I’ve been going through Tom Wright’s important new book The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion (SPCK, 2016) with a fine tooth-comb. Here I offer a synopsis of what I think Wright is saying.
- Part One: Introduction
- Part Two: “In Accordance with the Bible”: The Stories of Israel
- Part Three: The Revolutionary Rescue
- Part Four: The Revolution Continues
Part One: Introduction
1. A Vitally Important Scandal
In appearance, the death of Jesus was just another tragic failure. In reality, it launched the most important revolution the world has ever seen. From now on, everything would be different. And the resurrection was the first sign that this was so.
To many, the significance of Jesus’ death is that ‘God has saved me from my sin and so I can go to heaven’. But its significance is, in fact, far greater than that.
The cross continues to exert a magnetic power over people today. Of course, it can exert that influence even if we cannot analyse why it does so. We have many fine Easter hymns and prayers, but none of them explains how the cross works.
But, just as it is good that at least some people know how a recipe ‘works’, or how a piece of music ‘works’, so it is good that some ask what the Bible means when it says that ‘Christ died for our sins according to Scripture’.
2. Wrestling with the Cross, Then and Now
How did such an ignominious death become so central so quickly? Of course, we do not want to replace love with knowledge, but it is important ‘to keep love focused on its true object…It isn’t only faith that seeks understanding. Love ought to do the same; not of course in order to stop loving, but so that love may grow, mature, and bear fruit.’
Few attempts were many in the early centuries of the Christian era to develop a systematic doctrine of the cross. Elements of what we now call the ‘Christus Victor’ theme and of the substitutionary theme are evident, however. Then, in the 11th century, Anselm worked out his ‘satisfaction’ theory, countered by Abelard’s ‘moral influence’ approach. But whereas the Western tradition emphasised these various aspects of the cross, the Eastern Church focused much less on Jesus’ death and more in his resurrection.
Reformers such as Luther and Calvin reacted strongly against the Roman doctrine of Purgatory and its dogma of post-mortem punishment and purification. They insisted that God would not punish believers after death, because Christ had already been punished in their place. Thus was born the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’. The Reformers also objected strongly to the Roman doctrine of the Mass (which taught that the priest at the altar sacrificed Jesus all over again), insisting that the death of Jesus was a once-for-all sacrifice. Implicit in both these perceived Roman errors is the notion that something extra is required, on top of Jesus’ death, and thus the spectre of ‘justification by works’ loomed. But it appears that the Reformers and their successors were giving biblical answers to medieval questions, and in the process screening out more important questions (and answers).
Despite their many strengths, the Reformers therefore failed to apprehend what the new heaven and new earth might look like, or how they would come about. They failed to see the significance of important texts such as Ephesians 1:10 or Romans 8:18-24. The churches within that tradition do not clearly see how the resurrection of Jesus launches God’s new creation within the present world order. And if this is the aim of God’s saving plan, then we will have to re-think the means by which that plan is realised; we will have to re-think atonement.
The unresolved theological problems of the Reformation were made worse by the Western church’s collusion in the Enlightenment, the Epicureanism of which created a vast gap between heaven and earth. Christians too easily fell prey to to a detached spirituality (a focus on ‘heaven’ rather than ‘earth’) and an escapist eschatology (a focus on ‘leaving this world and going to heaven’). A related problem (still with us today) is the emergence of a radical split between sin (conceived in terms of personal violated of God’s moral code) and evil (including social, political and natural evil). Atonement theories dealt with the first of these, but the second have been subsumed under ‘the problem of evil’, and divorced from any relationship with atonement.
The cross of Jesus becomes scandalous for all the wrong reasons when it is seen as a emblem of religious persecution, or when it is understood as the means by which God punished the innocent Jesus in place of guilty sinners, so that these forgiven sinners can go to heaven.
This understanding of the cross comes perilously close to glorifying and justifying violence. If God can deal with evil by killing someone, why cannot we? What sort of God is he? And how is this ‘good news’? Moreover, it grievously distorts the message of the Bible itself: instead of John 3:16 saying: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’, it seems to say (or ought to say): ‘God so hated the world that he killed his only Son…’
It may be that we cannot jettison all punishment models of atonement without doing damage to the overall Christian message. But there are at least two rival interpretations: the ‘victory’ model and the ‘moral influence’ model, although neither of these are without serious problems. Concerning the second of these: ‘unless Jesus’s death achieved something—something that urgently needed to be done and that couldn’t be done in any other way—then it cannot serve as a moral example.’
We need to go back to our source documents, and ask:-
3. The Cross in its First-Century Setting
The ancient Greco-Roman world was well acquainted with the notion of ‘wrath’, both human and divine.
Crucifixion was a means, not only to kill, but to degrade. It said to the entire population: ‘We are in control; resistance is futile.’ The cross which in modern times is often worn as an ornament was, in fact, an instrument of horrific torture. It prompted instinctive reactions of horror and shame. It took a man to the lowest point imaginable. The Romans carried out thousands of crucifixions, so that Jesus and his contemporaries grew up virtually under the shadow of the cross.
When Augustus claimed to have brought peace to the Roman Empire, it was an enforced ‘peace’, erected on an edifice of cruelty and violence.
Crucifixion, then, announced ‘We are in charge around here’; ‘Caesar, not any of your gods, is Lord.’
Paul and his contemporaries would have well known that ‘the word of the cross’ was unspeakably shocking and scandalous. All the more surprising, then, that the cross so quickly acquired such a different set of meanings for the first Christians.
What then, about this idea that Christ ‘died for us’, or ‘for our sins’? The notion that one person could ‘die for’ another (in order, perhaps, to gain divine favour or to ward off divine anger) was common in pagan thought, although much less so in Jewish thinking. The words of Caiaphas in Jn 11:15 echo this theme.
Jewish thinking was shaped by their annual great festivals. The Passover looked back at the liberation of the people from bondage in Egypt, and it is no coincidence that Jesus chose Passover as the time for his own death.
Many Jews would be hoping for a liberation, and this hope was sharpened by their understanding of Daniel 9, which seemed to teach that their exile would last much longer than the original 70 years in Babylon: that at the time of Christ the nation was still in effect in exile. The prophets had repeatedly taught that the disaster that had befallen Israel had been due to her own sin, and therefore that forgiveness of that sin was needful.
Jeremiah’s teaching about a ‘new covenant’ (Jer 31:31-34) seems to combine these two ideas: a new Passover and the forgiveness of sins.
At first sight, the Gospels and the Epistles seem to present quite widely differing understandings of Jesus’ death. We can better see how the various ideas presented in these writings come together if we ditch our usual model (salvation as ‘going to heaven when we die’, and sin as simply personal wrongdoing) and replace it with the biblical model of salvation as involving a ‘new heaven and a new earth’ and sin as a consequence of idolatry.
In the Old Testament, Israel is the focus of God’s plan to save the world. In the New Testament, the focus is on Israel’s representative, the Christ.
Part Two: “In Accordance with the Bible”: The Stories of Israel
4. The Covenant of Vocation
In ‘most popular Christianity’ a moralising diagnosis is given of the human plight: we have done bad things and deserve God’s punishment. The Platonised goal of getting to heaven when we die is achieved by the pagan notion of an angry God venting his wrath upon his innocent Son.
Behind this scheme lies a doctrine of the ‘covenant of works’, or at least a version of it that might be called a ‘works contract’:-
This scheme is buttressed by a common, but quite unbiblical, reading of Romans 1-3. There, the word translated ‘righteousness’ has been understood to the sort of moral status we would have if only we had kept the ‘works contract’, and which Christ confers on us as a result of his perfect obedience to God’s will.
But what the Bible actually offers is not a ‘works contract’ but a ‘covenant of vocation’:-
The last book of the Bible makes it clear that God has called us to be kings and priests, and this vocation is achieved through the death of the Christ (Rev 1:5f; 5:9f; 20:6). And we must add that the same book ends with believers not going of to some disembodied ‘heaven’, but rather populating ‘the new heavens and the new earth’.
Although in the Old Testament the Jewish monarchy failed in many ways, passages such as Psalm 72 and Isaiah 11 do not predict the abolishment of the monarchy, but rather look forward to the coming of God’s true King, who will rule with justice and compassion.
So it is with the priesthood: although the OT priesthood was frequently corrupt, it will not be abolished, but rather renewed and purified (see Malachi 3:3).
