I vividly remember my eight- or nine-year old little sister coming up to me one day. “What does propitiation mean?” she asked. I thought it was really cute, because she was so small to be thinking about such a big word! And I guess since I was the oldest (even though I was only a young teenager myself), I was supposed to know everything…? I can’t remember the answer I tried to give, but as I’ve deepened my understanding of propitiation over the years, it’s likewise deepened my appreciation for the gospel.
Propitiation literally refers back to the cover of the ark of the covenant, placed inside the Holy of Holies, on which the blood of the sacrificed animal was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement. This annual blood sacrifice symbolically covered Israel’s sin so that God could continue to be present with his people without compromising his holiness.
Of course, the “blood of bulls and goats” was never capable of taking away sin. In the Old Covenant, it only served as a picture of what Christ was to do on the cross. He fulfilled the Day of Atonement by becoming a once-for-all sacrifice, forever covering up our sin and appeasing God’s just wrath by taking the punishment on himself.
Propitiation is absolutely necessary for our salvation because God is a holy, just God and cannot merely forgive our sin without the required punishment meted out. Christ’s propitiation then is central to the gospel, as Romans 3:25-26 sums it up: “(We are) justified by grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he has passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Since I love visual pictures, I often think of the illustration in this video of Christ taking on God’s wrath when I think of propitiation. He stood in the way of God’s wrath that we deserved. There is not one drop left for us — only mercy and favor.
When we contemplate Jesus as the baby in the manger, let’s not forget that this is the reason he came: not to serve as an example of good deeds but to give his life to take God’s wrath that we deserved, poured relentlessly upon him. The thought is humbling, sobering — but joy-inducing as no other reality can be.