It’s hard to think that there could be anything beautiful about death. Collectively, we try to avoid it as much as possible. We hate death, even as it shapes so much of our experience of life. And we should hate it. Death was never meant to be. It is a constant reminder of our fallenness. But there is something strangely beautiful about death. Well, one death, anyway.
Sacrifices and Substitutes
At the heart of Jesus’ death on the cross is this concept of atonement, which means, basically, to reconcile sinners like you and me to God. I stress the need for reconciliation because, if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to minimize the awfulness of sin, but it separates us from God and condemns us under His wrath.
For the longest time, reconciliation with God involved sacrifices and substitutes, specifically in the elaborate sacrificial system of the Israelites. Sacrifices were required for offerings of peace and thanksgiving and for the sins of the people (Lev. 4). Each time the people came to worship, their praise was marked by the death of a substitute—animals such as goats, lambs, and bulls free from any visible imperfection. These sacrifices were offered in conjunction with the people’s festivals but also in response to ongoing infractions of God’s law.
Central to this system were the sacrifices for the Passover and the Day of Atonement. In the sacrifice for the Passover, God’s people were called to remember the final plague sent upon Egypt, during which God spared the firstborn males of every family who painted their doorposts with the blood of a spotless lamb (Ex. 12:1-32,43-51). During the Day of Atonement, two goats were used: one was sacrificed in the place of the people, and the other was released into the wilderness, metaphorically carrying away the sins of the people (Lev. 16).
Shadows and Substance
But the New Testament reveals that these sacrifices—these substitutes—were only a shadow of something greater to come. They had to be performed over and over again, without fail, by priests who had their own sin requiring forgiveness. The priests would stand at their service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins (Heb. 10:11). The sacrificial system was a shadow of something better. It pointed forward to a perfect sacrifice to come, one performed by Jesus:
Every priest stands day after day ministering and offering the same sacrifices time after time, which can never take away sins. But this man, after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God. He is now waiting until his enemies are made his footstool. For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are sanctified. (Heb. 10:11-14)
In His life and death, Jesus was the substitute we all need. During His life and ministry, Jesus obeyed every point of God’s law. Not even Moses, the great prophet of Israel who spoke with God face to face (Ex. 33:11), could make this claim. Jesus’ record before God was spotless, perfect in every way. In His death on the cross, Jesus was the substitute sacrificed for sin, providing forgiveness for the sin and disobedience of whoever believes in Him (John 3:16; Rom. 3:26), taking away God’s wrath and forever making peace between God and His people. In Jesus, the sacrifice that every other sacrifice foreshadowed was made. And nevermore would another sacrifice need to be made, as shadows gave way to substance.
God’s Great Love on Display
God’s love is displayed so powerfully in these truths. His provision of a perfect substitute is good news of great joy! No longer do we fear judgment. No longer does guilt hang over us. No longer do we face the wrath of God. But there’s something about this that some find uncomfortable; that Jesus would have to die at all strikes some as bizarre. In fact, the prophet Isaiah said, “The Lord was pleased to crush him severely” (Isa. 53:10), which seems positively outrageous if not outright blasphemous (despite it being a true and biblical statement).
Wasn’t Jesus just demonstrating His love for us on the cross? After all, “No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Sure, He suffered for us, but maybe He did so to show God’s hatred toward sin, not to act as a substitute for sinners? Or maybe Jesus died to release us from Satan’s kingdom, not to appease the wrath of God. Or maybe God has no wrath to be satisfied by the death of Jesus, and it certainly didn’t please God to crush Him. After all, God is love, right? Wouldn’t that make Him a cruel, even evil being? Or, well, you get the idea.
Read any number of books and blogs, and you’ll see almost every writer wrestling with this tension: How or why does the death of Jesus please God? This is a good question because it is key to the whole concept of the atonement. And all of the different theories that exist are an attempt to manage this tension. Some of them are actually good theories. Even better, a number of them are true, though only in part.
At the risk of being too simplistic, maybe think of it like a bicycle wheel. Each spoke in the wheel represents one facet of the atonement: a demonstration of God’s love, the demonstration of God’s hatred of sin, victory over sin and death, and so forth. But a tire is not spokes alone. There is an outer rim and a hub. The outer rim is Christ’s death as a sacrificial substitute. It is through Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice that victory over death is achieved. It is through this atoning sacrifice that we are freed from the kingdom of darkness and God’s wrath is averted. It is through this atoning sacrifice that God’s love is perfectly demonstrated, for “love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). We don’t have our wheel without this outer rim.
But there’s something else—the hub. The hub is a small part of the tire, but it holds everything together. Without the hub, the wheel is useless. And for the atonement to hold together, it needs its “hub”: Jesus’ choice.
Jesus made it clear: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own” (John 10:18). He was not forced by anyone to go to the cross, least of all His Father. Jesus went willingly, taking on human form, living a perfect, sinless life, and dying the most brutal and horrific of deaths. And more than His choice, He was driven by joy to do so: “For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). And the Father loved Him for doing it. Look again at John 10:18, this time with a little more context:
This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life so that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father. (John 10:17-18)
This is what helps us make sense of the question so many of us struggle with. This is what helps us see Jesus’ atoning sacrifice as the good news that it is. The Father loves the Son because the Son willingly gave up His life for His people. That is good news. That is the strange beauty of Jesus’ death.
Aaron Armstrong: Author, Blogger, Speaker, Brand Manager of The Gospel ProjectLifeWay Christian Resources Covenant Theological SeminaryGreater Nashville Area, TN. Connect with Aaron.