Chapter 5: ‘Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression?’
(Micah 6:7, NKJ)
(A commentary on Micah 6:7, Baal worship, child sacrifice, propitiation and the atonement)
What an extraordinary question! ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?‘ (Micah 6:6-7). Even though it is rhetorical, Micah places in the modern mind a question of incredible absurdity. Who, in his right mind, could ever contemplate sacrificing his own child with the idea that this might in some way be pleasing to God as an atonement for sin? What kind of god would one need to imagine to ever countenance such an appalling abomination in order to be appeased for the sins of the soul? Yet, within the historical context of Micah, such a belief was held by many.
Child sacrifice was a religious practice amongst the Phoenicians and Canaanite tribes—and, eventually, was a form of worship practised amongst the Israelites. The question Micah asked was not just a speculative, hypothetical, abstract wonderment; it was a question of real and contemporary relevance that raised prevailing issues of belief held by many who had forsaken true worship. Revealed in this verse of Scripture is a belief, commonly held in that period, that one could amend for sins through the sacrifice of an innocent child. It was thought that by giving up one’s own child in this way one could appease God for sins of the soul and find divine favour. The idea, therefore, is that the penalty for sins could be paid for through the sacrifice of an innocent child—whose substitutionary death was thought sufficient to assuage God’s wrath and satisfy His penal justice and offended honour. The child had to be of an age that was believed to be without sin—in order to pay for the sins of others. A firstborn child was preferred because the firstborn was regarded more highly and was, in consequence, considered a greater offering.
However, early in Israel’s history, Yahweh had commanded this whole notion to be utterly rejected as an abomination: ‘There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through the fire,… all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you’ (Deut.18:10-12, NKJ). Remarkably, in spite of God’s warnings, Israel and Judah fell prey to these same corrupt practices. In the time of Jeremiah (active c.626 – 585 B.C.), a ‘tophet’—a place of child sacrifice and burial—had been set up in the Valley of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem. The Lord pronounced through the prophet:
‘… “I will bring such a catastrophe on this place … because they have forsaken Me and made this an alien place, because they have burned incense in it to other gods whom neither they, their fathers, nor the kings of Judah have known, and have filled this place with the blood of the innocents. They have also built the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or speak, nor did it come into mind; therefore behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “that this place shall no more be called Tophet or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter”’ (Jer.19:3-6, NKJ; cf. Jer.7:30-32).
It was as a result of not repenting from following the worship of the Canaanites that the nations of Israel and Judah suffered God’s wrath and were destroyed. Such worship is an abomination.
Today, we can look back upon these periods of apostasy in Israel’s history and shake the head in condemnation. The thought of slaying an innocent child to pay for one’s sins is anathema. So, how much more the concept that the Law of God legalizes and accepts the substitution of God’s Son for punishment in the place of the guilty? Would God do that which He regards as an abomination for others to do? Would God do that which is not right and punish His own innocent Child for our transgressions—for the sins of the soul? It is written: ‘It is not good to punish an innocent man’ (Prov.17:26, NIV). Also: ‘Do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty’ (Ex.23:7, NIV). ‘Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the LORD detests them both’ (Prov.17v15, NIV). Yet, this is just the error taught by many who hold to satisfaction and penal substitution theories of atonement. It is envisaged that God the Father, in order to save us from the penalty of our sins, had to satisfy His own law and honour by punishing the Holy One with suffering and death in our place.
Nevertheless, it is a reinstitution of the Canaanite doctrine to teach that an innocent Child can, through substitutionary sacrifice, pay the penalty for man’s transgressions and sins of the soul.
Let us now look more closely at the historical background:
Micah prophesied during times of national apostasy and upheaval ‘in the days of Jotham (750-732 B.C.), Ahaz (c.735-715 B.C.) and Hezekiah (c.715-686 B.C.), kings of Judah’ (Mic.1:1). He foretold the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital, Samaria, which fell in 722 B.C. after a three year siege. His prophetic ministry, delivered before the reforms that took place under Hezekiah, warned of severe judgement to come in consequence of following the utterly depraved and idolatrous practises of surrounding nations.
