The Work of Jesus

The previous article discussed the person of Jesus. He was/is God incarnate, deity clothed in human flesh; fully God and fully man. But why did he take on flesh and become like us? This article will be looking at the work of Jesus, why he came to earth. It will also look at the roles he filled while here and his sacrifice of atonement.

Estimated reading time: 16 minutes

The Roles of Christ

Prophet

In Acts 3:22, Peter, talking about Jesus, quoted from Deuteronomy 18:15 and said, “For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you.’” Clearly Peter believed that Moses had prophesied that God would someday raise up a prophet like himself. And the Holy Spirit had led Peter to understand that it was Jesus that Moses was looking forward to.

Jesus also considered himself to be a prophet. Once when he visited Nazareth and taught in their synagogue, the people questioned his authority and took offense at him. In response he told them that “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home” (Matt. 13:57).

The Role of the Prophet

The Old Testament prophets were commissioned by God to deliver a message to the people of Israel. In the same way, Jesus had a message from God that he gave to Israel, and to us. In Hebrews 1:1-2a it says that “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son“.

Moses served as a prophet in establishing the nation of Israel. In the same way, Jesus served as a prophet in the establishment of the church. God used the Old Testament prophets to speak to his people. In the same way, Jesus served as a messenger from God to speak to his new covenant people. While Jesus was much more than just a prophet, he did fill the role of a prophet.

Priest

In addition to filling the role of a prophet, Jesus also served as a priest. Being from the tribe of Judah, he could not serve as a priest in the temple at Jerusalem. But he did carry out the work of a priest, interceding with God on behalf of the people. In Romans 8:34 Jesus is described as “at the right hand of God . . . interceding for us.

In Hebrews we find the fullest expression of Jesus’ priesthood. Here he is described as a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:6 and others). He is also described as a high priest who can empathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). And one who has a permanent priesthood, allowing him to always be available to intercede for us (Heb. 7:23-25).

As the high priest of the new covenant, Jesus has gone into the heavenly tabernacle to make atonement for us (Heb. 9:11-12). This is in contrast to the Jewish High Priest. He went into the Holy Place annually to offer the atoning sacrifice on behalf of himself and the people. In contrast, Jesus went into the heavenly Holy Place one time. And there he offered his own blood, rather than that of bulls and goats. And he made atonement for all time, obtaining eternal redemption.

Potentate, or King

Jesus served as a prophet, a priest, and a potentate, or king. In some ways this mirrors the role of Samuel in the Old Testament. Samuel acted as a priest, served as a prophet, and was the last of the Judges. But while Samuel served in an earthly kingdom, Jesus serves in a heavenly kingdom; the Kingdom of God.

In Matthew 19:28 Jesus told his twelve disciples that he would sit on a glorious throne. And they would also sit on thrones to govern Israel. In Philippians 2:9-11, Paul said that Jesus had humbled himself by taking on humanity and dying for us. And, as a result, God had exalted him to the highest place. And that every tongue would acknowledge him as Lord. In Colossians 1:18, Paul said that Jesus would have supremacy in everything. While this world does not see it now, Jesus is Lord of all, even now.

The Work of Jesus – Atonement

The primary work of Jesus was atonement. Atonement is a word that is familiar to those who have been in the church for very long. But I believe it is a mystery to many. Merriam-Webster defines atonement as

  • Reparation for an offense or injury: satisfaction
  • The reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ

Atonement, in the general sense, deals with making a payment for an offense we have caused; making it right. If I commit a crime there are two distinct penalties I am liable for. The first of these is punishment, paying a fine or serving time in jail. The second is restitution, making some form of payment to the victim(s) of my crime. Atonement is the second of these two penalties, the making of reparation.

The second definition given above is more theological in nature. In this case the crime I have committed is against God and restitution needs to be made to him. My crime, or sin, has made us enemies. And the goal of the restitution is more than simply reimbursing the aggrieved party; it is reconciliation between us. The twist here is that it is God, the aggrieved party, who is making restitution.

Atonement in the Old Testament

The sixteenth chapter of Leviticus gives us the best picture of atonement in the Old Testament. The Day of Atonement was an annual observance whose goal was to make atonement for the sin of the people. In this observance the High Priest would offer a bull as a sacrifice for his own sins. He took some of the blood of the bull into the Most Holy Place and put it on the altar. In doing, this he made atonement for himself and his family.

He then would choose one of two goats to be a sin offering for the people. This goat was sacrificed and some of its blood was taken into the Most Holy Place. Here it was sprinkled on the altar. This made atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the sins of the people. The blood of both animals was then placed on the altar of burnt offerings to make atonement for it.

In the final step, he laid his hands on the head of the second goat. And then confessed over it all the sins of the people. This ‘scapegoat’ was then taken into the wilderness and released, carrying with it all the sins of the people.

