At the heart of what Christians believe is a central figure: a man who lived and walked among us within human history, a man who claimed to be God’s Son and God himself.
Awesome as they are, his claims to deity, if not true make him just another lunatic or liar in the vast history of such impostors. Yes, he did claim himself to be God incarnate. But we testify that his story is a true story, and as such his own claims, let alone the events of his life, make his life the most important in the history of the world. He was foretold of in the Hebrew scriptures, and it is testified that he fulfilled all that he had come for.
1 Corinthians 15:3-4 says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…”
The life of Jesus culminated in his death via Roman crucifixion sanctioned by Jewish religious and political leaders. This was the very reason he came.
Atonement: Jesus my Substitute
Atonement is payment for offense. Who hasn’t been wronged? Put wrongdoing by a stranger in one category. But experience wrongdoing by someone close, a relative, a friend, a neighbor, let’s put in another category. Wrongdoing breaks relationship. If I value the friendship, something needs to cover and remove the offense for it to be restored.
Say we’re close friends. But say I were to walk to your house, stomp in the front door, and with a golf club, break the fine china, the television, and any other expensive thing I can find. I’m going crazy on the mirrors and vases. We’re very close friends and this comes to you as a great surprise, but because you really value the relationship with me you decide to understand and reconcile the rampage of vandalism and ruining of your home. But for that to happen, some things need to be addressed. First there’s the “what on Earth were you thinking?” questions. Then there’s the fact I’ve done something to a friend even an enemy may not level to. And then someone still has write a check for the broken china. These things are necessary to cover the offenses for the relationship to be restored. Questions need to be answered, apologies need to be made–a whole cleanup crew needs to come in. Not until the wrongdoings are covered, can the friendship to be restored. The whole event needs to be covered. That’s atonement. Atonement is the complete covering for sin.
What Happened in the Garden & the Day of Atonement
Our greatest wrongdoing is against our maker. God had warned Adam that of all the beautiful and lawful trees of the garden, the day he partook of the forbidden tree that he would die. His relationships would unravel and his body would give way to death. And most importantly he would be broken from peaceful fellowship with his creator.
But even in the garden, when our father Adam’s sin resulted in shameful nakedness, God made a covering of animal skin for him, to cover his shame. It was the first sacrifice, only doing the job partially, but it pointed forward to something better.
Later when the ceremonial law was given to the people of Israel, the highest day of the year, God made provision for covering for the sins of Israel. On the ceremonial Day of Atonement, two goats were sacrificed. The first was slaughtered the sins of the people. The second was released to the wilderness. Year after year, this was practiced. The picture it painted was clear, something must die for your wrongdoing. It’s just the blood of bulls and goats was simply insufficient to pay for human sin. The slaughter of innocent animals pointed out that, yes, blood must be shed for sin to be covered, but animal blood was not enough. Only human blood can atone for by human sin.
The Brutality of the Cross
The great symbol of Christianity is the cross. It’s a paradox that the symbol of our triumph, our identity, is a picture of what one historian called “the most wretched of deaths.” We, just like Christians through two millennia, have crosses in our homes and wear them on necklaces. The irony is that this symbol is the modern equivalent of our lethal injection syringe, hangman’s noose, or electric chair: all symbols of execution.
Crucifixion was invented by the Persians around 500 BC and continues to be used as a form of execution even to this day. But it was perfected by the Romans who used it as the most painful mode of punishment reserved for the most disgraceful of people (slaves, poor people, and traitors against Rome).
Iron spikes were used to secure a person to the cross which were driven into the arms and ankles. Death occurred as the person hung on the cross, sometimes for days, the body suffocating under its own weight. As strength gave way, the person would agonizingly push and pull against the spikes to allow air to enter their lungs. It was not uncommon for people to slump on the cross to empty the lungs of air to asphyxiate and end their suffering quickly.
All this was done in open and public places. Crowds would gather to mock the victims. Once dead, bodies often were left on the cross. Scavenging animals would gather to pick apart the remains. If a body was removed, it would be thrown into the dump unless the family took it.
Tens of thousands of people were crucified. In one demonstration of Rome’s brutality, 6000 foreigners were crucified at once. Their crosses were lined along 120 miles of road much like the distance from Orlando to Jacksonville.
Generally it was only men who were crucified. Occasionally a man was crucified at eye level so that passerby’s could look him directly in the eye and mock him, spit on him, and cuss him. If a woman was crucified, she was made to face the cross. It was difficult, even for the ruthless Romans, to bear to see a woman in the agony of crucifixion.
Often before one was crucified they were scourged. The victim was stripped and chained with their hands above their head to expose the back and the legs. Many times the scourging was so brutal that the person would die before reaching the cross. The person would be whipped with a series of leather straps. At the end of some straps were metal balls which would tenderize the back. At the end of the others were hooks made of metal or bone which would sink into the persons back, buttocks, or legs. As the hooks sunk in, the execution would rip skin, muscles, tendons, and even bones off the victim as the person screamed in agony, shook violently, and bleed heavily.
It’s difficult to overstate the horrors of a Roman crucifixion. The method of death is as brutal and humiliating as can be imagined. The pain of crucifixion was so extreme that a word was invented to describe it—excruciating (literally meaning “from the cross”). Of all form of punishment ever invented, only one could satisfy sufficiently the penalty for sin: the cross. It was upon the cross that Jesus stood in our place, and became our atonement.
The Only Suitable Sacrifice
Seeing Jesus, John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, our innocent substitute and covering for our wrongdoing, foreshadowed by scripture.
Jesus had to be sinless or his death would be just like any other of the thousands of others who died by crucifixion. But Jesus, who lived without sin, gave away his life for us, as the only one suitable to make atonement for sin. As the Scriptures state:
…his soul makes an offering for guilt (Isa 53:10)
Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 5:2)
…a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Heb 2:17)
But when Christ appeared as a high priest…he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Heb 9:11-14)
The great and glorious truth of the cross converges here. Because the cross was the sufficient penalty for human sin, and Jesus was the suitable sacrifice for human sin, then the atonement he made through that death on that cross was exhaustive.
The scope of offenses that mankind may make against God are covered at the cross. The cross does not offer partial covering like Adams’ animal skins in the garden. The cross does not look forward to some fulfilling event like Israel’s ritual Day of Atonement. This atonement was final and full.
Jesus My Substitute
When we see the bitterness of our sins, we taste the sweetness of his atonement. I can look back at the days before I was converted and come up with a heavy list of things I was.
- substance abuser
- rebellious towards authority
- impure in my language and humor
- filled with hate
- lover of self
- falsely humble
- anti social
- religious in the bad way
And even now, many years after, I’m very aware (most days) of remaining sin. I wrestle and fight temptation and see both victory and defeat against the very same struggles described above. But like John says, Jesus is that lamb of that takes away the sins of the world. It’s great news. How unbelievable is that? God himself came to be our atonement, that we would enjoy fellowship with him again. He’s our substitute, our atonement.