Following the reign of King David, the drift into apostasy might be said to have begun with King Solomon (c.970 -930 B.C.), who built high places for the worship of Ashtoreth, Molech and Chemosh to satisfy his foreign wives—one high place being just east of Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:5, 33). When Solomon’s kingdom divided (c930), Jeroboam 1, chosen leader of the Northern Kingdom, set up idol worship for Yahweh at Bethel and Dan in an attempt to break the allegiance that worshippers of Yahweh had with Jerusalem. Gradually, Israel and, at a later time, Judah assimilated more and more ideas and elements of pagan worship into a syncretic belief system of which the worship of Yahweh was just one expression. King Omri of Israel, who founded the strongly fortified city of Samaria, hastened Israel’s slide into idolatry (1 Kings 16:25-26; Micah 6:16). Ahab, his son, married Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, priest-king of Tyre and Sidon, and established temples for the Phoenician worship of Baal and Asherah (1 Kings 16:32-33). In Judah, the Sidonian Baal worship was introduced through Queen Athaliah, a daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, who became the sole monarch from 841 to 835 B.C. as a result of royal marriage, murder and intrigue (2 Kings 8:18; 2 Chron.22:2, 24:7).
In spite of several attempts at reformation under various monarchs—notably Hezekiah and Josiah of Judah, and Jehu of Israel—the influence of the Canaanite and Phoenician religion was not eradicated. There are numerous biblical references to the sway that Baal worship had over the people of the two kingdoms—right up to the time of their being taken away into captivity.
Of Israel, it is written:
‘They forsook all the commands of the LORD their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshipped Baal. They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They practised divination and sorcery and sold themselves to do evil … So the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them from His presence’ (2 Kings 17:16-17).
Isaiah described a practice of setting up tophets in the valleys and ravines:
‘You burn with lust among the oaks and under every spreading tree; you sacrifice your children in the ravines and under the overhanging crags’ (Isa.57:5, NIV).
This brings to mind the archaeological discoveries at the Phoenician tophet at Salambo, Carthage, Tunisia, where in 1921 over 6,000 burial urns were found containing the remains of cremated infants. The tophet occupies a large depression, close to the sea, and was used for sacrifice in the worship of Baal Hammon and the goddess Tanit for hundreds of years. It was a practice attested to in the writings of Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Sicus and Plutarch. There should be no doubt about the veracity of the Bible in its description of this form of worship practised in Israel.
Jeremiah testified of Judah:
‘They have set their abominations in the house which is called My name, to pollute it. they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire ..’ (Jer.7:30-31, NKJ).
The prophet Ezekiel, active from c.593 to 571 B.C., also declared the depravity into which Judah had fallen:
‘You took your sons and your daughters, whom you bore to Me, and these you sacrificed to them [the idols] to be devoured. Were your acts of harlotry a small matter, that you have slain My children and offered them up to them to pass through the fire’ (Ezek.16:20-21, NKJ).
Also (as mentioned by Jeremiah), the Jerusalem temple was once again desecrated with such worship:
‘Then declare to them their abominations. For they committed adultery and blood is on their hands. They have committed adultery with their idols, and even sacrificed their sons whom they bore to Me, passing them through the fire, to devour them. Moreover they have done this to Me: They have defiled My sanctuary on the same day and profaned My Sabbaths. For after they had slain their children for their idols, on the same day they came into My sanctuary to defile it; and indeed thus have they done in the midst of My house’ (Ezek.23:36-39, NKJ).
Thus, elements of Baal worship became incorporated into the worship of Yahweh.
Of Judah’s kings, Ahaz and Manasseh receive special mention. Ahaz, it is recorded, sacrificed his son in the fire (2 Kings 16:3-4) as did Manasseh (2 Kings 21:6). Both encouraged idolatry and Baal worship, sowing seeds of apostasy in the minds of the people, but Manasseh sank to a new low. It is written of him: ‘Manasseh led them astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites. … He has done more evil than the Amorites who preceded him and has led Judah into sin with his idols’ (2 Kings 21:9-11). The damage had been done. Even the iconoclastic reforms of the just king Josiah were insufficient to stem the tide of the Canaanite religion beyond the duration of his own reign. Twenty-three years later, Jerusalem fell to the armies of Babylon, just as God’s prophets foretold.
