When children first hear that Jesus died for our sins, they often respond with one phrase: “But I wasn’t born yet.” Most parents or teachers will explain that Christ’s sacrifice was forever.
Christ’s Sacrifice: Once For All
As Jesus was dying, he uttered his final words from the cross: “It is finished.” The sacrifice that provided for the salvation of the world was complete. Christ gave himself—his own life—as payment for our sins. According to his promise, those who trust in him receive God’s gracious gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. But did Christ’s sacrifice benefit only those after his death? Did Jesus come just for us today? What about those who lived before his death and resurrection? Could those people also find salvation?
My hope is that after we answer these questions, you will be able to:
grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge… (Ephesians 3:17-19)
To help answer our questions, we’ll start with some history.
Demonic sacrifices to appease the gods
In ancient times, many peoples and cultures offered a myriad of sacrifices to appease their gods. It was a common belief that the more valuable the object being sacrificed, the more pleased the god would be. Many cultures even practiced human sacrifice, including the ancient Canaanites, the Incans, and most Mesoamerican tribes such as the Mayans and the Aztecs.
The Aztecs believed in a pantheon of gods, each representing forces of nature that controlled their livelihood and existence. To appease their rain god Tlaloc, they brutally sacrificed children, believing that the tears of the children would bring the rain. Every year, the priests killed thousands of captured warriors from other tribes and even their own citizens and sacrificed them on temple altars, cutting out their hearts and offering them to their sun god Tonatiuh. The stronger the man, or the more beautiful the woman, the better the sacrifice and the more pleased the gods were. As these gods were angry, frightful, and capricious, they needed to be appeased. They were unforgiving and demanding, so the sacrifices had to be performed again and again—year after year, and the more, the better.
The Canaanite gods Molech and Baal also demanded child sacrifices. Some of the Israelites abandoned the Lord God and sacrificed to these gods instead. The Lord declared to the prophet Jeremiah that he never asked for these kinds of sacrifices—they were an abomination to him (Jeremiah 19:5).
There is no doubt that demonic forces were behind these practices. The apostle Paul affirmed that sacrifices to these pagan gods were not to the true Creator at all, but to demons (1 Corinthians 10:20).
Forgiveness in the Old Testament
In contrast to the Canaanite gods, the Old Testament believers knew the true Creator to be kind, loving, and forgiving:
Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us, you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19)
The true God was not like the gods of the pagan nations. He was indeed good and not demanding or capricious. He was not angry all the time, but only when people defied him and intentionally rejected his Word. And he forgave those who repented and put their faith in him. King David, after the prophet Nathan confronted him for his adultery and murder, begged God for forgiveness:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1-2)
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:7)
Did God forgive David’s sins? Reading the Bible, though he paid a heavy price as restitution for his disobedience, God did forgive him. But how were his sins cleansed? Certainly not with hyssop which was a medicinal herb used to cure ailments. Surely this was just a metaphor.
The Purpose of the Ceremonial laws of Moses
Through the Law of Moses, God instructed the Israelites to perform a variety of animal sacrifices. The Levitical priests performed many sacrifices at various times during the year, and certain special sacrifices annually. But God never intended for these ceremonies to provide the path to eternal salvation. So, why did he give these commands? As the book of Hebrews reminds us:
But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:3-4)
God gave the sacrificial law to the Israelites to remind them of their sin and show them their need for forgiveness. And in general, God gave the moral commandments of the Law (such as “You shall not murder”) not to save us from our sin, but to condemn sin and show us our sin. The purpose of these laws was ultimately to point to the true source of salvation: Christ’s sacrifice.
The animal sacrifices required by the Law of Moses ceased in the first century with the destruction of the temple by the Romans. This was providential, since after Christ died, these reminders weren’t needed anymore. The real had come.
The Passover Lamb
After the Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, God instructed each Jewish household to slaughter an unblemished lamb as a sacrifice (Exodus 12). On the chosen night (and also every year from then on) they were to roast the animal and eat the meat as a meal to celebrate their deliverance from bondage. The blood of the lamb was to be applied to the doorframes of each house where the meals were eaten. That night when the angel of death struck down all the firstborn males in the land, the families were spared in the houses where the blood was applied.
The blood on the doorframe was a sign of that household’s faith, that they had partaken of the sacrificial lamb, and that their sins were covered. They would not be subject to the judgment of death the firstborn of the Egyptians would suffer. The angel of death would “pass over” their house.
