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Daniel of Doulogos Name:Daniel
Home: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
About Me: I used to believe that evolution was reasonable, that homosexuality was genetic, and that people became Christians because they couldn't deal with the 'reality' that this life was all there was. I used to believe, that if there was a heaven - I could get there by being good - and I used to think I was more or less a good person. I was wrong on all counts. One day I finally had my eyes opened and I saw that I was not going to go to heaven, but that I was certainly going to suffer the wrath of God for all my sin. I saw myself as a treasonous rebel at heart - I hated God for creating me just to send me to Hell - and I was wretched beyond my own comprehension. Into this spiritual vacuum Jesus Christ came and he opened my understanding - delivering me from God's wrath into God's grace. I was "saved" as an adult, and now my life is hid in Christ. I am by no means sinless, but by God's grace I am a repenting believer - a born again Christian.
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Wednesday, June 02, 2010
The Mercy Seat.
The mercy seat was fashioned to sit on top of the ark of the covenant. While it is a common enough error to imagine that the mercy seat was just the "lid" of the ark of the covenant, it actually was a separate piece. It was placed atop the open ark, but it was not a part of the ark, not simply a fancy lid with a name.

The primary purpose of the ark was to hold the tablets of the covenant. Eventually the staff of Aaron was also placed in the ark, to testify to the fact that God chose Aaron and his descendants to be the priests to Him. Likewise a pot of manna was placed in the ark to testify to God's provision for Israel while they were in the wilderness. The ark therefore held both the promise and the testimony of God's provision for Israel and was set apart (made holy) for this purpose.

The primary purpose of the mercy seat was to act as the seat of God's presence on earth - the "place" where God would meet with Moses "in person" as it were - and this meeting place was intentionally supposed to reside above the artifacts of God's testimony - artifacts that were to reside in the ark of the testimony (i.e. ark of the covenant).

In Hebrew, the mercy seat is called the kapporeth. The word itself favors a translation of "to cover" over a translation of "to expiate" though both translations are possible. The Greek term, hilasterion, in the Septuagint, arguably favors the notion of propitiation/expiation.

Both expiation and propitiation deal with settling the debt of an offence. Consider an innocent person who is randomly attacked by some angry offender. The person is doused in some flammable liquid and set afire so that they experience third degree burns to, let's say, 90% of their body. The perpetrator is caught, and the victim of this act of senseless violence is now in a state of having been "offended" by an "offender" such that until the offence is expiated/propitiated, the victim will continue to be offended.

If it were possible for the victim to be restored to full and perfect health, and even to have all memory of the offence removed; that is, if it were possible to entirely remove all those consequences of the original offence from the victim so that experientially speaking, the offence was entirely removed from the victim - this "cleansing" if you will, would be described as "expiation".

Expiation then overcomes an offence, not by satisfying justice, but rather by cleansing or removing that which was originally offensive.

On the other hand, if victim's memory was not erased, and the damage was not repaired, the offence against the victim (as opposed to the consequences of that offence) could also be satisfied by appropriately punishing the offender. This will satisfy the just outrage of the crime, though not necessarily removing the effects of the crime. This overcoming animosity by appeasing a breach of justice is more rightly called propitiation.

Propitiation then overcomes an offence by satisfying the demands that justice makes when an offence occurs.

To be sure, the notion of expiation as it pertains to scripture, is favored by those who reject the notion that Jesus was bearing any kind of punishment on Calvary. These argue that the idea of "appeasing" a "just" God concerning the offence of sin is pagan in origin and only portrays God as a divine Tyrant.

Likewise, the notion of propitiation, as it pertains to scripture, is favored by those who do not reject the notion that Christ bore some sort of punishment on Calvary. Propitiation here, however, includes the original notion of expiation, that is, they would say that God is propitiated by the death of Christ which is the means by which we are expiated (cleansed) and made acceptable to God.

When the Septuagint calls the mercy seat that sits atop the ark of the covenant the "hilasterion epithema" ( the mercy seat handpiece), it implies that the seat itself is an agent in the process by which expiation/propitiation is being made.

Once each year, on the day of atonement, the high priest came into the Holy of Holies bearing the blood of the sacrificed atonement offering. It was his sacred duty to sprinkle that blood on and before the mercy seat of God. That makes for quite a picture. God's holy presence was so pungent in that place that the slightest infraction in ceremony would result in the immediate death of the high priest. He came into God's presence, as it were, with only God's promises, testimony, and the blood of a sacrifice between himself and God's wrath. If one stops to think about all that had to meet in the holy of holies on the day of atonement we have God on the one side, the sins of Israel coming in through the door, and between the two we have God's promises and testimony concerning those promises, and the blood of the atoning sacrifice. It seems to me, at least, that this is not a picture of expiation, but of propitiation - not a picture of God setting aside justice and offering cleansing, for the justice is answered by the blood of the sacrifice - and it is through this sacrifice that God is appeased, and sin is expiated.

