The Wrath-Bearer (Romans 3:21-26)
Topic: Romans Passage: Romans 3:21–3:26
The Jewel: Understanding the Beauty of the Cross
April 14th, 2013
Way of Grace Church
I. What Makes You Mad?
What makes you mad? Is it when someone passes you on the right? Is it when your child gives you 'the look', you know, the one that says he or she is digging in their heels and ready for a fight? Is it when you drive all the way across town and realize your left your wallet at home? Maybe it's when someone finishes your sentence; or when your neighbor is playing his stereo with the windows open...and it's midnight.
What about this? What about when the father of three small children is shot a killed because some teenagers want to take his car for a joyride? Does that make you mad? What about when a foreign dictator accepts foreign relief supplies, but let’s the food rot on his docks while his people starve? Does that make you mad? What about when a murderer gets released, or gets what amounts to a slap on the wrist because of a legal technicality, or even worse, because of a corrupt judge? Does that make you mad?
The reality is that for most people, these examples of extreme injustice make us mad. They infuriate us. And what do we demand when we hear about things like this? We demand accountability…consequences…we demand a just response. And many have fought for years until those demands are satisfied. Let me ask you this: how far would you go to see that justice is satisfied?
Turn over in your Bibles this morning to Romans chapter 3. This morning we are continuing the study we began last week entitled, “The Jewel: Understanding the Beauty of the Cross”.
Some in our world think about the cross of Jesus Christ simply in terms of something tragic or gruesome. But you may remember that, last time, we talked about how the cross is actually like a beautiful jewel that, when you stand in the sunshine and slowly turn it in your hands, it sparkles, it glistens, as the light bounces of the many faces or facets of that gemstone. In the same way, the cross has many sides, and all of them reveal something beautiful about the character and purposes of God.
II. The Passage: “Put Forward as a Propitiation” (3:21-26)
Let's take another look at this jewel as we look together at Romans 3, verses 21-26. Let me read those, and then we'll come back and talk about what God is revealing to us here. V. 21..
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  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.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Now if there is a key word here, then I'm going to propose that the key word in this passage is also the most unfamiliar word in this passage. It's the word propitiation. What in the world does “propitiation” mean? “l'm late for my son's propitiation at school.” No, that's not right. “The NASA engineers blamed a faulty propitiation system for the launch.” No, that's not it.
Propitiation is not a word with which we're familiar because it's not an idea with which we're familiar. Propitiation is the act of gaining or regaining the goodwill of another, especially of a deity. And in the ancient world, this was typically done through sacrifice. At the time Paul wrote this letter, the Greeks and the Romans were regularly propitiating their gods through sacrifices at hundreds of temples all over the Empire.
But the same word that Paul uses here is also used 27 times in the Greek version of the Old Testament. And in 20 of those occurrences, this word is used not of an act, but of an object: the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, also know as the “mercy seat”. And in fact, this is actually how the word is translated in the NT in Hebrews 9:5, where we read, Above it [the Ark] were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
The word translated as “mercy seat” is the same word Paul uses here in Romans 3:25. Whom God put forward as a [mercy seat] by his blood... But why would Paul use this word. Or better yet, why would the Greek Old Testament, and the author of Hebrews, use this word as a name for the mercy seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant? Well, I want you to hold onto that question, and look with me at how the parts of the passage in Romans 3 relate to this central idea of propitiation.
A. The Result of Propitiation (vs. 21, 22)
First, if we look back at verses 21 and 22 we see the RESULT of this propitiation. To understand what Paul means here we need to first understand this phrase, “the righteousness of God”.
To be righteous is do what what is right. It is to be morally upright. In light of that, I think we can say that the “righteousness of God” is the uprightness that God both defines and demands. God is not righteous because he conforms to some higher standard. No, his very character defines what is righteous.
And as those created in His image, God demands that same uprightness from us. No one can ultimately stand in His presence, or enjoy the blessing of His presence, without this uprightness. As Paul indicates in verse 21, the Jews believed that only through obedience to the Law of Moses could one possess this uprightness.
But Paul tells them, “...now, there is an uprightness that satisfies God’s demand, and…it's “apart from the law” (even though the Law and Prophets speak of it and foretell it). What is this uprightness that fulfills God's righteous demand? It is uprightness that comes through faith or trust in Jesus Christ, and that's for anyone who believes, no matter where they're from, how they look, or what they've done.
Amazingly, by trusting Jesus, you and I can be declared upright or righteous before God.
B. The Need for Propitiation (v. 23)
This is so amazing because of what we read in verse 23: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There is no distinction in terms of who can come to Christ in faith because there is no distinction in terms of who NEEDS to come to Christ in faith. “All” of us do. Paul, in fact, has been arguing this very thing up to this point in the letter. Everyone needs the uprightness God has made available through faith because everyone has failed to obtain the uprightness that God demands through the Law.
As Paul goes on to say in chapter 10 about his fellow Jews: being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. (Romans 10:3-4) But there is no righteousness through the law, because no one can keep all the law, all the time. As Paul says in Galatians 2:21, if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Paul went on in Galatians 3 to ask, Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. (Galatians 3:21-22)
So in verse 23, we see our NEED for propitiation. If it depends on our own uprightness, then no one will stand in the glory of God, that is, no one will enjoy the blessing of His presence, because all have fallen short.
C. The Means of Propitiation (v. 24, 25a)
But look again at how Paul continues. In verse 24, and the first part of verse 25, Paul goes on to explain the MEANS of this propitiation. Yes, all have sinned and fallen short because of our failure to be upright through obedience to God's law. But as Paul tells us in verse 24, the best news ever is that all of us can be justified, that is, we can be declared upright, through the redemption that Jesus makes possible.
