 1 Samuel 25. It goes 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.
So in 1 Samuel 25, a classic illustration of propitiation is found in the story of a guy named Nabal. Now Nabal was a very wealthy herdsman. He lived in an area where David and his mighty men operated. Because they operated in that area, Nabal had a lot less concern with people stealing his herds. You know, the crooks were basically not there because of David and his men. So Nabal’s herds were protected. He was not plundered by thieves because of the presence of David and his men.
There came a time where David and his men needed some physical provisions. So David sent some guys to talk to Nabal. They said, “Could we have some provisions from you?” Nabal’s response was, “Get out of here! No way I’m giving you anything.” In fact, he goes on to say, “You’re just a bunch of insignificant nobodies. You’re nobodies. The answer is no; I’m giving you nothing.”
Well that messenger goes back to David in 1 Samuel 25. I want you to notice what happens in verse 13. David said to his men after he gets the message, “Each of you gird on your sword. Let’s get ready for battle.” “So each man girded on his sword. And David also girded on his sword, and about four hundred men went up behind David.” In other words, David said, “That’s the way you’re going to treat us after all the benefit we brought? Let’s get 400 guys. Saddle up, boys. Here we go. We’re going after this Nabal character.”
But notice verse 14. “But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, saying, ‘Behold, David sent messengers from the wilderness to greet our master, and he scorned them.'” Now I want you to notice what Abigail does by way of response. Verse 18, “Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves of bread.” See these were wealthy people! “…And two jugs of wine and five sheep already prepared (to eat) and five measures of roasted grain and a hundred clusters of raisins and two hundred cakes of figs, and loaded them on donkeys.”
Notice she was riding her donkey (verse 20) coming down by the hidden part of the mountain so she could meet David and his men who were coming toward her. So she gathers all these gifts, you see, to give to David and his men. Then I want you to notice verse 23. “When Abigail saw David, she hurried and dismounted from her donkey, and fell on her face before David and bowed herself to the ground. She fell at his feet and said, ‘On me alone, my lord, be the blame. And please let your maidservant speak to you, and listen to the words of your maidservant.'”
Verse 27, “‘Now let this gift which your maidservant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who accompany my lord. Please forgive the transgression of your maidservant; for the Lord will certainly make for my lord an enduring house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the Lord, and evil will not be found in you all your days.'” In other words, she is saying, “I want to bring this to you. Please don’t kill my stupid husband!” That’s really what’s happening here.
So she does this to appease David, to placate David, to atone for what her husband had done, to square things, if you would, with David. So we may not use the word, but the concept we understand. By the way, propitiation is a common concept in the pagan religions. I think one of the reasons why is I believe humanity just has this innate sense that somehow we need to appease God. In pagan religions, often worshipers will offer up animal sacrifices to appease the gods in some way.
I was reading this week about a pastor in Haiti who said that at least ninety percent of the Haitian people practice voodoo to one degree or another. Sometimes they’ll slaughter a chicken and place the blood along with the entrails on a dish by the front door hoping to ward off the evil spirits. It’s their way of appeasing the god who stands behind voodoo. That’s the pagan idea of propitiation. But here is what is interesting is that propitiation is a biblical concept.
So we’ve looked at the concept, now let’s understand the biblical side of this by looking at our situation. As we do that, I want to begin with a common question that seems to come up in the religious community. That question is this…If God in His love and mercy desired to forgive sinners, why didn’t He just do it? Why this whole thing about having a cross and a brutal experience for the Son of God? Why didn’t He just forgive? Why was the Cross necessary?
I’m going to give a two-part answer to that. Part one is this: we violated God’s standards of holiness. I’m talking about us as humanity and as individuals. Turn with me back into the New Testament to Galatians, chapter 3, verse 10. The idea is, “Well why didn’t God just forgive sinners? Why do we have to do this brutal thing called the Cross?” Well the first part of the answer is we violated God’s standards of holiness.
Look at verse 10 of Galatians, chapter 3. “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written (now watch what’s quoted here), ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.'” Now that is a jam-packed verse. The concept really is that the Law of God is a mirror that when we look into it, it displays our sin.
Notice it says, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by…” That little verb there is a word that means to continue in, to persevere in. It’s in a tense in the original that means you constantly are doing that, consistently you are doing that. “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by (continually is doing)…” Then it says, “…all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.”
I like what Warren Wiersbe says. He says, “God’s laws are not à la carte.” You know, in à la carte you sort of pick and you choose. It’s not, “Okay, I will obey and perform that law of God. I’m not too worried about these laws of God.” Doesn’t work that way. Everyone who does not consistently perform all that the Law says is under a curse. See, by our violations of His holiness, we have incurred the wrath of God.
Now, that term the wrath of God is not particularly a very popular topic in our day. Yet the Bible has so much to say about it. The wrath of God is talked about very prominently in the Old Testament more than 125 times using 11 different words. In the New Testament, we see the wrath of God mentioned some 35 times.
I want you to turn with me a little bit to the left in your Bible to Romans, chapter 2, verse 5. We have one of these passages that mentions the wrath of God. Our violations of His holiness have incurred His wrath. Notice Romans 2:5. As he is writing to these folks he says, “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” In Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, it talks about a time when the wrath of God is coming on the sons of disobedience.
So the question is…If God in His love and mercy desired to forgive sinners, why did He not just do it? Why is it necessary to have something like the Cross? The first part of that answer is that we violated God’s standards of holiness. There is a second part to the answer. That is this: God must operate consistent with His character and nature. See, God’s perfect holiness, God’s perfect justice, God’s perfect righteousness, demands this: when there is a violation, there must be justice. There must be a price paid.
Now even as human beings, we have a sense that that has to be true. We have that same sense in our hearts. I have and grew up with two younger sisters. I have three daughters. Now just for the sake of the argument, imagine this. One of them is brutally raped. As the rapist comes before the judge with me sitting nearby, the rapist admits the act, apologizes, “I’m sorry for raping her,” and then promises, “I will never rape her again.” Then the judge says, “Okay. You’re free to go.” What’s my response going to be? “Whoa! Whoa! Wait a minute now! What we want is some justice. There is a price that needs to be paid. Judge, you need to obey the law.”
Well something very similar happens with God. Our sin violated the holiness of God and incurred His wrath. That wrath must be satisfied before He can accept us. The Judge has to obey the Law. A price has to be paid. Now it actually gets more complicated than that. Listen to this. Think about this. You have God’s infinite holiness. When there are violations of His infinite holiness, they are of infinite magnitude. Only an act of infinite value can appease and satisfy and propitiate the infinite wrath of God.
Now think about that for a moment what I just said. Violations of God’s infinite holiness are of infinite magnitude. Only an act of infinite value can appease and satisfy and propitiate the infinite wrath of God. Now keep that in mind and then think about our puny, peewee [tiny], pitifully meager acts that we want to present to God to turn back the infinite wrath of God. I mean, think about it.
People will say, “Okay, you know, I’ve done some things wrong. So you know what I’m going to do? I’ll just go to church, or I’ll go to Mass. That will make everything fine. Or what I’ll do is I’ll just do some good things. Maybe I’ll do maybe twice as many good things as I would do otherwise. But I’m just going to do some good things, and that will make everything fine. Or what I’m going to do is I’m going to make sure I get baptized. That just makes everything fine. Or what I’m going to do is I’m going to recite some prayers. Even if they require me to recite them multiple times, I’ll just recite those prayers, and that will make everything fine.”
Doesn’t work that way! Violations of His infinite holiness are of infinite magnitude. Only an act of infinite value can appease and propitiate the infinite wrath of God. Yet people all the time think some puny, pitifully meager acts are somehow going to accomplish what only God Himself could get done.
Which leads us to the third thing we want to look at, and that is God’s solution as we’re trying to understand propitiation. I want you to think about this. You see there is an intersection that goes on in the Cross. It’s in the Cross where we have an intersection between the justice and the wrath of God and God’s love and mercy. They intersect at the Cross. One of my favorite lines in one of my favorite Christian songs goes like this: “My sin demanded hell; on Him the judgment fell.” We want to look at the passages we have in the New Testament that mention propitiation.
So let’s go back to 1 John (where we started out), chapter 4. Let’s look again at verse 10 in chapter 4. This is God’s solution. “In this is love (verse 10), not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” The word in the original is the word hilasmos. Hilasmos means the full legal satisfaction. It means the complete atonement that was required by God’s holiness and God’s justice. He sent His Son to be the hilasmos for our sins, the full legal satisfaction, to provide all the legal satisfaction that was necessary for our sin.
Now this word hilasmos is used two times in the New Testament. A related verb is used two times in the New Testament, and a related noun is used two times in the New Testament. So we have six occurrences of this concept of propitiation. The other time this word is used is also in 1 John in chapter 2, verse 2. You notice verse 1 says, “…And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (here it comes); and He Himself is the (hilasmos) for our sins.” The full legal satisfaction. “…And not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” In other words, it’s through Jesus Christ that God’s wrath is satisfied.
Now turn with me a little bit to the left to Hebrews, chapter 2, verse 17. We have one of the two occurrences of the verb. Hebrews chapter 2, verse 17. Speaking of Jesus in verse 17 of Hebrews 2, “He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God…” To do what? “…To make propitiation for the sins of the people.” He had to become a man in order to do that.
Now turn with me several books to your left to the book of Romans, chapter 3, verses 24 and 25. Here we have an occurrence of the related noun speaking of propitiation. Romans 3:24. You’ll notice here we even have redemption being mentioned here. We have these threads, these colors, of salvation side by side. “Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; (verse 25) whom God displayed publically (here it comes) as a propitiation in His blood through faith.”
