Jack Cottrell — Summer 2017

Believe it or not, I was once mistaken for a god!

In the 1970s I was on a mission trip with Brother Sam Gonzales (now deceased), visiting churches in the Yucatan Peninsula in eastern Mexico. Many of the Christians in the churches there were descendants of the Mayan Indians, who many centuries ago had developed impressive civilizations there.

Brother Sam was introducing me to several of these Christians descended from Mayan culture: “Say hello to JACK,” he said. One woman’s eyes got really big. She shrunk back a bit and whispered to Sam, “Is this CHAC?” Later Sam explained that she thought that when he was introducing me, he was calling me “CHAC,” which is the name of the traditional Mayan rain god—one of their more important deities! (Sam assured me that he had cleared this up with everyone!)

The original Mayans, like most pagans, believed in many gods. “The more, the merrier!” you might think–but this is not how they saw it. Like the deities of most pagan cultures, the Mayan gods were not something to be thankful for and to take comfort in. They were mostly something to be feared. Why? Well, to these pagans, the gods controlled every aspect of their lives. E.g., Chac determined whether they had rain for their corn crops.

So, whoever your deities were, you wanted them to like you. You wanted them to be happy with you, and not be angry with you or be upset with you for any reason. You wanted them to be interested in your well-being, and to care about you – which they were not inherently inclined to do.

This means that you felt as if you had to do impressive things to get your gods’ attention, and to win their favor, and to turn away their wrath if you had happened to get on their bad side. Much pagan worship was intended to do these very things. In Brazil, for example, I have seen chickens that have been offered up as sacrifices to win the favor of the gods. I have seen elaborate spreads of wine and food offered to the gods. In Yucatan the supplicants went all out: they are well known for offering human sacrifices to appease their deities.

Sometimes the sacrifices were beheaded. This happened often in connection with unique ball games (e.g., at Chichen Itza), in which the winners were often the ones decapitated (it was an honor bestowed on them!). Sometimes the sacrifices were drowned. In the Yucatan there are many underground waterways with occasional accessible openings called cenotes (seh-KNOW-tees). A famous one at Chichen Itza, and others as well, have yielded the remains of many bound young women tossed alive into these pools to please the gods. Sometimes a warrior or war captive was forcibly held down on an altar while a priest sliced open his breast and with his hand plucked out his still-beating heart.

Here’s the deal: these barbaric sacrifices were acts of propitiation—offerings given to the gods in an effort to turn away their wrath and earn their favor!

“Propitiation” — where have we heard that word before? Was it not in 1 John 2:1-2, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”

Some Christian people do not like to think of Jesus’ death as a “propitiation,” and that is why they use some other word instead. Why don’t they like it? Because it sounds too much like these pagan practices, and it makes OUR God too much like CHAC or other pagan deities. “Surely Jesus Christ is not a ‘propitiation,’” they say. “Surely He is not some bloody sacrifice offered to win God’s favor and to turn away his wrath! How primitive! How pagan!”

When I checked 28 versions of 1 John 2:2 (mostly online), half of them had other translations for the Greek word hilasmos as used here: atoning sacrifice, sacrificial death, reconciliation, expiation, payment, remedy. But I want to stress this point: the best translation is PROPITIATION! That is what Jesus is—“the propitiation for our sins”!

So how is Jesus on the cross different from the gross sacrifices offered to pagan gods like Chac? See another verse in 1 John (4:10) – “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins”!

It is true that God’s wrath is directed toward us and our sins. BUT – we do not have to make a sacrifice to win God’s favor, and make Him love us! Why not? Because He ALREADY loved us—even before the sacrifice was made! Listen: it was BECAUSE He loved us that HE was the one who thought up the whole propitiation thing, and PROVIDED the very sacrifice that turns away His own wrath! “HE LOVED US, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins”!

There is nothing we can ever do that would make up for our sins. And there is nothing we NEED to do to turn God’s wrath away from us and win His love toward us. His already-present love is what provided Jesus as the propitiation for our sins!

This is why we are now taking the Lord’s Supper. This is what these simple emblems mean. When you eat and drink them, don’t think that somehow God is loving you more just because you are doing this. Rather, they should remind you that this is how much God already loves you, and has always loved you, and always will love you!

Be Sociable, Share!



  1. Thank you, Jack. This communion meditation with the excellent illustration of “blood sacrifices” brings us to the lesson of why God chose the cross for Jesus and why He willingly laid down his life as a sacrifice for our sins – love is explained when we see the unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine and hear His words to us, “this do in remembrance of Me.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *