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.

When might help us understand why

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…

The location of righteousness

Reconciliation... the manifestation of righteousness

Following on from yesterday’s post where God and Jesus are one, they are kenotic, self-emptying; Jesus never acts in a way that is ‘although’ he was God but because he was God, I am coming today with a quick look at the cross and one of the central passages that suggests that righteousness is ‘imputed’ to us (so central to Reformed theology).

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).

Lest one think I understand all this, let me return that I had feedback that the chapter on the cross in Humanising the Divine was the ‘most disappointing chapter’. Ah well!! So with that as background you now will have to take what I write seriously, pressing on…

  • Two locations: Jesus at the Cross, and ‘we’ in Jesus.
  • Two contrasts: ‘sin’ and ‘righteousness’.

I will try and hold those two in the forefront.

The wider passage is about the ministry of reconciliation given to Paul / the apostles / and I think by implication to the body of Christ. The message of reconciliation is based on God’s act in Christ – he was ‘in Christ’ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). There is no sense that at the cross God turned away from Jesus, forsook him, could not look on ‘sin’. He was present there, the cross is not about the separation of the Trinity but about an incredible expression of the unity of the Trinity. (And to push it home Jesus was not reconciling God to the world!)

I think to gain some understanding of what takes place at the cross it is helpful to quote the same writer (Paul) in one of his other letters, Romans 8:3,

by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.

Sin is condemned, has its final judgement at the cross. It is not that Jesus became ‘a sinner’, or that something was imputed to him (Reformation theology) and then on the other side something is imputed to us. Jesus is not condemned, sin is condemned.

Sin (singular – as a power, a dominating ruling force) is condemned at the cross, it is dealt with. As a result we can be released from that power (release being the root of forgiveness, and I do not think we should project from us to God our understanding of forgiveness… that he holds something against us until… another discussion). It is for this reason I think the ‘made to be sin’ is using the word ‘sin’ in the (not uncommon way) to mean ‘sin-offering’, a way the word is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. I appreciate there is a lot of discussion around this, so this is not convincing to all. However…

Add in the second part of the verse, the part where we have the result of the cross, the contrast of ‘righteousness’ and ‘sin’. It does not say that we will understand righteousness, we will receive righteousness or that we will be declared righteous, with it being imputed to us, or something of that order. It says so that we might become (in him) the righteousness of God.

  • The location: ‘in him’.
  • The people: ‘we’.
  • The manifestation (not the status): righteousness.

The cross brought an end to the rule of sin, so that a new people could be formed. And here is the challenge. A new people where the righteousness of God could be made visible. God is righteous? How do we know that? Look here at these people! That is somewhat beyond imputation. And a most provocative challenge indeed. Talk of a high calling!

In contrast to this we declare that sin has been judged. How do we know? Look at the cross. The one who knew no sin, who was not ever under its power, became the location where it was judged.

  • He became the place where it was judged / the sin-offering.
  • So that there might be a place where righteousness is manifest.

What does that righteousness look like? Well at the heart of this passage is reconciliation, bringing together what has been divided. If righteousness is revealed then reconciliation will be there fruit. How can there be a people who carry out this work, that proclaim this message, that embody this message? There has to be a people who know that an old system (the domination of sin) has gone and that they know / see that there is a new creation, that something has appeared before their eyes that has totally changed the labels, indeed the labels have gone:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.

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.

An explosive Scripture

Well we can ask which one as there are so many!!

In this little old lockdown era, that signals something much longer term for us all, along with countless thousands of others I have been discovering the world of zoom. Yesterday Brazil, today Germany and so it goes on daily. At the same time I have been writing, working on writing a book, or a series of booklets, not sure what to do with them yet, but one thought I have is of some form of publishing and then with a small group of doing a zoom chat on a chapter per week. So for all the millions who follow this blog put that at the back of your mind as ‘I would love to do that.’

I am trying to write material that would tackle some of the theological issues in a down to earth simple way, not so that I can gain converts to my incredible movement but to be a resource. I am sure that our goal in life is not to convert others to our viewpoint but to help stimulate people to develop their own convictions. Sadly so much of what we can access is predictable and simply re-enforcing the status quo. I think some simple theological principles might help equip us for wider engagement. Or so go my thoughts.

