It will probably shock most Protestants to learn that their belief of why Jesus died – to appease God’s wrath by taking the punishment for our sins – is barely 500 years old. In fact, the early church fathers had never heard the idea, nor is the concept found in any of their writings.
It might further shock them to learn there are a total of seven different views the Church has held throughout it’s history as to why Christ died. I won’t go through all of them in this article, because that’s not my goal. If you would like to see a brief synopsis of all seven theories, I suggest this article (opens in new tab).
I will however deal with the most common Protestant theory, properly called “Penal Substitution Theory”. Please note, it’s only a theory and not settled doctrine.
Penal Substitution Theory
Penal Substitution was originally proposed and popularized by John Calvin (of Calvinism fame) and Martin Luther. Thus, it became the De Facto position of Protestant Christianity. It’s a refinement of the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement, which was originally proposed by Anselm of Canterbury before he died in the 12th century.
Penal Substitution theory states:
God is perfectly just, but man has sinned. Because God is perfectly just, he cannot leave sin unpunished. Therefore, He was required – by His own nature/character – to punish us for our sins. However, Jesus came to earth and voluntarily took our punishment upon Himself, thus pacifying the anger of God. Now that the punishment of our sins has been taken care of, we can have a relationship with God.
In a nutshell, that’s the Penal Substitution theory.
(One person called this idea the “Common Baggage Version (CBV)” of the gospel, and they’re right. A humerus caricature and simplification of the idea might be: “God was so mad at our sins that He needed to kill something, so He killed His Son/Himself.” Now that I think about it, it doesn’t make much sense.)
Here’s the big problem with the Penal Substitution Theory: it’s patently un-Biblical.
I highly recommend you read all of Ezekiel 18 (opens in new tab) to get the full picture. However, the verses quoted below should make it clear enough that God hates the idea of Penal Substitution.
Ezekiel 18:1-3, 19-20, 25
1 Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
2 “What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, ‘The fathers eat the sour grapes, But the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
3 “As I live,” declares the Lord GOD, “you are surely not going to use this proverb in Israel anymore.
19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?’ When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live.
20 “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.
25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Hear now, O house of Israel! Is My way not right? Is it not your ways that are not right?
God specifically says that you cannot punish a person for someone else’s sin, even two people as close as father and son. He says it’s “not right” to do so. This isn’t the only place He says it either.
“Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.
Jeremiah31:29-30 (the same phrase God rails against in Ezekiel 18)
29 “In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
30 “But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.
Humans can’t punish one person for another person’s crimes. To do so would be a serious miscarriage of justice, and God agrees. Apparently, God has at least as much common sense as we do. He specifically says “everyone will die for his own iniquity“. Notice he doesn’t say “should die”, He says “will die”.
Therefore, for God to punish Jesus for our sins – even though Jesus volunteered – is still wrong. God said so in three different places.
Further, it doesn’t even make sense.
Imagine Hitler was standing trial for his crimes and was pronounced guilty. Now imagine Mother Teresa stood up and volunteered to take Hitler’s punishment so he could get off Scott-free. If the judge agreed, literally everyone in the world would be outraged. You can’t punish an innocent man for a guilty man’s crimes because it’s wrong, and everyone – except evangelical Protestant Christians – knows it.
Justice hasn’t been served, it’s been twisted beyond all recognition.
(and yes, I’ll explain how our sin is dealt with without these unbiblical and unjust ideas.)
But what about God’s Justice?
The Bible is clear on this, but – following Jesus’ example – I’m going to illustrate with a parable before getting to the moral of the story.
Your child has a problem with some particular thing; lying for example. You know this and have disciplined him many times because of it. Then one day, he just stops lying and – as far as you know – refuses to lie. You find out a year later that the child stopped lying because one of his lies got a friend in trouble, and he felt awful because of that. “Perfect” justice would demand you still punish your child a year later, even though he’d changed his ways (sin must be punished according to Penal Substitution, remember?).
But is that justice?
Too often, we forget that the whole purpose of punishing a crime is not to exact vengeance. By definition, that’s vengeance; not justice. The whole purpose of punishing a crime is to change the behavior of the criminal so he stops breaking the law. In our parable, the child had already changed his behavior, so the punishment does nothing except enact vengeance. The offense can be rightly forgiven without punitive action, and God agrees with this.
