Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (11)

The Didache was probably written in the 2nd century. About the celebration of the Lord’s supper it says:
"Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup: We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which Thou madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.

And concerning the broken bread: We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which Thou madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever."
The Didache makes no mention of the Last Supper, or of the “body” or “blood” of Christ. It appears that for the earliest Christians the "breaking of bread" was a communal meal and was not viewed as a "memorial" of Christ's death.

It wasn't until Augustine of Hippo (355-430 AD) who was heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism and Greek and Roman rhetoric that the concept of “original sin” was developed. Augustine argued that the effects of “the Fall” were transmitted to Adam’s descendants who inherited his guilt. (He was also the first to demand that the “sacrament” of Eucharist had to be performed by ordained clergy in order to be valid.

For the first time the atonement began to be tied to the celebration of the Lord’s supper, the validity of the sacraments [and sacraments performed by dissidents were regarded as invalid], and the authority of religious leaders). He laid the groundwork for theologians such as the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa who argued that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan, and the eleventh century Anselm of Canterbury who developed a “satisfaction” theory, arguing that the debt was in fact paid to God. Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin further refined these theories into the view that Jesus’ death was necessary to meet the demands of divine justice.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (10)


The Gospel of John records an incident when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and he said: ""Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29-35).

This is not the only time in the New Testament that Jesus is referred to as a lamb. Other places are:
The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:
"He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth." (Acts 8:32, quoting Isaiah 53:7)

For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7)

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:18-19)
The Revelation refers to "the Lamb" about 30 times, including the following verses which speak of a slain lamb, or the blood of the lamb:
"a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain" (5:6)

"Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain" (5:12)

"These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." (7:15)

"They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony" (12:11)

"... the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world." (13:8)
In most places in The Revelation the term "the Lamb" is used as a title, rather than being a metaphorical reference to a slain animal. For example, chapters 19 and 21 refer to the Lamb's marriage and to his bride - hardly part of a slain lamb analogy!

So what do these passages mean?

It is commonly assumed that the slain lamb analogy is a reference to a sacrificial animal under the Law of Moses which was therefore a "type" of Christ, and that as the blood of the animal made an atonement for sins so the shedding of Christ's blood in crucifixion was a sacrificial atonement for sin.

However, there are a number of problems with this assumption.
  1. Almost all the NT references are alluding to the Passover lamb. The passage in 1 Corinthians is explicitly to "Christ our Passover" (strictly speaking, the word "lamb" is absent in the Greek - the translators have inserted it as it is implied) and 1 Peter speaks about being redeemed (set free, liberated) - an allusion to freedom from Egyptian slavery which Passover celebrates (and in the context of 1 Peter it is freedom from "the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers", almost certainly referring to Pharisaic Judaism).
  2. The Passover lamb was not sacrificed as an atonement or for the forgiveness of sins.
  3. It is sometimes assumed that the slain lamb analogy is an allusion to the Day of Atonement when Israel's sins were forgiven and blood was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place. However, it was a goat that was slain on the Day of Atonement, not a lamb.
  4. For the daily sin offerings bulls and goats were most frequently sacrificed. Hence Hebrews says "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (10:14). If a lamb was offered it had to be a female lamb (e.g. Lev 4:32; 5:6). Lambs were also offered as burnt offerings, but when they were they were distinguished from sin offerings (e.g. Lev 12:6 "a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering"; Num 6:14 when a Nazirite completed his vow he was to bring "a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe [female] lamb without defect for a sin offering, a ram without defect for a fellowship offering ..."). Burnt offerings and fellowship offerings were not for atonement or forgiveness of sins.
  5. The Isaiah 53 reference to a lamb is to a sheep being led to its shearers or for slaughter, but not necessarily being led to the altar as a sacrificial victim. The metaphor (" like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer") were both in reference to the sheep/lamb being "silent" - "so he did not open his mouth". We should not push the metaphor beyond what the prophet clearly intended. The sheep/lamb was "before the shearer", not "before the priest". The metaphor was about being silent like a sheep, not being sacrificed as an offering.

So what did John the Baptist mean when he said "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world"?

Geza Vermes, professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University and a renowned scholar and expert in the Judaism and Aramaic of the time of Jesus, has pointed out that the title Lamb of God does not necessarily refer to the metaphor of a sacrificial animal. He points out that in Galilean Aramaic the word talya (literally "lamb") had the common meaning of "male child". This is akin to "kid" meaning "child" in modern colloquial English. The female equivalent of talya was talitha, literally "ewe lamb" and figuratively "girl" (the word is found in the narrative of the daughter of Jairus. Mark 5:41). It is a term of endearment. Thus, "Lamb of God" could have been a colloquial way of saying "Son of God" or "God's Kid".

Understood this way John the Baptist was saying "Look, the dear child of God, God's little pet-lamb, the one who will remove sin!"

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (9)


The NIV refers to Christ as “an atoning sacrifice” or “sacrifice of atonement”, while other translations used words such as “propitiation”, a term almost never heard in conversation outside a theological context.

