Do You Love the Word “Propitiation”? Why we should use, study, and explain the big words the Bible uses in our preaching and Bible study.

A shorter version of this blog post appeared at the Baptist Convention of New England blog.

Two months ago I was preaching a series on the gospel, and in one sermon I preached Romans 3:21-26 which includes this gold nugget, talking about Jesus: “…whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:25) Today, I preached 1 John 2:1-6 as part of our verse-by-verse study through the book of 1 John, which includes this jewel, talking about Jesus: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

They were some of the most encouraging sermons I have preached for months, not only for me but also for the church family as we rejoiced in the gospel together.

I believe that in our preaching and Bible study, when we come across technical, “big” words that the Bible uses, we should use, study, and explain those words, rather than skirting around them or simply glossing over them with an alternative phrase.

We Use “New To Us” Language All the Time
When we moved to Vermont from the West Coast for me to pastor here, my family and I woke up the next morning and drove around town to familiarize ourselves with our surroundings. It was May, and we kept seeing signs that said “Tag Sale.” They often looked like Yard Sale or Garage Sale signs, and once we followed a few of those signs and saw a Yard Sale happening, we incorporated this new phrase into our thinking and speaking. We now don’t give it a second thought to say, “We should clean out the garage and have a Tag Sale this summer.” To function well in a new environment, you have to learn some of the new vocabulary that will help you to understand things you encounter.

When somebody becomes a Christian or begins to really study the Bible on their own, they need to learn some of the new vocabulary that they will come across in the Bible or they will always struggle with those passages. When we as pastors or Bible Study Leaders don’t take the time to slow down and explain what difficult doctrinal words and concepts mean as we encounter them, we risk doing unintentional damage. We stunt the spiritual growth of those we minister to, because they will flounder when they run across these words in their own Bible study, and we also unintentionally teach that the words God chose to put in the Bible are too hard for us to understand.

Why You Should Love the Word “Propitiation”
With less educational resources at their fingertips, the Bible writers of both the Old and New Testament did not flinch to use technical words when they taught about God. Although the same could be said for Bible words dripping with meaning like “justification,” “redemption,”and “regeneration,” let me give you an example using the word that recently made me pause and ask how to teach it, “propitiation.”

As I studied to preach Romans 3:25 and then 1 John 2:2, I was amazed to discover that the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) uses a form of the same word 6 times. It is often used to talk about the Day of Atonement, but one use made my jaw drop. In Psalm 130:4 the Psalmist rejoices: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Yes, it is forgiveness, but he didn’t use the word for “forgiveness,” he used the word for “propitiation.” Those who sang Psalm 130 understood that in order for forgiveness to happen, their sins needed to be paid for.

But we really begin to understand what Jesus did for us so he could be our propitiation when we look at how a form of the word is used in Hebrews 9:5. There the writer of Hebrews uses a form of the word “propitiation” to describe the mercy seat, the covering of the Ark of the Covenant (this form of the word is found 28 times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, 24 of which also refer to the mercy seat that was on top of the Ark of the Covenant).

The covering of the Ark of the Covenant is under the two golden cherubim and it represented God’s throne on earth. It was the place where God’s Shekinah Glory, his special presence on earth, resided. Only the High Priest could go into God’s presence there, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement. But when he went in there, he would sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice on the mercy seat; he sprinkled it, in other words, on the “propitiation.”

Inside of the Ark of the Covenant, in addition to Aaron’s budded staff and a pot of mannah, was God’s Law. The blood of the sacrifice went between God’s Law, which the people had broken, and God’s presence, which the people could not stand in without a worthy sacrifice.

This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is not only our High Priest, Jesus IS our propitiation. Today. 1 John 2:1 explains that Jesus IS the propitiation for our sins. Present tense.

Have you broken God’s Law recently? What about the 10 commandments? Have you lied, coveted, lusted (Jesus pointed out that adultery happens not just with our bodies but also in our hearts), or not honored your parents recently, just to name a few of those 10 commandments? Jesus IS your propitiation! Jesus’ blood stands between you, the Law-breaker, and the holy God. Now that silences the accuser!

