Christmas will be here in a couple of days. This is the season when I’m reminded of a powerful line from John Donne, the 17th century poet and pastor. In his Christmas Day sermon way back in 1626, he said this: “[Christ’s] birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas-Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and morning of one and the same day.”
There is a sobriety about Bethlehem. Even there within the text, with the slaughter of the innocents, all the early signals tell us that the birth of Jesus is not all glee and joy, but it will be a story tinged from the very beginning with sacrifice and bloodshed.
In fact, the meaning of Christ’s birth will not make sense unless we see how deeply the incarnation is embedded within a grand storyline of atonement and sacrifice in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.
On occasional Fridays I call Dr. Don Carson. Carson is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition, and also the editor of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible. And he takes up a theme in biblical theology.
It so happens that today, in the shadow of Christmas, we are talking about sacrifice. Here’s Dr. Carson to explain.
One might think that in western, secular thought, the notion of sacrifice and especially blood sacrifice sounds primitive and obsolete, as something that doesn’t make any sense anymore. But the notion of sacrifice is enduring in every culture in one fashion or another. We admire the sacrifices, for example, of our soldiers who, perhaps, sacrificed themselves in order to save a batch of their mates. For that we give the medal of honor posthumously and honor their sacrifice.
“Sacrifice is hardwired into early humankind, both in pagan circles and in believing circles.”
I remember when I was a high school student reading a story. It was by a French writer concerning this couple, childless, deeply, deeply in love, long married. She had gorgeous, gorgeous long hair, but they were dirt poor, and she would have really liked a certain sliver clasp that she had her eye on to set off the hair and hold it together and so on. And he for his part was no less poor, both of them hardworking, but with barely enough money to survive.
He had inherited his grandfather’s watch and he would have dearly, dearly loved to have a silver chain to wear the watch. It was a pocket watch, and he wanted a silver chain — but, of course, neither of them could afford what they wanted. And then that Christmas she cut off her hair which could be used for a variety of things a century and a half ago and earned him enough money to buy him a silver chain, and he sold the watch in order to buy her a clasp for her hair. And that is all the story was. But in both cases, there was an image of sacrifice out of love for the other person. And in this case there was irony built into it, of course.
So, we are moved by stories of sacrifice. And we need to become aware of how sacrifice works as a theme in all of the Bible and finally brings us to the cross. The first possible mention of sacrifice in the Bible is in Genesis 3:21 where God chooses to cover Adam and Eve, to cover their nakedness by selecting the skins of animals. He could have used something else. They had used fig leaves. Now, there is no specific mention that this was atonement for sin or the like. There is no way that one should read back a complex layer of sacrificial theology into Genesis 3:21 — but if you stick it on a trajectory, it is seminal. It is a covering that involves the death of another creature. And that is the first mention of that sort of thing. It prefigures, as it were, the sacrifices that are still to be unpacked.
Then there are many, many sacrifices in the Old Testament before anything is ritualized or concretized into law. It is almost as if sacrifice is hardwired into early humankind, both in pagan circles and in believing circles. So, in Genesis 4:3–5, there are sacrifices being offered by Cain and Abel — even Cain, the prototypical evildoer according to 1 John 3:11–12, is offering a sacrifice. And you learn there that some sacrifices are acceptable and some are not. Noah offers sacrifice following the flood in Genesis 8:20. Abraham offers sacrifices on various altars mentioned in Genesis 12–13. And, of course, there is the great theme of sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 — or the near sacrifice of Isaac — when God himself, in fact, provides a sacrificial lamb and the son is saved, which becomes paradigmatic of God’s own sacrifice (Hebrews 11:17–19).
“When God himself provided a sacrificial lamb to save Isaac, it was paradigmatic of Christ’s own sacrifice.”