Other places in the New Testament that speak of Jesus’ death as leading to a renewal of vocation include 2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13 and Romans 5:17.
It is often assumed that Paul’s main focus in Romans 1-3 is sin. But it is not: his main focus is the idolatry that lies behind sin. ‘The primary human failure is a failure of worship.’
Death, then, becomes not an arbitrary punishment for wrong-doing (like a ticket given to a speeding driver) but rather the invevitable consequence of failing in our God’s given vocation, of serving and worshipping something (or someone) other than God (like a crash that results from speeding).
5. “In all the Scriptures”
The Christian message is not only that God’s original plan for his creation has been put back on track, but also that his vocation for his people Israel has been retrieved.
Passages such as Exodus 19:4-6 and Isaiah 49:6f; 60:1-3 speak in lofty terms of Israel’s vocation. Yet the OT also tells the story of exile – the great Babylonian exile and also many mini-exiles. But the story is incomplete: despite the return of a remnant to Jerusalem, and the rebuilding of the Temple, there is a clear sense that the people are still in slavery, still waiting for Yahweh himself to return to them. Indeed, when Jeremiah said that the exile would last for 70 years, Daniel understood this to be 70 weeks of years – nearly 500 years in fact.
A clue to the meaning of this story is found right at the beginning, for the story of Adam and Even in the garden precisely parallels that of Israel in the land. Both the garden and the land were meant to be places of life, places where God dwelt, and places that pointed to something greater. This ‘something greater’ is, according to Psalm 2:8; 72; 79; Isaiah 11 and other passages, is the entire world under God’s good and wise rule. It is, in other words, a ‘new’ (or ‘renewed’) creation.
But what does it mean for this to be achieved by someone dying ‘for our sins’, according to Scripture? The idea of ‘sin’ is deeply misunderstood in our culture. It suggests to many some kind of kill-joy, judgemental, other-worldly moralism. We need to recover this word in its proper context of a human race that has turned aside from God’s good purpose for it, has abused its vocation. Sin is the outworking of a deeper problem – a failure to love and serve the true and living God; a failure to be his true image-bearers.
When humans sin, they hand to nondivine forces a power and authority that those forces were never supposed to have.
Sin, then ‘is a vocational failure as much as what we call a moral failure.’ It is ‘the choice of death over life’, and this is the reason that sin and death are so frequently linked in Scripture.
So, we are not to read the story of Israel’s exile as some kind of ‘illustration’ of the story, but as part of the story itself. Thus, ‘when the early Christian formula says that Jesus’s death happened “in accordance with the Bible,” it really does mean, as Jesus himself indicated in Luke 24, that the single great narrative had now come forward to its long-awaited goal.
6. The Divine Presence and the Forgiveness of Sins
At the beginning, God is present with his people in the Garden (Genesis 3:8). But their rebellion causes a separation, and God looks more like a ‘brooding onlooker’, drowning the world in a flood from which just only family is delivered. He appears to Abraham, to Jacob. Then he appears to Moses, revealing the law and dwelling with his people – in a strictly limited way – in the tabernacle. Within the tabernacle the ark of the covenant contained the things that symbolised the union between God and humans: including the tablets of law that constituted his covenant between them. According to Exodus 25:17-22 the lid of the ark (in Greek hilasterion) was specifically the place where God would meet his people, and became the focus for the various sacrifices that were to be offered.
When David sought to build a house for God in the form of a building, God promised him a house in the form of a family (2 Samuel 7:11-14). Thus the very temple that Solomon constructed was itself a signpost to the ultimate answer to David’s request: ‘If there is to be a place where the living God will dwell forever among his people, it will not be in a building of bricks and mortar; it will be in and as a human being, the ultimate son of David.’ Psalms 2, 72 and 132 celebrate this promise, and Psalm 89 asks why it hasn’t been fulfilled as expected, and gives voice to Israel’s longing that it should be fulfilled.
Solomon’s temple was duly built, and its destruction in 587 BC was only possible because by that time the divine glory had departed (Ezekiel 10-11). But Ezekiel 43 anticipates a time when God’s glory would return to a rebuilt temple:-
And it is Isaiah 53 that contains the image of one person suffering and dying on behalf of the many.
Of course, the physical temple was rebuilt. And, although no-one ever pretended that God’s glory – his Shekinah – had returned to it, the hope of its return would have been very much alive in Jesus’ day.
The New Testament presents Christ as the fulfilment of this hope. In him, God ‘tabernacles’ with us (John 1:14); dwells with us in the flesh. He has come, not to rescue people from this world, but to rescue them within it.
If exile was the result of sin, then rescue from exile would have to be by the forgiveness of sin (see, for example, Lamentations 4:22; Isaiah 40:1f; 52:13-53:12; Jeremiah 31).
And the hope of Israel was bound up with the hope of the world. ‘It is startling to reflect on just how diminished the average modern Western Christian vision of “hope,” of “inheritance,” or indeed of “forgiveness” itself has become. We have exchanged the glory of God for a mess of spiritualized, individualistic, and moralistic pottage.’
The Old Testament promises include three further elements: (a) when God returns to his people, he will return as King; (b) his act of rescue will be achieved by means of suffering; and (c) all this will be the expression of his covenant love.
Dealing now with the first of these – the Kingdom of God. Passages such as Isaiah 52:7 celebrate Israel’s God as the world’s rightful king. This prospect was held on to often in the face of appearances to the contrary; such as the overwhelming might of opposing forces such as Babylon. ‘In Isaiah 52 the point is clear: Babylon, the greatest superpower of the day, was going to fall quite suddenly, and those held captive under its power would be freed. The dark power would be overthrown, the people’s sins forgiven, the exile undone, and the glorious Presence unveiled.’
This event would be a new Exodus, as looked forward to in the annual celebration of the Passover. There would, however, be an important difference. The new exodus would involve forgiveness of sin (slavery in Egypt was not seen as a result of Israel’s sin).
The same theme is prominent in the book of Daniel: the Lord is sovereign over the whole world, and one day he will set his people free from oppression. Note especially Daniel 9:24 – “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place.”
All this thought about the kingdom, or kingship, of God, became a key feature of the teaching of Jesus, and in the cultural and religious context of that teaching.
7. Suffering, Redemption and Love
Much pre-Christian Judaism expected a coming Messiah, and also expected a time of suffering (see, for example, Daniel 12:1; Psalm 22; Isaiah 50:5f), but did not link the two. In fact, it is only in Isaiah 53 that suffering becomes the means of redemption. 2 and 4 Maccabees also show that the idea of redemptive suffering was available to the Jewish writers of Jesus’ day, even though, again, they do not link this with a Messianic hope.
Also prominent in Isaiah 40-66 (but absent in the Maccabean writings) is the theme of God’s faithful love in redeeming his covenant people.
Many people, of course, object to the notion of God’s wrath. But the suggestion that “sin” does not make God angry must be treated with ‘disdain’. But whereas in many pagan religions humans have to pacify a wrathful deity, the biblical promises of redemption have to do with God himself acting out of love for his people.
The redemptive love is the outworking of God’s commitment to his covenant. And this covenant love is to be extended to all nation, Isa 42:6f. God’s love is expressed not only to Israel, but through Israel (see the worldwide appeal in Isaiah 55:1-3). In fact, it is repeated and increasing expressions of God’s love in the preceding chapters that lead up to the very passage in which the Lord’s Servant is ‘despised and rejected’ by others (Isaiah 53:3). God rescues, and he does so out of love.
Three themes emerge:-
- What Israel needed was an end of exile, and a forgiveness of the sins that led to that exile in the first place.
- The great redemptive event would be a new exodus, and a new Passover.
- The rescue will come through the personal redemptive work of God himself.
The identity of God’s servant as having (among other things) royal credentials strengthens the idea that he is in some way the embodiment of the loving, redeeming God himself.
Part Three: The Revolutionary Rescue
8. New Goal, New Humanity
In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the hope of Israel’s redemption (Luke 24:21) was not abandoned, but radically redefined.
Once again, we modern Christians must remind ourselves that the hope is of ‘going to heaven when we die’. It is, rather, of God’s kingdom coming ‘on earth as in heaven’, of all things in heaven and earth being summed up in Christ, of a new heavens and a new earth, where justice will be at home (2 Peter 3:13).
What is the calling of humans in this promised new world? And how are they rescued so that they can fulfil that calling?
