I think it wouldn’t be going too far to say that there IS a discernible reason for every commandment which we are given… and that that reason leads, without too much delay or detour, right back to the Atonement.
Christ’s sacrifice is not just about blood, and sweat, and tears… and it is not just about the cross on that dreadful, but wonderful, day.
It is — and we all know this! — about the life he lived every day, every hour, before he arrived, finally, at that cross. Because it was his own unique life, built up day by day, with the building blocks of a thousand moments of ten thousand days, that made his cross meaningful.
Thousands of Jewish men died on thousands of Roman crosses across the length and breadth of Israel. But only one man died a sacrificial, atoning death on a cross (ed.note: really a wooden stake or “piece of wood”). Because he was the perfect sacrifice, without spot or blemish.
So Christ’s sacrifice is really about a life of many choices, each one in one way or another a choice to deny himself, and his own will, and to serve his Father, and his Father’s will.
A lifetime of choices made the final choice — of the cross itself — a choice of cosmic significance… a choice which resonates to this day, and echoes in our lives.
The essence of sacrifice is denial of self. And if we choose Christ and his cross, then we are also choosing denial of self… as a way of life. It is the hardest choice we can make, but it is the most rewarding. Allowed to work in our lives, that commitment and that choice will change us.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples,
‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his life? Or what can a man give in exchange for his life?’ ” (Mat 16:24-26).
We could run down a list of Christ’s commandments, and the commandments passed along by the apostles as well, and ask:
‘How does this relate to the Atonement?’
And in every case, I venture to suggest, we shall find the answer — and the meaningful example for us, of HOW to keep the commandment, and WHY we should keep it — in the “living sacrifice” of Christ.
Do we wonder why we are commanded this, for example?:
“Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Mat 5:39-42).
Well, of course, reason enough to do this — or (let’s be honest) to try very, very hard — is that Christ has commanded it.
But was it just an otherwise pointless requirement plucked out of the air:
‘Let’s test them with this one, while we are at it’?
Of course not. We are told not to resist evil because Christ did not resist evil. And Christ did not resist evil because he had committed himself, wholeheartedly, to his Father who would ultimately judge rightly (1Pe 2:23). If we believe that that final judgment of our Father is sure and certain and righteous, then what does it matter if evil ones misuse us today, or tomorrow, or all the rest of our lives? God will set it right.
What does it matter if we lose our coat, or our time, or our creature comforts — the loss of those things which we might hold dear will only reinforce to our minds the one thing that we MUST hold MOST dear — which no thief or bully or evil circumstance can take away from us:
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Rom 8:31,32,35).
And suppose the “cross” we are called to bear at this very moment is not the loss of property, or health, or loved ones… the terrible losses that Job, for example, bore? Suppose the “cross” we are called to bear at this very moment is… simply… the harsh word spoken to us, or the little slight we experience, or the brief delay because some driver cut us off in traffic, or the tiny barb that pricks our pride?
Maybe the “cross” that we are called to bear, right now, is not the great mountain of difficulty that looms in front of us… but the little grain of sand in our shoe!
How do we respond? Do we give harsh word for harsh word, little grumble for silly slight, little whispered curse for minor inconvenience? Do we recoil at the least threat to our pride, or the least questioning of our intelligence, or our strength, or our goodness, or our wisdom?
Or… do we recall that
“even Christ did not please himself” (Rom 15:3)?
And do we therefore “turn the other cheek” to the little slap, the little needle, the little attack — even if, and especially if, it comes from a brother or sister?
If we do, and when we do, then we are “living the atonement” in our lives.
Through fits and starts, and stops and blind alleys, sometimes failing but sometimes succeeding, we are learning to be, even in the small things of our lives, “living sacrifices” (Rom 12:1,2).
But the trouble with “living sacrifices” is that — as one writer put it —
“they keep crawling down off the altar”.
Lord, help me to hold on to your altar, and “die a little bit” every day, so that I might show forth your death until you return.