Symbols of Christ’s death
12 images of Christ’s death
Earlier this year consumer advocate Choice found that dried oregano is being padded with substitute olive and sumac leaves. One product contained less than 10% of the real thing, while other brands had just 11-50%. Dried olive and sumac leaves were a cheaper substitute that looked similar to oregano. Some of the suspect samples came from Turkey.
Other food scandals include imitation honey, horsemeat marketed as beef, mislabelled seafood, and peanuts being mixed into ground cumin. These are examples of bad substitution. Today we are looking at a good substitution by God.
Every good drama, movie or story has at least one climax. The climax is the turning point of the story when the main problem is addressed. Today we are looking at the climax of the bible.
In the introduction of the Bible it describes how our earliest ancestors Adam and Eve rebelled against the God who made them and this resulted in all the problems we experience today like evil, pain, suffering, disease and death.
The climax is when God solves the problem of people’s sinfulness. He does this by coming to the earth and taking the punishment that we all deserve – that’s the substitution. The Bible’s climax has two twists. Firstly, Jesus’ followers believe He is the Messiah, but their hopes are dashed when instead of setting up His kingdom on earth, He is executed as a criminal. So their great expectations are replaced by grief and loss. Secondly, a few days after His burial Jesus miraculously resurrects back to life and the grief and loss is replaced with joy! What a dramatic fluctuation in emotions!
There is a movie called “God’s not dead!”. Well today we are looking at when God died. That’s amazing! How could the God with the power to create and sustain the universe die like a human being? We will see that multiple images and symbols are required to convey the message of Christ’s death and its impact.
The symbols of Christ’s death are categorized below as: people, animals, inanimate things, and religious ceremonies.
Abraham sacrificing Isaac
Hebrews 11 says, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son” (Heb. 11:17NIV). When God tested Abraham’s faith about 4,000 years ago, he told him to sacrifice Isaac his only son. At the last minute, God provided a ram to take Isaac’s place. That’s another substitution. This climax in Abraham’s life happened on Mount Moriah, which was also near the place where Christ later died, in Jerusalem (Gen 22:1-14; 2 Chron. 3:1).
Isaac is like Jesus: they were only sons loved by their fathers, and willing to do their father’s will (Gen. 22:2; Mt. 4:17). But there is a difference: Isaac didn’t die as a sacrifice but Jesus did; and Abraham was spared the grief but God wasn’t.
If the death of Jesus is like Isaac bound on the altar, it reminds us of the role of God the Father and God the Son. This symbol also reminds us of how the death of Jesus was God’s plan which depended on Christ’s obedience. It’s all about God.
Jonah swallowed by the big fish
Jesus said, “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man (Jesus) will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40). When Jonah was thrown overboard in a Mediterranean storm in about 760 BC, he was swallowed by a huge fish and he was in the belly of the fish for three days (Jon. 1:17). After this he was vomited onto dry land (Jon. 2:10). Then Jonah preached in Nineveh and when they turned to follow God, the Israelites were relieved of the Assyrian threat.
The Bible says that Jonah is like Jesus: being swallowed by the fish was like Christ’s death, being in the fish for three days was like Christ buried in the tomb and being vomited out was like Christ’s resurrection back to life. It says that “God provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah” (Jon. 1:17). It was God provision. Likewise, God provided Christ’s death for us.
The Bible also says that Jesus rose on “the third day” after His death and burial (Mt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mk. 9:31; 10:34; Lk. 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46; Jn. 2:19; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4). The third day means the day after tomorrow (Lk. 13-31-33). Apparently the Jews counted parts of days as whole days.
If the death of Jesus is like Jonah being swallowed by the fish, it reminds us that the death of Jesus was God’s plan. He provided it. This symbol also reminds us that Christ was only dead for three days and then He rose back to new life.
Animal sacrifices in Old Testament times were also symbols of Christ’s death. For example, the ram that replaced Isaac on Mount Moriah was like Jesus. An innocent animal died as a substitute instead of Isaac. Likewise, although He was sinless, Jesus took our punishment. He died in our place. Paul said, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. He died for us. And “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a … sacrifice to God” (Rom. 5:8; Eph. 5:2).
