We have discovered two things so far in this series of articles. The first is that Jesus’ present work of High Priest is very practical and pragmatic as he involves himself in the day-to-day aspects of our salvation. The second is that human theories of atonement keep placing the need for Christ’s death on God, on His (imagined) limitations, rather than on us and our (very real) limitations. Throughout this article, we will be aware of this latter tendency as we study the concept of Jesus giving his life for our salvation.
An inappropriate word
We begin with a word which appears in various versions of our English Bibles. It’s the word propitiation. I’ll risk being bold here: In my opinion the word is so inappropriate that it should be crossed out and replaced with something more representative of the Spirit’s intent.
Because propitiation is a word we don’t use day to day, it can escape our scrutiny, but a quick trip to the dictionary shows how terrible it is: propitiation means to appease or placate. It evokes the idea of preventing anger by currying favor. It is very much a substitution-theory kind of word. That’s why it was a popular choice in King James’ time, and still the word of choice for some modern translators.
To understand the original ideas a little better, let’s dip into the Greek. The original family of Greek words that ‘propitiation’ purports to translate are hilaskomai, hilasterion, and hilasmos. Each of these words occurs just twice in the New Testament. You can see that they all have the same stem (hilas-) but also that they reflect different parts of speech – as, for example, ‘walk’, ‘walking’ and ‘walked’.
A great place to go to gain understanding of the idea behind these words is not in any of the verses that we might first imagine: nothing tied up with the notion of sacrifice, for example. Instead it is in a parable of Jesus: the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector.
The Pharisee, as you may recall, comes and prays ‘with’ or ‘about’ himself, “I thank you that I am not like other men – especially not like this tax collector!” and he goes on to list the marvellous things he does for God. The tax-collector, in contrast, comes to God, and prays, saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
This word ‘merciful’ is hilaskomai! Doesn’t that show us how far off the translation ‘propitiation’ is? It’s not about appeasement. It’s about mercy. “God, there’s no reason why you have to accept me – I just throw myself on your mercy.” That’s the whole point of the parable. The Pharisee is the one saying, “I’m doing everything you wanted me to do! You should be pleased!” He’s the one trying to be propitious. In contrast, the tax-collector says, “I throw myself on your mercy! Will you accept me?”
The other occurrence of hilaskomai is in Hebrews, and can be translated in exactly the same way.
For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might [be merciful] for the sins of the people (Heb 2:17).
The Diaglott extends this understanding of ‘mercy’ to another of our family of words – hilasterion. Here is the Diaglott’s interlinear translation of Romans 3:25 (remember this is word for word of the Greek in the word order of the Greek text):
Whom set forth the God a mercy-seat through the faith by the of him blood, for a pointing out of the righteousness of himself, through the passing by of the formerly committed sins in the forbearance of the God (Diaglott).
The word hilasterion is translated mercy-seat. Jesus is the mercy-seat. He is the place of mercy. The footnote to this verse in the Diaglott asserts that hilasterion never signifies propitiation, that it is always used to express the mercy seat. Indeed, the other occurrence in Hebrews 9:5 is clearly of this nature.
Exactly the same kinds of ideas come across with the final word, hilasmos, which occurs in John’s first letter.
He is [a means of mercy] for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as [a means of mercy] for our sins (1 John 4:10).
These verses make perfect sense like this, simply expressing the idea of mercy, and abandoning any idea of appeasement. Louw and Nida’s Greek Lexicon states the principle as follows:
Though some traditional translations render hilasterion as ‘propitiation,’ this involves a wrong interpretation of the term in question. Propitiation is essentially a process by which one does a favor to a person in order to make him or her favorably disposed, but in the NT God is never the object of propitiation since he is already on the side of people. Hilasmos and hilasterion denote the means of forgiveness and not propitiation.
Jesus is the means of mercy, the place of mercy, the one who is merciful. His role is not to placate God. That would suggest that we’re sending him to God to get God to do something different, that the problem is with God. Quite the reverse. The problem is with us, and God sent him to us to bring us mercy.
