Cross – Tom Wright in summary

A pretty smart communicator this guy on the video… no not me!… a certain Mr. N.T. Wright. In a short 8 minutes he manages to squeeze in – the cross understood within the story; Israel’s exile; Messiahship; and the defeat of dark powers… and effectively side-steps ‘did God foreknow all this’. Pretty smart. I am nowhere as smart but he also does a good job of explaining my perspective… and perhaps wiser to sidestep the foreknowledge part, that I simply don’t sidestep!

Time warp

There is a Scripture that records a strange event post-the resurrection of Jesus. So strange that a number of commentators suggest it was symbolic / theological not an actual event in space-time. I beg to disagree.

Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many (Matt. 27:50-53).

It takes place in two steps. Tombs were opened at the moment of death. The realm of the dead is manifestly being impacted at that moment. Something happening visibly with the tombs and probably something happening invisibly to sheol / hades. Then after the resurrection of Jesus there was a resurrection, ahead of schedule(!), for those whose tombs had been made visible. Those saints, in resurrected form, appear to many in the city. The language and the timing of the events indicate to me that we are to read it as a literal occurrence, that was verifiable through eye-witnesses. The language is no different to that of the resurrection of Jesus, who appeared to many eye-witnesses.

A time warp? I think so. It seems to me that the resurrection of the dead is a future event, one that takes place when Jesus returns. Those who are dead rise, and come with the Lord and we are bodily transformed at that time, the time of the parousia. Yet here are saints in Matthew’s account who are raised – and it would seem raised (as per Jesus with resurrected bodies) not simply resuscitated (as per Lazarus, raised to die again). One of the the major future events happening out of time sequence… says a lot about the resurrection of Jesus. (Maybe an implication here such as what I wrote yesterday; the clock no longer being the instrument that tells the time, but people conversing together?)

I have very little idea what happens to those who have died; or to put it another way as to where they are / what is their state. I do know they are secure in the Lord, and the text I am considering suggests that I think there are some big surprises in it all. After all if time was disturbed (understatement!!) it is not likely we can work it all out, and along the way experiences that do not fit neatly with biblical material – after all this Scripture just does not fit well… maybe the other writers decided to stay well clear of recording this event for that reason!

Necessary – for us

Last night I completed a Zoom on the final chapter in the book, The LifeLine, on the cross. Always an interesting discussion as the cross can and should be viewed from many perspectives (and is in Scripture… though no surprise here, not I think from that of penal substitution). I put forward a couple of aspects last night that are not in the chapter with ‘yes I am probably willing to stand in a corner and have stones thrown at me as a heretic for this…’

Given that we have to be agnostic about how much we have a grasp on ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’, my beliefs are ‘I lean toward’, and I lean strongly toward that of the future not being fixed, in fact I lean so strongly that way that I have probably fallen over. If the future is not fixed in what sense was the cross always planned? (‘Slain from the foundation of the world’ springs to mind here.)

Oh, what a roundabout way I am about to travel in this post…

Reading a few days ago in 1 Chronicles 11:15-19 (I have emboldened the text I am considering):

Three of the thirty chiefs went down to the rock to David at the cave of Adullam, while the army of Philistines was encamped in the valley of Rephaim. David was then in the stronghold; and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem. David said longingly, “O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!” Then the Three broke through the camp of the Philistines, and drew water from the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate, and they brought it to David. But David would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, and said, “My God forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of these men? For at the risk of their lives they brought it.” Therefore he would not drink it. The three warriors did these things.

Drinking blood – something that Jesus said both in terms of the Last Supper, and in John 6:53 that those who do not drink his blood will have no life in them. To drink blood is to metaphorically to receive the gift of the substance of a person (true love) at the cost or potential cost of their very life. It is not some pagan ritual, and this blood poured out is indeed the life poured out (life of the flesh is in the blood) not some appeasing act to the divine. Blood in the OT is for cleansing not for appeasement, life poured out cleanses, for life is stronger than all other opposing forces, even in the case of Jesus, that opposing force of death. To drink the blood of Jesus is to receive deeply his outpoured life that comes to us, not simply through him risking his life, but through losing his life. (And maybe I should add that as a human he has to take the risk that love is stronger than hate; life poured out stronger than death… he, as human, being faithful to live out God’s life. He dies in faith – into your hands I commit my spirit… God raises him on the third day.)

