This weekend we celebrate Jesus! OK, so we celebrate Jesus every weekend, and hopefully every day of our lives, but the weekend of Good Friday and Easter are special days for us to stop and consider what Jesus did for us, in our place. At the heart of the event is the death of Jesus for us, in our place, for our sins. Isaiah 53:4 says that Jesus was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. The heart of the Christian message is the truth of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, that Jesus death was in the place of sinners.
As a picture leading to the death of Jesus, God gave the Hebrew people the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. The sacrifices given in the Temple are explained in the book of Leviticus, and it is a bloody deal. Priests would sacrifice all kinds of animals, and usually the sacrifice would begin with them placing their hands on the animal’s head and it would end with the blood of the animal being poured on an altar, or even sprinkled on the people and part of the animal being burned. A cursory reading might leave someone with the opinion that God was into blood and dead animals, but this really isn’t what is going on. Rather, the climate of death was to be a deep reminder to the people of the problem of their sin and the incredible cost to experience any kind of forgiveness from God. Sin always kills, and when the priest laid hands on the animal, the people were to feel the weight and realize that they were the ones who deserved what the animal was getting. But the guilt of their sin was transferred onto the substitute, who lost its life in the place of the sinful offerer.
The sacrifices of the Jewish people had their high point on Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement each year (see Leviticus 16). This holy day was set aside to make the annual sacrifices to atone for the sins of all the people, and every Jewish person was to find his or her way to the Temple to participate. The day began with the High Priest offering a bull on his own behalf, being sure that the key leader’s sins were forgiven before he ever started seeking to go to God on behalf of the people. Then the priest would take two goats, and determine by lot which would be the propitiation and which would be the expiation of the sins of the people. The first goat would be sacrificed in front of the people, and its blood would be taken into the middle of the Temple and presented to God. This goat died as the atoning sacrifice in the place of the people, receiving the wrath of God due to the people as a substitute. After this, the High Priest would take the second goat and confess the sins of the people over it. This goat was called the scapegoat would be sent away into the wilderness away from the people. Symbolically, this goat was taking the sins of the people away from them, cleansing them from the stain.
Of course bulls and goats are not sufficient to cover our sin and offer true forgiveness. But God gave these images to the Hebrews as an arrow pointing to the work that Christ would one day accomplish. As Jesus hung on the cross, he paid the price for our sin, substituting himself for us diverting the wrath of God that we deserved. This is propitiation (Romans 3:25, I John 2:2, I John 4:10). The death of Jesus provides the payment necessary to satisfy God’s perfect justice and offer pardon for our sin. If that was all Jesus accomplished that alone would be amazing. But Jesus death also provides expiation, the sending away of our sin. Not only does God remove the legal record of our guilt, he also sends our sin away cleansing us from unrighteousness. Sin leaves a stain, the guilt and filth that remains when sin is part of life. The death of Jesus provides the means for the cleansing we need throughout our lives to remove that stain and cleanse our souls.
Our deep problem with sin has two huge ramifications. First, our sin has left us separated from God. We do not experience joy, peace, and life because sin has cut us off. Second, we can’t fix ourselves, and our lives are filled with the guilt and filth sin brings. Yet, on a dark day some 2,000 years ago Jesus hung on a cross for you and for me. As we see him there one thought should continually run through our minds… “That should have been me! Jesus died, but it should have been me!” His death provided propitiation, meaning that the relationship with God can be restored and his wrath removed. His death also provided expiation, of the means to be cleansed from the stain and mess we find ourselves in. I close with these words of praise from the Hymn At Calvary by William Newell.
Mercy there was great, and grace was free,
Pardon there was multiplied to me,
There my burdened soul finds liberty,