These expressions are translations of a small group of words related to mercy which together occur only eight times in the NT (three times in Hebrews).


The Greek word hileos originally meant cheerful, or joyous and eventually acquired the additional meaning of benevolent, gracious or merciful. It occurs twice in the NT.
  • Matt 16:22 “Never, Lord”. The Greek here is hileos soi, Kyrie and literally means, “Be merciful to yourself, Lord”.
  • Heb 8:12 (quoting Jer 31:31-34) “I will forgive their wickedness” or “I will be merciful with regard to their iniquities” or “I will pardon them”.
  • Rom 3:25 “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.”
  • Heb 9:5 “Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover.”
Related to hileos (merciful) is the Greek hilasterion which literally means mercy seat, the lid or cover of the Ark of the Covenant, where God promised to meet His people (Ex 25:17, 22; 29:42; 30:36) and where God was said to appear in a cloud (Lev 16:2). The mercy seat was called the kapporet in Hebrew - a word which always referred to the lid or cover of the Ark, and which the Septuagint Greek translates with the word hilasterion.

It was from between the cherubim above the mercy seat where God spoke to Moses (Num 7:89). The Holy of Holies was later referred to as the house of the kapporet (1 Chron 28:11).

God was said to be “enthroned between the cherubim” i.e. above the lid of the Ark (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chron 13:6; Psalm 80:1; 99:1; Isa 37:16).

The Hebrew word kapporet is derived from a primitive root kaphar meaning “to cover”. While it refers literally to a cover the word also figuratively refers to the covering of sin, hence condone, forgive, be merciful, pacify, pardon, purge (away), reconcile, or make atonement. This has led to some confusion about whether the hilasterion in Rom 3:25 refers to the mercy seat, or to the “sacrifice of atonement” whose blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement. The word kapporet in Hebrew always referred to the lid or cover of the Ark, and the only other place where the word occurs in the NT (Heb 9:5) it is undeniably referring to the literal lid of the Ark of the Covenant (“place of atonement” NIV).

In a similar way the Greek word thysiasterion (from thysiazo = to sacrifice) means an altar or place of sacrifice. The word does not refer to the sacrifices themselves. Hence hilasterion refers to the place where God met His people, not to the blood sprinkled there. The NIV translation “sacrifice of atonement” in Rom 3:25 is clearly wrong. Paul is actually saying that Christ is the true meeting place between God and His people, of which the mercy seat above the Ark was a type. It was through Christ that God’s mercy was demonstrated. Christ now occupies the place that the mercy seat occupied in the OT - the central place where reconciliation occurs that restores the relationship between God and his people so that they “meet” together.

As God “sat enthroned between the Cherubim” above the mercy seat, so “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form … the head over every principality and authority” (Col 2:9-10). The risen and exalted Christ is the embodiment of God’s kingly authority.


The Greek word hilasterion is derived from hiloskomai which also occurs in only two places in the NT.
  • Luke 18:13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.
  • Heb 2:17 “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”
The Greek word hiloskomai occurs eleven times in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. It always has God as the subject and means to have mercy. Seven times it translates the Hebrew word salah which means to forgive.

The word is used in the Septuagint of Psalm 79:9 “deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake”. In his story about the tax collector Jesus went on to say “I tell you that this man, rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God” (v. 14). The Pharisee’s attitude was fairly typical and is reflected in a story in the Talmud about a rabbi who was confident that if the saved numbered only “a hundred, I and my son are among them; and if only two, they are I and my son” (b. Sukkah 45b). Paul similarly declared himself “as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phil 3:6). This parable demonstrated that what matters to God is a reliance on His mercy, and declares that human self-righteousness is of no benefit.

A footnote in the NIV to Heb 2:17 offers an alternative translation: “and that he might turn aside God’s wrath, taking away the sins of the people”. However, there is no reference in the context to an appeasement of an angry deity and God is not said to be the recipient of an atonement. In my view the NIV footnote here is simply wrong and without any support. The KJV’s “to make reconciliation for” works better within the context. Jesus is said to be a “merciful [Gk. eleemon, compassionate, merciful] and faithful high priest”. The next verse says: “because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (v. 18). The best way to interpret hiloskomai in this context would be to say that Jesus is a compassionate and faithful high priest, able to empathise with His people, to help them and have mercy on their sins.


Finally we come to the word hilasmos which is translated in the NIV as “atoning sacrifice” and in the KJV as “propitiation”. We have seen that the central concept of this word-group is mercy and so when we come to look at the two occurrences of this word in the NT we should expect to see something of the same emphasis.
  • 1 John 2:2 “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
  • 1 John 4:10 “… he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Again we find a footnote in the NIV offering an alternative translation: “He is the one who turns aside God’s wrath, taking away our sins”. However, as we saw when we looked at the NIV’s treatment of the word hiloskomai there is no justification for this interpretation either within the context or in the meaning of the word itself. The Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible uses this word ten times to translate derivatives of the Hebrew verb kipper which means “to cover over” (the word for a skullcap or head covering, for example, is kippah) and refers to sins being “covered”. Sins which are “covered” are effectively unseen to God, and therefore forgiven.

