One of the central questions on the sacrifice of Jesus is the question of what his sacrifice actually means. The problem in interpreting that question is that we often think from a Roman background. In Latin, you have the word offere, which means ‘to offer’ and ‘to present.’ The concept of sacrifice carries the idea that something must be offered and presented. This leaves us with the question of whether the sacrifice of Jesus is offered to God or presented to humanity.
In many religions, the dominant thought is that the gods want what you have! They come with their needs and their desires and ask, What do you have to offer? The Romans had a saying, Do ut des, which means ‘I give so that you give’ or ‘I give in order that you will give.’ They gave some of what they had to those gods, expecting that they then will give them favor in return. Even today, this idea runs very deep in our minds: you must first give something to get something. “Give a little, take a little” … Right?
The Latin word placare means ‘reconcile’ or ‘to atone.’ In its literal sense, it means: ‘smoothening’ or ‘flattening.’ The Roman perspective understood it to be our job as humans to ‘smoothen’ or ‘flatten’ the face of the gods. Frowning eyebrows and significant wrinkles need to be ironed away. But those gods were insatiable; they were never satisfied and never had enough.
This Roman concept of offering sacrifices to keep the gods satisfied can easily slip into our image of God. We can develop the idea that, in a world where we need to satisfy so many human (or man-made) needs, desires or demands, even God our Father must be satisfied. Is God like that? Is that what Jesus’ sacrifice meant? Is the good news that Jesus offered himself to satisfy God?
When we look at the Hebrew word for sacrifice, we find ourselves in a completely different world. The Hebrew word for offer is korban. That word is related to the verb karaf, which can be translated as ‘to approach’ or ‘to draw near.’ This Hebrew word for sacrifice immediately offers a very different meaning to the matter. With God, it’s not so much about us meeting his need; it’s not about what we need to offer or sacrifice to God. Rather, the question on God’s heart seems to be, How shall I get rapprochement (reconciliation)?
In the Bible, we read that the approach always comes from God’s end. God is the subject. He does it; he offers it. In Psalm 50, God says, I'm really not waiting for a couple of bulls or goats’ blood. Rather, the whole temple service offerings were to humans. It was a meant as a representation, showing humankind that God is so merciful. God was showing us that he will always go the way of mercy and will always lead us on that road. So, all the ceremonies surrounding the tabernacle and temple were to mankind; to show humanity what God is like. The tabernacle represented God's patience and the worship around the temple was a portrayal of God's mercy.
Ultimately, we confess that God is revealed in Jesus. Therefore, Jesus becomes everything: he is the tabernacle, he is a priest, he is the temple and he is the sacrificial lamb. He becomes the portrayal of God’s patience and mercy. God’s presents a sacrifice to mankind: the life of Jesus, his birth, his death and his resurrection. God creates the rapprochement to us. That reconciliation was from God, the One who serves us with a sacrifice, showing us that there is nothing on his end to hold him back from getting close and reconciling with us. Jesus’s sacrifice was meant to create something in us. Jesus poured himself out, gave himself away—he died in order to cultivate something alive in us.
In the life of Jesus, we see a God who is radically different than the Roman gods. Instead of working our way up the ladder in order to get closer to the transcendent, God comes down in Jesus and offers himself to us. Amen.