As Jesus was faced with the imminence of his arrest and crucifixion we are told in Matthew 26:39 that he prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” This is the same Jesus who had assured his followers that God does good things for them when he said, “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7: 9-11). Jesus asked but the answer was “No.” This is the same Jesus, who declared that he could call upon his Father and that God could send at least 72,000 angels to his defense (Matthew 26:53). But his Father didn’t. Why? If what Jesus had said is true why did nothing happen when Jesus prayed, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me?”
The short answer to this question is, “It couldn’t!” Why couldn’t it? That is something important to understand. To grasp this concept, we need to examine Paul’s statement in Romans 3:24-25, when he explains that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” In this passage we need to especially focus on the word “propitiation.” John also uses it to explain what Jesus did in 1 John 2:2, “He is a propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
The central thought in propitiation is “to satisfy God’s justice.” You see, there was no other way to satisfy God’s justice for our sins except through the sacrifice of his son. Jesus knew that and God knew that. So did the writer of Hebrews when he says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). That is why the answer had to be, “No.”
For those who are parents, can you imagine the agony of listening to your son or daughter asking you for something and knowing that if you do it, it will cause him/her pleasure and if you do not she/he will suffer unspeakable pain. And yet you answer no because you know it has to be that way? I can’t think of a situation where I would be willing to do that to my son or daughter. But God had to. That is what propitiation is all about! God doing the unthinkable so that we could be saved.
As we come to share in a piece of bread and a drink of the fruit of the vine, we need to remember that time when there was no other way except for Jesus to do what he did. As we partake, let us appreciate the meaning of the word “propitiation” and be thankful that both God and Jesus Christ loved us enough to pay that price.
The words of the following song (I believe written by Ellis J. Crum) help us to understand more clearly:
He paid a debt he did not owe
I owed a debt I could not pay
I needed someone to wash my sins away.
And now I sing a brand new song,
Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.
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