‘The sin of the Amorites’
The Israelites were to perform God’s judgement in driving out the Canaanites (referred to in Gen.15:16 as ‘Amorites’) at a time when the sins of this depraved and corrupt people had reached their ‘full measure’. Under Joshua, the Israelite soldiers were told to show no mercy in casting out all of the inhabitants of the land that God had given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut.7:1-4). According to Genesis chapter 10, the tribes occupying the promised land were descended from Noah through Ham and Ham’s son Canaan. These included the Sidonians, Hitites, Jebusites and Amorites—collectively called the Canaanites. Israel’s problems stemmed from the fact that many of the Canaanites were allowed to continue in the territory and to practise their religion following the initial invasion. Compromise was preferred to war and conquest (Judges 1:21-36), but this became a snare to Israel, just as foretold (Judges 2:1-3).
The ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, translates ‘Canaanite’ as ‘Phoenician’ and ‘Canaan’ as ‘the land of the Phoenicians’ (cf. Ex. 16:35; Josh.5:12). The coastal Phoenicians became renowned traders and seafarers and established colonies all around the Mediterranean. For a thousand years, however, the Amorites were the dominant people in the territory of Canaan and Syria and this land was sometimes referred to by the Akkadians and Babylonians as the land of the Amorites. It was they who established the first Babylonian empire, making Babylon the capital. King Hammurabi of Babylon, c.1790 to 1750 B.C., famous for his code of laws, was himself of the Amorite dynasty that flourished up to about 1600 B.C.
In Canaan, Amorite kings were still ruling at the time of the invasion of the Israelites under Joshua (see Joshua 10:5). The fact that the Amorite religion was not completely removed, however, was Israel’s undoing. Time and again, Israelites were drawn away from the worship of Yahweh to worship the gods of Canaan. Judges 2:11-13: ‘Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. … they … served Baal and the Ashtoreths.’ (See also: Judges 3:6-7, 12; 4:1; 6:1, etc..) In Judges 6:10 we read: ‘I am the LORD your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live. But you have not listened to me’ (NIV). Nevertheless, whenever the Israelites cried out in repentance, the Lord sent ‘judges’ as deliverers—the last judge being the prophet Samuel. Sadly, the failure of the people to obey the Lord in driving out the worship of Baal caused them repeated suffering and misery. As a nation: as they walked after other gods, they walked away from God’s protection.
This is a warning for spiritual Israel. We must not succumb to immorality or accept any doctrine that is rooted in Baalism: for if we do so, we also will remove ourselves from God’s shield of protection. Paul spoke of this: ‘Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell (not given as a precise figure) …’ (1 Cor.10:9). This refers to the occasion described in Numbers 25:1-9, when men of Israel were enticed by Midianite women to engage in the sexual fertility rites of Baal at a high place called Baal Peor. Baalam, a prophet of Baal hired by the Midianite king Balak to curse Israel, found that every time he tried to curse, his cursing turned into a blessing. He had no power to curse Israel while they remained under God’s protection. However, he cunningly advised Balak to entice the Israelites into bringing a curse upon themselves by tempting the men to indulge in sexual and spiritual fornication with Baal’s sacred prostitutes—thereby inciting Israel to turn away from their Protector: ‘They [the Midianite women] were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people’ (Num.31:15-16, NIV). Outside of God’s protection, the devil can attack.
Archaeologists have discovered many cuneiform cylinder seals of the Assyrian and Babylonish period depicting human sacrifice—although the exact interpretation may be debated. Some also involve cuneiform legal documents containing penalty formulas: ‘.. he will burn his oldest son to Sin, .. he will burn his oldest daughter to Belit-Seri’ (C. H. W. Johns, Assyrian Deeds and Documents, Cambridge, 1898). ‘… his oldest son he will burn in the sanctuary of the god, Adad’ (Textes Cuneiformes, Vol. IX: Contrats et Letters, edited by G. Contenau, Paris, 1926). ‘… his oldest daughter with ten imer of good spices he will burn to Belit-Seri’ (C. H. W. Johns, Assyrian Deeds and Documents , Cambridge, 1898). These are thought to date from the 7th century B.C.. The legal penalty for the breaking of these contracts was the sacrifice of a firstborn child to one of the pantheon of gods. Through this means, the guilty person paid the penalty and was thought to have atoned for his offence.
