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In Romans chapter 3:25 Paul writes "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood," the whom being Jesus Christ. Paul developes Romans and his understanding of our relationship to God through the Lord Jesus Christ with the term propitiation in mind.

  1. What does this specialized term mean?

  2. And how does it become applicable in our lives?

  3. Are modern translations and terminology concerning this specialized term doing justice to its true meaning as put forth in the scriptures? Why or why not?

  4. Is this even important? Why or why not

  5. Can this effect our relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ? Why or why not?

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  • The term " propitiation is a specialized term used in english. But it is a Jewish concept built upon Jewish religious practice and understanding as it concerns there relationship to Yahweh. So to maintain Good hermeneutics we can't borrow general definitions based on the adopted languages culture and apply this completely to specialized terms that are developed conceptually from a different language and culture. Our word is propitition. The Greek word is helasterion. The concept is the mercy seat. The place of sacrifice and the presence of God. Jesus the "propitiation " is still in affect.
    – Joshuabell
    Feb 15 at 23:09
  • So dead Jesus offers sacrifice for sin. The living Jesus at the right and of God offers spiritual life to those who walk in faith. Two aspects of His ongoing eternal work. God is satisfied with Christs death. The shedding of His blood. God is also satisfied with His life at His right hand. Everyone stops at the forgiveness part of the propitiation. No one moves into the dynamics of the impartation of life by faith in the resurrected blood to those that are forgiven. Christ is all and all. He is our death and our life. The place where in life or death we find the presence of Yahweh.
    – Joshuabell
    Feb 15 at 23:17
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3 Answers 3

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The Greek word ἱλαστήριον (hilastérion) appears in Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5, and nowhere else in the New Testament. In Hebrews 9:5 the A.V. translates ἱλαστήριον (hilastérion) as 'mercy seat'. But in Romans, it is stated that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God who has freely declared righteous those with faith in Christ Jesus:

"whom God hath set forth to be a ἱλαστήριον (hilastérion) a propitiation through faith in his blood. (A.V.)

"whom God did set forth a ἱλαστήριον (hilastérion) mercy seat, through the faith in his blood," (Y.L.T.)

"God presented him as a ἱλαστήριον (hilastérion) sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood." (N.I.V.)

The A.V.'s meaning requires sorting out what those translators understood by the word 'propitiation', but dealing with that would be a waste of time if they have translated the word wrongly in the first place.

It is clearly a difficult word to translate, for in 1 John 2:2 & 4:10 the translators of the A.V. say 'propitiation' for a different word, hilasmos. I now quote from the author I mentioned where he explains that:

"...the word hilasterion does not convey the Greek word for mercy [which is] eleos; the word hilasterion is derived from hilaros which in turn is derived from hilews. And hilews does not mean 'mercy'...

"...since the year 1879, when Robert Young published his invaluable Analytical Concordance, its rear pages have plainly declared that eleos and hilews are two different words." (The Cherubim of Glory pp61-62, N. Johnstone, Belmont Publications 2015)

It takes the author 180 pages to examine all the words involved in translation regarding 'propitiation', 'mercy seat', and the biblical words kerub/kerubim, chashmal, kippurim, yom kippurim, kapporeth, and hilasterion. All of this is necessary to grasp what ἱλαστήριον (hilastérion) means in Romans 3:25, and whether the A.V. has got it right or not. I suggest that anyone wanting to thrash this matter out get a free download of the book from the author's website: https://belmontpublications.co.uk/books/

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In Romans 3:25 propitiation is an atoning sacrifice to appease or gain God's favor. This sounds strange compared to John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, ESV)

Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg gives a good explanation when explaining John 6:51-58. A more complete discussion is at: What does John 6: 57 mean?

What God did seemed backwards to the Jews and people of that day. What they expected to be required for them to give God, God gave to them.

So, what is happening here? I think it is something like this – Jesus says: “Now the tables will be turned. It is God’s turn to offer you all that He is. Just as you offer him the sacrifices symbolizing the whole life, so is he offering you Himself in the person of his Son.” ... -- Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Eli. The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel (pp. 105-106). Jewish Studies for Christians. Kindle Edition.

Lexicons and Dictionaries

pro•pi•ti•ate \prō-ˈpi-shē-ˌāt\ verb transitive -at•ed; -at•ing [Latin propitiatus, past participle of propitiare, from propitius propitious] 1583: to gain or regain the favor or goodwill of: APPEASE, CONCILIATE synonym see PACIFY—pro•pi•ti•a•tor -ˌā-tər\ noun

pro•pi•ti•a•tion \prō-ˌpi-shē-ˈā-shən\ noun 14th century 1: the act of propitiating 2: something that propitiates specifically: an atoning sacrifice -- Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). In Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Merriam-Webster, Inc.

