"Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood."--Rom. 3:25
"Happy is he alone, to whom the Lord does not impute transgression--to have Him propitious to me against whom alone I have sinned. When my soul is troubled with the view of my sinfulness, I look at Your mercy, and am refreshed." –Bernard, 1123.
"The Everlasting God be praised! We have a remedy and a sure helper. Christ the Son of the living God has fulfilled the law for us, to deliver us from sin." –Latimer, 1546.
"Under this shadow, O my soul, refresh yourself. If your sins fear the hand of justice, behold your sanctuary; if your offences tremble before the Judge, behold your Advocate ; if your creditor threatens a prison, behold your bail. Behold the Lamb of God, that has taken your sins from you." –Francis Quarles, 1592.
"Sprinkled with His atoning blood,
Safely before our God we stand;
As in the Rock the Prophet stood,
Beneath His shadowing hand." –Keble.
A similar cleft in the same Great Rock--a kindred subject to that which it was our endeavor to unfold in the preceding chapter, invites our thoughts in the present. It would be easy, indeed, to limit ourselves to a cursory examination of these views of sacrifice and oblation in the outer court of the Earthly, before we pass within the veil of the Heavenly Temple, with its redeemed worshipers and ministering seraphim. But we deem it needful, in the first instance, to have our confidence well assured on the procuring cause of all that wealth of present privilege and future bliss--to see and acknowledge the Divine necessity there was, in bringing many sons unto glory, that the Captain of their salvation be made perfect through suffering. Unless the Rock had been "stricken," "smitten of God," there could have been no 'clefts' in it. Take away the sacrificial element from the Incarnation of the Redeemer, and you sweep from beneath the feet every stable and reliable ground of confidence and safety. Let others speak slightingly and disparagingly of "dead dogma," and affect the possession of breadth and liberality of sentiment in rejecting with a sneer what they presume to call "special theories of atonement." Be it ours rather, with humble reliance on the teaching of that Spirit promised to "guide into all truth," to have our faith on such great foundation verities "grounded and settled;" and conscious of having attained a sure footing on what cannot be shaken, to be able to say, in the simple couplet of the well-known hymn–
"On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is shifting sand."
Once more, then, under another form, let our thoughts revert to the central, kernel doctrine of our most holy faith--CHRIST THE PROPITIATION, "Whom God has set forth to be" (not merely the Ideal of human perfection, the Manifestation of a life of stainless virtue and sublime self-sacrifice, but) "a Propitiation through faith in His blood."
That word "Propitiation" occurs only three times in the New Testament--in the present passage of Paul's Roman Epistle, and twice in the Epistles of John. The original word, as is well known, refers to the lid of the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle or Temple. It is the same expression which is found in the ninth chapter of Hebrews, and there rendered "mercy-seat"--"The Cherubims of glory shadowing the mercy-seat;" or as it is more faithfully, perhaps, translated in most of the old versions of the English Bible by the word propitiatory.
This covering of the ark was made of fragrant acacia-wood. Its lining and corner-pieces were of pure beaten gold. It was protected by the overshadowing wings of the Cherubim; while the Shekinah, or symbol of the Divine Presence, in its dreadful cloudy splendor, rested between. Once every year (on the Great Day of Atonement) the Jewish High Priest entered the Holiest of all. The warm blood of the slain victim, sprinkled on the "Propitiatory," flowed down on the pavement, where he stood as the officiating representative of the nation. The root word (the verb) from which the term Propitiation in the original is derived, signifies "to appease wrath," "to turn away anger."
It speaks of an offence, and an offender; and the typical "Propitiatory sacrifice" comes as a shield, or guard, between the offender on the one hand, and the Being offended on the other. It is scarcely needful to pause, in order to explain the expressive symbol; and how the Israelitish type is fulfilled and illustrated in the person and official work of the Divine Antitype. As we found in the previous chapter, God's law has been dishonored, its sacredness violated, its penalties incurred. Let us not be misunderstood. We must fastidiously guard, as most derogatory to His glory, against the use of language that would, by remotest implication, impute to the Great Supreme anything analogous to those vindictive passions resident in the human bosom. He is "offended," because of the infinite holiness and rectitude of His nature. He must, as a moral Governor, uphold intact and without compromise, every jot and tittle of His law, and maintain the honor and majesty of His Throne. His justice and righteousness dare not be impeached in the eyes of the other sections of His vast empire.
Darius the King, we read, made a decree, and set his royal seal to it. It led to the inevitable destruction of an innocent man. That night, sleep was banished from the royal pillow--no sound of harp or flute or dulcimer was heard, during those gloomy watches, within the palace walls. He had "labored until the going down of the sun to deliver Daniel;" but all in vain. Why in vain? Why might not that Eastern despot, whose will was law, have in a moment ordered the release of the captive Jew? No, "Know, O King, that the law of the Medes and Persians is, that no decree nor statute which the King establishes, may be changed." In a far higher, loftier, more solemn sense is this true of Him by whom kings reign. The statutes of the Eternal are unchangeable. "A man's heart devises his (own) way," but "the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand." The pillars of His Throne have immutability to rest upon; and "though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished."
