Atoning Blood 8

By Philip Graham Ryken

Atonement by Propitiation

Blood is mentioned again in connection with propitiation, which is a third term for atonement.  God presented Jesus, or put him forward, “as propitiation” (Rom. 3:25).  Some translations prefer to speak here of “the sacrifice of atonement,” but the proper word to use is “propitiation.”

Propitiation is a term for atonement that comes from the temple.  To understand it, therefore, we need to go back to the atoning sacrifices that were made at the tabernacle in the wilderness, and later at the temple in Jerusalem.

The procedure for making atonement is perhaps most fully explained in Leviticus 16.  The chapter begins with a warning intended to give the most serious impression of God’s holiness.  “The Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover’ ” (Lev. 16:1-2). 

This was not an idle threat, but a necessary warning.  The sons of Israel’s first high priest had sauntered into the tabernacle and offered unholy fire, contrary to God’s command.  Immediately they perished (Lev. 10:1-2).  God did this to show that he is too holy to be trifled with.  Anyone who comes into his presence must come in the proper way, or else be consumed by fire.

Mercifully, God provided a way for sinners to approach him without being destroyed by his wrath.  Once a year, Aaron was to make atonement for the sins of God’s people.  He would begin by offering a bull to atone for his own sins, as well as the sins of his household (Lev. 16:6, 11-14).  Then he would take a perfect male goat and sacrifice it as a sin offering (Lev. 16:9).  God said, “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover” (Lev. 16:15-16).  In this manner, the high priest “made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel” (Lev. 16:17). 

What did all this signify?  The goat represented God’s sinful people.  In a symbolical way, the sins of God’s people were transferred to the goat.  Ordinarily, before an animal was sacrificed, the worshiper would place his hand on the animal’s head while he confessed his sins (see Lev. 4:3).  This was to show that the sinner’s guilt was being charged or imputed to the animal.  Then the animal was sacrificed on the altar.  This was necessary because once the sins of the people were imputed to the goat; the goat had to suffer the deadly wages of sin.  The goat was a substitute dying in the place of sinners, bearing their sins and then suffering the punishment that they deserved.

Once the sacrifice had been offered, the sacrificial blood functioned as the proof that atonement had been made for sin.  This is made explicit in Leviticus 17:11, where God says, “It is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”  The reason that the blood takes away guilt is not because of its intrinsic properties, but because it shows that God has already carried out his death penalty against sin.