Let us suppose for a moment that we hear the story of a man or woman who has been murdered because they have supported a certain cause. In our curiosity we want to find out more. I would suggest that if we want to understand the reason for their death we have firstly to understand what it was they lived for. Their death cannot be detached from their life – on the contrary their death is the result of their life’s purpose, struggles, beliefs and passion.
I believe this is true in relation to Jesus and the Cross. All too often I see people speaking or writing about the death of Jesus on the Cross in isolation from his life. In fact I have come to the conclusion that, for some, the life of Jesus is something of an embarrassment because they find it difficult to reconcile his behaviour with their own theology. Once again I am thinking, among other things, about Jesus emphasis on the universal Fatherhood of God, his inclusivity, his friendship with and free forgiveness of ‘sinners’ as well as his understanding of repentance which appears to offend so many. (1)
So I say again as I have before – the passion of Jesus during his life and ministry was reconciliation, the healing of the estrangement between people and their God. So, if I am to understand anything of the Cross, I must hold this in mind at all times. I have come to the conclusion that the Cross is, in essence, the undoing of the universal estrangement, brokenness, separation, slavery, rebellion, death and darkness which we can trace back to the events of Eden.
The second question is this – in the light of the death of Jesus how did others, even perhaps unknowingly, regard him and how, more importantly, did Jesus see himself? Of course these again are questions that could fill a book – but I believe it’s important for us to try and address this.
One of the angels who appeared to the shepherds at the time of Jesus birth introduced him as – ‘The Saviour’ (Luke 2:11). Prior to this Joseph had been instructed to call his son ‘Jesus’ ‘for he will save his people from their sins.’ (Matthew 1:21). Jesus – Yeshua/Y’shua in Hebrew, means – to deliver or to rescue.
Then, when Jesus is presented in the Temple shortly after his birth, the aged and devout Simeon prays to God, saying –
‘I have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared for all people.
He is a light to reveal God to the nations,
and he is the glory of your people Israel!’
Some thirty years later, his cousin John declares to his followers as he sees Jesus walking towards them –
‘Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’
And the theme of ‘The Lamb’, introduced by John, is still foremost in the very last book of the Bible, being mentioned here more than anywhere else (some 27 times) –
“You (The Lamb) are worthy to take the scroll
and break its seals and open it.
For you were slaughtered, and your blood has ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.’
Jesus says of himself, and I believe he has the Cross in mind, that he had come to ‘give his life as a ransom’ (Matthew 20:28). As an aside here Jesus also said, referring to himself – ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.’ This, as we may know, was said in relation to the ‘salvation’ (Luke 19:9) and subsequent repentance of the chief tax collector Zacchaeus. My point is that this was the mission of Jesus life prior to the Cross however we may view the Cross itself in relation to salvation.
So already we are building up a number of themes which will culminate at the Cross – Jesus as ‘The Saviour’ (Deliverer/Rescuer), Jesus as a ‘Ransom’ (paying the price to free the hostage), and, closely linked with ransom of course, we have the concept of ‘Redemption’ (Luke 1:67-69) – with the thought of restoring to its true owner something that has been lost or sold. All of these deserve much deeper attention than we can offer here. We are simply, for the moment, building a picture.
Of course the big question is – what is it that we require to be delivered, rescued, ransomed, saved and redeemed from? And why did Jesus have to die on the Cross to accomplish these things?
‘Oh – that’s easy’, say some of my Evangelical friends – ‘Jesus died for your sins.’ Indeed, that’s an easy enough statement to make – but what does it mean? And what are ‘my sins’ anyway? ‘Oh’, answers another friend – ‘that’s easy too – your lies, deceits, unkindness and anger – that sort of thing.’ But my problem is that the things my friends refer to, very real and painful though they may be, appear to me to be the symptom of something deeper – they are the fruit not the root of my problem.