But is this the picture we see in the New Testament?

When Paul uses the term hilasterion in Romans 3:25, most translations do not use the word "mercy seat", though some do (see below):

"sacrifice of atonement" (NIV),
"sacrifice for sin" (NLT),
"propitiation" (ESV, NASB, KJV, AKJV, ASV, ERV, WNT, Geneva)
"atonement" (ISV)
"throne of mercy" (God's Word translation)
"sign of His mercy" (BBE)
"mercy seat" (Darby, YLT, NET)
"atoning sacrifice" (WEB)

The text itself reads (NASB), as follows: "[Jesus Christ] ...whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;"

The only intellectually honest conclusion I can come to is that Paul is portraying Jesus Christ as being whatever it was that the mercy seat in the O.T. pictured. The mercy seat in the Holy of Holies was the only "place" in all the O.T. that God could be satisfied (concerning the sins of Israel). "At" this mercy seat, and only at this seat of God's mercy, sinful Israel was reconciled to God. What Paul is explaining in Romans 3:25 is that Jesus Christ is the only "place" where sinful man can be reconciled to God - the only place where God can be propitiated.

The blood of Christ is not brought before God through the a physical doorway as it was in the OT, but now, Paul writes, this blood is set before God by faith. I will not hesitate at this point, to note that when we speak of blood, we are talking about the life that was spent in its shedding, and not about the fluid itself. That is what scripture means when it says that the life is in the blood. The blood itself has no magical properties, but testifies to the life that was spent.

In this way, therefore, Paul teaches that sinful men are reconciled to God by trusting in God's promises concerning the pouring out of the life of Christ as the only means by which God's righteous wrath against that man's sin can be appeased.

When we speak of the atonement, if we are speaking biblically at least, we are speaking about what it is that accomplished the feat of reconciliation. We are talking about how a sinful man is reconciled to God.

Now there are a few things we need to mention to guard against going all airy-fairy in our theology...

First we need to understand that under the OT system, the high priest was not atoning for the sins of every person in the world. He was -only- atoning for the sins of Israel.

Even that has to be qualified, since Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, makes it plain that not everyone who was born and circumcised as a Jew was considered (by God) to be a *real* Israelite. As far as God was concerned, an Israelite was someone who shared a faith like Abraham's, whether they were born an Israelite, or had joined themselves to the nation of Israel.

So when the high priest went into the holy of holies on the day of atonement, it was to make atonement for the sins of those Israelites whose faith was of the same substance as the faith of Abraham.

To deny that is to invent or revise the very history of redemption. Salvation, we are told, is of the Jews. The O. T. imagery did not save anyone, but pictured a reality that wouldn't be fully articulated until the Messiah came.

Many however have come to interpret the O. T. imagery concerning the atonement as though it were a very hazy, and ill fitting picture. They do not like the idea that the atonement, under the O. T. system, was not made for all of mankind, but only for Israel, and only for the true Israelites. They prefer to think of the atonement in terms of potentiality or provision. They want to see the high priest offer up the blood of the atonement sacrifice in order to generate a sort of indiscriminating potential reconciliation, an avenue made available to all men everywhere, by and through which any person could be atoned for, if that person exercised faith.

The problem I have with that notion is that the only way I have ever seen these ideas in the text or the context is when I first presume them to be there. I believe the emperor has new clothes, and so I see them when I look for them. Once I project the idea onto the text, I can not only interpret this text or that text to mean something other than what it plainly says, I can use that to bolster similar interpretations into subsequent texts.

There is a lot of debate today about the scope of the atonement. People have strong opinions about whether Jesus died for everyone that was ever born, or whether Jesus died only for those who would eventually be saved.

I regard this debate as largely a red herring, since most of the people I have heard argue one way or the other in this debate couldn't give a biblically solid definition of what the atonement actually is. They have a sort of general or indistinct understanding, they know that Jesus died for sin, and they know that God saves sinners, and that God loves the world, and they toss it all into their own theological stew, give it a stir, and then argue zealously from a position which for themselves is actually resting on an inarticulate hodgepodge of settled, but vague ideas.

