Unquestionably the death of Jesus is of tremendous significance in the New Testament. Without His bodily resurrection, though, it is safe to say that his death would have been viewed as no more significant than the many other would-be messiahs who were killed on either side of him in history. Because of the resurrection his death was and is of utmost significance, in terms of salvation and Christian holiness. The death of Jesus of Nazareth by crucifixion, although important in its own right, cannot really be separated from the resurrection.
The depth, beauty, and wonder of the crucifixion of Jesus will take countless millions of years to even begin to really fathom, yet there are several images and themes that the Bible gives us to help us to begin thinking about its significance even now. Some, as with many things, insist on picking and choosing the different Biblical images and metaphors, sometimes pitting some against others. This is not wise. All that the Bible says about the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death is necessary to get a complete picture. That’s why creeds, sermons, and other theological and/or devotional writings or talks must never become a substitute for the reading of the Bible itself.
That being said, it is very hard to miss the New Testament’s depiction of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice of salvific import. In 1 Corinthians 5:7 Paul refers to Christ as our Passover lamb, recalling the story in Exodus, who was sacrificed. John 1:29 depicts John the Baptist calling Jesus “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (ESV); later the Gospel of John highlights that Jesus died on the day of preparation when the Passover lambs would have been slaughtered. These allusions to the Passover along with the various and quite numerous other references to the cleansing and atoning blood of Jesus, which recall the sacrificial system laid out for Israel (i.e Romans 3:25; 1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 John 1:9 among many others) make the sacrificial imagery the most prominent by far. Jesus words of institution at the Last Supper show how central this is when he speaks of the blood of the new covenant (i.e. Luke 22:20). Even the last book of the Bible, Revelation, which depicts the glory and splendor of the resurrected Jesus, reminds us that it is “the Lamb who was slain” who is “worthy” “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5)
For modern Americans and others in many parts of the world today the significance of this sacrificial imagery may seem really abstruse, hard to see, and easily dismissed as primitive. For this reason it may be easy to downplay or even object to this imagery. Modern cultures, even ours, however, still perform and benefit from animal sacrifice today; we just don’t call it that, nor attribute any spiritual significance to it. If you’ve eaten a hamburger, steak, or perhaps lamb chops lately you have benefited from this modern system of animal sacrifice.
The sacrificial system laid out in the Old Testament wasn’t a senseless slaughter and waste of entire animals, although some sacrifices were whole burnt offerings offered up to God. In addition to the blood being poured out and the fat and entrails burned as an offering to God, the priests and the worshiper would also receive the life sustaining nourishment of the meat. “Gross!” You say?
I know of one fellow minister who took exception to the comparison of Jesus death with the slaughter of an animal for consumption objecting that it was somehow offensive “to compare the death of Jesus to the killing of a cow!” I assumed Hebrews mustn’t be her favorite book in the New Testament, especially chapters 9 and 10 which repeatedly compares the better once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus to the sacrifice of bulls and goats, which were a shadow and type of His ultimate sacrifice to come.
Others object that it is too barbaric to think of Jesus as a sacrifice offered for the benefit of others. Some call it divine child abuse, as if God the Father was just abusing an innocent bystander. The truth is it actually reveals the amazing love of God who would offer none other than Himself as a sacrifice for others, the very ones who had betrayed Him and repeatedly spurned His love and His purposes. Jesus wasn’t just an ordinary human being who just happened to be fairly decent, the Bible teaches that He was God, Who is perfectly holy and righteous, in the flesh.
Objections to the sacrificial imagery like the ones above, remind me of the teenager I knew who would only eat vegetables that came from the store and not directly from his grandpa’s own garden because the one’s from his grandpa’s garden had dirt on them! As if the veggies magically and completely sanitaryily appeared right there in the refrigerators in the produce section of Whole Foods! Life, including salvation from sin, is often far messier than some of would like to imagine. Instead of flippantly dismissing most of the Bible because of our modern sheltered existences and superficial sensibilities we should seek to understand the Bible on its own terms – the only way to really understand it at all.
