Behind Golgotha 4: Was Jesus a Sacrifice?
Passage: John 3:1–3:21
Two thousand years ago a man named Jesus, son of Joseph, from the town of Nazareth was crucified on a Roman Cross outside of Jerusalem. He had been declared an enemy of the state and was executed under the order of Pontius Pilate. We have spent the last few weeks talking about the events that led to his arrest, trial, and execution.
But then something strange happened.
What usually happened was criminals were executed, the followers gave up the cause, sometimes after a few more executions, and then everyone goes home.
But when Jesus was executed on a Roman cross His followers didn’t go home. They didn’t give up the cause. Instead they said that his death was the central moment in the history of the world. They said everything God had done in Israel had led to that moment and everything about the future depends on Jesus dying upon a cross.
Why? What was so significant about that event? What did it mean? How was it the central moment in the history of the world?
That is going to be our topic for the next three weeks.
Broadly speaking what followers of Jesus have claimed since his death was that the death of Jesus was the moment of atonement for humanity before God. In the death of Jesus God and humanity were made right again.
Throughout the last two thousand years Christian thinkers and theologians have developed a number of different understandings of how Jesus’ death served as atonement for humanity before God. These differing understandings come from different ways the Bible talks about what happened on the cross. These are typically called atonement theories but theologian Fleming Rutledge prefers to say motifs. Theory sounds so rigid. Motif suggests what we’re doing isn’t solving a math problem but rather highlighting important aspects or relationships. Theory suggests only one can be correct and you have to choose sides. Motif suggests that multiple things can be present within an ecology because one alone doesn’t tell the full story.
So for the next three weeks we are going to pick up and talk about different atonement motifs. Each of them emphasize a significant part of what Christians have proclaimed for centuries happened upon that cross. Each of them pick up on significant Biblical themes. Each of them have their problems when isolated from the others.
But in looking at different ways of understanding the cross perhaps when we get to Good Friday and remember Jesus dying upon the cross you will experience it in a new way this time. That happened to me. I read a book one time about our understanding of salvation and atonement and for the first time realize what it was for God to come into the world and for us to kill Him. I’d known all my life that Jesus died for me, but it was more like an algebra problem. For the first time I contemplated the possibility that Jesus didn’t have to die, but was made to die by the sins of the world. And it broke me.
Today we are going to talk about Jesus as a sacrifice. And to talk about Jesus as a sacrifice we are going to walk through passage of Scripture that contains the most famous Bible verse there is.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dead of night to have a conversation. Nicodemus admits Jesus is a Rabbi, a teacher, one who has authority. He could only do this at night because the Pharisees and Jesus be beefing. He would have been ostracized, ridiculed if he admitted this in front of his peers. Jesus tells him that if you want to enter the Kingdom of God you must be born again. A very strange phrase. Nicodemus is deeply mystified about the biology of it all and focuses on the how. Jesus talks about being reborn by the Spirit. I might have asked for Nicodemus to focus on a different question, the why.
Why do we need to be reborn?
The sacrificial atonement motif begins with the premise that we as humanity are out of step with God. We turned away. Our love failed. We rebelled. We sinned. And because of what we have done we are not in relationship with God, each other, or creation as God had intended. The Old Testament narrates this through the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve eat of the tree they were told not to eat of, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden, one of their children murders another one of their children, further bad stuff ensues. God promises to make it better. And when the children of Israel find themselves slaves in Egypt God rescues them and gives them a new way to live, the Torah.
But what happens pretty immediately is the Israelites break the Torah, they break the law. If I told you right now that you cannot have another cup of coffee or another bottle of water my guess is you’d suddenly discover you were thirsty or a little tired. It’s just what we humans do. So there needed to be a process by which people in the community could be absolved of the guilt of breaking the law. And because those laws were given by God you didn’t just need restitution with the community, but with God also. The sacrificial system was what allowed for that restitution.
So Nicodemus probably doesn’t ask Jesus why questions because baked into Israelite law and culture was a notion that oftentimes humans mess up, do what is wrong in God’s sight, and need to make atonement. This same assumption doesn’t hold true in our modern age. People don’t always accept the premise that their relationship with God and with others is out of whack and its, at least in large part, based on their actions. Most people don’t come knowing they need to be reborn, that they need to be renewed, that they need atonement.