And before the Scripture quote (one I have been looking at in the context of the writing) how about this for a stupendous quote, regarding being inspired by the natural world:

The deep swirling grandeur of our gorgeous planet drifting through space on a mission to increase compassion and wisdom (Stephen Harding).

Moving on to the Scripture I was meditating on yesterday. In John 10: 47-53 we read of a behind the scenes meeting:

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

So much detail from the insider meeting. The corruption of the Jewish hierarchy, their collusion with Rome so that in the symbiotic relationship (you scratch my back and I will scratch yours) there was a recognition how everything could be sustained if they did not rock the boat. Jesus was rocking the boat and everything was being challenged, with a focus on the loss of the Temple. They decide Jesus has to be put to death to save the Temple. Ironically Jesus said ‘destroy this Temple and I will raise it in three days’, and he also said that within 40 years of his death the Temple the hierarchy cared about would be destroyed… wait for it… by the Romans. Irony, or irony?

The area that interested me in the text was that ‘Jesus would die for the Jewish nation (and not only…)’. We have focused our theology on ‘and not only…’ and in a very personal way – for the sins of the world = for my sins. However there is a huge theme in Scripture (or at least in the Pauline writings) of ‘the Jew first, then the Gentile’.

I think so much of our theology has been removed from the historical narrative of Scripture so much so that we have approached the Bible as if it was there as a book to develop systematic theology. Here is my illustration. We have a jigsaw puzzle, the biblical texts being the pieces. We know the finished product, the picture on the box (=my theology). I work my way through the pieces finding the ones that fit the picture, ignoring all along that are pieces in there that don’t fit the picture, they seem to belong to another puzzle. But we are convinced we have the right picture! So we proof-text (choose the bits that fit the picture) and ignore the non-proof texts. But the Bible is not a book of systematic theology it is a narrative. (Before moving on I simply need to state very humbly that I do have the correct picture and all texts irregardless of colour, shape or size fit my picture, but I state this humbly.)

In making a systematic theology we run in to the cross of Jesus and sadly often come down to some crude system that splits the Trinity. Jesus is definitely good, the one we call the Father… maybe some anger issues there? That is often the result of seeing the cross in a vertical way… God and humanity. (BTW I have written yesterday a chapter on the ‘wrath’ of God… appetite whetter there.)

If however we follow the biblical trajectory the cross is not primarily presented vertically but horizontally, it is set in a very exact time frame. If so then it needs to be explored what history is it bringing to an end, and what future is it opening up. No need to start with ‘God is angry’ and wrath can then fit in where I think it does elsewhere in Scripture, so we end up making a shift as the writer in Isaiah 53 did, from ‘we considered him smitten of God, BUT…’

Caiaphas prophesying said his death was for the nation. That is historical, that is horizontal, that is narratival, that is Jew first, then the Gentile. So the cross of Jesus answers an historical issue first. If we don’t start there I think our systematic theology will be squeezing the texts to fit with the courthouse dramas that came from the Reformation era not the narratival story of Jesus coming ‘to save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21).

Speaking of bad moods

Well not really about to write about moodiness and certainly never going to get me to confess to any level of moodiness, but going much higher than that! It is so easy to read of ‘the wrath of God’ and picture a moody out of sorts older person who has just had enough. Grumpy and ready to lash out. Then add to that the picture of the cross and Jesus taking the anger that was coming our way.

We continue to have language such as ‘act of God’ for events that take place that we can’t really find someone to blame. Strong language, but also found to some extent within the pages of Scripture (Old Testament). At least on that there is something of a shift from Old to New. In the Old there is a more primitive view of God (did I write that? Yes and would defend that perspective!) with everything coming from God. We can see a shift within the pages of the Old Testament itself. In Kings God entices David to count the people and then well and truly slaps him down for doing it, whereas in Chronicles ‘Satan’ does the enticing. Amazing how theology can change over a few hundred years! (It could be argued that Satan is invented in the sense of discovered as the revelation of spiritual reality developed. The serpent in the garden = Satan is fundamentally a biblical reading back in to the situation.)

