Every Sunday, Christians around the world gather together to celebrate and spiritually absorb the sacrifice that Christ made in the gospel, in his incarnation and crucifixion. We tear bread and pour wine into cups as a sacred ritual of remembrance and receiving of Christ’s broken body and spilled blood, the elements of the sacrifice which impart his indestructible life to us. We gather and remember so that we may worship the God who so loved, that he gave. In our Christian worship, we imitate Christ’s great sacrifice and offer ourselves back to God.
Before Christ, the purpose of the old covenant sacrificial system was twofold. The dead animals were given to atone as well as to worship. The different types of sacrifices had different names and different rules. Burnt offerings and sin offerings saved the sacrificer’s life on the principle of substitution, and cleansed the person’s moral conscience, while thanksgiving and freewill offerings were just that: optional expressions of gratitude and love to God.
Once, in his old age, David sought to build an altar to God and sacrifice animals on it, using another man’s nearby property to do so. The man offered David the use of his land, animals, and materials for free. By this point in his life, however, David understood, better than most of us, the stuff of which the worship of God consists. He responded, “No, but I will buy it from you at a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24).
The entire Mosaic religious system was principled on sacrifice. But then, so is religion everywhere. Deep in human nature exists an urging to sacrifice to God. Monks flagellating, Brahmans fasting, pagans cutting, Jews and Muslims slaughtering livestock. Religion tends to focus and codify this urging, but it goes deeper than religious codes. It’s more universal.
The dualistic urge to atone–to cover our shame and make good on our broken promises–and worshipfully love something greater than ourselves through sacrifice drives modern people along an unending pursuit of achievement and conformity (which gets billed as nonconforming originality, of course). Even without a demanding deity in the equation, we have created an urbanized version of law-keeping to what we imagine to be The Ultimate, accompanied by the required sacrifice of our actual, uninformed desires. Corporate ladder climbers, hipsters, gangsters, junior highers, moms. Everybody does it.
Now, back to Jesus. He gave up the riches of divinity for the poverty of humanity. He gave up his body to be smashed and disfigured by human cruelty. He gave up his self to be oppressed by the full load of human guilt and shame and to be ignited and consumed by the divine curse. In short, Jesus Christ made The Great Sacrifice to God. As with the old covenant animals, his death was both atoning and worshipful.
And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:2
There it is. Christ’s death was a “fragrant offering” (worship) and it was “for us” (atonement). He worshiped his Father by obeying his will to the point of death, and he atoned for the sins of his people by suffering the consequence of their evil in their place and by offering a sacrifice of infinite positive worth to God on their behalf.
We celebrate Jesus’ death today because it canceled, once for all time, the need for us to sacrifice for atonement’s sake. The blood of Christ washes away all sin, and it is finished. We add nothing more to obtain forgiveness and vindication: not livestock corpses, not self-denial or self-harm, not the performance of good deeds, not conformity to a supposed standard of success. Our deep longing for absolution is at last profoundly satisfied. It’s done. Jesus did it for us.
The story about David remains, as does the worshipful aspect of the crucifixion. The other side of our drive to sacrifice, we find, is valid in Christ. Not to atone, but to worship. Worship to the God who so loved that he gave, it turns out, also looks like giving.
- It is the sacrifice of our pride and self-justification, and the offering up of our broken hearts (Psalm 51:17).
- It is the sacrifice of our money and possessions, given to spread God’s gospel among humanity (Philippians 4:18).
- It is the sacrifice of our self-absorption and boasting, exchanged for talk of God and verbal praise of him (Hebrews 13:15).
- It is the sacrifice of our time and energy spent in self-service, exchanged for the service of other human beings (Hebrews 13:16).
Ultimately we discover that our worship’s substance is the sacrifice of our selves.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Romans 12:1
David was right. There is no worship without sacrifice. The remarkable thing is that we never give to God something we didn’t firstly receive as a gift from him (1 Corinthians 4:7). We have nothing of our own to offer. Truthfully, all we ever bring to God is our need.
Yet he asks us to give–to give ourselves–anyway. It fulfills our deep urge to worship, and to do so by giving and sacrificing. It is the definition of love.
At the end of it all, we find that nothing is so truly ours as when we have given it completely to God.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” -Jim Elliot, 20th century Christian martyr
“I never made a sacrifice.” -Hudson Taylor, 19th century missionary to China