Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, but what does that mean? It isn’t an easy word to translate, but lucky for me I have lots of books written by smart people. Here is my paraphrase of Romans 3:21-26:
But now, something besides and apart from the law, a righteousness (right standing in relationship) of God has been shown (displayed, revealed, manifested). The law and the prophets (that is, the teachings of the old testament or TANAKH) talked about this righteousness of God. This is a righteousness of God through the faith (faithfulness) of Jesus Christ which is unto all who believe — for there is no difference — for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Those who believe are being declared righteous freely by His favor through the ransom paid by Jesus.
God set Jesus forth as a propitiatory covering (mercy seat) through the faith in His blood to show forth His righteousness, because He passed over the previously committed sins in His forbearance with a view toward showing forth His righteousness in the present season, that He may BE righteous when declaring righteous the one who is (a product) of the faith of Jesus.
Religious scholars have typically interpreted “propitiation” according to the pagan idea of appeasing an angry and offended god. But should we see it that way? First, “propitiation” is a doubtful translation. If it IS correct, it still doesn’t point a finger. Who is attempting to propitiate whom? Search and you’ll note that NOWHERE in the entire text of the new testament do we see an example of God needing to be reconciled to human beings. It is ALWAYS the other way round. WE are to be reconciled to Him.
It is we who are the wayward children being entreated by our Father to return to life; not Him stubbornly refusing to open the door to our anguished pleas from the outer darkness. God is not willing that any should perish. The father of the prodigal son waits and watches then runs to greet his returning son. He leaves the joyful celebration to urge his firstborn son, farther from him even than the younger who ran away, to come into the house and take his rightful place as the master of ceremonies. Because of the overall witness of scripture, I would suggest that it is we, not our Daddy, who need to be mollified, cajoled, and persuaded.
But none of this is necessary to understand this particular passage, because our word in question, kapparah, does not mean propitiation at all. It refers to the Mercy Seat — the covering of the Arc of the Covenant. Here’s what Vincent (Vincent’s Word Studies) has to say:
. . . the dominant Old-Testament sense is not propitiation in the sense of something offered to placate or appease anger; but atonement or reconciliation, through the covering, and so getting rid of the sin which stands between God and man. The thrust of the idea is upon the sin or uncleanness, not upon the offended party.
“Atonement” means literally, “at one-ment.” The thrust here is wholly reconciliatory. The message is, “See? I have carried it away, covered it, purged and cleansed away your shame. You are clean. You are loved and accepted and acceptable. Come home. Be reconciled to your Father.”
Remember “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and what happens to the Nazis when they look into the Ark? That wasn’t such bad theology (aside from the over-the-top special effects). Looking on the law is deadly. That’s why it had to be covered (symbolically speaking) by mercy — the Mercy Seat.
Our dear older brother, Jesus, has made the way for us. We couldn’t, for all our trying, achieve rightness in our relationships on our own. He leads the way for us to follow Him in kindness, in mercy, in love toward one another — not in our own strength, but rather with Him showing us how and enabling us. He has defeated death (which comes through sin) by setting us free from bondage to sin. He has made atonement for us by taking our sin within Himself, dragging it down into the grave — which is where He left it.
Yes, we wanted to do it ourselves; we wanted to boast, but sometimes you just gotta have a hero. Be humble — just say thanks and enjoy the gift. We’ll talk about that next . . . .