God’s life is revealed in the cross, there we understand that God is kenotic, self-pouring out, life-giving, not life-taking. As I have stated in previous posts Jesus did not humble himself in spite of being God, but because he was in the form of God he emptied himself and went all the way to the cross. God will go, God did go, to whatever depth was necessary for human and cosmic redemption.

The cross is not an aberration of God; it is not at the resurrection that Jesus defeats the powers but at the cross; the resurrection being the visible sign that Jesus has overcome all enemies to the fulfilment of cosmic destiny (and I mean cosmic, within which of course is included human destiny).

In Acts the consistent testimony is that ‘you killed Jesus.. the Author of life…’ If we do not read a theologically biased reading of ‘eternal foreknowledge’ into Acts 2:23,

this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.

we can understand it as the cross fulfilling the plan of salvation, not in some predetermined way set before the foundation of the world, but in fulfilment of the life of God. (Foreknowledge is simply to know something beforehand, the ‘when’ of the knowledge is only determined to be eternal if there is a presupposition that is the case.)

God will self-give to whatever level is necessary, there is not a ‘thus far and no further’. The cross became necessary for us; the death within critical history (the fullness of times) in the place of strong captivity (Jerusalem, strong captivity because of the religious / political alignment)… You (religion) handed him over to those outside the law (the one world government of Empire). Handed over the life giver (human act) and death was swallowed up, it could no longer hold him, indeed Peter says it was impossible for death to hold him. It is not primarily that he dies our death (substitution and penal?), I would rather suggest he dies because of our death and he takes our death to a new place; our death is carried into his life poured out, and so he tastes death for everyone, and brings death to our death!

The subsequent invite is to find our identification with him – to die with him so that we will be raised with him. The Triune God gladly took our death to the place of death, for that death is swallowed up in the life poured out. If I then drink of his blood, I will receive the flow of that outpoured life, I will die… and rise with him. It is not guilt that is to be dealt with, so that my ledger is marked ‘innocent’ but cleansing that comes to heal the soul and to restore the familial relationship, the cross not seeking to deal with legal issues (leave that aspect to the Jewish aspect of the cross) but the estrangement issues. The ‘Prodigal Father’ will run to us, leaving the law weakened, running the risk that sin will indeed abound yet even more… but for those who receive the embrace, shame (and guilt) disappear, sin is condemned, death is conquered.

Slain before the foundation of the world? Indeed. How can it be otherwise? That is the eternal God, not simply the historical Jesus in the first century. Each time we take the bread and the wine we proclaim his death… till he comes.

The mighty promises of a deliverer, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah… but when we turn (repentance) and see (bear testimony to) it is not a Lion that fills our view, but the eternal nature of God, a Lamb slain… the One found worthy to open the book of destiny.

Yes I do believe there could have been other possibilities if we (the ‘Adam’ that we all are and participate in) had made different choices. What could never be changed is that the God of Creation is the Redeeming God who will go wherever s/he has to go in order to redeem. The cross is not necessary for God, it was necessary for us. It becomes inevitable for God because God is kenotic.

Sin is condemned

In Jesus ‘sin’ is condemned. It is certainly not that Jesus dies as a sinner; he is holy, separate to God throughout his life and death. It is not that God killed Jesus, for the continual phrase in Acts is ‘you put him to death’. He is killed as an act of corporate humanity, poignantly with religious and political powers finding their way of colluding together. In that situation Jesus does not resist the inevitable path, but embraces it. There is a submission to the hostile powers. Submission to the powers that we could describe as human, but in reality they are non-human powers for what is taking place is simply an ultimate demonstration of dehumanisation. Those non-human powers we can describe in terms of ‘principalities’ or we can describe them under the heading of ‘sin’ and the partner / consequence to sin, the power of death.

Sin, a way of living, in alienation to God, in denial of the God-path for humanity is condemned in Jesus (Rom. 8:3). Sin could not reign over this man. It is condemned as his life is poured out like a cleansing agent and the poison is pushed back – not only into every aspect of human life on earth, but even into the very heavens (Heb. 9:23-28. The Hebrew writer continually uses the sacrifice / cleansing paradigm for the work of Jesus. Perhaps what we read here of ‘the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these’ is a way of saying the death of Jesus reaches into all creation, but perhaps it is also saying that the heavens were touched by the sin of humanity?)

