The Cross Revisited #1

I write various articles for those who have / will take part in the Zoom Discussions on the series Explorations in Theology. They do reflect my current thinking but are also intended to be offered as a bouncing off point for their reflections. They are far from the final word!

Today I wrote a piece on the Cross. I touch on it in Humanising the Divine and again in The LifeLine. I will post the article here over the next few days in its various parts.

Paul had a sharp focus, that being the cross of Jesus. When entering the city of Corinth he determined to have a focus on the cross (1 Cor. 2: 2) and he claimed that he would glory only in the cross (Gal. 6: 14). In book 1 (Humanising the Divine) I open a perspective on the cross concerning the ‘when’ of the cross – at ‘the fullness of times’, when not only Gentiles were without God, but the nation chosen to be the redeeming nation was also under bondage, ‘under the curse of the law’. That ‘when’ seems to fit the ‘Jew first, then Gentiles’ statements. In Humanising I wrote of the cross being the roadblock to the path that humanity was on with no way of escaping from it. The rut had gone so deep that Scripture calls the era the ‘fullness of times’; a time when there was a dominance of the adversary and the demonic powers over humanity, manifest at the political level of an all-but one world government. No hope for Israel, and therefore no hope for the world. The crucifixion of Jesus occurred in a specific time of history and the reasoning for that I argue is key to understanding what took place. The cross deserves a full-length book, yet no full-length book could fully explain all that took place, and so in a non-full-length way I will seek to write some aspects that I consider are central.

God does not require sacrifice

In the ancient pagan world of gods it was not uncommon for those gods to require sacrifice, even at times the sacrifice of human lives. The sacrifice was to enable the worshipper to be in ‘the good books’ of the god in question. Scripture uses the word ‘sacrifice’ of the death of Jesus and the Old Testament is replete with instructions about sacrifice, yet I suggest that it remains that God does not require sacrifice in order that we are in her/his good books.

Sacrifice can be understood in two ways, and is well illustrated in the story of the two women who come before Solomon both claiming to to be the mother of the child. Solomon’s solution is to give each of the women half of the surviving child, cutting the child in two. The women respond differently.

The first receives the advice, advocating that the child indeed be cut in two. This is one understanding of sacrifice. The death of the child will satisfy something in her, perhaps dealing with her grief, jealousy and hatred.

The real mother also gives us a window on sacrifice. She is not willing to sacrifice the child, but in order that the child might live she is willing to forgo her own legitimate claim of ownership, live with separation and pain.

If we understand sacrifice through the path of the real mother’s response then we will grasp the sacrifice of Jesus (God) well. If however we understand sacrifice along the line of satisfaction we will miss it. God is not vengeful demanding sacrifice. A book (Hebrews) that uses sacrifice as the lens through which the cross is viewed makes this ever so explicit:

First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Heb. 10:5-10).

The writer makes the direct statement that God did not desire sacrifices, yet goes on to write about the sacrifice of Jesus. Before seeking to make a response to the ‘yet’ part of the sentence there is one more verse from Hebrews I wish to add in order to clarify something.

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Heb. 9:22).

It seems to say in clear fashion ‘No forgiveness with death, without sacrifice’. And sadly this verse can be taken to imply that God cannot forgive without sacrifice. There is however a process in the verse. Working backwards, there is a logical sequence in the verse:

  • there is no forgiveness without there being a cleansing
  • there is no cleansing without the shedding of blood.

The blood is connected to cleansing, the cleansing to forgiveness.

The blood, in the sacrifices of the Old Testament, was to cleanse, not in order that God might forgive.1 This gives an insight into the bloody sacrifices of the Old Testament, such as we read of in Leviticus. Not one of my favourite books but maybe let’s jump there for a short while! Leviticus 4 is when we have the first mention in the book of ‘sin’ and how to respond to it. A sacrifice is to be brought2, a ‘sin-offering’ and the blood from the animal slain was to be used… not used to bring God around (appeasement) but to cleanse. Indeed the term ‘sin-offering’ might not be the best translation, with certain versions offering us ‘purification offering’ or ‘cleansing offering’. In our world it is strange to think of blood as being a cleansing element, a detergent if you like, but we are not entering our world. Blood was seen as a means of cleansing (and by this I am not meaningin some literalistic sense, but in a deeply significant sense of internal cleansing), and if we continue to read the following chapters we will encounter the ‘sin-offering’ again in chapter 12 where after a woman gives birth to a child there was to be a sin-offering made, not made to forgive the act of childbirth(!) but in order to clean up the mess. Childbirth is not clean and we might have all means, in our world, of ensuring that the situation is left hygienic, sterile and germ-free. But the ancient world of the Hebrews is not our world, and their solution was ‘use blood’ to clean it up!

This ‘sin-offering’ is the one that Mary made after the birth of Jesus. She fulfilled the law, but the birth of Jesus was clearly a ‘holy’ event. This again shows how the term ‘cleansing offering’ is the better understanding.

Childbirth, with the loss of blood, always carried the threat of death, and as the ‘life of the flesh is in the blood’ the use of blood to cleanse was not to appease an external deity, but to bring life to the situation. Sin, a failure to follow the path of life, brought the threat of death; the response was to sprinkle blood to get rid of the pollution.

The sacrifice of Jesus has a cleansing effect. As we read further in Hebrews 10 we read,

The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Heb. 10:13-14).

Sacrifice cleanses. The former sacrifices simply cleansed outwardly, the sacrifice of Jesus cleanses inwardly, and deeply. The process is of cleansing (Old or New Testament) so that forgiveness might be a reality.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

The purify / cleanse word is so important, and once that is grasped Jesus’ death is not a sacrifice to appease, but a sacrifice that is one of laying down rights, laying down his life in order that we might receive not simply a symbolic cleansing, but a deep cleansing.

1 Blood used to cleanse, cleansing being costly, the life being in the blood indicated how costly it is to clean up a mess. The sacrifices that we read about can be read as those that were made, not those that God instituted. We can read ’when you offer your sacrifice, perhaps indicating that sacrifice was so ingrained in the cultural scene that God is putting in fresh meaning to what they were culturally ingrained to do, rather than instituting them for the people. The sacrificial system was not one of transaction, to bring God around, to appease his anger.

2 In the light of the Hebrew texts that say God did not desire sacrifice we could also suggest that virtually all ancient cultures used sacrifice transactionally to appease, and therefore God accommodated Israel’s expectation of sacrifice, but transforming it in order to give it a different understanding than the surrounding cultures. We do not have to suggest that God instituted sacrifice.