“AN ATONING SACRIFICE”
The NIV refers to Christ as “an atoning sacrifice” or “sacrifice of atonement”, while other translations used words such as “propitiation”, a term almost never heard in conversation outside a theological context.
These expressions are translations of a small group of words related to mercy which together occur only eight times in the NT (three times in Hebrews).
The Greek word hileos originally meant cheerful, or joyous and eventually acquired the additional meaning of benevolent, gracious or merciful. It occurs twice in the NT.
- Matt 16:22 “Never, Lord”. The Greek here is hileos soi, Kyrie and literally means, “Be merciful to yourself, Lord”.
- Heb 8:12 (quoting Jer 31:31-34) “I will forgive their wickedness” or “I will be merciful with regard to their iniquities” or “I will pardon them”.
- Rom 3:25 “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.”
- Heb 9:5 “Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover.”
It was from between the cherubim above the mercy seat where God spoke to Moses (Num 7:89). The Holy of Holies was later referred to as the house of the kapporet (1 Chron 28:11).
God was said to be “enthroned between the cherubim” i.e. above the lid of the Ark (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chron 13:6; Psalm 80:1; 99:1; Isa 37:16).
The Hebrew word kapporet is derived from a primitive root kaphar meaning “to cover”. While it refers literally to a cover the word also figuratively refers to the covering of sin, hence condone, forgive, be merciful, pacify, pardon, purge (away), reconcile, or make atonement. This has led to some confusion about whether the hilasterion in Rom 3:25 refers to the mercy seat, or to the “sacrifice of atonement” whose blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement. The word kapporet in Hebrew always referred to the lid or cover of the Ark, and the only other place where the word occurs in the NT (Heb 9:5) it is undeniably referring to the literal lid of the Ark of the Covenant (“place of atonement” NIV).
In a similar way the Greek word thysiasterion (from thysiazo = to sacrifice) means an altar or place of sacrifice. The word does not refer to the sacrifices themselves. Hence hilasterion refers to the place where God met His people, not to the blood sprinkled there. The NIV translation “sacrifice of atonement” in Rom 3:25 is clearly wrong. Paul is actually saying that Christ is the true meeting place between God and His people, of which the mercy seat above the Ark was a type. It was through Christ that God’s mercy was demonstrated. Christ now occupies the place that the mercy seat occupied in the OT - the central place where reconciliation occurs that restores the relationship between God and his people so that they “meet” together.
As God “sat enthroned between the Cherubim” above the mercy seat, so “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form … the head over every principality and authority” (Col 2:9-10). The risen and exalted Christ is the embodiment of God’s kingly authority.
The Greek word hilasterion is derived from hiloskomai which also occurs in only two places in the NT.
- Luke 18:13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.
- Heb 2:17 “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”
The word is used in the Septuagint of Psalm 79:9 “deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake”. In his story about the tax collector Jesus went on to say “I tell you that this man, rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God” (v. 14). The Pharisee’s attitude was fairly typical and is reflected in a story in the Talmud about a rabbi who was confident that if the saved numbered only “a hundred, I and my son are among them; and if only two, they are I and my son” (b. Sukkah 45b). Paul similarly declared himself “as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phil 3:6). This parable demonstrated that what matters to God is a reliance on His mercy, and declares that human self-righteousness is of no benefit.
A footnote in the NIV to Heb 2:17 offers an alternative translation: “and that he might turn aside God’s wrath, taking away the sins of the people”. However, there is no reference in the context to an appeasement of an angry deity and God is not said to be the recipient of an atonement. In my view the NIV footnote here is simply wrong and without any support. The KJV’s “to make reconciliation for” works better within the context. Jesus is said to be a “merciful [Gk. eleemon, compassionate, merciful] and faithful high priest”. The next verse says: “because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (v. 18). The best way to interpret hiloskomai in this context would be to say that Jesus is a compassionate and faithful high priest, able to empathise with His people, to help them and have mercy on their sins.
Finally we come to the word hilasmos which is translated in the NIV as “atoning sacrifice” and in the KJV as “propitiation”. We have seen that the central concept of this word-group is mercy and so when we come to look at the two occurrences of this word in the NT we should expect to see something of the same emphasis.
- 1 John 2:2 “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
- 1 John 4:10 “… he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
So in 1 John we should read the word hilasmos in the sense of our sins being covered: “He is the covering for our sins …” There is a similar thought in James 5:20: “whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” and 1 Peter 4:8: “love covers over a multitude of sins”. Both writers are almost certainly alluding to Proverbs 10:12 “love covers over all wrongs”. Here the Greek word for “cover(s) over” is kalypto which translates the Hebrew kasah - the words are different but the concept is the same. In these texts the writers are referring to human forgiveness covering over sins in others, while in 1 John 2:20 and 4:10 the writer is referring to God sending His Son to cover our sins.
In all these texts we find the fundamental principle is one of God’s mercy, covering over our sins and forgiving them. There is nothing in the context or the meanings of the words themselves to suggest that Christ’s death was necessary to “appease” a God who was angry or wrathful, or to satisfy any of God’s demands. The translators have sometimes (especially in the NIV) interpreted the words rather than literally translated them and have consequently given us a misleading translation. By interpreting some of the words in this group as “sacrifice of atonement” and “atoning sacrifice” they have also wrongly inserted the concept of “sacrifice” into texts where it does not belong. The death of Christ has therefore been wrongly viewed in a similar way to the sacrifices (sometimes human) which were offered to pagan gods to turn away their wrath. To the contrary, Christ demonstrated the love, mercy and graciousness of God and revealed Him as a God which was quite unlike the pagan gods who demanded sacrifices to appease them. By contrast, God’s love is generous and abundant (“not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world”). And by juxtaposing “sacrifice” and “atonement” the translators have also given the wrong impression that “atonement” (to be “at one” with God) or “reconciliation” comes only through a human sacrifice - a totally unBiblical concept.