Why such a radical effect? Yes the innocent doing something on behalf of the guilty, a theme that was very Jewish indeed, with the remnant doing something for the whole, or the (Maccabean) martyrs giving their lives and the vindication of God will be manifest in the nation. But something more than this is going on, for ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’.

The effect is so powerful because of the ‘when’ and the ‘who’. It occurs at the fullness of time, when the domination of that one-world government and the fall of Israel has reached a point that the whole world is in the hands of the evil one, the one called the prince of this world. The poison in the wound cannot be healed, the situation is terminal, not meaning that all are condemned, but we are all condemned to live under the domination of ‘sin’ (NB the singular use). The when.

The life of God is poured into the situation, and not from the outside but the inside. A deliberate embrace of whatever the powers can summon, and a submission to those powers. Sin and death; devil and demons. That level of powerful coming together of hostile powers though cannot overcome love. Death cannot overcome life, not the kind of life that has eternally been poured out (hence we can read of the cross ‘being before the foundation of the earth’).

Jesus submits to powers: the ‘human’ or better the ‘non-human’ powers.

He also submits to God. The human Jesus submits to God. It is far to crude to say he is submitting to the Father, rather he, as human representative, is submitting to the God-flow. Not my will – human will, and a very real will that was – but yours, and perhaps if I take a liberty, he could have said ‘but our will be done’, other than he is speaking as the Son of Man, the human representative.

In submitting to God he is not submitting to the punishment coming from God, he is submitting, as human, to the God-flow.

The when… the who – this is the act of God in humanity. The cross is for us. Sin cannot survive in that environment, regardless of what form that sin takes. Sin is condemned in the ‘flesh’ (humanity) of Jesus.

All sin was gathered to that place, for that place (the cross) was where the literal outpoured life of God was focused. In that sense we can suggest Jesus was made sin for us (perhaps could be ‘sin offering for us’), not made a sinner. Sin is fully manifest, the totally innocent one, the one who never wavered in pulling for the future of humanity, that flesh becomes the place where sin is condemned.

Can God forgive without the cross? Absolutely. He has no issue with forgiveness. There is no need for payment. Can the power of sin be broken without the cross? No, for God does not come with power to remove what has been chosen by humanity; other ‘gods’ might do that. But he will come in human likeness, when the powers are at their maximum, and he will demonstrate that he was always journeying eastward from Eden. ‘In the day that you eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil you (and I will be counted among you) will surely die’. From Eden to the tree of knowledge of good and evil, to the cross where those full of knowledge crucify him, but life calls for a forgiveness pleading that they don’t know what they are doing. But that is OK from God’s perspective. I’ll submit, is Jesus response. This is the moment of glorification, this is the hour.

Creation responds, earthquake, tombs open, darkness. Sin is condemned.

Now comes our grateful response. Not to fear of judgement, but to love. If he died there for me, I died. I died with Jesus. I can begin a path, begin with repentance toward God. A change of mind, a change of mind about God, for the cross reveals who God is (no one comes to the Father except through me). A repentance for sin committed. A cleansing from the pollution that we have both experienced and contributed to. An imperfect journey in that new way, for the powers are defeated, yet remain present. The cross is not about transaction, it is about transformation; transformation of the whole of creation, and about personal transformation.

God does not seem to be looking for perfection… just too realistic for that. Genuineness, openness, receptivity, and a faltering ‘let your will be done’ response. That response takes faith and trust that God is for me, that a submission to God is not about killing me (!) but bringing me truly to life, to a fullness of life.

As a Gentile I gladly affirm that ‘even to us Gentiles God has given the gift of repentance that leads to life‘. For the Jew, as those ethnically descended from the patriarchs, so loved because of that, a repentance toward God, no longer looking to defend themselves because they have names they can call on, for now ‘there is only one name under heaven by which we can be saved’ (a Scripture directed to an exclusively Jewish audience). To all, whether Jew or Gentile, for we both have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the good news is that at the cross, the male Jew, in whose person the life of God was present in fullness, went there for us. Surely this is what gripped the Jew of all Jews (Paul) to become the herald of good news, to glory in nothing but the cross, a herald to all of creation. He knew a new time / creation had come. The old had passed away; sin had been finally not simply confronted nor simply contained, but condemned. He died for us. So in him now we all have died. He was raised for us. So in him we become witnesses (based on what we see) to that resurrection.

