The Mercy Seat: Christ Our Propitiation


Ex. 25:17-22; 37:6-9; Rom. 3:25

The high priest having meticulously followed all the required steps for ceremonial cleansing, left the holy place and slowly made his way to the brazen altar to offer the appropriate sacrifices for the Day of Atonement. Conscious of his holy task, he carried out each prescribed step of his ministry in a spirit of deep adoring awe and precision.

Aware of the tremendous spiritual significance of the day, the Israelites would encompass the exterior of the Tabernacle as far as the eye could see. With sanctified imagination one can picture the hush which fell over the congregation as they reflected upon their personal sins for which the high priest would make atonement.

The Priest’s Worship Before The Mercy Seat

First, the high priest must offer the bullock as a sin offering (Lev. 16:6, 11) for himself and his house before he would do so for the nation of Israel. Next, he took a censer full of burning coals from off the brazen altar, two handfuls of sweet incense in a golden bowl and entered into the holy of holies. He poured the incense upon the coals which emitted a thick fragrant cloudy smoke that filled the holy of holies. The cloud of smoke twisting upward represented the prayers of God’s people, offered as protection, on this the holiest of all days.

The high priest returned to the brazen altar, took a basin full of the bullock’s blood, and again entered the holy of holies to sprinkle it on the mercy seat. Dipping his fingers into the basin of blood, he sprinkled the mercy seat seven times (Lev. 16:14). It was the blood that made it possible for God to show mercy unto the nation of Israel. The sprinkling of the blood seven times speaks of the atonement’s completeness.

The high priest was to choose two goats of equal color, size and value from the congregation of Israel (Lev. 16:5). Lots were cast by the high priest to determine which of the two goats was to be slain. We do not know how the lots were chosen during the days of the Tabernacle. Dr. Edersheim in his book. The Temple, gives us a very vivid picture of the procedure during our Lord’s day. The high priest would put the golden lots in an urn, shake it, and then with both hands draw out the two lots putting one on the head of each goat (Lev. 16:8). The high priest would tie a tongue-shaped piece of scarlet cloth to the horn of the goat for Azazet (K.J.V. scapegoat) and another around the throat of the goat to be slain. The scapegoat would be turned facing the people until the high priest, at the proper time, would transfer the peoples’ sin to it and then lead it off into the wilderness (The Temple, pp. 311-312).

The high priest would then offer the first goat as a sin offering. Its blood was sprinkled a number of times in the Tabernacle. First, it was sprinkled before the mercy seat in the holy of holies in the same manner as was the bullock (Lev. 16:15). Secondly, he would sprinkle the horns of the altar of incense seven times to cleanse it from the contamination of Israel (Ex. 30:10). Thirdly, he went to the brazen altar and mixed the blood of the builock and goat into one basin. Dipping his fingers into the basin of blood, he sprinkled the horns of the brazen altar seven times cleansing it from the uncleanness of israel (Lev. 16:19).

The congregation of Israel would patiently and prayerfully wait outside of the Tabernacle for the high priest to appear before them. Many questions would naturally pass through the minds of the people: Would God accept the blood offered by the high priest? If God would not accept the blood offering, would He slay the high priest in the holy of holies? Would God be merciful unto Israel or would He bring judgment? But then the high priest would part the gate of the Tabernacle court with hands raised towards the people symbolizing that God had accepted their sacrifice. You can imagine the joyous praise which must have echoed throughout the congregation of Israel, it would be like life from the dead! The atonement had been accepted!

Moving quickly, the high priest would place his blood-soaked hands upon the head of the goat, transferring the sins of Israel to the goat as he confessed every possible transgression which had been committed in the past year. The goat would be led away into the wilderness and freed, signifying that the sins of Israel, which had been forgiven by God, were carried away (Lev. 16:20-22).

During the days of our Lord, the priest led the sin-burdened goat out through Solomon’s Porch, and according to tradition, through the East gate which led directly to the Mount of Olives. At the top of the mount a Gentile was to lead the goat into the wilderness of Judea and free it. What a picture of Christ! After His arrest the chief priest and elders turned Him over to the Gentile governor, Pontius Pilate (Mt 27:1-2), who allowed Him to be crucified bearing the sins of the people.

According to Jewish tradition, when the sacrifice was fully accepted, the scarlet mark tied to the scapegoat’s horn became white to symbolize the gracious promise in Isaiah 1 :18, ”… though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” But, adds Dr. Edersheim, tradition says that this miracle did not take place for forty years before the destruction of the Temple (Edersheim, The Temple, p. 312). Interestingly, it. stopped around the time that our Lord was crucified!

The word translated “scapegoat” (Lev. 16:8, 10, 26) is “Azazel” in Hebrew and has the idea of an “entire removal”. Thus, the scapegoat completely removed the sin of Israel. Even though the sins of the people were removed, they were not “taken away and destroyed” until Christ came.

The writer of Hebrews states, “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sin” (Heb. 10:4). Christ has fulfilled the requirements of the sin offering by being burdened with the believer’s sin and taking those sins upon Himself. “For he hath made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21; cf. 1 Pet. 2:24). It was only through the shed blood of our Lord that sins were completely blotted out. The writer of Hebrews is very clear on this point, “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Heb. 9:12). And again, “. . . But now once, in the end of the ages, hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26).

