Was Jesus an unwitting victim, merely put to death by religious leaders who were jealous of his popularity among the people of Israel? Or, was he a willing sacrifice, who knew that his death was a central part of God’s plan of salvation from before time?
In this letter I talk about another important doctrine about Jesus called, the Atonement – how Jesus’ death set us right before God. But this doctrine makes some modern Christians uneasy. They find it hard to accept that our sins could only be forgiven if Jesus gave up his life. Such a remedy sounds too gruesome, too barbaric. This unease is honest and must be addressed. Why would God insist on a plan where his son is nailed to a cross?
If we don’t properly understand what Jesus’ death is all about we will end up in serious spiritual confusion. Church doctrines are formulated to clear up confusion and keep people out of spiritual trouble, not from a desire to control or stifle discussion. In this letter I wanted to be absolutely clear with Caleb that sin is costly – to him and especially to God. If he were not to know about that cost and about what it took to remove it, he would not be able to fully appreciate how trustworthy God is and how completely He loves us. As a parent and a pastor, I cannot in good conscience withhold the awesome bloody truth.
In the last letter, “Why Jesus Was Born on Earth”, I wrote about how Jesus opened up the way back to God through his obedience and his death on the cross. But, I did not address the fact that Jesus had to die. The truth is, our disobedience required that someone give up his life – and not just any person, but the innocent Son of God.
At this point you may be wondering:
1) Is sin so badthat someone’s death is required in order to set us right again?
2) Couldn’t God just let us off the hook or look the other way?
I want to address these questions, but I should first say something about God’s nature.
God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-mighty. He is also just, holy and pure. The Bible says that God is light; in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). The Bible also says that God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). What all this means is that it is not in God’s nature to tolerate, or to permit in His presence, anythingthat is harmful, hurtful, unjust, or unlawful. And, that’s a good thing.
God hates sin because all sin, no matter how small, eats away at the goodness with which God created the world. No one is safe if sin goes unpunished. Nowhere is this more true
than at school. If you have a principal who looks the other way when kids are misbehaving, and bullies are acting out, school will no longer be a safe place for you. Rules are for everyone’s safety and punishment of rule-breakers is done for the well-being of all kids. When a principal does not take misbehavior seriously and does not enforce all rules uniformly, there will be chaos and kids will get hurt.
God doesn’t tolerate misbehavior, either. All sins are a breach of God’s good and just laws and punishment is required, just like at school, even if we think nobody is being hurt, or nobody notices or seems to be affected. In Psalm 51, verse 4, King David says,
Against You, You only, have I sinned.
Every sin is always a sin against God since He made the rules and upholds them. Therefore, before God, a just and holy God, there must be a consequence, a penalty for our sins. God can’t overlook sin, no matter how small it may seem.
In ancient Israel God established a system that would serve the cause of justice by penalizing sin. It was also designed to set the sinner right before God, allowing him or her to start over with a clean slate. This is how it worked: the offender would have to bring something of great value to the priest at the temple and the priest would take it and offer it up as a sacrifice.
We have a somewhat similar system today in our country. For instance, if I am caught breaking a traffic law, let’s say by driving too fast, I will have to part with something valuable to me – my money. If I submit my money to the traffic court (offer up a “sacrifice” at the “temple”) I will not face the possibility of going to jail. My “sin” will be “forgiven” and I will be set right before the judge.
The most valuable possession belonging to ancient Israelites was not money but the animals they herded. Therefore, to be set right before God, they would need to bring a bird, or a goat, or some other highly prized beast, without defect or blemish, to the priest at the temple. The idea was that the remedy for sin had to cost the person something. Giving up an exceptionally fine bird or animal was a great hardship.
The priest would kill the creature (offer it up for sacrifice) and take some of its blood, rub a bit of it on the temple altar, and then pour the rest at the base of the altar. You may be wondering, “Why did they make a big deal out of rubbing blood on the altar and pouring it at the base of the altar?” Good question.
Blood held a special significance in ancient cultures. At that time everyone knew from first-hand experience that blood is essential for life. The average person, back then, came in contact with blood on a daily basis because they had to kill whatever they were going to have for dinner and draw out its blood before they could roast it.