So in 1 John we should read the word hilasmos in the sense of our sins being covered: “He is the covering for our sins …” There is a similar thought in James 5:20: “whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” and 1 Peter 4:8: “love covers over a multitude of sins”. Both writers are almost certainly alluding to Proverbs 10:12 “love covers over all wrongs”. Here the Greek word for “cover(s) over” is kalypto which translates the Hebrew kasah - the words are different but the concept is the same. In these texts the writers are referring to human forgiveness covering over sins in others, while in 1 John 2:20 and 4:10 the writer is referring to God sending His Son to cover our sins.

In all these texts we find the fundamental principle is one of God’s mercy, covering over our sins and forgiving them. There is nothing in the context or the meanings of the words themselves to suggest that Christ’s death was necessary to “appease” a God who was angry or wrathful, or to satisfy any of God’s demands. The translators have sometimes (especially in the NIV) interpreted the words rather than literally translated them and have consequently given us a misleading translation. By interpreting some of the words in this group as “sacrifice of atonement” and “atoning sacrifice” they have also wrongly inserted the concept of “sacrifice” into texts where it does not belong. The death of Christ has therefore been wrongly viewed in a similar way to the sacrifices (sometimes human) which were offered to pagan gods to turn away their wrath. To the contrary, Christ demonstrated the love, mercy and graciousness of God and revealed Him as a God which was quite unlike the pagan gods who demanded sacrifices to appease them. By contrast, God’s love is generous and abundant (“not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world”). And by juxtaposing “sacrifice” and “atonement” the translators have also given the wrong impression that “atonement” (to be “at one” with God) or “reconciliation” comes only through a human sacrifice - a totally unBiblical concept.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (8)


There are a significant handful of references in the NT to Christ dying for us, although no where near as many as we should expect if the emphasis given to "the blood of Christ" by many evangelists and preachers was correct.

In fact there are only nine places where the NT explicitly says Christ died for us, or words to that effect.
Romans 5:6
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.

Romans 5:8
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 14:15
If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.

1 Corinthians 8:11
So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.

1 Corinthians 15:3
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures

1 Peter 3:18
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit

2 Corinthians 5:14-15
For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

1 Thessalonians 5:10
He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

Hebrews 9:15
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
In a previous post I referred to John the Baptist's "lamb of God" sayings and said I would come back to them. John said the lamb of God "takes away the sin of the world". What did he mean?

I think there are three possibilities. He could “take away” our sins by:

(a) cancelling our sin, i.e. paying the price for it, or dying in our place instead of us (but as we've seen from Ezekiel 18 dying in someone else’s place isn’t a Biblical concept), or

(b) by abolishing sin, i.e. remove the Law and it’s no longer possible to break it, or

(c) removing the cause of sin, i.e. taking away whatever it is that makes us sin.

I think (b) and (c) have the strongest Biblical case going for them. The whole point of “grace” is to enable us to overcome. This is where people often get “mercy” and “grace” confused and think that grace is the same as God being merciful and forgiving us, but the distinction is quite clear in Heb 4:16 “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need”. Our sins are forgiven because of God’s mercy, and we are enabled to overcome further sin by God’s grace. This is also what Jude 24 says “[He] is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy”.

So to “take away sin” is another way of saying that He will abolish or remove sin by enabling us (by grace) to overcome it. Paul says in Acts 20:24-28 that for him “the gospel of God's grace” was essentially what he taught when he went about “preaching the kingdom”. That would explain why we find him using the word “grace” about 60 times in his letters while hardly using the word “kingdom”. And for Paul the exaltation of Christ was absolutely necessary for the enabling of grace. For example, in Eph 4:7-8 he says “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men."

Paul also emphasises Jesus’ exaltation in the “humbling” text in Phil 2 (almost certainly a quotation from an ancient hymn). The climax seems to be in verses 9-11: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place …” The “therefore” connects it with the preceding verse “he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!” The cross was the means to and reason for His exaltation. Incidentally, this means that Jesus’ “humbling” was demonstrated in His death, not His birth (as trinitarians suggest). This text is about exaltation, not incarnation. And He was exalted to a position He had never held before. It was an “exaltation”, not a “return” to a position He had previously held.

Paul follows this quotation of an ancient hymn in Phil 2 with another "therefore" which leads into his practical application. "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed ... continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (v. 12-13). Jesus' humbling was the means to and reason for His exaltation. His exaltation enabled Him to give the gifts of grace to His followers (Eph 4:7-8) and it is this grace which enables God to work in us for our salvation.

The basis of Paul's theology is that Christ died "for us" so that through His death and exaltation we would be given the means to be victorious over sin. That is why the triumphant Christ is a much stronger theme in Acts and in Paul's writings than the sacrificial Christ.

In my next message I will take a look at the texts that say Christ's death was "an atoning sacrifice".