Sadly it seems every week, sometimes more often than that, we learn about someone making “the ultimate sacrifice” – a soldier dying in combat in the Middle East; a law enforcement officer getting killed while attempting to apprehend a violent criminal; even someone giving his or her life trying to save a perishing friend.
Would you be willing to make such a sacrifice for someone? Has that thought ever crossed your mind? Obviously it’s not something we plan for, or prepare to do. There’s no academic curriculum for would-be heroes, and it’s not something most of us aspire to. I’ve always thought actor and director Woody Allen had a sensible perspective: “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
This week, however, countless millions around the world will commemorate an event that lifted the term, “the ultimate sacrifice,” to a totally different level. More than 2,000 years ago, on a crude wooden cross atop a hillside outside of Jerusalem, Jesus Christ gave His life. We’ve seen paintings, sculptures, even movies and dramatic depictions of the crucifixion, but none of us can truly understand what it was like to die in such a way.
The Bible asserts Jesus’ death, unlike contemporary acts of heroism, was neither spontaneous nor unexpected. It was intended, central to His mission on earth. There was no other alternative for dealing with the plague afflicting 100 percent of humanity – the plague of sin.
Romans 5:8 tells us, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
And lest we believe Jesus became caught up in a tragic chain of circumstances that spiraled out of control, He had informed His followers in advance, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep…. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:14-18).
Another distinction between Christ’s sacrifice and the noble, selfless acts performed by men and women is that His death was not an ending, but in a very real sense just a beginning. That’s why the day for remembering the crucifixion of Jesus is known as Good Friday, rather than “bad Friday” or “black Friday.”
The Sunday after His tomb was found empty, no longer required for the resurrected Christ. He not only had willingly offered Himself as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind, but also had paved the way for His followers to experience life unlike anything they’d ever known: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:1-5).
So this week we remember the hideous day when Jesus hung on a cross, abandoned by all to the extent that He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Thankfully, we also celebrate Easter, the day when God once and for all achieved His victory over death.