This brief passage reveals at another reason John writes. Obviously, he is not concerned with logical tidiness. Instead, he is thinking in the normal human way of dealing with several levels of meaning simultaneously. We do this all the time without quite realizing it. Here, John is revealing the “word of life,” calling us to fellowship and to honesty about ourselves, and writing so that we will refrain from sin.
But he rushes to affirm for us that, even if he fails (which he is bound to do) and we still sin, we have a paraclete with the father. That’s in interesting Greek word. Literally it means “one called to stand beside another.” It speaks, therefore, of support and encouragement.
Quickly, however, it seems to have expanded its meaning to include the work of a lawyer, one who stands beside and speaks for another. Here in John both senses are implied. Jesus is certainly an encourager who will not leave our side but he also speaks on our behalf. More specifically, he speaks to the Father on our behalf. When we stand before the judgment seat, we can make no defense for our lives. Jesus does that for us. He clearly does not claim “my client is innocent because he has done nothing wrong.” Rather, he says “My client is innocent because I have already been found guilty and have been executed on his behalf. There are no charges left against him.”
There aren’t empty religious words. They are spoken by Jesus Christ the righteous, who is himself the atoning sacrifice for our sins. “Atoning sacrifice” translates the not-common word “hilasmos.” It is found five times in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) and only twice in the New Testament. If you expand your search to include all forms of the word, you’ll find it 36 times in the OT and six times in the NT.
Scholars determine the meaning of a word by examining its uses in various contexts. Oddly enough, in this case, they know it has one of two meanings or maybe some blending of the two. On the one hand it means “expiation” or place of expiation. That means taking away one’s sin. I think of it as a good word for washing the dishes. We expiate the dried gravy from the plates.
On the other hand, it seems also to mean “propitiation.” If I volunteer to wash the dishes to make up for forgetting to make the bed this morning, I am propitiating for my sin. I am atoning for it.
There are many times when Scripture seems to present to us two alternatives. I frequently find myself thinking we must not choose one over the other but find a way to blend then into one insight. And that’s what I think we must do here. Jesus atones for our sin but also cleanses us. He pays the price and he removes our guilt. We are forgiven and we are made clean.
Some years ago, when I was a very young Christian, a lady stood up in a Sunday evening service and said that the blood of Jesus was just like the slipcovers she had put on two of her chairs that week. He blood covers our sin so that when God looks at us he cannot see the sin.
That immediately struck me as being out of harmony with Scripture. So, like a good Berean, I was driven to examine the matter again in the light of the Bible. It was a great exercise for me. My conclusion was that the heart of the idea of atonement is not what Jesus does for us but what he does with us. He does not go to the Cross in our place but with us. We are crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19). And we are raised from the dead with him (Romans 6:1-11). The old doctrine of substitutionary atonement just doesn’t match the biblical testimony.