Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1, Q1:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to Him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
In this post we will be examining two passages of Scripture, in order to find out what they can teach us about the “precious blood” of our “faithful savior Jesus Christ”. The first passage is found in I Peter:
I Peter 1:17-19
“And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.”
Redeemed from Aimless Conduct
In order to fully understand what these passages mean, it will be helpful to first get a bit of background knowledge. Not too long ago, we studied Titus 2:14 and explored the depths of what it means to be redeemed. We saw that the word “redeemed” carries the thought of being bought with a price out of bondage, delivered, and set at liberty. In Titus 2:14, we are said to be redeemed from all lawlessness, that is, sin. Peter, however, writes to his audience that they have been redeemed from their “aimless conduct received by tradition from [their] fathers.”
What is the “aimless conduct” Peter is referring to? Well, it could be referring to extra-biblical Jewish traditions. “Extra-biblical” does not mean a strict following of the Bible; it means something extra, added by men’s tradition. In addition to the written Scriptures, the Jews had a vast collection of practices and traditions which is sometimes referred to as the “Oral Law.” According to – you guessed it – tradition, the Oral Laws were given to Moses on Mount Sinai and passed down by word of mouth through the generations of Israel’s leaders, who were often referred to as “the fathers.” In reality, however, these so-called laws were just the empty inventions of men.
“He answered and said to them, ‘Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, “Honor your father and your mother, and, “He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.” But you say, “Whoever says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God’ – then he need not honor his father or mother.” Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”’”
The Apostle Paul also described his old life to the churches of Galatia:
“And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
Man’s tendency has always been self-centered, attempting to self-improve. The truth is, our own behaviors cannot achieve righteousness, no matter how rigidly we follow any set of rules. Romans 3:23 clearly states that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We have been redeemed from following the wrong, pointless paths to self-salvation and self-improvement.
Another possibility is that the “aimless conduct” refers to pagan traditions. There are some clues found elsewhere in the letter that may suggest this. I Peter 1:14 refers to “the former lusts,” from the time when the audience was in “ignorance.”
I Peter 4:3-4
“For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles – when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you.”
Compare these texts to how the prophet Jeremiah described foreign pagan traditions:
“Thus says the Lord: ‘What injustice have your fathers found in Me, that they have gone far from Me, have followed idols, and have become idolaters?’”
It is likely that Peter’s audience included both Jewish Christians as well as Gentile converts. Thankfully, whatever the “aimless conduct” refers to, we have been redeemed from it! And the lessons we learn are the same.
Silver and Gold
In Ancient Israel, the people were “ransomed” or “redeemed” by shekels – coins made of silver and gold.
“When you take the census of the children of Israel for their number, then every man shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord, when you number them, that there may be no plague among them when you number them. This is what everyone among those who are numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (a shekel is twenty gerahs). The half-shekel shall be an offering to the Lord. The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when you give an offering to the Lord, to make atonement for yourselves. And you shall take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the Lord, to make atonement for yourselves.”
But Peter writes that we have not been “redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold.” This is because metal coins are not sufficient for the kind of redemption he is talking about – the redemption of the soul. We have been redeemed, not only from “aimless conduct,” but also from the slavery of sin, and the bondage and curse of the law. This freedom is greater than money can buy, which is why Peter reminds us that we were redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ.”
Let’s set Peter aside for the moment and turn to our second passage, I John 2:2.
I John 2:2
“And he is the hilasmos for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”
The Greek word hilasmos is translated several different ways, each more vague than the next. The Revised Standard Version uses “expiation,” which is close. The NIV says “atoning sacrifice.” The New Living Translation reduces this to simply “sacrifice,” while the New Testament in Modern English, Revised Edition says “personal atonement. The Good News Translation, a Roman Catholic version, says “the means by which our sins are forgiven,” leaving us without a clue as to what sort of means John is talking about.
The better versions, such as the New King James, use the word “propitiation.” Now, propitiation, in a nutshell, means a removal of wrath. Whose wrath, or anger, is John talking about? Is it the wrath of Satan? Of men?
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
Psalm 78 speaks of God’s patience with Israel and vengeance upon Egypt:
Psalm 78:38; 49-50
“But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them. Yes, many a time He turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath. […] He cast on them the fierceness of His anger – wrath, indignation, and trouble – by sending angels of destruction among them. He made a path for His anger; He did not spare their soul from death, but gave their life over to the plague.”
We have already seen that Christ has set us free from bondage and removed our guilt, but when John uses the word hilasmos, propitiation, he is referring to the removal of the Father’s wrath.
At first, it may be difficult to see the difference between forgiveness and the removal of wrath. Here are some examples that may help: Have you ever had a fight with your spouse, or with a friend, and finally one or both persons admit their guilt and ask forgiveness? The forgiveness may be granted, but many times the sting of hurt feelings or betrayal lingers for a while. Over time, those remaining feelings of anger and hurt diminish and fade, and feelings of love & friendliness return. This is just a small picture to illustrate the difference between Christ’s forgiveness and removal of our guilt, and the turning away of the Father’s wrath. We need not hang our head in sadness and alienation from God, if we have been forgiven and the Father’s wrath has been propitiated!
