Christ the Propitiatory

W. J. Hocking.

Published by F. E. Race, 1919.


It has been already observed, in a former paper, that propitiation is, by the apostle John, intimately associated with the person of the Son of God (1 John 2:1-2; 1 John 4:10). It is no less true that Paul, by the Spirit of God, speaks in perfect agreement with John, using terms modified to suit the character of the communications he was inspired to give.

In the Epistle to the Romans, the great theme is the demonstration of the righteousness of God, especially in His provision of a righteousness for unrighteous and guilty man. And in the first part of the book the dazzling search-light of the truth of God sweeps the broad face of the habitable earth, revealing the intractable evil of the universal heart and ways of all mankind, whether Jew or Gentile. Unrighteousness was to be found everywhere; righteousness nowhere. And what thrilled the great heart of the apostle of the Gentiles with joy was that he was commissioned to proclaim in the gospel that, when it had been fully proved that a man could not provide a righteousness of his own for God, God had Himself provided one for him. What had been foreshadowed and foretold by law and prophets for so long was now at length revealed.

“Now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ to all, and upon all that believe. For there is no difference: for all have sinned, and do come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time, his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believes in Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-26).

In this very full and rich passage there are two main subjects brought forward which can now be no more than indicated, viz.: (1) the righteousness of God, which is offered to all; and (2) the vindication of God's righteousness in so doing, and in making the believer righteous. Nothing can be more essential for man in having to do with a righteous God than righteousness. This man does not possess in himself, but the God of grace offers it through faith in Jesus Christ. The offer is made to all men, and the righteousness is bestowed upon all who believe. Not a single soul is excluded from the opportunity of accepting this justification, for all alike have sinned, and fall short of God's glory; whilst each believer is justified freely by His grace.

But is God righteous in thus justifying the ungodly? Had He not declared under the law, “I will not justify the wicked” (Ex. 23:7)? On what ground, then, does God righteously impute righteousness to the believer? The apostle, replying as it were to such a question, points to the Person of the adorable Son of God. It was Christ Jesus in whom God showed forth His righteousness in justifying those who believe. Prior to this time, God's gracious dealings were only secretly, not manifestly, set upon a righteous basis. The foundations of His righteousness in grace could not be revealed till Christ came.

And what was the result of Christ's coming? That God was shown to have been righteous throughout Old Testament times, as, indeed, He is now, in blessing every soul who receives the gospel. “Whom [Christ Jesus] God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare (1) his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare (2) I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26). God's righteousness is, therefore, said to be declared in regard to His remission (or, strictly, the pretermission, that is, forgiveness based on that which was coming) of the sins of Old Testament believers, as also in regard to His present act of justifying the believer in Jesus.

Now, observe that this public declaration of God's righteousness is connected with Christ as the propitiatory. It is in this character that Christ displayed God's righteousness “Whom God set forth a propitiatory … to declare His righteousness.” For it is a remarkable fact that a different word is used by Paul from that used in John's Epistle. This fact can be verified by anyone having the slightest acquaintance with the Greek tongue, and is noted in most versions. In John's Epistle, Christ is said to be the hilasmos, but in the Epistle to the Romans He is called the hilasterion. We have one other instance only in the New Testament of the use of the latter word, which establishes its meaning beyond just question. The apostle, when enumerating the furniture of the holy of holies in the ancient tabernacle, spoke of the cherubim of glory shadowing the mercy-seat (hilasterion Heb. 9:5). From the two passages, therefore, there can be no doubt that Christ is the Antitype of the mercy-seat, or propitiatory, as He is also the hilasmos or propitiatory sacrifice (1 John 2:2; 4:10), whose blood was sprinkled upon and before the mercy-seat (Lev. 16:14).

It will be remembered that Moses was to make the mercy-seat of pure gold, and to place it upon the ark of testimony. “There I will meet with thee,” said Jehovah, “and I will commune with thee from above the mercy-seat” (Ex. 25:17-22). Fine gold was emblematical of the intrinsic righteousness of God, as brass was of His judicial righteousness. Hence, when the blood of the victim, on the great day of atonement, was sprinkled upon the golden mercy-seat, the act clearly signified, in type, that the claims of Jehovah's righteous nature were glorified thereby. And the seven-fold sprinkling before the propitiatory indicated that a foundation was thus laid for communion with Jehovah, as He had said to Moses.

In the Epistle to the Romans (to which we have been referring) we find the mercy-seat, the blood, and the righteousness of God, all associated together. For Christ Jesus is shown as the propitiatory through faith in His blood to declare God's righteousness. This declaration He has made. As the exceeding riches of God's grace will be declared in coming ages (Eph. 2), so God's righteousness has been already declared “at this time.” Moreover, it was done here below. For this Epistle deals with the position of the believer in this world, not in the heavenlies as is done in the Ephesians. So the moral history of the world is summarised to prove it guilty before God; and where the fruits of man's unrighteousness abounded, there — not in heaven — God's righteousness in justifying the ungodly was demonstrated. In Old Testament times, as may be seen in the book of Job, the possible relation of unrighteous man to a holy God was unknown; but now Christ has declared it to be consonant with God's righteousness by becoming “a propitiatory.” In His own blessed Person lifted upon the cross, He formed the blessed answer to all the righteous demands of God.

Is there a difficulty in that Christ is the sacrifice, and, moreover, the mercy-seat where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled? It is no greater difficulty than in Christ being both the Shepherd of the sheep and the Door through which He leads them (John 10). It was unbelief that could not understand how Christ could be both David's Son and David's Lord. Such paradoxes do not stagger faith. All the difficulties vanish when we remember He was “God manifest in flesh.” An ancient writer (Theodoret) has put it: “The Lord Christ is God, and the Mercy-seat, and the High Priest, and the Lamb, and in His blood He has worked out our salvation.” Christ is indeed all. His Person is one, and His work is one.

Herein was the great distinction between the Antitype and the types. They were many and varied and terrestrial; and they were, by reason of their very nature, in all points exceeded by the Antitype, as the heavens are higher than the earth. To insist on the necessities of the type in the Antitype is to speak derogatorily of the Person of the Son. In the type you must have a person to take the blood of the sacrifice from the altar to the mercy-seat; but in Christ the sacrifice and mercy-seat coincided, and hence there was no necessity for such transference of his blood, as in the type. And, on the word of Christ Himself, the work was finished when He bowed His head, and dismissed His spirit (John 19:30).

Moreover, the fact of the closure of the work was attested by the veil of the temple being supernaturally rent from the top to the bottom (Mark 15:38). The veil signified of old that the way into the holiest of all, for communion with God from above the mercy-seat, was not then made manifest (Heb. 9:8); but when rent thus it proclaimed that a new and living way into the holiest had been dedicated; so that by the blood of Jesus we may enter with boldness. But the veil was emphatically a figure of Christ's flesh (Heb. 10:19-20), and plainly points that the work whereby the restrictions of the most holy place were removed was accomplished in His flesh on the cross, and not in heaven after death. For Christ's death (the rent veil) declared the way open, which implies that the work on which this could be righteously done had then been accomplished, and, moreover, accepted by Him for whom it was accomplished. W. J. H.