Hebrews 2:17

Sermon preached on August 13, 2017 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2017. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at http://www.cantonnewlife.org/.

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

Anger is viewed pretty well viewed negatively in our society. We even have anger management classes. I think the only anger that is acceptable today is to be angry at our president.

But is anger always a negative thing? The Bible speaks against man's anger and tells us to be wary of it. James 1:19–20 tells us to be,

"slow to become angry,
for man's anger does not bring about
the righteous life that God desires."

We are also told to beware of sinning when we are angry. Ephesians 4:26 says,

"In your anger do not sin:
Do not let the sun go down
while you are still angry,"

But not all anger is sinful. There is such a thing as righteous anger. When someone sins against a child, does unspeakable things to that child—it is not right to be angry about the violation of that child. To merely wink at such an atrocity would itself be evil.

One of the characteristics of our society is that people like their personal sins so much and don't want to be called out about them so they accept other people's sins. They're not angry about other people's sins because they love their own sin.

People today don't even like the idea that God is ever angry. God, if they think of Him at all, they picture as a grandfatherly figure. They reject the idea of God being angry. Many years ago N. Berdyaev wrote, (Freedom and the Spirit, London, 1944, p. 92, 175)

"The wrath of God described in the Bible is simply an exoteric motif reflecting the wrath of the Jewish people."

In other words, God's wasn't angry, it was the Jewish people who were angry and so they pictured a God who was angry. Berdyaev continues,

"Anger in every shape and form is foreign to God, Whose mercy is infinite."

But one of the central elements in our redemption is the fact that Jesus' work removed God's anger from us. Our text says, (Hebrews 2:17, HCSB)

"Therefore, He had to be like
His brothers in every way,
so that He could become
a merciful and faithful high priest
in service to God,
to make propitiation
for the sins of the people."

The great truth we see here is that

Jesus made propitiation for our sins.

The NIV here says that Jesus made 'atonement' for our sins. But the translation 'atonement' is not the best here. It's not what the word means. The Greek word has two meanings. It can mean, ("ἱλάσκομαι," BDAG, 473, 474)

"1. to cause to be favorably inclined or disposed, propitiate, conciliate 2. to eliminate impediments that alienate the deity, expiate, wipe out,"

It means either to propitiate or to expiate. To propitiate means to avert God's anger. To expiate sin means to cover sin. Those two concepts that the word covers. The word 'atonement' is a wider, a more general term. When we consider the atonement for sin that Jesus made, it includes both propitiation and expiation. It also includes reconciliation and redemption. So to translate it 'atonement' here is not ideal. It should be translated either 'propitiation' or 'expiation'.

But which one should it be? Many people will tell you that here in our verse it should be translated 'expiation' rather than 'propitiation'. There are two reasons for that.

First, there are many theologians who don't like the concept of propitiation because it involves God's anger. Donald MacLeod writes, (Christ Crucified, p. 136)

"The traditional understanding of propitiation was that Christ covered (expiated) our sin by his obedience and sacrifice, and by so doing turned away the anger of God so that we, though deserving it, are no longer liable to it."

John Frame says, (Systematic Theology, p. 903)

"Some scholars have tried to eliminate the theme of propitiation from the Bible, trying to make it a synonym for expiation. These scholars don't like the idea of God's being angry with people because of sin."

C.H. Dodd led that movement. He viewed the idea of propitiation with abhorrence. He taught that the idea of God's anger was a pagan idea, unworthy and inapplicable to the God of the Bible.

But there is so much in the Bible about God's anger, both Old and New Testaments that Dodd's presentation doesn't stand up to the evidence. Leon Morris wrote a great book, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross where he showed that propitiation is indeed a Biblical concept. He writes of God's wrath in the Old Testament, (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p. 174)

"the wrath of God is a conception which cannot be eradicated from the Old Testament irreparable loss. It is not the monopoly of one or two writers, but pervades the entire corpus so that there is no important section of which it can be said, 'Here the wrath of God is unknown.'"

The second reason some people think that in our text the word should be translated 'expiation' is because they believe it better fits the context. There are good Bible believing Christians who believe that our text should text should be translated 'expiation' instead of 'propitiation'. They fully believe in the concept of propitiation but they don't think it fits the context of our text. Their main argument is that the direct object of the verb is the word, 'sins' and therefore the natural translation is, 'to expiate the sins of the people'.

But others disagree and tell us that there is no need to translate it 'expiation' when 'propitiation' is more appropriate. After all, propitiation is, (Leon Morris, p. 204)

'the usual meaning of the verb'.

They tell us that there are indications of God's anger in the immediate context. For example, Jesus is said to be a 'merciful' high priest. Leon Morris writes, (p. 202)

"This word indicates that sinners were in no good cause. They could look only for severe punishment as a recompense for their evil deeds, a thought that reminds us of what is called 'the wrath of God' in other passages."

Another reason Morris gives is that Christ is said to be a high priest 'in things pertaining to God', (p. 202-203)

"thus directing our minds to the Godward rather than the manward aspect of atonement. A Godward aspect… is likely to include propitiation, to put in mildly."

Morris goes on to look at the makeup of the Greek sentence and concludes, (p. 205)

"there is no really good reason for denying… its usual significance."

