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.


Cliff York said...

Hi Steve,

Now that makes a whole lot of sense.

Why have we not seen this as clearly before now? I once heard a very prominent Brother say that "CD's MUST have the TRUTH... for we are the only ones that explain the atonement in the way that we do."

Is that an example of chronic circular reasoning... or what???

I have wondered for a long time just how critical our understanding of the atonement has to be for salvation... given that EVERY denomination has their own peculiar take on it... and each one of the 30 or more CD fellowships has their own further spin on it.

What it has meant in the long run, is that we have been able to keep the "*numbers down" by screening folk out who cannot subscribe to our peculiar take on the Atonement.

It has also been a handy "whipping boy" to use to keep folk in line who ask too many questions.

(*Keeping the "numbers down" is "essential" for (a) there might not be enough God to go around, and (b) many are called but few are chosen... so we cannot have too many when Jesus returns... otherwise that prophesy is wrong.)

The handy "whipping boy" looks like this... (Matt 24:48-49) "Find out what he believes on the Atonement... and if he is not with us, then we can legitimately dis-fellowship him." ie. If he is not teaching what we are teaching then he must be teaching wrong doctrine. I know that this is what is taught and thought in some arenas.

Well did Isaiah prophesy of modern day hypocrisy when Jesus quoted him... "Esaias has prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, [to LOVE ONE ANOTHER] you hold to the traditions of men instead, and in doing so, you clearly reject the clear teachings of God. [like... love your neighbour as yourself; do unto others as you would be done by; the measure that you mete out, will be the measure used against yourself in the end etc etc.]

Thank God He has Exalted His Son Cliff

Anonymous said...

This is how I see it. First Jesus died for us and then He was exalted. In His state of exaltation He is now with us in spirit and is working on our behalf.

Jesus' sacrificial death was vital for our salvation. But now He is raised from the dead and we can testify to the truth of the good news - Jesus is raised from the dead.

Love Linda