Having got rid of the idea of appeasement, let’s think about the topic of blood. Traditional Christian teaching implies that God required human sacrifice for one reason or another: that He required actual, physical, spilled blood. So we have to ask the question: How should we think about the references to blood throughout the scripture?
On the face of it, God does seem to require actual blood. Consider, for example, the second half of Hebrews 9:22, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” This verse is often described as a law of God, that it is an axiom of scripture that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Or, put another way, that Jesus had to die so that God could forgive.
But hang on! Apart from anything else, suggesting that Jesus had to die so that God could forgive suddenly puts the problem back with God. It places the need with God, the shortcoming back with God.
In fact, when we look closely at the whole verse, we find that the writer is not talking about all of time; he’s talking very specifically about the Law, the Law of Moses. The Law, he is saying, requires that nearly everything must be cleansed with blood, and (in the Law) without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
In this context, we see his analysis is spot on. If we go back to the law of Moses and look at the way forgiveness was achieved, then we discover that everything did indeed have to be ‘cleansed’ by blood, and moreover there was no forgiveness in the Law of Moses without the shedding of blood. Hebrews 9:22 is primarily a statement about the Law of Moses. The pertinent question for us is how to apply this observation about the Law of Moses to the wider work of God.
It is really important that this distinction is clear. As literally written, Hebrews 9:22 is a commentary on the Law. Its relevance to us is a matter of interpretation. That’s why we have to ask how the principle applies outside the Law of Moses. If we just take the last half of the verse, without the context which says: “I’m talking about the Law here,” we are in danger of leading ourselves astray. The Law required blood for cleansing and for forgiveness. How does this principle apply in Christ?
The meaning of the principle does not come as a surprise. Deuteronomy 12:23 tells us exactly what blood represents.
Be sure you do not eat the blood because the blood is the life and you must not eat the life with the meat.
The Law was a system of many symbols, all working together to construct a larger narrative out of the ritual. In this symbolic framework, blood had to be shed for forgiveness. Yet even within the Law itself, this verse tells us that the blood is only a symbol, a symbol of life. Many more passages in the Law continue to expand on this idea (which actually goes back to Noah’s time), but this is sufficient for our purposes. In the Law, blood – the literal blood – is the symbol of life.
Using this insight, let’s translate the symbolic fact that ‘without the shedding of blood there’s no forgiveness’. Outside the context of the Law, the principle becomes ‘without the giving of life there is no forgiveness’.
He gave his life
Jesus gave his life. He gave his life in more than just the narrow sense of dying. We’re talking about more than just Calvary here. Jesus gave his life for us – he gave all of it. All thirty three years. He gave the whole of his life to save us. Think what this means. It wasn’t just that Jesus lived a pretty good life, and then in the end God said, “Look, I need a sacrifice from you in order to be able to forgive people.” That’s not what happened at all.
Right from the start he devoted his life to our salvation. His whole life was totally committed to developing his relationship with his Father, becoming his Father’s mediator and representative, reaching out to the disciples and to the people around, rescuing them – and us – by the teachings he was giving, the very words of life – “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” Every aspect of his life was given to saving people like us.
The shepherd and the wolf
Jesus’ parable about the Good Shepherd seems a bit narrower, though, in that it talks explicitly about dying. How should we think about that?
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10:11-15).
The wolf comes to the sheep pen; the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. What does that actually mean? Is it that when the wolf comes, the shepherd walks out, lies down and lets the wolf eat him?! Not at all! Rather, the wolf comes, and the shepherd comes out and engages the wolf in battle, even if it costs him his life. The dying is not the purpose of the battle! The dying is the consequence of the conflict. You see the distinction? The battle is the critical thing, the battle that goes right to the end whatever the cost. It is not a battle that just goes partway. Not a battle where the shepherd thinks, “Ow! I got bitten there!” and runs away. But it is a battle in which the wolf is killed with the last ounce of the shepherd’s strength. And so the sheep are saved. The point is not that the shepherd dies passively; the point is that the shepherd is so committed to the battle that he is willing to lay his life on the line in order to win the victory, and so to save the sheep.