But the blood of the Great Surety has been shed; the Lamb for the burnt-offering has been immolated (sacrificed); the Veil is rent in twain; the prophetic hymn of the angels at Messiah's birth has had its exalted strains fulfilled--while glory has been secured to God in the highest, peace has been proclaimed on earth, and goodwill to men. And now, as the sinner stands, like the High Priest of old, in front of the Mercy-seat, we see, significantly symbolized, at once the offence, the offender, and the Great Propitiation. Inside the ark were deposited, among other sacred things, the two tables of stone, on which are inscribed the words of the Eternal decalogue. That law demands satisfaction. Had it not been for the lid of which we have just spoken, these imprisoned commandments would leap like fiery swords from their scabbards, and mingle the worshiper's blood with his sacrifices. Like a shield, however, the Propitiatory intervenes!
Even in its material adornments it was typical; the acacia-wood was emblematic of the real humanity of the Divine Propitiator; moreover, the fragrant acacia-wood pointed significantly to His purity and sinlessness; while the golden border and golden clasps at the corners, with equal impressiveness symbolized His Deity--the Deity and Humanity conjoined, but not blended or intermixed. Behold, then, we repeat, the sinner within that dreadful sanctuary--the law unabrogated, unrepealed, uttering its denunciation--"The soul that sins, it must die!" The Cherubim bending over the mercy-seat, appear, as they point to its symbolic covering, to proclaim the words which head this chapter--"Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation!" While the worshiper, through his representative, drawing near with the blood in his hand--sprinkling it above the mercy-seat, and before the mercy-seat, until the purple stream falls on the floor, offers the plea as he points to the Propitiatory--"Behold our shield, look on the face of Your anointed."
Or, again, in still more impressive words--"God be merciful to me a sinner." We say, in more impressive words; for it is remarkable and well worthy of note, that in this prayer of the Tax-collector, the verb translated "be merciful" corresponds with the Greek for "propitiation." "Be propitious," he cries; but it is mercy by sacrifice; it is mercy through the atoning blood of the Great Surety. Blessed meeting-place between offending man and an offended God!
If we can venture for a moment to personify the attribute of JUSTICE, we see her clad in vestments of stainless purity, with the sword in one hand and the balances of equity in the other. As we follow her within the Veil, we behold her standing by the Propitiatory with sheathed weapon, side by side with Mercy. We can hear her, within the very shadow of the decalogue, uttering the glorious words--"The Just God, yet the Savior;" "the just, yet the Justifier"--yes, singing in concert the special song of the sister attribute, "O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, because His MERCY endures forever!"
Before we close, let us note the special declaration made by the apostle regarding this divine Propitiation, "Whom God has set forth" a word which in the original means "set publicly apart," "manifested publicly for some great end or object." There are many ways which will suggest themselves, in which the Eternal Father, the Originator of the scheme of Redeeming Grace, has "set forth" the Son of His love, as Mediator and Surety for the fallen.
He was set forth from all Eternity in the divine counsels. In the archives of Heaven His name and purpose were recorded--"In the volume of the book it is written of Me--I come to do Your will, O God." He was set forth in the very hour of the Fall, in the first promise of Redemption; as well as in the "coats of skin" of the first sacrifices, with which the guilty pair covered their nakedness. He was set forth in Noah's altar-fires on Ararat; in the glorious tints of His rainbow, and in the Covenant of which it was the symbol.
He was set forth in the Patriarchal Church, in Abraham's offering on Mount Moriah, and in Jacob's ladder at Bethel.
In the Mosaic Church, He was set forth in the sprinkling of the lintels and doorposts; in the smitten rock and bronze serpent. He was set forth, more fully still, in that vast and complicated ceremonial, upon every part of which is significantly inscribed "Not without blood,"--"the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world."
He was set forth in the Prophetic Church, from Jacob's earliest prophecy of the Shiloh, and Balaam's of the Star, to Malachi's last glowing figure of the Sun of righteousness.
And then, when the fullness of time came, He was more peculiarly 'manifested.' The morning stars, and the sons of God, that had sung responsive their jubilant anthem at creation's birth, again meet to celebrate in joyous strains the birth hour of an Incarnate Deity! The Shepherds of Bethlehem, and the Wise Men of Arabia (the representative Jew and Gentile, the representative rich and poor), gather around His cradle, not in a palace, but at a manger, to sing 'Glory to the newborn King.'
