One of the more common phrases heard in Christianity today is “Jesus died for our sins.” It’s a concise statement summarizing the purpose of Jesus’ life on earth and, on the surface, it seems simple enough. But when we think about it, we find that the statement is not simple at all. How does the death of one person lead to salvation for others? What type of salvation are we talking about in the first place? To really understand the death of Jesus, we have to dig deeper into matter. We have to carefully look at what happened between Jesus and God on the cross.
The accounts of the last days of Jesus’ life have been extensively documented in the four gospels. He was unjustly tortured and sent to die. We read that He was crucified along with two other people that day. In fact, we know historically that Crucifixion was commonly practiced during that era. While we ought not to minimize the suffering that Jesus endured by the hands of men, we could say this particular form of torture and death was not unique to Jesus.
So what makes Jesus’ suffering different? First, He is God, and this type of suffering by man toward God was simply without precedent. Second, while other people may have also been unjustly punished, Jesus was completely perfect and innocent, meaning that there was no punishment of any kind which could have been justifiably directed toward Him. A third aspect, and one we will concentrate on, is that Jesus’ suffering was ultimately from God.
The Bible tells us that “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom 6:23) But our physical death is not the primary consequence of sin, because even believers, who are free from the punishment of God, will die a physical death. The real punishment by God is “the second death” (Rev 21:8), namely hell or God’s wrath. In our natural state, every human deserves this second death, and God, as One who is just and holy, must carry out the punishment for each sin committed by every human. He cannot just ignore our sins or sweep it under the rug, so to speak, for that would be no justice at all. What this all means is that each and every human is on a path to eternal punishment the likes of which is worse than any of us can even begin to imagine.
But God decided to do something about this awful situation. He sent His Son, one who “thought it not robbery to be equal with God” (Phl 2:6), to be ”in the likeness of men” and save a people for God. Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life, taught the people about God, and performed miracles, reinforcing His deity. But His greatest act would come at the end of His life when He would face a situation that no man has ever faced. Jesus fully understood what would happen to Him and even prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mar 14:36) And what is this cup that Jesus desired to be taken away? We read in Rev 14:10, that those who follow the devil and sin “shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone…” This cup is the wrath of God poured out for sin.
Jesus endured the wrath of God on behalf of the people He would save. He became “sin for us” (2Cr 5:21) and paid the penalty for that sin. When a born again believer enters heaven, God did not admit the believer by ignoring the person’s sin. They were fully paid for and the just punishment for the sins were fully met when God executed the penalty for the sins upon His own sinless Son on the cross. (Gal 3:13)
The ramifications of Jesus’ selfless acts are extraordinary in many ways. We cannot even begin to conceptually grasp certain aspects of what transpired between Jesus and God at the cross. What does it mean that the Father poured out His wrath on the Son, God punishing God essentially? How did Jesus pay for an eternity’s worth of sins (actually numerous eternity’s worth of sin) within the span of His temporal death? Many of these things are beyond the scope of our understanding.
What we do know however is that this sacrifice by Jesus is far beyond any sacrifice we can ever conceive of. For none of us has ever experienced the horrific reality of hell even for a moment. Nothing here on earth, not the worse war, violence, pain or suffering will compare to God’s wrath poured out for our sins. He stood alone, no one to aid Him, no one to hide behind, against His own heavenly Father and dealt the full wrath of God. And He did it so we didn’t have to endure it. It’s the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate gift. And that is why we fall prostate before Him and worship Him crying out, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.” (Rev 5:12)
But there will be people who will not worship or even acknowledge the sacrifice of the Son of God. To them will be poured the full cup of God’s wrath. Jesus will not be their substitutionary atonement, but their Judge. To those who remain in rebellion against God, they will wake up from their last day on earth and find that they must stand and be accountable for each sin they have committed. When all is said and done, this is the bottom line. If Jesus does not cover our sins on the judgement throne, we will have to pay for them ourselves. But today, while we still have breath, we can look to Jesus and cry to Him for mercy.