Why is human sacrifice okay when it's Jesus but not when it's anyone else?

Jesus' voluntary sacrifice of His own life for the sins of His people is good, pleasing, and acceptable to God. He is the only one sufficiently pure (having no sin whatsoever, 1 Peter 2:21-25) and sufficiently valuable (being Himself in His very nature God, Philippians 2:6-11) to stand as an appropriate substitute for us (being also fully man, Hebrews 2:17). Only He could die in the place of our sins. God's planned this unique act of redemption from the beginning, and in fact, the whole sacrificial system was set up to point forward to this one divinely appointed sacrifice on behalf of the sins of all who come to Him by faith (Hebrews 10:1-18). The practice of mere, fallen humans selecting other mere, fallen humans and offering them to God in rebellion against and opposition to His plainly stated design and will is in every way unlike this one perfect, foreordained sacrifice of the incarnate Son of God, so much so that the two are simply unworthy of comparison.

Acceptable Offerings

Two sacrifices may seem superficially alike, and yet one is acceptable to God while the other is offensive to Him. Cain offered the fruit of the ground as an offering to God, and He rejected Cain's offering (Genesis. 4:3-5), but God would later institute grain offerings for Israel as proper worship (Leviticus. 2). When King Saul offered up burnt offerings with his own hand, it incited God's wrath and cost Saul the throne (1 Samuel 13:9-14). When King David offered up burnt offerings with his own hand, it appeased God's wrath and spared the people of Israel (2 Samuel 24:25). God establishes the system of sacrifices in the Torah, but throughout the prophets, God tells His people how disgusted and weary He is with their offering of sacrifices. Even a cursory reading of all of this shows that it is far from arbitrary or contradictory. God makes clear not only what He accepts as a sacrifice, but with what heart it must be offered, by whom, under what circumstances, and for what reasons. This is perfectly consistent throughout the Scriptures and is quite reasonable. God does not need such offerings for His own sake, nor does He desire mere ritual on its own right, but all things were intended for a specific purpose.

Abraham and Isaac

So indeed we see that God categorically rejects human sacrifice as an acceptable act of worship or propitiation (Deuteronomy 18:10), and we see examples like the wicked King Manasseh who brought God's wrath on himself and Israel by committing this evil (2 Kings 21:6). Human sacrifice is clearly a great evil. The Scriptures are not ambiguous on this matter. However, we also see God commanding Abraham to offer his one and only son as a sacrifice to God, (Genesis 22:1-18). This was, of course, about Abraham putting his faith in action when it would cost him everything, and God stopped him before he actually killed Isaac. God provided a ram in Isaac's place to be the sacrifice, and God never gave such a command again. This story was unique and pointed forward to something more. The account in Genesis ends by explaining:

"So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided,” (Genesis 22:14).

There was something prophetic in this incident, and even back then Israel knew it. They looked forward to a future provision of God testified to by this event. Indeed, this all took place on Mount Moriah, the very place David would later offer his sacrifices to turn back the wrath of the Lord, and the very place that Solomon would build the temple (2 Chronicles 3:1). The whole sacrificial system echoed the story of Abraham and Isaac and pointed forward to the future provision of God. The Jewish people understood the centrality of this event in their faith. It became enshrined in early Jewish writings. Dr. Michael Brown explains one such tradition:

"There is a Midrash that says at the time of creation, when God was about to make man, the angels asked what man's significance was. One of his answers was this: 'You shall see a father slay his son, and the son consenting to be slain, to sanctify my name' (Tanhuma, Vayyera, sec 18). That was the height of sacrificial service: A father offering his own son, and the son willingly laying down his own life for the glory of God. Yes, I know that sounds like the gospel. In fact, the Midrash compares Isaac, who carried on his shoulders the wood for the burnt offering (himself), to 'one who carries his cross on his own shoulder'"1

The Suffering Servant

The promise was made explicit in the famous prophecy of the suffering servant. Isaiah 52:13-53:12 speaks of a righteous one whom God would be pleased to crush. One who would be pierced, yet not for any sin of His own, but rather for the sins of His people. He would bare their transgressions, and by His wounds they would be healed. Verse 10 even explicitly says that He would offer Himself as a guilt offering. This man, and this man alone, would actually offer Himself up to this affliction and death as a voluntary sacrifice to God for the people's sins. After this man suffered and even died, He was then afterward granted a great spoil and inheritance. We have here a clear testimony of the sacrificial suffering, death, and resurrection to glory of the promised one to come. This was no pagan "human sacrifice," but a righteous and worthy life freely giving Himself up to death on behalf of the wicked and undeserving.

The Self-Giving Son of God

Finally, let us remember that this was no mere man. The glorious truth of the Trinity, and of the incarnation of the divine Word, reminds us of the incomparable worth of this once for all sacrifice. That is why He was truly and uniquely worthy to give His own life for the sins of the many in all ages. The eternal, divine Son of the Omnipotent Father took on flesh. Though it is wondrous to our finite minds, God sent God. The one true God was both the offering and the one to whom the offering was given.

"For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for a good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:6-8)

  • 1. Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus Vol. 2 (Baker Books, 2000) 159