Jesus’ death as a propitiation for the sins of Israel

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This morning’s Good Friday sermon focused on four aspects of the atoning function of the cross: propitiation, redemption, justification, and reconciliation. The sermon had a strong evangelistic slant, and it’s not at all surprising that Jesus’ death was presented as having this four-fold atoning significance for the individual sinner. The wrath of God against the individual sinner is propitiated; he or she is redeemed, justified, and reconciled, and then becomes part of the covenant community. I think this traditional approach, for all its evangelistic effectiveness, turns the New Testament argument inside out.

The word Paul uses in Romans 3:25 is hilastērion. It is translated in the ESV with “propitiation”. In the Greek Old Testament the word denotes the gold cover over the ark of the covenant, on which the blood of a goat was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement for the sins of the people (Ex. 25:17; Lev. 16:15 LXX). It is an event of national, corporate significance, reflected in the fact that not only the Jews but all aliens in the land are instructed to do no work on this day. It shall be an “atonement for the priests and for all the people… because of their sins” (Lev. 16:29-34).

The corporate dimension is underlined in a passage in 4 Maccabees which speaks of the atoning effect of the deaths of the martyrs under Antiochus Epiphanes:

through the blood of those pious people and the propitiatory (hilastēriou) of their death, divine Providence preserved Israel, though before it had been afflicted (4 Macc. 17:22)

The death of the martyrs is a “propitiation” because it led to the preservation of Israel—the nation was not ruined by the aggressively anti-Jewish pagan king. So there appear to be two important aspects to the idea of “propitiation”: first, it has in view an act of sacrifice specifically for the sins of Israel; secondly, it has in view a sacrifice for the sins not of individuals but of the people as a whole.

This pattern carries over into the New Testament, as is especially clear in Hebrews 2:17, where the cognate verb hilaskomai is found:

Therefore he 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.

Dana Ames suggests that this passage has in view all humanity, but I don’t think that is the case. Through his suffering and death Jesus helped “the offspring of Abraham” (2:16), he made atonement not for the sins of all humanity but “for the sins of the people” (tas hamartias tou laou). So whereas Moses was faithful in God’s household as a servant, Jesus was “faithful over God’s house as a son” (2:5-6). It’s the same house. The “confession” is that Jesus died for the sins of Israel and has therefore been given the authority and status of a son in the household. But it is only those Jews who do not harden their hearts, who remain faithful, who persevere in the face of hostility, who will escape the destruction of the wrath of God against his people (Heb. 3:7-18).

Paul’s argument in Romans 3 is that if God is to judge the world of the Greek, he must first hold his own people accountable. Since the Jews have proved themselves to be as much subject to sin as the Gentiles, they must expect to face the wrath of God—in effect, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome in AD 70. But God has put forward an alternative means by which Israel may be justified—Jesus’ death as an act of atonement for the sins of Israel, to be received by faith.

It is only in John’s parallel universe that the idea of propitiation is explicitly extended to the whole world: “He is the propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). We should presumably also take account here of the saying that is attributed to John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29).

This must presumably legitimize the sort of application of the motif that was preached here, and no doubt across the world, this morning. But it should not be taken as a licence to read the whole argument about salvation in the New Testament through a lens of universal, individualized propitiation. The dominant story is the corporate one: Israel is faced from utter destruction by the atoning death of Jesus, who is made God’s Son and will come to rule over the nations.

cherylu | Fri, 04/06/2012 - 17:30 | Permalink

Hi Andrew,

I have kind of a side note question here.  I’m wondering what you mean when you say that Jesus was “made God’s Son?”


Ah, we’re back to the Trinitarian issue! It’s a good question though. The writer to the Hebrews does not really develop the idea. But it looks to me as though the leading thought is that as “son” Jesus has been given authority by the “builder” to rule over the house (epi ton oikon), in which Moses had only been a servant. It’s a similar idea to the kingship theme, but the metaphor has shifted from kingdom to household.

