‘If he makes himself an offering for sin …’

The crucifixion of Christ is seen in this 15th century oil-on-panel masterwork. When the New Testament says Christ was “made to be sin,” it does not mean Jesus became a sinner; rather, the early Church fathers saw this as a reference to the language of the Old Testament.

It was once said that the Bible is so simple and plainly set forth that even a child can understand it. Yes, Scripture does contain plain and easy-to-understand teachings, but there are also passages in which the authors assume that the audience understands the Old Testament background. Take as an example the seemingly simple teaching in 1 Corinthians 5:21, which reads:

“For our sake he [the Father] made him [Jesus] to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

Was Jesus made “sin” on the cross, and what does that mean? Some non-Catholics have proposed that God saw the sins of humanity when he looked upon Jesus on the cross and vented his wrath upon them. But laying down one’s life for another is the greatest act of love, and Christ’s death on the cross is the greatest manifestation of God’s love (John 10:11-12, 15:13-14, cf. Romans 5:8-9). It wasn’t something detestable.

Why then does it say Christ was “made to be sin”? The early Church fathers knew that this phrase was deeply rooted in the Old Testament terminology concerning sacrifice. As Cyril of Alexandria wrote:

“Thus Christ became a victim ‘for our sins according to the Scriptures.’ For this reason, we say that he was named sin … For we do not say that Christ became a sinner, far from it, but being just, or rather in actuality justice, for he did not know sin, the Father made him a victim for the sins of the world. ‘He was counted among the wicked’ (Isaiah 53:12)” (Letter 41.10)

Augustine dives further into the Old Testament background:

“And because he became the sacrifice for sin, offering himself as a holocaust on the cross of his passion … the very same victims, the very same beasts which were presented to be immolated for sins, and in whose blood that blood was prefigured, these the Law calls sins, to such an extent that in certain passages [Leviticus 4:4, 15, 24, 29, and 33] it has been written thus, that priests, about to immolate, place their hands over the head of sin, that is, over the head of the victim to be immolated for sin. Therefore such a ‘sin,’ that is, a sacrifice for sin, did our Lord Jesus Christ become, ‘who knew not sin’” [Tract. in John 41.6].

To be “made sin,” according to Old Testament terminology, is to be made a sin offering. But where in the Old Testament did we ever hear about someone making himself an offering for sin? The answer is found only a few verses earlier from the same passage cited by St. Cyril above, Isaiah 53:10.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is known as the “Suffering Servant” passage, and it makes marvelous reading for Lent and Holy Week. Speaking of this Suffering Servant who will be “bruised for our offenses” and although righteous “counted among the wicked” it says in verse 10: “… If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.”

Just like the whole of the Suffering Servant oracle, it says so many surprising things. First, it speaks of the Servant “giving his life as an offering for sin.” Second, even though he is to give his life for sin, Isaiah says that “we shall see his descendants in a long life.” This refers to the Church, the members of his Body. But notice that although he is “cut off from the land of living” (Isaiah 53:8) he nevertheless “… shall see his descendants in a long life.” One thing about sacrificial offerings, they don’t continue to live after they’ve been offered, yet the sacrifice of the Suffering Servant is different: He lives to see the lives of his descendants.

This Lenten season, make it a point to read Isaiah 52-53 and see how Christ became “sin” so that we may be the righteousness of God in him.

Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.