A greater battle
In the case of Jesus, his dying is part of a greater battle. Hebrews 2:14 uses the symbol of devil rather than wolf, but the idea is the same.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
Jesus destroyed the devil within himself. That part of him that was just like you and me, that leads us in opposition to God, that part was there within him too. Time after time he struggled with it: “Not my will, but yours be done!” Again and again and again. He was determined to fight this battle until the enemy was destroyed. And it was! He achieved victory over his flesh, and now he joins in the battle with each one of us. He wants to help us to win victory over our flesh, to help us to realise that we don’t really want to give in to the forces of sin and iniquity within us. We may fall into sin, but he calls us to say for ourselves, “No!”, “Enough!”, “Stop!” “I don’t want to go down that path!” “Not my will, Father, but yours be done!”
A grain dies
There’s another parable back in John 12:24.
I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.
Here’s an experiment to try at home. Take a seed, kill it (perhaps by baking it in the oven), put it in a plant pot, and wait for a while…
Nothing will happen. Why? Because it’s not the dying of the seed that’s important, it’s the giving of the life of the seed that’s important. You put a living seed in the ground and the seed pours out its life into the plant. It gives its life. See the difference? The seed gives up everything for the life of the plant. The seed does indeed die. But the point is not a dead seed; the point is that the life was given. There’s a continuation of life in the transference of life from the seed into the plant. The seed has to be ‘willing’ (to use an anthropomorphism) to give everything into the life of the plant.
And so it is with Christ. He was willing to give everything he had into the life of his people. For a practical example, consider the incident with Jairus in Mark 5:21-31. Jairus appeals to Jesus to come and save his daughter. She’s a 12 year-old girl. Those of us who are parents know the agony that Jairus must have been going through. And now, Jesus is coming to save his daughter. But on the way, in the middle of all the hopes and fears, somebody reaches out and touches the edge of his robe. Jesus, already carrying the emotional weight of Jairus, feels yet more strength go out of him.
He turns around and asks: “Who touched me?” Peter says: “Lord, these people around you, they’re all touching you!” Jesus says: “No, no… Who was it?” Finally the woman stands up. He called for an expression of her faith, for her to stand up and say: “It was me”, and she does. His compassion flows out to her. He tends her and encourages her, declaring that her faith has made her whole.
Meanwhile …! Have you ever thought of what Jairus must have been doing at that point? He’s going crazy! He’s beside himself with worry and grief because Jesus has stopped. He was en route to heal his daughter, and the timing is desperate, desperate! Then, tragedy! They hardly get going again when the news comes – it’s too late. Imagine what that man felt like!
What is Jesus’ response?
Jesus finds yet more reserves of strength within himself, gives even more of himself. He says to Jairus, in effect: “My compassion for others will never come at the cost of my compassion for you!” And he goes on to say (by his actions), “I can do an even greater miracle than you thought was possible; I can call her back from the dead!” If even healing the woman cost him strength, what was the cost to raise the little girl back from the dead?
This is just one example of him devoting his life to people like us. He gave everything throughout his life.
Nowhere to lay his head
Someone said, “I want to follow you!” Jesus said: “Are you sure? Do you know what it would be like to follow me, with nowhere to lay my head?” Peter said, “We’ve left everything to follow you.” If Peter, Andrew, James and John and all the others had left ‘everything’ to follow Jesus, how much more had Jesus already left everything! Everything! Never had a wife, or children; never had a career; never had a house of his own, or any of the other comforts we crave in this life. It’s hard for us to conceive the complete and utter devotion of our Lord; pouring every aspect of his life into our salvation.
Jesus had truly exhausted himself by the time he came to Calvary. In the literal sense I mean – that there was nothing left. He had given every part of his life. When Jesus said that Abraham had rejoiced to see his day and was glad, the response was, “You’re not yet fifty”…! This to a man in his early thirties!
I wonder how old and tired he looked; the consequence of pouring every ounce of his strength into serving the people around him, into building them up, rescuing them and saving them. He had already emptied himself and finally, here on Calvary, he makes his final declaration: “I give every part of me to you, my Father.”
(With many thanks to Paul Launchbury for his help in the development of this article.)