To most people the death of Jesus on the cross is the central aspect of the Christian message, and you may have been slightly surprised that in a book about the work of Jesus his sacrifice has so far been barely mentioned. The reason is that the death of Jesus on the cross was the means to an end, not the end itself. But having in previous chapters considered the objective, the establishment on earth of the Kingdom of God in which immortal men and women will experience perfect fellowship with their Creator, we must now consider the means by which that future has been made possible. We turn from our picture of Jesus as the great and powerful king to see Jesus the man, humble, loving, and giving his life for the wellbeing of mankind.
What was it that his sacrifice achieved?
From the very early times of man's existence on earth there has been a barrier between him and his Creator. The Bible calls that barrier sin, and the mission of Jesus at his first coming was to make possible the removal of sin and so unite God and man. This chapter examines first what is meant by sin and how it originated, and then we will consider the hard won victory of Jesus by which the world can be saved from its effects.
Alongside the golden thread of the Kingdom of God, the subject of sin appears throughout the whole of the Bible, from the early chapters of Genesis to the concluding ones of Revelation. In between this beginning and end of Scripture are
hundreds of references to sin. If we include related words such as trespass, iniquity, and transgression, the number of allusions to the general subject is multiplied, and virtually every book of Scripture is found to mention sin in one way or another.
If asked "What do you understand by sin?" most people would probably say that it is wrongdoing like stealing, lying, or murder. In other words, sin is generally thought of as being the more obvious errors of which man can be guilty. However in Bible terms sin is much more comprehensive than this. The word the inspired writers used was one that signified deviation from a path, or missing a target. An example is in the book of Judges where some warriors are described as being able to "sling stones at an hair breadth and not miss" (Judges 20:16). The word translated miss is the same word that hundreds of other times is translated sin.
This demonstrates the idea behind the Old Testament use of the word sin. It means to deviate from a path, to miss a mark that is aimed at, or to fail to achieve something. This definition makes sin much more widespread than most people realise. The New Testament uses a similar definition:
"For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God"
The "glory of God" mentioned here, from which all fall short, is comprised not only of His physical presence, but especially includes His perfect attributes. Moses once said to God "I beseech thee, show me thy glory" (Exodus 33:18). When this request was granted the divine emphasis was on displaying His moral qualities:
"And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth .... and that will by no means clear the guilty" (Exodus 34:6-7).
That the glory of God was primarily His moral qualities rather than His physical presence was expressed by John when speaking about Jesus:
"We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
When Jesus was on earth he did not show forth God's literal glory. The way Jesus showed the glory of his Father was by being a perfect reflection of God's character. The glory of God is thus the sum of His virtues, such as those considered in chapter 3. And according to Paul, 'coming short' of this glory-failure to reach such heights-is sin. In view of this definition it is no wonder that "all have sinned".
This leads us on to note further Bible words that describe sin. In his letters John wrote:
"All unrighteousness is sin" (1 John 5:17).
"Sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4 RSV).
You will see that these express the same idea. We have already considered God's righteousness and justice in chapter 3 and have seen that these terms describe His perfect attributes. Man's unrighteousness, his failure to live to this standard, is sin in the Scriptural sense, even when apparently a good and blameless life is being led. Similarly sin is 'lawlessness', a state of mind in which a person does not accept the laws of God as the rule of his life, and does not obey them.
Notice that this is true even if a person does not know the attributes or the will of God. People are guilty of sin even if they have never heard of God's laws. There is nothing unreasonable about this: even in our legal systems ignorance of the law of the land is not a defence if a person breaks that law.
But God has also given man specific laws to keep: the Bible is full of references to the things we should or should not do. Those who know these commandments but who do not obey them sin in a greater sense. This sin caused by breaking a specific command of God is usually termed transgression, or trespass. As the words imply, this involves crossing over a line or rule that has been laid down by God.
So it is possible to be sinners for two reasons: first because of general failure to attain to the characteristics of God, and secondly because of actual transgression of His laws by those who know them. Sin in the first case can be regarded as a state or condition of any person or society, and in the second the breaking of specific commands of God by those who know God's will.
With such a definition of sin it is far from surprising to find that all mankind are guilty of it. We have already noted the words of Paul: "all have sinned", and there are many other similar references:
"For we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin" (Romans 3:9).
"The Scripture hath concluded all under sin" (Galatians 3:22).
"The sin of the world" (John 1:29).
Thus sin could be said to be the 'Constitution' of the world. In ordinary human systems of government each nation has its Constitution by which it is governed, and every person born into that country inherits that Constitution whether he likes it or not. Similarly everyone born on earth comes into a world where a tendency to sin is ingrained into the very nature of man's being and into every aspect of his society. So sin is said to "reign" in all the affairs of man (Romans 5:21).
Having been born into an earth where sin reigns it is not easy for us to appreciate the effect that sin has: it is so much a part of human everyday experience that its results are regarded as the normal run of affairs. In fact the reign of sin has incalculable effects.
One result is separation from God. Never having experienced the closeness of the divine fellowship it may be difficult for us to envisage the effect of its absence, but the clear teaching of the Bible is that the presence of sin raises a barrier between man and his Creator:
"Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear" (Isaiah 59:2).
"The carnal mind" (i.e. a mind in which sin reigns) "is enmity against God" (Romans 8:7).
The earth is a black spot in the universe. Throughout vast distances of space God is at one with His creation for, as Jesus said in his prayer, God's will is done in heaven; but this is not true of our planet. Metaphorically speaking God cannot look on the earth because of its sin:
"Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity" (Habakkuk 1:13).
So if God is to fulfil His plan to come and dwell among men in the perfect Kingdom of God, it means that in some way sin will have to be removed from the earth.
Another result of sin is an earth cursed by suffering and death. Again, death is such a normal experience that it is difficult to think of it as the result of sin. But this is the clear teaching of the Bible:
"For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).
"Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death" (James 1:15).
You may recall the Bible prophecy quoted in chapter 2 which foretold that when the Kingdom of God enters its final stage "there shall be no more death" (Revelation 21:4), implying the abolition of the cause of death, sin. So God's scheme for the removal of sin and the reconciliation of the world to Himself is part of the Bible's golden thread of the Kingdom of God. We have already seen that forgiveness of sins was an aspect of God's promise to Abraham, but to find the beginning of the thread we must go back even further to the start of the Bible. Here we learn how proneness to sin became part of the very make-up of mankind and achieved its dominance of the world.
In this section I will regard the events in the Garden of Eden as having actually taken place. This is the only view that a follower of Jesus can take. He referred to Adam and Eve as historical people, and the circumstances of the Fall as literal happenings (Matthew 19:4-5); and the apostles who wrote the New Testament did the same. The whole of the doctrine of the atonement between God and man becomes incomprehensible on any other basis.
The opening scene of the Bible is a delightful one (Genesis 2). The newly created pair lived in a beautiful country park filled with a variety of ornamental and food bearing trees. Streams and rivers watered this paradise of Eden and there was nothing to mar the happiness of Adam and Eve. Especially delightful was their association with God. In a way that has not been revealed they communed with their Creator, and in all probability He informed them about Himself, educated them, and instructed them in the principles of a correct way of life.
However from God's point of view this arrangement had one drawback. His purpose would not be satisfied merely by the act of creating the world. We read in the Psalms that God derives little pleasure from merely physical things:
"He delighteth not in the strength of the horse: he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man"
Real satisfaction could only come when His creation responded to Him in love. So the psalmist continues:
"The Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear him" (Psalm 147:10-11).
This pleasure was not satisfied by Adam and Eve's slavish obedience as if they were robots. What brings pleasure and satisfaction to God is when people who are faced with a choice deliberately do what is right in order to please Him and show their trust in Him. In other words God wants people of character.
With this objective He devised a test of their allegiance. He pointed out to the pair a special tree bearing appetising fruit and told them that they were not to eat of it or even touch it:
"And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Genesis 2:16-17).
Adam listened to these words with all the power of his God given understanding, no doubt pondering their meaning and turning them over and over in his mind. How many times the pair passed near the tree, shrinking back from it lest they gave offence to God and brought ruin on themselves, we do not know. As yet nothing had occurred to tempt them to disobey God. But one day, when Eve was alone, she was approached by a serpent. The animal had some reasoning ability and the power of speech, and it began to sow seeds of doubt in the woman's mind:
"Hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?"
Her reply showed that she fully understood God's command:
"We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die" (Genesis 3:1-2).
The serpent dismissed this out of hand. It was God trying to protect His own position, he reasoned. If you eat this fruit you will instantly become as wise as He, and wonderful vistas of knowledge and understanding will be opened to you. Certainly death is out of the question.
"And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (v4-5).
The woman hesitated. Did this speaking serpent say the truth? Was God hiding something that would be of benefit to them? Was the threat of death just to prevent them sharing His knowledge and wisdom? The implanted seed of doubt began to grow: and with the fruit hanging enticingly on the branches Eve's trust in God weakened and then died. Stretching out her hand she plucked the fruit and ate it. She found Adam and, no doubt after suitable explanations, he shared the fruit with her.
In this way sin entered the world.
Think what Adam and Eve had done. Their disobedience had not been a little accidental slip or mistake, but was a deliberate challenge to God. He had said that if they disobeyed Him they would die. They said in effect "We don't believe you". God had revealed Himself to them as their Creator and Instructor. They in their pride sought for instant mental equality with Him. They had set up their own will in defiant opposition to God's will. They had challenged God's supremacy.
To a God who is absolutely supreme and whose every thought and action is wholly righteous this was a challenge that could not be overlooked, or the threatened penalty of death be rescinded. So, as we will see shortly, the death penalty was pronounced on sinning man.
God's displeasure was not shown immediately, giving the now sinful pair time to take stock of their new position. The forbidden fruit had done its work, opening their eyes to see things in a different light from before (Genesis 3:7). Their first realisation was that they were naked. Something that before had seemed perfectly natural and innocent now appeared shameful. Although they possibly did not realise it at the time, their nakedness epitomised their sinfulness. Feeling an instinctive need to cover themselves they hurriedly sewed some large leaves of a nearby fig tree into crude aprons and put them on. This was a very significant act. They intuitively felt the need to cover the results of their great sin. They could no longer appear before God naked.
But the dreaded confrontation could not long be delayed. As the sun began to sink in the west Adam and Eve awaited their customary talk with God. Then came the sound of the voice that had been their life and joy but now froze their heart with terror: "Adam, where art thou?" But Adam was hiding among the trees, aware that his hastily contrived covering was ineffective in concealing his sin from God's gaze. He was no doubt conscious that his transgression had separated him from his Creator, and had destroyed the fellowship and communion existing between them.
"I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself."
"Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?" (Genesis 3:10-11).
Shamefacedly the guilty pair came out of their hiding place to receive a just sentence upon their action. The three participants were addressed in turn, and the overall message was that whilst the immediate prospect was dark and foreboding, there was a ray of hope that pointed to the removal at last of the estrangement between God and man that had just commenced.
Adam's punishment was to be a life of toil and hard work in trying to produce food from an earth now cursed for his sake: crops being grown only with difficulty and sorrow. At the end man would die and return again to the dust from which he was first created (Genesis 3:17-19).
This curse was not confined to Adam only but embraced all his posterity. They would inherit his sinful nature and so share the penalty of sin. The New Testament comment on this is very clear:
"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all
have sinned" (Romans 5:12).
This is a convenient place to emphasise two points concerning sin and its consequences. First, the Bible always attributes sin's origin and continuation to man, and him alone. No external agent can be blamed for man's predicament. Man sins after he is "drawn away of his own lust, and enticed" (James 1:14).
Secondly, death, the punishment for sin, means the complete cessation of being. The idea that at death an immortal component of man continues a conscious existence is foreign to Bible teaching. Death would hardly be a punishment if that were so. Speaking to God, David says:
"In death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?" (Psalm 6:5).
Many other passages teach the same:
"The living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything" (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
"His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish" (Psalm 146:4).
But death, though real in every sense, is not necessarily the end of a person. There is a hope beyond the grave, as we shall see as this chapter proceeds.
The theme of pain and sorrow was continued in the punishment of Eve. Her anguish was to come in the pains of childbirth and also she was to occupy a subordinate position in the relationship between man and woman (Genesis 3:16).
From this recital of the punishments on Adam and Eve it would appear that mankind was without hope. They had deliberately flouted the laws of the Almighty God and set up their will in opposition to His. He had warned what His response would be, and was now justly bringing their sin to account. Because of God's inherent justice, for Him to simply forgive man would in this case be out of the question; yet His love and mercy desired reconciliation. As we saw at the end of chapter 3 God's justice and His mercy seemed to be in opposition, and yet in His wisdom He devised a way by which His love could be shown without in any way compromising His justice and righteousness. In His sentence on the serpent God gave a hint of His plan.
Here the first ray of hope appeared. As the one who had encouraged Adam and Eve to sin the serpent was to be cursed: a punishment that banished him to a lowly and despised position in creation. But at the same time God promised ultimate deliverance from the curse that the serpent had helped to bring into the world. Addressing him God said:
"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (Genesis 3:15).
Here is another key verse of Scripture, and we again find that the fulfilment was to involve the work of promised seeds. The woman was to have a descendant and so was the serpent, and there was to be enmity between them. The descendant of the woman would inflict a head wound on the serpent, the inference being that such a wound would be fatal-the serpent would be killed. But in the course of this conflict the serpent would give the woman's descendant a wound to the heel-a non-fatal injury from which the woman's descendant would recover.
A tabulation of the phrases will help make clear these relationships between the serpent (on the left) and the woman:
|Thee (the serpent)||at enmity with||the woman|
|Thy seed||at enmity with||her seed|
|Thy head||bruised by||her seed|
|Thou||shalt bruise||her seed's heel|
These are obviously figurative allusions. What do they represent?
The serpent was the indirect cause of sin entering the world, and so becomes a fitting figure of sin itself. Those whose lives are ruled by sin are thus the seed of the serpent. "Serpents' children" is a Bible description of those who are opposed to God's way. Jesus addressed the evil Pharisees as "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers" (Matthew 23:33), and on other occasions referred to them with this passage in Genesis clearly in mind (John 8:44). Thus "the serpent", which is to be destroyed by the "seed of the woman", is a personification of sin displayed in human nature, and those in whom it is so displayed are the 'seed' of the serpent.
It is appropriate to mention here that in the Bible sin in its opposition to God is personified in other ways. Personification is a frequently used figure of speech in which an abstract idea is depicted as a person. Examples abound in all literature and are readily understood:
"Hope withering fled, and Mercy sighed Farewell" (Byron, The Bride of Abydos)
"Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets" (Proverbs 1:20).
A close examination of the Scriptural use of such terms as 'the Devil' and 'Satan' will show that they too are personifications of sin, rather than referring to a superhuman evil monster.
The woman was promised a descendant who would destroy the serpent, that is, the power of sin. As with the 'seed' of Abraham and the 'seed' of David, this promised person is Jesus. In an allusion to the promise in Eden that the woman would have a son we read in the New Testament:
"But when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman ...." (Galatians 4:4).
In the well known 53rd chapter of Isaiah the coming of the one who would save mankind from the effects of sin is clearly predicted. Here again the language reminds us of God's promise in Eden that in the process of destroying sin the seed of the woman would suffer a temporary bruising at its hand:
"He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed .... and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all .... Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed .... by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:5-6,10-11).
A brief summary may help fix in our minds the salient points of the promise.
The punishment on man:
The earth would be cursed for his sake.
Life would be arduous and sorrowful.
He would die and return to dust.
All Adam's descendants would be born with his sin-cursed nature and likewise die.
The sentence on the serpent:
He (sin) would eventually be killed.
The punishment on the woman:
Pain in childbirth
Subjection to her husband
But-and here is the promise of the removal of sin-her 'seed' (Jesus) would kill the 'serpent' (sin) although in so doing would receive a temporary wound.
As well as speaking to Adam and Eve about the work of the woman's seed to eventually reconcile God and man, God gave them an object lesson of how sins could be forgiven. We have already noted that immediately they had sinned, our first parents realised their nakedness and attempted to hide it by making aprons of fig leaves. This nakedness had become a symbol of their sin and wearing the aprons was tantamount to trying to cover sin by their own efforts-an impossibility. Then God performed a very significant act:
"Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them" (Genesis 3:21).
This action taught Adam two things. First, mankind could not cover sins himself, only God could do this. Secondly, the skins must have come from a slain animal, teaching that covering of sin could only come about by death. The animal that by its death provided coats of skins, pointed forward to the death of the seed of the woman in achieving the covering of the sins of the world.
God emphasised this to the next generation. When Adam's son Cain offered fruit as a sacrifice to God he was rejected. It was the equivalent of the fig leaves that God had already indicated were useless in covering sin. His other son, Abel, recognised the truth that forgiveness could only be achieved by death, and his sacrifice of a lamb was accepted.
In this way the principles for human redemption were laid down at the very beginning of man's history, and recorded in Genesis so that all later generations could look forward to the coming of the Redeemer who would die for the sins of mankind.
Although the Old Testament teaching about the sacrifice of Jesus is possibly not so well known, it is undoubtedly recognised as a major aspect of the New Testament. The fact that Jesus offered himself for crucifixion to atone for sin is mentioned over and over again. When announcing the birth of the Saviour the angel said:
"Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21).
And the apostles continually allude to the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God that can result from Christ's sacrifice:
"Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3).
"He .... put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Hebrews 9:26).
"While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
"We have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins" (Ephesians 1:7).
"Having made peace through the blood of his cross to reconcile all things" (Colossians 1:20).
"You .... hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death" (Colossians 1:21-22).
"His own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree" (1 Peter 2:24).
"Our saviour Jesus Christ who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity" (Titus 2:14).
"Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood" (Revelation 5:9).
Why did the world have to wait so long for its Saviour to come? Why could not any man have sacrificed his life and so effected the desired reunion with God? The answer is that sacrifice of itself was not enough. It had indeed to be the offering of a representative member of the human race; but it also had to be the offering of one who had never sinned. Jesus was the only one who could meet these two requirements.
I have already alluded (p.103) to the unique parentage of Jesus. Because of his begettal by the Holy Spirit he was the Son of God, but because of his human mother he was also Son of Man-"the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5). The Bible makes it plain that Jesus possessed the same physical nature that all the rest of mankind had inherited from Adam, and was subjected to the same temptation to sin:
"Forasmuch then as the children were partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil" (Hebrews 2:14).
"Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren" (Hebrews 2:17).
Note in both these quotations the repeated emphasis of the fact that Jesus was a true representative of the human race: "also", "himself", "likewise". It was something Paul needed to stress. To reverse the Scriptural phrase, calling Jesus "God the Son" (a term never found in the Bible), and giving him a physical nature different from our own, is not only incorrect but makes impossible an understanding of his redemptive work.
However, although Jesus had the same temptations to sin as the rest of mankind he was able completely to overcome the enticements that caused others to fail, with the result that he never once sinned. On no occasion did Jesus ever "fall short of the glory of God". Never once was he disobedient to God's will. He could truly say "I always do those things that please the Father". This great achievement is frequently mentioned in Scripture:
"A lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:19).
"Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22).
"In him is no sin" (1 John 3:5).
"Which of you convicteth me of sin?" (John 8:46, RV).
"For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).
Christ's complete victory over sin whilst possessing man's sinful nature made his sacrifice a basis on which God could forgive man's sin and bestow eternal life. But before we consider this further, let us dwell on the greatness of his achievement.
From his earliest years Jesus devoted his life to his Father's purpose to redeem mankind. The study of the Scriptures, our Old Testament, was his constant occupation. From them and by prayerful communion with his Father he prepared himself for the role those sacred writings outlined for him. When, at the age of thirty, he commenced preaching the good news of God's Kingdom, the people saw in him a man against whom no valid personal criticism could be levelled: a man whose knowledge of the Scriptures was unequalled, even by the aged scholars of the day: and a man whose message was supported by miraculous signs demonstrating that he was invested with the power of God.
