The word “propitiation” is not a word we use in everyday language. It’s a special word that Paul uses in reference to the sanctuary service:
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 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, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26, emphasis added).
Some Bibles have a marginal note for the word “propitiation.” The margin says the word means “mercy seat,” changing the verse to say “Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a mercy seat.” The mercy seat was the cover for the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle. It symbolizes Jesus’ work.
The Most Holy Place held the Ark of the Covenant. The high priest only entered...
The mercy seat is a wonderful picture of Jesus’ work. The mercy seat was made of pure gold (Exodus 37). Jesus was the only sinless Man; His life and character were pure gold.
The mercy seat covered the Ark where the Ten Commandments were kept. The Ten Commandments were in the heart of the Ark. Jesus was the embodiment of the law which expresses God’s character. Matthew 22:37-40 tells us that the principle upon which the law is based is love. 1 John 4:8 tells us “God is love.” God also promised in Jeremiah 31:33, “After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” In other words, if we are willing, God will reproduce in us His character of love.
God told Moses He would “commune with him from above the mercy seat” (Exodus 25:22). In John 14:6, Jesus, being the Mercy Seat, said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
The mercy seat had a crown of gold upon it. Jesus, the antitypical Mercy Seat will be crowned with many crowns (See Revelation 19: 11-12.) He is the King of kings.
God said He would “appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat” (Leviticus 16:2). On several occasions, Jesus was with a cloud. A cloud of angels were present at His birth, a cloud overshadowed the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5), and He was taken up into a cloud at His ascension (Acts 1:9). Revelation 10:1 says Jesus is clothed with a cloud:
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.
God instructed Moses to keep incense burning, “that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not” (Leviticus 16:3). And Exodus 30 tells of the “perpetual” burning of the incense. Incense represents prayer. We find that Jesus’ life was bathed in prayer. See Mark 1:35 and Matthew 14:23 for examples of Jesus’ habit of morning and evening prayer.
The high priest came before the mercy seat only once a year on the Day of Atonement with blood to sprinkle there “with his finger seven times” (Leviticus 16:15). Jesus, the antitypical Mercy Seat was the perfect, complete sacrifice as Hebrews 10:14 tells us, “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” More than that, when the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom at Jesus’ death, exposing the Most Holy Place, Jesus opened the way for us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
Exodus 25:8 says, “Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.” God wanted to be with His people. When God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit created humanity, He made them in His own image. He walked with them in the garden.
After they sinned, He yearned for them and sent messengers with messages of love to them. But how could a holy God meet with sinners? They would be destroyed by His presence. The tabernacle with its mercy seat was God’s answer to the yearning in His heart.
The mercy seat was the visible seat of God’s government. The rule of His kingdom was and still is the Ten Commandments which are all based on the principle of love. Because Jesus died the death we deserve, He is the Mercy Seat and we can come boldly to Him in our times of need.
But Satan has fair claim to everyone on this planet because we are all sinners. And He charges God with contempt of court, deliberate disobedience to the claims of the law and disregard for it.
The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him (Ezekiel 18:20).
Substitutionary death is not allowed, according to this text. However, God’s desire is not to slay the wicked. Verses 21-23 tell us this:
But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live. Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?
So then, how can God release us and not also release Satan, the evil angels and all other guilty parties? Look again at Romans 3:24-26:
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, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
These verses tell us that God is righteous and just even though He justifies sinners. How did He do that? How did God abide within His own law and set us free from the guilt of sin and still hold unrepentant sinners guilty? The question remains: How can we be free but Satan and all the wicked be reserved to destruction?
Romans 6:6-8 holds the key:
Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.
When we come to God through faith in Jesus, we must die to self. Death of self is not optional. Through the power of God, we put our sinful self to death and live for Christ, or rather, we allow Him to live His righteous life through us by surrendering ourselves to Him. In this way, we permit God to lawfully save us.
We sinful humans are the lawful captives of Satan. Isaiah 49:24-25 says this:
Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captive delivered? But thus saith the LORD, Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered: for I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children.
We can only be lawfully released from Satan’s power through the death of self. Then we can be free to live through the power of Christ within is. Paul certainly understood this, as we can see in Galatians 2:20:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
In order to live, we must die. There is no alternative. If our old nature, sinful self, is still alive, we are not alive at all, but dead in sin and still the lawful captives of Satan.
Does “being good” save us? Many Christians can’t seem to shake the belief that they have to be “good enough” to be saved. But Ephesians 2:4-9 is clear about the purpose of “good works.”
But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
What do “good works” accomplish for us, then? Living a righteous life is a testimony against Satan’s charge that no one can please God or keep His law. Living a righteous life and doing right things earns us nothing. Doing “good works” doesn’t make God love us more since “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
Our “good works” are not to impress God or anyone else, for that matter. But we may learn something about ourselves by them, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 13:5:
Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?
A reprobate is a depraved, unprincipled, or wicked person; a person rejected by God and beyond hope of salvation. In other words, someone who lives life for self and rejects the Holy Spirit and doesn’t feel convicted when he or she sins.
Jesus is the Mercy Seat. Our salvation is absolutely complete in Christ. God has lawfully pardoned us and we can go freely to Him through His Son Jesus. The accuser has no charge that will stand against us.
But do we really comprehend the mercy of God? If we did, we would be merciful, as He is merciful. On the contrary, it’s human nature for us to find fault with those we’ve offended so that we’ll feel less guilty. We convince ourselves that somehow they deserved our unkindness or discourtesy. Or we put on God our own faulty characteristics and expect the worst from Him because we feel our guilt and shame and know what we really deserve.
It’s difficult to accept pardon and forgiveness from God because so often we are unwilling to pardon and forgive others. Our generosity is Peter’s seven times seven, while God’s generosity and mercy is only hinted at by Jesus’ seventy times seven, because He knew it was all we could bear.
Or maybe the problem is that we just don’t know Jesus as we should. Do we know Him as our merciful Redeemer? Then how should we live? Since we have been pardoned, should we not pardon others? Excuse those who have offended us? Not allow ourselves to dwell on the faults and shortcomings of others or speak of them? Should we not extend mercy to others because Jesus is our Mercy Seat?
Micah 6:8 summarizes what our response should be:
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
May God show us how to do what is just and right, what it means to really love mercy and to walk humbly and in submission to Him.
Read more about the names and attributes of Christ