Jesus’ Atonement

There are a number of passages in the New Testament that refer to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for us, including the following:

  • Jesus came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28)
  • Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
  • God “loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins”. (1 John 4:10)
  • John the Baptist speaking of Jesus says “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. (John 1:29)
  • God accomplished what the law could not “by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering”. (Rom. 8:3)
  • Jesus as both High Priest and sacrifice in Hebrews 8-10

It is clear from the New Testament that Jesus came to be a sin offering for humanity. He was the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system. And this is especially true of the sin offering on the Day of Atonement,

The Purpose of Atonement

Why atonement? What purpose does it serve? Your answer to this will be based largely on your understanding of the nature of God. As well as the doctrines of humanity and of sin. What is the current relationship between God and humanity? Was God offended by my sin? Do I owe a debt to God? Can God look on sin? Can I be good enough? Is a sacrifice the only way to redeem humanity?

There have been many theories developed around the atonement of Christ. None of them are able to fully encompass all of the teachings in Scripture. But they do highlight different aspects of atonement. Along with the Trinity and the dual nature of Jesus, the atonement is also beyond our ability to understand completely.

The Ransom Theory

The Ransom Theory held sway for the first thousand years of church history. It was modeled after the Roman judicial system. In this theory our sin had placed us into the domain of Satan; he had become our ruler and we were under his authority; he rightly owned us. God cannot just take us away from our rightful owner; he must pay a ransom price in order to deliver us from Satan and restore us to his ownership. But the ransom to be paid must be one that is satisfactory to Satan, our rightful lord; and Satan chose the blood of Jesus on the cross as a suitable payment. God agreed to this ransom; but he knew something that Satan did not. Jesus death on the cross would only be temporary. And it would result in Satan’s defeat rather than his victory.

The Ransom Theory is supported by passages like Matthew 20:28, Jesus came “to give his life as a ransom for many”. And 1 Corinthians 6:20 which says that we “were bought at a price”. Both of these passages would indicate that Jesus’ death on the cross was a payment. A payment that brought about our deliverance.

Emphasis on Satan

The Ransom Theory places a strong emphasis on Satan and his rightful ownership over humanity; he is in a position of strength. God had to resort to trickery in order to defeat Satan and reclaim ownership of humanity. The Ransom Theory can easily lead to dualism. This holds that there are competing and somewhat equally powerful cosmic forces. And they are at war for the heart and soul of mankind. But this thought is contrary to the teachings of Scripture that God is all-powerful. There can only be one all-powerful being in existence.

Christus Victor

Christus Victor (Christ is victor) is a variation of the Ransom Theory. It is popular today, especially among the Orthodox churches. It also has a following among many evangelicals. This theory pictures a cosmic conflict. One between the forces of good led by God, and the forces of evil led by Satan. This is similar to the Ransom Theory. But according to it, Jesus’ death on the cross was a decisive victory in the battle against evil; on the cross Satan and the powers of evil were defeated. And now, with the forces defeated that once held us in bondage, we are free to serve God. In Christus Victor our atonement is the most important part of this victory to us personally. But it is only a part of the cosmic victory over evil; all of creation is freed from Satan’s dominion.

Colossians 2:15 is the most significant passage that looks at this cosmic battle and Christ’s victory over Satan. “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Cosmos Wide Spiritual Warfare

Christus Victor paints a picture of spiritual warfare that extends throughout the cosmos. And this makes it subject to the tendency to dualism. If you can avoid that trap, Christus Victor can be a useful theory to help understand the atonement.

The Satisfaction Theory

Early in the second millennium of church history, Anselm developed what came to be known as the Satisfaction Theory. This theory is modeled somewhat after the feudal system with its lords and serfs. In this system, unlike the previous two, Satan doesn’t really play a part. Instead, I have committed a wrong against God. And, consequently, I need to make restitution to him, just like a serf would for his lord. My sin is an offense against God and must be paid for. But, since my sin is against the infinite God, I am not capable of making restitution.

God cannot just forgive my sin because it has created a moral imbalance in the universe; the debt must be paid to restore balance. Since the debt is one incurred by humanity, it must be paid for by humanity. Yet we are not capable of repaying an infinite debt; only one who is of infinite value can pay for an infinite debt.

The Solution

The solution for this is for God to become a sinless human. Now, as a human, he can make the necessary payment for the debt. And as God he has the value to be able to make satisfaction. Jesus’ death on the cross then pays the debt, not to Satan, but to God. And he pays it for the whole world.

This theory does go a long way toward explaining many of the passages that deal with the atonement. Yet it paints a picture of a God who knowingly created a universe where he was then required to sacrifice himself in order to have his desired outcome. Is not God bigger than that?