ἱλαστήριον, ου, τό (subst. neut. of ἱλαστήριος, ον [...]) that which expiates or propitiates, concr. a means of expiation, gift to procure expiation -- Arndt, W., Gingrich, F. W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (1979). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature : a translation and adaption of the fourth revised and augmented edition of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Worterbuch zu den Schrift en des Neuen Testaments und der ubrigen urchristlichen Literatur (p. 375). University of Chicago Press.

ἱλασμός [ῑ], ὁ, a means of appeasing, Plut.:—a propitiation, N.T.; and ἱλαστήριος -- Liddell, H. G. (1996). In A lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English lexicon (p. 379). Logos Research Systems, Inc.

ἱλαστήριος, α, ον, propitiatory, II. as Subst.,ἱλαστήριον (sub. ἐπίθεμα), τό, the mercy-seat, covering of the ark in the Holy of Holies, N.T. 2. (sub. ἀνάθημα), a propitiation, Ib. -- Liddell, H. G. (1996). In A lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English lexicon (p. 379). Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Commentaries

A propitiation (ἱλαστηριον [hilastērion]). The only other N. T. example of this word is in Heb. 9:5 where we have the “cherubim overshadowing the mercy seat” (το ἱλαστηριον [to hilastērion]). In Hebrews the adjective is used as a substantive or as “the propitiatory place” But that idea does not suit here. Deissmann (Bible Studies, pp. 124–35) has produced examples from inscriptions where it is used as an adjective and as meaning “a votive offering” or “propitiatory gift.” Hence he concludes about Rom. 3:25: “The crucified Christ is the votive gift of the Divine Love for the salvation of men.” God gave his Son as the means of propitiation (1 John 2:2). ἱλαστηριον [Hilastērion] is an adjective (ἱλαστηριος [hilastērios]) from ἱλασκομαι [hilaskomai], to make propitiation (Heb. 2:17) and is kin in meaning to ἱλασμος [hilasmos], propitiation (1 John 2:2; 4:10). There is no longer room for doubting its meaning in Rom. 3:25. -- Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Rom. 3:25). Broadman Press.

3:25. To “propitiate” (KJV, NASB) God was to turn away his wrath; although in Jewish tradition prayers, alms and other good deeds could turn away wrath (Ecclus 3:3, 20; 32:1–3; Wisdom of Solomon 18:20–21), the law also required bloodshed: something had to die to appease the wrath properly due a person’s sin. The term here may refer to the mercy seat (Ex 25:22). God mercifully “passed over” (Ex 12:13) sins before the cross, in anticipation of the sacrifice that would take place there. (One might compare the rabbinic view that repentance defers judgment until the Day of Atonement atones for sin, although nothing in the text suggests that Paul has this idea in mind here.) -- Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Rom. 3:25). InterVarsity Press.

3:25 God set forth Christ Jesus as a propitiation. A propitiation is a means by which justice is satisfied, God’s wrath is averted, and mercy can be shown on the basis of an acceptable sacrifice.

Three times in the NT Christ is spoken of as a propitiation. Here in Romans 3:25 we learn that those who put their faith in Christ find mercy by virtue of His shed blood. In 1 John 2:2 Christ is described as the propitiation for our sins, and for those of the whole world. His work is sufficient for the whole world but is only effective for those who put their trust in Him. Finally, in 1 John 4:10, God’s love was manifested in sending His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

The prayer of the publican in Luke 18:13 was literally “God be propitious to me, the sinner.” He was asking God to show mercy to him by not requiring him to pay the penalty of his aggravated guilt.

The word propitiation also occurs in Hebrews 2:17: “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Here the expression “to make propitiation” means to put away by paying the penalty.

The OT equivalent of the word propitiation is mercy-seat. The mercy-seat was the lid of the ark. On the Day of Atonement the high priest sprinkled the mercy-seat with the blood of a sacrificial victim. By this means errors of the high priest and of the people were atoned for or covered.

When Christ made propitiation for our sins, He went much further. He not only covered them but did away with them completely.

Now Paul tells us in 3:25 that God set Christ forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith. We are not told to put our faith in His blood; Christ Himself is the object of our faith. It is only a resurrected and living Christ Jesus who can save. He is the propitiation. Faith in Him is the condition by which we avail ourselves of the propitiation. His blood is the price that was paid. -- MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments (A. Farstad, Ed.; pp. 1689–1690). Thomas Nelson.

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  • Amazing response. Do you think as Paul developed Romans that his understanding of the propitiation might extend beyond just a sacrificed Jesus? That his statements of in Christ or through Christ etc. might have a continuing propitiatory effect in the life of faith? That Christ is still the propitiation seated at the right hand of God allowing us to participate in his life by proper faith. The faith that denies self and give his life the right a way. Faith being the new nature.
    – Joshuabell
    Feb 16 at 2:42
  • @Joshuabell Isn't that what you find in the book of Hebrews?
    – Perry Webb
    Feb 16 at 13:03
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The old-fashioned Latin word, "propitiation" translates the Greek, ἱλαστήριον (hilastérion) which is used in only two places: Rom 3:25, Heb 9:5.