(Notice we’re back to Ezekiel 18; it was an eye-opening chapter)
21 “But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
22 “All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live.
23 “Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord GOD, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?
24 “But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and does according to all the abominations that a wicked man does, will he live? All his righteous deeds which he has done will not be remembered for his treachery which he has committed and his sin which he has committed; for them he will die.
25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Hear now, O house of Israel! Is My way not right? Is it not your ways that are not right?
God Himself says that a man’s sin “will not be remembered against him” if he stops doing evil and does good instead. God is perfectly willing to forgive – without punishment – if we turn from wickedness toward righteousness. Again, that’s because the whole point of “punishment” is to change behavior.
No (good) parent punishes their children to “get back at them” for something they did wrong. The punishment comes to make sure they change their behavior and do good in the future. God is the ultimate parent. If you repent, stop doing evil, and start doing good, then your evil deeds fade away in God’s eyes.
(Of course, verse 24 says the reverse is also true…)
Ezekiel chapter 18 makes it 100% clear that God is perfectly willing to forgive sins without some kind of punitive action.
(Even during the temple period (which we’ll talk more about soon) the “sin offerings” weren’t offered for every sin. With one or two exceptions, only minor sins were cause for sin offering. Major sins were dealt with differently.)
The Other Big Problem with Penal Substitution
It makes Jesus’ resurrection an afterthought.
Seriously, think about it. Besides Easter, when do you hear about Jesus’ resurrection except in passing? The whole focus is on His death, not resurrection. In fairness, most of the other theories have this problem also.
The Typical Objection by Penal Substitution Supporters
Many Christians who believe in Penal Substitution object by saying that unbelievers will have no reason to convert if they don’t fear punishment. Unfortunately, that’s not what the Bible says:
4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?
According to Paul, it’s the kindness of God – not his wrath – that leads people to repentance. Fear can change behavior, but love changes a heart.
Now, let’s look at what the Bible says about why Jesus died.
Why Jesus died
In order to understand why Jesus died, we first need to spend some time talking about the Hebrew culture. The Bible and Jesus’ sacrifice didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s a central theme of the whole book. So, before we look at why Jesus died, let’s get the context we need to understand it.
Blood & Life
In the Bible – and thus in God’s eyes – there is an inextricable connection between blood and life. This is very important, and central to understanding why Jesus’ death – and blood – did what it did.
(BTW I’m not one of those people who believes our soul is in our blood. For example, the 7th Day Adventists apparently think they lose part of their soul whenever a mosquito bites them. I have zero problem with blood transfusions and I’m not about to propose a weird theory about how we should handle blood.)
So let’s look at where blood becomes important. This is just after the flood, and it’s God talking to Noah.
3 “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant.
4 “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.
5 “Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.
6 “Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man.
Notice the intrinsic connection God makes between something’s blood and it’s life. It seems from God’s point of view, someone’s/something’s life is intrinsically connected to its blood. The connection between blood and life is also clear in the verse where the Hebrew word for blood “דָּם” (dam) is first used.
9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
10 He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.
11 “Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
Here again, there’s a definite connection between the blood and the life.
Blood is used as a synonym for life fairly often in the Old Testament. A common charge against the wicked is that they “shed innocent blood”. We still use this language today, though admittedly less frequently as this culture drifts farther from its Biblical roots.
The connection between blood and life is crucial, and we’ll need to keep it in mind going forward.
Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement)
It’s a shame that so many Christians gloss over the Old Testament, especially the books of the law. While Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and the latter half of Exodus might make for dry reading, there’s a lot in there that is necessary to understand much of the New Testament.
Such is the case with Yom Kippur; the Day of Atonement.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year for Jews, and a prefiguring (example and picture) of what Christ did on the cross. It’s the picture God gave the Jews to help them understand the Messiah. Because of this, it’s vital to understand what happened on Yom Kippur if we are to understand what Christ did.
There are a lot of regulations regarding Yom Kippur, but we’ll only concern ourselves with three of them here.
- The sin offering for the priest
- The sin offering of the goat
- The scapegoat.
But before we get there, we need to talk about the word “atonement”.
The meaning of “Atonement”
Our word atonement comes from the Middle English attone or atoon (“agreed”, or literally “at one”), meaning to be “at one” – i.e. in harmony – with someone. Note the original issues was harmony, not vengeance.
