The Cross Revisited #3

Metaphors – no debt paid

A common description of the cross in the Gospels is of Jesus’ death being a ransom for many. Behind this is a slavery image. This led to many discussions in the early church as to who the debt was paid to. Paid to God? Paid to the devil? But the language is a metaphor and is rooted in the Exodus story where the people were ransomed from Egypt (Mic. 6: 4; 1 Cor. 7: 23). No payment was made to Pharaoh,4 but the people were redeemed, ransomed. The reality is that they were delivered, that Pharaoh no longer had ownership of them, the people going free from bondage.

Jesus does not die as a sinner

The verdict of the powers was that he was a sinner. A blasphemer (Jewish view), an anarchic insurrectionist against power (Roman view). Those accusations covered the reality of their positions. He exposed the supposed understanding of right / wrong that the Jews had to offer, and of the benefits that the Empire claimed to bring to all the citizens. He made an open show of the hostile powers. He might have been condemned and hung there stripped naked, but truly the powers that exercised their rule through religious and social constructs were the ones being exposed.

He is no sinner dying. God has another verdict. He dies as an innocent one, and is not judged by God. We have to stay within the bounds of biblical language, and Paul is very careful to state that it was not Jesus who was condemned by God at the cross, but that sin was condemned.

And so he condemned sin in the flesh (Rom. 8: 4).

The cross is not some pagan ritual but the act of a Tri-une God to deal in history with everything that stands in the way of humanity finding the path to truly reflecting the glory of God. It is not that my sin plus your sin plus… is put on Jesus, raising of course the question for whom did Jesus die (‘only the elect?’, or ‘for all’ and we all go free), but sin as the dominant power, sin as devouring lives, as transgressing boundaries, as scapegoating others, sin as religion, sin as division is judged in that event. Truly the tree of knowledge of good and evil does not need to be eaten from ever again. The tree of life, the tree that counteracts death is open.

We can theorise about the cross, we can elevate one metaphor above another, but we also have to recognise that no one metaphor will make plain what took place. I wonder whether there is something reflected to us in the description of those who are still present at the crucifixion that encourages us to be like them and that if we are that we might just have greater sight into what took place. The men had gone. The women remained. John remained. Maybe the one who saw love at a deeper level than others, perhaps due to his simplicity by male standards, perhaps the one who exhibited unique responses, leaning on Jesus’ chest (exhibiting behavioural or emotional ‘special needs’?). The heart, not the head is the means to understand the cross.

4 Ironically not only was there no payment made for their release, the Egyptians ‘paid’ them to leave!

The Cross Revisited #2

God did not kill Jesus

In an anti-Semitic way texts have been construed to mis-align Jews as being those who murdered Jesus. That is not the case, for ‘we’ all killed Jesus. The historical and geographical context, and the spiritual context of the redeeming nation (now simply ‘as’ one of the nations) however means that there are many, many Scriptures that lay at the feet of that generation the culpability for the death of Jesus. One of many Scriptures in Acts can illustrate this,

This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him (Acts 2: 23-24).

‘You put him to death’. God did not kill Jesus, though the plan of God is outworked through the activities of humanity.3

What a journey from the garden of Eden to the cross. In the day that you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, take on a path that draws lines, you will indeed surely die. Death was the result, not to be understood primarily as punishment but consequence. Israel encouraged to choose life not death, given laws to guide in the path of life, reduced those laws to be a means of excluding all others, read the law but without realising it the very letter of the law was bringing death to them.

[F]or the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6).

But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 4: 14-18).

Death held sway over one and all. The consistent choices from the Garden onwards that led to the cross, not the inability of God to forgive without the shedding of blood. There are so many graphic examples of the life that comes through the death of Jesus. Original humanity exits the place of wonderful bounty eastward. Ezekiel carries a vision of a cleansed temple, where the water flows eastward, bringing life wherever it went. Wherever humanity has gone the life that flows from Jesus has gone.

