In the Temple Solomon built was an enormous bronze bowl, sitting on twelve bronze bulls. It was 45 feet in circumference. It had a name; it was called “The Sea.” (II Chronicles 4:2, I Kings 7:33)
Also in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, was the Ark of the Covenant. It was a wooden chest plated with pure gold and it contained holy relics. The lid, also of wood covered with pure gold, had a statue of a cherub on either end of it. (A cherub is a glorious rank of angel, not one of those cute, winged, Valentine babies.) The space on the Ark’s lid between the cherubim was the Mercy Seat. It was where God’s mercy was to be met. It was where, once a year, the high priest sprinkled animal blood. You’ll recall from previous posts in this series that in Hebrew thought, where blood is, there is life. Mercy was given from the top of the Ark of the Covenant because the life-giving blood was sprinkled there.
The Mercy Seat, then, is the place of God’s favor and mercy. (And this, regardless of how the ancient Israelites may have understood it.) The Mercy Seat is neither where God’s changeless favor and mercy are won nor where His free gift is bought, but where His mercy and favor appear, in the form of the blood. That blood is the token of our life offered back to God together with the animal's, and life from an animal (typifying Life from Christ) being offered to the sinner.
The Glory of God shone above the Mercy Seat, and it was the place where God promised to dwell and to “meet with thee.” (Exodus 25:17-22)
The Mercy Seat is described in Hebrews. “…above [the Ark] were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.” (Hebrews 9:5)
The word “mercy seat” in the this verse as well as in the Old Testament (Septuagint Bible) is, in Greek, hilasterion (“hee-la-STARE-ee-own” if you use the Erasmian pronunciation). The word also means “propitiation,” in reference to the Mercy Seat, for the Mercy Seat, like the giant bronze bowl, had a name. It was called “The Propitiation.” Thus, the verse in Hebrews could have been translated, “…above [the Ark] were the cherubim of glory overshadowing The Propitiation.” Bear in mind that propitiation, for the Christian, has no implication of changing the unchanging God. (And this, regardless of how the ancient Israelites may have understood it.)
St. Paul tells us that Christ is our new and true hilasterion:
“… whom God set forth as a hilasterion through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because of the paresis of the sins that were previously committed, by God’s forbearance.” (Romans 3:25)
The Greek word, paresis (“PAR-eh-seess”) is related to paralysis and means weakness or numbing effect. God had up to now left us in this semi-paralyzed state inflicted upon us by our sins; but now, to demonstrate His righteousness, He comes to free us, providing us a new Mercy Seat, “that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (v. 26)
Here is what St. John Chrysostom had to say about this passage, Romans 3:25-26:
For he does not say “for the sins,” but, “for the relaxing,” that is, the deadness. For there was no longer any hope of recovering health, but as the paralyzed body needed the hand from above, so doth the soul which hath been deadened. And what is indeed worse, a thing which he sets down as a charge, and points out that it is a greater accusation. Now what is this? That the last state was incurred in the forbearance of God. For you cannot plead, he means, that you have not enjoyed much forbearance and goodness. But the words “at this time” are those of one who is pointing out the greatness of the power and love toward man. For after we had given all over, (he would say,) and it were time to sentence us, and the evils were waxed great and the sins were in their full, then He displayed His own power, that you might learn how great is the abundance of righteousness with Him. For this, had it taken place at the beginning, would not have had so wonderful and unusual an appearance as now, when every sort of cure was found unavailing. (St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Romans, Homily VII.)
While we were sinning, the Saint says, God was being kind and indulgent. As a result, our affliction grew worse. God let it, because had He healed us right away, the wonder would not have appeared as great. If God were to cure you of typhoid the first time you coughed, would you even know He had done it? But if He were to wait until you were nearly dead, and then raise you from your sickbed in perfect health...!
God forbore to wreak vengeance upon us. That doesn't mean He is about to change course now! No, now His righteousness is going to be demonostrated a different, new, better way: by rescuing us from our sin. He rescues us from it by destroying it, as we've seen. Revenge, in comparison with this, would be a crude and childish justice. It would be the "eye for an eye" kind of justice Christ used to contrast with the kind He wanted us to practice in order to be like our heavenly Father: turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, give your cloak to the man who stole your coat. Such "justice" would be merely retaliation by a petty god instead of correction by the True God.
The true justice of the true and living God is to make things just; that is, to set things back to rights, to make things as they were intended to be, to make the story end as it should. (Yes, I know; there are quite a few people who think the story ought to end with certain people frying in hell, but of course such an attitude is hardly loving, hardly Christian! And it remains to be seen what ending our gracious, kind, compassionate, good God will bestow, perhaps one far beyond our ability to imagine.)
Paresis can also be translated “passing over, letting pass, neglecting, disregarding”. That would render the verse: “… whom God set forth as The Propitiation [Mercy Seat] through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because of the passing by of the sins that were previously committed, by God’s forbearance.”
If we use "passing by" to translate paresis, we must be careful not to accuse God, or attribute to St. Paul an accusation against God, of having failed to supply chastisement in appropriate measure! This He certainly did all along, as the Holy Scriptures abundantly attest.
What He had not provided for us until “the present time” was a definitive escape from sin and death. God, by waiting until the time was right to send the Son into the world, had appeared to be neglecting the catastrophe of sin and simply allowing His handiwork (us) to die! What kind of a supposedly all-powerful and loving God would do that? Now He comes to demonstrate that He does not overlook our plight. Now He shows His supreme righteousness (justice), exceeding any we had ever imagined, by justifying those who live by faith in Christ – which justifying, in New Testament usage, is the same as giving us life.
In the words of St. Irenaeus,
For if man, who had been created by God that he might live, after losing life, through being injured by the serpent that had corrupted him, should not any more return to life, but should be utterly [and for ever] abandoned to death, God would [in that case] have been conquered, and the wickedness of the serpent would have prevailed over the will of God. But inasmuch as God is invincible and long-suffering, He did indeed show Himself to be long-suffering in the matter of the correction of man and the probation of all, as I have already observed; and by means of the second man [Christ] did He bind the strong man [satan], and spoiled his goods, (Matthew 11:29) and abolished death, vivifying that man who had been in a state of death. (St. Ireneaus, Against Heretics, 3, XXIII, 1.)
Christ, then, died to be our new Mercy Seat, the place where God meets us, where His own Life-bearing blood is sacrificed to bring us Divine Life, and God is pleased to display His righteousness by justifying (vivifying) us.
We will have more to ponder concerning justification in the next post in this series.