When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead He was quite aware that He was risking His own life. He knew that a miracle so public, so easily tested, so striking, could not be overlooked, but must decisively separate between those who yielded to what was involved in the miracle, and those who hardened themselves against it. It is remarkable that none had the hardihood to deny the fact. Those who most determinedly proceeded against Jesus did so on the very ground that His miracles were becoming too numerous and too patent. They perceived that in this respect Jesus answered so perfectly to the popular conception of what the Messiah was to be, that it was quite likely He would win the multitude to belief in Him as the long-looked-for King of the Jews. But if there were any such popular enthusiasm aroused, and loudly declared, then the Romans would interfere, and, as they said, "come and take away both our place and nation." They felt themselves in a great difficulty, and looked upon Jesus as one of those fatal people who arise to thwart the schemes of statesmen, and spoil well-laid plans, and introduce disturbing elements into peaceful periods.
Caiaphas, astute and unscrupulous, takes a more practical view of things, and laughs at their helplessness. "Why!" he says, "do you not see that this Man, with His eclat and popular following, instead of endangering us and bringing suspicion on our loyalty to Rome, is the very person we can use to exhibit our fidelity to the Empire. Sacrifice Jesus, and by His execution you will not merely clear the nation of all suspicion of a desire to revolt and found a kingdom under Him, but you will show such a watchful zeal for the integrity of the Empire as will merit applause and confidence from the jealous power of Rome." Caiaphas is the type of the bold, hard politician, who fancies he sees more clearly than all others, because he does not perplex himself by what lies below the surface, nor suffer the claims of justice to interfere with his own advantage. He looks at everything from the point of view of his own idea and plan, and makes everything bend to that. He had no idea that in making Jesus a scapegoat he was tampering with the Divine purposes.
John, however, in looking back upon this council, sees that this bold, unflinching diplomatist, who supposed he was moving Jesus and the council and the Romans as so many pieces in his own game, was himself used as God's mouthpiece to predict the event which brought to a close his own and all other priesthood. In the strange irony of events he was unconsciously using his high-priestly office to lead forward that one Sacrifice which was for ever to take away sin, and so to make all further priestly office superfluous. Caiaphas saw and said that it was expedient that one man die for the nation; but, as in all prophetic utterance, so in these words, says John, a very much deeper sense lay than was revealed by their primary application. It is, says John, quite true that Christ's death would be the saving of a countless multitude, only it was not from the Roman legions that it would long save men, but from an even more formidable visitation. Caiaphas saw that the Romans were within a very little of terminating the ceaseless troubles which arose out of this Judaean province, by transporting the inhabitants and breaking up their nationality; and he supposed that by proclaiming Jesus as an aspirant to the throne and putting Him to death, he would cleanse the nation of all complicity in His disloyalty and stay the Roman sword. And John says, that in carrying out this idea of his, he unwittingly carried out the purpose of God that Jesus should die for that nation -- "and not for that nation only, but that also He should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad."
Now it must be owned that it is much easier to understand what Caiaphas meant than what John meant; much easier to see how fit Jesus was to be a national scapegoat than to understand how His death removes the sin of the world. There are, however, one or two points regarding the death of Christ which become clearer in the light of Caiaphas's idea.
First, the very characteristics of Christ which made Caiaphas think of Him as a possible scapegoat for the nation, are those which make it possible that His death should serve a still larger purpose. When the brilliant idea of propitiating the Roman government by sacrificing Jesus flashed into the mind of Caiaphas, he saw that Jesus was in every respect suited to this purpose. He was in the first place a person of sufficient importance. To have seized an unknown peasant, who never had, and never could have, much influence in Jewish society, would have been no proof of zeal in extinguishing rebellion. To crucify Peter or John or Lazarus, none of whom had made the most distant claim to kingship, would not serve Caiaphas's turn. But Jesus was the head of a party. In disposing of Him they disposed of His followers. The sheep must scatter, if the Shepherd were put out of the way.