They acclaimed him as the long awaited Messiah, and on at least one occasion tried to force him to become their king in the belief that the promised blessings would follow. But Jesus knew that the kingship would have to await his second coming, and tried to prepare his listeners for his death, which was similarly foretold by their prophets of old.
All this time Jesus incurred the increasing hostility of the religious leaders of the Jews, until the 'enmity' between the 'seed of the serpent' and the 'seed of the woman', predicted so long before in the Garden of Eden, came to its climax. Christ's personal integrity and his exposure of their hypocrisy made his opponents jealous and vindictive, and his judicial murder seemed the only way to silence him. With the rulers' knowledge of their countrymen it was comparatively easy to swing public opinion against Jesus, and within the space of a few short days the crowd who had feted him on his arrival at Jerusalem was clamouring for his crucifixion.
We must remember that Jesus had the power to prevent all this. He could have forestalled the actions of the Scribes and Pharisees at every turn. As he said at the time of his arrest, he could have summoned more than twelve legions of angels to his defence. But such action would have prevented the divine scheme of human reconciliation, as he went on to say:
"But how then shall the scripture be fulfilled, that thus it must be?" (Matthew 26:53-54).
Jesus knew from his study of those Scriptures that the serpent had to bruise the heel of the seed of the woman, and so he voluntarily submitted to his arrest and the pain and ignominy that lay ahead. He could have drawn back from that humiliation and suffering, or he could have defended himself at his trial so that an acquittal was inevitable. But instead he went forward to the cross of his own free will, the only compulsion being his own overwhelming desire to be obedient to his Father's will, and his fathomless love for his friends.
A Roman crucifixion was a terrible ordeal. After the priests had blackmailed Pilate into passing the death sentence, Jesus was scourged. This was thirty nine lashes on the bare back with a bone studded whip. With his back raw and bleeding he was led away to the soldiers' barrack room where, having heard of his claim to kingship, they pressed a circlet of thorny twigs on his head as a substitute crown. They then dressed him in royal robes and knelt before him in mock homage. It was the custom to force the prisoner to carry the instrument of his own death, and so the cross was placed on Christ's sore back and he was guided out of the city for crucifixion. At the appointed spot the cross was laid on the ground and Jesus fixed to it with heavy nails. It needs little imagination to sense the searing pain as the cross was roughly lifted upright and dropped into its socket in the ground.
And for six hours the only morally perfect man who had ever lived hung there in agony, surrounded by the triumphant and taunting priests. Looking at the inscription above his head, 'The King of the Jews', they said in sneering tones:
"Let the Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe" (Mark 15:32).
The thoughts of Jesus as he hung on the cross, and the events of that sad day were recorded in advance in the Old Testament:
"I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have enclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture" (Psalm 22:14-18).
"Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink" (Psalm 69:20-21).
Yet even in such bodily and mental agony the Saviour of the world remained faithful to his Father's will. Not a rejoinder passed his lips or an angry thought went through his mind as he retained his sinlessness to the last. And as he felt his strength ebbing away he knew that he had won the battle. Thus it was with a glorious sense of triumph that he cried out with a loud voice "It is finished" and then lapsed into the sweet unconsciousness of death.
In this way that Jesus of Nazareth became the Saviour of the world. This was the price that had to be paid so that God and man could be reconciled and God's ultimate destiny for His creation could be achieved.
In trying to understand why Jesus had to die on the cross to remove sin we approach the limits of our mental capacity. The plan of salvation belongs to the One who says "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). In the face of such superiority we must accept without question that the death of His son was the only way for God's purpose to be achieved. A wholehearted belief in this fact is the essential requirement, even though the reason for Christ's sacrifice is not fully understood.
Yet Scripture gives some insight into the reasons why Christ's death was effectual in obtaining forgiveness of man's sins. Although a lifetime's study would not suffice to understand all aspects, some of the divine principles involved can be gleaned from a reverent inquiry into God's word.
