The Christian faith proclaims that at a specific time and place, the Son of God became flesh and lived among us. However, Jesus was such a remarkable person that some people even wondered whether he was human at all. The Bible therefore goes out of its way to say that he was flesh, born of a woman, in very nature a human, made like us in every respect except for sin (John 1:14; Galatians 4:4; Philippians 2:7; Hebrews 2:17). He was really human.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is often celebrated on Christmas, even though the incarnation would have actually begun when the pregnancy began—by traditional calendars, on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation (formerly called Festum Incarnationis, or Feast of the Incarnation).
As important as the conception and birth of Jesus are to our faith, however, that is not the primary focus we carry to the world. When Paul preached in Corinth, he preached a much more provocative message: Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23).
The Greco-Roman world had many stories about deities being born, but they had never heard of one being crucified! It was preposterous—like saying that people could be saved by believing in an executed criminal. How could anybody be saved by a criminal?
That was just the point—the Son of God died shamefully on a cross like a criminal, and then was e resurrected to glory! Peter told the Jewish leaders: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead…. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel” (Acts 5:30-31). Jesus was resurrected and taken to heaven so our sins could be removed.
But Peter did not omit the embarrassing part of the story: “whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” The word tree would no doubt remind the Jewish leaders of Deuteronomy 21:23: “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” Ouch! Why would Peter bring that up? Peter did not try to sweep the public-relations problem under the rug. Rather, he made sure that he included it. The message said not only that Jesus died, but that he died in a shameful way. That was part of the message—it was essential to the message.
When Paul preached in Corinth, he characterized his message not merely as proclaiming that Christ died, but that Christ died by crucifixion (1 Corinthians 1:23). In Galatia he may have used some visual aids: “Before your eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1). Why would Paul go out of his way to describe a hideous death that the Scriptures call a sure sign of God’s curse?
Was it necessary?
Indeed, why had Jesus suffered such a horrible death? Paul had probably thought long and hard about that question. He had seen the risen Christ. He knew that God had approved this man as the Messiah. But why would God allow his Anointed One to suffer a death the Scriptures call cursed? (In a similar way, Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified. They believe he was a prophet, and God wouldn’t allow that kind of treatment for a prophet. Muslims believe that someone else was crucified instead of Jesus.)
Jesus prayed in Gethsemane for some other way, but there was no other way. Herod and Pilate did only what God had already “decided beforehand should happen”—that he should die in this accursed way (Acts 4:28).
Why? Because Jesus died for us, for our sins, and we, because of our sins, had come under a curse. Our sins are as ugly to God as a crucifixion. All humanity is accursed because of sin. The good news, the gospel, is that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Jesus was crucified for every one of us. He took the pain, and the shame, that we deserve.
But this is not the only analogy the Bible gives us, and Paul explains the crucifixion as a curse in only one of his letters. More often, he simply says that Jesus “died for us.” At first glance, this phrase looks like a simple substitution: We deserved to die, Jesus volunteered to die instead of us, and now we don’t have to.
But it is not quite so simple. For one thing, we still die. From another perspective, we die with Christ (Romans 6:3-5). In this analogy, Jesus’ death was both representative (he died in our place) and participatory (we are included in his death by dying with him). The main point is clear: We are saved by the crucifixion of Jesus, and we can be saved in no other way than through the cross of Christ.
Another analogy, one that Jesus used, was that of a ransom: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). It is like we were held captive by an enemy, and Jesus’ death secured our freedom. Paul uses a similar analogy when he says we were redeemed. This word would remind some readers of the slave market, others of the Exodus. Slaves could be redeemed from slavery, and God redeemed Israel from Egypt. The Father paid a price by sending his Son.
