RPM, Volume 15, Number 7, February 10 to February 16, 2013

Every Christian a Lexicographer

John 1:5-2:2
(Series on 1 John: No. 3)

By Robert Rayburn

A lexicographer is someone who compiles a dictionary, someone who is interested in and cares about the precise and accurate definition of words. And that is what a Christian ought to be, because words, especially the special words of the Bible, the words which are particularly important for conveying the Bible's main truth and chief themes, ought to be and will be of immense significance to every genuine believer. By words we learn the mind of God and experience the full impact of divine truth in our heart and our life.

Dictionaries, especially dictionaries of Biblical words in Hebrew and Greek, or lexicons as they are also called, are a chief tool of the minister's trade. I measured my library's collection of such books and found that I had almost five feet of shelf space occupied by such dictionaries or lexicons. And that is as it should be; for God has spoken to us in words, and we learn his truth and love by those words.

In the first two verses of 1 John 2, there are two such weighty, special words--words which have become of great importance by the use the Holy Spirit makes of them in Holy Scripture. In each case, the NIV has translated a single word with a phrase, and thereby has perhaps unwittingly dulled the edge of these two potent and wonderful words.

I want briefly to define these two words, and then, as a preparation for our coming to the table of the Lord this morning restate John's great exhortation and encouragement with which the second chapter begins.

The first of these two words is 'parakletos' which you sometimes hear transliterated into English as 'paraclete' and which the NIV has rendered 'one who speaks in our defense.' John is the only NT writer who uses this word. The word itself, by its etymology or the original meaning of its parts put together, meant--'someone called alongside, i.e., as a helper.' Later it came to have a legal use for the officer of the court we might call a defense attorney--someone who pleads your case in court. Indeed, the early Latin translations of the Greek NT used the Latin legal term 'advocate' as a translation for 'paraclete.' Here, there certainly seems to be something of this courtroom flavor sense, though the word's general sense of helper, or intercessor, anyone who pleads your case or takes your side also makes good sense.

Remember, in John's Gospel, in the discourse in the Upper Room, the night of our Savior's betrayal and the Last Supper, he spoke of his returning to the Father but of his sending another 'advocate' or 'paraclete' to take his place, that is, the Holy Spirit.

Clearly then, both Jesus and the Holy Spirit have this office of pleading for, of taking the side of, and of arguing the case for the people of God. And this work of pleading our case the rest of the NT agrees is the joint work of both the Lord Christ and the Holy Spirit. Paul speaks of the Spirit 'interceding for the saints' in Romans 8:26, 27, and in verse 34 of the same chapter, speaks of Jesus, who is at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us.' John may be the only NT writer who uses the term 'paraclete', but the idea conveyed by that great word is a commonplace in the NT.

Here John says we have Jesus Christ as our paraclete, our advocate, the one who pleads our case with God the Father.

The second word which carries the weight of John's great statement in 1 John 2:1-2 is 'hilasmos.' One of the measures of the importance of words is how often great controversies in theology and in the interpretation of the Bible are over the proper definition of words. 'Hilasmos' is such a word and such a controversy.

The KJV translated 'hilasmos' with the English word 'propitiation.' Propitiation means the turning away of wrath, the placating of anger. And that is, in fact, as careful research has demonstrated time and again, exactly what 'hilasmos' means.

But the idea that God is a God of wrath, that he is angry with the wicked, and that that anger must be turned away from us if we are to be saved, is not a popular idea among sinners, including scholarly sinners, and a number of sophisticated efforts have been made to take the 'wrath' out of the word 'hilasmos'. Usually the claim is that the word means simply forgiveness or expiation.

These writers point to the pagan religions, which all had the idea that their gods often lost their tempers, flew off the handle against their human subjects, and had to be appeased and mollified by gifts and presents. Remember in Homer's The Iliad that when the Greek expeditionary force set off to rescue Princess Helen, who had been captured and carried off to Troy, their ships were hampered by contrary winds.

Agamemnon, the Greek General, sent home for his daughter and had her sacrificed to appease the evidently hostile gods. The move paid off in Homer's epic, the west winds began to blow and soon the Greek fleet was anchored off Troy.

