The Sacrifice of Jesus
One of the most important questions of Christianity is “What Did Jesus Sacrifice?” The concept of sacrifice was briefly touched upon on the discussion of biblical trinities. But what is the mechanism by which the death of God’s son means we are absolved of sin? What does it mean to say that the humanity of Jesus died on the cross? From Irreducible Complexity:
I’ve heard sermons preached with statements such as “Jesus gave up everything, even his life, for your sins.” or “It cost God everything to restore relationship with you.”
These statements might sound good, but they are hard to explain without delving into complex topics such as penal substitutionary atonement or the governmental theory of atonement. It sure seems problematic to suggest that we are not completely sure why Jesus had to die for sins. Isn’t this the primary point of Jesus? Anthony Buzzard states the following in his book on Jesus:
And what drove the whole career and mission of Jesus? Let him answer. “I came to preach the Gospel (Good News) of the Kingdom of God. That is what I was commissioned to do.”. Yes, that is what Jesus was sent by God to do – to announce the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Since that was Jesus’ mission statement, that is the heart of the Christian faith.
In fact if one scans the words of Jesus, at no point does he state that salvation is based on “believing that Jesus died for your sins”. There is no “Sinner’s Prayer”. Jesus demands one path, and one path only: repent [of your sins] and believe in the good news of [coming] Kingdom of God [on earth].
Jesus taught salvation apart from his death and resurrection. Paul taught that salvation is through the death of Jesus on the cross. Is there a conflict here? What was the purpose of the death of Jesus if we could have salvation without it? Are there multiple paths to God? The solution to this problem is not nearly as difficult as it might seem, but I have never seen this addressed adequately in church.
While Jesus walked the earth, he did not abolish the sacrificial system. How could those who repented and believed in the kingdom of God been saved? Through what they were already doing: following the sacrificial law set down in the Torah. The blood-price that God demanded as payment for sin was still in full force.
During the ministry of Jesus, he preached almost exclusively to the Jews.¹ He did on rare occasions interact with neighboring cultures (such as the Samaritans) that were familiar with Jewish practices, but the purpose of his ministry was to give the Jews one last chance to fulfill their part of the covenant with God. Had they chosen to follow him, he could have brought the Kingdom of God to earth, thrown off the oppressors, raised the dead, granted his followers immortality, and setup the foretold worldwide government of peace. Because he had focused on the Jews, this was their one and only chance to be God’s people, the exclusive fellow rulers with Jesus in his kingdom on earth. Obviously this did not happen. They rejected him and crucified him as prophesied.
Under the terms of the old covenant Jesus was the metaphorical spotless lamb. Instead of the blood of a real lamb, his blood was shed. Just as God accepted the sacrifice of an animal to cover over the sins of the people for a time, so much more does he accept the blood of the perfect human Jesus forever. When we take Communion (or celebrate Passover), we eat to represent the body of Jesus as the sacrificial flesh of the lamb and drink to represent the blood of Jesus as the sacrificial blood of the lamb. The body of Jesus provides us spiritual restoration and the blood of Jesus causes death to “passover” us.
The death of Jesus became the final sacrifice, the one to abolish the sacrificial system for good. The old covenant was replaced by a new one. No longer would the message of Jesus be limited to the Jews only. It is no wonder then that Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple (and with it the sacrifice). It is no longer necessary. Now anyone could believe in the kingdom of God that Jesus preached, accept Jesus as lord and master, and begin their royal training. We just have to wait and be ready for his second coming when he will setup his perfect government and we will be rulers with him over the peoples of the whole earth.
¹ For a fuller discussion see here: https://www.levitt.com/essays/feeding4000/
In a previous post discussing salvation and how it pertains to the sacrifice of Jesus, I briefly touched on the meaning of the blood sacrifice, especially as pertaining to the Passover. I wanted to explain a bit more about the sacrificial system and why Jesus had such an important role to play in it.
When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, God established his primary rule: the punishment for sin was death and a “blood price” was required to pay the penalty.¹ God shed blood to provide them clothing to cover their nakedness. The shame of their nakedness was a metaphor for sin, and the shedding of blood to cover their nakedness a metaphor for paying the price for sin.
During the Passover, the Israelites had to sacrifice a lamb and smear the blood on the doorposts. In doing so, the angel of death literally passed by, sparing the family the punishment for sin.
Eventually the law was given to the Israelites setting down a sacrificial system for the payment of sin. When an Israelite gave animal sacrifice, the animal was the physical sacrifice, paying its life. But it was the person, not the sacrifice, that paid the spiritual cost for sin. The person had to pay the price of death for sin (by proxy). He was forced to experience the very real horror of death.
Ultimately the sacrifice was a symbol of the inner state of repentance. The sacrifice was ritually required, but on its own insufficient, to restore the spiritual link to God. God requires both the internal and external forms of repentance.
When Jesus died, it was humanity making the sacrifice. When we accept Jesus as our sacrifice, we must accept the reality of sin and that we are responsible for that horrible sacrifice. And death on a cross was horrible, there is no denying that.² When we do this, his blood washes our sin away.
Jesus then sends the Holy Spirit, God’s power, to dwell within us. This is the restoration of our connection with God. Under the old Covenant, only the High Priest could enter the “Holy of Holies” and be in the presence of God directly. The priest was the “mediator” between person and God. Under the new Covenant, Jesus is our High Priest: he mediates between God and Man allowing us to directly communicate with God through the power of the Holy Spirit.³
Jesus had to die because we needed a sacrifice. We need our spiritual connection with God restored. He didn’t do it for himself, he did it because he loved us.
¹ The cost (or wages) of sin is not pain and suffering, but death. Pain and suffering certainly do shout at us, reminding that there are real consequences of sin. But death is the penalty of sin.
² The horror of death would have been no less had Jesus died of a quiet lethal injection. The pain and suffering of Jesus was not required, only his death. But the brutality of his death forces us to recognize, by proxy, how terrible death is and the horror of sin.
³ Through the Holy Spirit, the connection with God is permanently restored. This is why the sacrificial system is no longer needed. Jesus was a perfect human sacrifice, more acceptable than any spotless animal could ever be. Repentance of sin remains an important part of our lives, but no other sacrifice is acceptable.