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".

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (7)

Why did Jesus have to die?

Was there no other way for God to save mankind?

The death of Christ is often explained either as a debt being paid - that is, His death paid the price of our sin - or as one innocent person dying in the place of other guilty people who have been condemned to die (that is, as a substitute). These are two different metaphors, but they often get confused and used together in explaining the 'atonement', or how Christ's death brings about our salvation. It's one thing to speak about a 'debt' being forgiven, but to then mix this up with a capital punishment for a criminal offense would be to confuse the metaphors.

If we stick to the language of debts being paid then Jesus must have paid the debt to someone - if indeed He paid a debt. This is quite different from someone dying as a substitute in place of another for a crime.

Paul used a variety of metaphors from the marketplace, the slave trade, the law courts and the Temple, because no one analogy is adequate or complete in itself. No one metaphor was adequate for him, and no metaphor should be pushed too far.

However, Jesus himself never spoke of His death as an 'atonement'. The Gospels record only one brief saying which possibly alludes to His death in atonement-theology terms - the 'ransom saying' of Mark 10:45 (parallel Matt 20:28), which may, or may not, be a reference to His death (to give ones life in service does not necessarily mean to die). Jesus' references during the last supper to His blood being shed to seal the new covenant are the language of covenants, not atonement. So it's actually doubtful whether Jesus ever referred to His own death as an atonement.

On the other hand, Jesus spoke frequently of God's forgiveness, His abundant generosity, and His graciousness. There is nothing in any of His parables, stories or sayings which suggests that a price of any kind had to be paid to secure God's forgiveness. The stories which refer to debts being forgiven all emphasise the undeserved kindness shown by the one forgiving the debt. If any debt was owed by Adam or his descendants because of his sin or theirs, then the debt was owed to God. If Jesus death was to pay a debt then the debt must have been paid to God, and that would put God in the position of demanding the death of His own Son in order to satisfy a debt to Himself. The other alternative would be Anselm's satisfaction theory which had the debt being paid to the devil, which I personally think is absurd.

If Jesus suffered the penalty for the crimes committed by others, then He suffered the punishment for sins which was due. There is no need for forgiveness then, because the sentence has been carried out. We are free, not because we have been forgiven, but because someone else took our place.

As I see it, the only way we can understand forgiveness is to see it as a gracious act of God in NOT demanding payment or punishment for our sins. If we use the metaphor of a debt, then the debt is paid and is not forgiven. If we use the language of capital punishment then the sentence has been carried out and the guilty party has a substitute who dies in their place, but the crime is not forgiven. Neither of these analogies explains what actually happened: God chose to forgive our sins even though there was absolutely nothing we could do to merit or deserve His forgiveness, and even though it would be impossible for us to find a substitute who could suffer the punishment which our sins deserved.

As I see it, Jesus' death was a demonstration of how far God's love would go in order to save us, not what God demands in order to be satisfied. Several Scriptures point us in this direction:

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

Galatians 2:20
The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Ephesians 5:2
Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

1 John 3:16
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.

1 John 4:9
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

1 John 4:10
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

John 13:1
Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.

The death of Christ is primarily a demonstration of the love of God. It was not an act to appease an offended deity. It was not a mechanistic or legalistic sacrifice to satisfy the requirements of any religious law. It was not a demonstration of what "the flesh" deserved. It was an act of love. As the shaliach, the agent or emissary of God, Jesus was demonstrating in His own life and death the love of God, effectively doing what God could not do himself.
William Barclay puts it very beautifully in The Plain Man Looks at the Apostles' Creed:
"But why the death of Christ? If Jesus had stopped before the cross, it would have meant that there was some point beyond which the love of God would not go, some limit to his love. But in Jesus [i.e. through His agent - my comment] God says: 'You may disobey me; you may grieve me; you may be disloyal to me; you may misunderstand me; you may batter me and bruise me and scourge me; you may treat me with savage injustice; you may kill me on a cross; I will never stop loving you.' This means that the life and death of Jesus are the demonstration and the proof of the limitless, the undefeatable, unchangeable, unalterable, infinite love of God." (My emphasis).
This is the most beautiful summary I have ever read of the motivation beyond the cross.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (6)