When I first began to study biblical Greek, I remember shaking my head over a sudden, clarifying reality. I had heard, or read, just as you all have, how godly and apparently learned men argued on both sides of a debate about which translation was better/best. When I began to study Greek, I found that while the arguments were more erudite and high falutin, they were otherwise no better than those same arguments amongst less godly/learned men.

In fact, one of the things I hear often enough to gall me, is the old stand by that godly men on both sides of an issue have debated such and such a point, and are still debating that point today. I suppose that I am supposed to infer from this that it is pointless to discuss anything that men disagree on, because, apparently, there will never be any resolution.

I say it galls me because it is clearly a demonic wisdom. It may be that both sides in any debate or argument are wrong in whole or in part, but it cannot be that both parties are right in things that they disagree about. If one party is defending a truth, and the other a lie or a deception, it is never okay to set aside discussion in the matter on the grounds that you probably won't resolve it because men godlier and more learned than yourself have failed to resolve it.

First of all, iron only sharpens the iron it is being used against. The purpose of discussing things you disagree about is not to bring the entire world into an universally harmonious opinion that flows from one side or the other. It is to sharpen one another, and to correct wooden-headed thinking. Godly and learned men have this in common with less godly and less learned men - they are sinners, and owe anything they rightly understand, not to their godliness or learning, but to God who has shown them mercy. Thus I couldn't give a donkey's ear if someone more godly or more learned than myself has debated an issue, since it is neither godliness nor learning that opens our eyes, but the grace of God in the person of the Holy Spirit. How many fools, and I use the word with all terrible intent, have stumbled at this idea that they must not discuss theologically difficult ideas because other men have failed to find resolution in the matter? Good gravy!

So just as I found the same kind of arguments that riddled the debate over English translations reborn in more erudite dress amongst those who studied the Greek, I likewise find that those who have the presence of mind to step above the arguments concerning the scope of the atonement, to examine the atonement itself, bring the same arguments along with them.

For though I labor to explain what the atonement is, I do not doubt that there are some who do not see it as I have laid it out, and would argue passionately to say that I am mistaken and in error, and teaching the fruit that rises thereof.

I am speaking now, not of the scope of the atonement, but of its nature. Did the blood of the atonement offering in the Old Testament make people right with God, or was the blood only a necessary piece of a greater, atonement puzzle?

You see, some might argue that the blood of the atonement offering was only "effective" for those whose faith was like the faith of Abraham. They would write that atonement happens according to the formula: Faith + Blood = Atonement. Thus this shed blood was applied to (and available for) all of mankind, but only became effective in producing actual atonement when it was applied by and through faith.

I remember, in my childhood, mashing together pieces from a puzzle that didn't quite fit. It wasn't that I was malevolently trying to ruin the puzzle, rather I just thought this was the right piece and that the only reason it was not fitting easily and cleanly was because of some imperfection in the original cutting of the pieces. In the same way, when I hear that kind of understanding of the atonement - that it is some universal thing offered up to all, and pregnant with potential, though impotent unless applied through some other means - I am reminded of those puzzle pieces that almost fit, but don't really belong there.

First of all, what the high priest did on the day of atonement is never, ever described in scripture as providing a means of, or opportunity for, atonement. It is always described as "making atonement" - or said in less ambiguous language "accomplishing" atonement. When Jesus cried out, "It is finished!" was He referring to His own suffering ("My suffering is over!")? Was He referring to providing the world with a potential benefit ("I have finished bringing a potential reconciliation into the world!")? Again, the idea isn't that something had merely ended, but that something was accomplished.

The idea that what was accomplished on Calvary was the instantiation of a potential/conditional solution to sin - the opening of an indiscriminating and impersonal avenue, if you will, by which any person could be reconciled to God, if they so desired, is actually more than just popular, it is the majority opinion.

Most Christians think of the atonement in this way - Jesus' death atoned for all the sins of the world, but that atoning work is only applied to those who by faith and repentance, are reconciled to God.

According to this view, the benefits of Jesus's death are available to every man woman and child who was ever, and will ever be, born, because Jesus "died for" every man woman and child. Many, though not all, in this camp would argue that Jesus' death likewise makes it possible for any sinner to seek God without God first enabling them personally to do so, in this way, salvation is made "possible" for as many people as hear the gospel. They would argue that the death of Christ "pays for sins" but even though the death is applied to all men, women, and children, it is only effective (legally speaking) for those who believe on Jesus.

I have a few problems with the notion that "Jesus died for everyone".