In much popular Christianity, a threefold mistake has been made:
The new view does not completely part company with the old view: the redeemed life will indeed by ‘heavenly’, our vocation will certainly have a moral dimension, and Jesus is seen both as our representative and (in a certain sense) our substitute.
At the heart of it all is Jesus, the true image and embodiment of God, whose death was the victory over those alien powers let loose in the world because of our failure to be faithful image-bearers, worshipers, and stewards of God and his creation. And he achieved this by the longed-promised forgiveness of sins, through his death as our representative and substitute.
In Luke’s Gospel, ‘forgiveness of sins’ is seen very much as the fulfilment of the hope of the Old Testament prophets (Luke 1:76f), and the hope is not just for Israel, but for the entire worlds (Luke 2:30-32). These two themes feature prominently right up to the end of Luke’s Gospel – see Lk 24:44-49. And Paul would insist that the forgiveness of sins was key to the equal status of Jews and Gentiles under the gospel. And the proclamation of forgiveness of sins and the call the repentance formed a vital part of the early message (Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38; 3:18-26).
So this is what the ‘forgiveness of sins’ involves in the biblical narrative: it involves the restoration of Israel, and then the welcome of non-Jews into that restored people. In Acts, it has nothing to do with ‘going to heaven when we die’. Rather,
‘Forgiveness of sins’, in Acts, is about enabling people to live as God’s true image-bearers now and (completely) in the age to come.
Acts does not present the gospel as the message that sin separates us from God and grace restores that relationship. To say that would not be incorrect, and is true of individuals, one by one. But the Bible itself puts such thoughts in a much bigger reality: ‘that something has happened within the actual world of space, time, and matter, as a result of which everything is different. By six o’clock on the Friday evening Jesus died, something had changed, and changed radically. Heaven and earth were brought together, creating the cosmic “new temple”: “God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah” (2 Cor. 5:19).’ A new state of being, a new world, resurrection life, has come about.
Once again: ‘forgiveness of sins’ is not just something personally experienced: it is a way of describing a new reality. This new reality will come to ultimate fruition in the new creation (Ephesians 1:10; Revelation 21-22).
Just as ‘forgiveness of sins’, correctly understood, has a cosmic dimension, so does moral behaviour. It points to our fulfilling our vocation, partly in the present world and completely in the world to come. Acts describes this behaviour: it involves worship (the priestly theme) and witness (the royal theme).
The Jews of Jesus’ day would have expected at least three things when God’s kingdom came: (a) Israel would be set free from pagan domination; (b) God would be the just and peace-giving ruler of the whole world; (c) God would come to dwell with his people, enabling them to worship him aright.
To take (c) first: we must not imagine ‘heaven’ to be ‘up there’. Heaven is ‘God’s space’, just as earth is ‘our space’. Earth overlaps with heaven in Jesus’ (bodily) ascension, and heaven overlaps with earth in the coming of his Spirit. Whereas in the Old Testament God’s presence was concentrated in the tabernacle, and later (for a time) in the Temple, so now Jesus and his Spirit-filled followers constitute the true Temple, the dwelling place of God, the start of the new world.
To move on to (b): out of our worship and prayer grow our witness. And this is not simply about me saying, “I’ve had this experience; perhaps you would like it too.” Rather, it is announcing that a new state of affairs has come into being, that Jesus is Lord and has, on the cross, defeated the powers that had held the world in their grip.
Then (a), we see the formation of a renewed community of faith, redeemed and set free from oppression. See Revelation 5:9f.
All this was achieved because of what had happened by 6 in the evening on the 14th of Nisan AD 33.
9. Jesus’s Special Passover
So how did the first Christians interpret the death of Jesus?
We must begin with the life teaching of Jesus himself, and with the witness of the Gospels (something that theologians, surprisingly, tend not to do, apart from references to a few isolated texts such as Mark 10:45 and John 3:16).
The centrality and meaning of Jesus’ choice of the Passover are key.
We must remember that ‘crucifixion’ itself carries no inherent theological meaning. And, despite Jesus’ own attempts to explain what was gong to happen, no-one was expecting the Messiah to die for our sins.
The first stirring of meaning came with the equally-unexpected resurrection. True, there was a wide-spread hope of a general resurrection, but this would take place at the end of the age. For Jesus’ body to be raised meant that in some way the new age had already begun. And this was no mere resuscitation. His resurrection body was a renewed, transformed body, equally at home in ‘heaven’ and on ‘earth’, in ‘God’s space’ and in ‘our space’.
The resurrection provides a key to the meaning of the crucifixion. If Jesus appeared in a renewed and transformed body, something must have happened to make that possible.
And, as texts from Luke 24:26 onwards insist, what happened was in fulfilment of Israel’s story. This means that the early Christians would turn to that story in order to fill out the meaning of Christ’s death and all that flowed from it.
Now, it seems clear from everything we know about Jesus that he announced God’s kingdom and linked this with his own identity as God’s Messiah. And it is certainly clear that he chose the time of his final confrontation with the Jewish authorities (and consequently the time of his death) to coincide with the Passover – the time when the Exodus was remembered and the people hoped and prayed that God would deliver his people all over again.
To announce God’s kingdom is (a) to announce God’s victory over opposing powers (think of Jesus’ healings and exocisms); it is (b) to say that God is reconstituting his people and equipping them for the tasks ahead (think of Jesus’ calling and sending of his disciples); and it is (c) announce that God himself is returning personally (think of how Jesus obliquely referred to himself as ‘the Master who came back’ in his later parables).
With the course of Jesus’ public ministry and then self-chosen timing of his death, it seems clear that he saw all this as paralleling the exodus from Egypt. And in this is his implicit announcement: “Freedom now! Kingdom now!” His death would launch a revolution.
We can see in Jesus’ Temple action (Mark 11:12-18) clear echoes of Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh. We can also see in it a Jeremiah-like prediction of its imminent destruction, and of a message which said that God was now returning to his people and, finding the Temple sadly wanting, was establishing something different instead.
Think back again to the exodus: Moses had told Pharaoh all along that the point of the Israelites leaving Egypt was in order for them to worship their God. And the climax of Exodus comes, not in the giving of the law, but in the construction of the tabernacle – the place where heaven met earth, where God met with his people.
And what Jesus gives his disciples just before his death is a meal, a meal based on a Passover meal. But a meal which does not so much look back, as to look forward to what will be achieved the very next day. Just as the original Passover was connected with the overcoming of the evil powers that had oppressed God’s people, so what was about to happen would overthrow the powers that had held the entire world in their grip.
But how would this victory be won? How would Israel’s sins be dealt with? If we take the Last Supper as our guide, then we see that ‘at the center of the whole picture we do not find a wrathful God bent on killing someone, demanding blood. Instead, we find the image—I use the word advisedly—of the covenant-keeping God who takes the full force of sin onto himself.’ And this comes to us as story, more than as theory.
The Last Supper, and Jesus’ words during it, announce that all this was about to happen, and the meal defines the people for whom it happened, and through whom it will happen in the wider world. Jesus words over the cup (Luke 22:20 etc) define this new Passover as involving ‘forgiveness of sins’. The mention of Jesus ‘blood’ indicates a sacrificial meaning to his death, and a renewal of the covenant of Exodus 24:3-8. (There is no reference here to ‘punishment’ of one animal or person on behalf of others).
But how could Jesus’ death effect ‘forgiveness of sins’? Old Testament scriptures – Isaiah 52:13-53:12 especially, indicate that one person would do for Israel (and the world) what Israel could not do for herself. And he would do this by going ahead of them and taking upon himself the suffering that would otherwise fall on them. In Luke’s Gospel (a writing which earlier generations of scholars thought contained no atonement theology) we have the saying about the hen and the chicks (Luke 13:34), the one about green tree and the dry one (Luke 23:31), and Jesus’ anguish in the garden (Luke 22:40), when Jesus was determined that Israel’s suffering should fall on him, and not on his followers (see also John 18:8).
Wherever Jesus went, he offered forgiveness of sins – something that was normally on offer only at the Temple, and which we must regard as shorthand for the larger blessing of covenant renewal and return from exile.
And what we see, shining through all the Gospel accounts, is a picture of a man of immense, powerful, compassionate love (see Mark 10 for this combination of strength and love).
When Jesus said that ‘the Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’, he was not making an isolated statement about how his life would end. He was describing the course of his entire life (cf. John 13:1).
