Responsibility for the sins of others

After Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, spiritual death occurred immediately and their need for salvation became evident. Genesis 3:22 states, “Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.” Adam and Eve’s disobedience resulted in guilt because they were conscious of their wrongdoing. The Hebrew word ʾasham (aw-shamˊ) means “to be guilty; by implication to be punished or perish. This word is most often used to describe the product of sin – that is guilt before God” (H816). The Hebrew word ʾashem (aw-shameˊ) describes one who is in a guilty state (H818) and ʾasham (aw-shawmˊ) “the offering which is presented to the Lord in order to absolve the person guilty of an offence against God or man” (H817). One of the four main words indicating sin in the Old Testament is avown (aw-voneˊ) which means “perversity.” This noun carries along with it the idea of guilt from conscious wrongdoing and the punishment that goes with this deliberate act as a consequence (H5771). When Cain killed his brother Abel, God told him, “’And now you are cursed from the ground which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood and from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear’” (Genesis 3:11-13).

The Hebrew word that is translated bear in Genesis 3:13, naçah (naw-sawˊ) means “to lift” (H5375) and suggests that there is a weight associated with the guilt of sin. “Nacah is used of the undertaking of the responsibilities for sins of others by substitution or representation (Exodus 28:12; Leviticus 16:22; Isaiah 53:12; cf. 1 Peter 2:24).” Bearing the responsibilities for the sins of others was portrayed on the Day of Atonement through the release of a scapegoat into the wilderness. Leviticus 16:20-22 states:

“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.”

Isaiah 53:4-12 depicts Jesus’ suffering on the cross as he accomplished the task of dying for the sin of the world. It states:

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall seeand be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors.

The Hebrew word naçah appears at the beginning and end of this passage of scripture in the phrases “he has borne our griefs” (Isaiah 53:4) and “he bore the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12), suggesting that the burden of sin has something to do with the anxiety that we feel because of the punishment that we expect to receive from God. One of the ways that we know our sins have been forgiven is that the anxiousness that we once felt about them is gone.

The Israelites’ rebellion against God in the wilderness resulted in a plague that could have wiped out the entire population. The LORD told Moses, “Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment” (Numbers 16:45). Moses and Aaron interceded for the people and stopped the plague (Numbers 16:48) and order was restored to their camp (Numbers 17:10-11), but a lingering feeling of guilt kept the people from being able to live peacefully with God in their midst. Numbers 17:12 states:

And the people of Israel said to Moses, “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the LORD, shall die. Are we all to perish?”

The Hebrew word that is translated undone in Numbers 17:12, ʾabad (aw-badˊ) means “to wander away, i.e. lose oneself” or “to be lost” (H6). The Israelites’ spiritual condition had deteriorated to the point that they realized there was no hope for them to recover. There was no way for them to regain God’s favor.

When Jesus sent his disciples out to minister to the people, he instructed them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). Jesus referred to the Jews as lost sheep in order to illustrate their hopeless situation and indicated that his primary objective was to tell them that the kingdom of heaven was being made available to them (Matthew 10:7). Jesus later emphasized that he had come specifically “to save that which was lost” (Matthew 18:11, KJV). The Greek word sozo (sodeˊ-zo) is used “specifically of salvation from eternal death, sin, and the punishment and misery consequent to sin” (G4982). When Jesus said that he had come to save that which was lost, he was saying that he could reverse the effects of sin in a person’s life. The Greek word apollumi (ap-olˊ-loo-mee), which is translated lost in Matthew 18:11, means “to perish. The idea is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” (G622).

It says in Isaiah 53:6 that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – everyone – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Paul’s letter to the Ephesians explained that God set a plan of redemption in motion before the foundation of the world in order to counteract the effects of sin in the human race. Paul said:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

God’s plan of redemption started with the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Afterward, the Mosaic Law was enacted and a system of sacrifice was put in place. Aaron and his sons were consecrated to serve as priests and made atonement for the people once a year (Leviticus 16). The LORD told Aaron, “You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood” (Numbers 18:1). The Hebrew word that is translated bear in this verse is naçah (naw-sawˊ) indicating that the priesthood was designated for the undertaking of the responsibilities for sins of others (H5375) and that Aaron and his sons were representatives of Christ, the one who would in the fullness of time complete the process of atonement through his death on the cross.

The Hebrew word that is translated priesthood in Numbers 18:1, kᵉhunnah (keh-hoon-nawˊ) is derived from the word kahan (haw-hanˊ) which means “to mediate in religious services” (H3547). In order to perform the duties of their office, priests had to keep themselves from becoming unclean. The LORD said, “They shall not profane the holy things of the people of Israel, which they contribute to the LORD, and so cause them to bear iniquity and guilt, by eating their holy things: for I am the LORD who sanctifies them” (Leviticus 22:15-16). This almost impossible task might be what was considered to be the burden of bearing the responsibilities for the sins of others. Paul wrote in his first letter to Timothy, “For there is one God and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Paul’s statement that there is “one mediator between God and man” made it clear that Aaron and his sons weren’t qualified to act as mediators between God and man because they were by nature sinners like everyone else. The Greek word that is translated mediator in 1 Timothy 2:5, mesites (mes-eeˊ-tace) means a go-between. “The salvation of men necessitated that the Mediator should Himself possess the nature and attributes of Him towards whom He acts, and should likewise participate in the nature of those for whom He acts (sin apart); only by being possessed both of deity and humanity could He comprehend the claims of the one and the needs of the other; further, the claims and the needs could be met only by One who, Himself being proved sinless, would offer Himself an expiatory sacrifice on behalf of men; ‘one who acts as a guarantee’ so as to secure something which otherwise would not be obtained” (G3316).