Atonement (also atoning, to atone) is the concept of a person taking action to correct previous wrongdoing on their part, either through direct action to undo the consequences of that act, equivalent action to do good for others, or some other expression of feelings of remorse.
Notice it’s about correcting – not punishing – the wrongdoing and changing behavior. This is a crucial distinction. The most holy day that God instituted for the Israelites was not about killing something to satisfy his wrath, but about correcting the wrongdoing (sin) of the people. If you take the original meaning of our word atonement, it’s about being “at one” again after an offense (sin).
Anyway, let’s talk about the Hebrew word that is typically – but not always – translated atonement. It’s the Hebrew word “כָּפַר” (kaphar). Here’s how it’s used the first time it appears in the Bible.
Genesis 6:14 (God talking to Noah)
14 “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch.
Yes, that’s the same Hebrew word that’s translated “atonement” in many places. Here’s the technical definition of the word:
cover over, (figurative:) pacify, make propitiation;
Nobody knows what “propitiation” actually means these days, so I’ll quote a few definitions below. (notice appeasing wrath or judgement makes no appearance; it’s about restoring relationship.)
Win or regain the favour of (a god, spirit, or person) by doing something that pleases them (OxfordDictionaries.com)
Propitiation is an action meant to regain someone’s favor or make up for something you did wrong. (Vocabulary.com)
to gain or regain the favor or goodwill of (Merriam-Webster.com)
Again, I want to point out that the concept of propitiation is to restore a relationship, not prevent judgement. When you hear people say that Jesus was the propitiation for our sins, it means he restored a relationship that was broken because of our sin; not that he took our punishment for us. (which as we’ve already seen is directly contrary to God’s justice.)
Anyway, back the Hebrew word. Its literal meaning of “covering over” makes sense with the definition of propitiation. You do something to “cover over” the wrongdoing to restore the relationship. That’s at the heart of Yom Kippur, and the sacrifices thereof.
(Just a quick note: The Greek word translated propitiation in the New Testament is the Greek word “ἱλαστήριον” (hilastérion). It’s also translated “mercy seat”, as in the mercy seat of the Ark of the covenant where the blood was sprinkled on Yom Kippur.)
Back to Yom Kippur (The day of Atonement)
Yom Kippur was the only day of the entire year where the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle/temple. Only the High Priest could enter, and only on this day.
The regulations for Yom Kippur cover all of Leviticus 16, but I’ll quote enough to get us started.
6 “Then Aaron shall offer the bull for the sin offering which is for himself, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household.
The first thing was the High priest (in this case Aaron) had to offer a sacrifice to make himself ritually clean. Soon, he would be entering the Most Holy Place, and unless he was clean he could die because God is VERY serious about sin. He abhors it, and simply refuses to allow sin to come into His presence.
(That’s important, so remember that)
The instruction continues in the next verse.
7 “He shall take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the doorway of the tent of meeting.
8 “Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat.
9“ Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the LORD fell, and make it a sin offering.
Notice, a goat was used for the sin offering not a lamb. Lambs were obedient and were easily led; goats had to be herded and were far less obedient. Thus, goats represented disobedience and sin. Now, let’s see what was done with these two sin offerings (the bull for the priest and the goat for the people).
Notice how often words for sin and the word atonement is used.
(Note: the mercy seat is on the top of the Ark of the Covenant, which sits in the Most Holy Place. It’s where God said His presence would rest in Israel.)
14 “Moreover, he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; also in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
15 “Then he shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat.
16 “He shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel and because of their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and thus he shall do for the tent of meeting which abides with them in the midst of their impurities.
17 “When he goes in to make atonement in the holy place, no one shall be in the tent of meeting until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household and for all the assembly of Israel.
18 “Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the blood of the goat and put it on the horns of the altar on all sides.
19 “With his finger he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it seven times and cleanse it, and from the impurities of the sons of Israel consecrate it.
Please read that last verse (19) again and notice that the blood is used to “cleanse”.
Now, anyone who has ever handled blood knows it’s anything but “clean”. I grew up on a farm and know few things are less “clean” than blood. It gets everywhere, congeals, and then gets tacky, sticky and hard to clean off. Honestly, it’s gross.