Jesus’ death, then, was all of a piece with his life. He had been giving himself in love all along. And this is faithful love, covenant love, in which he acts as the representative substitute for his people. The one bears the fate of the many. As John (and, of course, Paul) make explicit, and as the other Evangelists imply, the divine glory is unveiled in Christ, and especially in his death. Truly, ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah’ (2 Corinthians 5:19).
10. The Story of the Rescue
If the question is: ‘How do we get to heaven when we die’, then we will find that the Gospels give us very little by way of answer. The ‘kingdom of God’, in the teaching of Jesus, is not a place. It is rather, God’s kingly rule in the here and now.
But if the Gospels are giving a rather different account of things than the one many modern evangelists give, what was actually going on on Good Friday? How does this fulfil Jesus’s (and God’s) purposes for the world?
We should not ignore the historical reasons for Jesus’ death in order to jump straight to the more abstract theological reasons. Actually, we must look at the history in order to see the theology. And we must not separate the ‘atonement’ theme from the ‘kingdom’ theme.
The Gospels tell the story of Jesus as the story of Israel’s God returning at last. For example, in the teaching of John the Baptist the way is to be prepared, not simply for the Messiah, but for the Lord himself. See also John 1:14,18. Jesus is ‘Emmanuel, God with us’. He is ‘the Holy One’, ‘God’s Son’ (Luke 1:35). In Jesus, God has ‘visited his people’ (Luke 19:44). And he comes with all the strong yet loving compassion of the Lord himself, Matthew 11:29. Once again, we cannot hold on to a picture of Jesus’ death as one in which an angry father lashes out at his innocent son. Jesus embodies the very love of God himself.
The other side of the coin is, of course, the build-up of hostility against Jesus. The story of Israel, and that of Jesus, is not the story of steady improvement from bad to good. ‘Matching the story of the chosen people stride for stride and sometimes indeed overwhelming that story in darkness and misery is the long story of evil.’ Look at the story of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. Consider the courageous teachings of the prophets (and contrast those with the smooth words of the false prophets). Think about the exile, and why it took place. Israel is beset with evil just as the world around it is.
This same disease is in evidence right from the beginning of the Gospels, as Herod seeks to rid the nation of its rightful King. The Pharisees and Herodians want to kill Jesus. His fellow citizens want to throw him off a cliff. In John’s Gospel Jesus is a marked man from chapter 2 onwards.
Jesus announced – and embodied – God’s kingdom, but not at all in the way people wanted or expected. His death would be causally linked to this tidal wave of opposition to the way of peace. And underlying this opposition were the unseen (although sometimes very noisy) forces of evil. These forces seemed hell-bent not only on destroying those in whom they took up residence, but on unmasking Jesus before time (Mk 1:24). And, as evil closes in on the kill, Jesus will perform one final act of deliverance, and exorcise the quasi-personal force that has held not only Israel, but the world, in its grip for so long.
In Acts 4:26, Psalm 2 is quoted; a psalm which speaks of the rulers of the earth rising up against the Lord and his Messiah, and then of the Messiah judging the world and calling all rulers to account. One sign of this victory is the healing power that comes by the strong name of Jesus (Acts 4:29f). On Jesus facing up to the powers of evil as they rise to their full height, see Luke 22:53. On Jesus’ preparatory victory over Satan, anticipating his ultimate triumph, see Matthew 12:29. Satan’s claim to have authority over all the world’s kingdoms (Luke 4:6; Matthew 4:9) is reversed by Jesus in Matthew 28:18.
Although John’s Gospel records ho exorcisms, and differs in a variety of other significant ways from the Synoptics, the time kinds of points are made. The ‘ruler of this world’ is being cast out, John 12:31f, although he will continue to do his worst through his agent, Judas, John 13:2; 14:30. The final showdown will be recorded in chapters 18-19, but Jesus’ disciples have been assured of the Spirit’s presence and help, and that the Spirit himself will call the world to account, John 16:8-11.
All this (and more) is not simply the ‘back story’ leading up to Jesus’ death. The light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness will not, finally overcome it, but, rather, will be overcome by the light.
We have already seen how all four Gospels link Jesus’ death with the Passover. This is explicit in John 1:29,36; 19:36. But there is now a transition from Passover as victory to Passover as dealing with sin (see also Matthew 1:21).
The same combination – victory over the powers of evil and the forgiveness of sins – is seen in the frequent references to Jesus as ‘the son of man’ (cf. Daniel 7, 9).
So how does this ‘forgiveness of sins’, this return from exile, come about?
For John the truth comes, unknowingly, from the lips of Caiaphas, John 11:50-53; cf. 3:14-16; 12:32; 1 Jn 2:1f.
In Luke’s Gospel this standing in of the one who was innocent in place of the many who were guilty is seen in Luke 23:2,18f, 24f, 39-47. For Luke, the cross is the means by which the powers of darkness are defeated (Luke 22:53) so that God’s kingdom can begin, and this is accomplished by one innocent man dying the death of the guilty (Luke 22:37, quoting Isaiah 53:12).
In this convergence of themes, we suddenly find ourselves at the end of Romans 5 – where evil abounded, grace super-abounded.
Matthew does not make the twin themes of representation and substitution so prominent. His distinctive contribution is in showing what God’s kingdom looks like. The Beatitudes (Matthew 5) do not simply describe who God’s blessings come to; the describe who these blessings come through. The kingdom agenda set out in the Sermon on the Mount is not just a ‘bracing ethic’ for Jesus’ followers: it describes Jesus’ own vocation.
Mark’s atonement theology is explicit in chapter 10, especially when we place the famous ‘ransom’ saying in its proper context. Verses 35-45 contain all the principle elements of the New Testament’s vision of how Jesus’ death completed his vocation as Israel’s Messiah and overthrew evil by dying as a representative and substitute.
It is important to recognise that the Gospels do not merely prepare for, or illustrate, the reality of the atonement. They tell its story, and it was for later writers (especially Paul) to reflect on this and re-present in theological, rather than narrative, form.
The Gospels invite us to make this story our own, not least in those repeated recollections of the Last Supper.
11. Paul and the Cross (apart from Romans)
Paul says many things about the cross. It is all too easy to come to his writings with a pre-existing scheme (such as the penal substitution theory so loved by those who embrace the ‘works-contract’ theory), and then tweak his teaching to fit the theory.
Like the other early Christians, Paul taught that the goal of redemption was not ‘heaven’, but new creation. This goal would be achieved by Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, dying ‘for sins’.
Individual texts such as 1 Cor 15:3, 1 Thess 5:10, Rom 14:8f, and 1 Cor 8:11 confirm this basic truth that ‘Christ died for us’.
Paul introduces his letter to the Galatians by declaring that ‘the new Passover (liberation from the enslaving powers) is accomplished through the rescue from exile (“for our sins”), and all has taken place in fulfillment of the age-old divine purpose (“according to the will of God”).’
Something similar happens in the first 2 chapters of 1 Corinthians, where it seems clear that Paul can assume that these ideas were already embedded in the minds of his readers.
We must emphasise that, for Paul, it was precisely as Israel’s Messiah that Jesus died ‘for our sins’. It is this realisation that enables us to see that Paul does not offer us merely a collection of disparate metaphors that explain the meaning of the cross, but rather a coherent resolution to the whole story that the Bible is telling.
Galatians, unlike Romans, is not about ‘salvation’. It is about unity. Because of the cross, we are all on the same footing. Because of the cross, both Jews and Gentiles have been set free from the evil powers to which they had been enslaved. There has been a new exodus. Notice how references to the cross bracket the contents of the letter (Gal 1:3f; 6:14-16). Although Paul scarcely mentions the resurrection in Galatians, the cross itself would have no meaning, and no effectiveness, without it. To insist on circumcision is to turn the clock back and to act as if the great turning point had not happened.
Paul’s awareness of the overall biblical narrative comes to expression in Gal 3:10,13-14, with its quotations from Deut 27. Israel would rebel, be exiled, but then eventually restored. But now the exile is over, because the ‘curse’ has fallen on Jesus. The new Passover has taken place. Therefore the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him is fulfilled. The Messiah has one family, not two. A world has come into being: let’s live in that world and celebrate it, not try to turn the clock back and behave as if Jesus had never died in the first place. The ‘present evil age’ no long has nay hold over us. Jewish believers cannot regard Gentile believers as ‘Gentile sinners’, because Christ died for sins. By the same token, the Jewish believer has been given a radical new identify, the ultimate Israel identity – ‘no longer me, but Messiah who lives in me.’ And all of this leads to the Spirit-inspired moral effort outlined in chapter 5.
