The word for mercy (hilaskomai) Jesus uses in the parable I wrote about in the first article of this series connects the two Testaments regarding the meaning of propitiation. Recall that in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, hilaskomai is rendered ‘propitiary’ and by ‘mercy-seat’ in the NASB and NKJV. It is used in the New Testament and translated mercy (only twice Luke 18:13 and Hebrews 9:5) and as propitiation (1 John 2:2 among others). Propitiation, propitiary, mercy-seat; these words all have something in common, namely the shedding of blood explicitly displayed in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament described in Exodus and Leviticus and by the sacrifice of Jesus in the New.
Reading Exodus and Leviticus leaves no doubt about the centrality of blood sacrifice in Israel’s worship of Yahweh. It wasn’t something they dreamed up either; God was very, very specific about what was acceptable for worship, what each sin demanded as a sacrifice, how often and so on. The number of animals required by that many people is staggering and the amount of blood shed each day, week, month and year equally staggering. The most important of all the sacrifices was the Day of Atonement when propitiation for the sins of Israel was secured by the blood from the sacrifices being sprinkled on the mercy-seat of the Ark of the Covenant. Upon the merit of the sacrifice and the High Priest’s carrying out the ceremony properly God was justified in granting mercy to Israel instead of displaying wrath. This in turn made it possible to have a continuing relationship with Israel.
But note here that the propitiary sacrifice offered was in essence a ‘substitute’ in the place of Israel. God’s wrath/judgment requires the death of the offender, blood needs to be shed, as ‘payment’ for the offense; death is the wage we earn, and deserve, for sinning. But with a substitute, the penalty of death is placed upon it thereby taking the place of Israel in the Old and the whole of humanity in the New Testament. Therefore, in the background of all this, especially the idea of propitiation, is the theological term “penal-substitutionary doctrine of atonement” which forms the basis for what many Christians believe Jesus’ actually was. I say ‘many’ Christians because there are several other explanations for Christ’s death and what it accomplished besides this one that other Christians follow. Perhaps we’ll go there another day, but I digress.
Of course, we know from the Book of Hebrews all of this was the shadow of the Reality that would be the shedding of Christ’s blood on Calvary. What we need to see clearly now is that the propitiation upon which mercy rests and that for which the Publican cried out accomplishes two things: the aversion of wrath from the sinner and the reconciliation of the sinner to God, both sometimes designated by the term ‘atonement’. And specifically, we must see that God’s wrath against sin and sinners is real.
It is very important given the days in which we live that we are clear about God’s wrath is and isn’t; it isn’t a cosmic temper tantrum or something like it but rather an anger, extreme anger in fact, at sin and all its consequences and, therefore, totally consistent with His nature as Love and Light. But we must emphasize that it is also anger at the sinner, the guilty party; wrath is directed at ungodly people. This is why Luke 18:13 is so important because the publican is asking for mercy (propitiation) not just because of his sins, but because he is a sinner who sins and, as such, an object of God’s wrath. Remember from the last lesson that mercy as propitiation (hilaskomai) is that which is granted by someone (in this case God) having the authority, the means and the justification to be angry towards and execute judgment against a guilty party. It is never just sin that is at issue, but the agent, the sinner is always in view. Paul himself points this out clearly in his letter to the Ephesians when he says that they
…were dead in your trespasses and sins,
in which you formerly walked according to
course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the
air, of the spirit that now working in the
sons of disobedience. Among them we too
all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh,
indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind
and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
(Eph. 2:1-3 NASB italics mine)
Christians can usually expect at least two reactions to this truth from people in our politically correct and morally relativistic culture. The first is that the idea of blood sacrifice is absolutely barbaric, uncivilized and must be rejected, at least by ‘enlightened’ societies. Their opinion of the Crucifixion is the same; no god worthy of worship would allow such torture to satisfy some standard of righteousness. Second, that God can be characterized as wrathful (along with ideas like a final judgment, hell and eternal damnation) is equally abominable to the sensitive modern mind, especially that of a liberal theologian; after all, they say, “God is love”. Therefore, by association, if you believe a blood sacrifice is necessary for God’s mercy to be granted and without it the sinner will suffer His wrath, then you are an ignorant, uneducated, backwoods barbarian at best.
But, even though I expect the world to reject the notion of a wrathful God, I find it interesting that in many evangelical churches it is seldom mentioned; hell, yes, judgment, yes but that God is angry, really angry with sinful humanity? Well, not so much because it goes against the image that God-is-love, the message that gets top billing along with God as a kindly dispenser of goodies. An outsider who first hears about God’s wrath, or reads about it in the Bible might get the impression from such a church that God’s wrath and His love are inconsistent, incompatible, and contradictory; I’m convinced many Christians think exactly like this. But this is for another day to consider.
Besides averting God’s wrath against sinners, propitiation as the basis for mercy makes it possible for them to be reconciled with God. The point is important; it is not enough that they escape punishment or His wrath; just as with Israel, God seeks to be brought into a relationship with the offender, a loving, compassionate and forgiving relationship, hence mercy. Add to this the desire of God to actually change a sinner into a saint and provide all the necessary means to accomplish this, the picture of salvation we hear of in the Good News takes shape. Instead of wrath we receive love and forgiveness; instead of a sinful nature we are transformed into the image and likeness of His Son who is our propitiation, even our Mercy-Seat. This is the kind of mercy we can expect from God, even now, and we can never lose sight of the fact that blood, real blood, was shed that we might receive it.
Well, this study so far is pretty basic but nevertheless helps us understand what God’s mercy is and our need for it. Next time the practical and devotional aspect of mercy/propitiation will be our topic which is really the most important part of this study. I’ve added a link to a song I find appropriate concerning His mercy-He simply never lets go of us. Control/click on the link and enjoy.
To all my followers of “So…What’s the Point?” this study is also being posted on a different blog that is focused more on theology and, therefore, a bit more involved than what I’ve been doing thus far. The new blog is located at drwryzekphd.wordpress.com and is entitled Godtalk-Biblical Theology for the Avid Christian.