That God could pass over sins, the Old Testament teaches us, and the saints of those days abundantly proved it. That He is righteous in doing so, the New Testament shows, us (Rom. 3:21-26); for the blood, sprinkled once on the mercy-seat, vindicates His holiness and His righteousness, and enables Him consistently with all that He is to act in mercy and forgiveness to those on whose behalf it has been put, as it were, under His eye, and on the place of His throne. Hence there are two questions which have to be settled ere the sinner's conscience can be at rest in the presence of God. Can he be forgiven? And on what ground can a holy God exercise His prerogative of mercy and forgiveness? That the offender could be forgiven, if the case admitted of a sin-offering or trespass-offering being brought to God's altar, we have already seen. Now we would consider why, according to the teaching of the divine Word, God could righteously forgive; for nothing short of God's righteousness being manifested in forgiving our sins can really set us at rest before Him. Of old the sinner had a witness of it as he brought his sacrifice to God's altar. (Rom. 3:21.) Now that righteousness is fully manifested, "even the righteousness of God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ, unto all, and upon all them that believe." But this leads us on to the consideration of what is called propitiation - a term not met with in the Old Testament, but one with which we are made familiar by the writings of the New Testament. (Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2 4:10.)
Now we are not to understand by this that God needed to be propitiated by the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, in order to reconcile Him to us. We, not God, needed the reconciliation (Rom. 5:10, 11; Col. 1:21, 22); and the presence on earth, and the death of the Lord Jesus Christ are a sufficient refutation of such a doctrine. The incarnation, and the atoning death of Christ, both give the lie to it. He came, given by God (John 3:16), and sent by the Father. (1 John 4:14.) It was God, rich in mercy, who for the great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, quickened us with Christ. (Eph. 2:4, 5.) Of us we read that we are reconciled to Him by the death of His Son. God, too, commended His love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8.) So wrote Paul, concerning himself, and those who with him shared in the salvation of God. To speak then of propitiating God by sacrifice would be to belie the teaching of revelation, and to deny what He is whom we know as our God. Such a thought would do for a heathen, but not for Christians; and the fact that the heathen have such notions only indicates how utterly man, by the fall and its results, is astray as to all true knowledge of the character and nature of the Divine Being.
But if He needs not to be propitiated, and can pass over sins, and forgive them, does He think lightly of them? The death of His Son on the cross, and His being there forsaken of God, when made sin for us, sufficiently shows what is God's abhorrence of sin, whilst the giving up His Son to die for sinners, proves, as nothing else can, the greatness of His love to them. To be propitiated on their behalf He never needed; yet propitiation was requisite, for He can only act in grace consistently with all that He is. And propitiation by blood is the only thing that could meet the case; for blood is the life of the flesh, and by it atonement, of which propitiation forms one element, is made for sins. Propitiation, therefore, had to be made, though God needed not to be propitiated. The ground had to be laid, on which God would be righteous in accepting a guilty person before Him. For when one thinks of propitiation, we think of that which has to do with God's nature, and God's throne. It is not the meeting of the sinner's need, though that results from it, but the providing that God should be able to act in grace to the sinner, without compromise of anything that He is, that is meant by propitiation. Hence the making it was an act God-ward, not man-ward, and one done in the sanctuary, when the high priest was alone with God. And intimately concerned as Israel were with all that was done on the day of atonement, the first work in the sanctuary had relation to the claims of God's holiness, and not to the need of the sinner. By whom propitiation really has been made, and the abiding value of it, the New Testament teaches us; but in the Old we have traced out for us in type how it was made. To this we would now turn.
There is an order in God's book, and He gives His revelations when and how He pleases, though He does not give a syllabus of the contents of any book, but leaves us to gather that from a study of its pages. So in Leviticus we are first taught the way of approach to God, which is by the death of His Son, and the institution of priesthood and of a high priest who represents the people before the Lord. After that, we learn principles of walk, which should characterize those who are redeemed, typically treated of in the regulations about clean and unclean animals in Lev. 11. Then come regulations about defilements, and the rites for purification from them. Then at length we have the revelation about the day of atonement, teaching how sins can be dealt with before God, and uncleannesses likewise. (Lev. 16:16.) Thus the deeper question, and really the prior one, being the foundation of all that preceded it, is taken up last in order in the book. For God in His goodness to His people shadowed forth the way of approach to Him, and the provisions for those who had sinned or were defiled, ere He set forth on what grounds alone He could be righteous in having them before Him. The whole subject, for it is a great one, is taken up therefore in order, first what man needed, and then what enables God to meet that need. To this last we now come, as far as treated of in the Old Testament in the rites appointed for the day of atonement, in which we have set forth how propitiation is made, and in a clear way too what substitution really is. To the former of these we must for the present confine ourselves.