Then, again, Jesus was innocent of everything but this. He was guilty of attaching men to Himself, but innocent of everything besides. This also fitted Him for Caiaphas's purpose, for the high priest recognised that it would not do to pick a common criminal out of the prisons and make a scapegoat of him. That had been a shallow fiction, which would not for a moment stay the impending Roman sword. Had the Russians wished to conciliate our Government and avert war, this could not have been effected by their selecting for execution some political exile in Siberia, but only by recalling and degrading such an outstanding person as General Komaroff. In every case where any one is to be used as a scapegoat these two qualities must meet -- he must be a really, not fictitiously, representative person, and he must be free from all other claims upon his life. It is not everyone who can become a scapegoat. The mere agreement between the parties, that such and such a person be a scapegoat, is only a hollow fiction which can deceive no one. There must be underlying qualities which constitute one person, and not another, representative and fit.
Now John does not expressly say that the deliverance Jesus was to effect for men generally was to be effected in a similar manner to that which Caiaphas had in view. He does not expressly say that Jesus was to become the scapegoat of the race: but impregnated as John's mind was with the sacrificial ideas in which he had been nurtured, the probability is that the words of Caiaphas suggested to him the idea that Jesus was to be the scapegoat of the race. And, certainly, if Jesus was the scapegoat on whom our sins were laid, and who carried them all away, He had these qualities which fitted Him for this work: He had a connection with us of an intimate kind, and He was stainlessly innocent.
This passage then compels us to ask in what sense Christ was our sacrifice.
With remarkable, because significant, unanimity the consciences of men very differently situated have prompted them to sacrifice. And the idea which all ancient nations, and especially the Hebrews, entertained regarding sacrifice is fairly well ascertained. Both the forms of their rites and their explicit statements are conclusive on this point, -- that in a certain class of sacrifices they looked on the victim as a substitute bearing the guilt of the offerer and receiving the punishment due to him. This seems, after all discussion, to be the most reasonable interpretation to put upon expiatory sacrifice. Both heathens and Jews teach that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins; that the life of the sinner is forfeited, and that in order to the sparing of his life, another life is rendered instead; and that as the life is in the blood, the blood must be poured out in sacrifice. Heathens were as punctilious as Hebrews in their scrutiny of the victims, to ascertain what animals were fit for sacrifice by the absence of all blemish. They used forms of deprecation as exactly expressing the doctrines of substitution and of atonement by vicarious punishment. In one significant, though repulsive, particular some of the heathen went farther than the Hebrews: occasionally, the sinner who sought cleansing from defilement was actually washed in the blood of the victim slain for him. By an elaborate contrivance the sinner sat under a stage of open woodwork on which the animal was sacrificed, and through which its blood poured upon him.
The idea expressed by all sacrifices of expiation was, that the victim took the place of the sinner, and received the punishment due to him. The sacrifice was an acknowledgment on the sinner's part that by his sin he had incurred penalty; and it was a prayer on the sinner's part that he might be washed from the guilt he had contracted, and might return to life with the blessing and favour of God upon him. Of course, it was seen, and said by the heathen themselves, as well as by the Jews, that the blood of bulls and goats had in itself no relation to moral defilement. It was used in sacrifice merely as a telling way of saying that sin was acknowledged and pardon desired, but always with the idea of substitution more or less explicitly in the mind. And the ideas which were inevitably associated with sacrifice were transferred to Jesus by His immediate disciples. And this transference of the ideas connected with sacrifice to Himself and His death was sanctioned -- and indeed suggested -- by Jesus, when, at the Last Supper, He said, "This cup is the New Testament in My Blood, which is shed for many, for the remission of sins."
But here the question at once arises: In what sense was the Blood of Christ shed for the remission of sins? In what sense was He a substitute and victim for us? Before we try to find an answer to this question, two preliminary remarks may be made -- first, that our salvation depends not on our understanding how the death of Christ takes away sin, but upon our believing that it does so. It is very possible to accept the pardon of our sin, though we do not know how that pardon has been obtained. We do not understand the methods of cure prescribed by the physician, nor could we give a rational account of the efficacy of his medicines, but this does not retard our cure if only we use them. To come into a perfect relation to God we do not require to understand how the death of Christ has made it possible for us to do so; we need only to desire to be God's children, and to believe that it is open to us to come to Him. Not by the intellect, but by the will, are we led to God. Not by what we know, but by what we desire, is our destiny determined. Not by education in theological requirements, but by thirst for the living God, is man saved.
