Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 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. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
(Hebrews 2:14-18 ESV)
This morning we are being invited to dip our toe in an ocean of theological truth we will never understand fully until we stand before the Lord face to face and all questions are answered forever. And yet, to leave the water untried because it is ultimately over our depth is to give simplistic answers that announce to all that we learned our theology by rote.
We need to start almost at the end of the passage, which states that Jesus is a faithful high priest in the service of God, who makes propitiation for the sins of the people. The writer to the Hebrews tightly defines who “the people” are – offspring of Abraham.
We don’t need to access this through Paul’s interpretation. And thank God for that, or our theology of the atonement would rest solely on a secondary source. Jesus, speaking to the Jews said, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
So it is those who love Jesus and have consciously turned away from the worship of a false idol (Satan) that are the Children of Abraham. It is not a natural line, born of blood, but an adoptive line, born of love.
Now we need to understand propitiation. Some weeks ago we defined it based on the Old Testament use of the word as “Mercy Seat”: the place of propitiation. But what the word actually means is, “that by which God is rendered propitious, i.e., that 'satisfaction' or 'appeasement' by which it becomes consistent with his character and government to pardon and bless sinners. The propitiation does not procure his love or make him loving; rather, it renders it consistent for him to exercise his love towards sinners.” Of all places, this definition comes from Wikipedia (emphasis mine).
The typical, and simplistic, judicial explanation of a substitutionary atonement talks of an angry Judge who must mete out punishment on someone. Somehow, because of love, he has his own son hauled off to be executed in exchange for the freedom of the condemned man. The problem with this explanation is that it violates the love God has for his Son, and the whole idea of propitiation becomes impossible, because in the judicial explanation, God has not behaved in a loving way toward his own Son. It justifies a lesser evil (the death of one) to prevent a greater evil (the death of many).
But if Jesus offered himself in a love that is consistent with God’s character in order to fundamentally alter something in us that would make us consistent with the character and love of God, then the whole thing works. In this scenario Jesus is not appeasing the demands of an angry and righteous Judge, he is our priest-brother bowing in love before a loving Father to make consistent the hearts of those he calls to love him.
Who, then, was the judge demanding a death, if it was not God? The writer to the Hebrews tells us, though C.S. Lewis put it in a way our childlike minds could better understand. In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch demands the child Edmund’s life because he was a traitor to Aslan. She says, “You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill...that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property..." "It is very true," said Aslan, "I do not deny it.”
Later, after Aslan takes Edmund’s place and dies on the Stone Table and is raised again, defeating the White Witch and sending her and her minions packing, Aslan explains to the children, ”though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know: Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitors stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards...”
The death of Christ was not to appease an angry God. It was to destroy forever the usurper who had set himself up as Judge in the place of God and demanded the death of all traitors – the death of all who have sinned. The death of Christ also ultimately abolishes the fear of death that all humans since the Fall have lived with deep in the pit of our stomach. He abolishes the fear because, in the death of Christ, death itself is satisfied and is abolished forever for all of the Children of Abraham, for all who love Christ and find their satisfaction in him.