It’s actually surprising how little the NT says about the death of Christ in a sacrificial sense. In fact, almost all the references to the sacrifice of Christ are in Hebrews, in a very specific context related to the tabernacle and the Day of Atonement. Paul rarely uses sacrificial language, and when he does it could just as well be in reference to sacrifices in his own life (as in “I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith” Phil 2:17; cf 2 Tim 4:6 ) or to sacrifices made by fellow-believers (“I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” Phil 4:18)
In fact, apart from Hebrews (which I will come to) there are only a handful of places where the NT refers to Christ's death as a sacrifice:
Romans 3:25The Ephesians 5:2 text is remarkable in that Paul uses precisely the same language to describe charitable gifts made by Christians (Phil 4:8). He obviously is not thinking of it in terms of an atonement which could take away sin. So that leaves only Romans 3:25 and 1 John 2:2; 4:10 where Christ's death is referred to as "an atoning sacrifice" (and I will come back to look at them in detail later).
God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished
Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
1 John 2:2
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
1 John 4:10
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
In addition to these texts there are a few more which speak of the blood of Christ (ignoring the Hebrews texts for now):
Ephesians 1:7We can see from this that the emphasis of the NT is NOT on the death of Christ as any form of vicarious sacrifice, i.e. Jesus did not die in our place, or as a substitute, or in any way to suffer a penalty for our sins. He did, however, die FOR us, but what does that mean? If I say I will do something for you I may mean I will do it instead of you (e.g. you don’t have to do that – I’ll do it for you), but equally I could mean I will do it to benefit you (e.g. let me do that for you).
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace
1 Peter 1:2
To God's elect ... who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.
1 Peter 1:18-19
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
The language of sacrifice in Hebrews is interesting. The context is clearly the Day of Atonement so any reference to a sacrifice has to be in that context. Heb 9:22 says “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” There are two statements there which, if meant in a general way, would simply be untrue. First, not “everything” was cleansed by blood. Some things were cleansed by water (hence baptism, hand-washing, mikvahs, etc). Second, forgiveness was possible without the shedding of blood. However, in the context it’s clear that the writer meant that “everything” in the tabernacle was cleansed by blood (the furniture etc), and that on the Day of Atonement there was no forgiveness without shedding of blood (although there was at other times). So the context makes these statements quite specific – otherwise they would simply be untrue.
On the Day of Atonement the High Priest went into the Most Holy Place, and I believe that’s what is behind the argument in Hebrews . It was about one man going into the Holiest place for the benefit of all.
The NT writers (especially Hebrews) are telling us that Jesus’ death was the means by which He could be exalted and enter “the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation” (9:11). His death was “necessary” in order to pass from “this creation” and enter heaven: “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence” (9:22).
His death wasn’t “necessary” in order for God to forgive us, because God can (and does) forgive without sacrifice or shedding of blood. It wasn’t “necessary” to take away our sin. It wasn’t “necessary” as a penalty or as a vicarious sacrifice. It was actually not possible under the Law to die for the sins of another person - to pay the penalty for their sins. This is spelled out clearly and thoroughly in Ezekiel 18 where God says “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.” On this basis the doctrine that we are somehow punished for the sin of Adam is clearly wrong. "The son will not share the guilt of the father". We do not share Adam's guilt! "But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die" (v. 21). Here the basis of forgiveness and freedom from guilt is repentance not sacrifice.
Jesus therefore could not have died "in our place" or to pay the penalty for our sins. He could not have died to remove the guilt of Adam's sin. Only Adam could die for Adam's sin. "The soul who sins is the one who will die."
However, Jesus death was “necessary” in order to be exalted, to sit at God’s right hand and to enter heaven as our High Priest. Christ died for us, i.e. to benefit us, but didn’t die in our place. As a result of His exaltation we now have the outpouring of the Spirit. Ephesians 4:7-8 makes this clear: “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men". John 7:39 says something similar: “By this he meant the Spirit, which those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” In other words, without Jesus' ascension and exaltation there could be no outpouring of the Spirit. Without His exaltation we would have no intercessor at God’s right hand, to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given. There are many “benefits” coming to us as a result of His exaltation.
It seems to me there was nothing “mechanical” or “legalistic” about the death of Christ. It wasn’t “required” or “demanded” or made “necessary” by any law of God’s own making.
In a subsequent message (number 8 in this series)I will take a look at the handful of references in the NT to Christ taking away sins, and come back to the texts about Christ being "an atoning sacrifice".