That would be propitiation, these scholars argue, and it is unworthy of the God of the Bible, the God of justice and love. And, of course, they are right. That kind of propitiation, and that kind of ill-tempered wrath are unworthy of God. But that is not what the Bible teaches at all concerning the true propitiation for our sins which Christ Jesus accomplished. There is nothing low, mean-spirited, or ill-tempered about the wrath of the true and living God: that wrath is his holy justice and purity expressing itself against our sins. And it is not we who mollify him, but God himself, who in his matchless love determined to deliver his beloved people from sin and death, who sends his only and beloved Son to suffer his own wrath that it might be turned away from us.

As John writes in 4:10, the only other place where 'hilasmos' appears in First John: 'This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as the propitiation for our sins.'

This is propitiation, the appeasing of divine wrath, provoked by our sins--but it is the farthest thing from such pagan notions of propitiation--it is pure, holy, and flows from the all-merciful heart of God himself. John Murray, the late theologian, put it this way: 'The Doctrine of Propitiation is precisely this that God loved the objects of his wrath so much that He gave his own Son to the end that He by his blood should make provision for the removal of this wrath. It was Christ's so to deal with the wrath that the loved would no longer be the objects of wrath, and love would achieve its aim of making the children of wrath the children of God's good pleasure.'

The NIV translates 'hilasmos' in v. 2 as 'atoning sacrifice'. Now the translators did that not because they think 'hilasmos' means simply forgiveness and not propitiation. They chose their translation because they didn't think anyone knew any longer what the word 'propitiation' means. I think they made a mistake in that, because anyone can look up 'propitiation' in a dictionary and find out that it means 'the turning away of wrath or the placating of anger'. But no one is sure and no one can very easily find out what 'atoning sacrifice' means unless you are well acquainted with the OT teaching about how the Levitical sacrifices represented the turning away of God's anger from a sinner through the death of a substitute.

Anyway, what John says, is that Jesus Christ, our paraclete, our advocate with the Father, in the heavenly court room as it were, is the propitiation--which is only a short way of saying, is the one who by his life and death in our place as our substitute, has turned away from us God's anger on account of our sins.

Now here is the genuine believer's dilemma: he or she knows that with a new nature granted by the Spirit of God, and with a great salvation which deserves a perfect and whole-souled obedience, love, and service in return, and with a Savior whom he or she loves passionately and desires above all things to please--I say, a genuine believer knows that he or she should not sin, need not sin, and must not sin. But sins, nevertheless, continue: sins of the heart, and sins of the tongue, and sins of the hand; sins of attitude and sins of behavior; secret sins and sins committed in the full light of day; betrayals of everyone of the ten commandments and each of them a still deeper betrayal of one of the two greatest commandments.

A young Christian or a new Christian may think, for a while, that he or she is living quite well, but as understanding grows of the exquisite holiness of God and the infinitely high demands of his holy law, an astonishment sets in that a new creature in Christ can really still harbor so much wrong in his or her life. And as the years pass and those hated sins continue, despite all the penitential tears and all the painful, secret labors of a much tried and consecrated heart, it comes to every Christian, sooner or later, to wonder if he or she has not tried the heavenly Father's patience past the breaking point, to wonder if God will at last say 'NO MORE' when he or she comes pleading for the umpteenth time for the forgiveness of the same still utterly inexcusable sins.

Well, seeing our sins committed for so long in defiance of God's wonderful grace and mercy, we might well believe that God would finally cast off children as ungrateful as we so regularly are. But we have an advocate, one who speaks in our defense. And what kind of advocate is he who is now and always defending us to the Father, who takes our side and argues our case?

Well, I have an attorney friend in Scotland who began practicing law in Aberdeen while Florence and I were living there. His first case--the kind of case rookie lawyers are assigned in big firms, required the defense of a man accused of beating up a neighbor. The neighbor's face had been rather badly beaten, was bruised and bloody. But my friend's client insisted upon pleading innocent, and the burden of his defense--the defense my friend was obliged to make in arguing his very first case in a courtroom before a judge, was that the neighbor's face had been so bruised and disfigured not because his client had beaten him up, but au contraire because the man had beaten himself up, by striking himself again and again in the face. Well, it may not surprise you to learn that my attorney friend lost his first case. However competent an advocate he may have been, he had no case. Might that be the case with our Advocate in heaven; a competent defense attorney, but having no case?