A common explanation of the work of Jesus likens mankind to a condemned man awaiting execution. A friend comes forward and offers himself as a substitute for the criminal, is accepted, and dies instead of the guilty man. So God accepts the death of Jesus instead of condemned mankind. But this idea that Christ suffered a penalty instead of those who deserved it does not fit with the facts of the case or with Bible teaching. Reason tells us that if Christ died instead of us we ought no longer to die, which we do. But especially is the substitutionary idea incompatible with what God has revealed. Paul describes the death of Jesus as a declaration of the 'justice' and 'righteousness' of God; whereas the killing of an innocent man instead of a guilty one would appear to be a travesty of justice.
So with reverence we ask what happened on the cross that enabled God to forgive man's sins? Why was the position different after the death of Christ from what it was before the crucifixion? In seeking Bible answers to these questions we begin to see the way by which God in His infinite wisdom devised a means of maintaining His righteousness and supremacy that required that men should die for their sin, but at the same time opened a way by which sins could be forgiven. In other words He became "a just God and a Saviour" (Isaiah 45:21).
The Bible contrasts what Adam did with what Jesus achieved. In Eden Adam disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit. He thus challenged God's supremacy, putting his own will in opposition to God's will. We are also told of an incentive to his defiance. "Your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" was the temptation by the serpent. This possibility of seizing equality with God was one of the enticements to disobedience the unhappy pair received. Such disobedience, containing a challenge to the very sovereignty of God, could not go unpunished. Death was pronounced as a punishment for Adam's sin, and all his descendants have similarly died, because they all have sinned.
Now contrast this with the situation on the cross. Jesus offered himself as a man who was truly representative of all Adam's fallen race, with identical temptations to sin: yet he never gave way to them. So, unlike Adam who did his own will, Jesus subordinated his will completely to God. It was prophesied of him in the Old Testament: "Lo, I come to do thy will, O God" (Psalm 40:6; Hebrews 10:7). And he summarised this aspect of his mission when he said that he came "not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me" (John 6:38). Thus Jesus, unlike disobedient Adam, was completely obedient to God: "though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8).
There is another contrast between Adam and Christ. We have seen that Adam sought equality with God by grasping and eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. But Jesus, although God's own Son, did not attempt this. Paul tells us that he "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped .... and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:7-8 RSV).
Furthermore, in Eden death came as a God-inflicted and just punishment. By contrast Jesus voluntarily sacrificed his life: and by this deliberate act acknowledged that God was right in originally demanding the penalty of death for sin.
So, in whatever way Adam had failed, Jesus succeeded.
What, then, did the Cross achieve? It vindicated God's position. It declared Him to be righteous. This is the explanation given by Paul that we must now examine.
Commenting on God's scheme of redemption Paul says in one of the most definitive passages about the death of Christ:
"But now the righteousness of God .... is manifested .... even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe .... For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation (i.e. a covering for sin) through faith in his blood, to declare his (God's) righteousness for the remission of sins that are past .... to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Romans 3:21-26).
Several points come out of a careful perusal of these words. First we note that four times in this passage the sacrifice of Jesus is regarded as a declaration of the righteousness of God. Then we read that the result of this declaration is the forgiveness of sins. We are also told that this forgiveness and justification is available to those who believe in Jesus and have faith in what his shed blood achieved.
Here we have the clues to an understanding of what Christ's sacrifice accomplished. Once the righteousness of God had been demonstrated, then forgiveness could be available to those who believe in Jesus.
So we ask, in what way was the crucifixion a declaration of the righteousness of God? Look at it like this. Jesus was a mortal descendant of Adam, and in every sense a true representative of the race, but he was sinless. Was it then right that such as he should die? Was God being righteous in requiring the death of even a sinless man? By his public and voluntary offering Jesus declared the justice of this. He said in effect "God was right to have punished Adam and his descendants. This is how condemned human nature should be treated."
What was the effect of this public declaration? With God's supremacy and justice acknowledged on the Cross, the situation in Eden was reversed. Whereas God's supremacy was once challenged and his righteousness impugned, now His justice was publicly demonstrated. On this new basis God offers forgiveness; not to all, but to those who identify themselves with that sacrifice. This will require further elaboration, but suffice it to say at this point that those who believe in Jesus will themselves be made righteous, even as God is righteous:
".... be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
So unrighteous and sinful man will be accounted righteous by God if he believes on Jesus, with all that belief involves. Thus the penalty in Eden can be reversed.