@Andrew Perriman:

Trouble is Andrew, I don’t see in Hebrews that it says He was made to be God’s Son, but that He was God’s Son from eternity past.

Do you think He was made to be the Son at some time in His life on this earth?  That is the idea that I got from what you said.  But maybe I mistook your meaning.


I’m guessing he gets that from 1:5, which quotes Ps 2 and 2 Sam. I’m not sure if it’s been discussed before, but the Sonship of Jesus is a good thing to have clarity on… esp if your neighbors are Muslim cousins.


I’m not an expert on Hebrews, but it seems to me that we have two different lines of thought in Hebrews 1. There is the sonship theme, which as Daniel says, draws on Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7 and stresses the installation or appointment of Jesus as Israel’s king and as the one who will rule the nations, whose reign will be everlasting. This theme has to do, in my view, with the narrative from the resurrection to the victory of Christ over the pagan gods.

But woven into this kingdom theme there is also a “creation” theme: through Jesus God created the world, he upholds all things, he laid the foundation of the earth, etc.

Now, the question is whether the writer means that Jesus was instrumental in the original creation or that Jesus was the one through whom the new world was made. In Hebrews 2:5 we have: “it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking….” I rather think, therefore, that what the writer means is that the new creation has come into existence through Jesus.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 04/06/2012 - 17:44 | Permalink

Andrew — it’s very even-handed of you to mention the use of hilasmos in 1 John 2:2 to illustrate the applicability of the word beyond Israel. John is quite a thorn in the flesh of your ‘Israel only’ argument. How do you think it became a ‘parallel universe’?

My reading of Romans 3 is that hilasterion also widens its scope to Jew and Gentile alike. Also redemption/apolutrosis with its echoes of the Passover. If Jews were liable to the same judgment as Gentiles, for committing the same sins, the reading says that the same means of redemption has been provided for both. 

The argument in Romans, repeated from an earlier Good Friday thread,  runs like this:

From Romans 1:18-32 and 2:16 onwards, including Romans 3:9-20, Paul has addressed Jews and Gentiles as culpable of the same sins (eg 3:9). The sins may have originated in idolatry, but went far beyond idolatry in their specific outworking, and were true of Jew and Gentile alike — 1:18-32 (apparently Gentile-focused, but with distinct echoes of Jewish sins from the OT). It would be inexplicable if Paul then restricted the solution for sin to Jews only, and then only at this stage of the 1st century. This is clearly not the case — the whole tenour of his argument only makes sense if it is seen to include Jews and Gentiles on entirely the same terms — the faithfulness of Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement — 3:25, and faith in that death, in which Jewish boasting is excluded precisely because it was not for Jews alone, but Jews and Gentiles.

The impact of Paul’s argument in Romans, and what makes it such an astonishing piece of writing, is that he uses Jewish assumptions to overturn Jewish assumptions. The “righteousness of God” was to be shown outside (“apart from”) the law; and this was what the Law and Prophets, which Jews took as their charter for exclusivism, testified. It was a “redemption” (recalling the Exodus) and “hilasterion” (recalling the temple — the ‘mercy-seat’), but not just for Jews, because “there is no difference”. Abraham, the object of veneration and identity for Jews as their father, was justified as a Gentile, and provided a model of faith for Jews who had the covenant. No wonder Jews were out for Paul’s life!

The death of Jesus on the cross was universal in its scope. “For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him” (so Jesus was more than a prophet), “and through him to reconcile all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” — Colossians 1:19-20. How much more universal can you get than that?

It must be very intimidating for your pastor/preacher to have you sitting in the back row making notes for the refutation of his argument later that day on Postost. Or maybe he doesn’t realise that your apparent keen interest in his presentation is for this subversive intent!

@peter wilkinson:

John is quite a thorn in the flesh of your ‘Israel only’ argument.