I know of another advocate, this one much more successful. My father loves to tell the story of a young man who came to Covenant College years ago from the prairies of South Dakota. He was a very personable young fellow, everyone liked him, and he had many admirable points. But he had one very bad habit. He smoked, which was against the rules. Time after time he was caught smoking and time after time would make his appearance before my Dad. Finally, after the umpteenth time, as much as he liked the fellow, and as much as it pained him to do it, Dad felt he had no choice but to expel him.

That very day, another Covenant student--now a PCA pastor, came to Dad and plead for the student to be given one last chance and promised that he himself would stand good for him and see to it that he did not break the rule again. Dad felt that that kind of advocacy and commitment to a fellow student deserved its reward and the expulsion was rescinded. The young man who was thus spared by the advocacy of his friend, eventually graduated from Covenant College, later from Covenant Theological Seminary, and has had a distinguished career as a Chaplain in the US Army and more important still a much used and much blessed ministry in his chaplaincy. He is now one of the Army's highest ranking and best regarded chaplains, presently the Post Chaplain at Fort Benning, Georgia. And all because he had an advocate, one to speak in his defense and plead his cause.

Now, that is more like the advocate we need; except our sins are much graver and much more numerous than merely a few times caught smoking against the rules. As much as we admire this young student advocate, we rightly feel that our case would be beyond his ability to win.

But what of the Paraclete, who is now at the Right Hand interceding for us? No rookie attorney, no Christian college student this Advocate. He is the Son of God, the second person of the Triune Majesty, who was sent into the world by a loving Father to substitute himself for his people, to satisfy the demands of God's holy justice on their behalf, and so turn away from them the holy wrath of God against their sins. He perfectly fulfilled his Father's commission on our behalf; he lived a life of perfect obedience, he endured every manner of humiliation, and then suffered the full weight of divine wrath against our sin as he perished upon the cross.

And now HE pleads our cause in heaven! He speaks in our defense. He raises nail pierced hands while arguing our case in the throne-room of heaven. Perfectly righteous himself; having covered all of our sins, paying for them completely with his suffering and death, he presents on our behalf and for our sins--even the sins we continue to commit day after day as Christian people--the perfect and complete sacrifice he made for those sins at his Father's request.

When we come day after day confessing our sins and pleading for forgiveness, will God say, could God say--'No more' to his own Son, to the Righteous One, to the one who had exhaustively satisfied for all those sins in his own suffering and death. Never! That Jesus Christ is now our Advocate, pleading our case, sin by sin, in heaven.

Augustus Toplady was only putting the Apostle John's two great words into lovely verse when he wrote:

Be mindful of Jesus and me!
My pardon He suffer'd to buy;
And what he procured on the tree,
For me He demands in the sky!

And he demands it from a heavenly Father whose love for us was what sent Christ into the world to die in the first place. Here then are two words which are the perfection of our hope and our confidence as sinful people:

Paraclete: advocate, intercessor, defender

Propitiation: the turning away of God's holy wrath on account of our sins.

Our advocate is also our propitiation--a propitiation so perfect, so complete, that it overwhelms not only all my sins and yours, but the sins of all who ever have or will by the grace of God call upon the name of the Lord from every tongue, tribe, and nation on this earth.

The Holy Spirit and the Apostle are saying this to us this morning: Do not sin; set yourself against any and every sin; do not allow yourself ever to indulge the deceit that since there is forgiveness, it matters not whether I sin.

Do not sin. But when you do, as you will, be sure of this: great as your sin is indeed, the Savior and the salvation you have got in Jesus Christ is greater still by far. And rest and glory in this, as Toplady put it in another of his hymns on this theme:

If Thou has my discharge procured,
And freely in my {place} endured
The whole of wrath divine,
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding surety's hand,
And then again at mine.
Turn then, my soul, unto thy Rest;
The merits of thy great High Priest
Have bought thy liberty.
Trust in His efficacious blood,
Nor fear thy banishment from God,
Since Jesus died for thee.

Two words to inscribe in the dictionary, the lexicon of your heart: paraclete and propitiation: two words to live by and to die by if you would live and die in the peace, the assurance, the joy, and the love of God.

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