N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
(Rom. 3:24-25 NET) 24 But they are justified [declared faithful to God’s covenants with the Jews] freely by his grace through the redemption [freedom from slavery] that is in Christ [King/Messiah] Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat [place of forgiveness in the Holy of Holies, God’s throne on earth] accessible through faith [faithfulness/trust]. This was to demonstrate his righteousness [faithfulness to the covenant], because God in his forbearance [tolerant patience] had passed over the sins previously committed [by whom?].
I’ve refined my inserted text a bit, changing the brackets after “justified” to be “declared faithful to God’s covenants with the Jews.” After all, “righteous” means “covenant faithful,” and God had no covenant with the Gentiles.
We tend to think of the “new covenant” of Jer 31:31ff, referenced by Jesus at the Last Supper, as being with both Jews and Gentiles — but there were no Gentiles in the room, and the Gentiles at the cross were Roman soldiers, not followers of the Messiah. The covenant was made with Israel — and then later the Gentiles were invited in. “The Jews first and also to the Greeks.”
Most Christians have no idea what the “mercy seat” was. I didn’t know until recently. And most translations don’t have “mercy seat” in v. 25. Instead, most have “propitiation” or “sacrifice of atonement,” although William Tyndale has “seate of mercy.” So the NET Bible’s choice is not new.
The NET Bible translator notes explain
The word ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion) may carry the general sense “place of satisfaction,” referring to the place where God’s wrath toward sin is satisfied. More likely, though, it refers specifically to the “mercy seat,” i.e., the covering of the ark where the blood was sprinkled in the OT ritual on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). This term is used only one other time in the NT: Heb 9:5, where it is rendered “mercy seat.” There it describes the altar in the most holy place (holy of holies).
Thus Paul is saying that God displayed Jesus as the “mercy seat,” the place where propitiation was accomplished. See N. S. L. Fryer, “The Meaning and Translation of Hilasterion in Rom 3:25, ” EvQ 59 (1987): 99-116, who concludes the term is a neuter accusative substantive best translated “mercy seat” or “propitiatory covering,” and D. P. Bailey, “Jesus As the Mercy Seat: The Semantics and Theology of Paul’s Use of Hilasterion in Rom 3:25″ (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1999), who argues that this is a direct reference to the mercy seat which covered the ark of the covenant.
This still isn’t all that clear. Let’s start with the basics. The tabernacle was a tent built by the Israelites as a mobile temple. In the heart of the tabernacle was the “Holy Place” or “Sanctuary” where the priests served. Within the Holy Place was the Holy of Holies or Most Holy Place, which was separated by a curtain or veil (wiggly red line in the illustration) from the rest of the Holy Place.
Within the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant. A lid was placed over the Ark (meaning “box”) with carved cherubim (angels) with touching wings. And this was called the Mercy Seat — the throne of God. Eo 25:19-22 gives the plans and specs.
As you see, for a human, physical being, it doesn’t look at all like a throne — or even a comfortable place to sit. Or even a “seat.” But this is where God’s presence was. And the same was later true as to Solomon’s Temple, built on a grander scheme but with the same elements.
(Exod. 25:17-22 ESV) 17 “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. 18 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. 21 And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony [the Ten Commandments] that I shall give you. 22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.”
So the mercy seat was where God himself was present. To call Jesus “the mercy seat” is to say that God himself is present in Jesus and speaks to us through Jesus. But there’s more.
As a general rule, it was forbidden for anyone to enter the Most Holy Place because God’s Presence was there in the form of a cloud.
(Lev. 16:1-2 ESV) The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died, 2 and the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.”
Lev 16 then lays out the very elaborate ritual of the Day of Atonement in which the sins of the people were placed on a goat — the scapegoat — who was released into the wilderness. The scapegoat did not die to take away the sins of the people. Rather, he was put outside the camp — cut off, as it were — from the community and the presence of God. But not killed. (Jesus was doubtlessly crucified outside the city walls of Jerusalem.)
The high priest underwent an elaborate cleansing process and then was to enter the Most Holy Place.
(Lev. 16:12-16 ESV) 12 “And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. 14 And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
15 “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering [not the scapegoat] that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.
Notice that the purpose of the blood was not to pay for the sins of the people, as though the blood of a goat carried a value equal to the penalty for the sins of a nation for one entire year! Rather, this is a cleansing ritual, cleansing the mercy seat from the stain of the sins of the people. The Holy Place itself was being purified.
Here the “pollution” refers to the ritual impurities described in chapters 11–15 and the moral impurities generated by the violation of prohibitive commandments (see 4:2). The ritual in the sanctuary concerns itself with removing its pollution (also caused by Israel’s wrongs; see below); while the rite with the Azazel goat, by contrast, focuses not on pollution, the effects of Israel’s wrongs, but exclusively on the wrongs themselves.
Jacob Milgrom, A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 170.
Now, this rite that occurs annually at the mercy seat is not a propitiation. The animal that is surrendered for sin is the scapegoat. The goat that is slaughtered is sacrificed as part of a cleansing ritual.
Hence, if Jesus is the “mercy seat,” he is the place where God is present, where God speaks, and where atonement occurs — not by substitutionary sacrifice but by condemning sin in the flesh.
Again, I’m drawn to Abraham’s blood covenant with God. God promised not only to take Abraham’s sin for him, but to be the one responsible for obedience. God, in effect blamed himself, taking on the guilt of the covenant violation.
Now, that doesn’t entirely solve our “substitutionary atonement” problem, that is, the justice of Jesus taking on the penalty for someone else’s sins, but it gets us closer. After all, the promise was made at the very beginning of the covenant. It’s part of the covenant — not a way around the covenant problem. God has always said that he himself would suffer the consequences of covenant violation.
Second, as we’ve noted before, this is not Jesus satisfying God’s anger. It’s God paying the price of redemption because he’d always planned for it to turn out this way.