In 1 Cor 5:7f; 6:19f; 10:11 Paul returns to the Passover theme, as he urges his readers to learn from the mistakes of the past. Of course, his teaching about the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11) is also rooted in Passover, and one of his major points there is that they are defined by the Lord’s one-for-all death, and must live appropriately.
Paul’s ethical imperatives are perhaps better seen as eschatological instructions. They no longer belong to ‘the present evil age’ but rather to ‘the age to come’.
In 1 Cor 15 Paul’s great theme is victory (15:57). Jesus already rules the world (15:25, quoting Psa 110:1). This is on the basis of his resurrection, which has occurred ahead of all others. And the reason that death has been defeated is that Jesus died for sins. Or, to put it the other way round, if he had not been raised, they would still be in their sins, because sin would not have been dealt with (15:17).
In 2 Corinthians Paul seeks to defend his ministry against those infiltrators who were looking down on him and his suffering. Some apostle! Paul’s argument is that the true apostle follows the pattern set by Jesus, as a suffering servant. Paul has been crucified with the Messiah, and the life he now lives is the Messiah’s own crucified and risen life (2 Cor 4:7-12; 6:4-10; 12:9f). ‘Precisely because the Messiah’s crucifixion unveiled the very nature of God himself at work in generous self-giving love to overthrow all power structures by dealing with the sin that had given them their power, that same divine nature would now be at work through the ministry of the gospel not only through what was said, but through the character and the circumstances of the people who were saying it.’
What God has achieved by the cross must be implemented through the cross. The reconciliation which we have experienced has now become the heart of our own message and ministry (2 Cor 5:14-6:2).
Although the doctrine of ‘double imputation’ is (contrary to what many teach) alien to Paul’s thought in 2 Cor 5:21, the first half of that verse certainly does make it clear that the innocent died for the guilty. ‘But notice what overall narrative frames this statement. It is not the quasi-pagan narrative of an angry or capricious divinity and an accidental victim. It is the story of love, covenant love, faithful love, reconciling love. Messianic love.’
Three things are clear from Phil 2:6-11: the cross stands at the heart of Jesus’ story; the cross means victory over all powers (and it does so by Jesus acting in precisely the opposite way a worldly power would act), thus establishing God’s kingly rule; and the cross sets the pattern for how Jesus’ followers ought to behave in relation to one another (cf. Phil 2:2-4). But Jesus is not only the pattern: he is the place where this life is to be lived (being ‘in Christ’, they are to have his ‘mind’). With the echoes within this passage of Isa 40-53, we can see that underlying all this is the truth that the cross establishes God’s kingdom by dealing with sin, and freeing up from those idols to which we had been enslaved. And, given that this poem was composed not more than 30 years after Jesus’ death, we can see that it was common coin even in the very early church that Jesus’ death established God’s kingdom, that this came about because he bore their sin, and that he did so not despite, but because he was ‘in the form of God’, was ‘God’s equal’.
In Colossians 2:13-15 Paul celebrates the irony that on the cross, where the ‘rulers and authorities’ were celebrating their victory over Jesus, he was actually defeating them. And ‘victory over the powers, once more, is accomplished through the forgiveness of sins’: we have been released from slavery to those powers. And, once again, the fact that Paul can compress so much thought into a few sentences means that this meaning of the cross must have been common currency already in the young church.
12. The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Romans is the most important, but also the most complex, of Paul’s writings. It does contain some clear summaries of the meaning of the cross (Rom 4:24f; 5:8; 7:4; 8:3f, 31f, 38f). Then of course there is Rom 3:25f, almost every word of which has been hotly debated in Christian circles over the years. For many, Romans 1-4 has been read as a statement of the ‘works contract’: humans were supposed to behave themselves; they didn’t and therefore became subject to God’s wrath and punishment; but Jesus suffered that punishment on their behalf; so that, providing they believe, they will go to heaven rather than to hell. This is the so-called ‘Romans Road’. It is mistaken.
In approaching Romans, we need to understand that it is carefully-structured composition in four sections (chapters 1-4, 5-8, 9-11, 12-15) but with an overall logical flow. Romans is a work of systematic theology; nor is it a treatise on justification.
The goal of of God’s rescue operation is not ‘heaven’, but a new creation (Rom 8:18-25).
The human problem (Rom 1:18) is not sin, but ungodliness; not, at heart, a failure of behaviour but of worship.
True worship, by contrast, is what Abraham offered (Rom 4:18-22) and what we have now been enabled to offer (Rom 5:2). As royal priests, we not only share in Christ’s rule over the new creation (Rom 8:18-25; cf 5:17), but also share in his priestly intercession (Rom 8:26f, 34) which then leads into chapters 9-11, with lament (Rom 9:1-5), intercession, (Rom 10:1), and praise (Rom 11:33-36). Then Rom 12:1 introduces another ‘priestly’ theme, and this section concludes with Paul saying that in the point of the gospel was to fulfil the promises to the Patriarchs and to bring the nations to praise God for his mercy (Rom 15:8f). This section concludes with a reference to Paul’s priestly calling (Rom 15:16).
In approaching Romans, we should be aware of the prominence Paul gives to God’s faithfulness in fulfilling his promises to the patriarchs (see again Rom 15:8f, and also the biblical meaning of the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’). When Paul talks about ‘the redemption that it is Christ Jesus’ (Rom 3:21-26), his language should immediately conjure up thoughts of the exodus (because ‘redemption’ is essentially release from slavery).
We should regard chapters 5-8 as Paul’s exposition of this ‘new exodus’. When in Rom 5:9 Paul refers to being saved from God’s coming wrath, this undermines the view (taken by many, and by Wright himself previously) that back in Rom 3:24-26 Paul is teaching that Christ turned away God’s wrath by means of propitiation. If that were so, how can Paul speak of deliverance from God’s wrath as still future?
Rom 5:12-21 makes it clear that God’s fulfilment in Christ of his promise to Abraham does not mean simply a return to the old creation: it brings in a new creation (‘how much more’). And the goal is for God’s people is (not to go to heaven but) to ‘reign in life’, v17.
Christ’s death is referred to in a number of different ways in this passage. But it comes about as a result of ‘God’s faithful covenant justice’, which inaugurates his kingly rule, v21.
We should note suppose, as it is often supposed, that Romans 6-8 is Paul’s description of ‘the Christian life’ (beginning with baptism, ch 6, then the struggle with sin, ch 7, and finally finding holiness through suffering and finally glory, ch 8). Rather, these chapters should be seen as an exposition of the ‘redemption’ theme (aka the ‘new exodus’) that he has introduced at Rom 3:24-26. Paul is writing an exodus narrative precisely because Jesus chose Passover as the explanation for what he was doing. Passover, after all, was about God’s victory over the evil powers, rescuing his people through the waters of the Red Sea, giving the law, dwelling with them (in the tabernacle) and leading them to their promised inheritance. These, too, are the themes of Romans 6-8, with Messiah’s death at their heart.
In Rom 6:2-11 Paul insists that those who are baptised must ‘reckon’ that they ‘died with Christ’. His death was the new Passover, defeating the powers to which they have been enslaved (cf Rom 8:38f). They have passed through the Red Sea, leaving Egypt’s slavery behind and making their way to their inheritance. They must learning to live in this new world, like Israel in the desert, not slipping back into their old ways.
All this works because Jesus is his Israel’s Messiah, their representative. Because he died, they died. Because he lives, they live. In Gal 1:4, we have Christ’s death for our sins, his rescue from the present evil age, in accordance with God’s will (as disclosed in Scripture).
In Romans 7:1-8:11 we have a fuller expansion of this. The point of Israel under God’s law was to heap sin up into a single point, and then to lead to Israel’s representative, God’s Messiah. In other words (once again) Messiah died for our sins according to Scripture (that is to say, as the culmination of the story that Israel’s Scriptures tell).
Why would God want to do something that ‘increased the trespass’ (Rom 5:20; 7:13)? The ‘I’ and the ‘me’ of Rom 7 is Israel (with Paul identifying himself with Israel). From Rom 5:12 on Paul has been referring to sin in the singular – the sum total and personification of human and other rebellion against God. Israel under the law recapitulated the sin of Adam: ‘The commandment was given: in the garden it was, “You shall not eat of the tree”; in the Torah it was, “You shall not covet.” In each case, Sin seized on the commandment as its golden opportunity. “It deceived me,” says Paul in 7:11, “and, through it, killed me.”’
