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For Us and for Our Salvation: What Did Jesus Do on the Cross?

Ornaments and Flowers
A Christmas tree isn’t a Christmas tree without ornaments. Some ornaments are nostalgic; some are beautiful; some are quite modestly made by the hands of children; others are exquisite, expensive -- having been crafted with a maturity of skill. God chose to decorate the grass with wildflowers. Isn’t that wonderful for us? Have you ever written a love letter? I’m afraid it’s maybe been a while for many of us. We’re so used to writing contracts, emails, submitting another online form, or writing another manuscript. Do you remember what it’s like to write a real love letter?

I’ve heard a number of preachers and authors refer to the Bible as God’s love letter to his people. I first heard “Prof” (i.e., Dr. Howard Hendricks) say this in his famous video series and book entitled, Living by the Book. And you know what? Prof was right, at least from one angle. How do I know? The language. If you remember writing those love letters, you also remember searching and straining for just the right words to describe your significant other’s beauty (inside and out) and to describe the intensity of your love. When the Holy Spirit inspired the New Testament writers, he met them in the search and strain to explain and describe the work of Christ for us.

One such word grouping is the hilas vocabulary. There are two nouns and one verb. These words are used a total of six times in the New Testament. Their function attempts to describe and explain to us the meaning or the happening or the effect of the cross of Jesus Christ. As you can see already, it is hard to find just the right English word to describe this word family. Every believer confesses faith in the death of Christ on the cross; that is, they believe in the event, that he died. However, believers are in different places of understanding with regard to what his death means for their salvation. You see, there is the event, and there is the meaning of the event. The hilas words give us the Spirit-through-the-apostles description of the meaning of the cross. They answer, “What is it? What was accomplished?”

Two for One
Who doesn’t love a “Buy-One-Get-One” deal?! Nothing beats two for the price of one when it comes to the consumer side of retail. Sometimes this happens in language too. If you’ve had the privilege to learn a second language, you know that sometimes you encounter words in one language that cannot be translated by only one word in the other language. The transfer isn’t quite that simple. Such is the case with the hilas words. Each of the three contains (at least) a double meaning.

First, John used hilasmos in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. The term means an act of appeasement or expiation necessitated by sin and an instrument for appeasing or expiating (viz., a sin-offering). In essence, an appeasement is a satisfaction of a requirement, and an expiation is the removal of the obstacle that has prevented making amends. In the first verse, John writes that “[Jesus] is hilasmos concerning our sins, not only concerning ours but also concerning the whole world’s.” So, Jesus is both the act and the instrument who both appeased God and expiated sin. In the second verse, we read, “In this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son—a hilasmon—concerning our sins.” Here, we discover, as in Romans 5:8, that God sent Jesus, the act and instrument of God’s appeasement and our expiation, to demonstrate his love.

Second, Paul and the writer to the Hebrews used hilasterion in Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5. This term carries with it all the trappings of the former term but gives more color to the word family. Hilasterion carries the concrete meaning of a means, gift, or a place to secure appeasement and/or expiation. In Romans 3:25, Paul wrote, “[Jesus] whom God set forth a hilasterion through faith in his blood as a demonstration of his righteousness because of his deliberate overlooking of previously committed sins.” That is to say, that God always purposed Jesus to be the means, gift, and/or place by, in, and/or where he planned to appease his requirement and expiate the impediment of sin for forgiveness. Hebrews 9:5 helps us narrow down what the Spirit is trying to tell about Jesus. His death is the place wherein we find God’s appeasement and our expiation, because this verse uses hilasterion to describe the mercy seat above the ark where the cherubim overshadowed. In other words, Jesus has become the new mercy seat.

Lastly, Luke and the writer of Hebrews use the verb hilaskomai, which means to cause a deity to be inclined toward grace, favor or to eliminate impediments that alienate a deity. Therefore, it is an action that causes an opportunity for appeasement, expiation, and therefore conciliation. In Luke 18:13, we find a lowly tax collector who knows his inability to appease God and his inability to remove impediments that have alienated him from God. He knows his unworthiness to receive grace, favor, and conciliation from God. On his own, he has no act, no instrument, no means, no gift, and no place for appeasement and expiation. So, he cries, “God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!” He recognizes that God must act from within his own merciful character to provide an act, an instrument, a means, a gift, and a place of appeasement and expiation. This is the cry of the person who truly understands the love letter of Calvary.

The final reference to the verb in Hebrews 2:17 deserves its own paragraph. Here, Jesus acts to make appeasement and expiation. This verse focuses on his incarnation and temptation, which qualified him as a merciful and faithful high priest to hiloskomai. In 4:14–16, the writer returns to stack Jesus’ qualifying resume evermore. In 6:19–20, we read of the qualified Jesus entering behind the curtain. In 7:24–25, we discover that the intercession of Jesus’ priesthood behind the curtain is eternal and “without a successor.” Finally, 7:27 states the identity of the sacrifice—Jesus offered himself once for all. This is how the writer to the Hebrews understood Christ to hilaskomai. Chapters 8–9 detail the temple and covenant in which Jesus ministers: his temple is a heavenly one (the original, not made with human hands), and his covenant is new. In 9:11–28, the writer pulls it all together—the entirety of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s position, work, place, and sacrifice to cause appeasement and expiation.

Worship for Holy Week
Thus, what did Jesus do on the cross? He became and accomplished everything that was needed and required concerning sin both for the appeasement of God and for the expiation of sinners. He became and accomplished as the act, the instrument, the means, the gift, the place, the priest, and the sacrifice. As you worship God during Holy Week, I invite you to believe in the cross but also to believe about the cross. How does it feel to cry out like the lowly tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am” and to hear back, “It is finished”?!

As relationships move from dating to engagement to marriage to accumulating anniversaries, the love letters should continue, but the letters also must come alive in the forms of knowing, becoming, and acting. We are not Jesus. He is unique. Christ alone is the appeasement and the expiation. Yet, the Christian life is an imitation of Christ by the Spirit. I believe what you know and believe about the cross impacts your imitation. How may God be calling you to act instrumentally as a means, a gift, or a place that he purposes to use to draw someone to the cross where a person can find the appeasement and expiation of Jesus Christ? Is your home or church a place, like a “mini-mercy seat,” where sinners can come and find clear direction to Jesus, the Mercy Seat? Do you remove impediments or create impediments for sinners to find mercy from God in Jesus? Are the ministries in which you’re involved existing and functioning in ways that grab the attention of sinners with the kind of mercy that leads to the cross?

As you invite others to hear the gospel on Easter, decorate Jesus for them with what you know to be true about the cross. Sinners seeking mercy will find him and his cross “a wondrous beauty.”

Posted by Rex Howe with 2 Comments


Becca Golden on 4/15/19 2:16pm

Thank you for this - really helped my focus as we embark on this week of specific reflection. His grace is beautiful.

George Steffens on 4/15/19 9:45pm

I'm glad I read this, especially the questions about how I may be impeding another's path to God's mercy. Everywhere we go, someone is potentially influenced for Christ, be it towards or away from him. My prayers are for forgiveness where I have done him disservice, and wisdom about current or future opportunities for his sake.