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Last week I quoted Hebrews 2:17, which by way of reminder says, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” The point being made was that Christ was “made like his brothers,” in service of the fact that Christ was both 100% God and 100% man.
But what about that funny little word toward the end there? Propitiation? When’s the last time that came up at the dinner table?
It’s actually an important word for a robust doctrine of the atonement, or what took place because of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Propitiation: noun. The aspect of the atoning work of Christ that is focused on the wrath of God being satisfied in the substitutionary death of his Son on behalf of the elect.
The atonement has many different aspects, but the primary way of describing why it happened and what took place is bound up in the word propitiation. Let’s stick with Hebrews 2:17 at first to see what it teaches.
Throughout the Old Testament, there was a need for a mediator between God and man. Enter the priests. God established Moses’s brother Aaron as a priest and developed the tribe of Levi as the priests for all of Israel. The primary responsibilities of the priests were to facilitate the necessary sacrifices from the people (and themselves) and to teach the people the law, or instruction, of God.
Because there is only one God, God cannot be a priest. What kind of being mediates himself? 1 Samuel 2:25 says, “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?”
Samuel is also thought of the prototypical priest. 1 Samuel 2:26 says, “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man.” Now who else does that sound like (cf. Luke 2:52)?
In the same way that there was always a longing for (and of course the promise of) a king to be on the throne of David, which Christ also satisfies, there was also a longing for a priest who fulfills his duties for the final time. There was a desire for a day when sacrifices would cease because there was no more need for them. Read: sin was fully and finally dealt with. The major prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah deal heavily with this.
When Jesus Christ became our priest, it’s because he was also fully a man. He was the prophet better than Moses, the king better than David, and the priest better than Samuel.
The priests of the Old Testament were instructed to use the blood of bulls and rams. God has always required a life for sin. But as Hebrews 10:4 tells us, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The Old Testament sacrificial system as a whole was only a shadow of what Christ would do. Animal sacrifices could not satisfy divine justice.
But when Christ offered himself in our place, the priest also became the sacrifice, something no other priest could have done. Christ’s perfections and his obedience to the law of God made him suitable to be a substitute for the wrath of God. And that is the sacrifice that ended the sacrificial system forever. Hebrews 10:12 says, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”
Propitiation summarizes that truth. Christ appeased God’s wrath by substituting himself in our place according to the divine will and foreknowledge of God.