The Cross of Christ
The Sacrifice of Christ
The Son of God came down to earth in order to die. The cross is His masterpiece. Not everyone can appreciate the glory of the cross; many consider it a scandal or even foolishness, but Christians never cease to boast in the cross of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
To better understand the significance of Christ’s death it is worthwhile having a closer look at the ceremonies performed during the Old Testament. Through Moses, God gave instructions to His people in Israel concerning the tabernacle, the priesthood and various sacrifices.
The tabernacle consisted in two sections: the holy place and the Holy of Holies. The glory of God’s presence shone in the Holy of Holies. Nobody was allowed entrance into this sacred place except the high priest. A veil separated the two sections from each other, signifying, among other things, that sin debars us from the presence of the thrice-holy God.
From among the Jewish nation certain men were appointed by God to serve as priests, whose ministry was to represent the people before Him. Thus God teaches us that we cannot approach Him by ourselves.
The priests used to offer different animal sacrifices on the altar every day. Once a year the high priest used to kill the animal, take some of its blood in a container and enter beyond the veil in the Holy of Holies. God is righteous and His justice demands due punishment for every transgression of the law. The death of countless animals reminds us what the punishment is for our disobedience. The wages of sin is death, as God had forewarned man from the beginning.
Old Testament sacrifices also show us the way we can get rid of our sin’s punishment. The Lord instructed His people: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” The blood makes “atonement” or “covers” the sin. Elsewhere the Scripture declares that “without shedding of blood is no remission.”
See how marvellous God’s grace is. His justice requires the full punishment for sin: death, but in order to deliver the sinner from the necessary punishment, God has provided for him a substitute to die in his place. The blood of the animal is shed on the altar; its life is taken so that the sinner would not have die.
The Old Testament rites were only a picture of Christ and His work as Redeemer. Scripture calls these things a “copy and shadow,” and “shadow of the good things to come.” “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.” Christ is the true Lamb of God who bears upon Himself and takes away the sin of the world.
Christ, The Priest and Sacrifice
Sin separates us from the holy God, and arouses His anger and wrath, but God, who is rich in mercy, was pleased to deliver His people from their sins. The Father appointed the Son as High Priest to intercede for them. The eternal Son of God became a human being so that He could represent us before the Father.
Christ is both the priest and the sacrifice. Jesus, as priest, offered Himself as a sacrifice for sin. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Do take time, then, to meditate upon the significance of the cross.
The apostle Peter explains to believers: “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness--by whose stripes you were healed... For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” Jesus died on the cross instead of His people, that they would not suffer eternal death in hell. He suffered the punishment that was properly and rightly theirs, therefore they are no longer liable to hell’s punishment.
The apostle Paul reminds us of the misery and peril because of sin. “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” The Law convicts us of sin, condemns us, but has no power to deliver us. There is only one way that effectively delivers us from God’s wrath. “Christ has redeemed (freed) us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” Believers are free because the curse on their heads was transferred to Christ, their Redeemer.
With good reason Christ feared and was sorrowful in the garden of Gethsemane! He who knew no sin was willing to drink the cup of divine wrath so that His people would be saved and enjoy fellowship with God. His cry during that hour of darkness is as meaningful as could be, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” On the cross, Christ endured and experienced the punishment of hell instead of those whom the Father had given! How blessed are they who are able to praise Christ from their heart: “By your cross and your death you have redeemed us.”
I Am the Bread of Life
Christ is the Saviour of the world, but it cannot be implied that every human being will be saved. Many will hear their terrible condemnation on the great and awesome Day of the Lord: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” They were never delivered from their curse. Who then has the right the say to the Lord Jesus: “You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation”? Who is actually saved?
In John’s gospel we have a satisfactory explanation. Jesus compares Himself with bread: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” Jesus offered His sacred body and shed His precious blood as a sacrifice for sin. Now how can a sinner actually benefit from His sacrifice? Quite obviously bread will neither nourish nor satisfy if it is not eaten and digested. Even so the body of Christ, given on the cross, and His shed blood will be unprofitable if we do not actually participate in His infinite merits. Jesus explains: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Such a step is absolutely necessary to obtain eternal life, but how can we eat this divine bread? How can we drink Christ’s blood? His audience murmured greatly when they heard this the first time, and protested, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” Their carnal misunderstanding of Jesus’ words was merely a cloak for their unbelief. He had already explained, but they were hard-hearted and refused to listen. Those who wilfully persist in unbelief will find their hearts even more callous and insensitive to divine truth.