Under this scheme justice is being satisfied through adequate compensation. That kind of thinking works fine in a situation where the debt is impersonal and justice itself is not an issue. If a car is stolen, and the owner is financially reimbursed, as long as the owner feels that the compensation was sufficient, the owner will be "satisfied". That kind of system falls apart when the crime is say, the brutal murder and rape of a daughter. What parent will be pacified by having their murdered daughter "replaced" by a new daughter of equal value? Here we see the truth of sin's debt - for it cannot be made impersonal. Nothing but the restored life of the daughter will satisfy as compensation - and even if that compensation were possible, the outrage over the act of violence will not be overcome by mere compensational equity.

The idea that Jesus death provides a kind of universal currency comes about when people have to deal with a passage like 1 John 2:2. There we read this of Jesus, "...He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."

Doesn't it seem to say, reading it plainly and literally, that Jesus is the propitiation for everyone's sins? Anyone who understands what propitiation means, understands that propitiation and atonement are one and the same, here then the text seems to plainly say that Jesus is the "propitiation" of the sins of everyone in the world.

Some would argue that the "whole world" here is an hyperbole. They would say that this is just a colourful exaggeration intended to signify many people, but not all people. They would point to examples like when the high priest Caiaphas said that all the world had gone after Christ. Since not every man, woman, and child had gone after Christ, we understand it as an hyperbolic expression. Some would argue that way I suppose, and not without merit. This sort of language is almost always hyperbolic, and any argument in that direction has quite a head start when given an honest hearing. What John wrote here can easily fits the hyperbole mold. John, they would argue, simply means to say that Jesus is not only the propitiation for the sins of those whom John denotes by the word "our" but is also the propitiation for everyone else who ever happens to be saved etc.

I think that is certainly possible, and may even be the intended meaning. But it isn't really necessary to make an argument about the intended scope of the phrase "also for those [sins] of the whole world" - since we have the word propitiation to guide us.

The word used here is not the same as is found in Romans 3:25, though they do share a common ancestry. Here the word is hilasmos, and it refers specifically to the removal of guilt, and in the context, the removal of guilt that is directly associated with those who are confessing their sin, as we read in 1 John 1:8. John is not abandoning what he just said in favor of introducing something new. When John talks about Jesus being the propitiation for sin, he is explaining why God is just in forgiving the sins of those who confess their sins - God is just because Jesus =is= the propitiation for our sins, and not ours only, but also for the sins of everyone in the whole world who likewise confesses their sins. That is the only consistent way to understand this passage.

I don't marvel that some people miss it at first, but I do marvel when those people who do miss it, replace it with something that totally misses the boat; and worse, go on to interpret other passages according to this same, confused (and wrong) understanding.

In summary, the mercy seat in the old testament was something God provided, and was intended as the "place" where men could be reconciled to God through means of a propitiating sacrifice. That sacrifice, ultimately was the life of Jesus Christ, and the propitiation itself was not universal in scope, but peculiar to those who were of a like faith to Abraham's, that is, peculiar to those who confessed themselves sinners and placed their faith in the promises of God as demonstrated through and by the provision of God, most notably, in Christ.

The atonement is an accomplished work of propitiation, such that every person who was ever atoned for, has had God's wrath against their sin satisfied on account of their having become partakers in the death and resurrection of Christ. God's righteous wrath has already been spent, once and for all time, on the sins of those who are in Christ, and that pouring out of wrath happened 2000 years ago on Calvary.

Those who are not in Christ when they die (or are alive when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead) will themselves propitiate God's wrath by personally receiving the wages of their sin - a pouring out of God's wrath upon themselves - condemnation that is described in scripture as the second death. This will not gain these same an entrance into heaven because, while their eternal suffering will satisfy God's wrath, they will not have the sinless life of Christ applied to themselves by which a man is reconciled to God. That is, they will make their own propitiation to satisfy God's wrath concerning their sin - but this will by no means reconcile them to God, it will only appease God's wrath.

The atonement was not and is not a universally supplied, "infinite" bucket out of which some grab their atonement, and others let theirs go to waste. It is rather an accomplished propitiation that forever reconciles a sinner to God. Only those who are in Christ are atoned for. Those who are not in Christ were not atoned for.

This doesn't mean that we have to change our gospel (unless, of course, you are telling unregenerate sinners that Jesus died for them). If you preach that Jesus died to reconcile penitent sinners to God through faith, keep on keeping on. If you preach that Jesus will save whosoever will come - keep on preaching it. But if you preach that Jesus has already paid for your sins, you are preaching something that isn't found in scripture. The gospel is not, "Jesus died for you" it is, "Repent and believe, and you will be saved!"

