WHEN SACRIFICE IS NOT PAGAN

One prominent bishop in the Church of England, said to be a “brilliant” man, has described the idea that God would sacrifice His son as being “pagan” and mistaken. Is he correct?

The heart of the Christian gospel-the good news of Jesus Christ- is that Christ died for our sins, and then rose from the dead. But of what benefit is the death of one ordinary man, at the hands of other ordinary men?

In the Hebrew Law, and even in the dealings of other world religions, only a qualified priest can rightfully deliver the sacrifice to its end, and the sacrifice itself must be chosen and unique. How could Roman guards-ordinary hired killers who nailed Christ to the cross-be qualified or at all acceptable enough to deliver up a sacrifice to God? And how can the death of one ordinary man be adequate in any way to pay a righteous, holy God the penalty for the sins of the whole world?

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5 KJV).

The answer is that Jesus Christ, the one who was sacrificed, was no ordinary man. And that’s only half the answer. Of equal importance is the actual and true identity of the one who sacrificed him.

As in Hebrew Law, where the sacrifice had to be without blemish. Jesus Christ was identified often as a unique sacrifice. John, the Baptist declared it to the world:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29 ESV).

All of those who were close to Jesus, including Peter, recognized that Jesus was no ordinary man:

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth (1 Peter 2:22).

Jesus was, then, a sinless sacrifice, and well qualified to pay the price of sin. But what about those who crucified him: soldiers, killers and thugs? Surely they were not qualified as priests? The answer to this seeming conundrum is found throughout Scripture, which tells us that God the Father is the one who sacrificed His own Son:

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days..
. (Isaiah 53:10).

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16 NKJV).

God sent his Son to be sacrificed: The soldiers were just instruments, doing their job. God himself was the highly qualified priest who sacrificed his own Son, for us. This theme is found over and over:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV).

Why was such a sacrifice necessary? Isn’t sacrifice a pagan ritual: a violent idea cooked up by ignorant men?

It can be, but is not in this case. The answer is that God’s quality and depth of justice is as powerful and unchangeable as His love. He can no more deny His own justice than He can deny His love. There had to be a payment for sin, or every one of us would be lost. But God so loved us, that He was determined to bridge the gap between God and man. And the only sacrifice that would satisfy His justice, required to overcome the sin of mankind, was the death of His perfect Son. Incredibly, then, the sacrifice of Christ opens the way for us to be acceptable to God. Paul continues to explain:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV).

God the Father sacrificed his own son, so that we could be seen as righteous and acceptable to Him, by accepting that sacrifice. And as important in the whole scheme is the fact that Jesus Christ was not just a man-he was the Son of God. Being himself God in nature, Jesus Christ willingly gave himself to be sacrificed:

I lay down my life, only to take it up again (John 10:17-18).

Paul laid out the entire picture of God’s plan eloquently in his letter to the Colossians. Read it here, or at your leisure:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant (1 Colossians 1:15-23).

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