He appears to a husband and wife on the road to Emmaus, a small village outside of Jerusalem. As the evening draws in so he reveals himself to them. The re-enactment of the Garden is clear. They have left Jerusalem where death has taken place, the death of their leader and the death of their dreams. They saw (once their eyes were opened) the resurrected Jesus, the original couple never saw that God had trudged eastward with them away from the place where they had brought in death. He carried that death from Eden, until at ‘the fullness of times’ there was a concrete manifestation that it had been carried to the place where death was given the death sentence, the place where Jesus ‘tasted death for everyone’ (Heb. 2: 9).

God did not kill Jesus, but was in Jesus bringing the rule of death to an end. Choose life, was indeed his choice. Choosing life for humanity meant embracing death. Like the true mother who chose life for her son in the Solomonic story meant that she had to embrace death. That is sacrifice. That is a sacrifice that can cleanse.

Not just the Jews

The early chapters of Acts are historically situated in Jerusalem, hence the consistent references that they (Jews) were the ones who crucified the author of life. Yet there are so many elements that come to put Jesus on the cross. Jewish religious power (the final manifestation of those who insisted on the right / wrong divide), the acquiescence of a crowd, the betrayal of Judas, the denials of Peter, the abandonment by the disciples, the Roman imperial power that controlled one and all. And we can add beyond that the spiritual powers that seem to dominate the very ‘air’ around us, the toxicity of a system that is not bent toward finding the path of life for people. And then we have to add the glad submission of God, who takes this all in, to end an era and open another one, a ‘new creation’ era.

Life is more powerful than death. Death was overcome, for it is not stronger than life. When Moses told the people that there were two options before them, that of life and death, they were not instructed to avoid death, but simply to choose life. Life could not be chosen by avoiding death; rather death would be overcome if they chose life, for in the very choosing of life death would lose its power. Life and death are never presented as two equally strong opposition forces. God raised Jesus from the dead as a confirmation that we are not still in our sins, and the early chapters of Acts says that death could not hold the Author of life. There is life in God, abundant life, that overcomes death. And as a result of the cross is an invitation to live from that same life source.

Prior to the cross Pilate offers the people a way out. I can hand over to you the one who is truly guilty, Barabbas (Aramaic: son of the father) or Jesus. Echoes here of Cain and Abel. Abel’s blood speaks from the ground (Heb. 11:4, 12: 24), probably calling for justice. God’s response was to protect the guilty one, the one who sacrificed his own brother. Now the people are given the choice. Yet again the choice is to kill the Abel figure. Protecting the guilty one but by sacrificing the innocent one. God protected, damaging his own reputation in the process, the guilty one through self-sacrifice, thus offering the path of transformation for the guilty one. The cross touches the mind and emotions, and in doing so can bring about a transformation, but there is something even bigger taking place where the powers that previously ruled are broken and there is a doorway from death to life (Col. 1:13).

Peter explained that life was no longer something that was open only for Jews to choose, but that ‘God had granted repentance that leads to life also to the Gentiles’ (Acts 11: 18). Such an easy door, the door of repentance, the door of a mind-change. A change of perspective primarily about God, about oneself. A perspective that sees the cross as the place where a transaction took place, not between us and God, but between God and us, a transaction without any small print. If, I come with guilt, the innocent one has taken the consequences of my guilt; if I come with shame, he has endured the shame because the other side of the cross is joy, joy at seeing the door opened for the very real start of true humanity to be expressed; if I come with a sense of sickness there can be healing for my soul. All three elements, guilt (the over-emphasis of the Western church), shame (the issue that seems to plague eastern cultures) or sickness (the Orthodox church) come together at the cross, the fullness of times, where they are dealt with once and for all, for it was at that time there was no hope to be found of finding a solution. We live from that time, pulling in the future into this time and place. A firm historic foundation opens up levels of creativity and diversity.

3 Other Scriptures that state this directly in the early encounters between (Jewish) Christians and their fellow Jews are: 2: 36 ‘whom you crucified’; 3: 13-16 ‘you killed the author of life’; 4: 10-12 ‘whom you crucified’; 5: 28-31 ‘you… are determined to make us guilty for this man’s blood’; 7: 52 ‘you have betrayed and murdered this him’; 10: 39 ‘they killed him’.

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.