And, second, even though we carry over to the death of Christ the ideas taught by Old Testament sacrifice, we commit no enormous or misleading blunder. Christ Himself suggested that His death might be best understood in the light of these ideas, and even though we are unable to penetrate through the letter to the spirit, through the outward and symbolic form to the real and eternal meaning of the sacrifice of Christ, we are yet on the road to truth, and hold the germ of it which will one day develop into the actual and perfect truth. Impatience is at the root of much unbelief and misconception and discontent; the inability to reconcile ourselves to the fact that in our present stage there is much we must hold provisionally, much we must be content to see through a glass darkly, much we can only know by picture and shadow. It is quite true the reality has come in the death of Christ, and symbol has passed away; but there is such a depth of Divine love, and so various a fulfilment of Divine purpose in the death of Christ, that we cannot be surprised that it baffles comprehension. It is the key to a world's history; for aught we know, to the history of other worlds than ours; and it is not likely that we should be able to gauge its significance and explain its rationale of operation. And therefore, if, without any sluggish indifference to further knowledge, or merely worldly contentment to know of spiritual things only so much as is absolutely necessary, we yet are able to use what we do know and to await with confidence further knowledge, we probably act wisely and well. We do not err if we think of Christ as our Sacrifice; nor even if we somewhat too literally think of Him as the Victim substituted for us, and ascribe to His Blood the expiatory and cleansing virtue which belonged symbolically to the blood of the ancient sacrifices.
And, indeed, there are grave difficulties in our path as soon as we strive to advance beyond the sacrificial idea, and try to grasp the very truth regarding the death of Christ. The Apostles with one voice affirm that Christ's death was a propitiation for the sins of the world: that He died for us; that He suffered not only for His contemporaries, but for all men; that He was the Lamb of God, the innocent Victim, whose blood cleansed from sin. They affirm, in short, that in Christ's death we are brought face to face, not with a symbolic sacrifice, but with that act which really takes away sin.
If we read the narrative given us in the Gospels of the death of Christ, and the circumstances that led to it, we see that the sacrificial idea is not kept in the foreground. The cause of His death, as explained in the Gospels, was His persistent claim to be the Messiah sent by God to found a spiritual kingdom. He steadily opposed the expectations and plans of those in authority until they became so exasperated that they resolved to compass His death. The real and actual cause of His death was His fidelity to the purpose for which He had been sent into the world. He might have retired and lived a quiet life in Galilee or beyond Palestine altogether; but He could not do so, because He could not abandon the work of His life, which was to proclaim the truth about God and God's kingdom. Many a man has felt equally constrained to proclaim the truth in the face of opposition; and many a man has, like Jesus, incurred death thereby. That which makes the death of Jesus exceptional in this aspect of it is, that the truth He proclaimed was what may be called the truth, the essential truth for men to know -- the truth that God is the Father, and that there is life in Him for all who will come to Him. This was the kingdom of God among men -- - He proclaimed a kingdom based only on love, on spiritual union between God and man; a kingdom not of this world, and that came not with observation; a kingdom within men, real, abiding, universal. It was because He proclaimed this kingdom, exploding the cherished expectations and merely national hopes of the Jews, that the authorities put Him to death.
So much is obvious on the very face of the narrative. No one can read the life of Christ without perceiving this at least -- that He was put to death because He persisted in proclaiming truths essential to the happiness and salvation of men. By submitting to death for the sake of these truths He made it for ever clear that they are of vital consequence. Before Pilate He calmly said, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth." He knew that it was this witnessing to the truth that had enraged the Jews against Him, and even in prospect of death He could not refrain from proclaiming what He felt it was vital for men to know. In this very true sense, therefore, He died for our sakes -- died because He sought to put us in possession of truths without which our souls cannot be lifted into life eternal. He has given us life by giving us the knowledge of the Father. His love for us, His ceaseless and strong desire to bring us near to God, was the real cause of His death. And, recognising this, we cannot but feel that He has a claim upon us of the most commanding kind. Not for His contemporaries alone, not for one section of men only, did Christ die, but for all men, because the truths which He sealed by His death are of universal import. No man can live eternal life without them.
