The Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter (Lk 24: 13-35) asks the question, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory?” Many years ago a young man pointed that verse out to me and asked why. Why was it necessary for Christ to suffer and die? In reading the rest of that text we find that Jesus interpreted the Scriptures for those two lucky disciples, so Jesus may well have answered that question, but Luke did not record those interpretations for us; so upon reading the entire text, the question of why remains unanswered.
There is a Christian doctrine known as sacrificial or substitutionary atonement. This doctrine essentially says that everyone is a sinner. Since every sin is an offense to our Holy God, our sinfulness alienates us from God. However, God loves us and He does not want to condemn us for our sinfulness. Therefore God sent his only Son, Jesus, into the world to live a sinless life among mankind. By Jesus sacrificing His life, suffering death on the cross, He has atoned for the sins of humanity. All who recognize Jesus as Lord and accept the death of Jesus as the payment of their sins will have eternal life.
That is the essence of the doctrine. But if you accept this doctrine at its face value and see the death of Jesus only as a sacrifice made in payment of a debt, you miss the point.
In order to understand, we have to look at the Gospel of Jesus in its entirety and pay attention to what Jesus said. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray by saying, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus went on to emphasize this point by saying, “If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” (Matthew 6:14-15) Again, Jesus said, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Pardon, and you shall be pardoned.” (Luke 6:37) And again, Jesus said, “Forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your faults.” (Mark 11:25) I could go on with many more examples; but it becomes clear that we experience the mercy of God by being merciful ourselves.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I solemnly assure you, whoever hears my word and has faith in him who sent me possesses eternal life.” (John 5:24) Remember also the parable that Jesus told of the prodigal son. In that story, it is obvious that the only thing that the father wanted was for his wayward son to repent and return home. This is precisely the will of our Heavenly Father. He simply wants all of His children to come home. Again, I could cite further examples, but Jesus made it clear that forgiveness was freely granted to all who expressed their faith in God, or who demonstrated repentance for their transgressions.
The suffering and death of our Lord Jesus is the ultimate example of the love and mercy of our God. Remember the story of the Last Supper, when Jesus took the cup, gave thanks and then gave it to his disciples saying, “All of you must drink from it, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out in behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:27-28) There can be no greater expression of God’s love and mercy for us than for Him to take upon Himself the responsibility of breaking down the only barrier that would separate us from Him. All He asks of us in return is for us to have faith in Him and for us to demonstrate that faith by our own personal repentance and by the love and mercy we have for one another.