From the moment God breathed into man’s nostrils (Genesis 2:7), it has been readily apparent that there is something sacred and precious about life. This fact has been consistently reflected and protected in the laws, institutions and instructions that God has given His people. Well before the Law of Moses, we find examples and commands highlighting this truth. When God confronts Cain for murdering his brother, in Genesis 4, Cain seems to immediately grasp the implications of God telling him, “the voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” Upon receiving his sentence, Cain states the following, in verses 13 and 14: "My punishment is greater than I can bear! … I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me." While capital punishment is never mentioned anywhere in God’s judgment, I find it interesting that Cain considers himself as good as dead. Despite being the first recorded instance of a man taking the life of another; the inherent value of life, and the consequences for abusing it, seem to already be firmly understood and established.
A few chapters later, in Genesis 9, Noah and his family emerge from the ark after the flood to receive a blessing and enter into a covenant with God. Included in this blessing is God giving mankind all things -- every animal and every green herb, alike -- for sustenance. Then, in verse 4, God makes what seems to be a rather strange prohibition when He says, "But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood." God goes on to say in subsequent verses: "Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning…Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man." Here is another clear indication of the value God has placed on man’s life and how seriously He views what’s done with it.
God included similar statutes in the law He delivered to Israel several hundred years later. Leviticus 17 is largely focused on instilling in Israel an understanding of the sanctity of blood and, in turn, the sanctity of life. God cared how Israel esteemed, valued, respected life. It mattered to Him what they did with the life He gave them -- to whom and what they devoted it. Failure to bring a sacrifice and its blood to the proper place, to be presented by the proper person, for the proper purpose resulted in that person being cut off from the people. To misuse or misappropriate the blood was serious business to God. Verse 11 of Leviticus 17 seems to provide insight on why that was: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” Not only does this passage foreshadow the atonement and propitiation provided by the blood of Christ, but it also seems to provide instruction as to what life is really all about. God gives life for the good and benefit of the soul. Based on what I can gather from God’s word, any other use is a misuse -- and something God will demand a reckoning for.
Sadly, man’s inclination is often to expend and exhaust precious, God-given life pursuing our own pleasure and the gratification of our flesh. Countless lives are absolutely wasted and consumed by selfish ambition. Millions of others, each year, are simply snuffed out because they are deemed inconvenient or unwanted. When God is not recognized and honored in His rightful place, life becomes just another commodity, something to consume at our own discretion and for our own pleasure. This is a fact clearly demonstrated by Israel in the time of Ezekiel, where in chapter 34 we see just how far their idolatry had taken them from God by their corrupt and distorted view of life. Their departure from the Lord wasn’t just evident in their participation in forbidden pagan rituals (drinking blood), but in how they treated one another. It had made them blood-thirsty and brutal. Even their shepherds -- those who were supposed to be leaders, nurturers, and protectors -- were exploiting the flock for their own profit: eating their fat, clothing themselves with their wool, ruling with force and cruelty. All the while they neglected their responsibilities to feed the flock, strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring back those driven away, and seek the lost. As a result, precious lives were lost. The sheep were scattered. They became prey for the wild beasts.
That would be an extremely sad and depressing end to Israel/mankind’s story if God didn’t go on in that same chapter and promise the coming of the good shepherd who would seek out the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and heal the sick, who would lay down His life for the sheep. How wonderful to know that God loves us and values our souls to the point of redeeming them with the precious blood of Christ! And how sobering to know that we are called to love one another as He loved us, to follow His example in laying down our lives for one another.
Like Peter, our first impression of this concept may be jumping on the grenade or going down in a blaze of glory -- some dramatic and heroic feat. After Jesus commands his disciples, in John 13:34, to love one another as He had loved them, Peter is convinced he is ready to lay down his life for the sake of Christ and to die with him. Not only does Peter soon learn he was not ready to follow through on that commitment, but that was not what Christ was asking him to do at all. When Christ later appears to His disciples by the sea for breakfast in John 21, Jesus asks Peter three times (the same number of times he betrayed Him) “do you love me?” When Peter answers in the affirmative each time, Jesus tells Him: “feed My sheep … tend My lambs.” While Jesus later reveals that Peter would, indeed, glorify God by dying for Him when he is old, he was to prepare in the meantime by loving and laying down his life by caring for the flock.
This seems to be at the heart of what laying down our life is all about. Laying down our lives is not merely a theoretical or theological concept with little room for application. It’s as practical and important as it gets. It’s sharing our worldly goods to meet brethren’s needs (1 John 3:16-18). It’s a husband's loving and caring for their wives as Christ does the church (Ephesians 5:25). It’s mothers devoting enormous amounts of time, energy, and affection toward training and nurturing children to know and love the Lord. It’s seeking to be a benefit and blessing to souls. While the world may view such lives as wasted potential, unambitious, unfulfilling, and unsuccessful, a life laid down for the brethren and the wellbeing of souls is a life well spent.