Again and again, and with ever-growing publicity, was He manifested in the eyes of His Church. At His baptism, He received (as viceregent, or substitute,) a sinner's rite at a sinner's hands, accompanied with the proclamation from the excellent glory, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." In His transfiguration, He was set forth, indeed, in the first instance, in the majesty of His Godhead, robed in the Shekinah cloud--the "white and glistering" clothing--delegates from heaven and earth met to do Him homage. But even in that scene of transcendent brightness, it is as the Propitiation He appears; for it is a memorable feature in the transaction, that these lofty messengers from the Church triumphant, in their converse with the members of the Church militant, talk, not of His supreme dignity, nor of the coming and resultant glory of His Messiahship, but "they spoke of the death which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem."
As the closing scenes of His public ministry thicken upon us, how pre-eminently (almost exclusively) is it as the Propitiation He is revealed. Gethsemane, the Judgment-Hall, the house of Caiaphas, the dolorous way, the dreadful culminating scene, when, raised above the ground, He hung on the cross an ignominious spectacle; when Jew and Gentile exhausted their weapons of ruffianly taunt and mockery, with scourge, and nail, spear, and thorn; and when, after man had done his worst, over and above all, the cry was heard from the Lord of Hosts, "Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd!"
It is in the same light (as the Great Sacrifice and Oblation--the Satisfaction for His people's sins), He has been set forth for the last eighteen centuries in His own appointed ordinances--specially in the proclamation of His glorious Gospel, and in His great memorial rite, with its simple yet significant commemorative symbols. He is set forth in the varied experiences of His people, in their every season of exigency and trial. These are too numerous to admit of being specified.
At no time are His presence and grace more signally exhibited and realized than at the hour of death. It is then, looking to the golden 'shield' of their covenant-Ark, that His spiritual Israel, like the old band of wilderness warriors, pass dry shod and brave-hearted through the border river, to the shores of the heavenly Canaan. The cheering assurance uttered 3000 years ago, has lost none of its comfort, "Behold the Ark of the covenant of the Lord of the whole earth passes over before you into Jordan!" In one of his Patmos visions, the beloved disciple beheld "the Temple of God," and "the Ark of his testament." What was this, but the symbolical disclosure of the Great Propitiation; as He was witnessed by the dying martyr Stephen, and by triumphing multitudes in subsequent ages at a similar hour? "I see Heaven opened, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God."
A grander and sublimer revealing of His Person and dignity (afterwards to be considered), will take place on the day of the "manifestation of the sons of God,"--emphatically designated "the day of His appearing;" when still, as the Son of Man, seated on His Throne of Glory, "every eye shall see Him." He will be set forth finally, as we shall come also more particularly to note, through all Eternity, in the midst of His Church triumphant; still as the Propitiation; wearing the mysterious memorials of suffering in the blessed world where suffering is unknown--while this is to form the eternal hymn and ascription of His ransomed--"Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing, for You have redeemed us to God by Your blood!"
On a review of these imperfect reflections, are any prompted to ask the urgent question--"How am I to obtain the shelter of such a Rock-cleft as this? How can I procure access and welcome to the true Mercy-seat?" There are no barriers of exclusion. The veil is rent; the approach is free; the Propitiation is made yours, "through faith in His blood."
How many among the votaries of a false and spurious Christianity, are looking to Christ through material relics--pieces of the so-called true cross, fragments of the spear or thorn-crown, or the seamless robe! We are called to look "through faith." How many more are groping their way to Him through propitiations of their own--penances, and prayers, and fastings, and flagellations. The propitiation is completed--"Whom God has set forth." If the Jewish High-priest, as he stood at the mercy-seat, instead of sprinkling the blood, had stripped the jewels from breastplate and mitre, and flung them on the sacred chest, what would all have availed? Nothing. There was but one offering efficacious there--an offering composed not of 'pearls from the ocean, or gold from the mine;'--"When I see THE BLOOD I will pass over you." Significant testimony to the alone method by which pardon and peace are procured, through the atoning work of the Great Antitype, "the one true, perfect, and all-sufficient oblation!"
Oh, believer, who is in this cleft of the Rock, exult in your inviolable security! Sheltered therein, the curses of the law are made impotent. As the angel came down by night to the camp of the Assyrians, and strewed the Judean plain with their corpses, rendering every weapon powerless which the dead warriors grasped in their hands; so has the great Angel of the Covenant--the true "Prince who stands for the children of His people"--descended in the deep night of the world's darkness, and made the arm of the law, with all its denunciations, incapable of inflicting so much as one wound.
The efficacy of the blood of Christ is INEXHAUSTIBLE. The book of Revelation unfolds 144,000, with lustrous robes, washed and made white in it; and still the Propitiation is "set forth;" still the way into the Holiest and to acceptance is open. Come, approach it, with this one only passport to pardon and forgiveness in your hand. See the old, but ever-binding and obligatory Tables of Sinai's law, screened out of sight by the intervening barrier--hidden, as a covenant of works, by the better work of Jesus. God has set Him forth as a Propitiatory. He (the true 'shield, and lifter-up of your head'), "stands between the living and the dead, and the plague is stayed!"