The New Testament consistently teaches that Jesus, God’s Son, dies so that we may be saved from sin. The ultimate motive for this is the love of God. Underneath the surface of events, behind and beyond the folly and wickedness of human leaders, God's plan for salvation was being worked out (Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:20).
The short answer to our question is: "through Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them." (2 Cor 5:19).
The death of Jesus is not an isolated event. The cross and resurrection -- two sides of a single event -- are the high-water mark of the history of salvation. In all of who Jesus is and what he does, God takes on sin, evil, and death to save us all.
The New Testament sees the death of Jesus in concert with his life, his bodily resurrection, and his current ministry as priest and Lord in heaven. This decisive act of God is a nonviolent victory over sin, evil and the powers of darkness (nonviolent on God’s side, that is to say). Jesus freely gives his life for others without retaliation or hatred, and so we must learn to walk in his steps, loving others as he did (1 Peter 2:21-24).
Who is this God?
But we long to know more. To do so we must turn to the Old Testament.
First of all, the LORD (YHWH) is a God of love and mercy who longs to forgive. God’s mercy and steadfast love is greater than our sin, and the deepest mode of God’s justice. To be sure, while the LORD's mercy is indeed very great, God is also just (Ex 34:1-10; Isa 30:18).
But the LORD is not an angry God that demands to first be appeased in order to grudgingly forgive. No, God loves his people, and wants to forgive in order to be with them. Yet the constancy and depth of human wickedness, evil and unintended wrong-doing means that the LORD must make provision for forgiveness and repentance.
God does this for his people Israel by many paths, taking up the creatures at hand in that context. By "creatures" I mean various things found among the Hebrew people, including the Hebrew language; special individuals called to be rulers, prophets and lawgivers; temples and priests, enacting sacrifices of grain and livestock; and natural things like animals, wind and water. None of these creatures are made perfect by God, by the way, and all are limited and partial -- but what’s a God to do? God loves us and wants to be with us, yet God is utterly holy, just, and pure.
The Meaning of Sacrifice
The LORD sets up these systems so that he may be with his people Israel, for he loves them. At the same time, the system of sacrifices enables the people in the depths of who they are to grasp the seriousness of wrong doing, even knowing of God's mercy (e.g. Isa 44:21-22).
God forgives, but sinners should repent, and ritual sacrifice (working properly) is a deep, meaningful ritual. It uses animals, altars, blood, words and bodily actions to symbolize and embody both the mercy of God and the costliness of sin.
As farmers and herders, Israelites cherished their livestock, but they were required to bring the best as an offering. Yet the blood of bulls and lambs did not in and of itself forgive sins. Rather, God "speaks" sacred ritual to the Hebrew people. They don't just mouth the words "I'm sorry" but they can really feel it and live it out in this temple ritual.
The end goal is a new life with God, a life of holiness and obedience (e.g., Lev 19:2, see also Matt 5:48). Biblical sacrifice dramatizes in sacred time and space genuine repentance on the part of the worshippers (offering their best to the LORD) as well as the cleansing forgiveness promised by God (the sprinkling of blood; see Lev 4-6). Remember these points about sacrifice: we will return to them. For now we can see that the Bible shows us a God of love, not a super-mad old guy in the sky out for blood.
Who is Jesus?
In Jesus all of this seeking gets intensified, for Jesus is God’s radical identification with humanity. The New Testament insists that Jesus is fully and really human, all the way down to the depths, even to death.
At the same time, the New Testament insists that Jesus is God in the flesh, not just a mere man. The living Word who was with God and is God becomes a human being (John 1:1-18). The One who is equal with God the Father takes on the role of a servant, and dies for us on the Cross (Phil 2:6-11). Jesus is "God and Savior" (2 Pet 1:1; Titus 2:13).
So no one "makes" Jesus die, not even God the Father. The idea that Jesus was forced to die makes a mockery of his struggle in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Precisely because Jesus had options, he needed to be sure this "cup" was God’s will (Luke 22:39-46).
Sacrifice, Ransom, Victory
But how does Jesus' death really work salvation? How does this make any sense?
The New Testament authors use a wide and diverse number of images or metaphors here: stories captured in a word. No one of these metaphors is dominant. Yet even in this variety, we must set aside as un-Biblical one view: no where does God (the Father) punish Jesus for our sake.
Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus on the cross bear all the penalty for the sins of the whole world. The idea of self-sacrifice is very common, indeed, for on the cross Jesus bore our sins. Yet remember that when the New Testament speaks of the sacrifice of Jesus it is being deeply Jewish, thinking of the temple sacrifice of animals. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (Heb 9:11-14; 1 Pet 1:25) so that we can identify with him in death and resurrection.
In the cross and resurrection Jesus represents humanity as a whole (1 Cor 15:45-47; Rom 5:12--6:14) and by faith we become unified with him on the cross and in his victory over death. This is about spiritual identification, about our unity with Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Risen One.
The result of such faith and spiritual connection is justification (being made right with God) and eternal life. Our sins are forgiven when we believe this promise, and accept the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus for us. Part of this identification is the cleansing of blood: the blood of Jesus “washes away” the stain of sin for the believer.
This unification and identification comes through faith in Christ: not by good works or our own merits. So the cross is a ritual sacrifice, not a numbers game: we don’t add up the penalties for all the sins of the world, subtract the goodness of Jesus, and pray the balance is even.
Sacrifice and cleansing are not the only way the meaning of cross and resurrection are spelled out in the New Testament. Here quickly are a few others:
- The cross redeems or ransoms us from slavery of sin.
We are "bought with a price." (1 Cor 6:20). Here sin (never Satan in the Bible) is like a slave owner, and Jesus' death buys our freedom from sin (see also Mark 10:24, Eph 1:7).
- The cross and resurrection are God’s victory over sin and death. Death and sin are vanquished by the resurrection of the crucified Messiah. (e.g., John 16:33; 2 Cor 2:14).
- The cross brings peace and reconciliation between a holy God and a sinful, broken world (e.g., 2 Cor 5; Col 1:20).
- Last but hardly least, the cross shows us the depths of God’s mercy and love for a lost human race, and calls us to follow Jesus in love of neighbor. (John 3:16-21; Rom 3:21-26, Rom 5:1-5).
So we asked one question, and the Bible gives us many answers! Through all of these views of the work of Christ, we see at work the one true God, whose love is the ultimate foundation of salvation, and the deepest reason of all for the death of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Image: "granlund sculpture." Image by Joe Lencioni via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.