One way of understanding Jesus’ death remains a controversial one—penal substitutionary atonement (PSA): that Jesus died on the cross in our place, as our substitute; that his death was the death that we deserve; and that he bore the penalty for our sin as an atoning sacrifice so that we could be reconciled to God.
If you read the New Testament letters, you will find they repeatedly proclaim, celebrate and explore this truth. For example:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed … For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. (1 Peter 2:24, 3:18)
But for some people, PSA is a horrible concept. For example, British Baptist minister Steve Chalke famously wrote:
the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed … If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies.
That last claim is most interesting to me. In teaching PSA, did the apostles contradict the teaching of Jesus? How did Jesus understand his own death?
Fifteen years ago I met a man who claimed that PSA was just an invention of the apostle Paul. He challenged me to find just one example in the gospels where Jesus himself spoke of his death in that way. At the time I was stumped! I wish I could have that conversation again: I would point him to Jesus’ Last Supper.
The Last Supper and the Meaning of the Cross
Jesus often talked about the fact that he was going to die but he only rarely hinted at why (John 10:11; Mark 10:45). At his Last Supper, however, Jesus instituted a meal that Christians were to continue to do in remembrance of him. The elements used in this meal were not to represent his teaching, or his miracles, or even his resurrection, but rather his death.
The Last Supper itself wasn’t just any old dinner with friends. It was a Passover meal—an annual, symbolic meal that reminded the Jews of how God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. In particular, the Passover pointed to the moment when God spared judgement from and “passed over” any home in Egypt that had its doorposts painted with the blood of a sacrificial lamb. This meal was rich in symbolism: of sacrificial blood, judgement and salvation.
Jesus converted (or rather, fulfilled) this meal to point to the one sacrifice to end them all—his death. This meal was now to be repeated in remembrance not of the Passover but of Jesus’ great act of salvation on the cross. And at the Last Supper, Jesus explained this in a way that explicitly described the nature of his salvation. In Matthew 26:28, Jesus held up the cup of red wine—a perfect visual representation of blood—and said these powerful words: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
The “blood of the covenant” is a very interesting phrase. It is used in only one other place in the Bible, which explains its significance here.
The Blood of the Covenant
In the Passover and the Exodus, God rescued his people from his own judgement and redeemed them from slavery in Egypt. He then gave them the Ten Commandments and the law that instructs them how—as rescued people—they should then live, how they should relate to God and one another. This is called the “Mosaic Covenant”.
A “covenant” is like an alliance or contract. Marriage is described as a covenant in Malachi 2:14. In the Bible a covenant is often a special commitment between God and his people. Covenants usually contained a few elements—promises made between both parties, consequences for breaking the covenant, and a “sign” that would remind both parties of the promises made. Lastly, covenants with God usually also involved an animal sacrifice.
In Exodus 24:4–8, during the establishment of the Mosaic Covenant, two types of sacrifices were made—burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. If you looked up Leviticus, the Old Testament instruction manual that explained these sacrifices, you would learn that those offering the sacrifice place their hand on the head of the animal—symbolically transferring their guilt to the animal (Leviticus 1 and 3). The animal would then be killed: “He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” (Leviticus 1:4). This is PSA at work.
In the establishment of the Mosaic Covenant, Moses took the blood from the atoning sacrifices and threw it over the people, saying: “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exodus 24:8). The “blood of the covenant” was the blood of the substitutionary atoning sacrifices made on their behalf. Like the doorposts of the Passover, the people must be covered in blood, for it was the atoning sacrifice that had made possible a new relationship between sinful people and a Holy God.
Jesus Our Atoning Sacrifice
Jesus explained the meaning of his own sacrifice with this phrase: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus was saying that his death established a new covenant: one that all the other covenants were leading up to. Jesus was declaring that his death was the ultimate substitutionary sacrifice.
This is how Jesus understood the significance and meaning of his death. It wasn’t just a model of self-sacrifice. It wasn’t just an unjust tragedy. More than that, at the Last Supper Jesus explained that his death would be an atoning sacrifice to establishing a new covenant relationship between God and all who trust in him.
Yes, PSA is a difficult concept to wrap your head around and it does raise interesting questions. A careful reading of the whole Bible puts the doctrine in its context, explains why it is necessary and what it does and doesn’t mean. I hope you discover what a beautiful and life-giving truth it really is. It is central to what makes Good Friday so good. But one question I hope we can put to bed, is whether Jesus himself taught PSA: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
 Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus, 2003.