It is a "tricky" word because of what it suggests in quite metaphoric terms. According to BDAG, this word means:

"means of expiation", or, "place of propitiation".

This literally means a sacrifice of atonement to gain a deity's favor. Again, according to BDAG,

In Greaco-Roman world, that which serves as an instrument for regaining the goodwill of a deity; concretely, 'a means of propitiation or expiation' ...

the unique feature relative to Greaco-Roman usage is the initiative taken by God to effect removal of impediments to a relationship with God's self.

Now, this is literally saying that God sacrificed Jesus on the cross in order to gain the Father's love - an untenable idea!! HOWEVER, this is a metaphor and is not literally true - see appendix below for many other metaphors of salvation that are not literally true.

[For a literal examples of the pagan practice of human sacrifice to gain the favor of a deity, see 2 Kings 16:3, 21:6, 2 Chron 28:3, 33:6.]

Many modern versions render this word, "sacrifice of atonement".

APPENDIX - Metaphors of the Atonement

There is no single Biblical word or idea that encompasses all that is involved in atonement; however, several analogues (or metaphors) are employed to show God’s intent because none conveys the full meaning of God’s atonement. All illustrate another aspect of the operation of free grace and how a perfectly just and holy God deals with the abhorrence of sin and its consequences. These include:

  • Christ’s robe of righteousness provided a covering to hide the sinner’s wretched state. Job 29:14, Ps 132:9, Isa 11:5, 59:17, 61:10, 64:6, Zech 3:4, 5, Matt 22:1-14 (wedding garment parable), Rev 3:4, 6:11, 7:9, 19:8. This robe is a counterpoint to the “filthy rags” of Isa 64:6 and Zech 3:4, and immediately and completely hides them.
  • The Greek verb “aphiemi”, to forgive or give remission, means (literally) to send forth or send away. It is used of sins in Matt 9:2, 5, 6, 12:31, 32, 26:28, Mark 14:24, Acts 8:22, Rom 4:7, James 5:12, 1 John 1:9, 2:12, etc. That is, our sins are sent away or banished. See also Mark 3:29, Acts 5:31, 13:38, 26:18, Eph 1:7, Col 1:14. Again, Jesus accomplished this great work on the cross. See “Forgiveness”.
  • Propitiation or expiation (Greek: “hilasterion”) denotes the act of appeasing a deity by sacrifice to incur divine favor (it is only an analogue, metaphor or figure of speech!). Thus, Jesus’ sacrifice is described as propitiation in Rom 3:25 and 1 John 2:2. These are direct references to the same word used in the Septuagint in Ex 25:17-22 (and repeated in Heb 9:5) where the “atonement cover” or “mercy seat” of the Ark of the Covenant is described. That is, the covering of the Ark provided both atonement and mercy at the same time! See also 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Pet 3:18. Thus, Jesus is correctly described as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29, 36).
  • Justify and Justification (Greek cognate root: “dike”) means to pronounce righteous or acquit and is obviously a legal term. Paul, in Romans, tells us that God has freely justified all sinners (Rom 3:23-27) and that this occurred while we were still sinners (Rom 5:5, 8, 9) by His death on the cross. This “declaring right” is clearly what God does and is His initiative and something that cannot be earned (Rom 3:20). In Gal 2:16 we are emphatically told that we are justified by trusting God and not by works of the law. See “Election” for more information. It is often used inter-changeably with “Credit”, see below.
  • The Bible also uses the idea of Jesus’ death being a kind of penal substitutionary execution to satisfy the requirements of “the law”; thus, His death was an essential part of our salvation. Isa 53:5, 6, 11, 12, Matt 20:28, Rom 5:19, 2 Cor 5:21, Gal 1:4, 3:13, Heb 9:15. Again, the extent to which this is literally true is highly debated – is it only a metaphor to demonstrate God’s great love and grace? Or did Jesus’ death actually change something about God’s attitude to us (recall that Jesus is also God!) Obviously Jesus’ death did not change God’s mind because God gave His Son and God did not give something in order to change His own mind! Jesus death was to demonstrate His justice (Rom 3:22-28).
  • In Rev 12:7-10 the process that leads to atonement is depicted as a war which Jesus wins. His victory obtains atonement for mankind (Col 2:15, 1 Peter 3:22). In this warfare, sinners are God’s enemies that He must capture in the war (Rom 5:10). This metaphor is extended for the Christian life (Eph 6:10-17, 1 Thess 5:8, 2 Cor 10:3-5, Isa 59:17) with “the armour of God”. See also Rev 19:11-21.