The Substitution Theory

The Substitution Theory is a refinement of Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory and was developed by Thomas Aquinas. This is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church today. In this theory the main obstacle to salvation is the sinful human nature. Sin is not something that can just be ignored; it must be punished. The punishment for my sin, which is in rebellion against God, is death, eternal separation from God. Jesus in his substitutionary death on the cross, bore the punishment that I deserved.

It is worth noting that in this theory the punishment was not to placate a wrathful God. Rather it was to restore the sinner to a state of harmony with God. God did not demand punishment because he was mad at us. Rather it was because he loves us and wanted us to be in relationship with himself. And that cannot occur until sin is dealt with.

In the Substitution Theory, Jesus’ death on the cross took care of my sinful human nature. The target of the cross is original sin, fixing what was broken during the fall. But the matter of my own personal sin still needs to be dealt with. The Roman Catholic doctrine of penance deals with this issue.

The Penal Substitution Theory

This is a refinement of Aquinas’ Substitution Theory that originated with John Calvin. It is the theory that is held by most Protestant churches. God’s righteous wrath against sin and sinners was imputed to Jesus on the cross. He bore our sins as a righteous substitute. Jesus’ death made full payment for our sins, both original sin and actual sin. Because of Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross, God is able to forgive sinners without compromising his holy nature. This theory differs from the Substitution Theory in its scope. It does not just deal with original sin, restoring humanity to its original state. It also satisfies God’s wrath against individual sin.

Many who hold to penal substitution believe that the atonement is only applicable to the elect, those whom God has chosen from before creation. In this case, the atonement offered by the cross is not applicable to those God has not chosen; Jesus does not become a substitute for them and instead they pay in themselves the penalty for their sin.

However, this limited view of the atonement is by no means universal among evangelicals. Just as many hold to a more general view of the atonement. That the atonement of Christ was made for everyone. But not everyone receives the benefit of the atonement; only those who respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation experience the benefit of Christ’s atonement.

Summary

There are several other models of the atonement that have been developed over the years. It is likely that all those based on the Scripture have something valid to say to us about Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. It is worthwhile taking the time to become familiar with these models. Rather than viewing them as competing models, see them as complementary.

For myself, I hesitate to place the limits on God that are implied by some of these theories. It is hard for me to imagine that anything that we finite humans can do could cause any real harm or offense to the infinite God. I also struggle with the thought that my sin forces God to respond to me in a certain way. The omnipotent and omniscient God created a world knowing beforehand that humanity would rebel against his rule. God’s plan of redemption was not an after the fact attempt at redeeming humanity. Rather it was his plan from before creation. In 1 Peter 1:18-20 we read that we were redeemed by the blood of Jesus, a lamb “chosen before the creation of the world“. Jesus’ atoning death was a part of God’s original plan.

Another Way of Looking at the Atonement

I am convinced that God could have chosen any way he wanted in order to bring people to himself. His choice of the atoning death of Jesus on the cross was not forced on him. It was the way he choose. While the Scripture is filled with references to God’s wrath against sin; it is also filled with references to our need to respond to him in faith. Hebrews 11:6 says that “without faith it is impossible to please God”. It is possible that what is meant here is that he requires us to respond to Christ’s atonement in faith.

But it is also possible that faith is more than just a response to the atonement. The atonement also offers a means to demonstrate faith. 1 Corinthians 1:21-24 refers to the cross of Christ as foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others. But it is salvation to those who believe. The cross of Christ separates those with faith from those without.

Scope of the Atonement

For who did Jesus die on the cross? For everyone? Or only for the elect? Your answer to this is closely tied to your view of governmental providence. If you hold to a more general providence you will likely believe that Jesus died for everyone. But if you hold to a more specific view of providence then you will also likely believe that Jesus died only for those whom God had chosen before the creation.

General Atonement

In John 1:29, John the Baptist saw Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” This passage is pretty inclusive; Jesus does not take away the sin of only the elect, but of the whole world. Isaiah 53:6, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”, and 1 Timothy 2:5-6, “Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all people”, also express this same idea.

These passages express that the atoning work of Jesus is applicable to all people. But that is not to say that all people are saved. Only those who respond to his offer of salvation experience the benefits of his atonement. It is available for those who have not responded, but it is not applied.

Limited Atonement

In John 10:11 Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”. The passage is used to express the idea that Jesus’ death was for his sheep, for those who are his. Further on, in John 10:27, Jesus said that “my sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus’ sheep are those who listen to and follow him.

The implication of these passages is that Jesus’ death was only applicable to the elect. And indeed that is who he is talking about here. But that does not exclude his dying for others as well. General atonement seems more compatible with the bulk of Scripture than does limited atonement. And it is not incompatible with the inclusiveness implied by passages like the ones in John.

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The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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