It’s actually surprising how little the NT says about the death of Christ in a sacrificial sense. In fact, almost all the references to the sacrifice of Christ are in Hebrews, in a very specific context related to the tabernacle and the Day of Atonement. Paul rarely uses sacrificial language, and when he does it could just as well be in reference to sacrifices in his own life (as in “I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith” Phil 2:17; cf 2 Tim 4:6 ) or to sacrifices made by fellow-believers (“I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” Phil 4:18)

In fact, apart from Hebrews (which I will come to) there are only a handful of places where the NT refers to Christ's death as a sacrifice:
Romans 3:25
God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished

Ephesians 5:2
Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

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
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
The Ephesians 5:2 text is remarkable in that Paul uses precisely the same language to describe charitable gifts made by Christians (Phil 4:8). He obviously is not thinking of it in terms of an atonement which could take away sin. So that leaves only Romans 3:25 and 1 John 2:2; 4:10 where Christ's death is referred to as "an atoning sacrifice" (and I will come back to look at them in detail later).

In addition to these texts there are a few more which speak of the blood of Christ (ignoring the Hebrews texts for now):
Ephesians 1:7
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace

1 Peter 1:2
To God's elect ... who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.

1 Peter 1:18-19
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.
We can see from this that the emphasis of the NT is NOT on the death of Christ as any form of vicarious sacrifice, i.e. Jesus did not die in our place, or as a substitute, or in any way to suffer a penalty for our sins. He did, however, die FOR us, but what does that mean? If I say I will do something for you I may mean I will do it instead of you (e.g. you don’t have to do that – I’ll do it for you), but equally I could mean I will do it to benefit you (e.g. let me do that for you).

The language of sacrifice in Hebrews is interesting. The context is clearly the Day of Atonement so any reference to a sacrifice has to be in that context. Heb 9:22 says “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” There are two statements there which, if meant in a general way, would simply be untrue. First, not “everything” was cleansed by blood. Some things were cleansed by water (hence baptism, hand-washing, mikvahs, etc). Second, forgiveness was possible without the shedding of blood. However, in the context it’s clear that the writer meant that “everything” in the tabernacle was cleansed by blood (the furniture etc), and that on the Day of Atonement there was no forgiveness without shedding of blood (although there was at other times). So the context makes these statements quite specific – otherwise they would simply be untrue.

On the Day of Atonement the High Priest went into the Most Holy Place, and I believe that’s what is behind the argument in Hebrews . It was about one man going into the Holiest place for the benefit of all.

The NT writers (especially Hebrews) are telling us that Jesus’ death was the means by which He could be exalted and enter “the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation” (9:11). His death was “necessary” in order to pass from “this creation” and enter heaven: “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence” (9:22).

His death wasn’t “necessary” in order for God to forgive us, because God can (and does) forgive without sacrifice or shedding of blood. It wasn’t “necessary” to take away our sin. It wasn’t “necessary” as a penalty or as a vicarious sacrifice. It was actually not possible under the Law to die for the sins of another person - to pay the penalty for their sins. This is spelled out clearly and thoroughly in Ezekiel 18 where God says “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.” On this basis the doctrine that we are somehow punished for the sin of Adam is clearly wrong. "The son will not share the guilt of the father". We do not share Adam's guilt! "But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die" (v. 21). Here the basis of forgiveness and freedom from guilt is repentance not sacrifice.

Jesus therefore could not have died "in our place" or to pay the penalty for our sins. He could not have died to remove the guilt of Adam's sin. Only Adam could die for Adam's sin. "The soul who sins is the one who will die."

However, Jesus death was “necessary” in order to be exalted, to sit at God’s right hand and to enter heaven as our High Priest. Christ died for us, i.e. to benefit us, but didn’t die in our place. As a result of His exaltation we now have the outpouring of the Spirit. Ephesians 4:7-8 makes this clear: “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". John 7:39 says something similar: “By this he meant the Spirit, which those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” In other words, without Jesus' ascension and exaltation there could be no outpouring of the Spirit. Without His exaltation we would have no intercessor at God’s right hand, to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given. There are many “benefits” coming to us as a result of His exaltation.

It seems to me there was nothing “mechanical” or “legalistic” about the death of Christ. It wasn’t “required” or “demanded” or made “necessary” by any law of God’s own making.

In a subsequent message (number 8 in this series)I will take a look at the handful of references in the NT to Christ taking away sins, and come back to the texts about Christ being "an atoning sacrifice".

