Sometimes we come across words in the Bible that we no longer use in ordinary conversation. When we read such words we should remind ourselves that these words would have been understood by the original readers. One such word is propitiation and it means that the wrath of God is turned aside by a sacrifice.
The word points to a specific aspect of the work of Christ on the cross and we should note that John introduces it when he is explaining to Christians what happens in heaven when a believer sins on earth. John has already pointed out that Jesus is the Advocate in heaven who functions as the friend and helper of his people when they sin on earth. But John wants his readers to realise that an important aspect of the method of Jesus’ representation of his people is that he is their propitiation.
There is one obvious difference between Jesus as a propitiation and all other propitiatory sacrifices – Jesus is alive. Notice that John uses the present tense – he says that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. This means that the effect of the sacrifice of Christ is long-lasting. Sixty years had passed since Jesus had died, and John says that the achievements of his Saviour’s death are still effective. This was in contrast to the sacrifices that were offered in Israel which had to be repeated because their effect was short, such as the annual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, which had to be repeated every year, or the daily sacrifices made for sins. And the sacrifice of Jesus is still effective today – it will never have to be repeated.
The effect is also long-lasting personally as far as each believer in Jesus is concerned. Christians who are in a healthy spiritual state will be concerned about their sins. Each of them knows that these sins result in divine chastisement and will wonder if God’s anger against sin will be revealed against them. When they come to God and confess their sins they are to remind themselves that in heaven their Advocate achieves their security because he presents himself continually as the One who made propitiation for their sins.