By Thomas Lambrecht
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This verse is sometimes called the “theme verse” of the Gospel of Mark. It encapsulates in one sentence what Jesus’ life on earth was all about.
As we approach the most sacred days of the church year – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – we are driven once again to consider the sacrifice Jesus made out of his own life, all for our sake.
That sacrifice began when he took on human form in the Incarnation. We cannot begin to imagine what it took to squeeze the divine life of Christ into a mortal human body. All that Jesus laid aside when he became a man is summed up in Paul’s quote of a first-century hymn, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7).
Jesus laid aside all the power and prerogatives of being God in order to take on human form. Older versions translate it as “he emptied himself.” That is a good description of what he did. He sacrificed his comfort, position, and power in order to come to earth to save us.
Once on earth, Jesus lived a life of service. He came “not to be served, but to serve.” His life was not his own. He lived in obedience to his Father. As the hymn goes on to say, “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient” (Philippians 2:8). Throughout his ministry, Jesus emphasized that he could do nothing other than what God told him to do. “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does … By myself I can do nothing; … for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:19, 30).
Of course, the ultimate fulfillment of Jesus’ purpose to be a sacrifice was carried out on the cross, where Jesus became “obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This was the most shameful and painful death the Romans could devise. Yet, it had a purpose. “[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). Christ sacrificed himself through his suffering and death in order to absorb the penalty for our sins and defang their power in our lives.
The validity and effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrifice was attested by his resurrection and ascension. “Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9). It was Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation that set apart his death as no ordinary martyrdom. Just as Jesus demonstrated his authority to forgive sins by healing the paralyzed man (Mark 2), God demonstrated that Jesus’ sacrificial death triumphed over sin and the grave by raising him from the dead and exalting him to God’s right hand.
This is the story of the Gospel, condensed into the events of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, which we remember and celebrate this week.
Jesus lived a sacrificial life. He calls on us to also live a sacrificial life. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
We could “sell our soul” in order to gain the whole world, but we would be unable to keep it. It would be ours for only a brief time, followed by a soul-less eternity. On the other hand, by surrendering our lives to Jesus and sacrificing our own wills for his, we will gain an eternity full of real life and love.
“Peter answered him, ‘We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne … everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life’” (Matthew 19:27-29).
Our sacrifice is to put to death our sinful nature and the desires and actions stemming from it. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your [sinful] nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry … anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other” (Colossians 3:4-10). “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
It is hard to sacrifice what we want that is tainted by our sinful nature. Such sacrifice is only possible as we remain connected to Christ (“Christ lives in me”). He alone can give us the desire and the ability to surrender our self-will to his. “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me … Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
Sometimes, our sacrifice is not only to lay down our sinful nature to surrender to God’s will and work in our lives. Sometimes, our sacrifice is literally to give up something material for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12). Just as Jesus laid down his life for us, sometimes we are called to lay down our lives for another or for the sake of obedience to God.
In order to be true to our understanding of the Gospel and God’s eternal will, sacrifice has been required of us. Sacrifice is not pleasant, fun, or fulfilling. It is an emptying of a significant part of our very selves. Just as Abraham was called to sacrifice his promised son (Genesis 22), we are sometimes called to sacrifice something very precious to us in order to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
We should not think such sacrifices are extraordinary or abnormal. Rather, they are part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, as pointed out above. Yet, such sacrifices are possible only by the grace of God living and working within us.
Amy Carmichael knew what it meant to sacrifice for God. Born in Ireland in 1867, she gave herself to missionary work in her late 20’s. She served as a missionary in India for 56 years without a furlough until her death in 1951 at the age of 83. Her life and writings were incredibly influential for a generation of missionaries and Christian leaders who came after her. Her attitude was, “Missionary life is simply a chance to die.” In reflecting on what she was called to give up for God, she believed, “When I consider the cross of Christ, how can anything that I do be called sacrifice?”
As he demonstrated by the example of his life, Christ’s sacrifice calls us to a willingness to sacrifice in our own lives. We are to lay our sinful natures on the altar, purging sin and taking on Christ’s righteousness and holiness into our lives. We are to lay aside the things of this world as needed in order to embrace the fullness of life in Christ for eternity. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation show that our sacrifices will not be in vain.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.