And during the Passover, a lamb was killed and its blood put on the door frames of their houses. The lamb had to be “without defect” (Ex. 12:5). This is like Jesus because Peter said, He was “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pt. 1:19). That’s a metaphor saying He’s like a lamb without blemish or defect. God said, “when I see the blood (on the door frames), I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). In this way the Israelites were saved from the death of their firstborn. None of the Israelites died because a lamb had died instead of them. They benefited from the animal’s death. They received mercy instead of judgment. They were protected from God’s judgment. On the next day, in the exodus they were delivered and rescued from slavery in Egypt. After this, the Passover was celebrated annually in remembrance of this great deliverance from slavery.
It’s interesting that Jesus celebrated the Passover on the evening before He died, and He was crucified on the day of the Passover (14 Aviv) – a Jewish day is comprised of a night followed by the daylight hours. Also Paul said, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). Another metaphor. So the Passover lamb is like Jesus. It died to save the household from God’s judgment.
John the Baptist called Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). The lamb was a sacrificial animal among the Jews. It was killed as a substitute and its blood was sprinkled around. Here all humanity benefits from Christ’s death (it’s for “the world”), not just the Jews.
Jewish animal sacrifices (like the burnt, fellowship and guilt offerings, and the day of atonement) that were required under the law of Moses are symbols of the death of Jesus. In all these cases, innocent animal life was given up to protect human life. The judgment and penalty for their sins were carried out through a transfer of the sin of the people to the animal sacrifice. Forgiveness is possible because the penalty of sin (death) is transferred to a sacrificial animal. The animal was a substitute for the people. The Bible says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). The shedding of blood means death.
A major difference between the animal sacrifices and Christ’s death is that the sacrifices continued daily, weekly, and annually, whereas Christ only needed to die once (Heb. 9:26; 10:1, 11-12). His single death fulfilled the animal sacrifices of the old covenant (Heb. 9:7-28; 13:11-12). So there is no need for animal sacrifices anymore (Heb. 10:18). His death was “once for all”. For all time and for all people.
If the death of Jesus is like an animal sacrifice, it reminds us that Jesus died for us. God died for us! The Creator died for His creation! His creatures! This symbol also reminds us that through the death of Jesus we can receive mercy instead of judgment. This symbol will endure because in heaven we will proclaim, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain” (Rev. 5:12).
On the day of atonement, the Jewish High Priest put both his hands on the head of a goat and confessed all the sins of the Israelites and “put them on the goat’s head” (Lev. 16:7-10, 20-22). Their sins were symbolically placed on the goat. And the goat was taken away and released in the wilderness to carry all their sins to a remote place. Symbolically it carried away the sins of the people.
This is similar to what happened at Christ’s death. The sins of the whole world were placed on Jesus Christ. Peter said, ‘“He himself bore our sins” in His body on the cross’ (1 Pt. 2:24). And when He died He took the penalty for them – the wages of sin is death. So they were taken away for ever. Aaron laying his hands on the goat symbolizes the placing of our sins on Christ, to be taken away forever. As the goat substituted for the Israelites, Jesus substituted for us.
If the death of Jesus is like the scapegoat, it reminds us that Jesus died for us. This symbol also reminds us that through the death of Jesus our sins are taken away forever.
The heartbroken wife of Alice Springs man Kevin Reid, shot dead in Georgia US recently, has told of how he died protecting her during a robbery attempt. He moved her out of the way and probably saved her life. She said her husband died a hero. That’s an example of sacrifice.
The bronze snake
When Jesus taught Nicodemus about the source of spiritual life, He said “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him” (Jn. 3:14-15). So He referred to an incident when the Israelites were travelling through the wilderness towards Canaan in about 1400 BC (Num. 21:5-9). When they complained about God and Moses causing their poor living conditions, God sent venomous snakes and many died. After Moses prayed for the people, God told him to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole and “anyone who is bitten can look at it and live”. If they looked, they were delivered and healed of the snakebite. God provided a way to save them from death.
Jesus was saying that He must be lifted up on a pole (the cross) like the bronze snake, so that sinners looking to Him by faith might have everlasting life. The next verse says “For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). That’s the context of this famous verse. It’s all about how God used the crucifixion to provide a way to save people from spiritual death. The death of Christ was how God loved the world and how He gave His only Son. Like the bronze snake, God has done His part. But we need to do something as well. Just as the Israelites needed to look at the snake on the pole to live, belief, acceptance and trust in God’s act of love is the only way to change our destiny from eternal death to eternal life.
If the death of Jesus is like the bronze snake, it reminds us that His death is the only way to eternal spiritual life. This symbol also reminds us that if we don’t accept that the death of Christ paid the penalty for our sins, we are doomed to eternal spiritual death.