As we have said before the original meaning of ‘sin’ is more akin to a condition, a sickness than an action – as it is at its root my inability to be like God. Indeed when the religious leaders of Jesus day roundly condemned him for eating with ‘sinners’ – Jesus said – ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.’ (Matthew 9:12)
My problem is, I suspect, that I have a bias towards the magnetic north of my compass which I know is not my true north. Yes, I require forgiveness for the fruit of my sin – but the real issue needs to be dealt with at a much deeper level.
‘Ah’ – says my friend Paul – here is your real problem Steve and the solution – ‘You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins – you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.’ But what Paul is this sinful nature you speak about and how did I inherit it? Paul – ‘Everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life’ and, furthermore ‘you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. For Christ himself has brought peace to us’. My friend Peter chips in at this point – ‘Christ suffered for our sins to bring you safely home to God.’
So, at the Cross, in a mysterious way I cannot fully comprehend, God solved the problem of my propensity and bias towards magnetic north – and in the death of Jesus I died to the power of the compass I inherited from old Adam. So, in Jesus, the new Adam, I have been given a new life free from its power so I now point to my true north. Not only so but I, the rebel and prodigal, am fully restored to my Father and now live in the fellowship of his house! Leonard Ravenhill once said – ‘Jesus did not come into the world to make bad men good. He came into the world to make dead men live!’ – and it is at the Cross we, in a mysterious way, as Paul says, ‘died to this life’ , and now our ‘real life is hidden with Christ in God.’ Once again, as I have said, we are touching on a deep mystery here.
Then I also note my friend Paul speaks about the ‘blood of Christ’ – which brings me back to the image of ‘The Lamb’, for, I suspect, this is what he has in mind. But what does this image of Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ really mean – and will shed any light on some of the other issues we have spoken about already?
One of the most troublesome aspect of Judaism and Christianity – to say nothing of Paganism, as far as the modern mind is concerned is the concept of blood sacrifice (even though most of us frequently eat the meat of animals which have been sacrificed to feed us). In the New Testament there are a number of references to the ‘Blood of Jesus’, some of which are in some way seen as relating to, or indeed a fulfilment of, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. We have, as I suggested, referenced one above already – Colossians 1:19-21 – ‘You have been brought near to him (God) through the blood of Christ’.
Putting aside for a moment the type of animal involved in sacrifice in the Old Testament we see that the blood itself was, very often, used in ritual cleansing. This idea is carried over into the New Testament where Jesus blood is also seen as representative of cleansing –
‘But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin’.
1 John 1:7 (NLT)
It is now known that one of the functions of blood in the body is transporting waste substances to the organs that remove and process them for elimination. So blood has a cleansing function. Perhaps it should not surprise us then that blood in the Bible is a picture of cleansing.
If I have rejected the theory of ‘Penal Substitution’ – that God’s wrath and anger was satisfied by the death of Jesus on the Cross – and in particular by the shedding of his blood, how then do I understand texts which speak of Jesus as a sacrifice – of which there are a number? Or might it be that I have a faulty understanding of the concept all together? What is absolutely certain is that this whole issue is not as simple and straightforward as some make it out to be.
First of all what has become very clear to me is this – as far as I can establish none of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were offered to placate an angry God. So blood sacrifice, in the Jewish tradition, unlike the pagan nations that surrounded Israel, were not made as offerings to avoid anger or punishment at the hand of their God.
So if the sacrifices of the Old Testament were not about placating an angry God – and the Cross of Jesus had nothing to do with God’s anger either – what are we looking at here? For simplicity and continuity let’s just stick with the text I have already quoted from the writings of Paul – ‘But now you have been brought near to him (God) through the blood of Christ.’ To be ‘brought near’ may speak of a number of things but primarily, I believe, it is referring to reconciliation (as in another text we have quoted above – Colossians 1:19-21), intimacy and fellowship.
