Although this is the only time St. Paul uses the noun
hilasterion, I believe that the full context of his epistles,
along with the Old Testament substratum on which they depend,
provides the correct and adequate meaning of that term.
seem to belabor an obvious point–that we should go to the Bible for
enlightenment on the subject of expiation– let me say that I do so
from a sense that some readers of Holy Scripture in recent centuries
either have not done so, or have done so inconsistently. They have
borrowed misleading ideas from elsewhere.
classical and Hellenistic Greek, the verb “to propitiate” (hilaskomai),
when used with a personal object, normally signified the placating
of some irate god or hero. It is a curious fact that since the
rediscovery of ancient Greek literature in the West, beginning from
the Renaissance, there has grown a strong tendency to impose this
pagan meaning of “expiation” on the teaching of the Bible.
Understood in this way, Paul is presumed to teach that Jesus, in His
self-sacrifice on the Cross, placated God’s wrath against sinful
humanity. That is to say, the purpose of the shedding of Christ’s
blood was to propitiate, to assuage an angry Father.
me say that this interpretation of the Apostle Paul is very
erroneous and should be rejected for three reasons.
First, this picture is difficult to reconcile with Paul’s conviction
that God Himself is the One who made the sacrifice. How easily we
forget that the Cross did cost God something. He is the One that
gave up His only-begotten Son out of love for us. It was Jesus’
did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all”
Sacrificial victims are expensive, and in this sacrifice the Father
Himself bore the price. He gave up, unto death, that which was
dearest and most precious to Him. In the death of Jesus, everything
about God is love, more love, infinite love. There is not the
faintest trace of divine anger in the death of Christ.
Second, in those places where Holy Scripture does speak of
propitiating the anger of God, this propitiation is never linked to
blood sacrifice. When biblical men are said to soften the divine
wrath, it is done with prayer, as in the case of Moses on Mount
Sinai, or by the offering of incense, which symbolizes prayer.
Because blood sacrifice and the wrath of God are two things the
Bible never joins together, I submit that authentic Christian
theology should also endeavor to keep them apart.
Moreover, when the Apostle Paul does write of God’s anger, it is
never in terms of appeasement but of deliverance. At the final
judgment, when that divine anger, far from being placated, will
consume the realm and servants of sin, Christ will deliver us from
it, recognizing us as His faithful servants (1 Thessalonians 1:10;
Romans 5:9). There will be not the slightest hint of appeasement at
Third, the word hilasterion, which I have translated as the
substantive “expiatory,” seems to have in Paul’s mind a more
technical significance. In Hebrews 9:5, the only other place where
the word appears in the New Testament, hilasterion
designates the top, the cover, of the Ark of the Covenant, where the
Almighty is said to throne between and above the Cherubim. In this
context, the term is often translated as “mercy seat,” and it seems
reasonable to think that this is the image that Paul too has in
Yom Kippur, the annual Atonement Day, the high priest sprinkled
sacrificial blood on that hilasterion,
of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their
transgressions of all their sins” (Leviticus 16:16).
Therefore, by saying that God “set forth” (proetheto) Jesus
as the expiatory, or “instrument of expiation,” for our sins, Paul
asserts that the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the Cross fulfilled the
prophetic meaning and promise of that ancient liturgical institution
of Israel, reconciling mankind by the removal of the uncleanness,
transgressions of all their sins.”
Cross was the supreme altar, and Good Friday was preeminently the
Day of the Atonement. The removal of sins was not accomplished by a
juridical act, but a liturgical act performed in great love:
also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a
sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma”
Loving both the Father and ourselves, Jesus brought the Father and
ourselves together by what He accomplished in His own body,
reconciling us through the blood of His Cross.
life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11).
victim slain in sacrifice was not the vicarious recipient of a
punishment, but the symbol of the loving dedication of the life of
the person making the sacrifice.
sacrificial dedication of life is the means by which the sinner is
made “at one” with God.
is the biblical meaning of expiation and the proper context in which
to interpret Paul’s teaching on the sacrifice of Christ.