Hebrews ii. 17
A Bible Conference Address.
“Wherefore in all things it behoved Him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people" (Hebrews ii: 17).
The atoning work of our Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation of all our blessings. Apart from that work, there is no salvation for any poor sinner. It is therefore rather disconcerting as a rule when for the first time one turns to the New Testament to look up the theme of atonement; he finds that the word itself occurs only once on the pages of our Authorized Version, and that in this one instance, it is really a poor translation. I refer to Romans v: 11, where we read, "And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the atonement." In the margin, "reconciliation" is substituted for "atonement," and scholars are generally agreed that it is the better word, for in the strictest sense, you and I did not receive the atonement at all. It was God who received that, and we receive the effect of it, which is reconciliation. We are "reconciled to God by the death of His Son."
If I had defrauded you out of a great sum of money, you would have good reason to feel rather unkindly toward me; there could be no proper reconciliation until the amount owing was paid. But if I happened to have a wealthy friend who took enough interest in me to pay that money for me, you would receive the atonement, the payment, and I would receive the reconciliation. As a result of that transaction, you could righteously forgive me and no longer hold anything against me. We could be friends again because of the atonement.
The singular thing is that when we turn to the verse with which we began, we find that our translators have used the word "reconciliation" where they should have used "atonement." Why do I say that? You know the Old Testament was written in two languages. The greater part of it was written in Hebrew and a small portion of it, certain sections of Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel, in Chaldean; but taking it all in all, we speak of the Old Testament as the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament was written in Greek. Running through the Hebrew Bible, there is a word which has the meaning of atonement. It is used upwards of one hundred times. Some two hundred thirty years before the coming of our Lord into this world, a Greek translation was made of the Old Testament. An Egyptian king, Ptolemy Philadelphus, was a great patron of letters, and he asked a group of Hebrew scholars to come to Alexandria, Egypt, and translate the sacred writings of the Jews into Greek in order that the Greek speaking world might be able to avail themselves of them. Up to that time, these Old Testament Scriptures had been hidden in the Hebrew and those who did not understand that language, were not able to benefit from them.
In accordance with the request of Ptolemy, about seventy Jewish scholars came together and spent a long time translating the Old Testament into Greek. We call their translation, the Septuagint, that is, the translation of the seventy. The abbreviation LXX refers to this Greek translation. When these translators undertook to render the Hebrew word that I am after, they used, in every instance a Greek word which is found in our New Testament just three times. It is the word that is here translated "reconciliation." The same word is found in the first epistle of John, chapter two and verse two, where we read of our Lord Jesus being the "propitiation" for our sins. It occurs again in 1 John iv: 10, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and gave his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." Now if we can find out what the words in the Old Testament are that are translations of this Hebrew word that is rendered by the Greek term, which is rendered "reconciliation" and "propitiation," we shall get a pretty good idea of its exact meaning. I am going to give you seven instances. I might take a great many more, for there are about a dozen different words thus translated, but these seven will give us a fair conception of the meaning of the Hebrew word.
In Genesis vi: 14, we have the first instance. God said to Noah, "Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch." That word "pitch" is the first occurrence in the Old Testament of the word we are looking for. It is the Hebrew word Kaphar. Why is it translated pitch? It is a word which literally means "to cover." Why was Noah commanded to build an ark? It was to save him and his family from the judgment of the flood. If they were to be saved, the ark must be absolutely water-tight, and so, he was told to pitch it within and without with pitch, literally to cover it within and without with a covering.
What is pitch? Pitch is the life blood of a tree. Drain all the pitch out and the tree dies. Noah was told to cover the seams of the ark with the life blood of a tree. What a wonderful picture this is of the atoning work of God's blessed Son. Inside the pitch-covered ark, Noah and his family were secure. The storm might rage without; the waters might rise mountain-high, but they were safe in the ark of God's providing.