It’s easy for us to forget that the meat we buy in the grocery store was once a living animal. It is packaged for us in such a way so asnot to remind us that it was once alive. In our time we would rather forget that something gave up its life so we could live. The presence of blood is just too unpleasant a reminder for us. But not for the Israelites. Blood was held in high regard because it represented life as well as death.
In the Old Testament, blood from an animal sacrificed to God was collected and used in cleansing ceremonies, like when it was rubbed on the altar and poured out at the base, as I described last week. They used it to make impure or unclean things pure. Blood was also used to guarantee protection and to endorse a contract. You may recall from the book of Exodus that just before the tenth and final plague, God instructed the Israelites to kill alamb and rub its blood above their doorways. (Exodus 12:1-11) The blood protected them from the angel of death that took the life of all the first-born children in Egypt.
A good example of how blood was used to endorse a contract is found in one of my favorite passages in the Old Testament,from the book of Genesis, Chapter 15. Here God is speaking with Abraham, now an old man, who is still without a permanent home and land to call his own. God is promising to give Abraham the very land he is standing upon as a possession. Yet, while Abraham has faithfully believed God’s promises over the course of many years, he’s not sure about this one. He’s been waiting a long time for his own piece of land. He asks God for some sign that this promise, about a land to call his own, will come true.
So God tells Abraham He will seal His promise in a contract between them. He instructs Abraham to draw up the terms for this contract, terms that were well-known in ancient cultures. Abraham is to slaughter a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. All but the birds are to be cut in two and placed in two rows, each half opposite the other. It was the custom, when entering into a covenant with another person, for both people to seal their promise in blood by slaughtering animals and laying them out just as Abraham did and, together, walk between the two rows of carcasses.
This action signified that should either of the two persons entering into the contract not live up to whatever agreement they’ve just established a curse would be brought upon him. The curse being that he would suffer a bloody fate similar to the one the animals suffered whose carcasses both people had passed through. The amazing thing in this story is that God alone (represented by a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch) walks through the row of carcasses, not Abraham. This means that God alone will suffer the consequences should the promises of either God or Abraham go unfulfilled. God is willing to serve out Abraham’s sentence if Abraham is unfaithful. This story prepares us for what Jesus will eventually do on the cross for all of us.
Blood and sacrifices played important roles in the Israelites’ relationship with God. Once a year in Israel there was a special observance called, the Day of Atonement. The high priest would choose two rams or two goats. One was sacrificed on the altar, the other was left alive. The high priest would place his hands on the neck of the living animal and, in a special prayer, would transfer all the sins of the community onto this creature. It was referred to as the “scapegoat.” A scapegoat is an innocent person, or in this case an innocent creature, that takes the blame for someone else. Once the animal becomes the bearer of sins no one can touch it. It is considered to be unclean. It is herded away and into the desert, where it eventually dies, forsaken, cut off from the rest of the community.
So there was a system in Israel, for when a person — or entire communities — sinned, that would set them right before God. Forgiveness was granted when innocent blood was shed, when something of great value took the blame for sin.
It is not just a coincidence that Jesus is called “the Lamb of God”. In fact, John the Baptist said, when he saw Jesus for the first time,
“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
Jesus takes the place of those animals sacrificed for the sins of God’s people. When he sheds his blood and dies on the cross, he is dying for all our sins. He is setting things right before God for all of us, once and for all. Because of his death nothing more needs to be done, ever again. No more sacrifices need to be offered. His last words, according to the gospel of John are,
“It is finished.” (John 19:30)
The word in the Greek language for this phrase was the word written on a bill once it had been paid. Jesus is telling us he’s just paid the debt, in full and forevermore, for our sins.
In the letter to the Hebrews it says,
Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22)
Now, for those who realize they need to be saved from their sins, (and we all need to be saved, every last person in the world) they can turn to Jesus and confess him as their Savior. By doing this the price Jesus paid on the cross for sin is now transferred to the believer’s “account.” He or she is immediately reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ – the spotless sacrificial Lamb of God.
And not only are our sins forgiven, now through placing our faith in Jesus as our Savior, the tendency we all have to sin and to want our own way can be changed. We can be remodeled from the inside out. In my next letter, Why Becoming Like Jesus is What’s Best for Us, I will explain how this works.