There is another aspect to consider arising out of Christ's sinlessness. Because death is the punishment for sin, and Jesus never sinned, we read that "it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (Acts 2:24 NIV). In the sentence on the serpent it was foretold that the woman's Seed in killing sin would himself suffer a temporary wound. So Christ's death proved to be only temporary. God raised him from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus is an essential aspect of the redemption that he achieved. By his resurrection the benefits of his sacrifice are made available to the believers. Speaking of the righteousness available through Jesus, Paul says that it will be imputed to all who:
"Believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification" (Romans 4:24-25).
The resurrection of Christ is therefore essential to a believer's salvation:
"If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17).
With the whole picture of God's purpose with the earth in our minds we can see the truth of these words. God's plan could not be completed without the resurrection of Jesus. The risen Jesus now has the essential role of being our mediator in heaven (Romans 8:34; 1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 4:14-15), and God for his sake forgives the sins of the believer. Also the eternal life made possible by Christ's sacrifice will be given at his return to the earth. A Jesus that remained in the grave could not be a mediator and redeemer.
The result of this loving sacrifice of Jesus will be the establishment of complete fellowship between man and his Creator when the Kingdom of God is finally established on earth. Death will at last be banished completely and the barrier to God dwelling with men removed. How we should share the ascriptions of thanksgiving, praise and adoration that will be given to the one who by his death made it all possible and who, excepting God Himself, has become the greatest being in the whole universe:
"Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing .... for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation" (Revelation 5:12,9).
In these days when the 'rights' of man are the subject of a lot of comment and argument it is worth noting that as far as his redemption is concerned man has no 'rights' whatever. If God had chosen not to save man no one could have raised a valid objection. But arching over all the Bible teaching about man's salvation is the fact of God's grace toward fallen man. Grace is unmerited favour, and God has shown this in abundant measure in that "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). The whole of His plan is an evidence of His love toward a fallen race that is completely unable to help itself. How thankfully the New Testament writers acknowledge this! Speaking of Jesus Paul says:
"In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace" (Ephesians 1:7).
"That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 5:21).
Truly, no man or woman will ever gain the Kingdom of God by their own efforts. Paul again reminds us of this:
"Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace" (2 Timothy 1:9).
So we ask: now that Christ has died and God's righteousness has been shown, does it follow that the entire human race has been forgiven its sins? No. We have already seen that forgiveness will be extended only to those who believe on Jesus and what his death accomplished. Many other passages teach this. Jesus said that his Father
"gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
Or as the Saviour again said:
"He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (John 11:25).
It is necessary for the sinner to acknowledge his sinful state, to look at Jesus dying on the cross and in effect say: "I truly believe that you did this for me, and that through your loving sacrifice all my sins can be forgiven and I can be reconciled to God". And having become a believer, there must be public confession of that belief in Jesus, just as his declaration was public on the cross. As Paul again says:
"If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved" (Romans 10:9).
This topic of the believer's response to the life and work of Jesus is so vital that it merits a chapter of its own. But before we leave the present one let me summarise the Bible teaching about sin and its removal.
In this chapter we have seen that sin is firstly an inbuilt tendency in man which prevents him from living acceptably to God. Secondly it describes the act of those who know the will of God yet break His commandments. The effect of sin is alienation from God, the experiencing of evil and suffering, and eventually death.
From the Old Testament record, which has the support of all New Testament writers, we learnt that sin and death entered because of the disobedience of our first parents. But whilst justly sentencing Adam and Eve, God promised the coming of a descendant of Eve who would destroy the power of sin.
Jesus was this promised Saviour, and by his perfect life and loving sacrifice on the cross made it possible for God to forgive man's sins and so give him immortality in the Kingdom of God, when the breach created in Eden will be finally healed.
This forgiveness is offered to those who first believe in the work of Jesus and who then associate themselves with it in the way God has prescribed.
Above all, our studies in this chapter have a personal application. Every one of us needs forgiveness of our sins and deliverance from death, and we have seen how Jesus Christ can become your Redeemer and mine.
How should we respond?
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