In the thirty-second chapter of Genesis, you get the same Hebrew word, but it is translated in an altogether different way in our English Bible. We read that when Jacob was coming back to Canaan, after being away for twenty years because of his sins, his brother Esau came to meet him, and Jacob was rightly afraid of him. He knew he had wronged his brother; he had lied in order to get the blessing away from Esau, and so fled from his wrath so long before. When the message came, "Esau cometh to meet thee and four hundred men with him," Jacob was filled with terror. He thought, "I am not a warrior, what can I do?" So he selected some of his finest cattle and placed a herdsman over them. Then he took some of his best sheep and put them in charge of a shepherd, and some from various other groups, and said, "Go on ahead, and when Esau my brother meeteth thee and asketh thee, saying, Whose art thou, and whither goest thou? and whose are these before thee? Then thou shalt say, They be thy servant Jacob's; it is a present sent unto my lord Esau; and, behold, also Jacob is behind us." And then in the twentieth verse, he said to these servants, "And say ye moreover, Behold, thy servant Jacob is behind us. For he said, I will appease him with the present that goeth before me, and afterward I will see his face; peradventure he will accept of me." The Hebrew word that is here translated "appease” is the same as "pitch” in the earlier passage. Literally he said, "I will cover his face with a present and afterward he may receive me." You see, Jacob felt that he had done wrong and wanted to do something to propitiate his brother. All human religion is an effort on the sinner's part to cover God's face so that He will not see his sins, an effort to appease God for the wrong that one has done. But you can never cover His face, you can never appease Him, you can never settle for your own sins. It is an absolute impossibility. Therefore, the need for Christ's atonement.
Now turn to Leviticus xvii: 11, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul." This is the great crucial text of the Old Testament on this subject. It is the same word that was rendered "pitch" and "appease" and is now translated "atonement." God is speaking of the sacrifice when He says, "The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement—to make a covering—for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement—a covering—for the soul." No atonement without blood!
Next turn to Numbers xxxv: 31 and 32. God is speaking here of the fearful crime of homicide and says, "Moreover, ye shall take no satisfaction, for the life of the murderer which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest." If a man committed murder in Israel, God's law was very stringent. They were told not to consider any other punishment for that man but death. Life imprisonment, banishment, would not do; the man must die under the law. A life for a life, blood for blood, burning for burning—that is law. This Hebrew word translated "satisfaction" is the same word we have been tracing, ''Ye shall take no covering, no appeasement, no atonement for the life of a murderer." Under law, he must die.
In Job xxxiii: 24, Elihu is speaking and says, "He is gracious unto him, and saith, Deliver him from going down to the pit, I have found a ransom." Look at the margin, "I have found an atonement." Here is the same word again, now translated "ransom."
In Isaiah xlvii: 11, speaking to Babylon after that guilty city had sinned away her day of grace, he says, "Therefore is evil come upon thee; thou shalt not know from whence it riseth: and mischief shall fall upon thee; thou shalt not be able to put it off, and desolation shall come upon thee suddenly, which thou shalt not know." The marginal reading is, "Thou shalt not be able to expiate it," and "expiate" is the same word again. God tells Babylon that she is doomed because of her manifold iniquities. No atonement will avail for her.
Now the last instance that I want to use is Ezekiel xvi: 62 and 63. Here God is speaking of a future day when all Israel's sins will be put away, and He says, "I will establish My covenant with thee; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord, that thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God." The Hebrew term for "pacified" is the same word.
We have had seven different English translations of this one Hebrew word, but it is always translated in the Septuagint version by exactly the same Greek word, the one which is used in the three Scriptures I read. In Hebrews, it is translated "reconciliation" and in First John "propitiation." You also get the word "propitiation" in the third chapter of Romans, but it represents another word in Greek. We read, "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood" (Rom. iii: 25). "Propitiation" here is the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew term for "mercy seat." In the Old Testament, this was the place of propitiation, where the blood was sprinkled; the propitiatory, the meeting-place between God and man.
Let us see if we can get a little conception from all this of what Christ's work does for sinners. You and I stand guilty before God. The Bible is the record of sinners and in that it differs from the sacred writings of all the world. The sacred writings of the eastern nations are the stories of their good men, of their saints, and the lives of these men are recorded because of their reputed holiness. This Book is a story of sinners. Some folk do not like that; they say, "It has so many bad characters in it. It tells of Abraham who lied about his wife; Jacob who cheated his employer; Samson who sinned in such a vile way; David who was guilty of the double sin of adultery and murder; and so many other wicked men. Why, it isn't a fit Book to have in the house!" What a mercy that sinners like you and me have a Book like this. We are all sinners, for "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." If this Book were just about saints, it would not be for us. Thank God, it is the record of God's grace to sinners, and because we are sinners, we come expecting a message for ourselves. First, God shows us our sinfulness and then He shows us the remedy for sin.
It is necessary that propitiation be made for sin, but we cannot make it ourselves, and therefore God in infinite grace gave His only Son to do that very thing. Turn again to First John iv: 10, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." "Oh," you say, "I do not like to think that God demands propitiation for sin." Well, He does whether you like it or not. His holy character demands it. You won't find this in the loose theology of the day, but this loose theology produces mighty loose living. You do find it here in the Word of God—there must be propitiation for sin. We read in Hebrews ii: 17, "Wherefore, in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people." He became a real man though He was ever God over all, blessed forever more.