Not for a narrative theology. John is only a problem if we suppose that at every point the New Testament asserts the same consolidated argument about the atonement. A narrative theology is perfectly able to accommodate extensions and developments of earlier more restrictive insights.

@Andrew Perriman:

I can track with that in theory, but:

1) Unless you want to assume John the Baptist’s statement in John 1:29 is unhistorical, it seems that the “extension and development” was seen — at least by John — from the beginning. Or are you simply saying that even if the insight was already there, that doesn’t mean it’s being made use of in every NT discussion of atonement? That would seem to me to be obviously true, and unproblematic.

2) How then would you connect the dots between propitiation for Israel and propotiation for the world? I have heard it suggested (but not spelled out) that the nation of Israel stood in a kind of priestly relation between God and the nations, much as the High Priest mediated between God and Israel. If there’s truth to that, it probably has relevance here.

@Andrew Perriman:

A narrative theology is perfectly able to accommodate extensions and developments of earlier more restrictive insights.

How is it able to do this, and which extension of the narrative theology are we to believe today: the ‘earlier more restrictive insights’, or the later more universal understanding? 

If the latter is an extension of the former, assuming there is this distinction, why not assume that the latter provides a better, more complete understanding of the narrative on which the historic faith has been based?

You note that Jesus helped “the offspring of Abraham,” per Hebrews 2:16. The writer of Hebrews specified that God designated Jesus as “a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:6,10). Melchizedek served as Abram’s priest Yahweh before Abram had any “seed,” before the establishment of Israel through Abram’s grandson, and long before the establishment of Israel’s Levitical priesthood via Aaron. It would seem that the scope of Jesus’s priestly function both precedes and exceeds securing propitiation specifically for Israel. At least that’s how the meaning of that passage was explained to me when I was back there in seminary school.

@John Doyle:

John, it’s important to note that the argument in Hebrews about Jesus being a priest like Melchizedek is mediated through Psalm 110:4. It is Israel’s king, from the line of Judah, who becomes a priest after the order of Melchizedek rather than a priest “on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent”. It is an argument about the basis in which Jesus can legitimately function as a high priest for Israel following the failure of the Levitical priesthood (7:11). He has become king—that is “son of God”—through the resurrection; he becomes priest, therefore, by virtue of his indestructible resurrection life (Heb. 7:15-17).

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the writer makes anything of the idea that Melchizedek was a priest for more than Israel. Rather what he stresses is the continuity from Melchizedek through to the Levitical priesthood (7:9-10).

@Andrew Perriman:

After further study I agree, Andrew: Melchizedek’s dual status as both king and priest is crucial. The Messiah was to be king of Israel; Jesus, being of the house of David and thus the tribe of Judah, could fulfill the criteria for being messianic king. But Psalm 110 presents a priestly Messiah, and according to the Law the priests came from the tribe of Levi, not Judah. But the Psalmist clarifies: the Messiah is to be both king and priest, like Melchizedek. Predating the tribes of Israel, Melchizedek’s “order” is not predicated on being a Levite.

Abram’s encounter with Melchizedek of course predates the establishment of Israel. Genesis 14:18 informs the reader that Melchizedek was king of Salem, which I had presumed was one of “the nations” later positioned in contrast and opposition to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. After doing a bit of investigation though I discovered that in all likelihood Salem = Jerusalem (Psalm 76:2), a city that was ancient even back in Abram’s time. Melchizedek was both king of Salem and priest of “the God Most High” whom Abram also served. In other words, the land that Yahweh promised to Abram and his seed was located in the shadow of a capital city that already honored Yahweh. The footloose Abram, who had by this time settled in Canaan for the second time, would have been familiar with Salem, by reputation if not by direct experience.