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (5)


Jesus was crucified on a charge of sedition (Luke 23:2; Matt 27:11, 29, 37; John 19:12, 14). It was a political execution.

He was crucified alongside others sentenced for political crimes (“malefactors” or “robbers” interprets a word which refers to insurgents, not thieves). Earlier Jesus quoted Isaiah 53:12 “It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment" (Lk 22:37).

On the way to His crucifixion Jesus made a rather strange statement which is best understood as a riddle. (A riddle is a saying whose meaning is not obviously known. It requires pondering and the answer may become apparent only after it is explained or some related event reveals its meaning in the meantime. A famous Biblical example is Samson's riddle in Judges 14:12ff).
"A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, 'Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!' Then they will say to the mountains, "Fall on us!" and to the hills, "Cover us!" For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?" (Lk 23:27-31).
This riddle about the green and dry tree is pointing us towards the events that would fall on Jerusalem within a generation. Josephus records how that so many people were crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem during the siege of AD 70 that the Romans had to cut down every tree to make crosses and the surrounding countryside was stripped bare of timber. Jesus told this riddle in the context of His prediction that a terrible time was coming. In this riddle He is effectively saying "If they treat an innocent man like this without provocation, imagine what they will do when they are provoked or given a reason". In this riddle Jesus was saying that He was a kind of forerunner of what was to come. As the green tree He was the first (or out-of-its-time) tree to be cut down. When the tree is dry or dead ("the time will come") it will be treated even more severely. So Jesus is saying that His death by crucifixion was just the first of many, and he was therefore identifying Himself with the fate of His people.

The crucifixion of Jesus was a political execution which foreshadowed the terrible things which would be inflicted on the people of God in the near future. His death was representative of God's people Israel, and He identified Himself with them.

This is clearly the meaning and emphasis which is attached to the crucifixion by the writers of the Gospels and Acts. Jesus Himself predicted that He would be "delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified" (Luke 24:7). Peter said it was "wicked men" who put him to death by nailing him to the cross (Acts 2:23). Paul said it was "the rulers of this age" who crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8). The consistent message is that the first Christians believed that the crucifixion of Jesus was a political murder. It was the unjust act of wicked sinful men. There was nothing in this message about God requiring or demanding a human sacrifice as necessary for the salvation of mankind, although that meaning may have been attached to the crucifixion later.

The canonical Gospels record seven sayings of Jesus while He was dying on the cross*. If Jesus' death was primarily an atonement for the sins of God's people this might have been the ideal time to say so. Instead the only thing in these seven sayings about the Gospel is Jesus' conversation with one of the criminals crucified with Him. The criminal asked a favour: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" , to which Jesus replied "I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42-43). This political insurgent was being crucified probably because some act of insurgency had been thwarted or a plot had been uncovered or he was condemned because of his political associations. Whatever his involvement had been in overthrowing the Romans he had clearly failed. Beside him is a man who has also appeared to fail. Crucified on the charge of being "king of the Jews" - effectively a charge of treason - it would appear that Jesus too had failed. There could be no Kingdom with the King dead. Yet from this remark recorded by Luke we realise that this condemned political activist understood more about Jesus' message than did many of His disciples. He realised that Jesus was yet to come into His Kingdom, and that Jesus would have to be rescued from the cross or resurrected in order to do so. He knew that all was not over for Jesus.

In Jesus reply the emphasis should be on the word "today". The insurgent had asked "remember me when ..." and Jesus replied "I say to you today ..." He was telling this dying man that his future in the coming kingdom was assured and that he could die with this assurance. What a blessing it must have been to have died with no uncertainty about his future!

This conversation on the cross reminds us that to the very last Jesus' message was about the Kingdom. Isaiah 53 is frequently quoted by Christians to show how the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind was predicted by the prophet. Strangely though, when Jesus quotes from Isaiah 53:12 Himself (in Lk 22:37) it is to say that He will be "numbered with the transgressors". (Some manuscripts also insert at Mark 15:27 "They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left, 28 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "He was counted with the lawless ones"). Even when Peter quotes Isaiah 53 later it was to encourage his readers to follow in Jesus' steps: "Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 'He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth' [from Isa 53:9]. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats" (1 Peter 2:21-23). Although Isaiah 53 seems to be the ideal prophecy to quote with respect to the crucifixion the NT writers, and Jesus Himself, quote it only with reference to His keeping company (or being crucified) with transgressors, and to His non-retaliation. It seems that the first Christians did not think of Isaiah 53 in the way later Christians do, as a prophecy of Jesus suffering as an atonement for the sins of the world, or at least if they did then they didn't quote it in the NT with this meaning. The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion would have been the ideal place to quote Isaiah 53, yet the Gospel writers don't take this opportunity and are silent.

