Sitting here with some thoughts buzzing through my head I plan to start a slow set of posts on the cross. I plan to start – will I finish? They will be slow, cos I got a lot to think about.
Understanding what took place at the cross is gladly beyond every theory, and there is not a single theory that can adequately sum it up. The New Testament employs metaphors, different metaphors, and because they are metaphors we cannot treat them as literal. The ‘ransom’ metaphor is drawn from the slave market, but is situated within the ‘ransomed from Egypt’ (in the Exodus) narrative. In that narrative there is no payment made… indeed the Egyptians ‘paid’ Israel to leave! Some early church fathers wrestled with the payment, asking to whom was it paid. To God? Or to the devil, and as a sort of trick payment, with the devil grabbing the payment (life of Jesus) and finding that this was simply his downfall. There is no need to go for the payment at any literal level when considering the ‘ransom for many’ texts.
I think a starting point is to ask ‘when does the cross take place when it does?’, for if we can get some sight on the when it should open up some ideas about the why.
Paul, quite a thinker that guy!, suggests that Jesus comes in ‘the fullness of times’. Although I take Adam and Eve as mythical (no literary reason to suggest otherwise, though I think Paul probably thought they were literal, or like me, consider them theologically as real) why do we not have the cross at the time of the fall? Why all the sacrificial system, the law, all of which are rendered redundant post-the-cross?
The cross is central and we often reason that Abraham, et al, is saved through the cross, though I think that can be questioned, for we can legitimately ask if God needs the cross to forgive. Without exploring the finer points let us accept the centrality of the cross. Why the delay? Why the thousands of years before the Incarnation?
In short we have to assume that before the time of Jesus we were not living in the fullness of times. So to my read…
Israel is not chosen to be saved and by contrast all Gentile nations to be damned. Israel is chosen to come into relation with God for the sake of the Gentile nations. If we borrow Adam and Eve language (and a number of Rabbis saw the creation story simply as an Israel story – fruitful garden, promised land flowing in milk and honey, expulsion from the Garden, expulsion from the land in the Babylonian exile) Israel is uniquely in the image of God, an all-but replica of God. What is God like? Look at the image, placed at the heart of the temple, placed within creation for the heavens are the place where God sits, and the earth the place where his feet are displayed.
I read a fall, a series of falls in the life of Israel. In brief, a nation that was to be a priestly nation for all others, adopt a priestly tribe for themselves; a nation who had no king but God rejects that path and asks for a king to be like all the other nations; this leading to a building of a Temple that really weakened the image that was then visible of the God who does not dwell in houses made by hands. By the time of Jesus we read,
Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified (John 19:15,16).
No king but Caesar… just like the other nations. Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. what a strong word ‘then’ can be. The extent of the fall is revealed: no king but Caesar. The good news (euangelion: gospel) of Rome; the kingdom (basileia) of Rome; the peace (shalom / eirene) that Rome brought to the world through military rule etc… The image has gone, or the image of Rome has now come to bear on the nation that was to be set apart. Then… if Jesus is not crucified we can say ‘good-bye’ to any hope for humanity. The ‘then’ signifies also that in a very real sense Jesus is dying for the nation of Israel. How ironic is the ‘prophecy’ of Caiaphas:
So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death (Jn.11:47-53).
If Jesus does not die (is not sacrificed) they will lose the Temple and the nation destroyed. Jesus is sacrificed for the nation and for those beyond… and within 40 years the Temple is gone and the nation dispersed.
If the nation that was to be the image of God, the priest for the world, the ‘redeeming’ nation has fallen to the extent it is now one of the nations we have a problem! We can summarise this as Israel being under a curse, a theme that was familiar from Deuteronomy (I set before you blessings and curses) with the rabbis. I consider that is exactly the view that Paul shows in Galatians 3:13, 14.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
He redeemed those under the curse of the law – this has to refer to the Jewish people and explains why a crucified Messiah was a stumbling-block. A ‘cursed’ person as the Messiah? Yet without that intervention from heaven the Gentiles could never be included. They will be blessed through the blessed nation (Abrahamic promise), but the nation is cursed, under foreign rule.
The when, the fullness of times, for me, then is the ultimate time when there was no hope. No hope for the Gentiles because there was no hope for Israel. Jesus travels Israel’s path, just as they were condemned to 40 years in the wilderness because the refusal to go into the land when the spies had been 40 days in the land, so now Jesus will travel 40 days in the wilderness. Thrown into (same word as casting out demons) the wilderness he confronts the three powers – economic, political and religious – as summed up in the temptations that came from the adversary. He binds the ‘strong man’, the one who by now had become the ruler of this world.
The when… when there was no hope, when the world lay in the grip of the evil one. when there was no hope for the fulfilment of human destiny (read Rev. 5 in this context). At the full height of demonic power Jesus comes. If that is the ‘when’ a strong indication of the cross has to be to set us – Jew or Gentile – free.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Gal. 1:3,4).
To set us free…