I would like to pause for a moment here to ask a very basic question – what is sacrifice? In reality it is not a concept we are unfamiliar with. Very often we sacrifice something that is good for something that is better or more important to us. Or we may sacrifice our time to help someone else or perhaps dispense with our own leisure time to study in order to advance ourselves. We may sacrifice food or alcohol for better health, or indeed to save our lives or we may sacrifice a career to devote our lives to the service of others. A mother or father will freely sacrifice for their children. We see this every day in multiple ways. And, in the extreme, some will even sacrifice their lives to save others. Sacrifice then has many aspects – but always it involves relinquishing something that is precious to us for a higher purpose. Under the Jewish Law of the Old Testament a poor person, who could not afford anything else, could bring fine flower as a sacrifice (Leviticus 5:11) – but for him that was still very costly. The widow in the Temple of Jesus day put a penny into the collection box – but she had given everything! Sacrifice cannot be weighed in monetary terms.
Let’s take another step back for a moment and ask what I think is another very revealing question. What was the primary purpose of the Tabernacle/Temple in ancient Jewish culture? Answer – they were places where God dwelt and in which he had fellowship with men. Another name used for the Tabernacle was ‘The Tent of Meeting’. The clue is in the name – these were places where the God of Israel met with his people through their representative – a Priest. They were primarily places of fellowship. Interestingly, the Apostle John says of Jesus – ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us ..’ (John 1:14). The literal meaning here is he – ‘tabernacled among us,’ which means, ‘he pitched a tent among us.’ There is little doubt but the ‘Tent of Meeting’ is in view here. As far as the sacrificial system connected with these places is concerned, William K. Gilders, Associate Professor, Emory University, says this (2) –
‘One way to think about ancient sacrifices is as ‘gifts’ given to God. When they performed sacrifices, ancient Israelites gave to God some of what they believed God had given them, expressing their close relationship with God and seeking to deepen that bond. Biblical texts tell us that God received the smoke of the burning sacrifice as a ‘pleasing odour’ (see, for example, Lev 1:13). In so doing, God enjoyed a fellowship meal with human beings in God’s dwelling on earth—the temple.’
Furthermore, when men and women lived in harmony with and obedience to God these gifts and symbols of fellowship were acceptable to God. However when Israel strayed (sinned) they were not –
‘You (God) do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.’
But to come back to the lamb. There were two occasions in ancient Israel when a lamb might be used as a sacrifice – for a Sin/Trespass Offering in the Tabernacle/Temple and at the Passover. (3) The sacrifice of a Sin Offering however was not restricted to a lamb – indeed it was not necessarily an animal at all as poor people could, as we have already said, offer flour. Furthermore this offering related only to unintentional – not deliberate sin. Deliberate sin required punishment in some form. But the New Covenant would be much greater than the old (Hebrews 8)!
The second occasion a lamb was sacrificed was at Passover. However, this is a very different scenario altogether. First of all this celebration took place in the home – not the temple. Secondly, the main emphasis at Passover is of a family fellowship meal in the light of redemption from slavery. At the time of the first ‘Passover’ in Egypt the blood of the lamb was used as a ‘token’ – painted on the doorposts of the house to mark it as home where a lamb had been sacrificed and eaten by the family in order that the Angel of Death would pass over. Interestingly, much later, the prostitute Rahab of Jericho would ask for a ‘token’ from the Hebrew spies that would save her family from death when the Jewish armies invaded the town. They told her to hang a scarlet cord outside her house – and in thus doing both she and her family were saved from destruction.
As an aside here it should be stressed that the blood of the lamb (or any other animal or bird) used in a sacrifice, had no magical power as some seem to imply. It was and is a symbol of life or the life force – or more correctly perhaps a symbol of the fact that a life has been sacrificed. The Passover Lamb then is firmly connected with salvation (from death) as well as freedom from bondage, slavery and oppression.
