In the world of the first century, Roman crucifixion was not only a horrific form of torture, reserved for the lowest dregs of the criminal class, but it was also associated with severe shame. Not only were Roman citizens exempt from this humiliating death, but even the word crucifixion was avoided in social gatherings. In the Jewish mind-set, crucifixion was seen through the lens of Deuteronomy 21:23, which declares that anyone who hangs on a tree is cursed of God (see also Gal. 3:13). Given such a reality, how is it that the Apostle Paul, along with the rest of the New Testament authors, determined to know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), even to placard publicly Jesus as crucified in preaching (Gal. 3:1) and, indeed, to boast in nothing else except “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14)?
The answer lies, in part, in the sacrificial system of the old covenant temple. God, to the praise of His unsearchable wisdom, gave ancient Israel sacrifices to serve as theological tools, instructing His people about the remedy for sin and the need for reconciliation with God. After the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of His Holy Spirit, the Apostles were enabled to discern in the pages of the Old Testament Scriptures how the system of sacrificial worship had been divinely ordained for the sake of unfolding the wonders of Christ and His accomplished work on the cross (e.g., Rom. 3:21–26; Heb. 9:16–10:18). The categories of sacrifice enabled the paradigm shift to seeing the cross of Christ not as a source of deep embarrassment but rather—and wondrously—as God’s greatest gift to humanity and His highest demonstration of love for sinners (Rom. 5:8).
Two theological concepts of sacrifice are especially noteworthy for understanding the death of Jesus on the cross as the only sacrifice able to secure pardon from our sins and definitive reconciliation with God: expiation and propitiation. The first, expiation, means that Jesus’ sacrifice cleanses us from sin’s pollution and removes the guilt of sin from us. Propitiation refers to the assuaging of God’s wrath by Jesus’ sacrifice, which both satisfies the justice of God and results in His favorable disposition toward us. We turn now to consider these concepts more deeply by looking at their roots in the sacrifices of the Old Testament.
Expiation refers to the cleansing of sin and removal of sin’s guilt. In the sacrificial system of Israel, blood was collected from an animal’s severed arteries and then manipulated in a variety of ways. Blood was smeared, sprinkled, tossed, and poured out. In Leviticus 17:11, the Lord declared that since “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” He gave Israel blood on the altar “to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life,” underlining the idea of substitution: the shed blood of a blameless substitute represented life for life, soul for soul. Blood’s importance was underscored most prominently by the sin offering. Through the shedding and manipulation of the sin offering’s blood, God taught Israel of their need for cleansing from sin and for the removal of sin’s defilement and guilt, making divine forgiveness possible (see Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35). On the one hand, the blood signified death: displaying the blood before God demonstrated that a life, albeit the life of an unblemished animal substitute, had endured death, the wages of sin. On the other hand, blood represented the life of flesh: by the principle that life conquers death, blood was used ritually to wipe away, as it were, the defilement of sin and death.