This makes better sense if we try to think like First Century Jews — and so look for understanding in the Torah — not so much the Law of Moses as God’s covenant with Abraham.
(Rom 4:23-25 NET) 23 But the statement [righteousness] was credited to [Abraham] was not written only for Abraham’s sake, 24 but also for our sake, to whom it will be credited, those who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification.
Paul describes our salvation by faith as based on God’s covenant with Abraham, in which God credits Abraham’s faith as righteousness. Somehow, in those three verses, Paul leaps all the way from Abraham having faith to the cross producing forgiveness for our sins. But that’s not an obvious connection. Where in God’s covenant with Abraham do we find the cross?
Ray Vander Laan offers an explanation that I find compelling. For thousands of years, men have sealed covenants in blood. In the Middle East, they used to say that they “cut a covenant,” meaning the covenanting parties cut their arms and sucked a bit of one another’s blood. The mingling of blood was considered to bring the parties together so tightly they’d have to honor their words. (See here)
In the Middle East, this practice gave way to the sharing of animal blood in a ceremony that surely seems strange to us today. Even today in some Middle Eastern societies, when a covenant, such as a marriage, is made, the heads of the household make a solemn pact that the wife will be faithful to her husband and that the husband will not abuse his wife. The two men take an animal, cut it in two, and then take turns walking between the two halves, stepping in and through the blood.
The ceremony has this meaning: if I do not keep my promise, you may do to me what we’ve done to this animal. The two men pledge their lives to seal the covenant. And in those societies today, when a husband beats his wife or the wife commits adultery, the head of the offender’s household is often found dead, killed by the other family in fulfillment of the oath.
Now consider God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17 –
(Gen 15:4-21) Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.”
5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars — if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
7 He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
8 But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
9 So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” 10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.
13 Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.
18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates — 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
God wanted to assure Abraham of the certainly of his promise, and so he made a solemn covenant. Abraham’s end of the bargain was to have faith in God. God’s promise was “offspring,” which is literally the word “seed,” which is singular. In Galatians 3:16, Paul interprets this as referring to the Messiah.
God also promised to make a great nation of Abraham’s descendants.
Before the ceremony, Abraham suffered “a thick and dreadful darkness” (v. 12), which means he was very afraid. What was there to fear in making a covenant with God Almighty?
Well, we need to understand the meaning of “faith.” We take “faith” to mean that we accept the truth of what is said. We “believe” the person speaking. But the thought is deeper.
Josephus was a First Century Jew and a soldier. He tells a story of a soldier under his command who was disloyal. He caught him and threatened his life. He then told him to repent and be loyal to Josephus and he’d spare his life, giving him a second chance.
Well, the word translated “be loyal” is what we translate in the Bible as “believe.” He literally told the soldier to “believe in me.” He didn’t claim to be deity. He just wanted the man’s loyalty. You see, “faith” includes “faithfulness.”
Abraham’s end of the covenant was not just intellectual assent, accepting God’s word as true. Abraham was to be loyal to God.
(Gen 18:19 NET) 19 “I have chosen [Abraham] so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just. Then the LORD will give to Abraham what he promised him.”
Indeed, the words “right” and “just” are almost always used in the Old Testament of God. To choose Abraham so his descendants will be right and just is to expect his descendants to be like God — indeed, in his image.
Now, imagine having God himself come to you and ask for a blood oath of loyalty. You could hardly say no! But then, would you really want to bet your life on your ability to keep your word?
To firmly establish the seriousness of the covenant, God asked not for an animal, but every kind of animal used in sacrificial worship. Indeed, Abraham lined up each of the very animals that would later be used as a sacrifice under the Law of Moses centuries later! It’s no wonder Abraham was afraid. This was a covenant being made the Creator is a most serious and enforceable way. Abraham was being asked to do the impossible at the risk of his own life!
But when night fell and it was time for God and Abraham to each walk between the animals, an amazing thing happened. God passed through both as a torch of flame and as smoke pot. God went through twice — and Abraham didn’t pass through at all. (God is often referred to as smoke and fire. Exo 19:18; 2 Sam 22:9; Psa 18:8; Isa 4:5.)
Rather, when it was time for Abraham to walk in the blood, saying if I don’t keep my promise, you may do to me as we have done to these animals, God himself took the walk — and only God. God promised to pay the penalty for Abraham!
Thousands of years later, God indeed paid the price for the sins of his people. This is the nature of God’s covenant with Abraham.
You see, when we ponder the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice, and whether Jesus and God were at odds, with God wanting human blood and Jesus offering his own, we completely miss the beauty of the Trinity. We separate God and Jesus in our minds as though they are two different people, and it’s really not quite that simple.
When Jesus died on the cross, it was indeed Jesus. But Jesus is God. It was God himself paying the price, just as he’d promised Abraham.
Now, of course, Jesus is God but not exactly. He’s God the Son, not God the Father. And yet for anyone of us with children, we understand that God the Father suffered as much — more, really — than God the Son.
This was not a Son appeasing the wrath of an unsympathetic, vengeful, hate-filled God. It was God dying for us in the only way God can die — by taking human form and surrendering heaven to walk among us as one of us.
Indeed, when the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies was torn, remember that God had a special presence there. The tearing of the curtain was like any First Century Jew tearing his clothes in mourning and agony, as he watched his Son die.
Yes, it was also the opening of the Holy of Holies, so that God’s presence left that singular place and to soon appear in the heart of every believer. But that departure came at an awful price — with the pain of loss and death.
God the Father surely suffered and hurt as much as his Son. I’m the father of four sons. I know. I rather hang on the cross myself than let a beloved Son do such a thing.
But God himself suffered death to give us life. That’s how he dealt with his wrath. He gave himself for us.
It’s part of the mystery of the Trinity that we should see God as giving himself on the cross for us — and suffering the worst way imaginable — by being both on the cross and in heaven watching his Son die.
As Paul said to the elders at Ephesus,
(Act 20:28 ESV) Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Paul declares that God obtained the church “with his own blood”! Paul declares plainly that it was God’s blood shed on the cross.
And that’s a very different kind of atonement. If my son lies and steals, as a loving father, knowing that he cannot pay back what he stole, I might well choose to pay the price for him. That’s not justice. That’s grace.
Of course, it would really be license — a condoning of sin — if that were all there were to it. There’s more. But we start by understanding that atonement is far more about God paying the price than visiting the price on an innocent bystander. God himself takes on the penalty for our sin.