The question is: why does blood cleanse?
I have to thank my sister for solving this one. The answer is located in the Jewish culture and what they believe – and presumably received from God – about blood. The following is from the Jewish Encyclopedia article on sacrifice. Please notice they specifically say that the expiation of guilt is not the purpose of the Levitical sacrifices.
This excursus into primitive folk-lore suggests at once the untenable character of the various theological interpretations given to the sacrificial institutions of the Bible. It will not be necessary to explain at length that the expiation of guilt—in any other sense than that given above, though perhaps with a more spiritual scope—is not the leading purpose of the Levitical sacrifices. Purification from physical uncleanness is an important function of sacrifices, but only because “unclean” has a very definite religious meaning (in connection with child-birth or with contact with a dead body, etc.). The consecration of persons and things to holy uses through the sacrifices is not due to some mysterious sacramental element in them; but the profane is changed into holy by coming in contact with what is under all circumstances holy, viz., the blood.
By these rites the most holy place was rendered free from all impurities attaching to it through the intentional or unintentional entrance of unclean persons into the sanctuary (verse 16, see Rashi; Num. xix. 13, see Rashi). By sprinkling the bullock’s blood and similarly that of the goat eight times against the curtain, the entrance to the Holy of Holies was purified (verse 16b, see Rashi).
Notice, the thing that does the actual cleansing IS the blood.
It’s blood that cleanses and purifies “unclean” (sinful/profane) things into holy things. I can’t stress enough how crucial this is. It’s not the death of an animal that cleanses; it’s the blood (which does usually result from the death).
Hebrews confirms this in relation to Jesus’ blood:
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh,
14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
And again a few verses later.
21 And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood.
22 And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
Again, cleaned with blood. The word translated “forgiveness” is the Greek word “ἄφεσις” (aphesis), and it means:
Cognate: 859 áphesis (from 863 /aphíēmi, “send away, forgive” ) – properly, “something sent away”; i.e. remission (“forgiveness”), releasing someone from obligation or debt. See 863 (aphiēmi).
Remember the picture of sins being “sent away”. It’ll be important when we get to the scapegoat.
There are other places that talk about being cleansed with blood too.
1 John 1:7
7 but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood
14 I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Notice, cleansed with Jesus’ blood.
The Jews did not sacrifice a sin offering because God was mad, so something needed to be killed (Penal Substitution). They didn’t make a sin offering to appease God’s wrath; they made a sin offering to cleanse themselves from the sin with the blood. (remember the Jewish Encyclopedia snippet I quoted?) It’s not about redirecting God’s wrath, it’s about being cleansed – washed – in the blood to have their sins wiped away.
Does that sound familiar?
(Remember we talked about how the life of a thing is tied directly to its blood. Please keep that in mind as we move forward because it’ll be crucial to understanding what exactly Jesus’ death and resurrection did for us.)
Again, God hates sin and cannot abide it being near him. He requires us to be cleansed of our sin before we can be in His presence because he hates sin so much. That’s the crux of the whole sacrificial system, and the scapegoat is the perfect picture of this.
Speaking of, let’s talk about the scapegoat.
We’ll pick up where we left off in Leviticus.
20 “When he finishes atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat.
21 “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness.
22 “The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.
Notice the picture.
The priest laid the sins of the people on the goat, then sent the goat “away into the wilderness”. The whole point is to get the sin away from God (and His people). That’s what the whole sacrificial system was about.
It wasn’t about appeasing an angry God (notice the scapegoat wasn’t killed).
That’s what the pagans did.
The pagans would sacrifice because they thought their gods were angry. They thought their gods needed to kill someone (or something) to exact revenge upon. So they killed an animal in the hopes that the god would be happy enough with the death of an animal that they wouldn’t kill them.
Does that sound like a God who’s defining attribute is love?
1 John 4:8
8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
In the 1st century, new converts to Christianity brought this view of sacrifice into the Church and it continues to this day. By contrast, God makes it clear throughout the Bible that He doesn’t care about the sacrifices. He makes this abundantly clear many, many times.