The Lamb of God
The Passover lamb represented the Messiah who would one day be sacrificed for the sins of the people. Jesus, the Father’s one and only Son, lived a pure and holy life—he was a lamb without blemish. And so, the Father chose him as the Passover Lamb, the perfect sacrifice to be offered up for all people. And he was the One who, when the Father at last offered him the cup of death, prayed:
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
More than anything, Jesus wanted to please the Father and fulfill the reason for which he came to earth. And as there was no other way, he looked beyond the pain, obeyed, and willingly submitted to his own death.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:8)
Death on a Roman cross was the most shameful way of dying. Only criminals—gross sinners— died in that manner. The Romans posted the crimes of each criminal on the crosses above their heads. The charge against Jesus mockingly read: “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” But Jesus endured it all for our sake:
For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)
Christ’s sacrificial death, the payment for all sin
We know Jesus died for us. And the angel of death will pass over all those who partake of Christ through faith. The blood of his sacrifice covers their sins. But how could God forgive people who lived before Christ’s coming?
Some people believe that the way of salvation in Old Testament times was by obeying the Law of Moses, and only since the time of Christ are people saved through faith in his work on the cross. But it’s impossible to attain righteousness and be justified before God by keeping the Law of Moses. Because we are sinful (Romans 3:23) we have no chance of succeeding. If keeping the Law was the only path to salvation before the time of Christ, then no one was saved before Christ came, because everyone has broken God’s Law.
So what was the source or basis for their forgiveness? Wasn’t Jesus’ death necessary for salvation? Yes, it was. The apostle John wrote:
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)
Christ’s sacrificial death was an eternal act that transcended time. He died for all people who ever lived and whoever will live. It provided the basis for forgiveness and was sufficient both for those who lived before him and those who came after him.
Christ Sacrificed Once for All
Hebrews provides a detailed discussion about the sacrifices of the Law of Moses and contrasts them with the sacrifice of Christ.
For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:24-26)
The animal sacrifices offered by the Levitical priests were only pictures of Christ’s sacrifice. But Christ’s was the true sacrifice provided by God for the sins of the world. He died a real death, one time. And that death paid the penalty for the sins of those who lived in Old Testament times, the time of Christ, up to today, and beyond. Jesus didn’t have to suffer many times, but only once, and he suffered for all.
And it wasn’t the duration of time he spent in anguish, or even the intensity of his suffering on the cross. It was the death of Christ that paid for the sin of all humanity for all time. He gave his life for us. And it was the infinite value, purity, and perfect obedience of the One being sacrificed that made the sacrifice acceptable to God.
Foresight versus hindsight
So to answer our question: was Christ’s sacrifice just for us today? No, he also died for all those who lived before us, and before the time of Christ. They were also saved by grace through faith. They may not have fully understood how God would provide for salvation, but they responded in faith to the revelation of Christ God provided to them. Theirs was an obscure view of Christ’s sacrifice, but ours is a more complete view. They were looking forward to the coming of Christ, but we are looking back on Christ who has already come and died.
Their faith was in a limited view, but our faith is in a much fuller revelation of Jesus Christ. People of all ages and cultures can place their faith in the living God by means of the revelation that God gives them. God provides grace and forgiveness where there is an acknowledgment of sin, a response of repentance, and faith in God’s revelation. But in each case, Christ’s death is still the payment for sins.
Indeed, Christ’s love is immeasurably wide and deep. It is unfathomable, surpassing all knowledge.
Responding to the gospel today
Most of us living today have the opportunity to respond to a full revelation of the gospel. All previous dim images of Christ from the past now give way to the blazing light of Christ crucified. And of course, all false gods, and sacrifices to them, must now go—there is no place for them in our lives or in God’s kingdom.
If we accept the message of the cross, we accept God’s provision for our sins. But if we deliberately keep rejecting the truth, then no more sacrifice for sins is left, but only the expectation of God’s judgment (Hebrews 10:26-27). If you have heard this message, don’t take it lightly, but seriously consider it and respond in faith. Christ’s sacrifice of his own life will mean eternal life for you. And you will join with the believers of old as well as with those of today in God’s great household of faith.
Jesus, thank you for taking the cup of death for us, for going to the cross to pay for our sin. We humbly accept your offer of forgiveness and eternal life.