The Meaning of Jesus’ Sacrifice
Being a Christian in a modern world, where science and history confront your assumptions of the Bible is challenging (and they should be challenged). Things like sacrifice, and in particular, Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins are difficult to understand. I’ve read a few books in the past couple of years that shattered my assumptions, removed my certainty, and made me a better Christian.
Understanding the substitutionary sacrifice is difficult
Let’s start with the substitutionary sacrifice for my sins. It’s a difficult concept to understand because the context of the sacrifice is so far removed from us. It was commonplace in a time and culture far, far removed from our own.
Initially, and this is due to my upbringing, I understood that the main point of Jesus’ death was to wash away my sins. And that this death had to be a horrifying, brutal death, because my sins made God that angry.
But that opened a whole new can of worms for me. How could I trust a God who would murder His Son in such a way, because someone else peed Him off? Honestly, what hope is there for me that I’m not cannon fodder for some other divine (and seemingly petty) purpose?
Don’t get me wrong, my sin is endemic, and I ache with shame at the stupid things I’ve done. But murdering an innocent person to satisfy your anger towards me doesn’t draw me into a relationship of trust. Rather, it sets me up for one of fear.
The picture that remained in the back of my mind of this God is that He is vindictive and delights in the slaughter of we mere humans (particularly the ones closest to Him). This spectre, ready to pounce, remained with me for many years.
What sacrifice meant in the ancient world
Millenia ago, there was much more uncertainty in people’s lives. They were agrarian communities, mostly living hand to mouth. They died young due to illness, in childbirth, a ruined crop, a group of marauders passing through, or extreme weather.
Most of these events were attributed to the gods, especially the ill-favour of the gods on their lives. (Read the Iliad for some illumination into this mindset. Ulysses really has a bad time due to the fickleness of the gods.)
The only way ancients knew how to repair relationships between each other was through a shared meal of an animal. The offending party would take an animal and sacrifice it (animals were dear to the owner) to share a meal with, and present it as a gift to, the person they offended.
This method of reparations was applied to the gods too. But you needed a middleman to facilitate the sharing of the meal with the gods.
Enter the priest. The priest was, coincidently, also a great butcher. He would slaughter the animal, take a part of the animal as an offering to the gods and share the meal with the petitioner.
Under no circumstance did the animal have to suffer. It was a matter of bringing a gift to the gods, to repair the relationship and possibly curry favour. It is in this setting, that Moses gave the Israelites the guidelines on how to commune with YHWH through the Levitical code.
And it is in this setting and cultural understanding that Jesus came to share His life.
I don’t think that the cross was the sacrifice. I think that His entire life was the sacrifice. Here’s why.
God, the owner of the universe, unrestricted to time and place, with wealth beyond measure, decides to join us here on earth. He chooses to be born into an oppressed nation, in a backwater town, “where nothing good comes from.”
Not only does He choose to do this, but He spends His life (and power) healing people and repairing their relationship with God. He confronts the injustice of the existing systems. He chooses to confront these systems at great risk to His own health and wellbeing. He does it in such a way, that when His followers understand what the Kingdom of God is all about, they willingly do the same.
God came down to show us how to be the humans we’re meant to be, and it cost Him everything.
What was substituted
I tread lightly here, because I’m confident that my understanding is incomplete. And perhaps it will always be incomplete. My faith is my trust in the character of Jesus, more than it is in our theology of Jesus.
With His life, which ultimately led to His death, Jesus invited us to share a meal with God, without the need to pay a costly price to do so. There is no longer a need for us to bring our earthly offerings, because the true offering has been given once and for all.
The Word made flesh.
The Passover supper Jesus begins the meal saying,
“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”Luke 22:19
It’s this beautiful metaphor that still catches me off guard from time to time. The unseen God becomes seen, so that I can understand and put away the shadow of a physical sacrifice and offering. Instead I can partake in a spiritual meal that means so much more. I can partake with Him by thinking about Him and talking to Him.
Jesus showed us, once and for all, that God takes no delight in our sacrifices and religious systems.
This post was originally titled “How I fell in love with Jesus”, with the intent to write a second part on the upside-down kingdom He invites us to. I underestimated the nauseating connection people have with Jesus freaks who have used those very words to show narrow minded bigotry.
So, I reworked the title and the introduction, hoping that people would read this post, because I think only the title was bad.
Finally there are two books that really shaped (and enhanced) my understanding of Jesus:
If you’re only dipping your toe into wrestling with Jesus, I’d start with Phillip Yancey’s book. If you’re waist deep in the pool, start with Marcus J. Borg’s book. Or, read each book’s blurb and decide for yourself.