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.

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…