But again, Jesus Himself explained to His disciples in what sense His death would benefit them. "It is expedient for you that I go away, for if I go not away the Comforter will not come unto you." The spiritual kingdom He proclaimed could not be established while He was visibly present. His death and ascension put an end to all hopes that diverted their minds from that which constituted their real union to God and satisfaction in Him. When He disappeared from earth and sent the Holy Spirit to them, what remained to them was God's kingdom within them, His true rule over their spirits, their assimilation to Him in all things. What they now clearly saw to be still open to them was to live in Christ's spirit, to revive in their memories the truths His life had proclaimed, to submit themselves entirely to His influence, and to make known far and near the ideas He had communicated to them, and especially the God He had revealed. It was His death which set their minds free from all other expectations and fixed them exclusively on what was spiritual. And this salvation they at once proclaimed to others. What were they to say about Jesus and His death? How were they to win men to Him? They did so in the first days by proclaiming Him as raised by God to be a Prince and a Saviour, to rule from the unseen world, to bless men with a spiritual salvation, by turning them from their iniquities. And the instrumentality, the actual spiritual experience through which this salvation is arrived at is the belief that Jesus was sent by God and did reveal Him, that in Jesus God was present revealing Himself, and that His Spirit can bring us also to God and to His likeness.
Still further, and not going beyond the facts apparent in the Gospel, it is plain that Christ died for us, in the sense that all He did, His whole life on earth from first to last, was for our sake. He came into the world, not to serve a purpose of His own, and forward His own interests, but to further ours. He took upon Him our sins and their punishment in this obvious sense, that He voluntarily entered into our life, polluted as it was all through with sin and laden with misery in every part. Our condition in this world is such that no person can avoid coming in contact with sin, or can escape entirely the results of sin in the world. And in point of fact persons with any depth of sympathy and spiritual sensibility cannot help taking upon them the sins of others, and cannot help suffering their own life to be greatly marred and limited by the sins of others. In the case of our Lord this acceptance of the burden of other men's sins was voluntary. And it is the sight of a holy and loving person, enduring sorrows and opposition and death wholly undeserved, that is at all times affecting in the experience of Christ. It is the sight of this suffering, borne with meekness and borne willingly, that makes us ashamed of our sinful condition, which inevitably entails such suffering on the self-sacrificing and holy. It enables us to see, more distinctly than anything besides, the essential hatefulness and evil of sin. Here is an innocent person, filled with love and compassion for all, His life a life of self-sacrifice and devotion to human interests, carrying in His person infinite benefits to the race -- this person is at all points thwarted and persecuted and finally put to death. In this most intelligible sense He very truly sacrificed Himself for us, bore the penalty of our sins, magnified the law, illustrated and rendered infinitely impressive the righteousness of God, and made it possible for God to pardon us, and in pardoning us to deepen immeasurably our regard for holiness and for Himself.
Still further, it is obvious that Christ gave Himself a perfect sacrifice to God by living solely for Him. He had in life no other purpose than to serve God. Again and again during His life God expressed His perfect satisfaction with the human life of Christ. He who searches the heart saw that into the most secret thought, down to the most hidden motive, that life was pure, that heart in perfect harmony with the Divine will. Christ lived not for Himself, He did not claim property in His own person and life, but gave Himself up freely and to the uttermost to God: more thoroughly, more spontaneously, and with an infinitely richer material did He offer Himself to God than ever burnt-offering had been offered. And God, with an infinite joy in goodness, accepted the sacrifice, and found on earth in the person of Jesus an opportunity for rejoicing in man with an infinite satisfaction.
