THE writers of the New Testament were familiar with the books of the Old Testament. They probably learned to read them first in Hebrew, but in their adult lives they used the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. Although this version of the Old Testament was not produced under inspiration, it serves as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. When the apostles use terms associated with the religious practices and beliefs of the heathen, it is often the case that they are quoting from the Septuagint, which had adapted such words to express Bible truths. It follows that the real meaning of a New Testament passage is more likely to be found by going back through the Septuagint to the Hebrew than by accepting the implications of the classical, that is to say, the heathen use of the word in question.
The hilaos family of words is a good example of this. In classical writing, hilaos describes gods or men when they are happy and well-disposed. It is related to hilaros, from which comes our word hilarious. The word is twice used in the New Testament in its Attic form, hileos. Peter responds to Christ's statement of His coming death with the rebuke, "Hileos soil" (Matt. 16: 22). This was probably an idiomatic expression reflecting the common belief that everything that happens to mortals depends upon how the gods are feeling. It corresponds to such expressions as "Heaven forbid!" or, more closely, "Lord love you!" Propitiousness is the wish—"God be gracious enough to prevent such a thing from ever happening to you!"
Although this is an inspired report of what Peter said, we must not immediately conclude that his statement was itself inspired and, therefore, theologically correct. His words "were not in harmony with God's purpose of grace toward a lost world" (The Desire of Ages, p. 415). Peter thought that such things could happen to the Lord only if God were unpropitious to Him. He had not yet grasped the idea that it was love in the hearts of both the Father and the Son that moved them to identify the Sinless One with sin, and permit Him to reap its dire consequences.
The other use of hileos is a quotation from the Septuagint. It is part of the New Covenant. "I will be merciful to their unrighteousness" (Heb. 8:12). There is no thought of propitiation here. In Jeremiah's original statement of the covenant, he uses salach, a Hebrew word which means to send away (Jer. 31:34), and thus harmonizes with the chief feature of the tabernacle symbolism—the removal of sin from the repentant sinner. The word used for unrighteousness in Hebrews is adikia, the state of not being justified or approved. In Jeremiah it is awon, or "crookedness," "the bent to sin." When God is permitted to work out His new covenant in man, the law is written in the heart and the natural crooked bent to sin is removed. This removal of the root of sin constitutes God's graciousness, described in Greek by hileos.
Propitiation or Covering?
There is more question about the meaning of the verb, hilaskomai. In the classics, it is commonly used to express the changing of the hostile attitude of the gods into kindliness. It occurs twice in the New Testament. As with hileos, the first use is by one who does not understand the plan of salvation. We read that the publican cried, "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13). But his real prayer is, "Lord, let Thyself be propitiated to me." He thought that his sins were so great that God could not love him without some intervention, some change in His attitude. He did not realize that sin itself brings suffering and death, which the unchanging love of God cannot prevent unless the sinner allows himself to be brought into harmony with the law. The change must be in the sinner, not in the Lord.
The book of Hebrews uses hilaskomai in saying that our High Priest makes reconciliation for sins (Heb. 2:17). If the word were used to mean propitiate or reconcile, God would be the object, as in the story of the publican. But sin is the object of hilaskomai in Hebrews. Sin can neither be reconciled nor propitiated, so that the verb must have some other meaning here.
In the Septuagint, hilaskomai is used to translate kipper, "to cover" (3); nacham, "to mourn" or "to sigh" (1); and salach, "to send away sin" (7). Much more common is the stronger form with ek, which indicates that the action is worked out to the full. Exhilaskomai is used in the Septuagint nearly 80 times to translate kipper. In the article on kipper, it was shown that this Hebrew word, usually translated "make an atonement for," really meant "to cover in some special sense." When the sinner had completed the offering of his sacrifice for sin and the priest had done his part, the sinner had been covered by the merits of the sacrifice in regard to his confessed sin, and the sin had been removed from him and taken into the sanctuary.
With this background, familiar to all the Jewish Christians, it is almost certain that the word in Hebrews was meant to tell us that the antitypical High Priest does for our sins in fact what the typical priest did in symbol—by the merits of His own sacrifice, which we accept as ours, He covers us with His robe of righteousness and separates from us the sins that we have confessed. In this way, our sins are removed from us and from the sight of the Father, and we are accepted by Heaven as sinless.
Hilasmos is a noun from the same family of words, used twice in the New Testament. It is translated "propitiation" ("expiation" in the R.S.V.) in both cases which occur in the First Epistle of John (chaps. 2:2; 4:10). It is clear from the second of these passages that John did not use the word in its heathen or classical sense of that which brings about a change in the attitude of a god, for he says that God Himself was the active party, in that He sent His Son—the propitiation for our sins. Reference to the Septuagint shows that hilasmos and its stronger form, exhilasmos, are used to translate kippurim, "coverings," a Hebrew word that the K.J.V. always gives as "atonement," as in "day of atonement." John was thoroughly familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, as shown by his use of Hebrew modes of thought, so that it would be natural for him to use the word in its Old Testament rather than its classical sense, and say that "Jesus Christ the righteous... is the covering [or atonement] for our sins," thus harmonizing with the meaning of the verb hilaskomai.
In both places, John uses the preposition peri. This is frequently used in the sense of "for;" but it is an exact translation of the Hebrew word which is used with kipper nine times in the Old Testament and frequently in the Dead Sea scrolls. Although almost invariably translated "make an atonement for," the combination really means "cover round about," and may be taken to show the completeness of the process by which sin is separated from the sinner and hidden from the sight of God. To make hilasmos peri mean "coverings round about" our sins would fit into the immediate context, be in line with the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament, and harmonize with the general teaching of the Scriptures concerning the relationship of God and Christ to each other and to the repentant sinner.