The emphasis of the Gospels is that Jesus was falsely accused and executed as a political activist on a charge of treason because of His preaching a message about the Kingdom. To the very end He was identified with a coming Kingdom, and His final conversation reflected this. His immediate followers spoke of his unjust murder at the hands of wicked men. It seems that the emphasis for the first Christians was on Jesus' resurrection and exaltation as the most significant events in our salvation, rather than his death.

* The traditional order of the sayings is:
  1. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34)
  2. Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43)
  3. Woman, behold your son: behold your mother (John 19:26-27)
  4. Eli Eli lama sabachthani? ("My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt 27:46 // Mark 15:34)
  5. I thirst (John 19:28)
  6. It is finished (John 19:30)
  7. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46)

Picture is Crucifixion of Christ, by Diego Velázquez 1632 (in the public domain).

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (4)


We might reasonably expect that the first recorded preaching done by the immediate disciples of Jesus would contain the 'core' of the Gospel message. The Acts of the Apostles would therefore be a good source for determining what the first Christians believed and taught.

It's surprising then to discover that Acts says almost nothing about the death of Christ. There are, in fact, only two references in Acts to Jesus' death:

Acts 2:36
"Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."

Acts 4:10
"Then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed."

The apostles' preaching in Acts puts a greater emphasis on the exaltation of Jesus than it does on the “sacrificial death” of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus saying that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18) and we discover in Acts that the apostolic kerygma* focused more on this exaltation of Jesus than it did on His death. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any hint at all of an atonement or sacrificial death in Acts, with the possible exception of Acts 20:28 which I discuss below. The primary message is exaltation. For example in Acts 2:36 Peter says: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." The crucifixion is mentioned almost only in passing – the message here is exaltation, not atonement.

The only mention of "the blood of Christ" with any theological significance is in Acts 20:28 where some translations suggest it is the blood of God with which the church was bought. For example, the NIV has "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood". Although some manuscripts have "church of the Lord" and some later ones have conflated this into "of God and the Lord" the evidence tends towards "of God" as the most reliable reading. However, the Nestle-Aland Greek text proposes the reading "the blood of his own" (rather than "his own blood") and a note in the NIV Study Bible adopts this reading saying this is "a term of endearment ... referring to His own Son".

This is therefore one of the only explicit statements in the earliest apostolic teachings which refers to the atoning nature of Christ’s death and it is made almost in passing without any explanation or emphasis. The church was "bought" or "obtained" or "acquired" by the blood of the Son but we get no explanation of what that means.

On the other hand, what we do get in Acts is a consistent and repeated emphasis on the exaltation of Jesus (e.g. 2:33, 36; 5:31), and this carries over into the NT letters (which I will come to later). In Acts much is made of Jesus' authority. Baptism, preaching and healing are done "in the name of Jesus" (the expression occurs twelve times in Acts, and only twice thereafter), perhaps building on the claim in 2:21 that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved". In Acts there is "power" in the "name of Jesus". Jesus' Lordship is emphasised: for example, "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (2:36) and "Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all" (10:36). The expression "the Lord Jesus" occurs more often in Acts than in any other book.

Acts 4:33 provides a cameo of the apostolic kerygma: "With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all." This stands in stark contrast with those evangelists and preachers who insist that the core of the Gospel is the death of Christ as a sacrificial, atoning or substitutionary act on behalf of those He came to save. However, instead of saying "Jesus died for you" (as we might expect) the apostles clearly and consistently taught "Jesus was resurrected" and "for you" may be implicit but is not explicitly stated until we get to the later NT writings. The words "resurrection" and "raised from the dead" occur more often in Acts than in any other NT book, with the exception of the treatise on resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

So while we might expect the apostles to have taught that Christ died for us, that His death was necessary to enable us to be forgiven, or that our salvation is assured because of His supreme act of sacrifice, we actually find none of this in Acts. What we do find is that they taught that Jesus was raised from the dead and exalted to the highest position, at the right hand of God, and that as a result of His exaltation power has been given to those He has called. Jesus is acknowledged as the "Lord of all" and there is power in His name. If we were to look for one word to describe the effects of Jesus' death and resurrection it would be "power" or "authority" rather than "atonement", "forgiveness" or "salvation".

