Journey to the Cross
In our day and age, we don’t hear the word atonement used much. And so, like me, you may have pondered why Jesus had to actually die a cruel death then in order to save us now. It is easier to understand that for hundreds of years, the Jewish people were not getting the message God wanted to convey… a message of God’s love. How else could God have reach us better than to send His son, Jesus, to communicate to us in a way we could finally understand. Through Jesus’ words and actions. But still there is that nagging thought…why did Jesus have to be crucified? How does that final act over 2000 years ago really save us today? How does his life then atone for our sins now?
Quite literally the word atonement means "satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends." To atone means to make amends, to repair a wrong done. Biblically, it means to remove guilt of man. The Old Testament atonements were offered by the high priest, but they were only temporary.
During biblical times, the "Day of Atonement" was the one day the nation of Israel was commanded to fast, and it was the only feast day of the Jews where there was no food to be eaten from the beginning of this High Day at sunset to sunset the following day. It was a day of burnt offering…a solemn feast day. It was a day that symbolized the taking away of sin by placing the guilt on a "scape" goat and then sending him off into the wilderness. If the goat came back it was sometimes pushed off a cliff and killed, showing that this guilt was permanently removed. Jesus, the Lamb of God, also went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights enduring the ultimate tempter, Satan. Just as the goat is killed upon returning, so was Jesus killed to permanently remove our guilt.
The "Day of Atonement" feast was the only one where the entire animal was burned on the altar. During the festival, the priest sacrificially burned the lamb. The animal skin was all that remained and the skin was worn by the priest symbolizing Israel was clothed in God’s righteousness. Isaiah wrote (61:10) "I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels."
And another verse from Job, Chapter 29:14 also talks about being clothed in righteousness. "I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban.” The temple priests wore the skin of the sacrificial lamb to symbolize Israel was clothed in God’s righteousness, but now, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are clothed with armor, the armor of truth and righteousness. In the New Testament book of Ephesians, chapter 6 beginning with verse 13, we are told "Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness."
It was on the "Day of Atonement" now known as "Yom Kippur" that the high priest performed complicated rituals and sacrifices to purify the Temple from the defilement that had attached to it as a result of the sins of the Israelites. The defilement of the Temple caused God’s presence to depart from their midst. There also was another aspect to the day, atonement, the spiritual cleansing of the people themselves. The peoples’ role was to serve as an attentive and expectant audience outside the Temple precincts, awaiting the hoped-for successful outcome of the high priest’s service.
In the New Testament, in Corinthians, we are told "we are God’s temple…our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit" and we defile our "temple" with our mouths. In Matthew 15, beginning with verse 10 Jesus says "Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles…What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles."
Mark writes about this as well in Chapter 7. Both chapters refer not only to what defiles, but also that following the Jewish laws regarding what we eat or drink does not make amends for us (atonement). It is through our own person choice to follow Jesus and the "law" of love that we are made new. It is through the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus we are atoned (reconciled and redeemed) and with that sacrifice, God’s presence will never depart from us. It is through Jesus that we learn there is nothing we can do to separate us from the love of God. It is not our good works or following laws that gives us eternal life, but through the blood sacrificed and body broken that we are truly made whole from our own brokenness.
The ancient Jewish custom of sacrifice on the "Day of Atonement" was never able to permanently take away sins; it could only cover them. The Jews continued to cling to the laws because what was most important was following these laws. But Jesus came to fulfill the law once and for all time. Time and time again, he broke the laws to heal, preach, teach, serve and love. And even more radical, Jesus proclaimed the Gentiles were not only worthy of God’s love, but equal in God’s eyes, along with women, children, tax collectors, criminals, and the like…blasphemy!
The complete and utter sacrifice of Jesus is about God placing judgment upon Christ on our behalf. Just as judgement was placed upon the goat that was sent into the wilderness, so too was Jesus sent into the wilderness. Just as the lamb was sacrificed on the Temple alter, so too was Jesus sacrificed, but instead on a cross.
Through Jesus’ blood sacrifice, the first covenant (sacrifice) is made obsolete along with the ancient laws. The final sacrifice on the cross takes our sins away now and forever. Hebrews 9:12 "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." And continuing in Hebrews 9:24-26 "For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself."
Jesus atoned for the sins of the world. "But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:1b-2)
This atonement is received by faith. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast." (Eph. 2:8-9) We are sinners and cannot atone for ourselves, "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8)
It was the love of the Father that sent Jesus. "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way; God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us." (1 John 4:7-12)
"For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit." (1 Pet. 3:18). "He himself bore our sins in this body on the cross, so that we are free from sins…by his wounds we have been healed." (1 Pet. 2:24). Because of the atonement, our fellowship with God is restored; we have been reconciled and we are saved by His life.
It is through Jesus that we learn ultimate love…expressed in the way He lived, served, spoke, taught, cared, healed, respected, forgave, understood, humbled himself and died. Everything Jesus said and did was about love. Every thought, action, word, and deed expressed loved. And we are called to do same.
Jesus came into the world to love…a journey that led to the cross. He came to show how much God loves us. During his ministry, he showed he is both the Good Shepherd and the sacrificial Lamb atoning for our sins once and for all. He was mocked and crowned with thorns. The crowd challenged him to save himself with miracles, but instead he chose to save us with the miracle of his resurrection. He was crucified, buried, and rose again to reign over the kingdom of Heaven. Truly he was and will continue to be the King of Kings, reigning eternally.
May this Holy Week fill your soul knowing there is nothing our precious Lord and Savior does not understand about the human condition. There is nothing we will ever go through that our Lord has not gone through. There is nothing that can or ever will separate us from the love of God.
My friends, let’s pray for love to fill our souls and the souls of others in the ways of Jesus. Let’s continue to pray for a world of peace…a world that is worthy of the sacrifice Jesus made for us.
May God’s grace, peace and joy be yours all the days of your life!