Indeed, the context of Hebrews, even the immediate context of chapters 2 and 3, has much about God's wrath in it. For example, earlier in chapter 2 the author says, (Hebrews 2:1–3)

"We must pay more careful attention,
therefore, to what we have heard,
so that we do not drift away.
For if the message spoken
by angels was binding,
and every violation and disobedience
received its just punishment,
how shall we escape if we ignore
such a great salvation?"

Then in Hebrews 3, the writer warns us not to harden our hearts like their fathers did in the desert, (Hebrews 3:10–11)

"That is why I was angry
with that generation, and I said,
'Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.'
So I declared on oath in my anger,
'They shall never enter my rest.' "

The latter part of Hebrews is even more forceful. Hebrews 10:30–31 says,

"For we know him who said,
'It is mine to avenge;
I will repay,'
and again,
'The Lord will judge his people.'
It is a dreadful thing to fall
into the hands of the living God."

And then Hebrews 12:29 says,

"for our 'God is a consuming fire.' "

There is much of God's anger against sin throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, in Exodus 32:12, after people made and worshiped the golden calf, Moses interceded for the people and said,

"Why should the Egyptians say,
'It was with evil intent that
he brought them out,
to kill them in the mountains
and to wipe them off
the face of the earth'?
Turn from your fierce anger;
relent and do not bring disaster
on your people."

God had 'fierce anger'. In Numbers 25:4, after many of the Israelites indulged in sexual immorality with Moabite women,

"The LORD said to Moses,
'Take all the leaders of these people,
kill them and expose them
in broad daylight before the LORD,
so that the LORD'S fierce anger
may turn away from Israel.' "

In Psalm 90:7 the psalmist said to God,

"We are consumed by your anger
and terrified by your indignation."

Nahum 1:6 says of God,

"Who can withstand his indignation?
Who can endure his fierce anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire;
the rocks are shattered before him."

Donald Macleod writes, (Christ Crucified, p. 138)

"There is no abatement of this emphasis when we pass from the Old Testament to the New. On the contrary, the divine anger and the need to be delivered from it provide the backdrop to the message of all the great New Testament preachers. John the Baptist, for example, challenges the Pharisees and the Saducees, 'Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?' (Matt. 3:7), and in his letter to the Romans Paul similarly presents his message against the backdrop of the divine wrath that is being revealed 'against all the godlessness and wickedness of people' (Rom. 1:18). This is entirely consistent with the preaching of Jesus himself, who spoke vividly of apocalyptic anger: 'How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people' (Luke 21:23). The reality of this anger was also the background to Jesus' references to hell (e.g., Matt. 5:22; 10:28; 23:33) and to the solemn sentence he personally pronounces at the conclusion of the great judgment scene in Matthew 25: 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire[…]"

Now one of the points that should be made is that the God of the Bible is very different than many of the pagan deities. Donald Macleod writes, (Christ Crucified, p. 138)

"The deities of mythology were irascible and capricious and, when provoked, implacable. No ideas of eternal, self-giving love were ever attributed to them, far less the idea that they would take the first step towards atonement and meet its cost. Fury was their default mood, and appeasing them a costly and intimidating daily burden. The living God was completely different. He was slow to anger, reluctant to condemn and delighting in forgiveness. From the very beginning he had shown himself placable and even taken the initiative in establishing the means of atonement."

Leon Morris writes, (p. 209)

"Those who object to the conception of the wrath of God should realize that what is meant is not some irrational passion bursting forth uncontrollably, but a burning zeal for the right coupled with a perfect hatred for everything that is evil."

There are three lessons we should take from this.


This wrath, this burning zeal of God against sin is a problem for you.

It's a huge problem. God's wrath toward you sin, toward you—needs to be propitiated. Leon Morris writes, (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p. 174)

"Above everything else, the concept of the wrath of God stresses the seriousness of sin."

This is a concept that our society has no concept of. It has denied sin, it has minimized sin so much that it has no conception of the seriousness of sin. They think that there will be no consequences for their behavior.

This attitude has even affected the church. Because society has minimized sin—we have minimized sin. Not as much as the world, but by and large we don't view sin as a huge problem.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) did work on the doctrine of the atonement and when his doctrine was criticized, he would respond by saying,

"Ah, but you haven't pondered the gravity of sin."

We have that problem today. And people that do view sin as a huge problem— we view them as people that aren't mentally well adjusted.

Have you ever the account Martin Luther's struggle before he came to know the biblical doctrine of justification? He knew the seriousness of sin. He knew his sin doomed him.

We're all sinners. Sin has placed us in the headlights of God's wrath.

For Christians,

this doctrine should exhilarate you.

God's anger against you, against your sin—is gone. Jesus has propitiated it. He has taken God's wrath, that was against your sin, against you—and borne it. It was diverted to Him. He has extinguished it. That anger against you, has been thoroughly satisfied.

This is such a freeing though. It's exhilarating. Donald Macleod writes, (A Faith to Live By, p. 152)

"It was Luther's discovery of this great fact—not only of justification but of the atonement that lay beneath it—that liberated Europe from the bondage of an evil conscience. It is [a] such a pity that many of us in the Reformed tradition, Luther's heirs, know so little of the exhilaration, the sheer sense of emancipation, that should come from this knowledge. God has nothing against us."

If you're not a Christian, this doctrine should drive you to Christ.

God's righteous anger against you, against your sin needs to be satisfied. It will either be satisfied by you enduring it forever and ever—or by Jesus. He suffered on the cross and laid down His life for sinners. He endured the wrath due to their sins. You need Him. Go to Him. Repent and turn to Him today.