*kerygma is the Greek word used in the NT for "preaching" and is the technical theological term generally used to describe what Jesus or the apostles publically preached rather than what they may have believed or taught privately.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (3)


John's Gospel appears to have more to say about the theological significance of Jesus' death than the Synoptic Gospels. Apart from the record of the actual crucifixion the following list is of all the possible references in John to Jesus' death.

a. The Lamb of God sayings

John 1:29
John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:36
When he [John] saw Jesus passing by, he said, "Look, the Lamb of God!"

Lambs were sacrificed daily as burnt offerings “to make atonement” (Lev 1:4). Lambs were also slain at Passover although the Passover lamb is never said to make atonement. John almost certainly was therefore not thinking of Jesus as a "Passover lamb".

John is more likely to have Isa 53:7 in mind (“he was led like a lamb to the slaughter”) as the lamb here is used metaphorically of the suffering servant who “will bear [the] iniquities” of many (v. 11).

Another possibility is that this is an allusion to the ram which was sacrificed in place of Isaac (Gen 22:8).

John says this lamb “takes away the sin of the world”. 1 John 3:5 uses a similar expression: “he appeared so that he might take away our sins”. To “take away sin” can mean either:

(a) to remove it by making atonement for it, or
(b) bearing the penalty attached to the sin, or
(c) to abolish sin.

I will come back to these possibilities later.

b. The “lay down his life” sayings

John recorded a number of sayings where Jesus is said to "lay down his life" for others. I think the following list covers them all.

John 10:11, 15, 17-18 “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”.

John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (but cp. v. 12 “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” which shows that this saying is intended for the disciples and not necessarily referring to Jesus’ death as an atonement.)

The use of the same expression in 1 John 3:16 provides an insight into its meaning. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” The next verse offers an example of how we “lay down our lives for our brothers”. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” If John is here suggesting that by meeting our brothers’ material needs we are “laying down our lives” for them, then there is no implication of sacrificial death in these words. (See also John 13:37, 38 where Peter offers to lay down his life.)

The Greek word tithemi occurs 96 times in the NT. It is translated: lay (up, aside, or down, or as ‘lay a foundation’), appoint, put, set, ordain, commit, advise, purpose, settle. It doesn’t necessarily mean “to die” and its use elsewhere seems to be against this. It seems almost certain from the way this word is used elsewhere that Jesus is saying that He "laid aside" His life in the sense that His life was fully devoted to the needs of others and He laid aside all self-interest. He was referring to His life of service, not to His death.

c. The “lifted up” (hypsoo) sayings

John recorded several sayings where Jesus referred to being "lifted up" and this is often understood to be a reference to His being "lifted up" on the cross.

However, either crucifixion or exaltation (or both) may be implied by hypsoo.

John 3:14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.

John 8:28 So Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.

John 12:32 - 34 But I, when I am lifted up from [ek = out of] the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. The crowd spoke up, "We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, 'The Son of Man must be lifted up'? Who is this 'Son of Man'?"

As this last text suggests that Jesus being "lifted up" related to his death we need to take a closer look at it. First we should note that Jesus used the Greek word ek, meaning out of when he said He would be lifted up out of the earth. It seems most likely that Jesus is here referring to His exaltation and His ascension "out of" the earth and into heaven.

However, it seems certain from John's editorial comment that "He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die" that Jesus had crucifixion in mind rather than exaltation. We should note however that the Greek word translated "he said this" in verse 33 is lego and refers to a systematic discourse. In other words John is actually saying ‘Jesus said all this …’ referring to the preceding discourse, not just the few preceding words. The preceding discourse was about Jesus being "glorified", during which He said "the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." In other words, Jesus is saying that His death would be necessary in order for His exaltation or glorification and to produce "many seeds". It follows therefore that when He referred to all men being "drawn" to Himself that He was referring back to the "many seeds" that would be produced as a result of His glorification.

