the mercy seat

The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Roms 3:22-26


It is clear as we read Romans that 3:21-26 are key verses in Romans; they are in a sense the heart of the book. In fact they are key verses in the whole Bible for they are a compressed summary of core truths of the atonement. They explain how justification is possible, the truth that runs through Romans. Right at the heart of this summary is the word propitiation.

Roms 3:25 ‘whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood’

Perhaps the first thing to note is that propitiation is God’s initiative. In fact all aspects of the atonement are God’s initiative. It is God who is keen to rescue humanity. There are those hostile to the gospel who caricature the atonement as if Jesus in dying is appeasing a vindictive and vengeful deity. That is a pagan sense of propitiation. The Greek word for propitiation (hilasmos) means ‘to appease’ or ‘avert wrath’. It commonly referred in the Greek world to the appeasing of the gods. A sacrifice was given to make the gods ’propitious’; it was intended to gain their favour. While the pagan practices of propitiation were corrupt in many ways this basic idea of appeasement or averting wrath belongs to the Biblical understanding of propitiation and sacrifice. However, when God is propitiated he provides the propitiation. He does so in Jesus his divine son; in reality God propitiates himself.

From 1:18-3:20 Paul has been outlining two great problems; humanity is unrighteous and this unrighteousness has made God angry (1:18). The atonement is the answer to both these problems. In the atonement sin is cleansed (expiation) and God’s wrath assuaged (propitiation).

In fact the word ‘propitiation’ in 3:25 is better translated ‘propitiatory’ or ‘mercy seat’ (hilasterion)

Many of the biblical images describing what happened at the cross are drawn from the OT. The tabernacle and its sacrifices were specifically designed to illustrate beforehand the atonement jesus would accomplish. In this way the dynamics of the once-for-all atonement accomplished by Christ would be more readily understood. To understand Christ as a propitiatory or mercy seat we need to go back to the OT Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in Lev 16.

The Day of Atonement was a major event in Israel’s religious calendar. It was an annual event when God undertook a major cleansing operation in the nation and the tabernacle. It was God’s designated day ‘to make atonement for the Israelites once a year because of all their sins‘. It meant a fresh start with God. It was therefore a special sabbath, a kind of sabbath of sabbaths (16:31). Failure to observe this sabbath meant being cut off from the people (Lev. 23:26-32). Clearly the day of atonement was important and critical to it was the ‘mercy seat’.

Mercy Seat

The ‘mercy-seat’ refers to a slab of pure gold that belonged to the ark of the covenant. It was the meeting place between God and Moses (Ex 25:21, 30:6). Moses is instructed by God,

Exodus 25:17-21

“And you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold, two and a half

cubits long and one and a half cubits wide. 18 “And you shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 “And make one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim of one piece with the mercy seat at its two ends. 20 “And the cherubim shall have their wings spread upward, covering the mercy seat with their wings and facing one another; the faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the mercy seat. 21 “And you shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark, you shall put the testimony which I shall give to you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.’

The mercy-seat is clearly a significant place.

The ark of the covenant or testimony resided in the ‘Most Holy Place’ of the tabernacle. It was there, in that inmost sanctum, that God dwelled. It was his throne room. The ark was the only furniture in the Holy of Holies. It was a chest 23”x39”x23”. It contained a golden urn, Aaron’s rod that budded and the stone tablets of the covenant (Hebs 9:4). On the top of the chest was a slab of solid gold, a cover. The slab of gold was a seat for the Lord who dwelt above the slab between the cherubim (Lev 16:2; Isa 37:16; Ps 80:1); a cloud was the sign of his presence (Lev 16:2). The slab of gold, or mercy seat was his throne (Ps 99:1-5). The awesome cherubim represent the holiness of his throne (Ezek 1:4-14).

This throne room from which God reigned was fearfully holy and forbidden to an unholy people. Everything associated with God’s dwelling place (tabernacle/temple) was holy and terrifying. It must be because God’s majesty is immeasurably exalted. Terrible judgements fell on those who disregarded the holiness of his dwelling (Lev 10, Lev 16:1,2; 1 Chron 13:1-10). It was from this awesome throne, awesome because of who filled it rather than the throne itself, that God ruled and administered justice among his people and ruled in the wider world. So holy was God and his throne that only the High Priest could enter this divine court and then, only once a year. He entered, no doubt, with trepidation. It was a fraught thing for a holy God to dwell among an unclean people. To enter the High Priest must take with him blood, the blood of a sacrificed goat and he must sprinkle it upon the mercy seat. He must burn incense to create a cloud that will hide the mercy-seat from view: if he sees it he will die (Lev 16:13). Everything stresses the towering majesty and holy righteousness of God. As for Isaiah, the presence of the thrice holy God is a shattering place to be (Isa 6).