Let the people God has entrusted to you in your congregation or Bible Study glory in the gospel from the many different angles the Bible gives us, by not running away from the difficult words in the Bible. Explain them when you use them, but study and explain these technical and rich Bible words in such a way that they will want to sing hallelujah when they encounter them, whether it is in church or during their personal Bible study.

We want them to run TO propitiation, not away from it! Because when they run to propitiation, they are running to Jesus.

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Hold On to the God Who Holds You: How He Comforts Us with Election

This article first appeared on DesiringGod.org.

Desiring God water pic

As a pastor, I had visited church members in the psych ward before, but this time the church member was our dear friend Sarah (her name has been changed for privacy). She had no family nearby, but lived just a few miles from us. When Sarah was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, my wife began to bring her meals. We would visit her whenever we could. One of the treatments had taken a horrible turn. Dark side effects landed Sarah in the psych ward.

She looked at me that afternoon from her hospital bed, almost without recognition, with deep pain in her eyes. I reminded her of the care of her church family and the love of Christ for her. A tear rolled down her cheek and she whispered, “Guilty.”

I knew that Sarah needed bedrock gospel truth under her feet, so I turned to Romans 8 and began to read to her, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Her eyes flashed with recognition. I continued to read until I got to verse 30, and then an amazing thing happened. Sarah was crying out the words of Romans 8:30 with me, like a drowning woman holding on to a life preserver.

We both exclaimed those precious promises out loud in the stark and sterile room, tears streaming down our faces: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). At that moment, neither of us was arguing for the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty over salvation. We were exulting in our election. Sarah could not hold on to God in her darkest hour, but she knew that he was still holding on to her.

Comfort of God’s Choice

“God didn’t give us insight into the great mysteries of his sovereign grace to confuse us, but to comfort us.”

I used to experience election merely as theoretical. Too often I saw the doctrine through the lens of debate rather than through the lens of worship and trust. Sarah changed that for me. Seeing election anchor Sarah in the psych ward gave me a fresh perspective on why God has revealed to us that we were chosen by him before he formed the world. God didn’t give us insight into the great mysteries of his sovereign grace to confuse us, but to comfort us with his unstoppable, eternal love for us.

Being reminded of God’s choice to love her in eternity past was a comfort for Sarah on that bleak afternoon. She knew that nothing could separate her from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

Our salvation did not start with us, is not sustained by us, and will not be completed by our strength. The domino effects leading to our salvation did not begin at birth, or even at Christ’s birth, but in eternity past when God foreknew us. Unconditional election knocks the wind out of our pride, but it also buoys us up when we feel like we’re drowning.

When the clouds seem to be blocking our Father’s face, when all of our relationships are being dragged through a valley, when we hear of a relative diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we need the security of electing grace. And when the sun is shining, our spouse loves us, our kids are well-behaved, and work is going better than we ever expected, God’s electing love reminds us that every gift is a gift of grace.

Holding On, Being Held

When I visited Sarah a few days later, she was doing better. The medications were being balanced and the side effects had diminished, although she was still being kept and monitored. As we sang “In Christ Alone” together, our voices rose loudest when we sang, “From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand.”

There is something profoundly stabilizing about knowing that the most powerful One in the universe holds you (John 10:28–29). He knew everything about our frailties and even our sins, but he chose us, came for us, and redeemed us anyway.

“Unconditional election knocks the wind out of our pride, but it also buoys us up when we feel like we’re drowning.”

That stay in the psych ward was not the end of the story for my sister in Christ. Just as God makes each of us more than conquerors, he empowered Sarah to conquer. She is not a conqueror because she overcame her depression immediately, or because the cancer stopped spreading. In fact, she died a couple of years later. Sarah is more than a conqueror because the God who predestined her also promised that she would be glorified.

That was the promise she was holding on to the last time I saw her, and it is the promise that she will be praising Christ for the next time I see her.