As a child, I was enchanted by postage stamps. I would watch my mother write a letter to her mother, fold it, put it in an envelope, lick the back of the colorful little piece of paper, and then stick it in the upper right-hand corner of the envelope. The stamp, she explained, would ensure that the letter got all the way to Grandma’s house. I begged to lick the stamp, and at times Mama would let me. But she also noticed that I longed to lick more stamps than were needed. Seeing the inevitable misbehavior beginning to loom, she warned me: “If you lick and stick stamps where they don’t belong, you’ll get a spanking.”
I did. And she did.
There are in this world some rules that can’t be broken. Some laws come with consequences that are guaranteed to happen, every time. If you jump off the 54th floor of a tall building, you’ll die. If you dive into the ocean and stay under the water, you’ll soon drown. If you drink lots of alcohol, you’ll kill off some of your brain cells.
Genesis tells the story of our first human parents in Paradise. God warned Adam and Eve that if they sinned, they would “ ‘surely die’ ” (Genesis 2:17). It’s one of those unchanging laws of the universe that provide the order and structure of our world. People through the ages have known it to be true: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Or to say it briefly, “You sin, you die.”
You may not like the concept; neither did I like the concept that if I licked a bunch of stamps and stuck them on Mama’s desktop in pretty designs, I would get a spanking. But not liking the rule or the consequence doesn’t change it. A spanking was the consequence of disobedience to my mother. Death is the consequence of disobedience to God’s law.
As in my behavior with the stamps, Adam and Even did not resist the lure of disobedience. They sinned in eating fruit that God had told them to avoid. And just as surely as jumping off a tall building brings death, their sin brought with it the consequence of separation from God, which brings death.
If God had not thought ahead, He would have been in a very difficult spot. According to the Genesis Creation story, He deeply loved the people He had created. Now they had made precisely the choice against which He had warned them. The consequence was sure. He would lose these two beloved, rebellious children of His—for eternity.
But the biblical story implies that God had a plan in place before He ever created human beings. Adam and Eve were not immediately struck dead. The God who keeps His own laws is also full of amazing grace. So God provided another way. The result of their disobedience was death. But God said, “I will take the consequence for them. I will pay the price.”
What a strange idea that the God of the entire universe would offer to die for the sake of a couple of rebellious humans and their pitiful offspring, whose characters would be warped and disfigured by generation after generation of debilitating sin. We can’t understand it. It may not even seem like a sensible solution to us.
Some might ask, Why didn’t God just change the rules? As C. S. Lewis thought about it, he observed that there was no point in punishing an innocent Person; on the other hand, it makes sense that a debt should be paid. But how could an innocent Person take on the punishment for the guilty? To some people, God’s solution doesn’t make sense. It seems impossible.
But as created beings, how can we presume to judge God’s way of saving us from sin and reconciling us to Himself? He is the Creator, and we are the created. We must remember that the laws of the universe are a direct revelation of God’s character. He cannot undo universal law without breaking His integrity.
While we may not be able to understand God’s plan, we can see that He has tried to tell us over and over about His solution for our sin—that God would come to earth in human form, take our sins upon Himself, and pay the death penalty for us so that we would no longer have to suffer that consequence. God would cover our sins with His perfection.
Announcing the Plan
God tried to tell our first parents about His plan in cryptic words spoken to the serpent after Adam and Eve sinned: “ ‘And I will put enmity / between you and the woman, / and between your offspring and hers; / he will crush your head, / and you will strike his heel’ ” (Genesis 3:15).
God tried to tell Abraham in His calling for the sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac, and then providing an alternate sacrifice in the form of a ram (Genesis 22).
God tried to tell the Israelites through a system in which their sins were confessed over the head of an animal, which was then sacrificed as an atonement for their sins (Leviticus 4). He conveyed the message through song, as the psalmist David wrote lyrics that precisely described the sorrows of Jesus (Psalm 22).
God tried to tell the people in Jesus’ time when John the Baptist exclaimed, “ ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’ ” (John 1:29). God’s plan was ironically clear in the comment of Caiaphas as he and others plotted the death of Jesus: “ ‘It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish’ ” (John 11:50).
Jesus completes the plan
The plan to atone for the sin of humans became clearer and clearer through the centuries to the people who worshiped the one true God, but it was never more clear than it was on that terrible day when an innocent Man, Jesus, cried out on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, KJV). Jesus, the God-man, knew the horror of sin in this world better than any human has ever known it. He saw how it had obscured the character of God, and He took on the terrible price of death that we should have paid as a consequence of our sin. We see little glimpses of His understanding in His reactions, yet only Jesus has experienced the true awfulness of what it means to bear the ultimate consequences of human rebellion, because He chose to atone for our sins in our place.
What if, when I stuck the stamps all over my mother’s desk, my brother had approached my mother and said, “I know my sister deserves a spanking for this, but I want you to spank me instead of her”? What would have been the dynamics of that situation?
First of all, I would have been shocked and disbelieving that my brother would choose to take my penalty. Second, my heart would be broken as I saw him pay for my disobedience, knowing I deserved the punishment. Third, assuming that spanking was not a verdict for any of my other misdemeanors, only my brother would know what it really meant to be spanked. I would have a little idea as I witnessed his atonement for my sin, but I wouldn’t really comprehend his pain or the love for me that motivated his offer. And finally, I would never, ever choose to stick stamps on my mom’s desk again!
We take too lightly the price that Jesus paid for us. The story and images are so common in our mind’s eye that very few of us experience the shock, sorrow, and repentance we should naturally feel, knowing that Jesus took our punishment on Himself.
Is your heart broken as you read the story of His anguish at facing death and separation from the love that is God? Do you have any sense after contemplating that story of what it meant for God to pour Himself into human form and take on the consequences that were rightfully yours? What demonstration of God’s love would be stronger in inviting you to accept His transforming grace in re-creating your own life and character?
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 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—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:23–26).