Why did Christ die? A simple question, yes, but the answer is most profound. We might answer, as a Christian, “Christ died for me.” But exactly what does this mean? Did He die merely to appease God’s wrath against us? Did He die only as an example for us? What does the Atonement really mean? The understanding of this basic scriptural truth eludes many, but it is vital to the soul’s redemption and to our spiritual growth.To understand this doctrine we must go back to the Old Testament and its sacrificial offerings. The blood of animals, in itself, was never efficacious to cleanse from sin (Heb. 10:4). Rather, the blood symbolized the element of life offered for the life of the sinner. God always intended that the entire system of sacrificial offerings be of expiatory significance (Job 1:5; 42:3, 9; Lev. 17:2-11). The alienation of man from God through human sin made necessary a reconciliation, and the form of that reconciliation was ordained to be a cross — on which the ultimate sacrifice would be made.
The Jewish sacrificial system with its “covering” offerings (the Hebrew word for atonement, kaphir, means “covering”) made possible man’s approach to the presence of a holy God. The sprinkling of blood upon the mercy seat in the tabernacle (Lev. 16:15-16) and the sprinkling of the blood of the Passover lamb (Exod. 12:7) underscored the importance of substitutionary sacrifice under the Old Covenant made between Jehovah and Israel. In the New Testament, particularly in the Book of Hebrews, the significance of such sacrifices is revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is pictured as both officiating Priest and atoning Sacrifice (Heb. 9:11-15; 10:10-12).
The word “vicarious” comes from the Latin vicar, which literally means “in place of” or “a substitute.” Isaiah 53 is a classic passage on the doctrine of the vicarious atonement: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (vss. 4-6).
Isaiah repeatedly stresses the vicarious aspects of the messianic offering when he states, “For the transgression of my people he was stricken…he will bear their iniquities…he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:8, 11, 12). Certainly, the vicarious atonement of the Messiah of Israel forms one of the great pillars upon which rests the entire structure of the Christian religion. The Old Testament points like a massive arrow to the consummation of all sacrifices, an event of immeasurable importance and worth.
In the New Testament, John the Baptist declares, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). And our Savior Himself declares His flesh and blood to be the sin offering for the whole world (John 6:51). When coupled with Paul’s declaration that the church of God was “bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28), such statements give an incontrovertible answer to the question, “Why did Jesus die?”
A key Greek word pertinent to understanding the concept of substitutionary atonement — the idea that Christ died in our place — is the word anti. In speaking of His substitutionary sacrifice, Christ declared, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for [anti] many” (Matt. 20:28). At the Last Supper, during which Christ emphasized the vicarious nature of Calvary, He said, “This is my body given for [anti] you” (Luke 22:19).
Another key Greek word is huper. In contexts dealing with the substitutionary atonement, this word means “in place of.” We find this word used in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for [huperemon] us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We likewise read in 1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for [huper] the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
What Christ has done for us is wonderful indeed! Let us resolve to draw closer to Him who loves us and loosed us from our sins through His own blood — “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) — Jesus of Nazareth, “the Son of the Highest” (Luke 1:32).