Then once the law comes, the law of Moses, there are many sacrifices that are required: a morning and evening sacrifice and sacrifices that are not always of animals, but sometimes of grain or vegetables. But the two dominant sacrifices are Passover and Day of Atonement. Passover is connected with Israel’s very identity, since the first Passover in Exodus 12 takes place as the people of God are called out of slavery and on the way towards the Promised Land to constitute themselves under God as a nation. And eventually, this first Passover is tied in a symbolizing way to Jesus’s death (John 19:14–16). And Paul goes so far as to say that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us (1 Corinthians 5:6–8).
And so, the Passover meal in which a lamb has been slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house and the whole animal is eaten in the house reminds the people of the first Passover when they escaped slavery, when God redeemed them from the land of slavery. And because the blood was on the doorpost and the lintel, therefore, the angel of death passed over the house — and hence the term Passover — and everyone in the house was spared, including the firstborn son, who was otherwise killed. So, that became a way of looking back to the past, to that great act of redemption.
But because it was repeated year after year after year after year, century after century, eventually thoughtful people would start asking: What does this point forward to? It points back, but what does it point forward to? And in the New Testament, the answer to that is Christ’s sacrifice, the ultimate Passover in which his sacrifice, his blood spilt on our behalf, means that death and destruction pass over his blood-bought people, too.
“Christ’s sacrifice, the ultimate Passover, means that death and destruction pass over his blood-bought people.”
And then, of course, there is the Day of Atonement. Sacrifice was ritually instilled in Israel through a variety of feasts and so on. But the great passage that deals with the Day of Atonement is Leviticus 16, and here there is the blood of bull and goat taken by the high priest to cover both his own sins and the sins of the people, taken behind the veil in the tabernacle, later the temple, only once a year on the prescribed date, only by the high priest, and sprinkled on top of the ark of the covenant. And if anyone approached the presence of God in this way without the blood, or if it wasn’t the high priest or on some other date, then that person was to be killed. You just do not approach God except by the sacrifice and the stipulations that he himself carefully prescribes.
And so, this becomes really crucial in Israel. Sadly, on some occasions, the ritual becomes more important than what it is pointing to. There are careful precautions and preparations that are stipulated by the law. And these preparations include not only elements of the sacrifice itself, but of the priest and what he wears and his ablutions and so on — all designed to show that there is nothing more important for human beings than to have sins atoned for, to have sins covered, paid for, so that men and women can be reconciled to the living God. And everything is stipulated by God with sanctions if people ignore what God stipulates.
And there are great sacrificial passages, too, that point forward — nothing more dramatic than Isaiah 52:13 to the end of chapter 53, where the ideal lamb is wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, and the beating that fell on him was for our peace, and he sees the agony of his own soul and is satisfied by this sacrifice on our behalf. But it still has to be said that sacrifice is not automatically effective.
“Never approach God except by the sacrifice and the stipulations that he himself carefully prescribes.”
For example, there is a vilification of Old Testament sacrifice by prophets when the sacrifice is offered as a cover-up for heartless greed and selfishness, when it is merely religious duty and the like (Isaiah 1:10–13; 1 Samuel 15:22–23). Does the Lord require sacrifice, or does he require obedience? Or Micah 6:6–8, where sacrifice is being used as an excuse for not pursuing righteous and the like, in which case all the sacrifice in the world is merely ritual. It is a stench in the Lord’s nostrils. He cannot stand it because it reeks of hypocrisy. So, the psalms, for example, hallow lawful and heartfelt sacrifice (Psalm 4:5; 5:3; 50:5). But even at the same time, they point to the reality behind the act and insist on sincerity of heart.
So, that brings us to the New Testament. And before we go any farther, it is worth pausing for a moment to think carefully about some of the terms we use. Atonement, for example, is God’s work on sinner’s behalf to reconcile them to him. It is a generic term that is very, very broad. There is a need for it because we are alienated from God and stand under God’s righteous judgment. The means for it are prescribed in the Old Testament and, together, these means point forward to the ultimate sacrifice: Christ Jesus himself. And that is where we need to stop and think about some theological terms like expiation and propitiation.