Anyway, the sacrifice of Jesus also involved an exchange of sorts as he bore our sin and offered us the blessing of his righteousness. He became sin that we might be righteous. Isaiah 53, which quickly came to be understood to point to Jesus and his vicarious suffering and punishment says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (v. 5). This passage whose themes are echoed are explicitly stated often in the New Testament makes it clear that the suffering servant bears the sins of the people and as a result the people receive the blessing of peace, healing of sin, and righteousness. As 2 Corinthians 5, again, puts it, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 5). As Galatians puts it, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (3:14). He was cursed so we could be blessed, but he wasn’t cursed because of his own sin, but because of ours. The curse of the law is none other than the wrath and punishment of God for sin as a cursory reading of the Old Testament will reveal. The ultimate penalty being death, eternal separation from God in the next world, and physical death in this one.
The Bible says “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”(Romans 6:23). Because of sin the threat of death looms over us, but that threat is not just in the next world, it also exerts its sinister influence in this one. The One who deserved nothing but the best life endured the worst death imaginable so that in Him we who deserve nothing but death could have abundant life now and forever. He bore our sin and its curse along with its penalty so that we by faith in Him might share in His righteousness, blessing, and life. Amazing!
The passage in Galatians 3 also connects the sacrifice of Christ with another image: redemption, which evokes the concept of slaves being bought from one master to serve another. Similarly the word ransom is also used in other places (Mark 10:45) evoking the image of deliverance from one master for service for another. This image is brought to bear in 1 Corinthians 6:20 and 7:23 where Paul reminds the oft wayward Corinthian church that they were “bought with a price,” undoubtedly to remind them, as he would again, that Jesus “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15; see also Romans 6).
The sacrifice of Jesus was an atonement and a ransom price for redemption from slavery to sin and death and the controlling influence of “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).
Hebrews tells us that the sacrifice of Jesus destroys the one who has the power of death, the devil, the rebellious spiritual being who has tempted and led people to rebellion and perdition since the days of Eden. Hebrews 2:15 shows that the devil wields the power of death to instill the fear of death in humanity, which keeps us in bondage. The death of Jesus has the power to destroy the one who has the power of death by delivering those who believe from the fear of death. Not just death in a general sense, but especially the threat of death as it is wielded as a weapon against the righteous through evil human leaders and institutions.
But this deliverance from the fear of death, which keeps humans in bondage to sin and the world, this evil age, through the death of Christ is only effective because of the power of the resurrection. It is the threat of death, social death through societal marginalization and hindrances to one’s livelihood, and physical death, that keeps people conformed to the ways of a fallen and wicked world (see Romans 12:1-2), or at least just silent in the face of it. It is the combination of the death and resurrection of Jesus, specifically belief in Him, that saves us from these powers of darkness.
Because of the resurrection, the death of Jesus saves us from the consequences of sin, the righteous judgment and wrath of God, and from the effects of sin on the soul, the unholy and selfish desires of sloth, lust, greed, hatred, and vengeful violence. Faith in Jesus, in his death and resurrection also saves us from the fear of death which inhibits people from living like Jesus and following His teachings. We can only “walk as he walked” (1 John 2:6) if the fear of death in our hearts is replaced with faith in the power of His resurrection, else we will simply remain sitting and cowering under the power of death’s dark shadow.
While working on this very post last night, I heard of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris – over 150 people, some just watching a soccer game, others at a concert, others still just having dinner with loved ones, were brutally and senselessly slaughtered. The devil through the hands of evil men wield the threat of death as a tool of suppression. What the evil one and fallen humanity most want to suppress is the truth (see Romans 1), to put out the light that exposes his lies and deceit. It is the fear of death that keeps people, often very nice people, in tow either through active cooperation or simple silence, both grave sins because sin is not just the bad that we perpetrate but also the good in which we refuse to participate. Undoubtedly much evil is perpetrated in this world because of the value that so many simply place, idolatrously, on personal comfort and convenience.
Jesus saves! But the salvation he brings can only be received through faith, and this faith must include true faith in the power of His resurrection. His resurrection is the guarantee of our own. It really is a matter of life and death in this world, not just heaven or hell in the next. The resurrection of Jesus Christ vindicated His own life and claims and validates His promise of everlasting life for those who believe in Him.
He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)