According to the Gospels, Jesus Himself repeatedly indicated that He would die a violent death, and He even said that it “must” be so (Matt. 16:21; John 3:14). “The Son of Man must suffer many things … and be killed” (Mark 8:31; cf. Luke 9:22; 17:25; 24:7). Jesus saw this as the fulfillment of ancient biblical prophecies (Luke 18:31; 22:37; 24:25 ff., 44 ff.) and considered His whole life to be the realization of a divine plan (Luke 2:49; 4:43; 13:33; 19:5, 10; John 9:4; 10:16). As He hung on the cross, He cried out: “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Task completed, mission accomplished.
But just what was the mission that He had fulfilled?
What His Death Means for Us
The meaning of Jesus’ death has intrigued Christian thinkers of all ages, even worried them. Countless books have been written about it, and many shelves filled with works have tried to explain the deeper significance of the death of Jesus. They all attempt to interpret the passages in the New Testament that shed light on how Jesus understood Himself and how the disciples in turn understood Him. The biblical statements are summarized in the Adventist Fundamental Beliefs statement No. 9 (see sidebar).
However you may try to describe the biblical teaching on salvation through Christ, you cannot ignore certain terms such as atonement, reconciliation, righteousness, sin, and forgiveness. They belong to the essential vocabulary of the Bible and are linked to the core of Christian faith.
Based on the sacrificial ministry of the Old Covenant, the early Christians understood the death of Christ on the cross as God’s “means of propitiation,” by which God Himself had taken away our guilt (Rom. 3:25). The sacrifice on Calvary—the total commitment of His life—was necessary, in order “to make propitiation for the sins of the people [of Israel]” (Heb. 2:17), and not only for them, “but also for the [sins of the] whole world” (1 John 2:2).
The real mission of Jesus was therefore “to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:5 f.; 1 Peter 1:18 f.). His perfect obedience and substitutionary sacrifice liberate us from our guilt; we receive forgiveness and a new life (Eph. 1:7; 5:2; 1 Peter 2:21 ff.; Heb. 9, 10). The prophet Isaiah had already prophesied that the “servant of God” would give His life as a sacrifice for our guilt. “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5; cf. Dan. 9:24).
But that doesn’t mean that Jesus was trying to placate an angry God and move Him to be benevolent toward us. After all, it was the Father Himself who sent His Son into the world “that we might live through Him” (1 John 4:9 ff.). It was not necessary to win God over for us; He already was on our side. God does not love us because Jesus died for us; Jesus died because God loves us. God’s love is the reason and source, not the result or effect of the atonement.
Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ
In Christ’s life of perfect obedience to God’s will, His suffering, death, and resurrection, God provided the only means of atonement for human sin, so that those who by faith accept this atonement may have eternal life, and the whole creation may better understand the infinite and holy love of the Creator. This perfect atonement vindicates the righteousness of God’s law and the graciousness of His character; for it both condemns our sin and provides for our forgiveness. The death of Christ is substitutionary and expiatory, reconciling and transforming. The resurrection of Christ proclaims God’s triumph over the forces of evil, and for those who accept the atonement assures their final victory over sin and death. It declares the Lordship of Jesus Christ, before whom every knee in heaven and on earth will bow. (John 3:16; Isa. 53; 1 Peter 2:21, 22; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4, 20-22; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19-21; Rom. 1:4; 3:25; 4:25; 8:3, 4; 1 John 2:2; 4:10; Col. 2:15; Phil. 2:6,11.) But what was it then that made atonement and satisfaction—and therefore the death of Jesus—necessary? Is it the profound disgust that God, the Perfect and Holy One, feels for all injustice? Is it the disregard for His just and holy law (Rom. 7:12)—the reflection of His character—that must be punished? Do we feel something of the same indignation—indeed, the “righteous anger”—that God feels in the face of the million-fold presence of sin and appalling injustice (John 3:36; Rom. 1:18 ff.; 1 Thess. 1:10; Rev. 6:16 f.)?
As Jesus died on the cross, His opponents rejoiced. To be crucified meant to be cursed of God (Gal. 3:13). Therefore, in the eyes of the public, Jesus was history. No one would ever again dare to claim He was the Messiah. Had not He Himself, shortly before His death, admitted that God had abandoned Him? This was without question the bitterest moment in His life and presumably the reason for His quick death (Mark 15:34, 37, 44).
But what gave His enemies cause to rub their hands in satisfaction actually turned out to be a crushing blow for themselves. When a short time later He broke the shackles of the grave and revealed Himself to His disciples as the living and glorified Christ, it became clear that He had left the scene of these terrible events not as the loser, but as the winner: Christ is triumphant!
As difficult as it may be to scientifically prove His resurrection, the testimony of the many witnesses who saw Him with their own eyes is still remarkable (Matt. 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20–21; 1 Cor. 15:1 ff.).
And the empty grave can also hardly be explained any other way except that something very unusual happened (Matt. 27:62 to 28:15). Even the doubters among His disciples finally became convinced (Matt. 28:17; Mark 16:11 ff.; Luke 24:11, 41; John 20:24 ff.). The physical resurrection of Christ is the sign that His sacrifice was not in vain, but had fulfilled its purpose (Rom 4:25; 5:10; 1 Cor. 15:17). Through it, Jesus the condemned criminal was “vindicated” by God Himself (Acts 2:22 ff.). Beyond that, it is also the basis for the Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15:12 ff). If the power of death is broken, then it is broken forever and for everyone. In this respect, the resurrection of Jesus is “an event that happened in the past, but not a happening that has passed” (B. Klappert). Therefore it takes its rightful place at the core of the Christian message.
John, an eyewitness, interpreted the events like this: “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8, NRSV).* Another New Testament writer commented this way: Christ became human, “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14 ff.). What believers already know today will one day be confessed by all: Christ is triumphant! (see Phil. 2:5 ff.).
The hour of His greatest defeat has become the moment of His greatest triumph. The victory over sin, death, and the devil has been won.
The atonement for our guilt also brought the reconciliation of humankind with God. God was always on our side, but we had separated ourselves from Him, turned our backs on our Lord and Savior, and rebelliously rejected Him. In Christ God has overcome the separation, restored peace, and won our trust. We are reconciled with God! Men and women who hear and understand this gospel cannot remain impassive (see Rom. 5:10 ff.; 2 Cor. 5:18 ff.).
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Rom. 8:31).
*Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
This article originally appeared on www.adventistworld.org in January, 2009.
Rolf Pöhler is theological advisor to the North German Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Hannover, Germany. This article is a condensation of a chapter in Pöhler’s book on the Adventist Fundamental Beliefs in the German language and translated by Brent Blum.