The English translation of “propitiation” from the Greek, hilastērion, occurs four times in the New Testament: Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2, and 1 John 4:10. Though this may seem limited, the concept itself is scattered throughout the New Testament beginning with Jesus. He taught his disciples that he “must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priest and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt 16:21; cf. Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22) because he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; cf. Matt 20:28). Jesus knew that through him God’s wrath would be turned away explaining what happens if people do not obey him when he said, “Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36b). Jesus, the Christ, God incarnate (John 1:1, 14) understood that he was the one who would free mankind from its sins as his propitiatory sacrifice ushered in an expansion of atonement and God’s favor across national boundaries—so both Jew and Gentile could participate (Eph 2:15-16)—and also time boundaries—from the temporal to eternal—all summed up well in his words, “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, emphasis added).
This introduces issues of continuity and discontinuity between the OT and NT, which can be addressed partially in looking at Paul’s use of “propitiation” in Romans 3:25. Leading up to this section (Rom 3:21-26), Paul establishes convincingly that both Jew and Gentile alike are totally depraved as sinners who deserve nothing both the utter wrath of God (1:18-3:20). In a loose way, this echoes back to the Passover in Exodus as God’s judgment and wrath was not partial, but applied to everyone (cf. Ex 12:12-13). Thus Paul writes, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (vv. 22b-23). And just like the Passover, but with greater implications, Paul continues to say that those who believe “are justified by his [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 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” (vv. 24-25; cf. 1 John 4:10). Christ’s shed blood averts the wrath of God as with the Passover, yet in receiving him by the faith the individual is also justified and redeemed. Furthermore, Paul’s use of “propitiation” in this context most likely describes Jesus as the “mercy seat” found in the tabernacle, which provides overtones to the Day of Atonement.
Advancing the theme further is the writer of Hebrews, who states, “Therefore, he [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (2:17). This clear reference to the Day of Atonement establishes Jesus as “high priest,” yet he was different from all others. For one, his offering did not include making propitiation for his own sins because he was without sin (Heb 4:16). Secondly, the propitiatory sacrifice made was not an animal, but Jesus himself! Here we see the reference back to Genesis where God provides the sacrifice, but in this instance it is God’s flesh being given up. The writer of Hebrews writes that our great high priest Jesus,
Entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (vv. 12-14)The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was infinitely superior to those of animals, which could never take away sins (Heb 10:4), making him “the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance” (v. 15). Also, Jesus’ propitiation was greater than the others in that it was ultimate; there is no longer a need for an annual atonement because he offered himself up as the final, everlasting atonement (Heb 10:11-17). Finally, the faithfulness of Jesus’ offering should be noted as it contrasts the vain sacrifices made in much of Israel’s history who came only to do the will of his Father (Matt 26:36-44) and who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).
Therefore Jesus’ propitiatory sacrifice is continuous with the Old Testament insomuch as the Old Testament allows with its partial fulfillment of propitiation, yet it is gloriously discontinuous in that Christ’s sacrifice is offered to all mankind (1 John 2:2), once for all satisfying the wrath of God, placing those who put their faith in him in God’s eternal favor. Jesus is the perfect sacrificial Lamb of God, the only who can take away the sins of the world (John 1:29) and who, along with God, is the temple of the new creation, filling it entirely with their glorious presence (Rev 21:22-27) where there is no more crying, no more mourning, no more pain, no more sin, no more shame, and no more death (Rev 21:4). Jesus Christ as our propitiatory sacrifice is the greatest gift of God’s grace mankind has ever known.
By His Grace.