Our last lesson focused on God’s holy justice. We learned that God can’t stand to be around any kind of sin or evil. And we learned about the terrible consequences of sin in our own lives: the fact that all of us have sinned and separated ourselves from God. In short, we heard the bad news.
But there’s another side to God’s holy nature that we haven’t explored: the compassionate, loving side. He created us to be His children, and He cares deeply about what happens to us. Though His justice demands that the penalty for our sin be paid, His love refuses to leave us to our fate. Instead of abandoning us to destruction, He made a plan to pay the blood-price of sin and let us go free!
Grace and Mercy
As sinners, we don’t deserve this sort of kindness. God knows that. But He doesn’t let that stop Him. He loves us with all His heart, and He was glad to make a plan to hold back the death we deserve and give us undeserved gifts of life instead. Giving someone a gift they don’t deserve is called “grace”. And holding back a punishment they DO deserve is called “mercy”. God’s nature overflows with both qualities.
In the first part of the Bible (the Old Testament), God accomplished many acts of grace and mercy through animal sacrifices.
We know that when sin occurs, a death is owed. This is taught in Romans 6:23: “the wages of sin is death”, and in Hebrews 9:22, which explains “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Good works can’t remove sin. True beliefs about God can’t make up for it. Neither can feeling sorry, giving to charity, or being a “basically good person”. Sin demands death. So God’s merciful plan involved sparing the lives of sinful humans and sacrificing animals instead. In the Old Testament, animals such as bulls, goats, and lambs were all offered as sin offerings to God in the place of sinful people. This process of substituting an innocent animal life for a sinful person’s life is called “atonement”. The Bible book of Leviticus has a lot to say on the subject:
“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” Leviticus 17:11
“…he must bring as his offering a male goat without defect. He is to lay his hand on the goat’s head and slaughter it at the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered before the Lord. It is a sin offering. …In this way the priest will make atonement for the leader’s sin, and he will be forgiven.” Leviticus 4:23-26
Is That Really Fair?
Are you wondering why God’s wonderful, merciful plan involved animal sacrifice? Does it seem unfair to you that an innocent animal had to die to pay the price for the sins of the people?
If so, that’s because it’s actually not fair! Let’s imagine someone sacrificing a lamb, watching as it dies for him. If he’s honest with himself, he knows that should be him dying but instead the animal is giving up its life for him. This wonderful sacrifice takes away the man’s sins and makes him holy again. It restores his spiritual relationship with God! Is this “fair”? No. Does he deserve it? Certainly not! But then, receiving a gift you don’t deserve is the very definition of “grace”!
Jesus – the Perfect Sacrifice
For all the good they did, animal sacrifices weren’t a perfect atonement for sin. Hebrews explains: “The law [including the laws about animal sacrifices] is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-4) God never meant for these animal sacrifices to be a permanent ritual. He had something better in mind.
Throughout the Old Testament God made promises about a “Messiah” (“Anointed One”) who was going to come. There are many beautiful sections of poetry looking forward to the time when the Anointed One would arrive and bring blessings to all nations of people. For years, God’s people waited for the promises to be fulfilled. Finally, God sent His messenger, John, out to preach to the people. He told them to get ready, because the promised Messiah was about to come!
One day as John was preaching, he saw Jesus approaching him and proclaimed to the ones who were listening, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) The practice of sacrificing actual lambs to pay for sin was about to end. The more perfect “Lamb” had come. And when Jesus died on the cross, He became the perfect sacrifice, dying in our place so we wouldn’t have to bear the punishment for our own sins. In a perfect expression of God’s love and mercy, Jesus broke the power of sin completely.
Jesus’ Sacrifice in the Old Testament
The Old Testament had a lot to say about Christ’s sacrifice. One of the most memorable passages is Isaiah 53, a prophecy written 700 years before Jesus lived. It emphasizes the fact that Christ’s voluntary death was the atonement for our sins:
“Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering” (verse 4)
“He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on Him,
and by His wounds we are healed.” (verse 5)
“Each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on Him
the iniquity of us all.” (verse 6)
“For He was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people He was punished.” (verse 8)
“He poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For He bore the sin of many” (verse 12)
Jesus’ Sacrifice in the New Testament
The New Testament has a lot to say about Christ’s sacrifice, too. It’s spelled out for us in many different passages:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8
“But now He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation” Colossians 1:22
“He gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good.” Titus 2:14
“…you were not liberated by perishable things like silver or gold from the empty lifestyle you inherited from your ancestors. Instead, you were liberated by the precious blood of Christ, like that of a flawless, spotless lamb.” 1 Peter 1:18-19
Is That Really Fair?
Are you wondering why God’s wonderful, merciful plan involved the sacrifice of Jesus? Does it seem unfair to you that an innocent person had to die to pay the price for humanity’s wickedness?
If so, that’s because it’s actually not fair. Let’s imagine how a Christian feels, knowing that Jesus became a sacrifice for him. If he’s honest with himself, he knows it should have been him who died on the cross. But instead Jesus, the “Lamb of God”, gave up His life for him. This wonderful sacrifice takes away his sins and makes him holy again. It restores his spirit’s lost relationship with God! Is this “fair”? No? Does he deserve it? Certainly not! But Jesus is happy to give His gift to people who don’t deserve it. This is the true meaning of “grace”!
There are LOTS of Bible verses that talk about these important concepts! After all, salvation is a major theme of the entire Bible! If you would like to learn more, start by looking up some of these passages:
Romans 3:23-25 | Romans 4:25 | Hebrews 13:12 | 1 Peter 3:18 | 1 John 3:5