Foolishness to the Greeks, a stumbling block to the Jew, but to those of us who believe it is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16).

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:22,23).

Finally let me finish this short series with a suggestion. Theories will take us so far, but something beyond theories is at work in the cross. The heart is touched, and touched deeply. The men disappear from view. The women stay, they see. Along with one man, John, who was marked by love. Maybe defined as ‘with special needs’ (after all he leans on Jesus at the Last Supper), so a little bit on the outside of the acceptable. Hearts open at the cross; minds offended. Perhaps we should read the narrative that way. Certainly I will not be closer to God the more I understand, but the more open I am will make all the difference. Maybe if I open myself I can be one of those who see that he is raised, and gladly think that the one raised is the Gardener, returning to the place of work, encouraging me to find what part of the ‘garden’ I too can tend to, and in that part if my heart is open I will find there are trees of life for me to take of the fruit and to give to others. Yes there will always be present that other tree, the result might be that my eyes will be open… but open to the shame that comes.

He has died. He is risen.

Sacrifices

I never enjoy getting to Leviticus in any systematic reading, just too much weirdness going on for me, and far too many questions that I have no answer to. I am ever so glad that we have a New Testament! Sacrifices are very central in Leviticus, and it could be easy to read the instructions there as informing us that God demands sacrifice otherwise there will be no forgiveness, maybe even to push it further in our thinking that God needs to be appeased. That is a not uncommon perspective in religions that are outside of the Judeo-Christian faith, and probably sneakily creeps into our own hearts at time, with a ‘how will I get on the good side of God’.

Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure (Heb. 10:5,6).

God does not desire sacrifices! It is certainly possible that God never put in the sacrificial system that we read of in Leviticus (we do not have ‘I command you to do this…’ but a more gentle ‘when you do this…’); it is possible that given the ancient culture God is accommodating what they were already expecting culturally to do, thus with that reading God would be using something already in place but adjusting the content in a direction more fitting. We see this with Paul’s use of the patterns from the day of the ‘household codes’, where he addresses (as other authors do) the male head of the household who is the husband, father and master. He does not abolish the culture but injects meaning into the structure that was already culturally set for every household. If this be so we can go a little easy on ‘God demands sacrifice’. (The Septuagint, in use in Jesus’ day, has in Leviticus 4 the introductory word ‘if’… if anyone brings a sacrifice, suggesting that an offering will be brought, and any instruction that follows is to modify and clarify, rather than to stipulate that an sacrifice is to be made.)

Most of the sacrifices have nothing to do with any form of ‘appeasement’ for sin. They are celebratory of fellowship with God. We do come across, though, the sin offering in Leviticus. The sin offering that Mary, mother of Jesus made in the Jerusalem Temple! A sin offering by the mother of our Lord, that sin offering being prescribed for post-birth (Lk. 2:24; Lev. 12:8). Where is the sin that needed to be forgiven in the conception, carrying of and subsequent birth of the Holy One? That should alert us somewhat that we should not be thinking ‘bad deed done’, God not happy, make an offering, God now happy again!!!!

Many scholars, and now a few translations, move right away from the word ‘sin offering’, and go for something along the lines of ‘purification / cleansing offering’. Ancient worlds are not our world, but it would seem cleansing is the real issue. Child-birth is messy, it is bloody, and common with all bodily discharges there was the need for some cleansing, almost some ‘spiritual detergent’ needs to be applied.

Jumping to the New Testament we read that the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit through being cleansed:

And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us (Acts 15:8,9).

Peter was no longer to call unclean what God had cleansed and his fellow-Jews rejoiced that,

God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life (Acts 11:18).

What a lovely phrase… a repentance that leads to life. Cleansing meant that they could receive the Holy Spirit and come on to the life path. No more labouring unsuccessfully on the ‘right / wrong’, ‘I will do better’ path. Life is opened up for the Gentiles also… the necessary element being that of cleansing.

