Romans series 6 - The two mercy seats of God.

Scripture: Romans 3 - Focus on specific verses:

Romans 3:10 (NETFull) “There is no one righteous, not even one…”

Romans 3:20 (NETFull) 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.

Romans 3:21 (NETFull) 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed...

Romans 3:24 (NETFull) 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:28 (NETFull) 28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law.

Primary lesson will focus on:

Romans 3:24-25 (NETFull) 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.


Martin Luther lived in an age where the Catholic system and the Christian majority taught that no one could be certain about their salvation or their place in God. To the average Christian in the middle ages salvation was linked to their position and place with in the Church. Theirs was the life of merit and works.

Sin could only be dealt with by the rigours of Penance and Confession. It was to be expected that you would spend some time purging your soul from sins committed after you were baptised – and this would be through suffering in Purgatory. But if you had family who loved you enough, they might do a mass for you, buy an indulgence or pray that a Saint might merit towards you grace they had accumulated and rescue you from purgatory.

This system made people stress deeply about being good enough to be saved from eternal separation from God.

For Martin Luther this uncertainty and desire to win God’s favour took him away from the Legal education his wealthy father wanted for him, and sent him to become an Augustinian monk.

He would spend hours starving himself in fasting’s with both food and water. He would drive his confessor mad by finding every little sin he could imagine to confess and find penance for.

Sleeping within his lonely cold sleeping cell he would cast his blanket aside, not wanting to reward his body in any way with any luxuries, laying on the cold hard bed. Waking several times nightly to do prayer and penance.

Such was his early indoctrination from the Catholic middle age system that he could not even have thought God might find him good enough. The anxiety of purgatory and not being good enough for God drove him to self-abuse and eternal uncertainty.

It was within his study of Romans that he realised it was all wrong, and that a person can rest in their faith knowing God in His love towards humanity can and does ‘Justify’ us through His efforts, and not by human merits.

From "The European Reformations" by Carter Lindberg we hear Luther’s own words on this matter:

"What Luther discovered, and what so moved his faculty colleagues and students, was an understanding of God and salvation that overthrew the anxiety-ridden (catechetical) teachings of priests like Kolde. Luther’s biblical study led him to the conviction that the crisis of human life is not overcome by striving to achieve security by what we do, but by the certainty of God’s acceptance of us in spite of what we do. The gospel, Luther argued, repudiates “the wicked idea of the entire kingdom of the pope, the teaching that a Christian man must be uncertain about the grace of God toward him. If this opinion stands, then Christ is completely useless. … Therefore the papacy is a veritable torture chamber of consciences and the very kingdom of the devil.” Luther now never tired of proclaiming that the burden of proof for salvation rests not upon a person’s deeds but upon God’s action. This conviction delivered Luther from what he called “the monster of uncertainty” that left consciences in doubt of their salvation. For Luther, theology is certain when “it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive” (LW 26: 386–7)."

Today, just as back then, people still seek God’s approval to merit their salvation. They still doubt they are good enough and waive their fists at God for making it too hard for them. They still think they have to be more spiritual, better behaved and driven by a need to show God just how worthy of salvation they are.

The issue is the age-old problem of Babel – in our effort to prove we can justify our position we elevate our efforts driven by doubts and uncertainties, and instead of gratefully appreciating God’s grace we lean on our own works – and this becomes self-worship.

Paul, in Romans chapter 3, shows us that all human effort remains merely noise distracting us from the true work of Salvation achieved by Jesus.

Point 1: Our reminder of our true state 3:1 – 20.

]In chapters 1 and 2 Paul talks about the case of sin against both the Jew and the Gentile – all equally evidence that sin rules humanity in deep ways. He reminds us in this section by quoting several old testament scriptures to evidence this human condition, the fellowship in the participation of sin.

And what do these scriptures reveal about the general state of humanity?

V10-12 Humanities general condition of rejecting God, and idolatry.

V13-14 Even the words we speak can be filled with lies and deception for our desire is to use others, deceive and lie to get what we want at others expense. So deep is this corruption that the words we speak spill the attitudes we hold of selfishness and sin.

V 15-17 We run to revenge and hurt others – war, violence, theft and aggression. We take what is not ours even lands, resources and people.

