Today in church we considered these words from a parable that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). In the story, these two men were praying in the temple.
Of the two, the tax collector got the idea of the temple. It was the place where God assured his people that He was a God who forgives. He forgives wrong doers on the basis of an acceptable sacrifice — one that God had instituted.
The pharisee thought that he had made the grade. He had done sufficient for God to accept him. He had not come looking for mercy; he had come for congratulations. That is why he prayed to himself about his religious activities. Jesus said that these things did not justify the pharisee before God.
The tax collector, the bad guy, had come to understand that he was a lawless person whose bad deeds had offended his God and creator. His words indicate that he understood the temple’s purpose. He said, “Have mercy on me a sinner!”
This was not a request that God should simply overlook the tax collector’s bad deeds. It was a plea that God would act to take away his guilt by an acceptable sacrifice. Literally, the tax collector says, “Make propitiation for me, a sinner!”
To make propitiation means to do whatever is necessary to remove the cause of offence.
On the day of atonement, in the days of the temple, the blood of a bull was sprinkled by the high priest onto a gold plate that was on top of the ark of the covenant. That plate was called the mercy — the propitiation — seat. Propitiation was made by the death of a substitute.
The tax collector recognised that one must die for him if he were to be rescued from the death and judgement that his sins deserved. He was asking God to make propitiation for him.
Our Lord Jesus, who was telling this story, is the answer to that prayer. In Romans 3:24-25 we are told the Christ Jesus, God the Son, is the propitiation for our sins by his death. This propitiation is received by faith. We simply trust that Christ has done all that is necessary to remove our guilt and to reconcile us to God. This is good news.