Posted by Tori on Dec 19, 2012 in a good word., theology

The main reason why I’m here online is to encourage you to grow in your faith through deeper study of His Word. easoms.com was born out of my love for writing and my love for God’s Word. My educational background is entirely devoted to these two loves. I have a deep desire for women to live passionately for their Savior and grow closer to Him through the study of His Word. If that’s not what I’m doing with the words and influence He’s given me, then I believe I’m wasting my time and my gifts.

Another passion of mine is that we would reengage our minds as a part of Bible study, just as highly as we engage our hearts.

The Lord always blesses the study of His Word. Always. So, with this in mind, I humbly ask you to indulge me while I go, quite possibly, where no other blogger has gone before.

I plan to introduce a new study series in 2013, focused on the book of Hebrews. You’ll be hearing more about that after the first of the year. And, I promise it will not be anywhere nearly as “academic” as this post. But, today I am sharing a word study on propitiation: perhaps one of the best, most exciting words you’ll find in Scripture. So, grab a cup of coffee and dig in with me. It will be well worth our time. Promise.

No matter if you’re new to Bible study, or have been studying Scripture for the majority of your lifetime, you may or may not have ever read or conducted a word study. Word studies are not just for making your head hurt, or making you feel smarter. They really are beneficial to a deeper understanding of the meaning and application associated with a particular passage. I think you’ll find this to be true when we’re finished. And, relax. I’ve done all the work for you. All you have to do is reap the rewards!


The word we are looking at today is propitiation from Romans 3:25 (NASB). To give you a bit of context, here are the surrounding verses (Romans 3:21-26).

(21)But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, (22)even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; (23)for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (24)being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; (25)whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; (26)for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

This particular Greek word (hilasterion) is used only twice in Scripture – here in Romans 3:25 and, once again, in Hebrews 9:5 referencing the mercy seat (the place where the high priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement).

The word “propitiation” is probably never used in our society apart from a Christian context.  It is difficult to think of this word being used within the context of casual conversation, especially among unbelievers.  “Propitiation” seems to have lost any usage in our culture apart from a Biblical or theological context. It refers to the appeasement of divine wrath, and a correct understanding/interpretation of this has enormous implications for our theology.

Hilasterion comes from a larger word family found all throughout the New Testament. In studying other words in the same family, it is striking to understand that words that originally denoted our human action in relation to God are now used instead for God’s divine action in relation to us and on our behalf.

The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament, also referred to as LXX) uses hilasterion approximately 20 times for the Hebrew word kapporet, which refers to the covering for the Ark of the Covenant. Every year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would sprinkle the blood of the sin offering on and before the kapporet (hilasterion). Closely related to kapporet is the Hebrew verb kaphar, which is associated with kopher (referring to the mercy seat, and used in connection with the burnt offering).

Who cares? Well…you might…hang on…

Romans 3:25 says, “…whom [referring to Jesus Christ] God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.  This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed…”

Through faith” is to be understood in connection with hilasterion.  Christ is the object of faith; he is our hilasterion.  “In his blood” refers to hilasterion, not to faith.  The revelation of the righteousness demonstrated in Jesus as hilasterion is linked with the passing over of former sins, in which the kapporet plays a significant role.  Romans 3:25 seems to be making the point that Jesus is a higher kapporet.  If this view is taken, then Paul is using the kapporet as a symbol for Christ’s atoning work.  However, if he has the actual kapporet in mind, it is reoriened to Jesus as the one in whom true and full atonement has been made.  Relating hilasterion to the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 suggests that Christ is the new covenant equivalent, or fulfillment of the Old Testament kapporet.

It is important, though, as we study hilasterion to remain mindful of the larger context preceding Romans 3:25 (Romans 1:18-3:20), which begins with a discussion of God’s wrath revealed against godlessness.  In 3:25, Paul explains that Christ has become our propitiatory sacrifice to satisfy the wrath of God. Christ, as the hilasterion, reveals God’s character to us, and represents us to God through His vicarious work on the cross, whereby He bore the divine judgement and secured redemption for those who would believe.