And this sacrifice which Christ offered to God tends to reproduce itself continually among men. As Christ said, no sooner was He lifted up than He drew all men to Him. That perfect life and utter self-surrender to the highest purposes, that pure and perfect love and devotion to God and man, commands the admiration and cordial worship of serious men. It stands in the world for ever as the grand incentive to goodness, prompting men and inspiring them to sympathy and imitation. It is in the strength of that perfect sacrifice men have ceaselessly striven to sacrifice themselves. It is through Christ they strive to come themselves to God. In Him we see the beauty of holiness; in Him we see holiness perfected, and making the impression upon us which a perfect thing makes, standing as a reality, not as a theory; as a finished and victorious achievement, not as a mere attempt. In Christ we see what love to God and faith in God really are; in Him we see what a true sacrifice is and means; and in Him we are drawn to give ourselves also to God as our true life.
Looking then only at those facts which are apparent to every one who reads the life of Christ, and putting aside all that may over and above these facts have been intended in the Divine mind, we see how truly Christ is our Sacrifice; and how truly we can say of Him that He gave Himself, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God. We see that in the actual privations, disappointments, temptations, mental strain, opposition, and suffering of His life, and in the final conflict of death, He bore the penalty of our sins; underwent the miseries which sin has brought into human life. We see that He did so with so entire and perfect a consent to all God's will, and with so ready and unreserved a sacrifice of Himself, that God found infinite satisfaction in this human obedience and righteousness, and on the basis of this sacrifice pardons us.
Some may be able to assure themselves better of the forgiveness of God, if they look at what Christ has done as a satisfaction for or reparation of the ill that we have done. He properly satisfies for an offence who offers to the offended party that which he loves as well or better than he hates the offence. If your child has through carelessness broken or spoiled something you value, but seeing your displeasure is at pains to replace it, and does after long industry put into your hands an article of greater value than was lost to you, you are satisfied, and more than forgive your child. If a man fails in business, but after spending a lifetime to recover himself restores to you not only what you lost by him, but more than could possibly have been made by yourself with the original sum lost, you ought to be satisfied. And God is satisfied with the work of Christ because there is in it a love and an obedience to Him, and a regard to right and holiness, that outweigh all our disobedience and alienation. Often, when some satisfaction or reparation of injury or loss is made to ourselves, it is done in so good-hearted a manner, and displays so much right feeling, and sets us on terms of so much closer intimacy with the party who injured us, that we are really glad, now that all is over, that the misunderstanding or injury took place. The satisfaction has far more than atoned for it. So is it with God: our reconciliation to Him has called out so much in Christ that would otherwise have been hidden, has so stirred the deepest part, if we may say so, of the Divine nature in Christ, and has called out also so signally the whole strength and beauty of human nature, that God is more than satisfied. We cannot see how without sin there could have been that display of love and obedience that there has been in the death of Christ. Where there is no danger, nothing tragic, there can be no heroism: human nature, not to speak of Divine, has not scope for its best parts in the ordinary and innocent traffic and calm of life. It is when danger thickens, and when death draws near and bares his hideous visage, that devotion and self-sacrifice can be exercised. And so, in a world filled with sin and with danger, a world in which each individual's history has something stirring and tragic in it, God finds room for the full testing and utterance of our natures and of His own. And in the redemption of this world there occurred an emergency which called forth, as nothing else conceivably could call forth, everything that the Divine and human natures of Christ are capable of.
Another result of Christ's death is mentioned by John: "That the children of God which were scattered abroad might be gathered together in one." It was for a unity Christ died, for that which formed one whole. When Caiaphas sacrificed Christ to propitiate Rome, he knew that none but Christ's own countrymen would benefit thereby. The Romans would not recall their legions from Africa or Germany because Judaea had propitiated them. And supposing that the Jews had received some immunities and privileges from Rome as an acknowledgment of its favour, this would affect no other nation. But if any members of other nations coveted these privileges, their only course would be to become naturalized Jews, members and subjects of the favoured community. So Christ's death has the effect of gathering into one all those who seek God's favour and fatherhood, no matter in what ends of the earth they be scattered. It was not for separate individuals Christ died, but for a people, for an indivisible community; and we receive the benefits of His death no otherwise than as we are members of this people or family. It is the attractive power of Christ that draws us all to one centre, but being gathered round Him we should be in spirit and are in fact as close to one another as to Him.