In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (I John 4:9-10)
The Bible’s first book, Genesis, begins with the account of the creation of mankind and the realm that humans inhabit. In the first two chapters is a brief, simple story of God’s creation of the cosmos that we know, the world in which we live, plant and animal life, and mankind. “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done (Genesis 2:1-2).” Genesis 2:7 reads, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” God had displayed His infinite ability, power, and wisdom, both within the Godhead and to all of the “angels” and other beings apparently created previously. God had designed the world for humankind and had created humans, and from 3:8 (“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden”), there is the clear implication that God and man were in relationship and fellowship. Adam knew God as God, as Creator, as Source and Sustainer, and even in a sense as Friend. The created universe was vast, expansive, beautiful, everything that man would ever need or could ever imagine. But the divine purpose in creation was far from finished; the love story of the ages was still more like a mystery than a love story.
The divine purpose for creating humans was not that they should exist merely knowing Him as Creator. God created man for a much more expansive and dynamic purpose, to be more than just a robot or machine but to ultimately deeply know, serve, experience, and worship Him. To love Him. In so doing, the possibility of human waywardness and disobedience toward God necessarily followed, and man fell into sin and rebellion against God, just as God in His divine unfathomable knowledge had known would happen. Genesis chapter three relates a simple account of the Fall of humankind into sin and rebellion against God. “Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”- therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man . . . (Genesis 3:22-24).” And from that point forward, the cataclysmic result of sin against the Creator has played out through the ages.
It is necessary that we get some comprehension of the vast unimaginable crime of creature rebelling against the Creator, explained more fully throughout the whole of scripture. Triune God is the eternally existent One, and all that He has created is rightfully and necessarily for Him, His purposes, His honor, His glory. Of Christ, Hebrews 2:10 tells us that “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, . . .” In Colossians 1:15-17 Paul wrote that Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” For His own glory and purposes, God created mankind and the earth. The Genesis account tells us that man fell – sinned – rebelled against God – and was driven from Eden and lost the previous relationship with God, and coupled with teaching throughout scripture, we learn that mankind “died” spiritually, becoming separated and alienated from God. The earth itself, created as the home for mankind, was changed, still displaying God’s glory in creation, but profoundly affected in the wake of the Fall. Through the centuries, natural disasters of every sort, weather disasters and plagues and famines and calamities have brought untold misery. Human nature was monstrously affected. Millions have died in wars, millions have been enslaved and oppressed, maladies and defects of every sort have plagued suffering humanity throughout history. There is no dimension of our humanity, of the human experience, and of human history, that is not affected by our rebellion against God. And death has ultimately been the inescapable lot of the descendants of Adam. Romans 5:12 notes that “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned,” and in First Corinthians 15:22 is the statement that “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.”
It is with this background that the love story really begins, and God’s ultimate purpose for creating human beings unfolds. The Genesis chapter three account relates that God had communicated that if Adam and Eve ate from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” they would die. When they disobeyed, they died spiritually, their innocence lost and their previous relationship with their Creator destroyed, but they didn’t immediately die physically. Instead, God killed two animals and used their skins as clothes to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21); substitutes were killed to cover their physical shame. Animal sacrifice thus began and continued throughout the Old Testament. In a love story?
Fast forward to a point in time some four thousand years ago, where the Bible’s story of God’s relationship with man and the great love story of the ages continues and begins to focus. God entered into a covenant relationship with the man Abraham, and God’s divine purposes began to unfold through the nation comprised of Abraham’s descendants, Israel, the Jewish people. In Genesis 22, God strangely asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son to the Lord. Abraham faithfully obeyed, but as he was ready to kill Isaac, God stopped him and provided a ram caught by his horns in a bush. Isaac lived because God provided a sacrifice to take his place. Centuries later, while they were captive in Egypt, the concept of the substitute sacrifice came to a memorable point for the nation of Abraham’s descendants with the Passover in Exodus 12. A lamb free of obvious flaws was killed and its blood spread on the doorposts of homes so that the family inside was spared the judgment of the angel of death, and the people ate the lamb, showing their identification and participation with it and its fate. Sacrificial atonement came to be central to Israel’s religion. In various offerings, the worshiper placed hands on an unblemished animal, signifying identification with the animal (Leviticus 1, 4). The animal was killed, its blood poured out on the altar, and by faith the penitent worshiper was accepted and reconciled to God. Ugly, bloody, not at all loving, viewed from a postmodern perspective.
Israel, the descendant people from Abraham, eventually became a strong nation, and a fabulous temple was built at Jerusalem. Sacrifices were offered there day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, and animal sacrifices stood at the center of Israel’s religion. The animals took the punishment the people deserved. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest, representing the nation, would offer a sacrifice for himself and a sacrifice for the people. But unlike Passover or other offerings, neither the priest nor the people ate these sacrifices. They were whole burnt offerings, and God alone would symbolically consume the sacrifice and the sin that sacrifice represented. That endless repetition of the sacrifice of animals, however, showed that the love story was not finished. They merely foreshadowed what was to come. “But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins (Hebrews 10:3-4).” The sacrifices continued some four centuries in the temple at Jerusalem until the city was captured by ancient Babylon and the temple was destroyed. The bloody sacrifices resumed decades later in a rebuilt temple and continued until that building was later destroyed by the Romans. From the time of Abraham the religion of the Jewish people was massively bloody. Hardly what one would expect in a story of divine love.
