Bizarre, uncomfortable, difficult – Jesus’s great sacrifice
This is the second in a series of insights answering the question, “Why did Jesus die?”, a question that has multiple answers or perspectives, each one adding to the whole.
In this insight we consider the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as an act of sacrifice. To our contemporary ears it might feel a little bizarre, uncomfortable, or difficult to hear, but let us press on and see what we can discover.
In the Old Testament we read about how Jewish temple priests offered animals as sacrifices to God. The animals would be brought to the priests, slaughtered on an altar, and burnt as offerings that would cleanse themselves and the people from their sin and make them holy. The writers of the New Testament often use the same imagery to speak about Jesus, describing Jesus as both the priest and the sacrifice, cleansing the sins of the people once and for all and making them holy before God.
“Unlike the other high priests, He (Jesus) does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He (Jesus) sacrificed for their sins once for all when He offered himself.” (Hebrews 7:27)
There are also echoes in the New Testament back to the Passover found in the Old Testament book of Exodus. In a quick recap, the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians for many years and God sent a series of plagues to the Egyptians, but the Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go. Finally, God sent the angel of death to kill the firstborn son of every Egyptian household however, the Israelites were spared because they had marked their doorposts with the blood of a sacrificial lamb. This is why writers in the New Testament refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God”.
“The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29)
“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (1 Peter 1:18-19)
The temple sacrifices stopped in about 70AD. I have never experienced an animal sacrifice and never hope to do so, but they were happening at the time of Jesus and it was a reality for Jesus and his contemporaries. Therefore it is important, even though it is alien to us, to understand the deeper meaning behind the comments made by the New Testament authors.
Perhaps one way of getting our modern heads around the idea of sacrifice is the gift of flowers. We invest our time, money, and effort in procuring special cut flowers and flower arrangements (effectively killing them) and presenting them as an offering to others on special occasions – as gifts, commemorations, or even peace offerings. Even our churches are regularly adorned with special flowers as a symbolic “offering” to express our devotion and gratitude to God.
Back in 1st century Palestine people’s wealth, that which they had to give, came from what they grew and what they raised – their crops and livestock – and so it makes sense that it was from their own storehouses that they expressed their devotion and gratitude to God. However the special offerings or sacrifices for sin had to be repeated over and over and in a sense, they did not work.
“The same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year can never make perfect those who draw near to worship … It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10: 1, 4)
What was needed was an ultimate sacrifice for sin for all people for all time, and this is what Jesus did through his life, death, and resurrection. He effectively replaced the temple and its whole system of sacrifices for everyone, for ever.
“But now, once for all time, He has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by His own death as a sacrifice.” (Hebrews 9:26b)
And of course, if Jesus had himself been a sinner and in need of saving, he could not have saved anyone! It was because he lived a perfect life, free from sin, that he could be both priest and sacrifice for humanity.
You will find, in many churches, usually at the east or “business” end of a church, an altar at which communion is celebrated, however if you think about it, an altar is a place of sacrifice and as the sacrifice of Jesus was once and for all, the altar is no longer a place of sacrifice. Yes, we remember the sacrifice that Jesus made, but on the night before he died he shared a meal with his friends, therefore I prefer to call it a table and not an altar. The true sacrifices that we as Christians now make, are to praise God and to do good works.
“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that openly profess His name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” (Hebrews 13:15-16)
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1)
It is important that we understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as an act of sacrifice because it reminds us that it is the ultimate expression of sacrificial love from a God who would do anything to express His or Her love for us (after all, God is love).
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) “ … and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
God has given us everything and, if you like, the last thing God had to give us was literally Him or Herself. Jesus was and is an expression of God’s limitless love for humanity. The good news is that, because the sacrifice was for all people for all time, the cleansing, healing, forgiving, and saving love of God is available to us today.
• Reverend Gavin Tyte is the pastor at St Mark’s Anglican Church. Visit stmarks.bm