Hebrews 9:22 read a little more carefully lays this cleansing element as being necessary and that blood was (is) the way for that cleansing to take place. If not read carefully we read that forgiveness is not possible without blood, and that can lead us down the line of ‘God demanding sacrifice’. Forgiveness (and here I pull on the ‘being loosed from something that ties us down, refusing to allow us to progress’) requires that we are cleansed. Here is the text:

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

No forgiveness of sins, without blood… but why? Because blood purifies. The Old Testament use of blood has a cultural element to it, but the purification through the blood of Jesus goes ever so deep:

For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Heb. 9:13, 14).

How does the blood of Jesus purify? That might be something very hard to grasp but the depth of the cleansing that comes through the cross is very real. The blood of goats and bulls purified the flesh, the blood of Jesus purifies the conscience. A deep cleansing, a healing of the soul, something that offers us a new heart, a new core to our being, the Holy Spirit within, a door open to walk the path of life.

He died that we might live, truly live. God does not demand sacrifice in order to forgive; we need the sacrifice, the self-giving of Jesus, the self-giving of the Triune God to break the cycle of death and sin, we need that sacrifice to cleanse us within.

Substitutionary?

We all struggle to get terms that work and the word ‘substitution’ with regard to Jesus’ death could work to some extent. For there is a strong ‘in our place’ element within passages, though the over-individualisation of that concept does not do the NT justice. He tasted death for everyone; he dies for the Jewish nation. In both of the previous statements we have a corporate element, a participation by Jesus in a corporate journey, with the end result that something corporate might come forth, a royal priesthood, a new people, indeed new creation. This corporate rather than personal element is visible (I suggest) in all passages, it only being our individualised West that somehow sees death for ‘sins’ being some crude accumulation of my sin + yours + this person + that person… all of which can lead to an idea of Limited Atonement, seeking to answer the question of whose sins did he die for. That is the world of simple transaction – x amount paid for, those whose sins are paid for go free.

A big challenge to ‘substitution’ if defined in too tight a way can be illustrated by 2 Cor. 5:14,15 (emphases added),

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

‘For all’ could be understood as ‘in our place’, dying so that we do not die, but the latter part says he was also raised for us (same term ‘for’: huper). If we press the term ‘substitution’ with the clear meaning of something replacing what would have taken place otherwise (I order a product from the supermarket and when it arrives the product has been substituted / replaced by another product) we run into huge problems with the statement regarding that Jesus being also raised ‘for us’. This would imply that Jesus is raised so that we will not be raised? I think not!!!! We cannot press the language to be ‘in our place’ in that strong substitutionary sense.

We have to move beyond the ‘for’ word and not reduce it to mean a rigid ‘in my place’ and if we insist on using the ‘substitution’ word we have to use it carefully, and I suggest that probably we should rather think more along the lines of Jesus participating in our journey, going there for us, on our behalf. This for me is consistent with how I understand the activity of God… God travels with us, walks our journey (three leave Eden, three again visibly pick up that journey on the road to Emmaus). Jesus does this for us, both in terms of death on our behalf for that is our journey and then opens up the future (through resurrection) so that we can follow his journey, he being the guarantee for our future. Indeed it is not simply he dies our death, but opens the way so that we can die his death, and as a result experience his resurrection – crucified with Christ, buried and raised with / in him. He does this for us, so that we can die with him. That is not substitution but an invitation to an identification and participation with him, all made possible because he identified and participated in our journey.

I certainly do not see any traffic moving in the direction of Jesus punished in our place, but the Triune God willingly taking on the consequences of our rebellion. Identification with us; participation in our journey; but substitution – no; and penal substitution a definite no!

The big issue with the idea of God punishing Jesus is what this would reveal of God. Restorative justice (as opposed to punitive justice) is not something that has been recently invented, but seems to be the very heart of God with respect to justice. Punitive justice calls for ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, it calls for the death penalty for the murderer, yet God comes to protect the murderer (Cain), in spite of all that we read of the punishment fit for the murderer in the later books of the law. He likewise does the same with regard to Cain #2 (Barabbas), allowing him to go free, with the blood of Abel #2 calling out for forgiveness. God is not looking to uphold the law as if we are guilty and Jesus satisfies the requirement of the law. God is looking to heal, to restore the relationship. The law remains broken in that sense, but the guilty go free, forgiveness being the label over the door that leads to freedom, not ‘paid for’.

