What makes Jesus’ sacrifice different from human sacrifices?

Q. When we read though the Old Testament, we learn that God was against human sacrifice, which was practiced  by the Canaanites. We see God’s anger at Manasseh, one of the kings of Judah, who “sacrificed his own son in the fire.” But our faith as Christians is based on the sacrifice of Jesus for the atonement of our sins. My question is, “What makes Jesus’ sacrifice different?” Isn’t human sacrifice still human sacrifice, regardless of the  fact that Jesus was willing to die in submission to the will of the Father? (If he wasn’t willing, he would have defended himself when he was brought before the leaders of the day. We see the submitted condition of His heart when He was in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane just before He was betrayed.) It would seem to me that his death was an act of human sacrifice.

I’d put it this way: Our faith as Christians is actually based on the death of Jesus for our atonement. That term literally means at-one-ment, that is, humans becoming united with God again. But how the death of Jesus restores us to God is such a complex question that throughout the ages Christians have offered many different explanations for it. I personally believe that the death of Jesus for us on the cross is so profound and meaningful that we need to look at it from multiple perspectives even to begin to understand it. In other words, there’s no one right answer; each perspective contributes something valuable. And so while, as I’ve just explained, “atonement”  refers initially to reconciliation (a restored relationship), the term also covers all of the different accounts of how Jesus’ death saves us.

One of those accounts holds that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice on our behalf. This is said against the background of sacrifices in the Old Testament, which had their counterparts in other cultures, as you’ve noted. But while those sacrifices provide the background that makes the statement about Jesus’s death meaningful, there’s an important difference.

The idea behind a religious sacrifice is that those who offer it are giving up something valuable as an expression of their devotion. For example, in the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were used to show that an individual or the community was sorry before God for committing sin. They were also used in other ways, such as to provide a feast that was understood to be shared by the worshipers, the priests, and God. (God’s portion was burned up on the altar and it ascended to heaven as “a pleasing aroma.”) Since meat was scarce and expensive in this culture, it was only eaten on rare occasions, and so hosting such a fellowship meal was a significant investment in devotion.

There was also a notion that the sacrifice would be pleasing to the deity, so that it had value for propitiation (changing the deity’s disposition from hostile to favorable). This is another account of how Jesus’ death saves us, but it’s not the primary idea behind sacrifice. Also, in most cases sacrifices were animals or inanimate objects, meaning that there was no issue of their consenting to being sacrificed. Even in those cultures that practiced human sacrifice, the focus was on the king or the society giving up something valuable to demonstrate devotion, not on the attitude of the person who was being sacrificed.

But Jesus’ death is not understood as a sacrifice along those lines. The human race did not offer him to God as a precious expression of its devotion. As the Bible makes clear, humans were estranged from God and Jesus needed to restore the relationship. And so he actually sacrificed himself. As Paul writes in Ephesians, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

How the self-sacrifice of Jesus came to be accepted on our behalf by God is a matter of further perspectives on the atonement. For example, we may understand it by analogy to the people who have sacrificed their lives in military service to protect our freedoms; this would be the perspective of rescue or ransom from oppression and bondage. Another analogy would be a person giving up their place in a lifeboat so that another could survive a sinking ship; this would be the perspective of substitution. And so forth.

So how, then, do the Old Testament sacrifices provide background to help us understand Jesus’ death? I find it interesting that the New Testament writers concentrate on the effects of Jesus’ sacrifice, explaining it by analogy to the effects of certain Old Testament sacrifices, rather than drawing an equivalence between the nature of those sacrifices and his. Jesus’ sacrifice is compared, for example, with the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, which opened up the way into the Most Holy Place (the direct presence of God). His sacrifice is also compared frequently to the sacrifice of the original Passover lambs, whose blood spared the Israelites from God’s punishment. The book of Hebrews sees Jesus’ sacrifice as something that qualifies him to become a high priest forever. But these are all the effects of him sacrificing himself, understood against the Old Testament background. The New Testament does not portray Jesus’ death as similar in nature to the earlier sacrifices; as I’ve said, it was not something valuable that we offered to God to express our devotion.

I’d like to note in conclusion that as Christians we are called not only to trust in the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, but also to sacrifice ourselves for him, as he did for us. Paul writes in Romans, for example, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” And the wider context of the Scripture I quoted above about Jesus sacrificing himself is this: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

We may never fully understand in this life exactly how Jesus’ death saved us. But God can help us understand each day how to “walk in the way of love.”

“Paschal Lamb” stained glass window, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, Carrollton, Georgia. Christian art has long depicted the association between the blood of the Passover lambs and the blood Jesus shed on the cross, memorialized in the communion cup.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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