When I was a child and had done something wrong, my father would sometimes give me a spanking. But every time, immediately after administering my punishment, he would put his arms around me and draw me close to himself, and tell me that he loved me. When we walked out of the room, the sin was not mentioned again. Looking back, I can see that Dad often made a deliberate effort to lighten the mood and restore a sense of normalcy. This, on a far, far greater level, is what Christ has done for us. He not only took our punishment, but He turned away the wrath of the Father.
A Lamb Without Blemish or Spot
Now that we have an idea of what a propitiation is, let’s go back to I Peter, where Peter compares the blood of Christ to the blood “of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” Why is the Apostle comparing our Lord to a farm animal? And Peter is not the only one to do so:
“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’”
What is going on here? The answer lies in one of my favorite instances of symbolism and foreshadowing in the Old Testament: Passover. When God was in the process of delivering the Israelites out of Egypt, just before He brought the tenth plague, He instituted Passover. We can read about this in Exodus 12. Here is a portion of the passage:
Exodus 12:3-5a, 6-7, 11c-14, 21-27
Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: ‘On the tenth of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the persons; according to each man’s need you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year.
Now you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. And they shall take of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it.
It is the LORD’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. ‘So this day shall be to you a memorial; and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD throughout your generations. You shall keep it as a feast by an everlasting ordinance.
Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Pick out and take lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the Passover lamb. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning. For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you. And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance for you and your sons forever. It will come to pass when you come to the land which the LORD will give you, just as He promised, that you shall keep this service. And it shall be, when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ that you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice of the LORD, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households.’” So the people bowed their heads and worshiped.
Only a lamb “without blemish” was acceptable as a sacrifice. A defective animal was not sufficient to serve in this way. This was an important detail in other sacrifices of Israel as well, such as peace offerings, purification rites, and more. Look up the word “blemish” in a concordance, and you will see many examples of this.
In Isaiah 53:7, the coming Messiah is compared to a lamb:
“He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth.”
This is what Peter and John the Baptist meant when they spoke of Christ as a Lamb. He is the Lamb of God, sinless, without moral blemish or spot. He is the one acceptable sacrifice for sin, which the countless animal sacrifices of Israel foreshadowed. He satisfied the Father’s wrath once for all in a way that sheep, bulls, goats, and birds could only picture. The author of Hebrews explains why this was necessary:
“For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you.” Then likewise he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission. Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another— He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many.”
The Whole World
Something must be said at this point regarding the second half of I John 2:2. Let’s take a look at that verse again:
I John 2:2
“And he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”
When we looked at Titus 2:14, we learned about the doctrine of election, God’s choosing of His own special people. We have learned that these are the sheep for whom our great Shepherd laid down His life. However, many, many people read this verse and think that it means that Christ died just as much for the non-elect as He did for the elect.
Does this make sense, from what we have just learned about propitiation? How can it? If Christ propitiated the Father, removing His wrath, on behalf of every single individual who ever lived, it means that God’s wrath is no longer upon anyone, and everyone is reconciled to God. Further, it would mean that Christ was the propitiation for those already suffering in Hell! This clearly contradicts everything the Bible has to say about the “everlasting fire” of God’s wrath in Hell.
What, then, is the answer? John clearly writes “not for [our sins] only, but also for the whole world!” While this might seem an impossibly difficult problem, the answer is really quite simple. John was a Jew, and his audience was primarily Jewish. “The World” was a term often used by Jews to refer generally to any non-Jewish groups, collective. Thus, John is saying that Christ is the propitiation, not only for the sins of Jewish believers, but for believers from all over the world (cf. John 11:51-52, a parallel passage by the same author)!
It is important to realize that Christ did not acquire or obtain God’s love for us, so that before Christ died, or before we believe, God hated us, but now God loves us. What Christ has done is to remove the obstruction, the wall between God’s love and us. God has always loved His elect, and this is why He sent His Son in the first place.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”
I John 3:16a
“By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us.”
I John 4:10
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son, the propitiation for our sins.”
“The LORD is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor punished us according to our iniquities.”
John R.W. Stott, an Anglican theologian who recently went home to be with his Lord, said of Propitiation, “It is an appeasement of the wrath of God by the love of God through the gift of God” (from his Commentary on I John). I would add, “for the people of God.”
Now that we understand this doctrine of propitiation, let’s live our lives in the light of it. Fathers, if you love your children, let that love be your motivation when disciplining them. Children, understand that your parents discipline comes from their love for you. To all believers: We have been redeemed from pointless traditions and aimless conduct. Let’s lead purposeful lives in the service of our Lord Jesus Christ, the spotless Lamb who has paid for all our sins with His precious blood.
“You have forgiven the iniquity of Your people;
You have covered all their sin.
You have taken away all Your wrath;
You have turned from the fierceness of Your anger.”
“Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity
And passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?
He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in mercy.
He will again have compassion on us,
And will subdue our iniquities.
You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.”