By expiation, we mean that the sacrifice cancels the sin. So, the object of expiation is the sin. Christ’s sacrifice cancels sin by taking the guilt and absorbing it, paying for it, suffering, taking it on himself. But propitiation, the object of the verb “to propitiate” is not sin, but wrath. Propitiation is the sacrifice by which God is propitiated, that is, made propitious, made favorable. And it is reasonable simply because God stands over against us both in love and in wrath. He stands over against us in wrath because he is a holy God and must respond with perfect righteous and, therefore, judgment against our sin. But he stands over against us in love because he is that kind of God.
“There is nothing more important than to have our sins covered, so that we can be reconciled to the living God.”
Some people have objected to the notion of propitiation because they say, God so loves the world that he gives his Son (see John 3:16). If he is already so favorably disposed to the world that he gives his Son, then how can you speak of turning aside his wrath? But what that neglects is that God stands over against us both in love and in wrath. He stands over against us in wrath as a function of his holiness. He stands over against us in love as a function of his very character. And thus, the sacrifice of Christ is presented in Scripture as simultaneously canceling sin and turning aside the wrath of God.
It is a mistake to pit propitiation and expiation against each other. They are both taught in Scripture, and I suspect that both are hiding behind the words used in that great atonement passage of Romans 3:21–26. One has to remember that, before reading Romans 3:21–26, one is supposed to read Romans 1:18–3:20. That huge passage outlines all the human sin that requires atonement if there is to be any cleansing. And it begins with, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Romans 1:18). In other words, the sacrifice that is presented deals with the wrath of God as a function of God’s own holiness.
So, Christ sheds his blood in the New Testament. The blood of Christ, the cross of Christ, the atonement of Christ, the death of Christ are all referring to the same thing; that is, Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. Some want a shedding of blood and the sacrifice of Christ to be merely exemplary or merely celebratory; that is, something that provides an example or something that celebrates the love of God. But they don’t want to call it substitutionary. But Christ dies in our place. There are so many biblical texts that insist on that point. That is what cancels sin and turns aside the wrath of God. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).
“God relates to us in wrath because of his holiness. He relates to us in love because of his very character.”
That is why Christians still insist on an expression such as “penal substation.” Now, of course, there are different elements of truth that are depicted in the cross. Christ is our representative. He becomes a human being and dies as one of us standing in for us. But he is also our substitute. He demonstrates his love toward us on the cross, but he does so precisely by bearing our punishment. That is why we speak of penal substitution. And, in my view, penal substitution, though it is not the only means of appropriate expression to depict the sacrifice of Christ, it is foundational and not merely metaphorical. And probably it is the one that best grounds all the rest of the ways of talking about the cross of Christ.
But perhaps it should also be said that Christ’s sacrifice, unlike the sacrifices of the Old Testament, are once for all. Christ cries, just before he dies, “It is finished” (John 19:30). There is no more sacrifice for sin, Hebrews insists (Hebrews 10:26). Hebrews 9 depicts Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of the great Day of Atonement passages and, thus, the New Testament insists that Christ brings all of these sacrificial themes together in himself. And, of course, the sacrifice of Christ is inevitably tied to the priesthood theme and to the temple theme and to the Jerusalem theme, because the sacrifices were offered in the temple, in Jerusalem by the priests, and, thus, all of these themes come together in spectacular fulfillment in the vision of Revelation 21–22, where so many of these things come to a certain kind of climax.
Two more details that I should mention: During his earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus performed healings and raised the dead and cast out demons and preached the gospel and so on. The very interesting passage, Matthew 8:14–17, insists that, when he was healing the sick and casting out demons, he was actually fulfilling Isaiah 53. And so, people have asked: If this healing is paid for by the sacrifice depicted in Isaiah 53, does this mean there is healing in the atonement? And if there is, why does such healing take place before the cross? That is, it takes place while Jesus is in his earthly ministry, heading towards the cross.
“Penal substitution is the expression that best grounds the rest of the ways of talking about the cross of Christ.”