One of the texts discovered at the site of the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit in 1978 describes the offering of a human sacrifice with the view to gaining divine favour. The text reads: ‘O Baal, drive away the force from our gates, the aggressor from our walls … A firstborn, Baal, we shall sacrifice—a child we shall fulfill’ (Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov., 1986: Ugarit inscription). This corroborates the biblical account of King Mesha of Moab who is recorded as having sacrificed his firstborn child on the wall of his city at a time when the Israelites had his city under siege: ‘Then he took his eldest son who would have reigned in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering upon the wall’ (2 Kings 3, NKJ). On seeing this, the Israelites withdrew.
The appellation ‘Baal’, meaning ‘Lord’ or ‘Master’, was a term implying ownership and oversight. It was a title that appeared in many local place names, eg: Baal Hermon, Baal Peor, Baal Meon, Baal Tamar, Baal Perazim, Baal Hazor, Baal Zephon, etc., suggesting either the title of territorial gods to whom local inhabitants gave allegiance or the location of a high place or temple dedicated to one of the most powerful gods of the Canaanite pantheon. He was often depicted holding a lightning bolt and is sometimes referred to in inscriptions as ‘Baal Hadad’: the god of rain and storm—hence the male god of fertility, thought to provide growth, as the rain waters the earth. Other titles, such as ‘Baal Shamem’ (meaning ‘Lord of Heaven’) were also used. Baal was associated with the goddesses: ‘Ashera’ (1 Kings 18:19); ‘Ashtoreth’ (Judges 10:6), called also ‘Astarte’: ‘the Queen of Heaven’ (Jer.7:18) and known to the Babylonians as ‘Ishtar’; and Anath (considered Baal’s sister, cf. Ugarit mythology), who was also worshipped in Egypt by the same name. Furthermore, that the god Baal was also known to the Egyptians is verified by the place name: ‘Baal Zephon’, which was located near to Israel’s crossing of the sea (Ex.14:2). Both Baal and Astarte were venerated by the Egyptians at Thebes and Memphis (Encyc. Brit., 1911).
Historians have long recognized that the gods of the ancient Near East and Babylon had their counterparts in the gods of other ancient cultures, including those of Egypt, Greece and Rome—but by other names. Philo of Byblos (c.100 A.D.) likened Baal Shamen to the Greek god Zeus – ‘Jupiter’ to the Romans (Eusebius of Caesarea: Preparatio Evangelica, Book 1, Ch.10; trans. E. H. Gifford; Typographio Academico, 1903). In North Africa, temples to the Roman God Saturn (‘Kronos’ to the Greeks) and Juno replaced temples to Baal and Tanit (Saturn, in mythology, was said to have eaten his own children). The myths, although varying from place to place and from nation to nation, had certain aspects in common: the gods had their consorts; gods and goddesses ruled over the elements; various nature gods ‘died’ and ‘returned’ with the seasons; the worship employed sexual fertility rites; priests and priestesses claimed to prophesy and commune with the spirits of the idols they served and the worshippers followed sacrificial systems to propitiate and gain divine favour. The Canaanites and Babylonians were not the only ones to use temple prostitutes—both male and female. It was a common practice. At Corinth, the Greek historian Strabo (c. 7 BC) reported that more than a 1000 ‘sacred’ prostitutes had served the temple of Aphrodite – “Venus” (Strabo: Geography, Book 8, ch.6, 20; trans. H. C. Hamilton and W. Falconer; (Vol.2, p.61) Henry G. Bohn, London, 1856). – This great city port of classical Greece became so notorious that its name was coined for sexual license: ’to corinthianize’ meant to practise sexual prostitution and debauchery.
In the light of this, what made this form of religion so appealing and popular in the ancient world?
It is obvious that these cult practises engaged the sensual, self-centred and self-gratifying desires of sinful man. Material wants and passions, it was thought, could be satisfied by indulging in the rites of the gods and their priestly servants. In the religion of the Amorites, it was considered lawful even to sacrifice children, as we have studied, for the sake of self-interest.
All these pagan religions were unified by a common spirit. The Bible makes it clear what that spirit was. It is written: ‘They worshipped their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons. They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood. They defiled themselves by what they did; by their deeds they prostituted themselves’ (Ps.106:36-38, NIV).