When we come to the Gospels of the New Testament it is John (exclusively) who uses the symbol (twice) of Jesus as ‘The Lamb of God’. I believe this picture is symbolic of Jesus life as well as finding its ultimate fulfilment at the Cross. By far the most numerous use of the term ‘The Lamb’ however is found in the the book of Revelation where it occurs some 27 times.
Interestingly, we do not know whether or not a lamb was part of the Passover meal shared by Jesus and his disciples at the last supper – but it appears highly unlikely that it was. However, of the bread he broke he said – ‘Take it, for this is my body’ and of the wine he shared he said – ‘This is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice for many.’ (Mark 14 NLT). The cup Jesus used at this point in the meal is traditionally called ‘The Cup of Redemption’. And Jesus, as we know, gave his live on the Cross, as the Lamb of God, on the very day of the Passover itself. Furthermore, Paul refers to ‘Christ’ ‘as ‘our Passover .. sacrificed for us’. (1 Corinthians 5:7)
The picture being painted here at the table by Jesus for his disciples has many colours. It also has a number of aspects. As I have said often before in relation to other matters, this again is a subject which has been poured over, discussed and written about for centuries – but personally I need to understand something of it for myself.
I see at least three aspects to the painting the Divine Artist is working with here – Covenant, Sacrifice and Redemption. The writer of the book of Hebrews deals with the subject of Covenant. I want to mention just two things. Firstly, a covenant in the Old Testament is sealed by blood – the symbol of life, you can go no deeper. Secondly, the New Covenant, sealed by the blood of Jesus on the Cross had nothing whatsoever to do with punishment – nor is it a legal act – it is a spiritual one –
‘But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’
Hebrews 8:10 (NLT)
And finally we have a somewhat enigmatic picture of ‘The Lamb’ in the book of revelation where it speaks of Jesus as – ‘The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’. Interestingly the Apostle Peter also hints at this –
‘For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake.’
1 Peter 1: 18 – 20 (see also Matthew 20:28)
And so The Lamb and the Cross have an eternal aspect, significance and meaning. In other words the Cross was not some afterthought in the mind of God following the disaster of Eden – but was, in his eternal purposes, writ large. To me this is another mystery I cannot even begin to understand – far less fully comprehend.
As we draw these thoughts in relation to Jesus and the Cross to a close we might ask again – why did Jesus die? Why the Cross? I hope some of our meditations here will have helped someone to understand and answer that question in a more meaningful way – with the caveat that, when we stand at the Cross, we are also standing before a Divine mystery. I leave the last though on this question to C. Baxter Kruger –
‘Why did Jesus Christ die? He died because the triune God loves us with an everlasting and passionate love. Because the triune God absolutely refuses to allow us to be destroyed. He died because the only way to get from the Fall of Adam to the right hand of God the Father almighty was through the recreation of Adamic existence that required the incarnation of the Triune life of God, 33 years of struggle and suffering, and the crucifixion of Adamic flesh.’
Jesus And The Undoing of Adam (p37)
As I have considered and mediated on these things over the last few weeks I find myself standing before the Cross in utter amazement, appreciation and with a very grateful and thankful heart. However, I also found myself facing mystery. In truth the Cross is beyond comprehension. And yet I have seen how multi sided it is and have appreciated afresh, in some small measure, the genius of it all.
Do I still have questions – yes I do. But that does not mean that I cannot live in the good and in the experience of what Jesus, on the Cross, has accomplished for me as well as for all of mankind. Indeed, that is one of the enigmas of the Cross – the simplest of minds can understand and live in the good of it while the greatest of minds can never fully comprehend it. Perhaps Paul put it best –
‘So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.’
1 Corinthians 1: 23-25
To be continued …
(1) See my post – ‘Repentance Redefined’ – CLICK HERE
(3) As far as I can gather Sin and Trespass offerings are almost identical. I am deliberately not considering Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement here as it would require a seperate post. Furthermore, apart from a passing reference in the book of Hebrews, as far as I can see, the Day of Atonement is not mentioned in the New Testament.