For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)
For some reason, the concept of Jesus’s death as a sacrifice is difficult for us to grasp. It seems archaic at best, barbaric at worst – but the idea of sacrifice really isn’t as foreign to our own experience as we sometimes think. All of us can probably think of many 21st century examples of sacrifice. For example, parents make financial sacrifices for their children so they can have better educational opportunities, or develop musical or athletic talents. Military families make many sacrifices in the service of their country – the separation of husbands and wives, parents and children; the loss of limbs and physical functions and at times psychological well-being; and sadly, in some instances, the loss of life. Only a month ago during yet another tragic school shooting, a beloved coach sacrificed his life to save the lives of students by shielding them from fire with his body. While these sacrifices vary widely in terms of their personal cost, they are all contemporary examples of people putting the needs and interests of others ahead of their own. Why, then, is the idea of personal sacrifice so disquieting when we apply it to Jesus?
Perhaps the answer lies in the incomparably greater sacrifice that Jesus made. We believe that Jesus’s death by crucifixion was the ultimate sacrifice for sin that releases all who believe in him from the power of evil and death. There are several ideas in this doctrine that might be uncomfortable to think about and also difficult to grasp. One is the sacrifice of a willing death. Jesus knew that according to God’s plan he had to die, and he chose to go through that death. He wasn’t coerced or compelled. He could have gotten out of it – he was the son of Almighty God and fully divine, after all – but he didn’t choose that course because his death was the only sacrifice that could satisfy the penalty for the sinfulness of the human race.
Of course the world in which Jesus lived was much more familiar with sacrifices to atone for sin, not only in the Jewish temple, but also among pagan religions. Sacrifices of livestock and other animals were common, and among some groups human sacrifice was also practiced. We consider the sacrifice of a human being to be barbaric, and the idea that the God of love would require the sacrifice of his own son is virtually unthinkable. But it’s precisely because of God’s love, expressed in human terms by his son, that Jesus’s death was sacrificial. The IVP New Testament commentary explains:
[Jesus’s] death is at the heart of the Son’s revelation of the Father, for God is love and love is the laying down of one’s life (cf. 1 John 4:8; John 3:16). So in the cross the heart of God is revealed most clearly. Selflessness and humble self-sacrifice are seen to be divine attributes. Throughout his life Jesus has done the Father’s will, and such selflessness is a key component in the eternal life he offers. God’s own life is a life of love that denies self for the sake of the beloved, and therefore such love is the very nature of life itself, real life. (IVP New Testament Commentary, downloaded from biblegateway.com)
Love, selflessness, and sacrifice are all bound together. Love motivates self-denial for the sake of the beloved. Thus Jesus’s sacrifice was not simply a mechanical killing to settle a score; it was the logical conclusion and fulfillment of divine love.
No doubt another troublesome aspect of Jesus’s sacrifice for humankind is the manner in which he died. The cross was an instrument of terror and torture, and not just a method of execution. The Romans made a big point of publicly displaying crucifixions as a deterrent to insurrection, so there was public humiliation in addition to physical suffering. Those executed on the cross were first flogged, and then went through hours and sometimes days of inescapable exposure to the sun and agonizing thirst as they hung from the cross. Breathing was difficult because of their body position. Pain was excruciating. It was one of the most inhumane ways to die imaginable. It’s generally pretty hard to find the love as we view at an artist’s rendering of the crucifixion.
But love is there, radiating from the cross, sustaining the savior through the ordeal, and pointing toward the triumph of resurrection. The story does not stop abruptly on Good Friday, because the crucifixion was not the end. Love overcomes all, even death.