The common undercurrent at work in all these ancient religions was demonic. It is the same spirit at work today—endeavouring to rule hearts and minds by every cunning appeal to all our bodily desires and fears. The spirits of Satan are deceptive and unrelenting in their opposition to the Kingdom of God. They battle against the work of God’s Spirit on Earth, seeking to deceive, tempt, pull down and destroy God’s people. Even so, within God’s shield of protection, there is nothing to fear. Rather, it is the demonic hosts who are afraid: ‘The devils also believe, and tremble,’ wrote the Apostle James (James 2:19, KJV).
(Note on abortion: The sin of the Amorites involved the killing of the innocents for wholly selfish motives, without any consideration for the sanctity of life. Today, millions of tiny unwanted human foetuses die each year through abortion. A report released in 1999 (ref. bibliography) revealed that there were then about 26 million legal abortions, and an estimated 20 million illegal abortions annually, worldwide. In the developed countries, of the 28 million pregnancies occurring every year, it is estimated 36% (more than one in three) end by induced termination. In Eastern Europe, the percentage rose to 57% (that is more than one in two). Worldwide, the percentage of pregnancies ending in abortion was reported at 22% (approximately one in five). Globally, by these figures, this means that around 46 million unborn human beings per year meet a premature death at the hands of an abortionist. It seems that the proverb: ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ is particularly applicable where these deaths are concerned. The fact remains that a decision must be taken to terminate a human life for an abortion to be induced. In this world, you either serve God, or the devil. There is no sitting on the fence. The abortion clinics are not serving God.
These function like modern temples of Baal, serving only the god of this world and proliferating as a result of promiscuity. It can be a serious matter to participate in an abortion and doing so can often cause terrible mental anguish. In Christ, however, where there is guilt, there is forgiveness. In Christ, there is release. God is ready to forgive the truly repentant. Jesus said: ‘Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest …’ (Mat.11:28, NKJ).
Of course, there are exceptions – and in cases of rape and in cases where there are severe life-threatening medical conditions, abortions are understandable. Human traits can be passed on through the genes. But, such cases amount to a tiny minority. Even so, when considering abortion, we should also bear in mind the children who amazingly survive attempts to terminate. These amazing survivors of abortion procedures are able to testify for themselves of their right to life – unlike the many who can’t. – A testimony of an abortion survivor: Gianna Jessen, Part 1 and Part 2)
Although God suffered an act of injustice against His innocent Son, He did so for just reasons—that His Son’s offering of Himself through death should be accepted for the salvation of all who repent in faith—as a covering for sins. Nevertheless, that God suffers and permits acts of injustice, does not mean that what He permits He also justifies. God is willing to suffer for our ultimate good (as with the crucifixion), but He cannot be held guilty for the acts of sin that He allows or even foreknows. That Jesus would need to suffer an unjust death for the sake of mankind was known from the beginning of creation (Rev.13:8, [Jesus was] ‘slain from the creation of the world’); however, the certainty of the cross did not make it just. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read: ‘In His humiliation, He was deprived of justice’ (Acts 8:33).
Innocents are being deprived of the right to life—as in the time of the Amorite religion—and millions of people are being led to believe that this is a perfectly acceptable practice. The world is under the sway of Satanic influences today, just as in days of old: ‘The whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one’ (1 John 4:19).
It is the devil’s plan to seduce the nations and God’s people through all manner of temptations. The internet is playing a key role in this process. A reported 260 million web pages can be classified as ‘pornography’ according to one news release in 2003. It has become a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. Prostitution is rife in every city of the world. Most girls engage in the sex trade mainly for money. Many, also, are forced or coerced into prostitution as victims of sex traffic. Even so, whether the women, girls and boys are willing or unwilling victims of prostitution—in all its forms—the fact is that they and those they seduce are victims of evil, ensnared by evil. The devil is very active: it is estimated that approximately 25% of search engine requests are for pornography. This amounts to about 68 million requests daily (2003 figures). The prostitutes and pornographers are serving the prince of this world not unlike the sacred prostitutes of long ago. It would seem this ‘present evil age’ (Gal.1:4) has surpassed the sin of the Amorites many times over. Were it not for God’s grace and mercy, Judgement Daywould be here already. One wonders just how much time we have left.