As Christ was crucified on a Roman cross, the word “cross” can be used as a figure of speech for Christ’s death. For example, Hebrews says, “For the joy set before Him He (Jesus) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
As Christ’s crucifixion resulted in the good news of salvation, the word “cross” is also used as an extended figure of speech for the Christian gospel. For example, Paul said, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 12:18). The “message of the cross” is the good news (gospel) about the death of Christ. It’s belief in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection to forgive sins. This is nonsense to unbelievers. But for believers it’s the power of God because God is at work in proclaiming the message and convicting sinners to come to faith in Christ. So both the word “cross” (Gal. 1; Eph. 2:16; Col. 2:13-14), and the phrase the “cross of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:17; Gal. 6:12, 14; Phil. 3:18;) are used to mean the gospel of Christ and all its benefits.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the cross, I’m reminded that there were three crosses. This symbol also reminds us of the impact of Christ’s death. The man on one cross believed that the death of Christ paid the penalty for his sins, while the other man rejected this opportunity.
The word “blood” is often used as a symbol of death in the Old Testament. And “shedding blood” means murder. Also, blood had a special role in animal sacrifices. The animal’s blood was evidence that the penalty (of death) had been paid. This is summarized in the New Testament, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed (ceremonially purified) with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). And covenants were confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8).
In the New Testament, blood is often a symbol of Christ’s death. For example, Pilate told the Jews, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Mt 27:24-25). And the people replied “His blood is on us and on our children!”. Paul said, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7). And John said, “the blood of Jesus … purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). Here the word “blood” means Christ’s death. By the way, Christ’s physical blood had no miraculous power or properties, but was just like that of any other person.
Jesus didn’t bleed to death, but the terms used in the Bible for Christ’s death include: the blood of Jesus, the blood of Christ, the blood of the Lamb, His own blood, His blood, my blood, and your blood. This symbol occurs so often, that it can be called a motif, which is a recurring element in a story that has symbolic significance. In their repetition, motifs emphasize what’s most important about a story. For example, in his most famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. used “I have a dream” as a motif to tie together different ideas such as a quote from the US Declaration of Independence and people who once were at odds sitting down together.
The noun “blood”, is also used as an extended figure of speech for the Christian gospel and all the benefits of Christ’s death. These benefits associated with the figurative “blood of Christ” include:
- Redemption (Eph. 1:7; 1 Pt. 1:18-19), like being released from slavery.
- Salvation, like being delivered from danger.
- Forgiveness ( 1:7), like cancelling debts.
- Reconciliation, like restoring a broken relationship, and having peace with God (Rom. 1:20).
- Justification (Rom. 5:9), like acquittal from condemnation and guilt.
- Adoption, like an orphan finding a new family.
- Sanctification (Heb. 10:10; ( 13:12; 1 Jn. 1:7), like gaining Christ’s righteousness, being holy and set apart for God. And cleansing from sin, like “takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29); “the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin (1 Jn. 1:7); “has freed us from our sins by His blood” (Rev. 1:5); and “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14).
All of these benefits are associated with the term, the “blood of Christ”.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by blood, it reminds us of all the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament. This symbol also reminds us all the benefits of Christ’s death.
The torn curtain
When Jesus died, the heavy curtain that separated the Jewish temple in Jerusalem into two rooms (Ex. 26:31-33) was torn in half from the top to the bottom (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). As the ark of the covenant symbolized God’s throne and presence in the Most Holy Place, the curtain separated sinful humanity from a holy God. The only person who was allowed into the inner room (the Most Holy Place), was the High Priest who could only enter once per year on the Day of Atonement after the necessary animal sacrifices had been offered.
As the curtain symbolized Christ’s body, its tearing symbolized His death (Heb. 6:19-20; 10:19-20). The tearing of the curtain signified that through Christ’s death believers have direct access to God (Heb. 9:11-14; 10:19-22). It symbolized a new era of access to God for all nationalities, not just the Jews.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the torn curtain, it reminds us of the beginning of a new relationship with God. This symbol also reminds us that Christ’s death is the only way for people to approach God the Father.
Jesus came to “give His life as a ransom for many” and He “gave Himself as a ransom for all people” (Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45; 1 Ti. 2:6). A ransom was the price paid to free a slave. Similarly, Christ paid the ransom price of His own life to free us from spiritual death and the slavery of sin. He died on behalf of us all, but not all will accept this offer of freedom.