The Bible is very clear in that there are only two options in life. The first is to depend upon our own ability to set ourselves right before God, an effort at which we will always fail. The second is to admit we need to be saved from our sinful nature and turn to the “Lamb of God,” Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. There is no third option – just to be a good person. That’s becauseeven our good efforts are filled with elements of selfishness. We cannot be perfect, no matter how hard we try. In fact, the mere effort of trying to be perfect is riddled with pride, which is a sin.
The sobering truth is that anyone less than perfect, anyone who sins, even in a seemingly insignificant way, cannot stand before God, in the end. As I said at the beginning of this chapter, “God hates sin,” which is a good thing. Yet, if we turn to Jesus and confess him as our Savior, he will stand beside us and his blood will cover all our sins. Paul writes in Romans:
Since we have now been justified by Jesus’ blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath [against sin] through him.(5:9)
Therefore, everyone born into this world needs to be saved if they are to have eternal life. All sins can only be atoned for by Jesus.
Every night before I go to bed I confess to God the things I did (or said or thought) but should not have done. Then I confess the things I should have done but did not do. I do this because I find it helpful to be honest with myself, and God, about the fact that I’ve failed. Confession puts me in the right frame of mind so that I look for and receive God’s forgiveness. It also serves to remind me, that without Jesus, I don’t stand a chance.
Let me be clear: God does not refuse to forgive me until I confess. Through faith in His Son, my sins are already forgiven. But I must come before God in prayer askingfor the forgiveness He has already granted. Confession is also important because un-confessed sins can create a barrier between God and me. This is not a barrier which God puts up because He always wants to be close to us. It’s something that arises when our sense of God’s love and of our need for the saving grace of Jesus grows dull. Also, un-confessed sins make us more vulnerable to sin becoming a habit. It’s hard for a habit to develop, however, when we’re on the lookout for it.
So, God won’t walk away from us, but we can certainly walk away from God – and by not confessing our sins we can end up going far away from God, without even intending to do that. That’s why when we all say prayers together every night, we always include some sort of confession in them. We never have to fear being honest with God.
However, there may come a time in your life when you don’t feel forgiven for something, when you are weighed down by a remembrance of past sins, even though you’ve confessed Jesus as your Savior and you’ve been honest with God and laid out before him your ongoing shortcomings and sins. I have been troubled in this way at certain points in my life and here is some advice: Turn to verses in the Bible which assure us God has forgiven us and loves us unconditionally. Here are a few:
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:2
“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more. Isaiah 43:25
You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. Micah 7:19
I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. Isaiah 44:22
Keep in mind that to continue to feel guilty when God has already forgiven you, and after you’ve been honest with God by confessing your sins, is a form of stubborn unbelief. In effect we are saying, despite the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf and numerous assurances of God in Scripture, “I don’t believe that you’ve forgiven me, God.” God wants us to trust Him, so if for no other reason, let go of your shame and hold tightly to God’s promise – don’t reject Him by refusing his mercy.
Lastly, in the Lord’s Prayer it says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” A forgiven person is called to be aforgiving person. This is not always easy to do, but Jesus wants to help us learn how. I’ll write more about this in the next letter, Why Becoming Like Jesus is What’s Best for Us.
Here are the most important things to remember from this letter:
- Every sin is a sin against God
- A just and holy God cannot excuse sin or look the other way
- Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness
- Jesus is our “scapegoat” who takes our sins upon himself
- The price Jesus paid on the cross is now transferred to the believer’s account and through faith in him we are forevermore set right before God.
I hope you never forget that God loves you so much that He gave up His life for you, so that you can be with Him forever – in this life and in His kingdom in heaven. We have a God who will stop at nothing to win us back. Hold on to that thought!
Discussion Questions for Letter No. 5: Why
Jesus Had to Die.
- Describe God’s nature. In what ways is it different from ours?
- Why does God hate sin? Why is all sin a sin against God?
- What does it mean to “look the other way” when it comes to sin? Why does God never do this? Should we?
- Describe the system of justice in ancient Israel for being set right before God? In what ways is it similar to our system of justice?
- Why does blood play such an important role in ancient Israel?
- Describe the contract which God “cut” with Abraham in Genesis 15. Why is it important to know about this passage?
- What happened on the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel?
- Why is Jesus called the Lamb of God? How does his death set us right before God?
- What to options regarding salvation are open to us in life according to the Bible? Which one will always fail? Why?
- Why is it important to confess your sins to God?
- Is there something for which you feel God has not forgiven you? What advice would you give to someone who feels this way?