Today, it needs to be made known that Jesus gave Himself as the pure and perfect sacrifice to save all who truly repent and believe—not as a penal substitute, but as the Righteous Servant—that the righteousness of His offering might be accounted as a covering for all who are repenting and turning to Him in faith.
That the nations of this modern world will face the wrath of God is certain, but the good news of Jesus Christ must first be preached as a witness to all (Mat.24:14).
‘Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love’
‘…and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’ A later writer identifies ‘Mount Moriah’ with the Temple Mount: ‘Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD appeared to his father David’ (2 Chron.3:1). The command was a test of Abraham’s faith and obedience; yet this episode in Abraham’s life, written for our benefit, has much to reveal about the crucifixion of Jesus.
Abraham was not recorded as having made any spoken reply; however, the Scriptures clearly indicate what Abraham thought. God had previously promised: ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called’ (Gen.21:12). Abraham had been told, even before Isaac had been conceived, ‘Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him’ (Gen.17:19). Isaac’s name was, by interpretation: ‘Laughter’. His birth had been a miraculous source of celebration and joyous laughter—even though Sarah had at first laughed in disbelief upon overhearing God’s announcement that she would bear a child in old age (Gen.18:11-14). It was inconceivable to Abraham, therefore, that God would now break His promise and cause sorrow. He knew that God had the power to resurrect.
It is sometimes said that this passage in Genesis chapter 22 has overtones of the practice of human sacrifice that was prevalent in the religion of the Canaanites and Amorites. That Abraham knew of this practice is certain. What is also certain is that Abraham knew the true God—the God of Noah—and had rejected the gods of his father Terah (Joshua 24:2). Those sacrificing to Baal did not expect to see their children brought back to life. Abraham, however, had no doubt that should he be required to carry out the command to sacrifice Isaac, God would restore his son back to life. We have the evidence of Scripture to confirm that this was Abraham’s belief.
He told the two servants who had accompanied him on the journey to Moriah—just as he was about to go forward to the place of offering with Isaac: ‘We will worship and then we will come back to you‘ (Gen.22:5). In the letter to the Hebrews, this is acknowledged: ‘By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead’ (Heb.11:17-19, NKJ). When Abraham lifted up the knife, Isaac was as good as dead, so it is written that Isaac was received back from the dead—in a figurative sense—when God intervened to prevent the killing (Heb.11:19, NKJ). The story has clear parallels to the crucifixion:
Firstly, we need to recognize that there is no suggestion that Abraham was offering up Isaac to pay any kind of penalty for sins. Abraham’s actions demonstrated his righteousness through faith. Isaac, also, as a young man, witnessed to his own faith and obedience by complying to do his father’s will and by putting up no resistance. Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice in like manner to Christ carrying the wood of the cross. Just as Jesus humbly submitted to do the will of His Father, so Isaac had submitted to Abraham. There is absolutely no suggestion of Isaac being offered up to God as a punishment for sin. Likewise, the sacrifice of Jesus was not the punishment of God. On the contrary, Jesus made a ‘fragrant offering and sacrifice’ of His life (Eph.5:2, NIV). An impure offering God does not accept.
The suffering ‘Righteous Servant’ (Isa.53:11) endured cruelty and death at the hands of mankind for the sake of making the perfect sacrifice of His life to God for us—that we who believe and repent should be accepted with Him. In this sense, His sacrifice may be said to have been substitutionary. He gave what we cannot give because of sin: a truly righteous life.
The wearing of the crown of thorns—the crowning symbol of His suffering—is echoed prophetically by the ram caught by its horns in a thicket (which could well have been a thorn bush, Gen.22:13). However, that an action is prophesied to occur does not mean that God justifies what will happen. Jesus foretold that Peter would deny Him three times—but this statement of foreknowledge did not justify Peter’s denial. Jesus foreknew that He would suffer incredible tortures, leading to death, but He willingly endured all—that His offering should be accepted for everyone who truly believes.