Link this up with these Old Testament words, and you will see that it is He, whose precious blood provided the covering that answers to the pitch that covered the ark, and saved us from the judgment to come; who covers the face of God so that He looks at Christ and His finished work and does not see our scarlet sins, but puts them all away forever; whose blood makes an atonement for the soul, "The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls." He took human flesh and blood in order that He might go to the Cross and offer Himself upon that great altar to make an atonement, a covering, for the soul. He it is who has made divine satisfaction even for a world of sinners. The law said, "Ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer," but one of the first men ever saved when Christ died for our sins upon the Cross, was the dying robber and malefactor by His side, who had been indirectly guilty of the sin of murder, and all through the dispensation, the vilest sinners have been saved because Christ has made complete satisfaction. He it is who gave Himself a ransom for our sin, and God saves each penitent sinner who comes confessing his guilt and acknowledging his iniquity, from going down to the pit. "I have found a ransom." We did not find it, but God did. He Himself provided the ransom in giving His own blessed Son for our salvation. And so, in the book of the Prophet Isaiah, we find that it is He who has expiated our guilt. Then take that last word in Ezekiel. Because of the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ, God is now pacified for all that we have done. This then is the testimony of holy Scripture, and now Jesus Himself who has died for our sins has gone into glory, and there in Heaven, He abides, the propitiation through faith in His blood, a mercy seat, where every poor sinner can come and meet the Lord.
The mercy seat was the covering of the ark, which was a chest made of a certain kind of wood that grew abundantly in the desert, and it was overlaid with gold. It represented the humanity and the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Inside, they put the two tables of the covenant, God's holy law, and God told them to cover the chest with the mercy seat of pure gold. The high priest was commanded to go in once a year and sprinkle it with blood. There was the law that man had broken, covered by the propitiation that God had provided.
Some years ago in San Francisco, I entered a hall where Bible lectures were being given. I did not know what was going on nor who was conducting the meetings. I soon found that I was listening to a Seventh Day Adventist, and I had not been in there very long before I realized that everything he said was directed at me, for it was evident that I was the only stranger in the place. Each time the speaker said something that was supposed to be pretty good, every one of the thirty-five people present would turn around and crane their necks to see how I was taking it. Right in front of me, there was a picture of the ark of the covenant with the cherubim above, and by the way it was depicted, it looked as though a great piece had been broken out of the side, and inside you could see set up very clearly the two tables of the covenant with the Roman numerals, I, II, III, IV, etc. A brilliant light was shining from the fourth, "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." Then the preacher said, "It may be that some of the visiting friends have some questions to ask." Nobody asked any, but they all looked at me. I thought, "Well, I'm not going to satisfy them by displaying my ignorance." But finally, he singled me out and said, "I see a stranger down there; would you like to ask a question?"
"Well," I said, "since you are so insistent, I will. I didn't intend to ask, but will you tell me why you have broken a hole in the side of the ark of the covenant?"
"There is no hole broken there," he said, "we just made it that way so you can see what is inside."
"Will you tell me," I said, "why you wanted to see what was inside?"
"I do not quite understand you."
"Well, when God told Moses to make the ark, He said to put the tables inside and to place the mercy seat above, and to sprinkle it with blood; and if God had not done that, the law could only have cursed and brought judgment, but because it was covered with the mercy seat, He could go on with the people in view of the Cross where the great sacrifice was to take place. You are trying to uncover what God was so careful to hide. We have all broken that law and so do not want to see it, for we read, 'Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them' (Gal. iii: 10). Do you remember what happened to the men of Beth-Shemesh when they looked into the ark?"
"No," he said, "I don't believe I do.''
"God smote them and they died. Why do you suppose that was?"
“I suppose because it was irreverent."
"It was because they turned the mercy seat to one side and faced the law, and because they were sinners, the law could only smite them with death. You are doing the same thing. You are trying to let people see the law which God has covered up."
"I am sorry, sir," he said, "but our time is up today, and we won't be able to go on with this discussion. Come some other time, and we shall be glad to take the matter up."
So I went away. I am afraid it is not only the Seventh Day Adventists that have never learned, that when Jesus died on the Cross, He met every claim of the law that we had violated. We are not under law, we are under grace. All our sins are gone forever, because "Calvary covers it all." That is the very meaning of the atonement; it is the covering for our sins. He became a merciful High Priest, that He might make a covering for our sins, that He might put them all away forever. God is satisfied; His righteous claims have been fully met, and now He can justify freely all who trust His Son.
"Our Hope" 38 (1931-1932)