The Cross: God’s Eternal Mercy Seat – Brad Jersak
The celebration of Easter this month once again places the Cross of Christ and his resurrection front and center of our faith, as they should be. These events comprise a hinge-point in the human story and what theologians have called “salvation history.” The New Testament witness not only records what occurred but also reflects upon the meaning of those occurrences as good news—our gospel.
Unveiling the meaning of the crucifixion is of particular importance to the apostles, because they are convinced that it spelled more than a tragic end to the life of Jesus. Somehow, the Cross is essential groundwork for the reconciliation of all people and the restoration of all things. To make their case, the first Christians developed a constellation of words, images, and analogies—leaning heavily on how their Jewish backstory anticipated a Messiah who suffers and dies before entering his glory.
One such word-picture comes from the Greek term hilasterion. John the beloved disciple writes that Jesus “is the hilasterion for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). In Romans 3:25, Paul speaks of Jesus, “whom God put forward as a hilasterion by his blood.” The big question is what hilasterion means and how best to translate it.
Some Bibles render the word propitiation, others expiation, and still others atoning sacrifice. Such terms tend to be obscure or worse—they seem to suggest an appeasing sacrifice toward a wrathful God. So our readers are right to ask, “What do you make of this in light of a nonviolent God?”
What an important question! Especially when readers are so often at the mercy of the theology of translators. That’s why it’s good to compare Bible translations and check in with those who have more time to dig a little deeper.
We need to carefully assess a specifically gospel approach to translating hilasterion. Pagan religions in Jesus’ day could use that term to describe:
a. propitiation: offering sacrifices to their gods to avert their wrath and gain their favor, in which case, the gods were reconciled to them, or…
b. expiation: their gods could remove whatever offense was alienating the people, so that the people were reconciled to the gods.
In the 20th century, Christian theologians argued these senses of hilasterion from either side. Most famously, C.H. Dodd argued that God expiated (removed, washed away) our sin (by forgiveness) to reconcile us to himself. Meanwhile, Leon Morris argued that Jesus was the sacrifice
of propitiation that appeased God’s wrath so God could be reconciled to
us (hence the phrase “penal substitutionary atonement”).
But here’s the thing: to begin with, we’re NOT pagans. For us, the backstory for the Christian use of hilasterion is NOT pagan sacrificial religion. The word was also used frequently by God’s people in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), which was composed before the time of Christ and cited in the New Testament.
THE MERCY SEAT
In the Septuagint, hilasterion primarily refers to the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant.