How real was Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross?


It never occurred to me, when I wrote my Touchstone article on the Jesus-legend theory, how many readers would find it hard to understand Jesus’ sacrifice as being truly genuine. Recently Andy wrote,

it is inconceivable to me how an infinite being could “sacrifice” anything – if Jesus was God allmighty, and he knew that he was, then he was never in any real danger and didn´t sacrifice anything. To “sacrifice” means to give up something valuable – but what has he given up? He didn´t lose any power (and if he is right, his power is infinite, will always be infinite, and “every knee will eventually bow to him”) and he didn´t lose his life, all that he might have given up is a few years of his (infinite) time – and how much would I have “sacrificed” if I had donated 100$ out of infinite$ on my bank account?

Later in the conversation, ScottInOH asked,

Sorry, I may just be dense! I’ve read the Touchstone article three times, and I see you state clearly that Jesus was “supremely powerful and supremely good” (or “supremely self-sacrificing”), but I don’t see you show why you think that. You say one can deduce Jesus’s character from “a good working knowledge of the content of the Gospels,” but you don’t cite much from the gospels (I see one from Mark). I assumed you had done a fuller analysis elsewhere, but maybe you’re thinking it’s obvious.

GM’s wry response to Andy was, “I guess voluntarily being humiliated and tortured to death doesn’t count for much these days.” It’s a good point, but if Jesus really was God, then what did he really give up? He knew how things would come out. Did he sacrifice anything at all?

He laid aside the privileges of deity

The answer begins with the Incarnation. The Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). His sacrifice began in a manger, or rather nine months earlier, when he set aside (emptied himself of) his prerogatives as God, to take on helpless human nature.

He was still God, but he was also human from that point forward. He was one Person with two natures. The divine nature was real and the human nature was real. (Christian theology generally takes it that he continues now in his human, incarnate form.) These are not simple matters. Their best definition and clarification, perhaps, is in the Chalcedonian Creed, which isn’t simple, either, though its formulation has stood the test of time.

This then is what Christianity believes: Jesus was God and man, the natures present but not intermingled or confused. While on earth he set aside the privileges of deity. He lived human life as a human walking perfectly God would live it, not as a God pretending to be human would live it. He obeyed the Father and performed miracles by the power of the Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity.

He experienced his suffering as a human

In his humanity he had no sinful nature, but that does not mean he could not be tempted. To borrow an illustration from Keith Shubert, a teacher I studied under many years ago, what experiences more pressure when you try to break it with your hands: a pencil or a baseball bat? There was pressure on Jesus: pressure to perform miracles for his own benefit (see the early chapters of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, esp. Luke 4:1-13). There was the temptation to evade his trial, torture, and death (Luke 22:39-46). Medical doctors say that sweating blood, while extremely rare, is not unheard of. When it happens, usually it’s in response to extreme fear.

He may also have suffered in his divine nature

While I don’t understand how it could be possible, still it may be that he suffered in his deity as well. He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46), indicating perhaps that at that moment God the Father withdrew fellowship from Jesus. This would be in line with Christians’ understanding of what Jesus was doing on the cross: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). In some sense our sins were placed upon him, so that their effect, death (Romans 6:23), would be fulfilled in him rather than in us. This death was not merely the cessation of physical life, it was separation from God the Father.

There are other interpretations of Matt. 27:46, but they apply only to the specific question of why he said that specific thing. There is no dispute over the horror of the pain and death he experienced–all of which he experienced as a human. Yes, he knew the outcome from the beginning—but he experienced it all in real time.

He did it by his own choice

He did all this by choice; he didn’t have to do any of it.

He didn’t have to be born. He was God; he had a choice in the matter.

He didn’t have to die. In John 10:17-18 he says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” He had a choice at the time of his arrest (Matt. 26:53-54): “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” When finally he died, it was by his own word (Luke 23:46).

Jesus’ sacrifice was for us, not for himself!

He did it for us while “we were still enemies” (Rom. 5:6-8):

 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

All that he did, he did for others

This is Jesus Christ as the Gospels portray him, and as his earliest followers understood him. This was his other-centeredness at its peak. There is more yet that could be said about him in that regard, but it can’t be summarized in an article, it must be read in the original sources. Look through the Gospels carefully and observe how Jesus spent his time. How much did he do for himself? How much did he do for others? How often did he use his extraordinary powers for his own benefit, and how often for others?

Try that out on yourself sometime, and then decide

Read the sources, then apply this, which I think may be the ultimate test: Try to imagine yourself living with the same ratio of other-attention to self-attention. Then ask yourself whether you can deny that Jesus’ character was truly unique.