“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” —I John 4:10

PROPITIATION IS A rather uncommon word. The dictionary gives this definition: ‘to make favorably inclined; appease; conciliate’. This does not seem completely satisfactory as a description of what Jesus did for us. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible renders the Greek this way: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.”

‘Expiation’ is defined as the means by which atonement or reparation is made. ‘Atonement’ is the satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury. To Bible Students the word atonement sounds like the best word, and that is the way J. B. Phillips translates the Greek: “We see real love, not in the fact that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to make personal atonement for our sins.”

It would be almost impossible to discuss the subject of atonement without considering the atonement sacrifices of the Israelites. The word atonement appears 72 times in just the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. One use of the word propitiation in the New Testament actually points us back to the Israelites and their atonement sacrifices. “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.”—Rom. 3:24,25

This text in Romans actually mistranslates the Greek as propitiation. The Diaglott reads: “Whom God has set forth to be a Mercyseat by His own blood.” The Diaglott includes this footnote: “The [Greek] word hilasteerion never signifies propitiation, as it is translated in the common version [meaning the King James Version]; but it is always used wherever it occurs, both in the Old Testament and the New, to express the mercy-seat; which was the golden lid of the ark upon which the Shechinah or cloud of glory rested, and from which oracles were dispensed.” The same Greek word is translated “mercy seat” in Hebrews 9:5, where the apostle describes the Ark of the Covenant, “and over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercy seat.”

We therefore conclude that the word propitiation is better rendered “atonement,” or in the case of Romans 3:25, “place of atonement.”

Sacrifice and the Tabernacle

The Tabernacle and its arrangements provided the Israelites with a place to worship God, a ministry that was responsible for its services, a means for attaining communion with God, and appropriate times for worship. Its architect was God. In addition to the benefits it gave the Israelites, it also provides a teaching tool for Christians. “[The priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the Tabernacle: See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”—Heb. 8:5, New International Version

Large sections of the Book of Revelation draw on illustrations from the Tabernacle. The entire book of Hebrews explains clearly and concisely what those sacrifices were all about. Without this explanation how incomprehensible it all would be. Animals were slain for the morning and evening sacrifices; and the people brought other animal sacrifices as well. God, through the Tabernacle services, was teaching that (1) forgiveness comes only through the shedding of blood, and (2) salvation is obtained through atonement.

Consider these words of explanation for the Tabernacle ceremonies: “The ceremonies are concerned with food and drink, various washings and rules for bodily conduct, and were only intended to be valid until the time when Christ should establish the truth. For now Christ has come among us, the High Priest of the good things which were to come, and has passed through a greater and more perfect tent which no human hand had made. It was not with goats’ or calves’ blood but with his own blood that he entered once and for all into the Holy of Holies, having won for us men eternal reconciliation with God.”—Heb. 9:10-12, Philips

The offerings in the Tabernacle were necessary to show the concept of propitiation—atonement. Much of the symbolism of the Tabernacle illustrated the great sacrifice for sin that was yet future—the sacrifice of Christ.

“You will find that in the Law almost all cleansing is made by means of blood—as the common saying has it: ‘No shedding of blood, no remission of sin.’ It was necessary for the earthly reproductions of heavenly realities to be purified by such methods, but the actual heavenly things could only be made pure in God’s sight by higher sacrifices than these. Christ did not therefore enter into any holy places made by human hand … but he entered Heaven itself to make his appearance before God as High Priest on our behalf.”—Heb. 9:22-24, Phillips

Christ in the Tabernacle

If we were to pass through the curtain that acted as a door to the courtyard of the Tabernacle, we would first see a large altar, approximately 4 feet high and 7 feet square. It was made of sheets of copper overlaid on wood. On this altar sacrifices were burned. It was the sacrifice on this altar that pictured the provision of our justification, or the state of being right with God. It is one picture of the sacrifice of Christ. “Much more then, being now justified by [Christ’s] blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.”—Rom. 5:9

There were so many sacrifices that it is easy to think they were all the same. But they were not. One offering was essential—the sin offering. It was made first, showing that there can be no access to God without a sacrifice for sin first. After the sin offering was made acceptably, other offerings of various kinds could be given to God.