It's possible that this text is referring to Jesus being "lifted up" in crucifixion, but it's equally possible (and in my opinion actually more likely) that He was referring to His exaltation and glorification after His death.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (2)


a. Jesus’ predictions of His death

There are three major explicit predictions by Jesus of His death and resurrection:

1. Following Peter’s confession (Matt 16: 13-23 // Mk 8:31 // Lk 9:18-22)

2. Following the transfiguration (Matt 17:22-23 // Mk 9:31 // Lk 9:44)

3. Following the conversation with the rich young man (Matt 20:17-19 // Mk 10:32-34 // Lk 18:31-33. Only Matthew’s account specifically mentioned crucifixion as the means of death).

In addition to these incidents Jesus explicitly predicted His crucifixion just prior to His anointing at Bethany (Matt 26:1-5). While the anointing is recorded by Matthew, Mark and John only Matthew records the crucifixion saying.

None of these predictions of His death give a reason for it in terms of atonement or salvation. Jesus simply declared that he will be betrayed and killed, without stating a reason for it or attaching any theological significance to it. He did not attempt to explain why he "had to die".

b. The parable of the tenants

All three synoptics record this parable about a landowner and his tenants (Matt 21:33-46 // Mark 12:1-12 // Luke 20:9-19 ) . The landowner sends various servants to collect his share of the harvest, and each in turn are beaten or killed. Finally he sends his son, expecting the tenants to respect his son. All three accounts say: “they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance’” and “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard this parable, they knew he was talking about them”.

One significant aspect of this story is that the son represents the landowner as his agent. According to the well-known Jewish principle of agency (shaliach) by rejecting the son they were in effect rejecting the father. This is spelled out in Luke 10:16 “He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me." Jesus is the shaliach, the agent or emissary of God, but not God Himself, although He acts with the full authority of God. Jesus was no doubt suggesting by this parable that His impending death would be a direct assault on God's agent and, by implication, an attack on God Himself. However, besides this implication that Jesus was God's agent and that the religious leaders of His day were in direct opposition to God, Jesus attaches no other significance to the death of the son. There is no hint here that it was necessary as an atonement or "for the sins" of anyone. The son in the parable was the victim of a murder. There is no other implied connection to "sin".

c. The ransom saying

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom (Gk. lytron) for many”. (Matt 20:28 // Mark 10:45 )

The only other occurrence of “ransom” in the New Testament is 1 Tim 2:6 (antilytron) and there is insufficient information in either text to determine exactly what was meant by "ransom". The word can denote the price paid to free slaves while the related verb lytroo can mean deliverance in a general way without implying anything about payment. While the “ransom saying” may be saying that deliverance of many was accomplished at great cost, this saying does not specify to whom the ransom is paid. In fact, in the absence of anything to say the ransom was paid to someone we should conclude that the saying simply means that deliverance comes at a great cost, without drawing the conclusion that something was paid to someone.

This saying may, or may not, be a reference to His death - to give ones life in service does not necessarily mean to die. We often speak of someone giving their life to a cause or mision, without necessarily implying they have died - we mean that their life has been devoted to the cause. So in the 'ransom saying' Jesus could easily be saying that His life was devoted to being a liberator or redeemer. In fact, by saying that He came "to serve" almost rules out death. One cannot serve if they are dead. You can, however, devote your life to service and the context almost demands that this is the intended meaning.

d. Other sayings

There are several sayings and metaphors which imply suffering and rejection and resurrection, including:

The Temple saying
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”
John 2:19-22 cp. Mt 26:61 // Mk 14:58; Matt 27:39 // Mk 15:29

The Jonah saying
"For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth"
Matt 12:38-40; 16:1-2; Lk 11:29-32

The baptism metaphor
"Can you ... be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" Mk 10:38-39
"I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!"Lk 12:50

The cup metaphor
"Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?"
Matt 20:22-23 // Mk 10:38-39; Matt 26:39 // Mk 14:36 // Lk 22:42; John 18:11.

These sayings are primarily eschatological while none of them necessarily suggest atonement. They are predictions of suffering, death and resurrection but no further meaning is attached to them. None of these sayings suggest why Jeus would suffer and die, nor do they imply His death was "necessary" in order for sins to be forgiven. There is one more incident in the Synoptics which is generally understood to be a reference to Jesus' death: the last supper and the prayers over the bread and wine. I have commented on this fairly extensively in another series of articles, but I will come back to it later and examine it in this context.