In previous revelations in this book we have met with, as occasion called for it, the Lord's gracious announcement, "It shall be forgiven him" (Lev. 4, Lev. 5, Lev. 6), or "He shall be clean" (Lev. 12, Lev. 14, Lev. 15), according as the matter had reference to sin or to defilement. In Lev. 16, we have no such assuring utterances; for we are to learn rather how God's nature is cared for, and all that He is vindicated and satisfied through propitiation by blood.
Death then must take place for propitiation to be made, and a high priest is needed to deal with the blood when taken into the holiest of all. Hence the sinner is wholly cast on the service of another to procure for him a standing before the throne of God, though such service could have no place unless death had previously taken place. Obedience therefore on his part, or devotedness of the highest order, could never procure for him that which as a sinner he needed. Self in no form, under no name or guise, can be of any avail when it is a question of making propitiation. The distance between God and the sinner can never be bridged over, and approach to the throne be permitted to the offender without condign punishment overtaking him, unless another, the high priest accepted by God, has accomplished what he alone can effect inside the veil. We need therefore the ministrations of another - a priest to care for God's holiness, and make good a standing for us in righteousness before the throne. And as none but the high priest can do that - the high priest, too, of God's appointment (Heb. 5:4) - those only who are willing to be indebted to the ministrations of the Lord Jesus Christ, the great High Priest, can share in the propitiation made by Him.
But it is propitiation by blood, His blood; for He and He alone is the sin-offering, God's lamb, whose sacrifice God can accept, and, we can add, has accepted. No standing then could there be for any of us before the throne unless the sacrifice for sin had been slain; no standing, too, could there be for any of us unless the blood had been, as the type teaches us, taken within the veil. Those who reject the sacrifice of Christ have no sin-offering on the ground of which they can come to God, and no propitiation can there be made by virtue of which they will be able to stand in the divine presence. Obedience, repentance, devotedness, supplication, none of these can vindicate the claims of God's holiness; none of these can justify Him in freely and fully forgiving the sinner. Now this side of truth is very much forgotten. Man thinks of his sins, and the consequences to himself, and wants those consequences averted; but he forgets, unless divinely taught, that God's nature has to be cared for, and His righteousness in acting in grace made good through propitiation by blood.
A high priest was requisite for this, and the Lord instructed Moses about it. In garments of white, indicative of the spotless purity of the Lord Jesus Christ, Aaron went into the holiest once every year with the blood of others; i.e. of bulls and of goats, the type, but in this falling short (and how short!) of the antitype, who, pure Himself, entered in by His own blood. (Heb. 9:12.) Not in virtue of His blood, as if He had no right of entry otherwise; but what characterised Him was entrance by His own blood, as that which characterised Aaron was entering in by the blood of others. (Heb. 9:25.) Inside the veil, with the cloud of incense rising up between Aaron and the mercy-seat, on which the cloud of glory rested, and in which cloud the Lord appeared (Lev. 16:2), the high priest prepared to do his work, death having already taken place. Now that work was speedily done but how effective was it when done! No prayer was uttered that we read of; no invocation was needed, when the high priest sprinkled of the blood on the mercy-seat and before it. The service was a silent service. All Aaron's eloquence, all his entreaties, could not have added one iota to the merits of the blood; nor could Aaron have understood what was its value and preciousness to Jehovah. Prayer then was not called for; no need was there for one single word to be spoken; for the blood had a voice for God, which He well knew, and could listen to. Aaron therefore first sprinkled of it on the mercy-seat, and then seven times before it. With that his work within the veil was done.
Once was it sprinkled on the mercy-seat, and that was the first act of the high priest. He put it on the throne of God, and where the cherubim, the supporters of His throne, looking down as they did to the mercy-seat, could see it, and gaze on it; and he left it there. This was enough for God. The moment, as it were, that He saw it, the action of the throne, which must otherwise have been going out righteously in judgment, was stayed; and those on whose behalf the blood was brought in, would not be dealt with in judgment as they deserved. The blood of the sin-offering thus put on the mercy-seat, was never wiped off; it remained throughout the year ever before God. Then sprinkled seven times before the mercy-seat, the sinner's perfect standing before the throne was assured to him. All this time the people were without; they could not enter the holiest. The high priest alone could, and he did the work there all alone. He did it, and came out; for he was only a type of Him who remains within the holiest, having found eternal redemption. (Heb. 9:12.) The Lord abiding within the heavenly sanctuary assures us of this.
This work was never repeated, as long as the time lasted for which it was made. As typical of the true work of propitiation it was done every year; but its value the last day of that year was just as great as on the first. Now it has been done once for all by the great High Priest, who entered in once into the holy place, having found eternal redemption. Thus God is perfectly glorified, and able righteously to act in grace towards the greatest of sinners. The blood on the mercy-seat bears witness to this. A perfect standing too before the throne is secured for all who believe on the Lord, by His blood, sprinkled, as it were, seven times before it.