He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, …’
(1John 2:2, NKJ)
We need to offer our lives to God as living sacrifices in perfect faith and obedience—but of ourselves we cannot because of sin. We receive acceptance by the Father only when the offering that Jesus made on our behalf is accepted for us. Our lives need to be covered by the blood of the Lamb (symbolic of His life) if we are to be found acceptable to God. We cannot stand before the Almighty depending upon our own righteousness. God has provided—Jehovah Jireh—through the Lamb of God: ‘The LORD Our Righteousness’ (Jer.23:6, NIV). By allowing Jesus to die on the cross, the Father acted in goodness, love and righteousness for our sakes. ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16). The substitutionary sacrifice of Christ did not incur God’s wrath. He was not the embodiment of sin upon the cross, but the embodiment of righteousness. Jesus, through the Eternal Spirit, offered Himself unblemished to God for the sake of all who repent in true faith. His one sacrificial offering of Himself to God for us was perfect, fragrant and without corruption of any kind.
How are we to propitiate God—to gain God’s favour—when we have sins? It is only by offering up living faith in the propitiation that Christ made of His life, and—like Abraham—trusting in God’s Word and in His great provision. Sins are the cause of separation from God. The unspiritual condition of man can never be free of sin—no matter how hard one may try to follow the letter of the law. ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked’ (Jer.17:9, KJV). ‘The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh can never please God’ (Rom.8:7, KJV).
If we are saved from sins, it is not because of our love for God, but because of God’s love for us. As the apostle John put it: ‘In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10). Jesus offered the life that we cannot give. He is the One who came to rescue us from all unrighteousness: ‘ … who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father’ (Gal.1:4). Indeed, ‘God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us‘ (Rom.5:8). His one righteous sacrifice is sufficient for all to be a covering for sins. By His blood we are justified and saved from wrath: ‘… having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him’ (Rom.5:9). Figuratively, His blood—representing His sacrificial life—covers over and blots out all our sins, as we turn to God in faith. By His grace, we are saved, forgiven and accounted righteous. It is not because of good deeds: ‘… just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are they whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin”‘ (Rom.4:6-8). Paul wrote to the Ephesians, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves. It is the gift of God—not of works, so that no one can boast’ (Eph.2:8-9). We are saved by grace. Truly, no one can boast.
Jesus suffered the cross as One burdened with all the sins of humanity—the Righteous for the unrighteous. However, the burden of sin that He carried was not one juridically imposed; it was a natural experience and effect of the inherent love of a loving God. Indeed, if we feel burdened by the sins that are all around us in the world, how much more so is God, who sees all? - At the cross, Jesus became the focus of all man’s sins. Nevertheless, at His darkest hour, God’s love in Christ never shone more brightly. He said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34).
It can also be said that He asked forgiveness for His tormentors because they did not know what they were saying. The same is true today. Much is said about the cross and the reasons for Jesus dying as He did, and much is said in error. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Jesus continues to forgive the many who don’t really know what they are saying, when speaking of His death on the cross.
The Scriptures do not contradict. Jesus told Pilate: ‘Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin‘ (John 19:11). He was ‘deprived of justice’ (Acts 8:33), ‘but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously’ (1 Pet. 2:23). His forsakenness was not in Spirit, although He was allowed to be taken and crucified. The Father did not turn away. As the psalmist wrote: ‘For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from Him; but when He cried to Him, He heard’ (Psalm 22:24, NKJ). The Holy Spirit did not abandon Him, for ‘Christ …through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God’ (Heb.9:14). Jesus was received by the Father ‘without spot’. Only from a worldly point of view can one imagine Jesus as ‘sin’ upon the cross. The Holy Bible testifies that the opposite was true.
Forgiveness does not depend upon punishment. Justice is not simply a matter of applying punishment – especially when that punishment falls upon one who is innocent. One does not need to punish in order to forgive. To say that God punished the Innocent in the place of the guilty is to imply that He is unjust. However, it is very clear that God’s law does not permit the transference of sins and guilt from one to another (Ezek. 18:20). He was not made guilty for man’s sin. The Truth of God did not become the embodiment of sin and lies. Rather, what many say of God’s justice at the cross, the Bible clearly contradicts: ‘Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the LORD detests them both’ (Prov.17:15, NIV).
Our view of God, as Christians, is coloured by our understanding of the crucifixion. It matters profoundly to us personally and corporately that we come to a better understanding. It matters to the Gospel that we preach the justice of the resurrection and proclaim the righteousness of the One who died to save us from our sins.