From time to time I meet a friend of mine and we talk Bible stuff. Last week we met for lunch and talked atonement. One of the issues she raised was whether pain was a necessary part of Jesus’ sacrifice. It’s one I’d never thought of before.
Old Testament sacrifice was a system instituted by God through Moses. It was a way of dealing with the sin of God’s chosen people. But it was an imperfect system. Sacrifice had to be done and re-done regularly. As Hebrews 10 shows us, the old sacrificial system was not wrong, but partial and provisional. A response to the problem of sin until Jesus came as the final and perfect sacrifice. But in the Old Testament sacrificial system, while death atoned for the sins of the people (a foreshadowing of Jesus’ final and complete sacrifice), pain and suffering did not appear to be a feature (and which is central to Jesus’ sacrifice). Why the difference?
While the Old Testament talks a lot about sacrifice, it is silent on the manner of the killing. The only place it is mentioned is in Deuteronomy 12:21 “If the place where the Lord your God chooses to put his Name is too far away from you, you may slaughter animals from the herds and flocks the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and in your own towns you may eat as much of them as you want.” But the content of those “commands” is not recorded in Scripture. This is shechitah (the Jewish prescribed process of ritual slaughter) which was handed down orally through the generations and not formally written down until after Jesus’ death. The shechita included everything from the sharpness of the knife to the manner of drawing it across the animals neck so as to avoid pain. This would seem consistent with other parts of the Old Testament which says that kindness to animals is a sign of godly character (Proverbs 12:10, Exodus 23:5).
But if pain is absent from the old sacrificial system, why is it present in the final sacrifice?
Jesus’ suffering was foretold – planned by God all along, it was not an accident. In Is. 53:10 it says that “it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” What did this suffering element do in Jesus that could not be done with the animals?
First, there was the logistical needs of the sacrifice gaining the notoriety it needed to be spread far and wide. It had to be a public death. And nothing was more public than crucifixion.
He also definitely had to be dead for the resurrection to be demonstrably real. And crucifixion was a way of showing Jesus to be completely, and publicly, dead.
If his death had been quiet and quick, it would not have been clear that he was indeed dead. This plan for a public and shocking death was foretold because this was all part of God’s plan for the fulfillment of his salvation work across the world.
Second, there was the example. Is. 53:7 says “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.” He was obedient to death, but he was also obedient to horrific suffering. Obedience to a quick and painless death would have given us no example to model. It would also be a barrier to us having faith in someone who had a quick and easy death (which, for a god, doesn’t seem that hard, if you know what I mean).
Third, it was our pain and our suffering as we are told in Is. 53:4. What this tells us is that everything Jesus suffered on the cross was a visible version of the cup of God’s wrath that Jesus was drinking. We would not be able to understand the power and horror of God’s wrath if there was no physical representation. When we partake in the Lord’s supper and remember how he shed his blood and had his body broken for us, we understand. We can imagine. It elicits an emotional response in us – shame that he suffered for us, gratitude that he went to such lengths. A quick and painless death would mean we couldn’t really understand the cup of wrath that he had to drink. We could try and imagine it. But we couldn’t understand it. And if we couldn’t understand it, we wouldn’t be able to respond to it. Is. 52:15 had said “For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.“
Fourth, there is Jesus ability to intercede for us. If Jesus experienced a quick and painless death, or experienced death only as God (not as a full human) it would create an experience barrier between him and us. The Bible tells us that there will be suffering. While Proverbs tells us that is we keep God’s commands in our hearts, “they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity” (Prov. 3:2) it is no accident that the book of Job is also in the Old Testament wisdom literature. In Job, lots of terrible things happen to a good man – it’s almost as if Proverbs shows us the ideal, but Job provides a balancing view of real life. When the two are put together, we see the way we should live, even when bad things are happening because God is always there with us. But Jesus is able to intercede for us with the Father because he has experienced everything we have experienced. As it says in Hebrews 2:11 “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family.“
We know we will suffer – we suffer now. When God created humans with the ability to choose him and love him freely with all their souls, he created them with the ability to sin. And because of sin, there is suffering in the world. Our bodies are decaying, we suffer for the sins of those around us (as in, we live with the consequences of other people’s actions), accidents happen, we bring things on ourselves, many even suffer directly for the sake of the gospel. But scripture told us there would be suffering, and that in our suffering, God is our solid rock. If Jesus had not suffered in a very visible and understandable way, we would not be able to lean on him with the level of trust that faith inspires.
Our suffering is also necessary. God purifies our hearts like fire purifies gold and silver (Prov. 17:3, Ps. 12:6, Is. 48:10, 1 Peter 1:7). Ultimately, there is a point to the things we suffer, “because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). If there is a point to our suffering, we need to lean on a saviour who suffered, and suffered for us, in order to have the confidence to keep going.
I could keep going all day. But what becomes clear to me is that while pain was not a requirement of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, it was necessary in Jesus’ sacrifice. The necessity was not for the presence of pain for the sake of itself. It was necessary for so many reasons that fill me with a deeper faith and gratitude. Part of this was that Jesus’ death was necessary for the salvation of many; the pain he suffered was so we would believe it, and have faith in him. That fills me with so many emotions.
I think this is a subject that I will be mulling on for some time. It digs deep into Jesus’ humanity and deity, and God’s plan for us from the beginning.
Praise God. Praise, praise God. Because I am a weak and feeble sinner. And Jesus suffered for me at such a terrible price. Praise him that is now exalted and through whom all things are held.