I know this is a long one, but in order to state my point, I first need to explain my overall view of the story God unfolds in the Bible. If you just want to know my main point, please feel free to skip to the last paragraph.
This is a statement that most people know about that have heard of Jesus. It’s also one of the taglines used when presenting the Gospel to others—Jesus died for our sins. It’s presented, though, as a transaction. Jesus did something, now we have to do something in return to make the transaction “work.” While ever so subtle, this contradicts the concept of God’s grace as a gift to be freely received and lived. Instead, the view is upheld of a process to fulfill to receive grace other than just accepting it. Parameters are established to delineate what a “good” Christian is versus an otherwise damned person.
For most of my life, I’ve believed that Jesus died because there had to be a punishment for sin and that God couldn’t be holy if there wasn’t. However, God makes the rules and is sovereign to do what he wants. Jesus forgave sins without any kind of sacrifice (Mark 2:5), and he even gave the disciples authority to do the same (John 20:23). It seems that even some of the religious leaders acknowledged that God could forgive sins outright (Mark 2:6-7). Likewise, Abraham was righteous because he believed in God and not because of anything Abraham, himself, did (Genesis 15:6).
Now, there are many considerations and many roads this discussion can take. Jesus died to prove his love and prove that we don’t have to fear death. This is very true, but there’s still something that bothered me. I still had the question of why like that. As I thought about it more, I also realized that he was practicing what he preached—love for enemies (Matt 5:43-44), not using evil to defeat or repay evil (Matt 5:39), and self-sacrifice (John 15:13). These are all great points and part of living a full life of following Jesus, but the question still remained—why like that? Why in such a gruesome manner? Why as a sacrificial lamb?
First, these two verses, God speaking through the prophet Isaiah, and Jesus repeating this in his own words:
The Lord said, “Because this people draws near with their mouth and honors me with their lips, but they have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which has been taught—Isaiah 29:13 (emphasis mine)
You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying,‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine rules made by men.’—Matt 15:7-9 (emphasis mine)
It seems there were two sets of rules—the ones God established (The Ten Commandments) and Israel’s written interpretation of those that they stated “God said.”
Jesus further hints that it wasn’t really God doing these things. Moses compromised with the people in some cases because of the hardness of their hearts:
They asked him, “Why then did Moses command us to give her a certificate of divorce, and divorce her?”
He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been so.—Matt 19:7-8
(note: This appears to be different than divorce today. It would seem men could divorce their wives on a whim without any consent or consideration for the women.)
It seems rules were being made to suit those who wanted to water down what God had established, so they could live like they wanted, control others, and still appear righteous. Jesus saw right through the charade though (Matt 23). He begins Matt 23:1 saying that the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, basically making rules that they ignore.
We further see the two different styles of viewing the law with Joseph and Mary. Joseph was a righteous man, therefore he didn’t obey the law to put Mary to death, instead he was going to handle the matter quietly (Matt 1:19). Here we see what Jesus later goes into more detail about in Matthew 5, punishing people because they broke the law (as it had been misinterpreted), was not something righteous. How often today have we heard Christians state that someone deserves death because of what they did based on “Christian” laws? Is that what Jesus represents?
So where am I going with all this? Everything I’ve stated up to this point are statements I may have made before. It seems the story of the Bible has been sorely misunderstood. God lets his children tell his story—even at their worse. He then leads us to a better understanding of who he is as we can handle it. Taking everything above into consideration, what was Jesus actually teaching?
The thief only comes to steal, kill, and destroy. I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.—John 10:10
Jesus said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”—Matt 22:37-40
In effect, Jesus was showing us how to live life to the fullest, in love with God and others, even if it costs us our lives. He didn’t ask us to do what he wasn’t willing to do himself.
So what about the sacrifice system? If God and Jesus could forgive sins without a sacrifice, and living righteously was a matter of following God and not the misinterpreted view of the law, why did the Israelites do such things? They saw the way the rest of their society in the Old Testament were worshiping their gods and they seemed to assume this is the type of worship that Yahweh required. Instead, it seemed to be a system that was more to try to compensate for the shame they felt for their lifestyle. They only had to turn around to God, as Isaiah also prophecies, to be redeemed (Matt 13:15), instead they set up systems to attempt to cleanse or otherwise cover-up their shame while continuing to do what they wanted. They were cleaning the outside to try to make clean the inside (Matt 23:28), even down to their dietary requirements (Mark 7:15, Acts 10:14-15). Again, Jesus defined and lived what the law was actually for (Matt 5:17).
So what’s my point in all this? Jesus indeed died for our sin and shame, but not because Father required it to appease his holiness or wrath. We humans are the ones who adopted the requirement of sacrifices because of our shame and stubborn insistence on righteousness by rituals. God, through Jesus, obliged us because of his love for us. He did it to free us from our own distorted view of God and ourselves—to show us what love really is! Imagine for a moment the implications of that kind of love!