The law served, for Paul and other Israelites, a strange double effect: it was loved, and yet it accused (Rom 7:14-20). In this passage, Paul is outlining, not so much the experience either of the Christian or the non-Christian, but rather the outworking of God’s purpose in giving the law in the first place.
Israel’s continuing exile was not simply a time of waiting. It was a time Sin (as the sum total of rebellion against God) could do its worst, and come to a head, so that it could then be dealt with. The death of Christ is substitutionary, and it is penal – God does indeed mete out punishment on the cross – but it is the punishment, not of his Son, but of Sin in the flesh of his Son (Rom 8:1-4).
As a result of this rescue, humans are enabled (not to ‘go to heaven’, but) to be ‘glorified’ – to resume their image-bearing vocation in the world (Rom 8:17-25). The cross does not rescue people from creation, but for creation.
There is no place in this story for the pagan idea of and angry God punishing his innocent Son. The death of Jesus was the expression of God’s love for his covenant people, with Jesus himself as the beloved representative of that people.
We must note that Paul refers to Jesus’ death as a ‘sin-offering’. We must not think that the animal offered in this particular sacrifice was being punished for the sins of the worshipper. The point is that that sacrifice was offered to deal with both the known and the unwilling or unwitting sins of the people; and it is precisely the latter which Paul reflects in Rom 7:15, 20.
All of this works only on the assumption that God was present with, and as, Jesus. Curiously, the question how God could be ‘split in two’ did not seem to worry the first Christians. They drew on existing Jewish models that made it plain that God could be both utterly beyond the world and yet intimately present within it. ‘The Temple was, after all, the place where heaven and earth met. Why not say that one particular person might be the ultimate example of the same phenomenon, a person equally at home in both dimensions?’
So it is with Paul’s teaching about the Holy Spirit: ‘When Paul speaks about the Spirit being present with Jesus’s people, indwelling them, and leading them to their promised inheritance (8:12–16), the language he uses and the implicit story he is telling remind us of the pillar of cloud and fire in the original Exodus.’
All this might give us some insight into the otherwise perplexing ‘cry of dereliction’ from the cross. If the Spirit can commune with the Father on our behalf (Rom 8:26f), groaning with sighs too deep for words, and yet heard and understood by the Heart Search, then it is reasonable to suppose that Matthew and Mark might say something similar about the Father and the Son. Are not both forms of ‘groaning’ an expression of divine love?
13. The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Passover and Atonement
Finally, we come to Romans 1-4, and to Rom 3:21-26 in particular. The now-familiar themes of Exodus/Passover/atonement, of covenant fulfilment, and of forgiveness of sins, are prominent in this key passage. Once we see this passage in its context, we will realise that the usual ‘works-contract’ way of reading it (humans sinned, Jesus bore God’s punishment, we are let off) is misguided.
So, we must notice the covenantal context (Israel’s vocation, in Rom 2:17-20, and God’s promises to Abraham, in Rom 4). The Messiah becomes the focus both of God’s faithfulness to Israel and of Israel’s faithfulness to God (note the prominence of dikaiosyne in this passage).
We must also notice the cultic element. As early as Rom 1:18-23 idolatry (a failure of worship) is emphasised prior to any mention of sin.
These two element, the covenantal and the cultic, go together, just as exodus and passover, on the one hand, and tabernacle and Temple, on the other hand, go together.
According to the ‘Romans road’ reading of this passage ‘righteousness’ means ‘moral goodness’. We have no moral goodness of our own, but God somehow transfers a righteousness status to us. At the same time, our sin is transferred, or imputed, to Christ. At the heart of this is the word hilasterion in Rom 3:25. In the usual interpretation of this passage, that word means ‘place or means of propitiation’. This is then linked with Paul’s account of God’s wrath against sin (Rom 1:18-2:16) so that meaning then becomes: the divine wrath that we deserved has been meted out on Christ instead; therefore God’s wrath has been averted, while his righteous justice remains intact. Those whose sins are thus atoned for are ‘justified’, reckoned as ‘in the right’, before God.
The problems with this reading are manifold. It leaves Rom 3:27-31 stranded, with an unexplained change of subject from ‘how we are justified’ to ‘how Jews and Gentiles come together in faith’. It misses the point of Rom 4, relegating Abraham to the status of a mere example or illustration of faith. It ignores the plain meaning of Rom 2:17-20, which is to draw attention to Israel’s vocation. And it identifies the root human problem as ‘sin’, whereas for Paul it is the idolatry underlying that sin.
These exegetical wrong moves have skewed the overall theology attached to the usual interpretation, which identifies the goal as ‘going to heaven’ (not mentioned at all in Romans), and pulls Paul’s teaching on justification out of shape.
Further, this reading assumes that the problem Paul is facing is God’s wrath, and that this is dealt with within the meaning of the term hilasterion. But (a) this word probably means ‘mercy seat’; (b) it is mistaken to assume that a reference to the OT sacrificial system implies a reference to an animal being killed in the place of the worshipper; (c) Paul cannot mean ‘justified by his blood’ to mean ‘saved from wrath’, or Rom 5:9 would be a tautology; (d) Paul says that God in his forbearance has passed over former sins: but this is the very opposite of punishment.
Further: the important phrase ‘God’s righteousness’ refers to God’s own righteousness, not to a righteousness that he confers on others. In ‘the law and the prophets’, to which Paul appeals in Rom 3:21, this expression does not refer to God’s moral goodness: it refers to his covenant faithfulness (a notion that included punishment of those who were unfaithful to their side of the covenant).
Paul’s argument in Rom 2:17-3:9 focuses Israel’s vocation (2:17-20), her covenantal failure (2:21-24, 3:2-4), and the problem this poses for God’s righteousness, his faithfulness to his covenant (3:5). How can God remain faithful to his side of the covenant when Israel has failed on her side? Rom 4 focuses on God’s covenant with Abraham, and his promise to bless the whole world through him, and how, through the gospel, God has been faithful to his covenant. In the light of this context, it seems clear that we should understand ‘God’s righteousness’ in 3:21 as referring to God’s covenant faithfulness.
So, ‘the usual “Romans road” reading of the letter assumes that the only point Paul is making between 1:18 and 3:20 is that “all humans are sinful.” This then leads us into the “works contract”: we are moral failures; we need to get “right with God” if we’re going to get to heaven; Jesus dies in our place; the job is done.’
This reading misses two important ingredients:
(a) the implicit Temple theme, with its insistence that we haven’t simply sinned, we have committed idolatry (e.g. Rom 3:23 – ‘fell short of God’s glory’). This sheds light on Rom 3:24-26, where Jesus becomes the place where God meets with his people, and on Rom 4:20, where the idolatry is reversed in Abraham’s case (he ‘gave glory to God’). The same cultic language occurs in Rom 5:1f, with its talk of access to grace and hope of glory.
(b) any attempt to show how Rom 3:21-26 follows from Rom 2:17-24. In the usual reading, this passage simply shows that Jews are as much sinners as Gentiles. While this is part of what Paul is saying, it must not be allowed to obscure the specific point that he is making about the ‘covenant of vocation’.
Paul’s statement in Rom 2:19f ‘is a classic statement of the well-known Jewish belief—variously expressed, but common across many traditions—that God’s call of Abraham and his family was designed to put right what was wrong with the world. Paul is not saying, as some commentators have imagined, “You are a bigot, imagining yourself to be morally superior.” He is saying, “You believe that God has called you—has called Israel as a whole—to be the light of the world.” And Paul affirms that belief. “The Jew” whom he is addressing is quite correct. This is indeed what the scriptures say. This is the vocation of Israel.’
This is not a new charge that Paul is making: it was made by the prophets centuries before (see Rom 2:21-24). But if Israel has failed in her vocation, in being a light to the nations, God has not abandoned his covenant with her. The coming of God’s Son into the world does not represent a change of plan on God’s part: it is the fulfilment of his original plan (Rom 3:2-4).
God God’s plan to work, two things have to happen: sin, and the underlying problem of idolatry, must be dealt with; and God will have to be faithful to his covenant to Abraham, despite Israel’s unfaithfulness. These are the twin issues that lie at the heart of Rom 3:21-26.
