In the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant was the place of propitiation. How could a holy God dwell in the midst of a sinful people? Further, how could a sinful people ever hope to approach a holy God and not be destroyed, as were Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1–3)? That brings us to an unusual but important theological term that we need to know and experience: propitiation.
To understand this word, think about how a mother and father become angry when a child sins. How does the child persuade his parents to cease to be angry and become happy with him? In our home, our children have to sit in a timeout, then tell us what they did wrong, and finally ask for forgiveness. Then we give big hugs and kisses. That's propitiation. It means turning away anger. In the Bible, propitiation is an act by which God's wrath is turned away from us. The imagery is expressed in Psalm 85, which says,
Lord, you were favorable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you covered all their sin.
You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger. (Ps. 85:1–3)
Toward this end, God gave a distinct set of instructions for the ark's lid (Ex. 25:17–22), called the kapporet in Hebrew. When the Old Testament was translated into Latin, this word was translated as propitiatorium, which means "the place of propitiation." The standard English translation is "the mercy seat" (KJV).
This lid, then, was the place of propitiation, the place where the wrath of God was turned away from His people. As John Calvin wrote about the mercy seat:
God was propitiated towards believers by the covering of the Law, so as to shew Himself favorable to them by hearing their vows and prayers. For as long as the law stands forth before God's face it subjects us to His wrath and curse; and hence it is necessary that the blotting out of our guilt should be interposed, so that God may be reconciled with us.
But while there was a morning and an evening sacrifice on the altar in the courtyard every day, as well as the offerings of the individual worshipers, these merely covered over sins and pointed forward to one great propitiatory sacrifice. In contrast, there was only one day a year when sacrificial blood was offered on the kapporet to propitiate the wrath of almighty God. As Leviticus 16 describes in great detail, on the annual Day of Atonement, propitiation was made by means of a substitutionary sacrifice.
As new-covenant believers, we know that these annual sacrifices were only pictures of the propitiation of God's wrath. We see the powerlessness of the animal sacrifices in Hebrews 9:13–14, which says:
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Just as Jesus alone can cleanse the soul and conscience, He alone can turn away the wrath of God, since He is our propitiation (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).
The Lord is present in our midst in public worship just as He was in the tabernacle, but is He present to judge or to save? In a more personal way, will He look on our sins or will He look on Jesus Christ in our place? The Lord provided the Israelites a place of propitiation on the ark's lid, and He still provides a place today. That "place" is Jesus Christ. He offers Himself to us. He turns away the wrath of God from us. He cleanses us of our sins. He cancels them out. He nullifies their power. He brings us into the presence of God blameless and acceptable. Confess your sins to Him and believe that Jesus Christ will propitiate God's wrath against you. In this way, you shall be saved.