Why the Cross?
There are some really weird things about Chrstianity. First among them is how we rejoice in blood. We sing songs about blood. Blood this and blood that.
Blood, blood, blood.
I remember one of the first times I heard the song, “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus,” and thinking that it was a little awkward singing about blood.
When we take communion we talk about eating the flesh and blood of Jesus. The first century Romans accused the early Christians of being cannibals as a result. Of course they also accused Christians of being incestuous and atheists too. But, it wasn’t lost on those early folks that this new sect of Judaism had a weird fascination with blood.
When Christianity was beginning animal sacrifice was a normal part of most worship in most religions of the time. Some were even sacrificing their children.
One would think that God, in Jesus, would have figured out a different way of doing this whole salvation thing than through blood.
As I was pursuing my minor in religion at Central Michigan University there was a conversation that took place often about, “the Christian God’s cosmic child abuse.” It showed up in many of my classes. It was one I thought was somewhat silly, yet, as I worked to understand the thinking of my classmates I was able to begin to see where their thinking was coming from.
Is the cross divine child abuse? Are Christians predisposed to violence with our constant talk about blood? Ultimately, what is going on with the cross?
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
I think this little passage is really helpful in understanding the cross.
First, a word about blood. Blood in these times was viewed as life. It was often referred to as “life-blood.” This is why Israel was forbidden to eat meat with blood in it (Leviticus 17:11–16).
Blood was life.
When God brought the people out of Egypt from slavery he had them put some blood over their doors during the last plague. The angel of death would passover the homes with blood over the doors, this marked them for “life.” Blood as the symbol of life allowed for them to be passed over and protect the lives of their firstborn sons.
What’s fascinating is that on the day of atonement the scapegoat is not killed (check out Leviticus 16). The scapegoat was a goat that the high priest laid his hands on and confessed the sin of the people over. This goat symbolically took the sins of the people and was then released into the wilderness. This goat took the punishment for the people by being exiled on their behalf. But it was not killed. Blood is not about death, it is about life, blood was needed for passover but not the atonement of the people’s intentional sin. The High Priest did make a “sin offering” using blood, but a sin offering was for the unintentional sin of the priest and the people. The blood in this case brought life where death had snuck in and made it so that God could meet with his people at the “mercy seat.”
If you’ve read this far you’re probably thinking, “thanks for the history lesson, but seriously, can we get back to the original question?”
Why the cross?
From the passage in Hebrews above we learn four things about why Jesus went to the cross for us.
First, he was fully human. He was one of us. He was not a bull or goat or lamb. He was human and as a result he was able to be our perfect representative. A goat was never able to fully represent us because it is not an image bearer. Only a human could be our perfect representative.
Second, his death broke the power of death and the fear of death. Remember, blood is life. His blood brought life where death had held sway. Just like on the passover. Where Jesus’ blood is there is no death. He is our champion. Like David, the champion of Israel, defeated Goliath; so Jesus, the ultimate champion of humanity, defeated the power of death (which is the devil). By defeating death humanity is freed from fear of death. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10).”
Third, he became a high priest for humanity. One that is merciful and faithful in service. What was the reason for this? So that he could make atonement for the sins of the people. Remember, atonement was needed for the unintentional sin. Jesus’ act of atonement was not because we were in rebellion but because sin snuck in to kill and destroy. We have all “sinned and fallen short of the glory God (Romans 3:23).” God’s law, Paul says in Romans 3:20 makes us conscious of our sin. We can see it and therefore we fear death. Nevertheless, Jesus, our high priest makes atonement for our sin. Through his blood, which is life, he destroys death and sin, so that we don’t have to be exiled but we can be in the presence of God for eternity. He is our representative, our substitute.
Finally, he is able to help us in our suffering and temptations. We are not alone in a world filled with suffering and temptation. Jesus is not looking at us saying, “Suck it up buttercup.” No, he empathizes with us because he knew what it was to suffer. Through the cross he experienced ultimate suffering. Through his life he faced temptation, “yet was without sin.” Because he knows suffering and temptation he is able to enter in with us not as one who is unfamiliar with our pain but as one who knows it all too well. Jesus is the ultimate “wounded healer.”
I am learning that the Christian fascination with “blood,” rightly understood, is a fascination with life. Jesus is our life, not in some metaphorical sense but in a very real and ultimate sense. He tangibly gave us life by becoming one of us and defeating the power of death. Because Jesus is our representative, our substitute, we don’t have to experience death. Jesus experienced death for us, conquered it, and now gives us life.