For the last few months we’ve given a lot of attention to Jesus’ life and teachings, now we turn to his death. That Jesus was killed on a Roman cross is probably the most well known fact in the world about Jesus. The cross was a tool of public torture, designed to inflict great suffering and to frighten people with the power of the Roman empire. Yet Jesus accepted this execution willingly, even though he did no wrong. The question of “why?” is one of the most important mysteries of Christian faith.
As I’ve spoken about many times, the story of the Bible has two basic parts: the problem and the solution. The problem is sin: our rebellion against the God’s good will that leads to pain, suffering, guilt, and death (both natural and spiritual). How do we fix the problem? Is there someone who will take responsibility for the broken condition of this world?
In class tonight we played “The Blame Game”; an activity that demonstrates that the failure of a group task can rarely be isolated to one or a few individuals. According to scripture, “all have sinned and fall short.” (Romans 3:23). Blame is hard to assign. Even if you successfully name a guilty party, how does one find justice? What makes for reconciliation and peace?
The ancient Hebrews had an annual ritual that helped the nation understand God’s salvation work among them. It was called, Yom Kipur, or “The Day of Atonement”. The priests of the nation would offer many sacrifices to represent the repentance of the people, but on the day of Atonement a special offering would be made. A goat would be selected to represent all the failures, sins, and mistakes of the entire nation. The priest would offer prayers on behalf of the entire nation and lay hands on the goat’s head, then send the goat out to wander in the desert to represent God’s gracious solution to our sins (Leviticus 16:20-22). This where we get the English word, “scapegoat”.
A “scapegoat” is someone or something who takes the blame for a problem. For the ancient Hebrews, this was an annual ritual involving a goat that symbolized God’s grace towards them. But for the entire world, Christian theology posits that God did something more significant than mere ritual or symbol. God himself became the scapegoat by becoming the “suffering servant” (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) or the perfect sacrifice for our sins (1 John 2:1-3). Or if you remember the covenants of the Old Testament, God in Christ has taken all the conditions of a military treaty upon himself. He did this by suffering and dying on the cross. This is the one of the most elemental claims of Christianity, “Christ died for our sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
But how exactly has Christ saved us through his death? Martin Luther said the death and resurrection of Jesus is a victory over the powers of sin, death, and the powers of the devil. But how does dying earn a victory? It is a mysterious thing we believe. So mysterious that the New Testament actually has multiple ways of describing what happened on the cross. We call these “Theories of Atonement”. Here are a few prominent theories
- Ransom – (Mark 10:45) Human sin has enslaved us to the powers of evil. We have literally become the devil’s property, until Jesus pays bounty with his own innocent blood. For an analogy, consider the sacrifice of the Lion “Aslan” in the novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
- Christus Victor – (Hebrews 2:14-15) This is similar to the “ransom” theory, in that by entering into death, Jesus has won a cosmic battle against the powers of Satan. One way to view this is that God has “tricked” the devil by letting him think he has won, but when Christ enters into death, he has the power to overcome the devil. This seems implied in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ.
- Breaking the Curse – (Galatians 3:13) Perfect obedience to the laws of God are essentially impossible for human beings, and thus we are cursed to fail, but the perfect loving sacrifice of Jesus fulfills the requirements of the law and breaks the curse of the law.
- Moral Influence – (John 15:12-13) The innocent death of Jesus is a demonstration of God’s love over and against human selfishness. When we witness such an amazing sacrifice, our lives are changed.
- Penal Substitution – (Romans 5:9, Isaiah 53:6) Crime requires punishment. Though innocent, Jesus takes the punishment we deserve.
These are just a few different explanations of the meaning of Jesus death, some are more similar than different. The scope of these different explanations reflects the depth of this holy mystery: human words can’t ever adequately explain how Jesus has saved us through his death, but his friends and disciples all staked their lives on the belief that it did. They believed that everything about the destiny of the world and their own lives was changed because of the cross.
Journaling Questions this Week
- When you think of things you’ve done wrong in your life, what kind of things go through your head?
- How does guilt affect your relationship with God? Do you feel a distance from God?
- How would your life change if someone took the blame for your biggest mistake?