Why does God need a sacrifice to forgive?

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  Jn 1.29

This quotation from the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel records the words of the austere early first century Jewish prophet John the Baptist addressing a crowd of people which included Jewish religious leaders (Jn 1.19). In those days many flocked to the desert locations which John preferred in order to hear him preach. On the day in question John saw Jesus approaching and pointed him out to the assembled crowd with these immortal words: ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’

It may be difficult for anyone brought up in the western world to grasp what John meant by this expression, but to someone living in a culture where the ritual slaughter of animals to placate a deity is commonplace, his words would be more obvious. Certainly the first century adherents of the Jewish religion, with its temple and offerings, would have immediately understood that this son of a priest (Lk 1.5-25; 57-80) was using the terminology of sacrifice.

New Testament writers describe the death of Jesus Christ in various ways. It is called, for example, a ‘ransom’ (Mk 10.45) and a ‘redemption’ from bondage (Eph 1.7; Col 1.14). Terms implying the payment of a price occur also in 1 Corinthians 6.20; 7.23 and in Galatians 3.13; 4.5.  It is viewed as an ‘expiation’ or ‘propitiation’, which have the idea of appeasement (Heb 2.17; Rom 3.25; 1 Jn 2.2, 4.10), releasing one from guilt, delivering from the fear caused by a bad conscience and restoring peace with God. But the writers of the New Testament most commonly explain His death as a ‘sacrifice’ for sin (1 Cor 5.7; Eph 5.2; Heb 7.27; 8.3, 9.14, 26, 28; 10.10, 12, 14).

Thus, when John cried out “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” he may have reminded his hearers of the lamb slain at the time of the Exodus from Egypt (Ex 12.1-14, 1 Cor 5.7) and commemorated annually in the Jewish Festival of Passover. Or he may have been thinking of countless animals offered over the centuries as Jewish offerings (Lev 1-7). More likely, however, he had in mind the haunting words of the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy, which proclaimed the Suffering Servant of the Lord who gave His life for many:

‘He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.’ (Is 53.7)

The Christian faith is based on the doctrine that the death of Jesus Christ was a sacrifice that paid the penalty for the sins of mankind. So why was it necessary that one should be offered on behalf of others? In our search for an answer we must go back to the beginning, to the Book of Genesis. There we see that sacrifice was instituted by the one living creator God of the universe. We read about the first sacrifice, although it is not specifically so described, in the book of Genesis chapter three. The first human couple, Adam and Eve, warned by God not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, disobeyed, with the result that sin entered the world. This is often referred to as ‘the fall’.

The basic meaning of ‘sin’ is to ‘fall short’ of a target. For example, in Judg 20.16 the Hebrew word is used in its ordinary sense describing elite troops who could sling a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss. To sin is therefore to ‘miss the mark’, to ‘fall short’ of God’s standard of holiness and righteousness (Rom 3.23). The first sin was no isolated act of disobedience to the will of God, but rather set in motion a host of disastrous consequences for humanity. Since then every one of us has been born with a fallen nature and has the disposition to disobey God (Gal 5.17). In addition to this inherent sin nature, we have Adam’s sin imputed (credited) to us as members of the human race. Because he is head of the human race we are reckoned to have sinned in him, and are therefore liable to the same judgment (Rom 5.12). In addition we all habitually make wrong choices which the Bible refers to as ‘sins’. These are evident in our thoughts, words and actions. The only exception to this universal guilt is the Lord Jesus Christ who could not, would not and did not sin (2 Cor 5.21; Heb 4.15, 7.26; 1 Pet 1.19, 2.22; 1 Jn 3.5).

Not only are we all sinners (Rom 3.23), our sins result in alienation from God who is just and holy (Isa 59.2). He cannot overlook sin and requires that a penalty be paid. That penalty is death (Ezek 18.20; Rom 6.23). God must punish sinners and we are unable to save ourselves. How can we therefore escape the righteous judgment of God? That is only possible by a sinless sacrifice that satisfies God’s justice!

After the fall, Adam and Eve had a sense of their nakedness and tried to make coverings out of the leafy material available to them in the Garden of Eden. Their own efforts to conceal their shame were unsuccessful, leaving them exposed to God’s judgment. God, however, in His kindness and mercy provided them with coats of skins (Gen 3.21). This teaches us that our own efforts to deal with the effects of sin are useless; only God can meet our need. In the case of Adam and Eve the provision of the skins had a cost. For them to live animals had to die. This principle of the sacrifice of a life is set out in Leviticus chapter 17.11:

‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.’

The death of these animals, and others subsequently killed in Jewish worship rituals, pointed forward to the one great, perfect sacrifice provided by God. That was the Lord Jesus Christ who is God manifest in flesh. He is both human and divine and on earth lived a life of perfect obedience to the will of God, even to the extent of death by crucifixion (Phil 2.8). His offering was a once and for all infinite sacrifice (Heb 10.12), acceptable to God - as proved by his resurrection from the dead (Acts 2.24-26) - and able to reconcile us to God, making amends for our offences. Thus, drawing upon the rich Old Testament background of substitutionary sacrifice, John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’. Those who heard him that day were privileged to have the Lamb of God among them, already on his way to the cross to bear the burden of sin and guilt. The accumulated transgressions, past, present and future, of God’s children in every tribe and nation worldwide, was summed up by John in that simple expression: ‘the sin of the world’.

When John the Baptist declared, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!, he was acknowledging that God demands a sacrifice in order to forgive sins, and was directing attention away from himself to the One who would be that all-sufficient sacrifice. Christ offered ‘one sacrifice for sins forever’ (Heb 10.12). The work of salvation has been completed. Neither you nor I can do anything to merit or to improve it; instead, we must accept salvation by faith in Jesus Christ (Eph 2.8-9). Such loving sacrifice demands a response (Jn 15.13-14). May ours be that of the two disciples of John who heard his second proclamation the following day and ‘followed Jesus’ (Jn 1.35-37).