When Christ said, “I am the living bread,” He was using a metaphor to explain profound spiritual truths as He was accustomed to do. In the same gospel, Jesus uttered similar expressions:
Nobody would dare suggest that Christ is literally light, or a door, or a shepherd, or a vine. Neither are His followers sheep or branches. They do not follow Him by walking literally after Him; neither do they enter through Him literally. In the same manner, we would be in serious error if we take His speech about eating His body in a literal way.
How then are we meant to eat His body and drink His blood in order to obtain eternal life? Several times the Lord Jesus gives us a direct and uncomplicated answer in His same speech. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life.” Jesus’ answer cannot be missed: He grants eternal life to all who believe in Him. Eating and drinking is believing in Christ.
The Jews desired eternal life. They rested in the law. They trusted in their own good works, in circumcision, in Moses and in their genealogical line going back to the patriarchs. But this was not God’s requirement. God simply wanted them to believe on the One whom He had sent. He who believes in Christ has eternal life. Think this crucial issue through: on whom are you depending to have eternal life? In your obedience to God’s commandments, in your own holiness and good performance, in baptism or in Mary and the saints? Christ leaves us in no doubt as to God’s requirement: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”
Once for All
Was the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary sufficient to save all those who trust in Him? Was that offering for sin enough to obtain eternal redemption? Was the death of Christ enough to actually and really cancel out sin? Was His sacrifice effective so that by it He sanctifies His people and makes them perfect? How many times did Christ have to do it? The following quotations from the letter to the Hebrews give us a plain answer:
Christ’s sacrifice is an accomplished historical fact. It need not be repeated because His purpose was fulfilled. He gained His people’s redemption, the cancellation of their sin, their holiness and their perfection in glory. It was a thoroughly perfect sacrifice: He has no need to go through it again.
The Catholic Church affirms that Jesus offered one sacrifice once for all. We cannot but be disappointed to discover that Rome’s doctrine of the Mass contradicts this blessed truth. You may retort: “Why do you say this? The Mass is the remembrance of the Lord and a proclamation of His death.” If it were so, we would find no difficulty whatsoever, but the official teaching of the Catholic Church goes far beyond this. The Catechism teaches: “As sacrifice, the Eucharist is also offered in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead.” Not only so, but the Catholic Church insists that the Mass is the same sacrifice of Christ on the cross: “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice... In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered Himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner.”
How can today’s Mass be the same sacrifice that occurred two millennia ago? If they are the same, where are the cross, the crown of thorns, the nails, the suffering, the shedding of blood and the death of Christ? We all know that is impossible for Christ to die again: “I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.” Now since He cannot shed His blood or die once more, what is the value of such an “unbloody” sacrifice in the light of Scripture’s affirmation that “without shedding of blood there is no remission”?
Yet the Catholic Church insists that “the Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross” and that Christ instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice “in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again.”
Since they could not take away sins, the sacrifices of the Old Testament were offered repeatedly year after year and even day after day. Not so in the New Testament. “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many.” For as long as the Catholic Church insists on the necessity of renewing and perpetuating the sacrifice of Christ, she is doing nothing less than bringing Christ’s offering of Himself to the level of animal sacrifices of the Old Testament.
Continuing or Finished?
What is the truth? Is Jesus still offering the same sacrifice daily on the Catholic altars? Scripture answers: “Every priest (in the Old Testament) stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” Christ’s uniqueness consists in not having to continue offering the same sacrifice. He completed His mission successfully because His sacrifice is effective in every way. Neither is He a victim on earthly altars, but is exalted and glorified in heaven. He “sat down” because His sacrificial work is complete and finished.
The Holy Spirit also affirms Christ’s perfect sacrifice. Referring to the partakers of New Covenant blessings, He says, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” The author’s reasonable conclusion is pointedly powerful: “Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin.” Since all believers’ sins are wiped away, what need remains for the sacrifice of the Mass?
Christ Himself commented on His own redeeming work. Should it continue to be offered throughout time? While still hanging on the cross, Christ uttered a triumphal cry: “It is finished!” The debt is settled; redemption accomplished; forgiveness is obtained. One offering, effective for all time and eternity!
To enter before God’s holy presence, you need a bloody sacrifice to cleanse you from sin. What will be your choice? Will it be the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass? Or will it be the perfect sacrifice offered on Calvary once for all?