This is probably where the more eastern expressions of the church have a huge advantage over us. We have so focused in on the individual, law and guilt and the solution we come up with is the law is upheld with Jesus dying in our place. If we think more relationally and turn a focus on shame and sickness of soul we will press in deeper to areas of cleansing and restoration; after all the Scriptures seem to focus in on that the first humans felt ashamed, knowing they were naked. It does not come across as guilt being the central issue. Restoration of relationship not restoration of God’s honour, not a visible demonstration that law, right wrong has to be upheld.

Shame means we cannot turn our face to God. Something deep inside has to take place. Guilt (which is present in the Scriptures) emphasises the falling short of what we were meant to be, and I essentially would wish to suggest that the falling short is centred in on a failure to be truly human, and as a result not to treat others as human (we should also add in a reference to the planet, the habitation for humans, and for them as stewards of it). The glory of God is revealed in the cross, for there we see God unveiled; the glory that could be seen in Jesus, glory full of grace and truth, was revealed publicly at the cross. In stark contrast the falling short of the glory of God – failing to be human – is revealed there too, for it was we who killed the Author of Life.

Thus shame and guilt are dealt with at the cross as we respond by faith that he dies for us.

The resurrection is not about ‘raised back to the previous state after a temporary kenosis‘, the Jesus who died is the one who is raised, establishing in the face of death, indeed through death a path for all who wish it to travel, a path to true humanity, or as Paul says ‘one new humanity in Christ’ no longer defined by any previous category. ‘In Christ’ says it all, and ‘in Christ’ cancels all other previous categorisations. Those in Christ no longer will claim any definition as giving them a place of power and superiority (Gal. 3:28), and they will live that out ‘no longer seeing anyone according to the flesh’.

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s affirmation that the first-born of all creation, the forerunner for us all has overcome. Never succumbing to any level of ‘falling short’, yielding his spirit to God, praying forgiveness for us. The resurrection is not a return to superior power way of living, it is the affirmation of an unbroken way of living, the God way, of outpoured love.

Through the cross we begin to tread that path. Sanctification is the onward journey, not one of conquering all the right / wrong rules, but the path way of love. (Future) resurrection will make that all permanent.

Substitutionary? Not in the classic sense of the word. Only in the sense that the cross opens a path that can be substituted for the common path of humanity (new path for old). He died for (huper) us.

Universal or particular

Jesus died for all (Universal). Thank God. I also think Jesus died for males and for Jews (particular). We all betrayed Jesus, but the Scriptures and the creeds (not many names in there) tell us that Judas betrayed Jesus. Both are true, and in that sense Judas ‘acted for us’. Judas is the particular betrayer; we all universally betrayed Jesus.

Jesus was male, born of a woman, born under the law… so that he might redeem those who were born under the law… This makes his death have a very specific application for Jews. Now let me add what certainly is not explicitly written in Scripture, so I am going beyond Scripture (more of that below), to redeem males, masculinity, or maybe the perverted form of masculinity exhibited in patriarchy and dominance.

Why born a Jew? Because Jews were the problem… hang on, nothing anti-Semitic there, just hang on. They were the problem simply because they failed to be the solution. If we had a camp of people who were sick but there were no doctors able to come, we might well say the problem is ‘we have no doctors’… but the real problem is that sickness has gripped the camp. Sickness has gripped the world, a contagious disease, a pandemic is present throughout creation, and we can call it sin. The doctors though are not available… don’t blame them, they too are sick. Their (Israel’s) sickness was to make chosen to mean ‘them’ and ‘us’, to transform ‘life’ into ‘separation’, to failing to see that ‘we want to be like them (give us a king)’ means we are also ‘them’, that there is no effective ‘us’ but we are all in a mess together, hence Paul’s words ‘all (Jew and Gentile) have sinned and fallen short…’ of being truly human.

That is the strong ‘when’ to the cross. The Jews have to be set free, and the grace of God was to give them a clear generation gap to get on board with such statements as (to Jews) ‘there being no other name under heaven by which you may be saved’ – not Abraham, nor David, nor ‘I am of Israel’. Only in Jesus, the one who died for Jews. ‘Save yourself from this crooked and perverse generation’. There is salvation – in Jesus; salvation from the Romans and salvation for the sake of the world. A restored Israel and we have hope for the nations (Gentiles).

