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Jesus' Death: Vicarious Atonement and Example

The death of Jesus Christ is simultaneously vicarious atonement and example for us to follow. His life and death was to accomplish something objective: our salvation (he obeyed in our stead, and received our penalty in our stead). For this very reason (it actually saves us), it was love; and thus it serves as the greatest example of sacrificial service. 

Both, not either-or

There is a version of 'Christianity' (which is not really at all) that says God just loves everyone, doesn't care too much about sin and forgiveness, and he definitely does not require blood sacrifice for the sins of humanity! Jesus came to reveal God's love by coming and giving up everything to die for us. That's all Jesus' death is, subjective: a example meant to woo us by showing us what love is. 

Yet...how can that be love? What actually does it show us? Nothing. Except maybe that throwing away a life for no purpose is a good thing?

Of all the places in the Bible where Jesus is presented as an example, one of the strongest ones is probably Philippians 2. Of the places where it mentions the death of Jesus, I think this is the one most believed to refer to Jesus' death as merely an example. (If you're not familiar, read Philippians 2:3-11)

Studying through Philippians these days, I have been encouraged that even here, you cannot separate the meaning of the death of Jesus (i.e. vicarious atonement) from the example that Jesus' set. Yes, the Bible does indeed set up Jesus as an example to follow--but it does not do that apart from what Jesus' did uniquely that we could never do.

Indications that the meaning of Jesus' death is necessarily implied in Philippians 2:

1) The sudden mention of the cross in verse 8

"And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

Paul interjects the words "even death on a cross!" to an otherwise complete sentence. The mention of the cross does indicate the depth of Jesus' self-humbling, but at the same time, it cries out the meaning of the cross!

We must not forget that in many other places this phrase "the cross" can stand indeed for the whole gospel message. Philippians 3:18 speaks of "enemies of the cross of Christ." Obviously, not enemies of the kind of death, or of the actual object--but of the gospel of the Savior crucified for our sin. 1 Corinthians 2:2 also speaks of "Jesus Christ and him crucified" as the core element of his preaching. 

I think that, for Paul, the mention of the cross must include at least in part the meaning of his death.

2) Jesus' death was him looking out for the interests of others

This whole section (verses 5-11) on Christ humbling himself is set forth as an example of how we are ourselves to behave. Paul said this in verses 3-4:

"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."

Following the rest of the passage, we find that Jesus (who was forever God) was born as a slave, lowering himself, and that he humbled himself by obedience unto death. There is a progression here. The ultimate aim is Jesus' obedience unto death.

Thus, it is this unto-death-obedience that Paul is setting forward as "looking out for the interests of others." This means there was a need for Jesus to do this. He was doing this to accomplish something. It was because we were in a dangerous predicament, that Jesus, looking out for our needs because he loved us, came to do all necessary to save us from that predicament!

3) Obedience is rendered to Jesus in verses 9-11

At the one moment (verses 5-8) he is an example to be obeyed, and the next moment (verses 9-11) he is the Lord of all creation to whom all knees will bow eventually! 

This is obviously not an example of what will happen to us when we humble ourselves! Jesus' obedience is not merely an example. He is not just a perfect man to follow! He is the God of all the universe! 

This is the meaning of the death of Jesus, and whatever example we learn from Jesus' death flows out of and is grounded upon what he actually did there--even in Philippians 2!

Jesus did indeed come in love. His life is a perfect example of love, and his death is the climax of his love. Yet it is love precisely because it paid the penalty for our sins, such that we can be forgiven by God and belong to him forever, and praise him forever, and enjoy his glory--his magnificent and radiant perfections--forever.

"Jesus paid it all." This is the greatest love imaginable.


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Matt Hauck (郝柏昇)

A once enemy now son, forgiven and freed by Jesus' blood, adopted and called by grace for glory.   (more...)

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