16 For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
1 Samuel 15:22
22 Samuel said, “Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.
How much God hates sin
God’s whole focus – the focus of most of the Bible – is to seek Him and not sin. If you don’t grasp just how much God abhors sin, then the Gospel will never make sense. In Genesis, God gives this warning to Adam
17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.“
Obviously Adam and Eve didn’t drop dead the day they ate. The death they died was a spiritual death because their sin created a separation between them and God. In His mind, there seems to be no difference between being separated from Him (the source of all life) and death.
In the Bible, all death is a separation. Physical death is separating the body from the spirit; spiritual death is separating us from God.
(I’d love to devote a section to proving this, but this article is already long. There’s a decent article here. Also, the first three tables in this article; please don’t take second link as an endorsement of the website though, it’s got some strange stuff and I’m just pointing to the first three tables and that’s it.)
Sin = Death because it separates us from God, and He hates that. In fact, here’s a wonderful ~240 word synopsis of the whole Bible that puts sin in perspective.
God: All right, you two, don’t do the one thing. Other than that, have fun.
Adam & Eve: Okay.
Satan: You should do the thing.
Adam & Eve: Okay.
God: What happened!?
Adam & Eve: We did the thing.
THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
God: You are my people, and you should not do the things.
People: We won’t do the things.
People: We did the things.
Jesus: I am the Son of God, and even though you have done the things, the Father and I still love you and want you to live. Don’t do the things anymore.
Healed people: Okay! Thank you!
Other people: We’ve never seen him do the things, but he probably does the things when no one is looking.
Jesus: I have never done the things.
Other people: We’re going to put you on trial for doing the things.
Pilate: Did you do the things?
Pilate: He didn’t do the things.
Other people: Kill him anyway.
People: We did the things.
Paul: Jesus still loves you, and because you love Him, you have to stop doing the things.
PAUL’S LETTERS PART II
People: We did the things again.
John: When Jesus comes back, there will be no more people who do the things. In the meantime, stop doing the things.
Pretty accurate right? It agrees with James and several other places in the Bible too.
27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
3 Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood And has not sworn deceitfully.
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?
Pardon the rabbit trail into how much God hates sin; but unless you understand that, the beauty of what Jesus did won’t make sense. It’s not just about sin, it’s about how much God HATES sin. He hates it with passion. If you don’t understand that, then the cross will never make sense because it’s about sin.
What GOD Says About Why Jesus Came
The Bible says exactly why Jesus came several times, but these passages are typically ignored by modern Christians. Here are the verses.
(This is God speaking to Joseph in a dream, telling him to marry Mary. Fun fact, Jesus means “Yahweh saves”.)
“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
1 Peter 2:24
24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.
God was very specific here: “He will save the people from their sins.” Not from the penalty for their sins (as in Penal Substitution), but Jesus will the save the people from their sins. According to 1 Peter, the cross was “so that we might die to sin” (stop sinning). It’s sin itself we are delivered from. Yes we still sin, though things have radically changed… But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Hebrews also connects Jesus suffering with Yom Kippur saying:
11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp.
12 Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.
Lets go back and look at Hebrews 9 again (we’ll pick up right were we left off a while ago). And remember, the context is cleansing things with blood.
23 Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these [blood], but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.
24 For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us;
25 nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own.
26 Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
It’s about the elimination – or at least reduction – of sin and it’s all because of Jesus’s blood
19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus,
Why our Cleansing by Jesus’ Blood matters
Remember how much God hates sin. He hates it so much He simply doesn’t tolerate it in His presence. A High Priest who entered the Most Holy Place with sin (that hadn’t been cleansed by blood) died on the spot. However, that creates a problem for God.
God hates sin and loves us, but we are tainted with sin.
God wanted to dwell with us, but we had the taint of sin. He wanted to be one with us, but our sin is incredibly foul and repugnant to God. That’s why the only ones who could approach Him – in the Tabernacle/Temple – in the Old Testament were the ritually clean (who had been cleansed by blood).
So, God decided to “clean us” so we would be a fit dwelling place for Himself.
That’s (one of) the things Jesus’ death accomplished.
His death cleansed us from our sin so we could live with Him here and now; so that we could have the Holy Spirit living inside of us. He wanted to be with us even though we sinned, and so he found a way. He died so that His blood could cleanse us, so He could live inside of us.
The purpose of Jesus death is so we could be cleansed from our sin, and thus be a fit dwelling place for Him (The Holy Spirit)
That’s good news!