The theme of Rom 3:21-26 is the ‘righteousness of God’. And this means his ‘covenant faithfulness’. According to chapter 2, God had purposed that Israel would be the light of the world. According to chapter 4, God had purposed to give Abraham a worldwide family. Paul’s main point in 3:21-26 is that God has done, in and through Christ, what he promised to do all along. He has done this freely, out of pure mercy (‘grace’). And he has done so in a way that is completely consistent with his own nature and character. All along, God’s covenant faithfulness had been two-edged: it meant that Israel would have to face the consequences of her idolatry, and that meant exile (Deut 27-32). But that same faithfulness meant that God would restore his people (Jer 31:31-34; Isa 40-55).
God’s purposes for (faithless) Israel have been fulfilled in the faithful Messiah, Rom 3:22. God’s faithfulness to his purposes will therefore be demonstrated precisely the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah to all who have faith.
All who believe, says Paul, are ‘justified by faith’ (Rom 3:24). That is, all who believe are members of God’s single family (as promised to Abraham), and this family is declared to be ‘in the right’. The future verdict (Rom 2:1-16; 8:31-39) has already been announced, in the present (Rom 3:21). The vindication of those who are ‘in Christ’ is a direct result of the vindication of Christ himself, who has been declared to be truly God’s Son (Rom 1:3f), truly sent into the world to do God’s will (Rom 8:3f), truly announced, by his resurrection, to be ‘in the right’ (despite the verdict of the human court that sentenced him to death) – Rom 4:24f.
Since the entire passage has a covenantal framework, we are not surprised to find the same emphasis in the section now being discussed. The key words are ‘redemption’ and ‘place of mercy’. ‘Redemption’ harks back to God’s great act of liberation from slavery that took place at the exodus. God did this in fulfilment of his promises to Abraham (Ex 2:24), and in order to establish his covenant (Ex 19:5; 24:3-8). The cross is the new exodus, the new Passover. Jeremiah 31:31-34 links the two: looking backwards at the first in anticipation of the second.
But if liberation from slavery was the negative side of Passover, the positive side was the Israel was set free to worship their God (Ex 3:12, 18; 4:23; 5:1, etc.). The covenant event of liberation led to the covenant meeting between God and his people. The precise place of meeting (and also of cleansing by the sprinkled blood of sacrifice) was the lid of the ark of the covenant, rendered ‘hilasterion‘ in Greek. There is no hint of punishment here: the animal was slain away from the altar. Conversely, the only animal in Leviticus that had sins confessed over its head was the scapegoat – and it was not sacrificed. Another indication that Paul does not intend to teach in this passage that the wrath that sinners deserved was meted out on Christ himself is that Paul refers to God’s wrath in Rom 5:9 (and also in 1 Thess 1:10; 5:9) as future, whereas what he is discussing in Rom 3:21-26 is ‘in the present time’ (v21,26). We are declared now to be ‘in the right’ before God so that we shall be delivered from the wrath to come at the last day. Moreover, Paul is not saying here that God has punished former sins, but rather that he had ‘passed over’ (no relation to Passover) them (Rom 2:4; cf. Acts 17:30).
So hilasterion here does not mean ‘propitiatory sacrifice’. What Paul says about it in Rom 3:25 is that God has supplied it (or rather, supplied him; cf. Rom 5:8; 8:3, 32). God has re-established his meeting place with people. But whereas the original Passover did not involve forgiveness of sin, we cannot come to God still polluted by our idolatry. We must be purified by God, through the blood that Jesus shed (cf. 1 Jn 2:2). The hilasterion will be a place of cleansing. Thus we can enjoy peace with God and access by faith (Rom 5:1f).
All of this resonates with Isa 40-55, where the ultimate forgiveness of Israel’s sins is achieved through the faithful obedience of one who at one time can be called ‘my servant, Israel’ (Isa 49:3) and yet at another time stands over against Israel as her representative. In the final Servant Song (Isa 52:13-53:12), all this comes together as the punishment for Israel’s sins falls on the servant alone. Paul echoes this in Rom 4:23-25.
It’s not about an arbitrary and abstract punishment meted out on an innocent victim. It is, rather, about love, for the covenant is, after all, marriage between God and his people. It’s about God himself coming in embodied form to take upon himself the consequence of Israel’s idolatrous rebellion.
The hilasterion is the place where heaven and earth meet; the place where God comes to dwell with his people (shades of Jn 1:14!).
In Rom 3:21-26 we are in the same world of meaning that is set out in the Gospels. Paul is giving us his exposition not only of what was widely believed and taught by the earliest Christians, but what was rooted in the words and actions of Jesus himself.
In summary, then, this passage teaches that ‘Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, is the place where and the means by which God’s covenant purposes and Israel’s covenant faithfulness meet, merge, and achieve their original object.’
Paul ‘would say that the age-old covenant plan of the Creator, to rescue humanity and the world from sin and death, had been accomplished. The new Passover had taken place, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.
Second, he would say that this had been accomplished by God himself, in his act of covenant faithfulness (for which the shorthand is “love,” though Paul does not use that word until chapters 5 and 8), drawing together Israel’s vocation and his own deepest purposes in the faithful death of the Messiah.
Third, as befits a “Passover” moment, he would say that people of all sorts— Jews and Gentiles alike— were now free, free from past sins, free to come into the single covenant family. They were “freely declared to be in the right,” to be within God’s justified people, able to look ahead to the final day without fear of condemnation (5: 9; 8: 1; 8: 31– 39).
Fourth, as we have seen in all the other early Christian strands of thought we have studied, Paul saw the new Passover also as the “dealing with sins” through which exile was undone. This is where Passover and the “Day of Atonement” meet and merge.
Fifth, and at the heart of it all, Paul saw Israel’s representative Messiah “handed over because of our trespasses,” in the sense intended in Isaiah 53. Dealing with sins robs the “powers” of their power; and this, as we have seen, is the key that unlocks all the other doors.’
Part Four: The Revolution Continues
14. Passover People
What is our mission, in the light of this understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection? It is not simply telling people that Jesus died for them, and urging them to believe this so that they can go to heaven. ‘Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross.’
This was the predominant view of the Protestant churches in the 17th and 18th centuries. They sought to spread the Christian gospel and Christian civilisation across the globe. In Handel’s Messiah (first performed in 1742) the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ (based on Rev 11:15) is placed in the centre of the piece, not at the end.
By the end of the 18th century, however, ‘preaching the gospel’ had become largely separated from social reform. And, while Christians sought to separate themselves from the world, the secularist project of the Enlightenment was allowed to steam ahead, optimistically seeking the improvement of the world, leaving God either non-existent or dwelling remotely in his heaven. (The ‘Social Gospel’ movement was a Christianised, but still ultimately secular, attempt to regain ‘social action’ as a central part of the church’s mission).
The earlier optimism had its own problems, and we are not to look for a return to it. But we do need to reshape our missional vision in the light of Christ’s achievement.
Christ ‘died for our sins’, thus breaking the grip of the powers to which we had been enslaved. What this adds up to is not a new religion, but a new way of being human. Sin matters because it corrupts our image-bearing vocation. ‘To reflect the divine image means standing between heaven and earth, even in the present time adoring the Creator and bringing his purposes into reality on earth, ahead of the time when God completes the task and makes all things new.’
To know that Christ has won the victory helps us to avoid the danger of arrogance (we can win this ourselves) and also the danger of fear (the world is too strong). To know that Christ has won the victory through the forgiveness of sins means that we engage in mission humbly, as forgiven sinners.
Always working from the centre (see, for example, Gal 1:4), redeemed human beings are called to bring redeeming love into the worlds. We are ‘justified justice-bringers’, ‘reconciled reconcilers, ‘Passover people’.
Of course, the modern world wants to keep Christianity on the edges, and will resist any attempt to bring it into the public square. And the church’s involvement in the world has not always been wise or good. But we can be encouraged by the fact that on Good Friday the vital work was already done. We do not have to win the victory all over again.
Of course, there will be difficulties and uncertainties. Our mission is not of the nation of an invasion. Alongside its story of cheerful progress, the book of Acts has plenty of examples of martyrs, riots, failures and disagreements. The powers will fight. And ours will be a victory-in-weakness, as Paul says in 2 Cor 6:4-10. As with Jesus, so for us – suffering is not simply something we must endure for the sake of God’s kingdom: it is the means by which God’s rescuing love is poured out into the world; it is the way the world is changed.
