The story and the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is not only one of the greatest events in human history but also one of the benchmarks of Christianity and the relation between God and humanity. So the events that followed up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day are very familiar with and are within earshot of the Christian faith. But the very essence of the nature of his death and what it represented is something few people including most Christians don’t understand fully.
Atonement of Sins in the OT
Among the many instructions God gave Moses concerning worship in the tabernacle was the act of sacrifice for the atonement of sins for the people of Israel. In fact God gave specific details on what animals were to be sacrificed, how they were supposed to be sacrificed and what to do after making the sacrifices (Leviticus 16:1-30). It was the duty of the priest to offer the sacrifices for the atonement of sins on his own behalf and his family as well as on behalf of the people of Israel and whoever was in their camp. The process that led to the forgiveness and wiping out of the sins of the people of Israel was therefore a lengthy and tedious one, without which none could be cleansed of his sins.
Jesus Christ, the Sacrificial Lamb
Throughout scripture when we read about Christ from the prophecies of his coming to his actual death and resurrection, we see a clear indication that he was and is the sacrificial lamb that was offered on the altar of sacrifice as a ransom for the sins of humanity (Isaiah 53, John 1:29, 10:15, Eph. 5:2, Heb. 10:12, 1 Peter 1:18-20). So these among other scriptures across the Bible give us a perfect understanding of Christ being the sacrifice that was offered for the sins of the world. But looking back at how the process took place in the OT, how does his death on the cross relate to the sacrifices offered by priests in the OT for the same purpose?
The Cross of Christ
We all know and understand the symbol and meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ in God’s plan for the salvation of man. One thing that comes out clearly is that Christ had to die for the sake of the sins of the world. But one question would arise, how did the cross become the means of his death? The Roman Empire arose around 63BCE to conquer the known world and Judea, the known Israelite nation at the time came under direct Roman administration around 4 BCE.
So in the process of exercising their rule, the Roman regime developed a mode of capital punishment that acted both as humiliation to offenders, criminals and rebels and as a warning to other would be criminals. This mode was the cross by which Jesus was crucified as well. So we see Jesus being crucified on the cross just like all other criminals under Roman rule.The humiliation of the cross as understood by the Jews is recorded in scripture and it’s what the Pharisees intended for Jesus when they implored Pilate to crucify him (Deut. 21:23, Galatians 3:13).However what made the crucifixion of Jesus exceptional was what he represented, the events leading to his crucifixion, during the crucifixion and his eventual resurrection.
The Priest at the Altar of Sacrifice
Reading from the OT we find that during the sacrifice for the atonement of sins, various elements played a major role. We see the sacrifice, which are the animals to be sacrificed, the priest playing that role and the altar of sacrifice as the key players in the sacrificial ceremony for the atonement of sins. How do these characters come into play in the death of Christ on the Cross?
Many Christians have always focused on the cross as the place of sacrifice for humanity’s sin but tend to ignore the relation the death of Christ on the cross has with the sacrifices in the OT. The writer of Hebrews explains to us in details how the death of Christ relates to the animal sacrifice for sins in the OT (Heb. 9: 11-26). We realize that during worship in the tabernacle, there was the holy place with the altar of sacrifice before the veil where the high priest would offer the sacrifices for sanctification before moving into the holy of holies to meet with God.
At the Cross, Jesus Christ did not only play the role of the lamb of sacrifice but also the role of the priest offering the sacrifice. We find it recorded in the Bible that Christ came as a Priest in the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4, Heb. 6:20, 7:1-21). So Christ did all the roles of the priest at the altar of sacrifice for the atonement of sins but unlike Aaron who went to the holy of holies himself, Christ gave us direct access to God in the most holy place; first by offering himself as a sacrifice and then opening for us a way beyond the veil at the holy of holies (Heb. 9:24-26).
The Cross and the Altar of Sacrifice
Most Christians have come to understand that the cross of Christ represented the altar on which he was sacrificed for our sins, yet some believe that the cross represented the wood for the sacrifice while the hill at Calvary represented the altar. The writer of Hebrews tries to explain to us that the cross and all it entails were a physical symbolism and representation of something more spiritual than natural. As the priest would offer sacrifices at the altar which was in the physical tabernacle; Jesus entered a spiritual one, offering himself on the altar and proceeding to the holy of holies (Heb. 9: 24-26). When the writer says Christ didn’t enter holy places made with hands but heaven itself, what does he mean?
When we look at the book of revelation, we realize that as Christ was dying on the cross physically, a lot was happening in the spiritual. In revelation we come across an altar before the throne of heaven as well as a lamb that appeared as if it was slain (Rev. 5:6-8, 8:3). So if we Read Heb. 9: 24 together with the scriptures in Revelation, then we will come to realize that as Christ was crucified on the cross in the natural, he was actually laid as a sacrificial lamb on the altar in heaven as a sacrifice in the spiritual. This would cause the writer of Hebrews to deduce that on the cross, Christ didn’t get into holy places that was made by the hands of man but into heaven itself.
We would therefore say that at the cross, Christ went before us as priest and a sacrificial lamb and not only died for the sake of our sins but also gave us access to God in the most holy place before the throne of heaven as represented by the veil that was ripped into two. So we can boldly approach the throne of God directly in worship as Christians with the assurance of forgiveness of sins.