And I also think Jesus is male. Certainly not because of some superiority or creation order. And although I do not read the early chapters as history, history bears witness that the patriarchal nature of the fallen world is a source of deep distress. Maleness, as patriarchy, goes to the cross – maybe the last to be seen at the cross, the first to see the resurrection pushes us to consider that perspective? Jewishness goes to the cross for all divides are nailed there, with the biggest of all divides being revealed as an ultimate wrong (or at least inadequate) perception when the Temple curtain ripped in two. God is not behind the screen. God is with us. Emmanuel. The divide does not exist, and how could it for the two were united in Jesus, fully God, fully human?

Jesus came to his own, but his own did not receive him… yet a few chapters later we read that Jesus sat down with his own and ate with them; he put a towel round his waist and got down… washing the feet of his own. God with us, with those who can receive this God.

Yes, I do believe Jesus died for all. Yet there he is – male, Jewish flesh on the cross. He died that there might no longer be the divide that we who had the power to draw the lines that divide can continue to make. The sharp end of the cross should not be ignored, for in it is salvation for all.

Beyond Scripture? Not in the sense of seeking to understand a story that is unfolding, a story that takes us from Creation to New Creation. A story that presents the cross as the roadblock to total destruction; a halt in that path, and the opening of a new path, a new creation that we are not simply walking toward but one that is coming this way. Beyond the pages but within the story of Scripture.

A new creation is here. God is with us. Always was, was present in the cross, identified and embodied sin, embodied it in a concrete way, embodied flesh that used (fallenly created) privilege to exclude and divide, embodied that flesh in order to include and unite.

He died for Jews and males; he died for all.

Cannot look at sin

Jesus was a friend of sinners, not simply a friend of ex-sinners. Paul was a friend of those who had not responded to the Gospel he was passionate about (or at least had not responded to the ‘personal salvation’ part of it). But God? And Jesus was like God but God was not like Jesus? Really?

He cannot look at sin, he turns away, we see that ever so clearly with the cry of Jesus:

And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Matt. 27:46).

God-forsakeness. Psalm 22:1 being quoted by Jesus, the words of David. So God abandoned David? David certainly had many moments when that is exactly what he felt but God did not abandon him. Jesus certainly felt and expressed that on the cross, the cross where God was (present) in Christ. Thank God for Scriptures that mean we are not alone. Scriptures that even indicate we have been abandoned by God, but then we discover that others have gone this way before, and they have found that God was with them. There is a cloud of witnesses that testify to the ever present Presence of God, in and through all circumstances. Indeed we need to keep reading the Psalm, for almost certainly Jesus is using that Scripture while on the cross. Read on, read on… Come to verse 24:

For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

He did not hide his face from me. Did you feel abandoned? Yes, desperately… the feeling was real, it was overwhelming, but the reality is the cross is not an evidence of a divided Trinity but of a Unified Trinity, unified for humanity. Human experience and despair (abandonment) meeting Trinitarian undivided commitment and love to go through whatever is necessary to achieve reconciliation.

It is possible that those final words on Jesus’ lips ‘It is finished’ is his reflection on the end of Psalm 22:

his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

He has done it. He, the God in Christ, has done it, has brought deliverance to a people yet unborn. It has been done, it is finished. Whether Jesus words are reflective of that final verse or not, we rejoice that God is the friend of sinners. No appeasement necessary. Only humanity needs to turn their face to God, for his face has always been turned this way.

Afflicted by God, punished even by God, is a common understanding of the cross. But Isaiah 53 a chapter that was taken up in the New Testament of being totally exemplified in the death of Jesus said that this was our perception, not the reality:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

We saw this as God afflicting the Servant, this is how we reckoned it, how we saw it… ‘yet’ shows how it was understood, but the reality is something is going on for us. Jesus is not killed by God – the universal witness of Acts is that ‘you crucified him’. Sin, in all its forms, crucified Jesus. This does not mean that I am suggesting the cross is not an act of God, but it is not the anger of God in any personal sense that sends Jesus to the cross, it is our sin, our estrangement from God, our inability to know him, hence our failure to represent him, to be the glory of God.

It might be a simple way of putting things. Sin brings about God’s anger; we can do nothing to pay for the sin(s) committed, Jesus pays and takes the rap. Believe in that substitution in your place and you can be forgiven, never needing to pay. Simple to present. Simple does not mean either adequate nor right.