So…3 important lessons:

  1. It is important to understand that propitiation is the “means by which justice is satisfied, God’s wrath is averted, and mercy can be shown on the basis of an acceptable sacrifice” (Believer’s Bible Commentary). Those who have their faith in Christ find mercy through His shed blood. The blood is not the object of faith; Christ is the object of faith! He Himself is the propitiation.
  2. Hilasterion refers to the aversion of God’s wrath. This is seen when the passage is taken in context (Romans 1:18).  In his commentary on the book of Romans, John Stott compares the pagan and the Christian response to the need, author, and nature of propitiation (The Message of Romans). The need for propitiation according to the pagan is the placation of ill-tempered gods, whereas the Christian need is the satisfaction of God’s holy wrath toward evil.  The author of propitiation for the pagan is the human; the Christian author of propitiation is God Himself through Christ.  The nature of propitiation according to the pagan is the bribing of the gods through various sacrifices, whereas the nature of propitiation for the Christian is the atoning death of Christ on the cross.  It is necessary that we keep in mind that God is not placated or propitiated like the pagan deities claim to be.
  3. Through this study, we see the reconciliation that occurs through Christ as our hilasterion. We are dependent on Christ to be our reconciliation.  God set Him forth for this purpose.  He initiates the action of reconciliation, not as the offending party, but as the offended party.


Now that you have a deeper understanding of the Greek word hilasterion, look at these popular translations of Romans 3:25, with the translation of hilasterion bolded:

“whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;” (NASB)

“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—” (NIV)

“Whom God hath 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;” (KJV)

“For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past,” (NLT)

“God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world to clear that world of sin. Having faith in him sets us in the clear. God decided on this course of action in full view of the public—to set the world in the clear with himself through the sacrifice of Jesus, finally taking care of the sins he had so patiently endured. This is not only clear, but it’s now—this is current history! God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness.” (The Message).

In these translations, “propitiation” is only used twice to translate hilasterion.  The most common translation is “sacrifice of atonement,” or “sacrifice for sin.”  Such translations seem to cheat the reader of the element of satisfaction of God’s wrath toward sin.  In order to grasp this meaning of hilasterion, one would have to study significantly beyond the English translation.


So…props to you if you’re still reading. I think I love you.

Leon Morris writes, “It is the combination of the deep love for the sinner and the reaction against sin which brings about the situation in which the Bible refers to propitiation” (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross).  God is not to be placated like the pagan deities.  He is holy, and His wrath towards sin is just as righteous as His goodness.  I pray that studying this word has deepened your love for Christ and His atoning work on the cross.  Although we sinned and initially severed fellowship with God, He acted on our behalf to reconcile the broken relationship through Christ as our hilasterion.  The propitiation originates with God, not to appease Himself, but to justify Himself in His uniform kindness to men deserving His wrath. John Stott beautifully summarizes the idea behind propitiation, “God himself gave himself to save us from himself.”

Propitiation communicates the atonement associated with the work of Christ on the cross, as well as the appeasement or satisfaction of the wrath of God toward sin.  Christ, in His sacrifice, became the object of God’s wrath to restore the broken fellowship that sin severed.  A proper understanding of hilasterion is essential to an accurate understanding of Paul’s argument in Romans 3.  Hilasterion communicates what Christ has done on behalf of the sinner, as well as exalts the holy, righteous character of God.  He is just in all He does, and has shown His mercy to sinners through providing Christ as our hilasterion.

Am I the only one who enjoyed the connection between Christ as the hilasterion and the mercy seat?  God has always provided a means of atonement for His people, under both the old covenant and the new.  He initiates the action of reconciliation, not as the offending party, but as the offended party.  God has made a way for us to be free from the bondage of our sin, yet He did so, not by laying aside the aspect of His character that must deal with sin, but by satisfying the demands of His character and justice in Christ. His mercy is consistent with His righteousness, as is His justice.  He is worthy of the highest praise!

This makes my adoration of the newborn King at Christmas that much sweeter. Knowing full well this is why He came. So, maybe you’ll remember this little word on Christmas morn and all that it means for you. Praise Him, our Emmanuel, our perfect Hilasterion.

(Please note: I am happy to provide this work as a resource to you in your personal Bible study, but should you choose to reference it in any other setting, I ask that you give reference to this post.)


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