If the death of Jesus is like a ransom, it reminds us that a cost was involved and God the Father and Jesus made that payment. This image also reminds us of the benefits of Christ’s death for believers – it’s like being freed from slavery.
John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son (as a gift), that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life”. And God “did not spare His own Son, but gave Him (as a gift) up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). And Paul says that Jesus “gave Himself (as a gift) for our sins” as “a sacrifice to God” (Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Eph. 5:2).
A gift involves a giver and a receiver. Here the gift is salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection. The givers are God the Father and His only Son, Jesus. And the receivers are those who accept God’s supreme gift.
If the death of Jesus is like a gift, it reminds us of the love and generosity of the divine givers. This image also reminds us that we need to accept the gift in order to receive its benefits.
In March this year, Ryan Martin drowned just minutes after saving the life of a young girl near Coolangatta. He was one of a number of people who went to the girl’s aid. He didn’t know the girl, he just saw her in trouble and went to help. She was carried safely to shore but moments later Mr Martin began to struggle against the rough current. Surf lifesavers pulled him from the water but were unable to revive him. A friend said “He sacrificed himself to save the life of a young girl. The act of a true hero”. He gave her the gift of life, when she faced death.
Christian baptism is a public identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-11). People are baptised by being immersed in water. It’s like a short version of Jonah being swallowed by the big fish. But they are under the water for a few seconds rather than three days! Going into the water is like death by drowning. Staying under the water is like burial, and coming up out of the water is like resurrection. It’s a drama that shows we are united with Christ’s death and should no longer be slaves to sin. And instead of being raised like Christ, we have a new spiritual life. Paul said “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (1 Cor. 5:17).
Paul summarized the gospel message as: “what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Christ’s death was the payment for sin. His burial was the proof of His death. And His resurrection was the proof of God the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice of Christ, and that death is conquered.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by baptism, it reminds us of its power over sin and Satan. This symbol also reminds us of how the death of Jesus can bring a new spiritual life.
The Lord’s supper
At His last Passover, Jesus told His disciples to remember Him regularly like the Jews had remembered the Passover associated with the exodus from Egypt. They were to do it by communally eating bread and drinking wine. The bread and wine were metaphors of Christ’s death. When Jesus said “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Mt. 26:26; Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24), He meant that the broken bread represented His broken body. When Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). He meant that the wine represented blood, which was a symbol of His death.
As the old Mosaic covenant between God and the Israelites was confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8), the new covenant was confirmed by Christ’s death.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the Lord’s Supper (the bread and wine), it reminds us that His death is the source of our spiritual life. This symbol also reminds us that the new covenant is superior to the old one and to all other religions.
We have looked at several symbols of Christ’s death from the Bible. They show that: It depends on God the Father and God the Son like Abraham sacrificing Isaac. It’s followed by resurrection like when Jonah was swallowed and vomited out by the big fish. In it Jesus was our substitute like an animal sacrifice – He took our punishment so we could receive God’s forgiveness and mercy. Through it, a believer’s sins are taken away forever like the scapegoat. It’s the only way from spiritual death to spiritual life like the bronze snake. It offers a choice to accept or reject like the choices made by those on the other two crosses. It has many benefits associated with the motif of blood. It began a new relationship with God like the torn curtain. It results in freedom like a ransom. It needs to be accepted like a gift. It gives power over sin and Satan like baptism. And it’s superior to the old Jewish covenant and all other religions like the Lord’s supper.
So multiple images and symbols are required to convey the message of Christ’s death and its impact.
In response, have you accepted God’s gift of forgiveness and salvation? Have you entered into the new relationship with God? Have you transformed from spiritual death to spiritual life? It’s the most important thing we can do. If not, confess your sinfulness like that criminal on the cross, who turned (repented) to trust that through Christ’s sacrificial death he could be reconciled with God.
If we are believers: When we realize what they have done for us, how often do we thank God the Father and Jesus for this great sacrifice? Do we keep meeting collectively to obey the Lord’s command to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-25). Do we appreciate the exchange: Jesus took our punishment so we could receive God’s forgiveness and mercy? Are we assured that our sins are taken away forever? Are we free of the slavery of sin? Do we realize the implications of Christ’s resurrection and our new spiritual life? Is our spiritual life evident? And do we appreciate all the benefits associated with salvation?
Written, September 2016