Then the high priest went into the holy place, put off his linen garments, washed his body, put on his priestly garments and went before the brazen altar to offer a burnt offering for himself and the people. At the same time he would burn the fat of the builock and goat from the sin offering upon the brazen gitar. The skin, flesh and dung of the sin offering (bullock and goat) were burned outside of the camp (Lev. 16:23-27).

What a beautiful picture of Christ, our sin offering. He became an outcast condemned to endure the suffering and shame of crucifixion that He might sanctify us through His own blood by suffering outside the camp of Jerusalem (Heb. 13:11-12). There is a particular exhortation to the believer in connection with Christ’s suffering. We, too, are expected to share the insults and shame of His cross by living a separated life in this world, suffering if needs be, for our faith in Him (Heb. 13:13). Jesus said before His crucifixion, “. . . take up [your] cross, and follow me” (Mt. 16:24).

The only duty left for the high priest on the Day of Atonement was to offer up the prescribed evening sacrifices (Num. 29:7, 11) before his ministry was concluded on this special day.

The question is often asked, “How do the Jewish people atone for sin today, since there is no Temple or priesthood?” Modern Judaism teaches that they can receive forgiveness without a Temple, sacrifice or mediating priest. They reason this way: since God allowed the Temple and priesthood to be destroyed, forgiveness is acquired by going directly to God. The individual is to recite long prayers, repent of every conscious sin and make reconciliation to all those he has sinned against in the past year. Then God will forgive the individual his sins.

Although this seems like a very logical way for one to receive the forgiveness of sins, it is not the teaching of the Jewish Scriptures. The Word of God clearly shows that forgiveness of sin can only be obtained by approaching God in the way He has set forth. In Leviticus 17:11 we are told, “. . . for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” It is -the blood which gives significance to the Day of Atonement. If there is no blood in Judaism to atone for the soul, how are they abie to acquire forgiveness on the Day of Atonement? They cannot! But God has provided a blood atonement for the Jewish people. Paul tells us, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man, Christ Jesus, Who gave himself a ransom for all. . .” (1 Tim. 2:5-6).

It is clearly stated in Hebrews 9-10 that Jesus the Messiah shed His blood as the one offering to atone for sin (Heb. 9:11-15, 26, 28}. Today, the Jewish people have an atonement through the mediating priest, Jesus Christ. He alone can atone for sin.

The Propitiatory Work Of The Mercy Seat

In the days of the Tabernacle the mercy seat was made a place of propitiation through the sacrificial blood being sprinkled upon it once a year. The mercy seat, typifying the divine throne of God, was transformed from a throne of judgment to a throne of grace by being sprinkled with the atoning blood. Today, the sinner has a mercy seat in the blood-sprinkled body of Jesus Christ who died upon the cross as an atonement to expiate sin.

What do we mean by propitiation? The words “mercy seat” in Hebrews 9:5 are the translation of a Greek word “hilasterion” which means propitiation. The word is used in the Septuagint Version (Greek translation of the Old Testament) to refer to the mercy seat (see Lev. 16:14) where the atoning blood was sprinkled. In English, “propitiation” has the idea of appeasing or placating the anger of a god, thus buying his love, but this is not the concept found in the New Testament. Because of His love for mankind, God initiated a plan by which man could be reconciled back to Him. John writes, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10).

In the New Testament propitiation has the idea of satisfying the righteous demands of a holy God, making it possible for the removal of sin which stands between God and man. This was accomplished by Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross for sin. His shed blood completely satisfied all the demands of a holy God for the judgment of sin, thus making it possible for God to declare and treat as righteous all those who come to Him.

The extent of propitiation is universal. John states, “And he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2-.2). Our Lord’s propitiatory work is sufficient for all but is only efficacious to those who receive it. Today, man need not continually beg God to forgive his sins since God has once and for all been propitiated through Jesus’ blood. All man need do to be reconciled to God is receive the finished work of our Lord in his behalf. Paul sums it up well when he writes:

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness, that he might be just, and the justifier of him who believeth in Jesus (Rom. 3:23-26).

If you have not been reconciled to God, why tarry? Right now recognize your sinful condition, by faith come to the mercy seat through the shed blood of Jesus Christ and be declared righteous through His grace.

What a comfort to have a blood-bought mercy seat in which to retreat from the stormy winds of this world that blow against our Christian walk. Hugh Stowell caught a vision of the sublime privilege which is ours to come before the mercy seat and find comfort in time of need. In 1828 he penned the words to a hymn which he originally entitled “Peace at the Mercy Seat”, but later the title was changed to “From Every Stormy Wind That Blows”. Two stanzas of the hymn sum up the fellowship that awaits each blood-bought believer who comes to the mercy seat through Jesus Christ.


From every stormy wind that blows,

From every swelling tide of woes,

There is a calm, a sure retreat –

‘Tis found beneath the mercy seat.


There is a place where Jesus sheds

The oil of gladness on our heads,

A place than all besides more sweet –

it is the blood-bought mercy seat.


Oh, Christian friend? No longer is the mercy seat open but once a year! No longer do we need an earthly high priest to intercede in our behalf! No longer must sacrifice be slain for us! But the veil has been torn away. God bids us to come boldly unto the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace in any time of need. Accept the invitation! Rejoice in the privilege! Come, bask in the glorious presence of the Lord which is eternally offered and open to you!

Series: Part I, Part II

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