Propitiation, then, has been made inside the heavenly sanctuary. Of this we are assured on the authority of the Holy Ghost. He, the Comforter, would come, sent by Christ from the Father, the token that He had gone whither He told His disciples He would go. (John 15:26.) Israel knew it was effected annually for them, as the high priest emerged from behind the curtains which screened the entrance to the holy place. We know it has been made once for all, by the coming of the Holy Ghost to tell us of the perfect and abiding acceptance before God of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Sacrifice and High Priest. The need of it God knew, and has declared. The provision to make it He concerned Himself with, and now that it has been effected tells us of it. God on the throne is perfectly satisfied with that precious blood before Him. But what grace have we part in who share in the result of this! The High Priest, God's Son, has vindicated by His own blood the nature of God, and enabled Him righteously to accept guilty creatures before Him; and the Holy Ghost has come down to tell us of it for our joy, and peace, and confidence of heart before God. What a God, we may well say, is ours! and may indeed exclaim, "Unto thy name be the glory, for thy loving-kindness, and for thy truth's sake."
Now this propitiation concerns both sinners and failing saints. It concerns sinners, as they thereby learn that God is righteous in saving such from the judgment they had deserved. It was love, too, which provided for the propitiation to be made; for it has been effected by the blood of God's Son: "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (1 John 4:10.) A sacrifice was needed. Blood must be shed, and carried in, as it were, before God. What sacrifice could He accept? What blood would avail? The blood of bulls and of goats could never take away sins. The sinner could not die for himself; but God's Son could, and did die for us. Herein indeed is love. Propitiation made tells us what men are, and what we deserved; but having been made, and in the way in which it has been accomplished, it shows us too what God is. He is love, and He is light. As light He could only act in righteousness, and that is seen in the requiring a sacrifice; whilst love is displayed in providing it. So God on the throne, the Lord Jesus our Sacrifice and High Priest, and the Holy Ghost who declares it, are each seen engaged in the activity of divine love, caring for those who have sinned. Surely we are very little alive to the love which has been thus manifested towards us. Two things, which to man it would have been impossible ever to unite without compromise of either the one or the other, are fully harmonized and displayed in the death of the Lord Jesus, and the propitiation made by His blood - God is light, and God is love. Propitiation then made, and it has been perfectly made, God can deal in grace with any and every sinner. His righteousness has been fully vindicated, and therefore He can justify the ungodly.
Neither the enormity then of a man's guilt, nor the length of his career in sin, are questions which affect the possibility of propitiation being made, though the heinousness of the guilt, and the length of time any, one continued in it, must surely deepen in the heart of the justified one the sense of the grace in which He shares. But all that has no place at all in determining the question, Can God righteously act in grace? If He is righteous in so dealing with one, He will be equally so in thus dealing with all who now accept His terms; viz., believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for the saving of their soul. Hence propitiation is for the whole world (1 John 2:2), not for the sins of the whole world; but it is enough for the whole world, God requiring nothing more than what has been done, to be righteous in saving the whole world, if all were willing to be saved. Jesus Christ is the propitiation for the whole world, the value of His blood before God being all that is needed to deal in grace with the whole world. It speaks to God, and is ever before Him. How this simplifies matters! "Is God able to have mercy on such a wretch as I am?" some one might say. "He is righteous, perfectly righteous, in having mercy," is the answer, the Word given us. Jesus Christ is the propitiation for the whole world. Nothing then is wanting but the sense of need and of guilt in the sinner's heart and conscience, for the acceptance on his part of the salvation proffered him by God. So that which in the book of Leviticus is treated of in the inverse order, we learn about in the New Testament in its proper order. God's righteousness is first met, and then the sinner is evangelized.
But saints are concerned with this truth as well. Has failure come in? Has sin been committed? Confession then has to be made. Can God forgive the saint who has fallen, sinned against light, and perhaps in wilfulness; sinned presumptuously? Yes; thank God. "We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and He is the propitiation for our sins." (1 John 2:1, 2.) Our relationship to God never changes, and at such a moment, when the heart most needs it, God assures us of it. We have an Advocate with the Father, One who can always take up our cause and be heard; for He is righteous; One who has ever a place before the throne; for He is Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins. He is the propitiation. It is of what He is abidingly that we are here reminded. Not merely that He was, but He is the propitiation. Hence the value of His blood abides unchanged before God, and the failing saint learns the immense comfort of such a truth, and the reassuring nature of it, as he reads those words by John. God is able righteously to forgive a failing saint, as He was to forgive the sinner at the outset; for propitiation has been made by blood, the blood of His Son. How the need for the death of Christ and the shedding of His precious blood comes out to us. How the need, too, for Him as High Priest to make propitiation, is made plain to us. Without it God could not righteously act in grace, nor the sinner stand before Him. By it He can act in accordance with all the desires of His heart; and the sinner who believes, and the saint when he has failed, both learn something of the value of that work, and together will have cause throughout eternity to bless God for it. C. E. Stuart.