In my next message I will look at how John's Gospel deals with a different set of sayings.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Cross and the Kingdom (1)

The synoptic Gospels consistently tell us that Jesus’ mission was to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom (e.g. Matt 4:23; 9:35; Mk 1:15; Lk 4:43; 8:1). The Kingdom of God is mentioned over 100 times in all four canonical Gospels. While the death of Jesus is recorded in detail in all the Gospels, very little is said about it in terms of an atonement or sacrifice. In fact, even while dying on the cross rather than speaking about the significance of his death as an atonement Jesus instead discussed the coming Kingdom with one of the men crucified with Him (Lk 23:42-43) and gave him an assurance of the grace of God.

Theologians and evangelists who preach the death, burial and resurrection as the whole Gospel struggle to find the Gospel in the gospels and in the teachings of Jesus. No wonder then that the popular New International Version translates evangelion as “Gospel” throughout the New Testament except when referring to the teachings of Jesus – there it is translated “good news”. In other words, the subtle implication is that Jesus simply spoke of “good news” while Paul taught the real Gospel! Hence C.S. Lewis declared that the Gospel is not in the gospels! [1]

A tract entitled “What is the Gospel?” (published by The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 1980) declares that Jesus “came to do three days work, to die, be buried and raised” and that “He came not primarily to preach the Gospel . . . but He came rather that there might be a Gospel to preach.” Yet Jesus declared that He was commissioned for the very purpose of proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom (“I came to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom ... that is the reason why I was sent” Luke 4:43).

We cannot separate the crucifixion of Jesus from the teachings of Jesus. The Gospel is not declared in the event while absent from the sayings. On the contrary, for Jesus the crucifixion was a decisive event in the end of the present evil age. He encountered head-on the religious and political leaders of His day, refusing to use their weapons, and He ultimately had the victory.

So what is the connection between the cross and the kingdom? Jesus Himself said that He was sent for the purpose of preaching the kingdom, not to die. So why did Jesus have to die?

In this series of articles I hope to explore what the New Testament says about the death of Christ and how we might benefit from it. I will explore Biblical terms such as "the blood of Christ", "Christ died for us", "sacrifice" and "atonement". In particular I want to look at what Jesus said about His own death and the significance attached to it by the Apostles and the first Christians. I especially want to look at how Jesus saw His own death in relation to His preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom.

In writing these articles I am conscious of the fact that thousands of others before me have attempted to explain the reasons for the death of Christ. I'm also acutely aware of the fact that the Bible itself does not give us a detailed explanation. I agree with the comments of these two scholars:

“In spite of the rich variety of imagery employed in the NT for coming to terms with Jesus’ death, the history of reflection on the cross is littered with attempts to discern its significance in narrow terms. In reality, just as the crucifixion of Jesus is the most historically certain of the events of Jesus’ life, it is also the most widely interpreted.”

Joel Green
Death of Jesus in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Intervarsity Press 1992, p. 153

“To believe that God raised Jesus from the dead is also to believe that Jesus died for the sins of all. The theory of orthodox Christianity notwithstanding, the New Testament presents no authoritative theory of the atonement, in terms of why Jesus' death may have been necessary for the forgiveness of sins. What is clear is that, in view of Jesus' death, the Christian conscience does not condemn Christians for their shortcomings, as if they were guilty of transgression, but, instead, admonishes and encourages them to act consistently with what they are: the people of God (see Rom.8:1-17,31-34; Heb.10:1-25). This, again, is the maturity of life in God's kingdom: not fear, which has to do with punishment, but love, which comes from faith and hope (see I Jn. 4:18).”

Robert Hach
Restoring the New Testament Pattern

My spiritual roots are in a community which has attempted to define in rather dogmatic terms why Christ died and has consequently and repeatedly divided over the issue. In tackling this subject I am not proposing to defend any particular interpretation, or even to attempt a new one. Rather, I hope to take a fresh look at the subject by returning to the Biblical texts and endeavouring to capture the simplicity of the apostles' teaching.

[1] Introduction to J. B. Phillips’ Letters to Young Churches, Fontana Books, pp. 9, 10