The symbol of the cross calls into the mind many different images for people when they look towards the altar on Sunday mornings. Perhaps the most significant thing it represents to the Christian is the enormity of salvation that it represents to mankind. It represents a gift from God that many of us even after 2000 years of deliberation still cannot truly grasp. Let us, today, gain a better understanding from both old and new testament the background behind the great sacrifice, what it meant to the people of the time, and what it means to us today.
Isaiah Chapter 53 at least 500 years before the fact describes an event that is to have an enormous impact on humanity: Isaiah 53:3 He was despised and forsaken of men. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised and we did not esteem Him. (A statement that man did not really appreciate the worth of Jesus) 4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried, yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities, the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. And the verse 6 describes man's nature: 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way. (I did it my way)... But the Lord has caused the iniquity of all of us to fall on Him. We will come back to Chapter 53 but first we must see the condition of mankind as described above in the context of how man had to deal with sin in those days.
From Moses' time in the Book of Leviticus Chapter 4 a system of sacrifice was in effect for one to deal with his sinfulness. Early chapters of Leviticus specify, for various levels of folk, from Priests on down to common man, a set of procedures to select from for making the offering. We will review here one given in Chapter 4 as representative of the general guidelines used to understand what being a sinful Jew in those days was like. Levi, by the way, was one of the 12 sons of Jacob. The tribe which descended from Levi was the priestly tribe which had charge of the rights and ceremonies in the sacrifices and the teaching of the law of Moses.
The first step, Leviticus 4:27 Now if anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and becomes guilty 28 if his sin which he has committed is made known to him, then he shall bring for his offering a goat, a female without defect, for his sin which he has committed... moving alternatively to verse 32 "But if he brings a lamb as his offering for a sin offering, he shall bring it, a female without defect. Second step 33 "And he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering,... (this is symbolic of the transfer of sin to the completely innocent lamb) Third step, and slay it for a sin offering in the place where they slay the burnt offering. Fourth step 34 And the priest is to take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and all the rest of its blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar... and later in verse 35 (the reason)... thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven. (alternatively, in 5:7 for the poor, turtle-doves or pigeons are specified, and I suspect these were prevalent).
With the sacrifice offering system having been in place for many hundreds of years it is little wonder that the meaning of certain old testament prophecies were overlooked or not taken seriously enough when they dealt with the coming of the Lord. The Pharisees and Saducees were entrenched in the system. Imagine a human "lamb" becoming a permanent sacrifice... and then in the fullness of time from out of the wilderness came John proclaiming in John 1:29 ...Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is announcing the removal of the barrier between God and man. What a relief to the believing Jew. Imagine... permanent forgiveness!
I Peter 2:21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 who committed no sin nor was any deceit found in His mouth, 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return, while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously, 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the righteousness, for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.
II Corinthians 5:17 Therefore if any man is in Christ he is a new creature, the old things passed away, behold new things have come. 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation... Now this does not mean the Christian is free of sin, but simply that he now has the power to deal with it. It means God sees us in Christ as righteous. Look at the last part of Isaiah 53:
10 But the Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief, If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand.
11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied, By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities.
And what is really remarkable is that this is from the old testament hundreds of years before the fact: the prophecy and meaning of Christ's death on the cross for us.
In closing for Hebrews 10 Paul writes... For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.