The Holy Spirit Connection
In the Old Testament, very few people had the Holy Spirit. It shows up to indwell men rarely, and never permanently. More importantly, it only came upon righteous men who were directly serving God. As soon as they stopped being righteous, the Holy Spirit departed. King Saul is a good example of this, but hardly the only one. Sampson too was filled with the Holy Spirit… until he broke his vow to the Lord, after which the Spirit left him.
God hates sin.
The picture of the temple – and the ritual cleansing required to enter it – makes this perfectly clear. I would guess that’s the reason God instituted the sacrificial system in the first place (though obviously that’s just a guess and I don’t know for sure). By doing so, He made it clear what He thinks of sin.
That’s why we needed to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus before the Holy Spirit could come live in us.
But now, thanks to Jesus blood, we are cleansed and He does live inside of us. Unlike even the most righteous men of old, we are “sealed with the Holy Spirit“.
We now have the God of the universe living inside of us, and “He will never leave us or forsake us” even when we mess up and sin. Even if we really mess up and sin a lot, He still won’t leave us.
That’s good news! (the Gospel)
Why Jesus Blood works, and why it HAD to be HIS blood
Remember way back at the beginning of this article when we talked about the life of a thing being connected to its blood? In a nutshell, that’s why.
By sacrificing Himself, Jesus cleansed us with His blood. In so doing, He gave us that which is intimately connected with His blood: His life.
The blood of animals was insufficient. Hebrews make it clear that the blood shed was only a picture, and was unable to deal with sin once and for all.
1 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.
2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins?
3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year.
4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Notice, the end of verse 4 states the issue is still the removal of sin. Hebrews is clear that animal blood was only a picture, and couldn’t cleanse us. The blood of any man who had sinned (all of them save Jesus) was tainted and unclean. You can’t clean something a dirty rag, and as Isaiah says:
6 But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.
That’s why it HAD to be Jesus.
He was the only one who never sinned, and therefore was the only one with “clean” blood… But it’s more than that. Remember, Jesus gave us His blood. Because we have His blood, we also have His life; because life and blood are intimately connected in God’s eyes.
That’s “eternal life”: having the life of the God of the universe imputed to us.
(As a side note, the Greek phrase translated “eternal life” is “ζωὴν αἰώνιον” (zoen aionion). You could also accurately translate it the “life of ages”. Just as God is the “rock of ages” so also He gives us the “life of ages”, or the best life in all the ages.)
Jesus gave us His life – not just in the sense that He died – but also in the sense that we get to partake in His current life. As He said:
53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.
54 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
55 “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.
56 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.
57 “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.
58 “This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.”
The God of the universe left heaven, suffered and died so that He could share His life with you!
That’s why the resurrection is absolutely essential to the Gospel. (unlike Penal Substitution, which makes it an afterthought.)
Why the Resurrection Matters
The Resurrection matters because remember, Jesus gave us His life through his blood. We get to share in His life… but only if He has life to share. Jesus died. It does little good to share in the life of a dead man (because he’s dead). That’s why Jesus had to rise again; so he would have life to share with us.
(And of course God/Jesus can’t die, but His mortal body did. Since we share in His life through the blood of His mortal body, it’s essential that He rose again so we could share in His life.)
As Paul says:
1 Corinthians 15:17-19
17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.
18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.
Without the resurrection, we are “still in our sins” because there would be no life in His blood (because He would still be dead).
So how do we share in that life?
The Holy Spirit.
I believe (and think I’ve made a good case that) Jesus died for the following reasons
- To cleanse our hearts to by sprinkling us with His blood – as on the day of atonement – so we would be purified and therefore a fit dwelling place for the Holy Spirit/Him.
- This removed our sins by sending them “outside the camp” – again as in the Day of Atonement – so that we were no longer stained with them.
- This gave us His life through His blood, which enables us to sin less (not that we don’t sin, but we should sin less – hopefully much less – than before)
Notice, nowhere in this explanation have I talked about God’ wrath.
God is not mad at you.
He hates sin with a burning passion, but loves you more than He hates sin. He wants you to have a relationship with Him, and be free from sin. He wanted to have a relationship with you so much that He died to cleanse your sins so He could live with you forever (starting right here and now) by giving you the Holy Spirit.
Man, that’s good news! (the Gospel)