V 18 We despise God, refusing to worship Him. We would rather worship what our hands create – science, materialism, money, status, self and sex.

Such is the nature of humanity that God established His law, the 10 commandments, that would evidence our tendency towards this pattern of behaviour. 10 simple rules that each one breaks subtly or aggressively throughout their lives.

As Paul declares:

Romans 3:10 (NETFull) “There is no one righteous, not even one…”

Romans 3:20 (NETFull) 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin

  • So, do we really by our own human nature evidence our sinful state?

  • Do we lust?

  • Do we envy and desire what is not ours?

  • Do we lie or act hypercritically?

  • Do we manipulate others and enslave people to our whims?

  • Do we hate and have we wished someone just didn’t exist?

  • Have we struck out at someone when we were in the wrong, so as to pass the blame on them?

All these attitudes and more can be seen as wrong by the 10 commandments, let alone the really easy “Do you worship God alone, or do other things have first place in your life”?

The Law does its job, and we stand like Adam and Eve naked before God trying to hide from His stare, feeling worthless and needing to prove we are better than that.

Point 2: A new way forward – a new way of righteousness 3:21 – 24

So, we stand at a junction in Pauls teaching, a crossroads of a sort. Humanity, in its natural condition, strives in sin and worships the self. It spills its intentions on the streets it lives in and causes pain and suffering directly or indirectly upon the world it inhabits.

This cross road looks at the true condition without self-validation and realises that the Law of God has no choice but to sentence us for the condition we are found in.

We might try to feel better by trying to be good enough, we might try to elevate ourselves and worship our efforts to make ourselves feel better, we may well even gather about us people to tickle our ears and sooth our damaged pride – but the law remains truthful and calls out from the pages of history and from the behaviour of our current state “GUILTY”.

Paul turns us towards a different path, a new way of thinking based not on our own efforts and merit, but on something that would turn the world upside down in his day and again in the middle ages as theologians rediscovered the message of faith and grace.

Romans 3:21 (NETFull) 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed...

A way of being right before God, just and forgiven outside of the laws condemnation. A way that abandons works, merit and ritual. Something that if understood would stop us in our vanities and self-glorification and leave us in absolute awe of God’s goodness and love.

Something spoken about directly and in imagery throughout the old testament.

A way based upon some one else being right, someone else doing a worthwhile act that achieves everything we can’t. A way that silences the laws accusations and verdict – the way of love poured out amongst the sin and evil of humanity.

Romans 3:24 (NETFull) 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

A way of salvation founded on God doing something marvellous through His own son.

Imagine being able to lay aside doubt about your salvation. To stop trying to prove yourself good enough to be saved. Imagine being able to admit you are a sinner, you do fail, you do evil at times – and too know that God accepts your condition, and in spite of this offers you a new way forward where He declares you to be absolutely and categorically forgiven. The way that leads to new possibilities and new living based on Him.

Can you imagine a way forward where God looks at you, measures you against His holy standards, weighs you in the scales of His holy law and declares you “FORGIVEN” based upon His gift to you? This is the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And how is this done?

Point 3: The echo of the past that teaches us about grace 3:25 – 26

Paul draws attention to one Old Testament ritual and teaching that takes on deeper and newer meaning to us through the eyes of the New Testament. The teaching of the Mercy Seat.

Romans 3:25-26 (NETFull) 25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.

The Mercy Seat:

Paul pushes us back to the early history of Israel, to the earliest tabernacle, the Tent temple. In Leviticus 16 the Lord instructs Israel on how the High Priest is to offer atonement for the sins of Israel.

In the most sacred place of the tabernacle was the Ark of the Covenant, and in this was the Law of God (the two tablets). On the top of the Ark was a golden lid called the Mercy Seat that was made of Gold moulded around Acacia wood. On top of the mercy seat were two moulded images of Cherubim facing towards each other with wings stretched out and touching in the middle.

Cherubim is a general term for creatures that live in the presence of God. Call them creatures that are citizens of heaven. They serve God and enjoy God’s presence. They are creatures that worship willingly God.

It was moved about by the two poles that were on both sides of the Ark. To touch the ark would bring judgement for it was symbolic of the presence of God, His holiness and His judgement.

