Our text is written in the 7th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, beginning at the 26th verse:
“For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
That “God sacrificed his own son in place of humans who needed to be punished for their own sins might make some Christians love Jesus, but is an obscene picture of God. It is almost heavenly child abuse… I do not want to express my faith through a theology that pictures God demanding blood sacrifices in order to be reconciled to us.”
These are the words of the well-known religious scholar John Dominic Crossan. They reflect the opinion of an increasing number of people, who do not overtly reject the Christian religion, or Jesus, but who do reject the classic Christian doctrine of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ.
But the witness of Scripture, in both testaments, is very consistent in portraying God as a just and holy God whose wrath is kindled against his willfully rebellious creatures – who knew better, and who know better now. From the perspective of the justice and holiness of God, the Scriptures do not present to us a benign Santa-Claus type of Deity.
There are many passages in the Old Testament that report that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against” this or that person, nation, or people – because of their sins. And as the Epistle to the Hebrews elsewhere says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
To those who complain about God’s way of being holy and just – and who think they cannot tolerate a wrathful God whose anger against human sin needs to be appeased – God responds through St. Paul, who writes in the Epistle to the Romans: “who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”
We don’t get to manufacture the kind of God we want to believe in, and then find our comfort in the indulgence and flattery of that God. The only God we get to have, is the one and only God who actually exists.
And that God says in his Word – regarding Christ, the true priest who offers himself on the cross as a perfect sacrifice on behalf of the world – that “it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens,” who “once for all…offered up himself.”
But what of the charge that this is a cosmic form of child abuse? Do we have a situation where God, in his divine rage, pours out punishment on an innocent mortal man? It would seem as if a God who would do this is petty and vindictive, and cruel and unjust to the extreme.
That is, it would seem this way, if we were Arians. But we are not Arians. We embrace the Nicene Creed as a testimony of the Biblical truth that the Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, is himself “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.”
Within the mystery of the divinity of Jesus, we do not see God only as the one who pours out wrath against the human sin that humanity’s Savior and substitute has carried to the cross.
We also see God as the one who absorbs his own wrath into himself. We see God in Christ, who willingly places himself under his own law’s judgment against human sin, in the stead of sinners.
As St. Paul explains it in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” God was in Christ, doing this.
God – in the person of Jesus, in whom “all the fulness of deity dwells bodily” – was doing this.
In this way, the demands of divine justice are met. But God himself is the one who meets his own demands.
The sins of those who are now forgiven in Christ do not go unpunished. God does not just ignore these sins, as if they did not bother or offend him.
But God, in his own way, does something to remove those sins from our account, and remove them from us, by taking them upon himself, and by suffering and dying for them. And the church of God is thereby purchased – purchased with his own blood, as St. Paul says in the Book of Acts.
God did not make an innocent man suffer. He, as an innocent man, willingly suffered himself.
The sacrificial death of Jesus is not a picture of God’s vindictiveness. It is a picture of God’s grace and love.
As St. John explains it in his First Epistle, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
This is the same apostle who had written in regard to this eternal divine Son: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
According to the Trinitarian character of God, God sending his own Son, is God sending himself. It is God who is both sending, and coming.
It is God who is demanding and receiving the atoning sacrifice, and it is God who is offering that sacrifice. For your salvation, for your reconciliation with God, for your forgiveness, God does everything.
Indeed, there is a full Trinitarian dimension to what happened on the cross. Again, the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God,” will “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
And so, where Crossan and others see an “obscene” picture of God – a form of “heavenly child abuse” as they call it – we see a picture of a fully self-giving God.
He gives himself to the human race by becoming a human – and by living, without sin, among us and for us. And he gives himself for the human race, by taking our sins upon himself, and by sacrificing himself in our stead; so that we – through faith in him – can and will live in fellowship with God, and not in fear of God.
O Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us, and grant us your peace. Amen.