Why was the High Priest required to bring blood? The blood atoned for sin; it cleansed sin and cancelled guilt. It was absolutely necessary if a holy God was to live among a sinful people. The sacrificial blood met the righteous demands of God’s throne. The sprinkled blood enabled the majestic throne utterly opposed to sin to become a place of acceptance for a sinful people. God’s terrifying throne became through propitiatory sacrifice, a ‘mercy seat’. Where the rumblings of wrath ought by rights to be heard because of human sin, sacrificial blood means grace is dispensed. The inevitably broken covenant in the ark’s chest demanding the curse judgements be implemented was covered by the blood of sacrifice. Sin had been atoned (covered). God had been propitiated. Atonement in the old fashioned theological use of the word (at-one-ment) had been achieved by blood (Lev 17:11). For another year a holy God could dwell among his sinful people in grace and mercy. The throne of absolute purity had become a place of propitiation and so a place of pardon and peace. But it was only for a year for in truth animal offerings could never put away sins, Indeed their very repetition was a reminder of sin (Hebs 19:1-).

How had the sacrifice enabled a holy throne to become a gracious throne for sinners instead of one wrathful judgement as their sins deserve? Clearly it had in some way dealt with both human unrighteousness and divine wrath.

Part of the answer is found in Lev 16 and other parts of the puzzle are found elsewhere (Eg Isa 53). In Lev 16 the focus is on both God’s holiness and human sinfulness. Human sinfulness is described in terms of uncleanness and disobedience (16:16).

Thus he (the High Priest) shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins.

Atonement is made possible through two goats. Together they enact the atonement that Jesus would accomplish. There were other sacrifices that were part of this day of atonement but the goats lie at the heart of what the atonement accomplished.

The first goat is presented as a sin offering. It is, we are told, ‘for the Lord’ (16:8, 9). It is slain and burnt upon the altar. The violent death off the animal and its sacrificial burning signals it bears the penalty for sin. Condemning wrath, God’s righteous verdict upon the nation, is borne by the sacrifice. When the blood is sprinkled on the throne God is propitiated; his holy justice is satisfied and his wrath appeased; national sin has been atoned in the death of the sacrificial goat. For God punishment and wrath go hand in hand. His punishment is not passionless but is impassioned. Speaking to Israel God says

Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. Ezek 7:8

It is this outpouring of judicial wrath upon the sacrificial goat that provides atoning blood which satisfies God’s righteousness and transforms his throne from a judgement seat to a mercy seat (Roms 3:25; Isa 53:5-8).

It is normally said that atonement involves two aspects; expiation and propitiation. In expiation human sin is cleansed: in propitiation divine wrath is appeased (Lev 16). The blood that cleanses also conciliates. God’s throne becomes for sinners a mercy seat. Sin stains and sanctions.

The removal of sin and purification is clearly accomplished in the first goat but it is even more graphically depicted in the second goat. One writer says,

By laying his hands on the head of the scapegoat and confessing all Israel’s sins over it, the high priest symbolised that God had reckoned the sin and guilt of the people to be transferred to the goat. Instead of bearing their own iniquity and being banished from the holy presence of God, Israel’s sin was imputed to a substitute. The innocent scapegoat bears the sin, and guilt, and punishment of the people and is banished in their place. By sprinkling the sacrificial blood of one substitute on the mercy seat, and by virtue of the imputation of sin to a second substitute, Israel’s sins are atoned for and the people are released from punishment.

Christ is forsaken (Matt 27:46) that our sins may be immeasurably removed from us (Mic 7:19; Ps 103:12). Together, both goats reveal the heart of the atonement; sin is purged and God’s throne is propitiated.