Colossians 2:15 uses a different analogy: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he [Christ] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” The picture here is a victory parade: the victorious military leader brings the captives into town, disarmed, in chains, humiliated. The point in Colossians is that Jesus Christ, by means of his crucifixion, has broken the power of all our enemies and given us victory. The Bible is giving us images of salvation, not precise formulas that we must insist on. Substitutionary sacrifice, for example, is only one of the many pictures that the Bible uses to get the point across. Just as sin is described in several ways, the work that Jesus did to remove our sins can also be described in several ways. If we think of sin as violations of law, we can think of the crucifixion as payment of a legal penalty. If we think of sin as a violation of God’s holiness, then we can view Jesus as an atoning sacrifice. If sin makes us dirty, then Jesus’ blood makes us clean. If sin is bondage, then Jesus is the redeemer, the victorious rescuer. If sin creates hostility, Jesus brings reconciliation. If we see sin as ignorance or stupidity, then Jesus is the one who enlightens us and makes us
wise. All these images can be helpful.
Appeasing God’s wrath?
God has wrath against ungodliness, and there will be a “day of God’s wrath” when he judges the world (Romans 1:18; 2:5). People who “reject the truth” will be punished (verse 8). God loves them and would prefer that they change, but if they refuse, they will suffer the consequences. If the truth of God’s love and mercy is rejected, the result is punishment.
But God is not like some angry human who needs his “pound of flesh” to calm down. He loves us and provided the means by which our sins could be forgiven. They were not simply wiped away—the sins were given to Jesus, and there were real consequences for them.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus became a curse for us, became sin for us. It’s like our sins were given to him, and his righteousness was given to us “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (same verse). We are given righteousness by God.
Righteousness of God displayed
The gospel reveals the righteousness of God—that he is righteous to forgive us instead of condemn us (Romans 1:17). He does not ignore our sins—he takes care of them through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The cross demonstrates God’s justice (Romans 3:25-26), and it demonstrates his love (5:8). It demonstrates justice because it is appropriate for sin (rebellion against the author of life) to be punished by death; it demonstrates love because the person who forgives is accepting the pain.
Jesus paid the price of our sin—the personal price of pain and shame. He achieved reconciliation (a restoration of personal fellowship) through the cross (Colossians 1:20). Even when we were enemies, he died for us (Romans 5:8).
Righteousness involves more than legal requirements. The Good Samaritan did not have a law telling him to help the wounded man, but he acted righteously when he did so. When it is in our power to rescue a drowning person, we should do so. When it was in God’s power to rescue a sin-enslaved world, he did so by sending Jesus Christ. “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). He died for everyone, even while we were all sinners.
In showing mercy, God is showing himself to be right. He is right to consider us righteous even though we are sinners. Why? Because he has made Christ to be our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). Because we are united to Christ, we share in his righteousness. The righteousness we have is not our own, but it comes from God and is given to us by faith (Philippians 3:9).
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his
forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:22-26)
Jesus’ sacrifice was effective for everyone, but only those who have faith in Christ enjoy the benefits of his sacrifice. It is only when we accept the truth that we can experience the mercy. We see his death as ours (as a substitute and as something we participate in), we see his punishment as ours, and we see his victory and resurrection as ours. In this way God is true to his nature: merciful and righteous. Sin is not ignored, nor are sinners ignored. God’s mercy triumphs over legal requirements (James 2:13).
Through the cross, Christ has reconciled the whole world (2 Corinthians 5:19). Through the cross, the entire universe is being reconciled to God (Colossians 1:20). Everything will experience redemption because of what Jesus has done (Romans 8:21). That expands our understanding of the word salvation, doesn’t it?
Born to die
The bottom line is that we are saved through the death of Jesus Christ. He became flesh for this very purpose. In bringing us to glory, it was fitting that God have Jesus suffer and die (Hebrews 2:10). Because he wanted to save us, he became like us, so he could save us by dying for us.
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy 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” (2:14-15). It was by God’s grace that Jesus experienced death for everyone (2:9). “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
The Bible gives us many ways to think about what Jesus did for us on the cross. We do not understand how all of it “works,” but we accept that it does. Because he died, we can enjoy eternal life with God.
I’ll close with one more way to think about the cross—as an example:
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:9-11).