1. Terms and Meaning:
The word is Latin and brings into its English use the atmosphere of heathen rites for winning the favor, or averting the anger, of the gods. In the Old Testament it represents a number of Hebrew words--ten, including derivatives--which are sufficiently discussed under ATONEMENT (which see), of which propitiation is one aspect. It represents in Septuagint the Greek stems hilask- (hile-), and katallag-, with derivatives; in the New Testament only the latter, and is rarely used. Propitiation needs to be studied in connection with reconciliation, which is used frequently in some of the most strategic sentences of the New Testament, especially in the newer versions In Hebrews 2:17, the English Revised Version and the American Standard Revised Version have both changed "reconciliation" of the King James Version to "propitiation," to make it correspond with the Old Testament use in connection with the sacrifice on the DAY OF ATONEMENT (which see). Luke 18:13 ("God, be thou merciful (margin "be propitiated") to me the sinner" (the American Standard Revised Version margin)); Hebrews 8:12 (quoted from the Septuagint); and Matthew 16:22 (an idiomatic asseveration like English "mercy on us") will help in getting at the usage in the New Testament. In Septuagint hilasterion is the term for the "mercy-seat" or "lid of the ark" of the covenant which was sprinkled with blood on the Day of Atonement. It is employed in exactly this sense in Hebrews 9:5, where later versions have in the margin "the propitiatory."
Elsewhere in the New Testament this form is found only in Romans 3:25, and it is here that difficulty and difference are found extensively in interpreting. Greek fathers generally and prominent modern scholars understand Paul here to say that God appointed Christ Jesus to be the "mercy-seat" for sinners. The reference, while primarily to the Jewish ceremonial in tabernacle and temple, would not depend upon this reference for its comprehension, for the idea was general in religious thought, that some place and means had to be provided for securing friendly meeting with the Deity, offended by man's sin. In Hebrews particularly, as elsewhere generally, Jesus Christ is presented as priest and sacrifice. Many modern writers (compare Sanday and Headlam), therefore, object that to make Him the "mercy-seat" here complicates the figure still further, and so would understand hilasterion as "expiatory sacrifice." While this is not impossible, it is better to take the word in the usual sense of "mercy-seat." It is not necessary to complicate the illustration by bringing in the idea of priest at all here, since Paul does not do so; mercy-seat and sacrifice are both in Christ. hilasmos, is found in the New Testament only in 1John 2:2; 4:10. Here the idea is active grace, or mercy, or friendliness. The teaching corresponds exactly with that in Romans. "Jesus Christ the righteous" is our "Advocate (margin "Helper") with the Father," because He is active mercy concerning (peri) our sins and those of the whole world. Or (Romans 4:10), God "loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for (active mercy concerning) our sins." This last passage is parallel with Romans 3:25, the one dealing with the abstract theory, and so Christ is set forward as a "mercy-seat," the other dealing with experience of grace, and so Christ is the mercy of God in concrete expression.
2. Theological Implication:
The basal idea in Hebrew terms is that of covering what is offensive, so restoring friendship, or causing to be kindly disposed. The Greek terms lack the physical reference to covering but introduce the idea of friendliness where antagonism would be natural; hence, graciousness. Naturally, therefore, the idea of expiation entered into the concept. It is especially to be noted that all provisions for this friendly relation as between God and offending man find their initiation and provision in God and are under His direction, but involve the active response of man. All heathen and unworthy conceptions are removed from the Christian notion of propitiation by the fact that God Himself proposed, or "set forth," Christ as the "mercy-seat," and that this is the supreme expression of ultimate love. God had all the while been merciful, friendly, "passing over" man's sins with no apparently adequate, or just, ground for doing so. Now in the blood of Christ sin is condemned and expiated, and God is able to establish and maintain His character for righteousness, while He continues and extends His dealing in gracious love with sinners who exercise faith in Jesus. The propitiation originates with God, not to appease Himself, but to justify Himself in His uniform kindness to men deserving harshness. Compare also as to reconciliation, as in Romans 5:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18.
See also JOHANNINE THEOLOGY, V, 2.
Besides the comms., the literature is the same as for ATONEMENT, to recent works on which add Stalker, The Atonement; Workman, At Onement, or Reconciliation with God; Moberly, in Foundations, Christian Belief in Terms of Modern Thought.
William Owen Carver
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