But we do. And its because our world is not as its meant to be. Our relationships are not as they are meant to be. We hurt each other. We are curved in towards our own self-interest. And that causes us to fail to love our neighbors, to fail to uphold God’s law, to fail to hear the cry of the needy, it causes us to sin. We need to be brought back into right relationship with God and with each other. We need to be reborn. We need a fresh start. But how does that happen? How are we reborn in the Spirit? If you’re wondering that you aren’t alone.
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
In answering Nicodemus’ question Jesus refers to an old story about Moses lifting up a snake in the wilderness. This story occurs in Numbers 21 as the people Israel are wandering through the wilderness. They complain and speak ill of Moses and God saying why couldn’t we have just stayed in Egypt so God sent poisonous snakes at them. Walking around all day people kept getting bitten by the poisonous snakes and dying. So they repented of speaking evil against God and God told Moses to put a snake on a staff and hold it up so that if anyone gets bit they can look at the staff and be saved. The snakes are still there. The snakes are still biting. But when Moses makes the bronze snake and puts it on a staff, when you get bit, you need only look at the bronze snake and you will be healed.
Jesus says he too will be lifted up. He’s talking about the cross. He will die on a cross. And in that and through that, the punishment for sin will be removed. The snake bites, the death caused by the snake bites were the punishment for the people’s sin. The lifted bronze snake was the way to remove that punishment. Jesus is saying that in his being lifted up we will find the punishments for our sins removed.
And now the famous verse.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
We all remember the first sentence of that paragraph. We often forget what comes next. We love the God loving the world part. We really want to forget about the people loving darkness rather than light part. But in all of this we find the meaning of the sacrificial motif of the atonement, we find a central meaning of Jesus’ death on a cross.
We have sinned. And there are consequences for sin. Relationships are broken, our world is harmed, we are disoriented. We need atonement. We need to restore and renew relationships. We need to set things right. We need a new birth.
And what Jesus is saying here is that through being lifted up on the cross the consequences of sin are being removed. Through Jesus, through God’s giving of Jesus and Jesus’ giving up of himself, our sins are gone. Jesus’ offering is our restitution.
I think Jesus talks about light and darkness here because oftentimes we know the extent to which we have messed up. We know the ways we fail. We know when we have sinned. It’s not a feeling of innocence which keeps us in the dark, its our own acknowledgment of our guilt. We are afraid to come out of the dark because we don’t want people to know the things we have done. We are ashamed and we don’t want to give reason for more people to shame us.
So its fear that keeps us in the dark. Fear of being judged. Fear of being guilty. Fear that people would know us completely, even and especially the parts of ourselves we aren’t proud of. The things we don’t like that we do. The evil we don’t want to do that we do.
What can bring us into the light? What can allow us to be brave and risk being known? What can allow us to confess, to admit the places we need to work, and begin to be healed? Knowing that we are forgiven. Knowing that we have been redeemed. Knowing that the penalty for our guilt has already been paid. Knowing that there is no judgement in the light, only grace and forgiveness and love.
It’s telling that in court proceedings you can get more information and truth from people after offering them immunity. When people come forward to be whistleblowers and expose corporate corruption its under the freedom that they won’t face prosecution even if they were intimately involved in the corruption. We only feel free to tell the truth when we are assured forgiveness. When we know that what we have done can be known before God and God will still call us beloved child.
When we look upon the cross and see in the death of Jesus the sacrifice needed to make us right with God we are reminded that our sins are forgiven. We are reminded that if we come into the light we won’t face divine prosecution. That what is waiting for us in the light is love, is grace, is forgiveness, is mercy. That if we would be brave we can renew our relationship with God, and in doing that work towards a renewed relationship with our fellow human beings and with the rest of creation.
In the cross of Christ may you see all that is required to atone for your sins. May you see the freedom to come into the light to be known and to be loved by God. May you be reborn and renewed through the love of God in Jesus Christ. And may you be, to those in our community whom fear keeps trapped in the dark, to those in our community suffering from the sting of sin’s bite, to those in our community who need healing and wholeness, may you be a witness saying look unto the son of man, look unto Jesus lifted up and in Him find the healing you seek. Let us pray.