That blood sacrifice involves punishment and wrath is often questioned. Yet the Bible is clear that the sacrifice acts as a substitute bearing the punishment of the sinner. (Roms 6:23, 8:3; Isa 53 :4-6; 2 Thess 1:9; Matt 26:39; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:24). God’s anger is righteously kindled by sin. He is offended by sin, outraged by it; sin must be punished and God’s holiness satisfied. Would we really want the ultimate court of the universe to be indifferent to injustice and moral reprobation? The case for wrath-bearing punishment in the atonement is strong (Gen 8:20 – 9:1; Ps 7:11, 89:38,39,46; Isa 53:4-8; Gals 3:13). God’s wrath is an inescapable feature of the Bible story. D A Carson writes,

There is no doubt that part of God’s judgment against sin is to “let us go our own way,” but there is more to divine judgment than this. God, as the personal-holy God, stands personally against sin and evil (e.g., Rom. 1:18– 32; 2:5; John 3:36). Furthermore, in Scripture, God’s wrath has a strong affective element to it. In fact, God’s wrath is not some peripheral part of the Bible’s storyline. As D. A. Carson reminds us, “Theologically, God’s wrath is not inseparable from what it means to be God. Rather, his wrath is a function of his holiness as he confronts sin. But insofar as holiness is an attribute of God, and sin is the endemic condition of this world, this side of the Fall divine wrath cannot be ignored or evaded. It is not going too far to say that the Bible would not have a plot-line at all if there were no wrath.

The day of atonement (Lev 16) shows just how serious sin was and how pervasive its effects. Cleansing was necessary not only for the people but for High Priest and his family too. Indeed, the tabernacle itself including the Most Holy Place where God dwelled required to be cleansed by blood sprinkled on the mercy seat (Lev 16:16; Hebs 9:23). Human sin contaminates everything around it. We transmit uncleanness. Stamped upon Lev 16 is the extreme holiness of God to whom everything in contact with humanity is unclean. Uncleanness is no light thing. A little later God warns the nation that uncleanness will one day lead to expulsion from the land; it will vomit them out (Lev 18:24, 25). Yet this cleansing of the tabernacle pointed to a future cleansing when heaven itself and presumably the cosmos will be cleansed by blood – sin’s contamination has been all-pervasive (Hebs 9:23,24). The tight restrictions on access to God also indicate that a greater sacrifice was necessary to open a way into the holiest (Hebs 9:8).

But Lev 16 is not simply a part of ancient ritualistic Judaism. As pointed out earlier, we should remember that Moses had to make the tabernacle with its sacrifices precisely as God instructed because they modelled heavenly realities (Hebs 8:5). Thus God’s throne in the Most Holy Place mirrored God’s throne in heaven (Hebs 9:11). When we read of God’s heavenly throne in Hebrews it is a throne of grace (Hebs 4:16). It is so because Christ has made a once-for-all propitiation for the sins of the people (2:17, 7:27). God’s throne is now for us a mercy seat, a place where we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (4:16). Christ’s acceptance into heaven and his present reign as King-priest in heaven show his blood has secured eternal redemption. (Hebs 9:13-,14). Thus his people have boldness to enter the holiest by the blood of Jesus (Hebs 10:19). We are able to go confidently where the High Priest could go only once a year in fear and trembling. We enter with confidence not because of the measure of personal sanctification attained ‘by the blood of Jesus’.

In all of this we should remember that God’s character remains constant. The picture is not of a vengeful deity being reluctantly placated by a sacrifice we bring. We may ask who provided the sacrificial system that allowed a holy God and a sinful people to co-exist? Who presented Christ as a propitiation or mercy seat (Roms 3:24,25). It was as we saw at the beginning – God. It is always God who takes the initiative in bringing sinners to himself. It is his love for sinners that drives him to provide a sacrifice for sin that will enable him to act in saving righteousness. Propitiation reminds us just how troubling sin is to God. It reminds us that God is deeply and profoundly opposed to sin yet deeply committed to us and went to great lengths to redeem us. The desire to judge and punish is not what drives God but the desire to bless. He was determined that his love would find a way for his throne of judgement to become a throne of grace, a way that his holiness may be satisfied and his people saved… that way was the way of propitiatory sacrifice. John Stott says it well,

‘It cannot be emphasised too strongly that God’s love is the source, not the consequence, of the atonement.… God does not love us because Christ died for us; Christ died for us because God loved us. If it is God’s wrath which needed to be propitiated, it is God’s love which did the propitiating. If it may be said that the propitiation “changed” God, or that by it he changed himself, let us be clear he did not change from wrath to love, or from enmity to grace, since his character is unchanging. What the propitiation changed was his dealings with us…

It is those who cannot come to terms with any concept of the wrath of God who repudiate any concept of propitiation… It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself who in holy love undertook to do the propitiating and God himself who in the person of his Son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us.’

John Stott. The Cross of Christ

We thank God for Jesus, the ‘mercy seat’.

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