The Meaning of Propitiation
By Bob Burridge ©2010, 2016
The word propitiation is not commonly understood by the average reader of the Bible. The New Testament uses the word only a few times. The noun form is only found in two verses, both are in First John (1 John 2:2 and 4:10). The verb form “to propitiate” is also just found in two verses (Luke 18:13 and Hebrews 2:17). A related word is translated various ways in the New Testament.
The English verb, “to propitiate” means to appease an offended person. Propitiation is when an offensive or upsetting matter is dealt with in a way that satisfies the offended person. The goal is to restore the relationship broken by the offense.
In the New Testament the Greek word translated “propitiation” is hilasmos (ἱλασμός). The verb form is hilaskomai (ἱλάσκομαι), and the related word mentioned is hilastaerion (ἱλαστήριον).
In Hebrews 9:5 “hilastaerion” is translated as “Mercy Seat”. It is the covering over the Ark of the Covenant in the ancient Tabernacle of Israel. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for that covering is caporet (כּפּרת). It simply means the “covering”. The “the Mercy Seat” was a slab of pure gold, almost 4′ long and a little over 2′ wide. It was laid as a covering over the Ark of the Covenant that contained the tablets of God’s law. The law exposed the reality of our sins against the moral principles. The covering symbolically represented how God would cover our guilt through the promised Redeemer.
The Latin word for this covering of the ark is “propitiatorium” the root of our word “propitiation.” The Latin verb “propitio” meaning “to appease.”
When the priests of the Old Testament offered sacrifices they were symbolically covering over sin (Leviticus 4:35 10:17 16:30). In this sense, propitiation is a covering over sin to hide that which is offensive to remove God’s anger as the offended party.
As faithful high priest Jesus is the covering over the sins of his people. He is their propitiation. He did what the priests of the Old Testament could only symbolize. The effectiveness of the ancient sacrifices was based upon the future work of Jesus, the great Propitiator. He paid the debt by dying in place of the repentant sinner. His work covers their guilt to satisfy God’s justice, and turn away God’s wrath. That wrath was poured out on him and satisfied God’s demand for justice toward his people.
1 John 2:2 is often taken out of its context. It is talking about Jesus Christ when it says, ” … he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
This verse is not saying that the sins of all people were covered by the work of Christ. It corrects an error. Some Jews thought they were the only ones to have a Propitiator. Here John says that Jesus was not just the propitiation for the Jews. He is the only propitiation God provides for the whole race of humans. This included even those who were not Jews. Not all Jews were included in the work of the Savior, but not all non-Jews were included either. The point is that all people from all the nations of the world need to turn to him as the only possible propitiation for sin. There is no other hope.
The work of Christ is represented by a variety of English words today. These words all have technical meanings drawn from Scripture. In early English these words were much more common in use.
1. Atonement is making amends for a wrong done, for a loss or injury caused. This is a more general term and must be used cautiously because it includes the whole process of making us right with God through the work of Christ.
2. Expiation is the actual satisfaction of a wrong, making atonement for it. Expiation is particularly the effect of satisfaction upon the sinner’s guilt.
3. Propitiation is the appeasing of the one offended by covering the cause of his anger. Propitiation speaks primarily to the effect of satisfaction upon God as the offended party.
4. Reconciliation is our restored fellowship with God resulting from the removed offense. The New Testament verb is katallassein (καταλλάσσειν). The noun form is katalagae (καταλλαγή). It means to exchange, to change a person from enmity to friendship. This works in both directions: We are reconciled with God, and he with us.