  • The atonement is also presented as a kind of recapitulation: Jesus became the second Adam and succeeded where Adam failed. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). Rom 5 discusses this idea at some length but the idea of sacrifice and the gift of salvation are never too far away even in this passage.
  • “Credit”, “account”, “imputed”, or “reckoned” (Greek: logizomai) is a financial or accounting term used in the market place but was employed by Paul to denote the act of God in crediting Abraham (and sinners generally) as righteous when they trusted in God, apart from the works of the law, as a free gift. The idea is based upon the assumption that sin creates a debt to God which must be repaid (Col 2:13-15, Matt 6:12). Again, it is only an analogue, metaphor or figure of speech and so is not literally true. (Rom 4:3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24, 2 Cor 5:19, Gal 3:6, James 2:23. See also Gen 15:6.) That is, the righteousness of God is “imputed” to the undeserving sinner, freely. Thus, God “cancels the debt” (Matt 18:21-35).
  • “Gift” is used to convey the idea that atonement is absolutely free and the initiative of God. Rom 4:4, 5:15-17, 6:23, 2 Cor 9:14, 15, Eph 2:8, 3:7, Heb 6:4.
  • Redemption, Ransom, or most correctly, Manumission: Two Greek words are translated “redeem” (“exagerazo” and “lutroo”) with almost exactly equivalent meanings. Both speak of Christ redeeming sinners as slaves (Luke 1:68, 24:21) by paying a ransom (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45, 1 Tim 2:6, Heb 9:15), but, Scripture is silent about to whom the manumission fee was paid (it is only an analogue, metaphor or figure of speech!). 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23, Gal 3:13, 4:5, Titus 2:14, 1 Peter 1:18, Rev 5:9. This manumission idea emphasises God’s free gift of salvation because both Greek verbs were commonly used to buy freedom for a slave or hostage, without any contribution of the slave. Perhaps the most touching example of redemption is contained in the enacted parable of Hosea and Gomer – see Hosea 3:1-3. The New Testament also presents several things from which the sinner needs freedom: o Freedom from the devil, Heb 2:14, 15; o Freedom from death, 1 Cor 15:56, 57; o Freedom from the power of sin that enslaves, Rom 6:22; o Freedom from the condemnation of the law, Rom 3:19-24, Gal 3:13, 4:5;
  • Reconciliation describes the process of reuniting an estranged family member. It is predicated on two Biblical assumptions that (a) Jesus is our brother (Heb 2:11-13, Ps 22:22, Isa 8:17, 18, Matt 12:48, 49, John 20:17, Rom 8:29), and (b) sin separates us from Jesus our brother (Isa 59:2, Gal 5:4, Eph 2:12, Ps 22:1, Eze 14:5, Jer 6:8). Reconciliation is found in only a few places but they, again, emphasise that atonement is God’s initiative without any input from us. In 2 Cor 5:18, 19 we find that Christ reconciled the world to Himself by “not counting our sins against us”. Rom 5:10, 11 teaches that sinners were reconciled to God by Christ’s death. Further, a comparison with v9 shows that justification and reconciliation are used in parallel.
  • Rescue (save, hence "salvation"): The Greek verb, “sozo” means literally to rescue or deliver from danger (Matt 8:25, Mark 13:20, Luke 23:35, John 12:27, 1 Tim 2:15, 2 Tim 4:18). Thus, when the New Testament discusses salvation, it is using the figure of someone in immanent mortal danger being rescued by a “rescuer” (Acts 2:47, 16:31, Rom 8:24, Eph 2:5, 8, 1 Tim 2:4, 2 Tim 19, Titus 3:5, etc). This a perfect figure of our relationship with Jesus who delivers us from the danger of sin (Phil 2:12) and eternal loss (Rom 13:11, 1 Thess 5:8, 9 2 Thess 2:13, Heb 1:14, 9:28, 1 Peter 1:5, 2 Peter 3:15, etc). See also Eph 6:17 where salvation is described as a helmet to protect from spiritual danger. This figure also emphasises that salvation must come from outside the person.
  • The absolving of sin is sometimes represented as a “washing away” of sin, or “cleansing”. Lev 16:30, Num 19:9, Ps 51:2, 7, 10, Isa 4:4, Eze 36:25, Zech 13:1, 1 Cor 6:10, Eph 5:26, 1 John 1:7, 9. The practice of Baptism is built on this vivid metaphor and thus depicted as washing away of sin (Acts 22:16) as well as death to the old life and resurrection to a new life in Christ.
  • Adoption can also be a figure of atonement – see “Adoption”. In this case the metaphor serves both as a figure of the change of life and of the privileges of being adopted into a “royal” family of God.

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