Back in the day

It is often assumed that any view of the cross must have at the centre the idea that the human race is to be punished, Jesus took the punishment, and so we go free (penal substitution). It works as an explanation though it raises serious questions if it is not nuanced extremely well about the inter-relationship of God (the Father) and Jesus (the Son). At worst it gives us a loving Son and a more-than-overbearing Father; a loving Son and a holy God who cannot look on sin, who turned his face away from his Son, abandoning him on the cross (thus ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me’). It divides the Trinity. Not only do I distance myself from such views, even the more nuanced ones, it might come as a surprise that the penal substitionary view is not the most ancient view – unless one ascribes it to the pages of the New Testament itself.

The two oldest views (developed soon after the NT period) seem to be what could be termed ‘Recapitulation‘ and ‘Christus Victor‘ (the defeat of the powers, though that term really owes itself to a certain Swedish Lutheran theologian / bishop who published a book with that title in 1930). Recapitulation was simply that Jesus assumed every aspect of humanity, ‘retraced’ the steps of Adam, so he redeemed what was lost, and sin was killed in the Son. There is a great emphasis on the reality of the humanity of Jesus, and also on the nature of two humanities – one in Adam and one in Jesus. The conquering of death for all is essential.

With Christus Victor we see how they wrestled with the idea of ransom. For those who suggested the ransom was paid to Satan, there was an acknowledgement that the devil had certain legitimate claims over humanity. The debt is paid for the release of humanity, and now with Jesus in his grasp the overwhelming goodness and holiness of Jesus just proved too much to hold and the devil having already lost the hold over humanity just could not hold on to Jesus – hence salvation for humanity and resurrection for Jesus.

In neither of the above views – which I consider historically are the two most ancient strands – are there any discussion of Christ appeasing the Father nor of the Father punishing the Son. Those discussions come later.

A big shift takes place with a certain Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm (1033-1109) who using the framework of his day put forward the ‘debt’ that is owed due to the universal failure to honour God, to pay him what is his due. The debt is paid by the one who honoured God, all offence is removed. The culture of the day is the background, with landlords and serfs, and in the case of God a supreme king. The debt is one that can never be paid. With Anselm there is a shift, and a further shift comes as the culture moves on to the time of the Reformation. Debt language can continue but justice and guilt become central. The innocent one dies in the place of the guilty, so the guilty go free. This shift has essentially made this, or a modified version of this, the central understanding.

As I consider further aspects in future posts here are a few thoughts:

  • Does God need appeasing? Can God not forgive without someone (Jesus) standing in the gap? Is forgiveness from God to be understood along the same lines as we understand forgiveness? In one of my books I suggest that ‘wrath’ when applied to God is righteous in Scripture, but we do not find such a description of human anger – thus we should not look to human anger to help us understand what the Bible means when it talks of the ‘wrath of God’. Likewise with forgiveness… Forgiveness at a human level is ‘I choose to let the offence (and therefore the person) go’, ‘You owe me nothing’. If we can do that without asking for recompense, why can God not do that… And if forgiveness is to ‘let someone go’ (the Greek being also a term used for example of untying a ship to let her sail) what is being forgiven, from what are we being untied? Untied from God and the need to pay back… or untied elsewhere?
  • Assuming we want to avoid an automatic Universalism, we will find it harder to do with the concept of a payment, or any ‘in the place of humanity’ as they seem to me the most likely follow through. If it is ‘the cross’ plus repentance in what sense is it ‘the debt paid in full’? Of course there are universalistic texts and one might be happy with that understanding. The solution of a ‘only died for the elect’ of course does not do it for me… hence I find debt payment, universal guilt condemnation not to wash.
  • Any view of the cross must take seriously the unified work of the Trinity. ‘God was in Christ‘ Paul says… God is not apart from Christ, and the work was one of restoration, for ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’. The cross does not reconcile God to the world, it does not change God (wrath to acceptance) but it changes the world. It restores a broken relationship, it restores all breaches, hence the ‘restoration of all things’ is the hope. In Genesis the issues are relational breakdown and alienation.
  • And finally (but far from the final post) the cross will never be worked out theoretically. Maybe the men are not seen at the final scenes of the death of Jesus (other than one… who was characterised by love) because it is the heart, the emotions rather than the head and logic that will grasp what takes place. That for me is sure, for something of heaven and earth meet, history and new creation, humanity and divinity all meet there.
Perspectives