If you’re in Sunday School and you aren’t certain of the answer, it’s a good bet that “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins” won’t be too far off the mark. It’s the Sunday School answer. Not because Sunday School is somehow for simpletons and then we outgrow all that religion stuff. It’s the Sunday School answer because it is the content of our faith. Everything goes toward it.
And the Gospel reading from Luke – more than any others – focuses on Jesus as the sacrifice to take away sin. Not that the others don’t focus on it. They very much do. But Luke is explicit in a way the others aren’t. Jesus says from the cross “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” All four evangelists record the other two criminals crucified with Jesus. Matthew and Mark record that they both mocked him. Only Luke records that one of the two repented of that mockery. That he – at the very end – trusted in Jesus for salvation. Only Luke records the precious words of Gospel, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The symbol of Luke is the Bull – you see it in artwork. Why? Because the bull was one of the sacrifices in the temple. It was what the priest sacrificed on the day of atonement to cleanse himself and his family before he went into the holy of holies to offer the sacrifice of the lamb for the sins of the people. The lamb that had to be spotless, without blemish.
Luke begins his Gospel in the temple – Zechariah offering the daily sacrifice for the people. The angel announces the birth of John the Baptist. Luke alone records the circumcision of Jesus, where he first shed his blood in fulfillment of the Law. He records the purification of Mary at the temple – where Simeon took him in his aged hands and blessed him and prophesied. Luke records Jesus at age twelve, making his first journey to the temple, and astounding the priests and scribes with his knowledge.
Luke has more about what goes on in the temple than any other evangelist. He is all about the atonement, the sacrifice for sin. And so he includes in his Gospel account of the crucifixion other details as well. All four evangelists record Jesus being declared innocent by Pontius Pilate. Only Luke records Herod’s declaration as well. Jesus was without blemish. He was without sin. He was innocent as he went to his death. And that innocence was explicitly declared not just by one ruler, but by two.
Even the sentence of death spoken against him in Luke: He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will. Jesus is innocent and is being sacrificed in place of the guilty. There can be no mistaking it.
And then, the crucifixion itself. Where Luke alone records that word “Forgive them…” Just in case you didn’t understand yet what Jesus had come to do. Jesus gives us the Sunday School answer right as he is being crucified, and Luke makes sure it gets recorded for all time. And if you still aren’t clear – a man who admits he deserves death for his crimes is also pardoned by Jesus.
It’s the Sunday School answer because it is what God has been teaching since the beginning of the world. What he continues to teach this day. What he will proclaim to the world until Jesus returns and this world ends. It is all we have: The death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. But it is more than enough for us. It is not barely sufficient to cover sins. Jesus forgiveness is far greater than our sin. His death is more than enough to swallow them, to take them away such that they are no longer remembered by God. As far as the east is from the west. The depths of the sea. They are no more. Jesus wants to make certain that there is no confusion. He didn’t come to bring some sort of worldly justice to the this fallen creation. If he did – he failed. The innocent died for the guilty that day. He didn’t come to make our lives in this world better. He came to give them meaning. To forgive sins. To give us a reason to hope and trust in him so that we would not despair of our sins. But we would know that there is forgiveness with Jesus, so that we would fear love and trust in him above all things.
He is our one redeemer.