As we proceed forward from the altar in the courtyard we next find a large bowl of water made from the copper mirrors of the Israelites. It is called the laver. The priests were instructed to use the laver before entering the Tabernacle under penalty of death. “When they go into the Tabernacle of the Congregation, they shall wash with water, that they die not.”—Exod. 30:20

The symbolism is clear: the unwashed priest perishes. Likewise those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the great antitype of Israel’s High Priest, must be washed if they are to be acceptable to God. “But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.”—I Cor. 6:11

Now we are in front of the Tabernacle or tent. Only a priest could go further. Passing under the curtain that was its door, we enter the Holy, the first of two rooms. A candlestick is on the left, a table holding bread on the right, and a golden incense altar is straight ahead. The candlestick illustrates the light we receive from the burning oil (the Holy Spirit). The bread represents the Word of God upon which we feed. Jesus said, “As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.”—John 6:57

The golden incense altar is described in Revelation. “Another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer, and there was given unto him much incense that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.”—Rev. 8:3

Notice that the incense is offered ‘with the prayers of all saints’. It is Christ’s intercession on our behalf that makes our prayers acceptable. Without his merit, no prayer goes up. “It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.”—Rom. 8:34

The annual Day of Atonement sacrifices are described in Leviticus, chapter 16. Only the High Priest was involved with those sacrifices. Verse 17 specifically states that no man was to be in the Tabernacle when atonement was being made. Thus we see Christ as our High Priest officiating over the sacrifice of himself (shown in the bullock) and the church which is his body (shown in the goat). He is both priest and sacrifice. “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter … he hath poured out his soul unto death … and he bore the sin of many.”—Isa. 53:7,12

Now we pass through the final curtain into the Most Holy, the second of the two rooms. When our Lord died on the cross, the veil in the Temple between the Holy and the Most Holy was ripped from top to bottom. This illustrates that a new way into the Most Holy was provided by his death. “So, by virtue of the blood of Jesus, you and 1, my brothers, may now have confidence to enter the Holy of Holies by a fresh and living way, which he has opened up for us by himself passing through the curtain, that is, his own human nature. Further, since we have a great High Priest set over the household of God, let us draw near with true hearts and fullest confidence, knowing that our inmost souls have been purified by the sprinkling of his blood just as our bodies are cleansed by the washing of clean water.”—Heb. 10:19-22, Phillips

There was only one article of furniture in the Most Holy. That was the Ark of the Covenant, which consisted of a box, a lid for the box (called the mercy seat), and two cherubim attached to the lid. On the Day of Atonement the High Priest brought blood from the sin offerings into the Most Holy and sprinkled it on the mercy seat. Thus God’s throne of justice became transformed by this blood into a throne of grace. “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”—Heb. 4:16

Why was the blood necessary? It particularly pictured the giving of a life. God specifically said that the “life of the flesh is in the blood … for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” (Lev. 17:11) Man could never be reconciled to God by the blood from animal sacrifices. It is only when we realize that God was illustrating a great sacrifice to come that we can understand it at all. “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood [Christ] entered in once into the Holy Place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.”—Heb. 9:12

The Scofield Reference Bible has this footnote on Romans 3:25. “The thought in the Old Testament sacrifices and in the New Testament fulfillment is that Christ completely satisfied the just demands of a holy God for judgment on sin by his death on the cross. Propitiation satisfies the righteousness of a holy God, thereby making it possible for Him to show mercy righteously.”

As we look down the corridors of history, we notice a progression in the way God has manifested himself to his people.

1. In the beginning a personal and individual revealment existed with those who worshipped God. These included Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

2. His presence became more encompassing in the Tabernacle arrangement. In particular, the Israelites could perceive God’s presence in the visible loud by day, and the pillar of fire by night.

3. The glory of the Father that radiated through his son demonstrated to all the people what perfection really was. John says, “We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”—John 1:14

4. A broader manifestation of God has been shown to a larger number of people since then, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all Christ’s followers throughout the world during the past 2,000 years.

5. Soon there will be a worldwide and universal manifestation to come in the kingdom for which we continue to pray.

“And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write, for these words are true and faithful.”—Rev. 21:3-5

Dawn Bible Students Association
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