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Jesus Died for Our Sins: What Exactly Does That Mean?

Jesus in Heaven

What does it actually mean that Jesus died for our sins?

It is a phrase that is said all the time, but how many of us know the true meaning of these words.

To understand the meaning behind Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, and what people mean when they say that Christ died for our sins, we must go all the way back to the beginning. God created the earth and everything in it. His most special creation on earth was human. We are said to be made in His image and likeness. God is the father of the world, the one who created us and provides for us. All he wants in return is for us to love him. It is really that simple. He could make us love him, of course. He’s God. He can do anything. Forced love, however, is not genuine love. So, for God to know that we truly love him, He gave us all free will. In such a way, He puts it all on us; that is, loving him or not is a choice we have to make.

As we know from the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command and ushered sin into the world. Mankind's punishment for sin is that we all eventually die. Or to put it more simply, sin caused death. Earth could have been like a heaven forever for us, if we just chose to love God and honor his commands. Unfortunately, however, mankind chose to turn away from God, and as a result our time on this would-be heaven is limited and arduous. Early man became so sinful in fact that all of mankind had to die; fortunately, God chose to save one man and his family from the flood so that life on earth could continue.

A descendant of Noah, a man named Abraham, became the chosen man of God. God promised Abraham that he would become the father of nations. This seemed impossible to Abraham who was not only already an old man, but he was also married to an old barren woman. God blessed Abraham with a miracle child named Isaac. God then decided to test Abraham, much the same way he tested Adam and Eve in the garden. God had to know if Abraham really loved him. So He asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. On the way up the mountain, realizing it was just the two of them ascending, Isaac asked his father where the lamb was for the sacrifice. To which Abraham poignantly replied, God will provide it. Unlike Adam and Eve, Abraham did exactly what God asked of him. However, before Abraham could sacrifice Isaac — thus proving his love for God — God stopped Abraham and gave him a ram to sacrifice instead.

Abraham’s grandson was Israel — the same Israel from whom the twelve tribes of Israel are said to descend. It was a man named Moses who led these Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. On their journey through the wilderness to the Land God had promised them, God spoke to Moses and gave him 613 commandments for the Israelites to follow. Many of these religious laws have to do with special sacrifices that the Levitical priests are supposed to follow in order to absolve the Israelites of their sins (See: Leviticus 4). In other words, according to the Law of Moses, it was the priests’ duty to make these sin offerings in such a manner that pleased God.

Abraham had told Isaac that God would provide the lamb for the sacrifice. The sacrificial lamb that Abraham was referring to in this moment is not just some lie Abraham is telling his son to hide the fact that he is the one going to be sacrificed (which a superficial reading of scripture might suggest), but rather Abraham’s words are prophetic. We will return to this point later.

Scriptural prophecies abound in the Old Testament. In the book of the Prophet Isaiah, for instance, the foretelling of Jesus is much less difficult to miss, and even harder to deny. Keep in mind as you read the following passage that Isaiah was writing over 700 years before Jesus ever walked the earth, nonetheless he is describing a suffering man of the Lord who will die for the sins of mankind:

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from who people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way. The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:3-6)

After reading this passage and seeing how Isaiah describes God’s “man of suffering,” it becomes very easy to see why this is one of the most talked about and studied passages of all of Judeo-Christian scripture. Isaiah seems to be giving an exact description of Jesus centuries before he was born. Nevertheless, the part of the passage that is of great importance to our current discussion are the lines “by his wounds we are healed. We all like sheep have gone astray…The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” These lines are simply another way to say that this future “man of suffering” will “die for our sins.” (For more on Isaiah 53 click here)

After all of this, we can see why this idea of dying for our sins matters so much — it was prophesied throughout scripture from the very beginning — but the question still remains, what exactly does dying for our sins really accomplish?

As Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Cor. 15:14). By saying this, Paul clearly understands the importance of what it means to say that Jesus died for our sins.

So what does it mean that Jesus died for our sins? And why is it important?

As we saw earlier with Adam and Eve, sin brought with it the punishment of death. Shortly thereafter, sin became so widespread, that God chose to cleanse the earth with a flood. After God re-populated the earth, he chose one man from whom to start a nation with descendants as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5). Despite God’s favor, people still continued to sin. Having promised mankind that He would never again end life on earth with a flood, God had to find a new way to cleanse the world. God gave his people the law of Moses to follow as a way to show their love for Him and distance themselves from their sins. One of the ways in which they do this is by making a blood sacrifice to God as a sin offering. In spite of all this, man continued to sin. After fifteen hundred years of the Law of Moses and these blood sacrifices, God decided to cleanse the world in a much different way.

Let us return to that moment from earlier when God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, and his son, ignorant of God’s command, asks his father where the lamb for the sacrifice is. “God will provide it,” Abraham said knowingly. Some people read this passage of scripture and don’t understand how God could ask such a thing of Abraham. It seems like such a cruel and selfish demand for God to make — to ask Abraham to prove his love for Him by sacrificing his son. The fact of the matter is that it only seems cruel and selfish because we cannot see the bigger picture. That is to say, despite appearances otherwise, God is the loving father that he always is. You see, scripture as a whole is not about God asking a man to sacrifice his son to show his love for Him, rather it is all about God sacrificing His only son as a way to show his love for us. In other words, it is exactly as Abraham prophesied, God really did provide the sacrificial lamb — the ultimate sin offering…

The Bible tells us that the punishment for sin is death. In such a way, sin and death are inextricably linked. Jesus, however, died on the cross even though he himself was without sin. Perhaps it is for this reason that Jesus did not stay dead for long. After three days, Jesus rose from the dead. In so doing, he took away all of death’s power and defeated it. By defeating death, the power of sin is also threatened, because as we just said sin and death are inextricably linked. So it is much like Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain. He says this because if Jesus did not rise from the dead and defeat death in such a way, then he did not wash away all of our iniquity like a flood, and cleanse us, and actually die for our sins. This is the point on which the entire Word of God rests.

This is what it means when people say that Jesus died for our sins.