Our Lord Jesus is true God and true Man. Just before ascending into heaven, the Lord promised His disciples: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He is able to keep such a promise because He is divine and therefore everywhere present. Christ is spiritually present with His people, but He is absent physically. Jesus told His disciples: “For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always.” The Lord Jesus is now in heaven. He promises the Church, “Surely I am coming quickly,” and His bride eagerly replies, “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”
But before departing He left His disciples a memorial feast. “The Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’”
Just like in apostolic times, evangelical Christians today celebrate the Lord’s Supper with joy and thanksgiving (“Eucharist” comes from a Greek word which means thanksgiving). We share the bread to remember how Christ loved us and gave His body as a sacrifice for us. Similarly we drink of the fruit of the vine in commemoration of the blood shed on Calvary for our justification and our peace with God. We are exhorted to examine ourselves properly before partaking of the holy elements. “Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” - in the same way that if a nation’s flag is burned it signifies contempt and disdain for the nation it symbolizes.
Throughout church history several interpretations of the Lord’s Supper have vied for acceptance. Some Church Fathers, such as Cyril of Jerusalem and Ambrose, interpreted the words of Jesus, “This is My body... this is My blood” rather literally, but many others continued to propose a symbolical and spiritual significance. Eusebius and Augustine of Hippo were among those who expounded the words spiritually, though their language was never trivial or frivolous when they spoke of this holy ordinance.
In the ninth century Paschasius Radbertus strove with might and main to see the literal interpretation prevail. He was opposed principally by Ratramnus, a contemporary monk at the monastery of Corbie. It was only in the Lateran Council (1215) that the literal interpretation was declared as official dogma of the Catholic Church. Doctor Duns Scotus admits that this doctrine was not an article of faith before the thirteenth century.
The Catholic Church teaches: “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.’” “By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.” “Transubstantiation” means a change in substance. Hence the bread does not remain bread and the wine does not remain wine; they become the body and blood of Christ respectively, even though in appearance they still look and taste like bread and wine. I invite you to compare this Catholic dogma with the Bible’s teaching.
The Bread and Fruit of the Vine
In ordinary speech, as well as in Scripture, the words “this is” could be used either in a plain literal sense or in a figurative sense (i.e. “this represents”). By looking at the context it is usually not difficult to determine the intended meaning.
I can introduce you to an elderly man and say, “This is my father.” But if I show you a photograph, and repeat the same words, “This is my father,” now you will not take my words literally. In this case “this is” means “this represents” my father because the photo is his likeness, not my father in person. Similarly, when Jesus uttered the words of institution, “This is My body,” He was physically present with His disciples. It was only natural for the disciples to take His words figuratively – the bread represents the body which they could still touch with their hands and see with their eyes. Christ gave the disciples a symbol because He was about to leave them.
Perhaps an illustration from Scripture will be fitting. It is told how three brave men once risked their lives and passed through the Philistines’ armies to bring David some water from a well. Seeing the water, the king responded: “Is this not the blood of the men who went in jeopardy of their lives?” He called the water in the vessel “blood,” not because it was transubstantiated, but simply because it represented the danger to the lives of those three men who brought it.
Furthermore, though Christ spoke about “My blood,” He made it unmistakably clear that the wine still remained wine. “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom.” After speaking about the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the apostle Paul explains its import, and affirms that the bread remains bread: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes.” The bread remains bread; the wine remains wine.
In Remembrance of Me
If transubstantiation is true, the consecrated host should be worshipped. But Jesus simply said: “Take, eat... drink from it, all of you.” Nowhere are we instructed to bow down on our knees and adore the host. In apostolic times, Christians used to meet and break bread together, not worship the bread. The Catholic Church goes beyond Scripture and encourages the worship of the sacrament. When her members adore the Eucharist, in reality they are worshipping bread. That is idolatry.
Besides all this, Catholic doctrine disregards the biblical truth about the humanity of Christ. Jesus arose from the grave with a real glorified body. The disciples trembled and feared when He met them after His resurrection for they thought that they saw a phantasm, but He reassured them: “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” The question naturally arises: How can Christ be a real human being, with a fleshly body, and yet be in thousands of places at the same time? Jesus’ human body must be either in heaven or on earth, and since we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that “He ascended into heaven, He is seated at the right hand of the Father, and He will come again to judge the living and the dead”, it is inconsistent to believe in His bodily presence on earth.
Finally, in insisting upon a real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Catholic tradition goes well beyond Christ’s intention. He simply said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” In the Lord’s Supper, Christians remember Him because He is physically absent, and they continue to do so until He comes again. The memorial celebration implies our eager expectation that someday in the future we will be united with our Saviour.
Jesus, our Priest
Do we still need the priest’s ministry as the people of God had during the Old Testament? Without hesitation we must answer, “Yes, we do.” We say so because we cannot approach God’s majestic presence with our sin’s defilement. We need a priest who is competent to intercede for us and bring us to God.
The Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament has been laid aside. Actually there has been a change in the priesthood. Who then is our priest today? The epistle to the Hebrews is replete with references to Jesus Christ as our High Priest. We are exhorted to “consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus.” Further on, “seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.”
Our High Priest has offered one perfect sacrifice on the cross. God the Father accepted His offering and, to make His approval evident, raised Him back to life the third day. After forty days, the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven where He is glorified by the Father and the hosts of heaven.
There the Lord Jesus, our priest, intercedes for His people before the Father. “Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” Christ represents His people and intercedes for them on the basis of the infinite merits of His sacrifice. “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” All those who sincerely trust Him have the privilege to enter boldly and reverently into God’s presence. “Having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” At Christ’s death the veil of the temple was torn apart from top to bottom, a token that through Christ we may now enter the Holy of Holies, in the very presence of God.
The Word of God invites us to draw near to the Father through His Son, whom He has constituted as our Mediator and Priest. Is Christ sufficient or do we need other priests just as Israel had their Levitical priests?
In the Catholic religion, the clergy is sharply distinguished from the rest of the faithful, the laity. The common Catholic depends upon the ministry of the priests to offer the sacrifice of the Mass on their behalf and to receive absolution from their hands. The Catechism teaches that Christ “instituted the Eucharist as the memorial of His death and Resurrection, and commanded His apostles to celebrate it until His return; ‘thereby He constituted them priests of the New Testament.’” The Catholic Church warns: “If anyone says that by the words ‘Do this as a memorial of me’ Christ did not establish the apostles as priests or that He did not order that they and other priests should offer his body and blood, anathema sit.”
It is hard to understand why the words, “Do this as a memorial of me,” must be interpreted as the appointment of the apostles to a new priesthood to continue offering sacrifice for sin. As we have already observed, Christ’s sacrifice occurred once for all. It is a historically unique event, and therefore it can neither be renewed nor perpetuated. Christ left us a memorial, not a sacrifice.
For the sake of argument, let us suppose that Christ appointed the apostles as priests, and these in turn consecrated others to continue offering sacrifice for sin. In that case, we would reasonably expect this fundamental doctrine to be evident in Scripture. In the New Testament the term “priest” (hiereus, and words from the same root) refer to the following: Jewish priests, a pagan priest, all Christians, Christ, and Melchizedek (an Old Testament king and priest prefiguring Christ). The church’s leaders are denominated by various terms: presbyters (elders), overseers (bishops) and shepherds (pastors). Curiously enough, they are never called priests. The presbyter or elder was generally a married man; his call consisted in teaching the Word and affording spiritual protection to the flock of God. It is never intimated that his principal duty is to offer a sacrifice for sin. Similarly the apostles were entrusted with the preaching of the gospel. We never find them re-presenting the sacrifice of Christ. Do read the New Testament for yourself and see how glaringly true this observation is.
Priests to God
In the New Testament no mention is made of a priesthood, distinct from the laity, with the purpose of offering sacrifice for sin. Not only so, the apostles Peter and John teach us that all Christians are priests. Addressing ordinary Christians, Peter says: “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
The people of God do not offer sacrifice to atone for sins. This type of sacrifice was offered once for all by Christ, their High Priest. Only He was qualified to do that. His people are made priests because they have been granted confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Christ, and have boldness to draw near the throne of grace. All of Christ’s disciples are “priests to His God and Father.” As priests, Christians are called to offer themselves, their goods, the praise of their lips, and their contributions to the poor, as proper and pleasing sacrifices. They are not expected, nor are they competent, to offer sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.
Christ, The Priest of the New Covenant
In the letter to the Hebrews, the author contrasts the Levitical priesthood with the unique priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Catholic priests are nothing better than Levitical priests, for they too are sinful, serve in earthly temples, daily offer the same sacrifices, and die. God did not abrogate the Levites in order to establish an order of priests just as weak. Rather, the Old Testament priesthood was laid aside and discontinued because a better, effective and enduring priesthood was established: that of Christ. He lives forever; He is perfect, and has entered into heaven itself on behalf of His people on the infinite merits of His sacrifice on Calvary.
Through whom then will you approach God? Through a mortal, sinful priest, appointed by men, who repeatedly offers the same sacrifice in a building of stone? Or through the priest, who lives forever, chosen by the Father, who offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice once for all, and who is now interceding for His own in heaven?
The Word of God presents us with Jesus Christ, the unique and competent High Priest. There is no other. “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”