Most professions and organizations have their own jargon, which is a fancy word for unique and specialized terms that are accepted and understood within a particular field or group. Through the entertainment industry or personal experience you have likely encountered numerous types of professional jargon. For example, you may hear a lawyer say, “Objection,” and a judge respond, “Overruled.” That is legal jargon. Maybe you’ve heard a medical professional say, “Let’s check your vitals.” He or she is using medical jargon. In and of itself, jargon is not bad, but it can leave individuals who are unfamiliar with its meaning confused. That is why it is important, regardless of one’s field of expertise, that he or she is able to explain technical subjects in common vernacular.
As we continue to utilize this article format to explore the blessings that are found in Christ, I was reminded of the significance of jargon because the church is not immune to it. There are words used in theological and spiritual contexts that do not get used elsewhere. For example, one rarely hears reference to atonement, sanctification, or predestination outside of religious contexts. But the crème de la crème of church jargon is propitiation.
This mysterious word appears up to four times in the New Testament, depending on which translation you are using, and, every time it appears, it is used in reference to Jesus. The first appearance of this term is in Romans 3:23-25 where Paul wrote, “all have sinned…and are justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a PROPITIATION by his blood” (emphasis added). Then, John called Jesus “the PROPITIATION for our sins” in 1 John 2:2, and, in 1 John 4:10, he said that God “sent his Son to be the PROPITIATION for our sins” (emphasis added). The author of Hebrews indicated that Jesus became our “merciful and faithful high priest” in order “to make PROPITIATION for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17, emphasis added). Needless to say, Jesus’ propitiatory function sounds like a big deal, but to what is it referring?
The Greek terms translated “propitiation” in the New Testament are all related to one another, and they convey the idea of that which appeases, expiates, or placates. Those terms are helpful in defining what “propitiation” means, but they do little to help us understand why Jesus is identified as our “propitiation.” Maybe the best way to uncover why Jesus is our propitiation is by determining what Jesus is appeasing, expiating, or placating.
Scripture asserts that our sin elicits God’s wrath. All you have to do is conduct a cursory overview of the Old Testament to come to this conclusion. Do you remember the golden calf episode at the base of Mount Sinai? God was so outraged by Israel’s idolatry that He temporarily stopped referring to them as His people and started referring to them as Moses’ people. At one point God even toldMoses, “let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (Exodus 32:10). On this occasion, God’s anger relented, but, unfortunately, Israel’s mistakes mounted. During their journey through the wilderness, the Israelites began to complain, and we are told in Numbers 11:1 that “when the Lord heard it, his anger was kindled and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp.” Despite such instances, God’s grace was still shown to Israel as He established her as a nation. However, her wickedness returned and eventually God was forced to intervene. According to 2 Kings 17:6-11, He allowed the Assyrians to take the northern kingdom of Israel captive “because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God” and, as a result, “provok[ed] the Lord to anger.” This simplified list of Old Testament history teaches us that, when God’s people persisted in sin, His wrath was provoked and, when His wrath was provoked, judgment followed.
Thus, the only way to avoid God’s wrath is to appease God’s wrath. However, this presents a dilemma for men because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and, therefore, are deserving of His “wrath,” which Paul previously said will be“revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). So, how do we who have sinned appease the One whose wrath our sin elicits? That’s where Jesus’ sacrifice comes into play. Immediately after mentioning that “all have sinned,” Paul indicates that all are also “justified,” which is a fancy way of saying that all are made righteous, “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Romans 3:24-25). In other words, Paul indicates that God’s wrath can be appeased by Jesus because Jesus exchanged our sin for His righteousness through His death on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21).
To help us understand how Jesus provides a propitiatory function, let us consider the purpose of a heat shield, particularly in the context of spacecraft. In the simplest of terms, a heat shield is an outer covering on a spacecraft designed to protect it from the heat generated during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. In other words, a spacecraft’s heat shield protects the vessel and its occupants by either absorbing or deflecting heat. Tragically, the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster that occurred in 2003 showed us the devastation that occurs as the result of a compromised heat shield. Spiritually speaking, Jesus is our heat shield because as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), He absorbed or deflected the wrath of God away from us so that we will not be exposed to it. Thus, it is Jesus’ propitiatory function that provides us the opportunity to avoid eternal punishment in hell and, instead, receive eternal life in the presence of God. And when you understand what propitiation is then you understand why it is truly a blessing.
Thayer, Joseph Henry, Carl Ludwig Wilibald Grimm, and Christian Gottlob Wilke. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 801.