Propitiation: A Greek Word Study

When looking at a passage of scripture it is helpful to look at words within the passage for clues to meaning.  This is important because, though a word may seem straightforward in English, in the original language it may have a multitude of meanings.  The words that will be studied is contained within Romans which states, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25 ESV).  The word to be studied is ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion), which is translated as “propitiation” in the passage.

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Propitiation And The Septuigant

The word is very fascinating and there is no shortage of debate as to what the Apostle Paul was trying to convey.  What is clear is that the word occurs only one other time in the New Testament.  In that passage of scripture, the inspired author writes, “Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (Hebrews 9:5 ESV).  When looking into the Old Testament, the LXX or Septuagint, was used since it was written in Greek.  The word is utilized thirteen times is eleven verses. Though according to the LALS cite twenty-eight times when the root is taken into consideration. It is fascinating to note that out of these only two occur outside of the Pentateuch with those being seen in Ezekiel 43:14, 20.  The rest occur in Exodus chapter 25, Exodus 37:8, Leviticus 16, and Numbers 7:89.

In apocryphal works the word appears in 4 Maccabees 17:22 to speak of the “devout ones” death as an atoning sacrifice.  The word also occurs in some works outside of the Bible with the works of Josephus and Philo among the most popular.  It also appeared in the orations of the Greek Philosopher Dio Chrysostom according to BDAG.  Among the three non-biblical writers the word is used in the context of atonement.  In the Latin Vulgate Jerome translated the word as propitiatorium from which we get the English word propitiation.

Propitiation And The Old Testament

When used the in the Old Testament, particularly in the decalogue, it is used as “mercy seat”.  The mercy seat was the lid placed on the Ark of the Covenant and it was sprinkled with blood on the day of atonement.  Thus, a majority of uses in the Old Testament are in relation to rituals involving atonement for sin and ritual sacrifices.  In the context of Romans 3:25 Christ is the sacrifice for our sins and Hebrews 9:5 (the occurrence of the word in the New Testament) describes Christ as high priest being the once for all sacrifice of the New Covenant and the angels of the mercy seat.  Therefore, the word in Romans is a good representation of what Paul was conveying.  Christ is the one sacrifice and atones for the sins of those who accept him in faith.

Other Sources For Study

Many sources give several meanings of ἱλαστήριον.  The Lexham Theological Workbook gives the meanings of atone, expiate, and propitiate.  BDAG seems to prefer expiation.  Wuest’s Word Studies in the Greek New Testament gives the translation of “place of satisfaction”, and Strong’s lists the best meaning as expiation.  Historically, at least in Greek mythology, propitiation was something to appease the gods.  In Romans expiation appears to fit better because it conveys the concept of Christ being the satisfaction for sins. The RSV and NAB are two translations that translate it as such.  The ESV, CSB, and NASB use propitiation.  The NIV and NRSV use atonement. However, expiation and propitiation, though different seem to be synonymous with each other.

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