How was Jesus' death a real sacrifice if He knew He would be resurrected?
God is omniscient. From the beginning He knew that Adam and Eve would sin and be separated from Him. Yet He also knew that He would provide a way for them to be reunited to Him (Genesis 3:15). Jesus, being one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, knew He would die and be resurrected (Mark 10:32–34; 14:27–28). In fact, that is exactly why He came to earth (Matthew 16:21; John 3:16–18; 10:10; 18:36–37; Philippians 2:5–11). Given Jesus' foreknowledge of His resurrection, and the fact that He was resurrected, some wonder if Jesus' death was a real sacrifice.
Sacrifice in a general sense is giving up something of value for something of more worth. For example, a sacrifice to a deity in exchange for a good crop, or the sacrifice a soldier makes on behalf of his country. Yet in the context of the Bible, the meaning goes much deeper. Sin separates people from God, and the wages of that sin is death (Romans 3:23; Hebrews 9:22). This refers not just to physical death, but also to spiritual death in which people are separated from God eternally. But God provided a means of forgiveness. Right after the fall, in Genesis 3:15, God spoke the first promise of a coming Savior. He also made clothes of animal skins for Adam and Eve, hinting at the fact that sin leads to death and the required sacrifice for atonement. Later God gave the Israelites a temporary sacrificial system in order to make atonement for sin. The people offered the best of their flock as animal sacrifices to satisfy the need for blood; however, the sacrifice of animals was not perfect either. It was a foreshadowing of the perfect sacrifice that Jesus would one day provide (Hebrews 10:1–18). The sacrifice for sin has always been Jesus' death on the cross, and the way to receive God's forgiveness has always been through faith in Him (Ephesians 2:8–10; Romans 4:1–25).
Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. He was fully God and fully human. He experienced all of the pain and temptation known to humanity and yet did not sin (Hebrews 4:14–16). When He died on the cross, He took the sins of the world upon Himself and experienced the wrath of God against those sins. Since He was innocent, His blood "offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins" (Hebrews 10:12; cf. Hebrews 10:1–18). His blood covers all those who put their trust in Him so the Father sees His sacrifice and not our sin. Second Corinthians 5:21 explains, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
Although Jesus knew He would be resurrected, His death was still a real sacrifice. A positive outcome does not undermine the journey it took to get there. An Olympic athlete knows the hours he worked strenuously before standing on the podium; the victory does not negate the real sacrifice of those efforts. The mother remembers the grueling pain of labor before she held her baby in her arms; holding her baby does not mean her pains were inconsequential. Jesus will never forget what He endured in order to redeem us. He willingly suffered great emotional and physical distress even though He was innocent. At any moment He could have removed Himself from the circumstances, but He chose to stay. His sacrifice was quite real.
Jesus, our Creator, the God of the universe, came to earth as a human baby. He humbled Himself into the lowly helpless form of an infant and was born without fanfare. He lived a life serving others, never expecting the worship and honor He deserved. He experienced pain and temptation as every other human does (Matthew 4:1–11). His sacrifice was not in His death alone, but there was real sacrifice in His life.
Praying in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus' soul was in anguish. He pleaded with God to take away the death that awaited Him: "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will" (Mark 14:36). Nonetheless, Jesus surrendered to God's will and willingly sacrificed His life. His friend Judas betrayed Him, and the rest of the disciples abandoned Jesus in His hour of greatest need (Mark 13:50). Even Peter, His right-hand man, denied knowing Him. Jesus was arrested, mocked, and spat on standing before the Sanhedrin and Caiaphas. Pilate condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion after the Jewish people chose to release a criminal in His place. The Roman soldiers scourged Him, lash after lash tearing away at His flesh. They taunted Him, forcing Him to wear a robe and crown of thorns. He had to carry His own cross tied across His shoulders. Nails were driven into His wrists and feet. Jesus hung on the cross for hours struggling to lift His body to take each breath. He was beaten to a pulp, continuing to lose blood, and dehydrated. His muscles cramped and collapsed in exhaustion. Even so, Jesus called out with one final breath and gave Himself over completely to God: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" (Luke 23:46). This was real sacrifice.
Jesus did rise again! He proved victorious over sin and death. But the fact of His resurrection makes the reality of the sacrifice of His life and death no less astounding. In fact, Jesus' resurrection is what proves He is who He claims to be and that His sacrifice fully paid the price for our sin. Jesus' sacrifice leads to the possibility of life for us (John 10:10). Those who have life in Christ are called to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God, being transformed by the renewal of our minds through the work of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:1–2; Philippians 2:12–13). We also have the privilege of sharing the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection and the reality of life in Him with others (Romans 10:9–15).
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