So here’s something I’d never considered before. After Abram became the “exalted father” Abraham, after his great-grandson Joseph moved the family to Egypt, after the family had over many generations been fruitful and multiplied, after Moses led them out of Egypt into the desert, after they became a wandering nation founded on the Law and the Levitical priesthood, when at last Joshua led them across the Jordan, the people of Israel would have experienced their arrival in Canaan as the return to an ancient, nearly mythic realm that in ages past had been presided over by the legendary Melchizedek, a king and priest who served their same God.

Finally, many generations later, when King David conquered (Jeru)Salem, the restoration was complete. FF Bruce’s Commentary on Hebrews, which for many years has been gathering dust on my bookshelves but which has nonetheless survived many a personal diaspora, contends that, when David conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital city(2 Samuel 5:5ff.), “he and his heirs became successors to Melchizedek’s kingship, and probably also (in a titular capacity at least) to the priesthood of God Most High.” Hebrews 7 is devoted entirely to Melchizedek, whom the writer presents as a type of Jesus:

“Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he abides a priest perpetually.” (Hebrews 7:3)

The Levitical priests were Abraham’s descendants, and Abraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek; therefore, the writer concludes:

“So to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him.” (Hebrews 7:9-10)

Melchizedek isn’t just an enigma and an anomaly; his priestly office at once precedes, dominates, and supersedes the priesthood of Israel and its Law. And now the order of Melchizedek is exercised permanently by Jesus.

“Now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.” (Hebrews 8:6)

The writer then cites a long passage from Jeremiah specifying that God established the old covenant with the Jews when they left Egypt, and that the new covenant too was to be effected specifically with the houses of Israel and Judah.

“And for this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.” (Hebrews 9:15).

Next the writer takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through the long history of the people of God, going all the way back before the first covenant to Abel, naming those who exemplified faith in God but who had not entered into the promised new covenant, which had only now been established in Jesus. So even though Melchizedek precedes and supersedes the Levitical priests, he was not the mediator of a better covenant than theirs. The order of Melchezidek too awaited fulfillment in Jesus.

In conclusion (finally), Andrew, I’d say that the book of Hebrews supports your reading of the propitiatory office exercised by Jesus among the people of Israel. The writer of Hebrews, addressing an audience comprised mostly of Jews, presumably didn’t deem it particularly important to discuss the means by which Jesus’ death and resurrection also benefited the Gentiles. But clearly the writer regards Melchizedek not as a priest to the nations but as one who ministered to the chosen people of God, even though that designation predates the historical establishment of Israel.

Dana Ames | Fri, 04/06/2012 - 19:45 | Permalink

Startling to find myself quoted :]

You know, I see it as Wright explained it with his Russian doll analogy.  Within the reality of the historico-polical meaning is the meaning for all humanity, and within that is the meaning for each distinct human Person.  They are all present at the same time.

I see it as being not only only “those Jews who do not harden their hearts, who remain faithful, who persevere in the face of hostility, who will escape the destruction of the wrath of God against his people” in AD 70, but also could read it as, “It is those human beings who do not harden their hearts, who remain faithful to God as having been baptized into Christ, who persevere in the face of hostility, who will escape ultimate corruption, because Christ has won the victory over death.”  Both are true.

I still go back to hilasterion.  I know next to nothing about Greek, so I may be wrong, but in the whole scheme of things as I understand it, it’s not about averting God’s wrath, but about (re-) establishing union between God and his people.


BradK | Mon, 04/09/2012 - 23:15 | Permalink

When the author of 1 John says “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world,” to whom does our refer?  This would seem to actually matter for your argument, Andrew.  If the our refers to Israel, then maybe some of his comments about the world are more easily harmonized with your view.   Is this understanding of the use of our possible or reasonable?  How much is known about the intended recipients of the epistle of 1 John?


Brad, that’s a good question to ask. But even if John has in mind Israel plus added Gentiles, “our” would still have in view the historic community which had rebelled against YHWH and had been saved through the atoning death of Jesus. It is simply that now Gentiles have been brought into the story of Israel.