Consider the strange combination of events in Acts 12. Peter is released from jail, but James is killed by Herod. No explicit explanation is provided. We observe a similar pattern in Acts 16 and 27-28. So Paul can says in Col 1:24 that he actually celebrates his sufferings, because they are for the good of the young church. See also Rom 5:3-5. We share both in the sufferings and in the glory of Christ. In Rom 8:17-25 we find that we are caught up in the work of the Spirit himself, as God works in this world through the ‘patient, puzzled, agonized, labour-pained intercession’ of his people, working together with him ‘to rescue the whole creation from its slavery to corruption, to bring about the new creation at last.’
This is not to say that we should seek out suffering for its own sake (‘it will toughen you up’, and so on). But it is to assert that Christ’s mission proceeds by and through suffering now as then. Think of the message of 1 Peter, of the Revelation, and also of Jesus’ response to the triumphalist aspirations of James and John (Lk 9:54; Mk 10:35-40). This has been the regular pattern throughout history. It is when we are poor and weak (in worldly things and in worldly eyes) that we are rich and we are strong. It is no accident that the root meaning of the word ‘martyr’ is ‘witness’.
The sacraments carry particular meaning and significance in this context. Baptism says: ‘I have died to sin; it no longer has any hold over me’ (Rom 6:11f). So it with with the Lord’s Supper: it is not only a commemoration of Jesus’ death, but a means of both sharing in and declaring that death (1 Cor 11:26). It states a new Fact about the world. It confronts and shames the godless powers. It announces that Jesus is Lord.
15. The Powers and the Power of Love
When Jesus, after his resurrection, commissioned his disciples and sent them into the world, it was with a message of repentance and forgiveness (Jn 20:21,23; Lk 24:46-49). But more sweeping than we often take it to be. A new reality has come about. It isn’t that repentance and forgiveness bring us into this reality: they are the reality. ‘Believing in Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just about believing that he rose from the grave, it is to say ‘yes’ to God’s new reality. This is a reality in which the forgiven become the forgivers. This is what happens when God’s kingdom comes, when his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. This is in stark contrast to much worldly thinking which regards forgiveness as a weakness, and getting even as a strength. Resurrection and forgiveness go hand in hand, for both are the result of death’s defeat.
Jesus’ cross and resurrection also means that the world as a whole is free to worship the God who made it. The nations are no longer in the vice-like grips of the dark powers. See Jn 12:23f,31f. It was in the light of this that the Gentile mission began with Peter in Acts 10 and continued with Paul (see, for example, Acts 26:16-18; 1 Thess 1:9f). It is clear from Gal 1; Col 2:14 etc. that this was a common and widely-accepted part of Paul’s teaching.
What would it mean for the church today to live by this? It would mean, for one thing, recognising that the ‘powers’, though defeated on the cross, are still capable of enslaving vast numbers of people. Think of Communism, of apartheid, and of the oppression of black people in North America. And reflect, too, on the fact that it was devout Christians who played a significant role in the downfall of these and other evils. The church needs great wisdom, as well as great courage, if it is to discern present-day evils and name them for what they are. But we need to recognise that the old trio of money, sex, and power are idolised today as much as they ever have been.
What would it mean for the gospel to confront the god of Mammon, who is available for worship not only in the world of big business and high finance, but also on every street corner and on every computer screen? What would it mean to confront Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love, who can be summoned on the screen of every gadget with carry around with us? And what about Mars, the god of power, particularly in the form of military force? So long as we give it unquestioning worship and obedience, as we have done with Mammon and Aphrodite, war will still be seen as a problem to be sorted out by politicians rather than as a symptom of idolatry of which we should repent.
To believe in Jesus’ victory on the cross is to believe that he has overcome these idols, and therefore we can and we must resist them in his name. This cannot be achieved with moral power alone. We need to add mental effort, and prayer allied to spiritual counsel and guidance.
No Christian is perfect, of course. But sin in a follower of Jesus is an anomaly, a radical inconsistency, like a musician playing music from the wrong symphony. Part of our vocation is ‘to celebrate Jesus as Lord on the territory where other gods have been worshipped.’
When it comes to Mammon, we need to know how to use money, and, especially, how to give it away.
When it comes to Aphrodite, we need to know how to celebrate and sustain both the married state and the celibate state, and also how to counsel and comfort those who, in whichever state, are ‘overwhelmed with conflicting and contrary desires.’
We are not, after all, defined by our longings and aspirations. Jesus, like the prophets before him, said that the human heart is deceitful, and out of it come all kinds of defiling, dehumanising things. ‘The gospel Jesus announced was not about getting in touch with your deepest feelings or accepting yourself as you really are. It was about taking up your cross and following him’
None of this is to repudiate the world, or the proper exercise of power within it. The Creator wants his world to flourish, and his Word gives not support at all for anarchy.
In modern liberal democracies, we place too much emphasis on how someone gets elected to office, and not enough on what they do once they get there. ‘The Christian role, as part of naming the name of the crucified and risen Jesus on territory presently occupied by idols, is to speak the truth to power and especially to speak up for those with no power at all.’
Many examples could be given of ways in which Christian people have involved themselves in this kind of mission. What they have done has often been ignored by the media, and sometimes opposed by those whose vested interests were under threat. But we have no choice. We are not at liberty to strike texts such as Psa 72 from our Bibles. Our Christian faith cannot be pushed to the edges, or made into a purely private matter. The way of Jesus involves confronting the Powers with a different vision of what it means to be human.
But none of this means that we can neglect personal holiness. The same critique must apply to our own lives. We must ‘put to death’ unholy impulses that ‘bubble up from within us and distort our genuine human vocation’ (Col 3:1-11).
What this vocation will look like in more positive ways for individual Christians will vary. For some, it will lead to a life of contemplation and quiet intercession. For others, to study in order to bring fresh wisdom and understanding into God’s world. It will prompt still others to move onto a rough housing estate to work with homeless kids and drug addicts.
Credible evangelism must be flanked by ‘new-creation work in the realms of justice and beauty.’ If we are talking about Christ’s victory over evil and the launch of the new creation, it doesn’t make much sense unless we are working for those very things, and helping people to imagine that the world can be a different, and better, place.
This will not be easy. But Jesus’ own vocation reminds us that suffering is not merely a dark tunnel through which we must pass. It is so often the means by which God’s future will be achieved.
The message of the cross, then, challenges both our views of eschatology (it’s not simply about ‘going to heaven’ but about working for God’s new creation), and our views about humanity (it’s not about conforming to certain rules, but about fulfilling our image-bearing vocation). And it challenges our views about mission (it’s not about ‘saving souls for heaven’, but about confronting the ‘powers’ with the news of Jesus’ victory, and working for his kingdom in human lives and institutions.
This is not to say that ‘life after death’, or explaining that Jesus ‘died for sins’, don’t matter. Far from it. But it is to say that the victory of Jesus on the cross prompts us to put this victory into practice using the same means that he used. Jesus identified with the idolaters, and died as their substitute, out of love. And that love impels us to answer with love, both for the lover and for those whom he loved.
Yes, this will mean denying ourselves and taking up our cross (Mk 8:34-38). ‘How remarkable it is that the Western church so easily embraces self-discovery, self-fulfilment, and self-realization as they they were the heart of the “gospel” – as though Mark 8 didn’t exist!’
The revolution that has happened through Jesus must now be implemented both in and through his followers. We follow in his footsteps, as humble servants (Jn 13).
In the last chapters of John’s Gospel, the powers of evil gathered themselves in order to do their worst against Jesus, and seemed to have destroyed him on the cross. But they were nowhere to be seen on the day of resurrection: a weeping Mary is told to dry her tears. The scared disciples are told not to be afraid. A doubting Thomas need doubt no more. These are among the first signs that the power of Satan has been broken, that God’s new creation has begun. This is the story we not only tell, but which we live.
In fact, we have in these chapters – in narrative, rather than in dogmatic form – all the elements of a Christian understanding of the cross. ‘We have the cleansing from sin that allows access to the divine Presence. We have the ultimate defeat of evil…We have the example of self-giving love to be followed, so that the world may believe.’
I won’t at this time offer any critical comment, except to say that I find in this work to be both inspirational and infuriating, in the sort of combination that I have come to expect from this author.
Peter Adam, while appreciating some things in the book, faults Wright for caricaturing, and then pillorying, the doctrine of penal substitution.