It was the full legal satisfaction that came through His blood, and it’s appropriated by faith. This was to demonstrate what? His righteousness. He had to be consistent with His character “because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” Then there is an amazing statement that comes at the end of verse 26. All this was done “so that He would be just (see that’s operating consistent with His character) and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
In other words, He had to be consistent with His character, but He is also the One who took action to solve the problem to meet the demands of His character. That’s an amazing statement. That is totally amazing. It ought to blow you away! So I hope you have a better feel for this, the idea of propitiation, which shows us God, The Divine Provider. He provides the full legal satisfaction to meet the demands of His righteousness and His wrath.
Now I want to look finally at two pictures of propitiation because it helps us to I think have a little bit better handle [grip] on this. One picture is rooted in the Old Testament, and the other one we see in the New Testament. These are the final two places, by the way, where terms regarding propitiation are used. The first one is Hebrews, chapter 9. So you can turn back with me to the book of Hebrews, chapter 9, verses 3 to 5. In Hebrews 9, in this portion, I mean He is talking about the Old Testament tabernacle. I just want to read the verses. Then we’ll go back, and we’ll talk about them.
It says regarding the tabernacle, “Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which 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.” He goes on to say, “But of these things we cannot now speak in detail.” You might think, Well he gave an awful lot of detail there. But there is a whole lot more detail to be found.
But I want you to understand this about the tabernacle. There is there amazing symbolism that points to Christ in what He did in propitiation. Part of the tabernacle was called the Holy of Holies. It’s in the Holy of Holies where the presence of God was. Inside the Holy of Holies was something called the ark of the covenant. Now the ark of the covenant was a wooden box, but it was covered with gold. It was made of acacia wood, which was symbolic of humanity. Now just listen to the symbolism here. It was overlayed with gold, which is symbolic of deity.
Inside the ark of the covenant were three items. One thing that was inside the ark of the covenant was a golden jar of manna. You remember what manna was in the Old Testament with the people of Israel? Manna was a symbol of God’s miraculous provision. Remember they didn’t have food, and He just provided the manna every day. Now think about the symbolism, God’s miraculous provision.
Also inside the ark of the covenant was Aaron’s rod that budded. Now his rod was really just a stick they took from a tree, and they fashioned…and they used it as a tool. But that dead stick budded, which is a symbol of new life that comes from the dead. You’re beginning to get a feel for this. Then also in the ark of the covenant were the stone tablets of the Law, which were the tablets of the Ten Commandments Moses brought down from the mountain. They were an expression of God’s holiness and God’s righteousness.
Now here is what’s interesting also about those three items, though, that were in the ark of the covenant. All three of them are connected with sin and rebellion. You remember the story of the manna? God provided the manna, and eventually the people got tired of the manna. They began to murmur, and they began to complain. “Why did You ever let us leave Egypt for this stuff?” Then you also have that rod, which if you go back and you study the story, it’s connected to what was called the rebellion of Korah in Israel where the people were rebelling against God.
Then you have the tablets, which were those symbols of God’s holiness and righteousness. You remember what happened in the environment with those? When Moses brought them down, what were the people of Israel doing? The people were immersed in rebellion and idolatry. See all this symbolism that’s mixed together here?
Then you had on the ark of the covenant two cherubim, who are on either side looking down on the ark. We learned from Psalm 99, it says that the Lord is enthroned above the cherubim. So the picture and the symbolism is that right above the top of the ark you had the very presence of God. Then you had the lid of the ark, which was called the mercy seat. It’s on that lid once a year when the high priest would come into the Holy of Holies where he would sprinkle the blood on the top of the ark of the covenant. God said, “When I see the blood, your sins will be covered.” Incredible symbolism involved in this.
But in particular, I want your eyes to go back to verse 5 where it says, “Above it (the ark of the covenant) were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.” Literally in the original it says, “Overshadowing the place of propitiation.” See, it’s where the blood of the sacrifice fell. That’s the place of propitiation foreshadowing what Jesus Christ would do on the Cross. Incredible symbolism!
By the way, this is really interesting. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it before or not, but in John, chapter 20, it tells us something very interesting about the tomb of Jesus, you know, after He had been crucified and He died and He was raised from the dead. It says there that when Mary peered in… You have to kind of picture the tomb in your mind here. There was this slab on which the body had been laid. When Mary peered in, it says she saw one angel at the head of that slab and one angel at the feet of the slab.
Now, if you’re tuned in to Old Testament imagery, right away it’s going to click something in your head. You see, it’s picturing that little slab there with the two angels on either side is a picture of the place of propitiation. It’s saying, “Jesus’ death was the place where the blood was seen by God, and He was propitiated.” Incredible picture of propitiation.