These Old Testament sacrifices were prophecies and promises of a greater substitute that was to come. Isaiah spoke prophetically of this substitute in Isaiah 53, one whose blood could take away sin, whose death could actually gain the acceptance of the worshiper once and for all. One whose substitution was fully appropriate because he was fully human, whose sacrifice was completely adequate because he was fully divine. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote in Hebrews 10, quoting Psalm 40 as if spoken by Jesus: “You did not desire sacrifice and offering, but you prepared a body for me. You did not delight in whole burnt offerings and sin offerings. Then I said, ‘See – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God.” Animal sacrifices could not ultimately satisfy God; no religious rite could ever bridge the gulf between the holy Creator and sinful man.
Another, better, and permanent way was planned by God to atone for sin, to satisfy the wrath and justice of God against rebellion and disobedience inherent in His divine nature, to restore man to relationship with the Creator, and elevate man in fulfillment of the divine purpose for human existence. Further, God had displayed only a portion of Himself and His nature in creation. To demonstrate why He had created man, to demonstrate His grace and love while upholding His holiness, justice, and wrath against rebellion, something more was required. So to complete the divine purpose in creation, to complete the greatest love story ever told, something remarkable happened.
At the point in time chosen by God in His divine wisdom, the love story of the ages reached its ultimate climax. The apostle Paul wrote, in Galatians 4:3-5, “ Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” And so, God the Father prepared a body for the incarnation of God the Son. Through the Jewish nation, in fulfillment of the ancient covenant with Abraham, a final Sacrifice and Substitute was born. All along, from the moment of creation, God’s plan and purpose was not only to provide that substitute, but to be that substitute in the person of his Son, bearing in Himself the punishment human sin demanded and the sinfulness we could not overcome.
Human existence knows of many displays of great and deep love. A martyr might die for a deeply held cause. A patriot might give his life in love of country. A spouse may sacrifice for a spouse, a parent for a child. But none of those can begin to rival the love of God passionately expressed in Christ. Jesus did not die by accident. He did not die a martyr. He did not merely model sacrificial love. He did not come as a divine messenger from God to die in demonstration of God’s acceptance and affirmation of “broken” humanity, to say that God loves and accepts and affirms humans just as we are. He did not die to say that God is “crazy” about us all and to affirm our inherent value and worth. He willingly and purposely gave His life to atone for the sins of others, unworthy created beings in rebellion against Almighty God.
In John 10:11-17 it is recorded that Jesus said, as He contemplated his approaching death,
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. . . I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.
Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.
Jesus Christ was the Son of God and God the Son. He came to the covenant nation with the message from heaven as their promised Messiah, and in the ultimate display of human depravity, He was rejected and savagely killed. His death was not unique in its manner – thousands died on Roman crosses – and He was not the only man ever executed in a miscarriage of justice. But His death was unique in that He was incarnate God. In His gruesome death, the plan of God was fulfilled and the anger of God against sin was appeased. Some eight centuries earlier, the Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote, in Isaiah 53,
Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
Jesus died first and foremost to atone for human rebellion against God, to satisfy the wrath inherent in the divine nature against sin, to reconcile God and the repentant sinner. God is just and sinless and holy and yet still forgives those in rebellion against Him because He has atoned for the sins of ungodly sinners in the death of his own Son and has expressed and demonstrated His wrath against sin in the atonement made by Christ. Christ came to offer Himself before God to save us from the wrath of God. God did what He long promised He would do and what was demanded by the divine nature; He punished sin. The innocent substitute offered on the cross was not a mere animal as in the Old Testament sacrificial system, but was the incarnate Son of God.
At the cross all of God’s attributes were shown. In the crucifixion of Christ He demonstrated His own eternal greatness and glory, His holiness and eternal justice – and His mercy, grace, and love. This is the most staggering thing in the universe and in the whole of history! Through Jesus Christ, we are saved in the greatest imaginable demonstration of love, by God for God and His glory. It is only when we understand this, and understand how great our sin is, that we will begin to know how great is God’s love. The passionate expression of God’s love in Christ is the pinnacle of His glory. With the atoning death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, we see the story of redemption and the glory of God, and we gain the understanding of the love of God.
The divine purpose in creation was not complete in Eden. God had demonstrated his limitless power, ability, grandeur, and glory. But it wasn’t until the Cross that He displayed His mercy, grace, and His love. Paul wrote in Romans 5:6-10,
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
In the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, God has provided the means of salvation and redemption. Just as willful rebellion and disobedience – sin – ruined humanity, so a willful end to our rebellion is required of us. The Father sent the Son in the power of the Spirit to express the mercy, forgiveness, and the love of the Triune God in the great act of redemption. The Father and the Son have sent the Spirit to us to make the Son known, to make the way of salvation known to us, to call us and to restore and create life in those who will but end their rebellion, accept and believe what the Son has done for us, and call out to Him in faith. Just as in Adam’s sin we all died spiritually, Paul wrote in Second Corinthians 5:17 that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Those who end their rebellion and come to Christ know God in a way that Adam could never have experienced in Eden. Adam knew God as Creator. We can know Him not only as God and Creator, but we can know Him as the One who loves us enough to die for us in atonement for our sin. There is no more compelling story. He loves us, and wants us to love Him and live in a manner that reflects that we have been transformed by Him. In John 14, it is recorded that Jesus said,
If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever – the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.
He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.
Now, and perhaps more fully in eternity, repentant believers know Him and love Him as Savior and Redeemer. We know Him in His love, and we can live in fulfillment of the divine purpose for our existence – to love Him. At the end of time, at His chosen point in time, God will ultimately end unrepentant human rebellion. We along with the redeemed of the ages will then live on a renewed and restored earth and eternally live The Greatest Love Story Ever Told.