Having said all that, people who don't rightly understand the atonement can still be ardent, godly, kingdom minded believers. That is, however, no excuse for allowing confusion and wrong-headed theology to continue. If a person is a godly soul and clinging to wrong-headed theology - imagine how they might shine if they had their thinking straight!

Labels: , , , ,

posted by Daniel @ 2:57 PM  
9 Comments:
  • At 2:59 PM, June 02, 2010, Blogger Daniel said…

    I plan to post shortly on the error of supposing that love obliges grace.

     
  • At 2:59 PM, June 02, 2010, Blogger Daniel said…

    sorry about the length also.

     
  • At 9:11 PM, June 02, 2010, OpenID mustardreed said…

    thanks for your reply Dan, no need to apologize for length. It actually tied in quite nicely with our class discussion today which looked at Rom 3:25 and the meaning of hilasterion. Not sure if I will be able to reply fully before the class is done. I forwarded your blog post to my prof. I look forward to your post on love. I suppose any complete answer to the question of whether and how God loves the non-elect, to use that term would need careful qualification. I think you are spiralling into the answer to my question in the narrow sense and giving good and relevant information along the way in the broad answer - thankyou.

    word verification: unshloch

     
  • At 11:07 PM, June 02, 2010, Blogger JIBBS said…

    Daniel, do you think it's a stretch to say it's a good hermeneutic to always compare and contrast the Old Testament types with New Testament fulfillment and draw conclusions as you've done here?

    For example, the High Priest in the OT offered sacrifice once a year for the sins of the people of Israel, not the whole world. Therefore, the Priesthood of Jesus Christ is also limited in scope in some way. However, where the sins of the people in the OT could never be expiated through the blood of bulls and goats, Christ's sacrifice perfected forever those who are His.

    Anyway, it seems to me that Hebrews, especially Chapter 10, absolutely verifies your thoughts and is incompatible with any other understanding of the atonement.

     
  • At 11:53 PM, June 02, 2010, Blogger Daniel said…

    Matt,

    I would say that it could be a stretch.

    It is one thing to go to the OT and examine something that the NT tells you was put together that way in the OT so as to picture/foreshadow something that would eventually come with the Messiah, and quite another thing to pick and choose OT themes and try and marry them to NT themes when the link you are trying to establish is not stated clearly in the NT.

    So insofar as one is looking to the OT for light on something the NT claims was foreshadowed in the OT - I would say it is not only a good hermeneutic, but a necessary one. Yet in places where one has to speculate or create a link between the two that isn't clearly stated on both sides as one picturing the other, I would say one should proceed with extreme caution.

    Paul showed that when God commanded that to refrain from muzzling the ox that treads the grain, that His concern was not limited to oxen, but was instead establishing a universal truism and simply using the ox that treads the grain as a metaphor for that truism. In this way, I think we can find truisms mentioned in the NT that can be found in the OT - but such is not the scope, I think, of what you're mentioning.

    I think if you understand the day of atonement as portraying the death of Christ, and the year that led up to it as representing all of redemptive history you will then be able to see each year as a brand new foreshadowing of redemptive history, and the once for all sacrifice that was to come. The fact that this imagery was repeated shouldn't cause us to conclude that what it pictured was something that would be repeated, rather we should conclude that repeating the exact same imagery every year was picturing something that was going to come only once, but was extremely important - so important that the imagery that portrayed it, did so in a way that demonstrated it as going to be a one timer.

    I should read that old book of Hebrews. Lots of good stuff there.

     
  • At 11:54 PM, June 02, 2010, Blogger Daniel said…

    D.M.

    I hope your prof isn't all weird. LOL!

     
  • At 11:58 PM, June 06, 2010, Blogger JIBBS said…

    Thank you, Dan. Your point about the cyclical nature of OT sacrificial system helps answer it for me. I love Hebrews. Been reading it a lot lately since the atonement has been a hot button issue with most folks I run into.

     
  • At 7:27 AM, June 07, 2010, Blogger Daniel said…

    Matt,

    I find that the atonement itself is imagined by some to be impenetrably soupy, so that they feel justified both in [1] having a sloppy/incomplete understanding of what the atonement is, and again, [2] what its scope is.

    I taught on this on Sunday, I would direct you to the audio, but it isn't up on our church site yet.

     
  • At 11:42 PM, June 07, 2010, Blogger JIBBS said…

    Let me know when you get it up. Would love to listen. :)

     
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