Does Mercy Seat Work for You?

How do we understand what Jesus is on the cross?

Romans 3:25 speaks of Jesus as a hilasterion. This is translated in some versions as “sacrifice of atonement,” in others as “a propitiation,” and now the CEB is translating it, “the place of sacrifice where mercy is found.”

The word is used in the LXX (Greek translation of the Old Testament) to refer both to the sacrifice of atonement and to the “mercy seat” inside the holy of holies. So what I’d like to hear from you is whether this “mercy seat” idea works for you as a reading of Rom 3:25. Does it make sense in the verse? Can you see how it’d work? Thoughts?

Here’s the passage:

All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness in passing over sins that happened before, during the time of God’s patient tolerance. (Rom 3:23-26, CEB)

10 thoughts on “Does Mercy Seat Work for You?”

  1. Heard Scot McKnight recently say that it was most likely “mercy seat.” Makes more sense to me. Does anyone really know what “propitiation” means?! Is God foaming at the mouth and Jesus settles him down? Does God’s anger have to be assuaged with bribes and gifts, like the pagan gods? Lexically, “propitiation” suggests all of this. But theologically, this doesn’t work, I judge. God does what he does in Jesus freely. This needs more development.

  2. I just checked “The Kingdom New Testament” by N.T. Wright. He has “God put forth Jesus as the place of mercy…” This is certainly in line with the way Wright tends to develop his interpretation from the Exodus. Even within the text, it is congruent with the phrase “passing over sins”.

  3. It works for me. Given the LXX’s use of hilasterion, I can’t help but assume that Paul probably would have had the mercy seat in mind when he wrote Romans. Broadly, it seems that Paul’s main point is that salvation is effected through and by Jesus; he doesn’t seem to focus on what Jesus did (i.e. expiation or propitiation).

  4. Yes, it works for me. I studied under Dr. Lee Magness for my undergraduate, and he began teaching that reading from my freshman year onward. I think that if we are convinced that Romans is written as a flowing dialogue between Old and New, addressing how the Old is fulfilled in the new, and discussing what that means for the people of Israel, then this reading of mercy seat makes perfect sense.

    Jesus is my mercy seat. He is the blood poured between the cherubim, the place of atonement.

  5. I think it reads better in context as “atoning sacrifice”, or, frankly, “propitiation.” The usage feels quite close to 4 Macc. 17.22.

  6. The CEB phrase seems accurate enough, but quite a mouthful. Maybe they would have done better to somehow teach the phrase “mercy seat” when it appears rather than replace it with all those words. (I’m not a professional Bible scholar, but, for what its worth, I think I was taught “mercy seat” for this word in seminary, too.)

  7. Popularised a generation ago by the late, great Aussie NT scholar Leon Morris… as a tidbit of this history, David Hubbard, late, great Fuller President opened his essay in a Festschrift for Morris with these words:
    “Leon Morris has convinced me,” the Distinguished Scottish professor acknowledged. “Every man must have a mercy seat, a place of propitiation.” That statement, awarding to Morris the laurels in his debate with C H Dodd as the whether hilasterion means propitiation or expiation introduced me to Leon Morris’ name nearly twenty years ago…”

    David Allan Hubbard, “Leon Lamb Morris: An Appreciation” in Reconciliation and Hope: New Testament Essays on Atonement and Eschatology ed by Robert Banks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 11

    1. Daniel,

      Here are three reasons why I prefer “mercy seat” as an apt translation of hilasterion.

      1. Jesus as the embodied “mercy seat” of the new covenant looks back to OT themes of purity and cleansing associated with the Day of Atonement.

      2. Having a living “mercy seat” in Jesus reflects Paul’s narrative of extending salvation beyond Israel/Jews to encompass Gentiles as well: The true “mercy seat” of God is effective without distinction for the “all” who have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

      3. “Mercy seat” links quite well with the homily of Hebrews, where Christ appears at the presence of God and “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” and bearing the sins of many (Hebrews 9:24-28). The resurrected, perfected human, Jesus Christ, fully exemplifies the “living sacrifice” that Paul urges for the house churches of Romans (Rom 12:1). Please consider the evidence in David Moffitt’s dissertation that Brill recently published, *A New and Living Way: Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews*. David explains that the blood of a sacrifice emphasizes the living quality of that which is sacrificed.


  8. I’m happy with ‘mercy seat’ but not with ‘a place of sacrifice’. The mercy seat was not the place of sacrifice (this was the bronze altar) but the footstool of God’s throne where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled. The sprinkled blood of atonement made mercy possible for a sinful people; in part because it brought cleansing and in part because brought forgiveness. Forgiveness was possible because a life was taken. The taking of a life was an act of judgement, of judicial wrath (God’s judgements are never emotionless). The sin-offering had been ‘wounded for our transgressions… chastisement that brought peace was laid on him with his stropes we are healed.

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