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/