On the day of atonement, the high priest alone would enter and sprinkle blood on the mercy seat, with incense rising up and covering the lid, symbolising the presence of God and also hiding the sacred place of God from human gaze – representing the holiness and otherness of God. The distance of humanity from the righteousness and justification of God.

The Ark symbolised:

  • The other worldliness of God.

  • The holiness of God declared.

  • The judgement of God.

  • The Law of God.

  • The separateness of God.

But now let me take you to a new Mercy Seat of God – a sacred temple of a different sort. Here is a common land that turned into a sacred moment where God dwelt as a sacrifice for humanity.

Not a lid of gold, but a dirt and dusty hill covered by the purpose of God. Not cherubim from other worldly citizenship, here two citizens of earth with arms stretched out wide in crucifixion and pain – now representing the human citizenship. Each respond in a manner reflecting humanities choices – one would raise his voice against Jesus, the other would seek forgiveness and life.

Here we have a new high priest, the Lord himself on the cross sprinkling his blood on the new lid top, the dust of the earth. Here in public space, no longer hidden from people, but declaring loudly this is the sacrifice that justifies all people.

Not in the Holy of Holies where only one set of eyes might gaze upon it, but up high before the Holy City of God, yet with Roman governor and foreigners all invited to gaze upon this awesome and terrible sight.

Now no smoke hiding the presence of God. This was no fear of God separated by holiness and otherness, here is the incarnated Lord, God dwelling with us. This is the presence of God walking amongst us. This is the Lord declaring his closeness and willingness to share within our sin and struggle. Here the Son of God wears his shame and suffering obvious and publicly – his naked body stretched out for a world to publicly scrutinise and insult.

No Bull or Goat. Here is the divine and the human clashing together in the mystery of Jesus, the Son of God. Blood most sacred and more effective than all other. Blood so powerful, so potent that it would cover all sin for all time. Such a pure and selfless blood that it would look backwards through time fulfilling all sacrifices in the past, but also looking forward to cover our sin. A sacrifice that was once and for all.

This new Mercy seat, new Ark, would be more splendorous than the previous:

  • The close presence of God – God becoming man.

  • The Love of God poured out towards us on the cross.

  • The forgiveness of God laying aside The Laws Judgement on us.

  • The Grace of God freely given.

  • The intimacy of God – sharing our struggle and carrying our sin.

A new mercy seat where all the law is silenced before the life, death and resurrection of the incarnate Lord.

Conclusion: The law rests its claim against us 3:27-31

Now we are taken to this new place where God has accomplished what we, our denominations, miracles, signs and wonders and dogma could never achieve – here we stand before God completely and utterly justified:

Romans 3:28 (NETFull) 28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law.

The law is not nullified, nor forgotten. Rather it fulfils its purpose. As it lay under the Mercy Seat where blood covered the sins of the Jewish nation year by year now the Lord’s blood has silenced its accusation against all who place their trust and confidence in His suffering and death for them.

This new mercy seat calls out from this mound of dirt towards all humanity – it calls us to place our sin and rebellion at the foot of this new mercy seat – it leads us to the Lord who spoke in one moment in time throughout all eternity “It is finished”.

At last we don’t have to prove to God we are good enough, no more “Woe is me”, no more striving to make us feel more saved, no more need to impress priest or pastor as to your position in God. At last NO MORE MORE, merely the resolve that Jesus did such a perfect thing that sin, evil and the law hold us no more to death nor guilt.

What Martin Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the other reformers knew now is clear – we are saved because God is faithful to Himself, and it was His Sons blood that He vows to declare us “Free from All Guilt” through.

At last we are free from all condemnation – all straining at the oar of effort and works can be laid aside and we can worship God for the salvation He freely gives all who trust and have confidence in His great gift, on the eternal mercy seat of Golgotha – now the cross, the blood, the Lord and our new high priest have completed it all.

As Paul says to us and as others have declared through time:

Romans 3:21-24 (NETFull) 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed - 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Sin is forgiven and disempowered and The Law rests all charges against us. The jury is silenced and required no more, the judge smiles from eternity saying “It is done, rest in the Lord for he has done all you needed to do, rest and labour no more I am faithful to myself and you can trust my words – you are forgiven and justified.”

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