Now the final verse or passage that mentions propitiation is found in the gospel of Luke. So you have to go with me over to Luke 18. We’ll see the final time we have terms for propitiation mentioned in the New Testament. This is another picture of propitiation. It’s a pretty cool one too. Now in Luke 18 beginning down about verse 10, we have a picture here of the temple scene. In the temple, you have two people who are praying. One of them is a Pharisees, and the other one is a tax collector.
You know the Pharisees were the religious dudes. The tax collectors…well, they were really the dung of the culture. No one wanted to have anything to do with them. You couldn’t be more low, and you couldn’t be more sinful. But I want you to notice what happens here. The Pharisee is standing there, and he is praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people. You know, those people who have sin they have to deal with…the swindler-types, the unjust, the adulterers.” Then he probably looked to his left, and he goes, “And even this tax collector over here. I’m just so glad I’m not like those people. I mean, look at what I do! I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all I get.”
You see how out of touch this guy is? He is totally out of touch with the necessity of propitiation. He is saying to God, “Hey, let me give You some puny, paltry things I do. You’re going to be impressed with this, God. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes of all I get. Aren’t You impressed? I mean, I know I really don’t have much sin, but whatever sin I have, You’re going to be really impressed. You’ll no doubt forgive me for anything because of the things I do.”
Then you have a tremendous contrast with the tax collector. Notice verse 13. “But the tax collector, standing some distance away…” Instead of looking around and comparing himself to other people, what’s he doing? He “was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven.” But he is actually beating on his chest, and he is appealing to God. He says to God, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” Literally what he says is this: “God, be propitiated to me because I’m a sinner.”
He was basically saying this: “I possess nothing. I can do nothing to meet the righteous and just demands of the holiness of God. God, I am hopeless unless You do something, unless You be propitiated.” Guess what happened? Jesus did do something. He is the Divine Provider who met all the righteous, legal demands of the holiness and the justice of God. He was the full legal satisfaction, the complete atonement.
People say, “Well, hey if God is a loving God, why would He allow His Son to be executed on a cross?” As we said a few weeks ago, there are some people running around saying, “Well that sounds like divine child abuse to me!” When they say that, I want to say this to them. I want to scream at them, “Don’t you understand this was required in order for God to be consistent with His character? It was required that there be full complete legal satisfaction, that there be complete atonement.” That’s why Jesus Christ climbed on a cross. See, salvation sometimes seems relatively simple. But when we really look at it closely, when we refract it through the lens of Scripture, we find out there is a lot more color there than we thought.
Now as we close today, I want to talk about some life response we can have to what we’ve looked at today. I want to suggest two responses. Number one, rejoice. Number two, relay. What do I mean by those things? Well first of all, I believe when we look at all of this…
1. We should rejoice in Christ’s great work for us. He didn’t just earn one-time forgiveness for us. Remember that’s the message we saw from 1 John 2:1 and 2.
He says, “I am writing to you that you don’t sin, even as followers of Christ who have been forgiven.” But if anyone sins, we need to remember that “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins.” We know we are forgiven, not just now, but even in the future if we’ve trusted in Him. We need to rejoice in that. Listen…don’t let another day go by where you don’t thank Him again for that. What an incredible truth! We need to rejoice in Christ’s great work.
Then the second response I think we should have is…
2. We need to relay the good news. We need to relay the good news. Men and women, we have true good news to share with other people. I mean, it is incredible good news that when we trust in Christ, we can be rescued from the wrath that is to come. In 1 Thessalonians 1 and in 1 Thessalonians 5 it talks about that. It talks about how in chapter 1 we have turned to God. We now “wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.”
There is wrath coming, but we, because of our relationship with Him, are rescued. That is good news that the people who you work with and who you live nearby need to hear. In chapter 5 of 1 Thessalonians, verse 9, it says, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s coming! Your friends and neighbors and coworkers and fellow students need to have us relay that good news to them. It’s possible to be out from under the wrath of God because of the Person of Jesus Christ.
Now let’s pray together. Father, we want to thank You again for the Word of God. We thank You for the opportunity to more deeply understand, first of all, salvation that was won for us. Then even what it means about You, to understand more clearly how great and awesome You are. We just rejoice in the fact because we know Christ, we are not under the wrath that will one day come to this planet.
Father, I would pray that we would be just willing heralds to relay the good news to the people who we live near, who we work with, who we go to school with that they might know the good news that they don’t have to be victims of the righteous holiness of God and His wrath. But through the Person of Christ, they can be rescued. Father, we would pray You would keep us from being quiet and silent when we should be eager to share the good news. We’re going to give you all the praise. What a great God You are. We praise You for what You’ve done through Christ to propitiate Your holiness. We thank You. In Jesus’ name, Amen.