So I started a series of posts explaining a biblical theology of the doctrine of propitiation. This began over a month ago, but all blogging ceased since that time due to inclement weather, which caused my fingers to freeze, disabling my ability to type. Only recently have they thawed allowing me the chance to finish this up. I will be posting the rest of them up today, but if you are interested in the previous posts, click here for part 1 and here for part 2.
I continue by tracing through other vital Old Testament passages, before moving into the New Testament. I conclude with reflections, both for myself and for the world.
The Passover & The Day of Atonement
Sacrifices continued to be made throughout early biblical history, most notably in God’s covenant with Abram (Gen 15) and the ram that took the place of Isaac in Abraham’s testing (Gen 22), but neither of these contribute to the development of propitiation in ways that have not already been addressed. The two passages that do warrant attention are those that include the two most significant sacrifices in the history of Israel, the first Passover in Exodus and the institution of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus.
The Passover (Ex. 12:1-32) refers to the tenth and final plague on Egypt right before the Exodus, the most significant event in Israel’s history up to the time of Christ, including “over 120 explicit OT references in law, narrative, prophecy and psalm.” By mere adjacency in the story, the Passover should be seen as a key section in the Old Testament. This tenth and final plague of God relates the story of God passing through the land of Egypt to “strike the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast (v.12), yet also “passing over” the households of Israel which had blood spread on the doorposts and lintel (vv. 3-7, 13). In the narrative, Moses commands the elders of Israel to follow exactly as the Lord says, thus the firstborn of Israel live, while the rest of Egypt suffers immensely to the extent that “there was not a house where someone was not dead” (v. 30). The Passover was an event, but it also became a memorial day on which a feast was to be had in remembrance of what God did (vv. 14-20, 26-27).
At the center of was the unblemished lamb and its blood. The final plague included all firstborns, both Egyptian and Israelite; God’s wrath and judgment was impartial. The only thing that distinguished Israel was the slaughtered lamb’s blood on the lintel and doorposts; without this sign, judgment would have fallen on them. Watts suggests, “The special instructions regarding the animal indicate that Passover is an atoning sacrifice.” The salvific, propitious nature of the lamb’s slaughter and blood should not be ignored as the meaning of sacrifice deepened for the nation of Israel at such a crucial juncture in its history, a meaning they would have been reminded of as often as they celebrated the Passover feast. It is no surprise then that Jesus Christ himself is considered the Passover Lamb by several New Testament writers (John 1:29, 36; 1 Cor 5:7b; 1 Pet 1:19) culminating in the book of Revelation as the slain Lamb who is praised and worshiped (5:6-16).
Although the first Passover lamb was propitious, the annual Passover feast was for remembrance, not atonement. As the people of Israel became a more solidified nation, God implemented a sacrificial system, which included atoning sacrifices (Lev 1:1-6:7). The most important sacrifice, however, was made on the Day of Atonement, instituted by God at Mt. Sinai (Lev 16:1-34), Israel’s most solemn holy day when the entire nation fasted (v. 31). Only on this day once a year, the high priest alone was to enter the Most Holy Place through the veil which separated it from the Holy Place with the blood of a bull as a sin offering for him and his house along with the blood of a goat for the sins of the people (vv. 11-15) and by this he will have atoned for his sins and the sins of all the people for the entire year (v. 34). So running concurrently with the growing identity of Israel as a nation was the explicit nature of sacrifice, which contained an atoning purpose, “for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev 17:11).
The brief study of Genesis established that sin provokes the wrath of God and brings death and this did not change for the Israelites; they were responsible to God for their sin, deserving his wrath and their own death. The fact that God established a sacrificial system and a Day of Atonement is further testimony to his love, grace, and mercy, as he allowed an animal to be substituted on behalf of the people who sinned against him. Yet as the story of God’s chosen people progresses what becomes transparent is that sacrifices are offered up to God in vain, neglecting God’s call for repentance and obedience of the heart (1 Sam 15:22; Ps 51:16-17; Isa 66:3; Amos 5:21-24; Mic 6:6-8), with God remaining wrathful. Though this is the case, God established the statute of the Day of Atonement forever (Lev 16:31), ultimately being fulfilled forever through the final Day of Atonement, namely Jesus Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross. The writer of Hebrews picks up on this, with Christ as the archetype of both the high priest and the perfect sacrifice entering into the holy places once for all to atone for the sins of mankind with his own blood (Heb 9:11-14).
More on this will be discussed in the next section, but for now what is important to know is that the theme of propitiation is fully developed in the Old Testament as early as the Passover, but more explicitly with the giving of the law and the establishment of the Day of Atonement. As mentioned previously the people of Israel continued to miss the point of this gracious gift God had given, hypocritically offering sacrifices while remaining in sin. So God, in his great patience, yet soberly warning, says through the prophet Malachi to close the OT canon, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (4:5-6).
By His Grace.