To this question, two things must be said. First, of course there is healing in the atonement. All of the blessings that come to us from God are secured, ultimately, through the atonement, including resurrection bodies. The fact that God is patient with us and forbearing and doesn’t just wipe us out is a function of the fact that his dear Son has now paid for our sins. So, of course there is healing in the atonement. The question is not whether there is healing in the atonement. The question is: When do we receive all the benefits of the atonement? Some of these benefits we receive right away. But physical healing, in its most ultimate sense, takes place at the consummation when we gain resurrection bodies all secured, at the end of the day, by the cross of Christ.
So, of course there is healing in the atonement. But it doesn’t follow that we always get the healing right now that we want. Which is why, for example, the apostle Paul has to leave Trophimus behind because he is sick (2 Timothy 4:20). It is not that Paul forgot to pray for him or that his prayers weren’t particularly effective that day. Some sicknesses are not going to get healed now until the end. And yet, there are instances where God’s miraculous healing does point to the ultimate healing that takes place in the end and, in both cases, they are secured by the cross of Christ. But the fact remains that the healings that Jesus performs are themselves a function of Christ’s cross work which, when Jesus performs the healing, has not yet taken place.
In other words, the effect of Christ’s cross work runs backward in time as well as forward in time. And that is merely a function of the fact that God knows, Christ knows, what Christ has come to do. There is a sense, as Revelation puts it in chapters 13 and 17, that Christ is the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world — not literally, but in God’s mind, it is already a done deal. And thus, there is a sense in which Jesus’s healings done before the cross find their effective payment in the cross, which is still around the corner and, thus, point forward to the cross just as any healing in the book of Acts, for example, points back to the cross and the resurrection. They have already taken place as the crucial step in bringing about the ultimate healing that arrives with the consummation of the return of Christ.
“Jesus’s healings before the cross found their effective payment in the cross, which was still around the corner.”
Here’s the last thing to be said: Although it is true that Christ’s sacrifice is once for all and it pays for our sins and grounds our forgiveness — it grounds our assurance before God — we don’t have to earn our way to the presence of God. All of these things flow from the cross. They flow from the sacrifice of Christ. They flow from his shed blood. Yet, at the same time, when, for example in Matthew 16 or Mark 10, Jesus announces clearly that the Messiah must be crucified and rise again the third day, the apostles aren’t ready to except it. Jesus insists that it is the case and then also says that his disciples are to take up their cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24). And in that sense, Christians are called to sacrifice, too.
So, in 1 Peter 2, where this is very strong, the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice is greatly stressed. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). That is unique. But at the same time, Peter can say that Jesus went to the cross, leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21). So, there is an exemplary component to the cross of Christ. That is why the apostle Paul can pray, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings” (Philippians 3:8). He wants to be conformed to Christ. And it is why elsewhere Paul can write to the Philippians and say, “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).
There is a sense in which we are to take up our cross gladly and follow Christ on the way to the cross, not because any suffering that we endure atones for the sins of others, but because it does identify us with Christ. We want to go where Jesus went. Paul can go so far as to say that he would like to fill up the afflictions of Christ (Colossians 1:24). That is to say that Christ through his body, the church, still suffers. As Jesus identifies with his body, the church, it still suffers. It is almost as if there is a quota, a top amount of suffering that the church must endure, and Paul is prepared to take more than his share, as it were, precisely by filling up the afflictions of Christ in this way, to enable some fellow Christians to suffer a little less.
“There is a quota of suffering that the church must endure, and Paul is prepared to take more than his share.”
So, in our day and generation when dark clouds are looming, far from complaining that it is not fair, we ourselves need to take up the example of the early apostles, who rejoiced when they were beaten up because they were found worthy to suffer for the name. In that sense, Christ’s sacrifice is perpetually effective. It is unique. It does not recur. It cannot be copied or imitated. But the Lord’s Table points back to it, and our own sufferings are to be aligned with it as we, in turn, ourselves, may commend the cross of Christ to others today.
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