John’s gospel was written with the specific intent of proving that Jesus is the Son of God (Introduction to the gospel according to John) and began with the establishment of Jesus’ existence before the world was created (John 1:1-3). John said:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9-13)

John pointed out that Jesus’ own people, the Jews did not receive him. What John meant by that was that the Jews collectively, as a nation did not receive the free gift of salvation that was offered to them through Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. John indicated that on an individual basis, all who did receive Jesus, “who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” John 1:12).

Jesus described the process of salvation in a conversation he had with a man named Nicodemas. Jesus said, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3) and went on to say, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17). Jesus explained to Nicodemus that being born again involved a spiritual birth that was “not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13), through his Holy Spirit (John 3:6) and that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). The Greek word that Jesus used that is translated lifted up, hupsoo (hoop-soˊ-o) is a derivative of the word huper (hoop-erˊ) “meaning for, in behalf of, for the sake of, in the sense of protection, care, favor, benefit” (G5228). Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross was a sacrificial act that was motivated by God’s love for the world (John 3:16).

When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him for the first time, he declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God” because it was determined before the start of his ministry that Jesus would be delivered over to death as a sacrifice (G286). The point that may have startled everyone was that Jesus was going to take away the sin of the world. In other words, Jesus’ sacrificial death applied to everyone, not just the Jews. John indicated that Jesus would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The Greek word hamartia (ham-ar-teeˊ-ah) is “from the Hebrew, the imputation or consequences of sin, the guilt and punishment of sin as in the phrase ‘to take away [or bear] sin,’ i.e. the imputation of it” (G266). In that sense, Jesus bore the responsibility for the sins of all others when he died on the cross.

Paul explained in his letter to the Colossians that Jesus’ death cancelled the record of our moral debt that stood against us with its legal demands. Paul told the Colossians:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Paul indicated that Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross is applied to our spiritual account when we identify ourselves with his death and resurrection through baptism.

The visual image that Paul created of God nailing the record of our debt to Jesus’ cross was meant to emphasize the fact that his ability to pardon our sin was dependent on a sacrifice being made and the sole responsibility for that sacrifice belonged to Jesus. Paul said of Jesus, “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). The Greek word that is translated fullness, pleroma (playˊ-ro-mah) speaks generally “of grace and God’s provision (John 1:16; Romans 11:12; 15:29; Ephesians 3:19); of divine perfections (Colossians 2:9). It was Jesus’ divine perfection that enabled him to do what no one else could, to take upon himself the guilt associated with the sin of the world. John’s record of Jesus’ crucifixion included his final words, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The it that Jesus was referring to was the debt of sin and his declaration that it was finished meant that the debt against every sinner was discharged at that moment because Jesus paid the penalty of sin in full. If you think of grace as a currency with a value attached to it, then God’s grace is sufficient to cover the entire human races’ debt of sin. John said of Christ, “For from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17).

Without excuse

Paul’s letter to the Romans was written primarily to the Gentiles, non-Jewish nations that surrounded Israel. One of the issues that Paul addressed in his letter was the judgment of the world that Jesus talked about during his ministry on earth (Matthew 25:31-46). Paul stated:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:18-21, NKJV)

Paul’s argument that everyone that has ever lived is without excuse when it comes to a knowledge of God’s existence was based on the evidence of God’s involvement in creation. Paul indicated God’s invisible attributes can be clearly seen by all humans, meaning they are self-evident or no explanation of them is necessary.

Paul explained to the Romans that God”s principles of judgment do not differ between Jewish and non-Jewish peoples. Because all of mankind was created in his image, God expects every human being to exhibit godly behavior. One of the indicators that the human conscience was designed to recognize sin is our judgment of others. Paul said, “Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things (Romans 2:1, NKJV).

Even people that have never read the Bible know that it is a sin to kill someone. One of the ways Paul said that we know we are committing a sin is because our consciences bear witness to our guilt. God judges us based on our own inner convictions. Paul stated, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:14-16, ESV)

Paul’s declaration that “God judges the secrets of men” (Romans 2:16) was intended to convince Roman believers that God does not need to keep a record or our wrong doings because our memories and consciences do the job for him. The Greek word translated secrets, kruptos means “concealed that is private” (G2927). In other words, God will use our own private thoughts and feelings to decide whether or not to punish us. According to Paul, the only way to escape God’s judgment will be justification by the blood of Jesus Christ (Romans 2:15-16).