Jesus made comments about the theology of an ‘act of God’ when he referenced the tower that fell causing death.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13: 1-5).

Basically it was one of those things (an accident, or through human error in construction) but it was not judgement. And beyond that he calls for a repentance – probably in this setting calling Jews to follow a way of peace and the ways of God otherwise the future will be one of perishing at the hands of the Romans. (Probably to be read that way rather than ‘eternal perishing’ in this context.)

The current coronavirus is one of those things. Dis-ease is in the world and Scripture clearly puts that at our feet. The falls of creation flow from the fall of humanity.

I am just reading a book that has numerous wonderful insights in it. Two days ago I read a comment on John the Baptist, quoting John’s Gospel that the Baptist ‘was not the Light’. The greatest born of woman, one coming in the spirit and power of Elijah was not the Light. He stood within the Old Covenant era, having opened the door to the new. But where he stood meant he could point toward the Light, but not be the Light. Only Jesus is the Light, that enlightens everyone. Gladly we cannot read the Old Testament unless we read it through the New. God’s revelation is not essentially propositional truth (such ‘truth’ will approximate or point toward the Truth). God’s revelation is incarnational, and John nor any writer was the Light.

So back to the bad mood situation.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom. 1: 18).

Wrath is clearly referenced – but not wrath against people. Wrath against sin, wickedness. My reading today took me to Isaiah 53, I read again these familiar words:

We considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities (Is. 53:4,5).

We had one viewpoint… probably because ‘we’ saw God primarily as a punisher, but – and there is a wonderful ‘but’ something was taking place that is hard to theologise without distorting who God is, it was ‘for’ us.

‘Sin in the hands of an angry God’ would make a good title for a sermon. God is heaven-bent on destroying all that is destructive, and we need to understand this. Otherwise we can live in fear, from legalism, or conversely be over-familiar with someone we don’t even know.

Yes there are some real hard Scriptures and themes. Maybe we don’t get it right, but we certainly cannot transfer our understanding of (fallen) human emotions on to God.

The Peter response

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that it is possible to fall into the ‘Peter trap’ once we have revelation. So maybe just a quick expansion on this. From Matthew 16 we get this inter-change:

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day and be raised to life.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!

Reasonably powerful!! We have some:

  • startling revelation
  • followed by Jesus explaining the path ahead
  • provoking Peter to ‘correct’ Jesus’ prediction
  • resulting in an (almost) name change for Peter!

The revelation was accurate, and Jesus proclaimed that it was not based on some human element but that it had come from heaven. Top marks Peter! Revelation comes from the future.

Jesus who is living, not to preserve his life, but to follow the path that is laid out explains where this will lead, but Peter takes exception to this explanation. I consider that on the basis of his revelation he knows he needs to correct Jesus. I don’t this was because of arrogance but because the revelation has brought to Peter an expectation. Jesus is the Messiah (revelation from the future) meets his understanding, his expectation that is shaped by his journey to date. Peter is seeking to keep Jesus on track! Expectation meets revelation and is informed by the journey thus far.

The general expectation was that the Messiah would deliver a people from oppression. The expectation was not of the death of the Messiah but of the overcoming of all opposition by the Messiah. (This is why I do not consider that Judas understood the betrayal as betrayal, but as having the two-fold benefit of personal financial reward and enabling the mission of Jesus to be truly successful.)

I am of the opinion that there is almost certainly a lot of prophetic revelation that proclaims a wonderful future and of the triumph of the Gospel, but that it is inevitably met by an expectation that will not be fulfilled. The path is always ‘first to suffer then glory’ as there are three words tied together in Scripture: suffer – time – glory.

If our expectation is the cross as symbol by which we conquer we will be shocked and disappointed by the path ahead.

We can easily fall, and normally do fall, into the Peter trap. That is the one where we verbalise it all, and it seems we (like Peter) look pretty stupid as the future unfolds. But at least in verbalising it we can be corrected. If we push it further and allow our own personal weakness to come strongly into the mix we might go beyond the Peter syndrome to the Judas one. Best avoided!