What Is the Mercy Seat?
One of the most important paragraphs in the Bible may very well be Romans 3:21-26. This densely packed paragraph offers a thorough and glorious discussion of justification by faith. Not surprisingly, this paragraph plays a crucial role in the history of doctrine. Martin Luther camped out here. And not surprisingly, the roots of this paragraph extend throughout the Bible itself. Two key places deserve notice. The first takes us back to Exodus, while the second comes near the end of John’s Gospel.
First, consider Exodus 25:22. The context here concerns the description of the tabernacle and specifically the key piece of furniture in the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant. On top of the ark is the mercy seat, flanked on either end by two cherubim (Ex. 25:19). At this very place, at the mercy seat, God meets His people. Exodus 25:22 declares, “There I will meet with you.”
The connection to Romans 3 concerns the Greek word used for the Hebrew word for mercy seat. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, uses the word hilasterion to translate the Hebrew word. (The Hebrew word is kappuret, related to the word for atonement, which is kippur.) This Greek word, hilasterion, usually gets translated as “propitiation” in the New Testament. “Propitiation” only occurs a handful of times in the New Testament. One of those times comes in Romans 3:25. Referring to Christ and His work of redemption, Paul states that God put forward Christ “as a propitiation.” Christ is the acceptable, wrath-satisfying sacrifice on our behalf.
And then there is John 20:12. Mary Magdalene had come to the tomb of Christ only to find it empty. As she stooped down to look in, “She saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.” Back in Exodus 25, two carved angels took their places at either end of the mercy seat.
Now all we need to do is connect the dots. God desires to meet with His people, and the blood of the spotless lamb is the only means by which that meeting is made possible. The mercy seat of the Old Testament, and the blood sprinkled upon it by the high priest, prefigured Christ to come. Christ did come, and Christ did make the sacrifice, and Christ was raised from the dead. Make no mistake about it, these are historical realities. The tabernacle was real. The ark of the covenant was real. The mercy seat was real. The cross was real. The empty tomb was real. And a real woman stooped to look at real angels.
Christ is our mercy seat. There, in and through Christ, God meets us. The dots are connected.