And how did Jesus make this propitiation possible? Because, verse 25, God put [Him] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. Do you see what that's saying? This is where we come back to our earlier question about the Greek word that Paul uses here for “propitiation”, and why the Greek OT and the book of Hebrews translates that word as “mercy seat”, referring to the lid of the Ark of the Covenant.
This Greek word used to describe the act of appeasing the gods, of propitiating the gods, and gaining their favor, was used by the biblical writers because a similar act was taking place in the Jewish temple through the sacrifices the one, true God had commanded. The Israelites were propitiating God when, once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, they sprinkled the blood of a bull and a goat over the mercy seat, on top of the Ark, within the Holy of Holies of the Temple.
And when Paul, in this passage, this passage which is the turning point of his argument in Romans, when Paul wants to describe the cross of Christ, he chooses a word which is full of history and significance. Except, it wasn't now the blood of an animal being offered. It was the blood of Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 2:17, the writer there brings out this same idea...
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17)
D. The 'How' of Propitiation (vs. 25b, 26)
But wait, wonderfully, there's more to all this. A question which is hanging over this passage is a question that many have wrestled throughout the history of the church. This is the question: “How did the sacrifice of Jesus actually propitiate God? How did it appease God and regain His goodwill?”
There are, in fact, many “theories of the Atonement”, as they are called. And while those theories are built on genuinely biblical ideas about the cross, I think only one of them adequately explains everything we see in the Bible about sacrifice and forgiveness and blood and atonement. But in these final verses Paul touches on the “HOW” of this propitiation.
Look again at the passage, beginning in the second half of verse 25: This [that is, offering Jesus as a propitiation] was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
What's important to see here is what Paul is telling us about God's justice. In this verse, the words “righteousness”, “just”, and “justifier” are all forms of the same Greek word. How did the death of Jesus show God's righteousness or God's justice? Because God had demonstrated his forbearance and passed over the sins committed in the OT. As Hebrews 10:4 tells us, it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Since that's true, it means what happened in the OT could not really deal with sin. God must have had another plan.
So think about this for a minute. How does God feel about sin? He hates it. How, for example, does God feel about the murdered father, or the cruel dictator, or the wrongly released criminal? Like you, like me, God is angry.
But unlike you and me, God is legitimately angry about all sin, about every thought, word, action, and attitude that deviates from his loving commands, from the uprightness he defines and demands. We're the kind of a people who come up with labels like “little white lies”. In most cases, we don't take sin seriously. But God does. He's holy. And as Psalm 33:5 reminds us, “[the Lord] loves righteousness and justice”.
And so if God is a perfect judge, He cannot simply 'brush' UN-righteousness 'under the rug'. Judges get impeached for things like that. No, he must judge all sin. His righteous anger must be unleashed on all sin. That's the very thing we hope will happen in cases of extreme injustice.
But remember verse 23. “All” of us are guilty. But if God passed over the sins committed before Jesus, if His “divine forbearance” was at work, then that means His righteous anger was restrained. But if that's true, how can God be just? How far will God go to see that justice is perfectly satisfied? He will as far as “putting forward” (v. 25) His own Son and unleashing His righteous anger on Him, on Jesus Christ. When Jesus, in the garden, prayed, “let this cup pass from me”, He was using an OT image of the cup of God's wrath. And Jesus drank that cup for us...every drop. In the study of theology, this is called “penal [as in penalty] substitutionary atonement”.
Isn't this what God foretold through the prophet Isaiah? But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5a) Last week we talked about the beauty of the cross as seen through the beauty of substitution. But when we talked about Jesus taking our place, we didn't spell out how He took our place. Yes, “He bore our sins in His body” (as I Peter 2: taught us), but as we see here, He took our sins up to the cross in order to bear the wrath of God against our sins.
You see, the physical suffering of Jesus was only one part of how Jesus suffered. Using words that are almost impossible to fully grasp, Paul wrote in another letter, For our sake he [the Father] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (II Corinthians 5:21) What beautiful words... “for our sake”. “For our sake”, Jesus, who was perfectly innocent and divinely sufficient, the spotless Lam of God, he became the object of the Father's wrath, and “for our sake”, He was consumed.
In this way God maintained His perfect justice AND justified us, because now the uprightness of Jesus is ours. He stood in our place, so that we could stand, with Him, in His.
III. In This Is Love
But Paul, and the author of Hebrews, are not the only ones to talk about this idea of Jesus as a propitiation. Listen to how the Apostle John joins in this conversation:
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (I John 4:10)
You see, God was not and is not some angry, irrational deity who can only be appeased by a bloody human sacrifice. He is a just judge whose righteous anger and righteous demands must be satisfied. We should expect nothing less of any judge. But...AT THE VERY SAME TIME, He is also a God of such infinite love that He planned to rescue us in this very way.
God’s just wrath against you was satisfied in Jesus. Do you see the beauty of the jewel? As Paul reminds us here, it can be ours through faith, by simply trusting that what Jesus experienced was not only sufficient, but sufficient FOR YOU.
Do you believe that? If you do, your life can never be the same. Let’s ask God to help us go from here in humility, gratefulness, and worship, and that those things would produce obedience in us this week, for the glory of our perfectly just and perfectly loving God.
More in The Jewel: Understanding the Beauty of the Cross
April 28, 2013Love's Reference Point (Ephesians 5:1, 2)
April 21, 2013The Brilliance of Redemption (Colossians 1:13, 14)
April 7, 2013In Your Place (I Peter 2:22-25)