Note: if you already “know” what happened on the Cross—that is, you are already certain how it works, perhaps even concerned about inaccuracies in how it is communicated—please read this review pretending that you do not know and are seeking the truth. Whether or not you end up agreeing with Wright is your concern, but please do not write off his ideas simply because they do match your existing ideas. So many Christians say “the Bible says...” when they should more humbly and accurately say “my tradition interprets the Bible to say...”, and traditions are not necessarily Inspired.
Ever since Luther and Calvin, Protestants have understood what happened on the cross to be what Wright calls the “works-contract”. Essentially this says that God requires perfect obedience to his commands and failure to do so is known as “sin”. In the Garden of Eden we sinned, and were exiled, and we have sinned ever since. Because God cannot tolerate sin we are blocked from going to heaven when we die. But God sent Jesus in our place, and God poured his anger and wrath and punishment for our sins on Jesus, and thus the sin is paid for (but not by us) and by his grace we can repent and be forgiven and go to heaven.
Wright argues that this is essentially a platonic view of the world (“heaven” is an abstract concept akin the Forms) and a pagan/epicurean view of God (he is angry, but Jesus gets in the way and God’s wrath spends itself on him instead of us). Biblically our future destination is not a spiritual “heaven” but physical, resurrected bodies on the new earth. But it gets worse: Jesus getting in the way of God’s anger is the sort of thing that happens in human relationships, and it turns John 3:16 into “for God so loved the world that he hated his only son”. And if sin is not breaking the rules, then the Christian life is trying to perform to a standard that even we admit up front that we cannot meet. In this model, there is always grace, but it is not exactly “good news” that you are expected to live up to an impossible standard, even if there is no longer any punishment for it.
The works-contract view was a biblical answer to medieval questions, but not an answer to the biblical question. Luther and the Reformers were adamant that Purgatory was unbiblical because we are not sinful when we die, because our sin was paid for once and for all by Jesus. (Furthermore, we did not re-sacrifice Jesus, because his one sacrifice was sufficient.) The works-contract is an extension of Anselm’s theory of the atonement, and a solution to the medieval need for Purgatory. But the issue of our sinfulness when we die was not an issue that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, which was the entirety of the Bible in Jesus’ day, was even asking.
Instead, Wright argues that the biblical view is much richer: we are called to a vocation. In Genesis, the Garden of Eden represents a temple and the image of the god in the temple is humanity, created in the image of God and living at the boundary between heaven and earth as a royal priesthood, reflecting God’s wisdom to creation (and his pushing back of chaos) and bring creation’s praises back to God. The problem, the Old Testament says, is that humanity chose idolatry. This led to exile from the Garden, and enslavement to “powers and principalities” and to sin. Sin is what happens as a result of idolatry; sin is not the problem, idolatry and the lack of worship is the problem.
God chose Abraham to bring blessing to the world, and specifically Israel. Like humanity, Israel was called to be a nation of priests. But, like humanity, Israel also chose idolatry and was exiled from the presence of God, which Ezekiel saw leaving the Temple. The rabbis of Jesus’ day did think that God had returned to the new Temple, so they were still in exile because of their sins—indeed, except for a brief interlude, they had ruled by pagan nations since the destruction of Solomon’s temple. The Scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) were a story without a conclusion. In fact, there was an impossible problem: the promise to Abraham could not be fulfilled because Israel was to be the fulfillment of the promise and Israel was in exile. The rabbis thought that fulfillment of the Scriptures would require three things: deliverance from pagan rulers in a new Passover, God becoming ruler of his earth, and forgiveness for the sins of Israel so that God’ Presence could return and true worship restored.
When the New Testament says that Jesus died for our sins “according to the Scriptures”, they mean that he fulfilled the incomplete story promised by the Scriptures. It happened in a form that no one expected, but after Jesus’ death the Christians saw that Jesus had indeed fulfilled the three requirements. First, Jesus made clear that his death represented a new Passover, because timed his death with Passover (not the Day of Atonement) and the Last Supper (and the Chrisitian sacrament of communion) is a Passover supper. The deliverance—the new Exodus—was delivery from enslavement to sin and death, or which Paul describes as disarming the powers. Second, after his resurrection Jesus asserted that he had been given all authority, so God was now ruler of the earth again. Third, Jesus death provided forgiveness for sins, thus ending the exile. God’s Presence indeed returned, in the form of the Holy Spirit, to his people, which now expanded from the nation of Israel to the whole world through the universal forgiveness of sins that Jesus’ death purchased. God solved the problem of Israel’s sin through the death of the Messiah, fulfilling his promise to Abraham and restoring humanity to our vocation as a royal priesthood at the intersection of heaven and earth.
So how did the Cross accomplish this? Wright is clear that Jesus’ death was not that of an atoning sacrifice. The only time that sin was transferred to a sacrificial animal was on the Day of Atonement, when it was transferred onto a goat which was not sacrificed (it would be an ineligible sacrifice at that point), but driven out into the desert away from the people. But Jesus died on Passover, as the Passover lamb, not as the scapegoat. In the regular sacrifice, its throat was cut and the blood—the life—was drained. I find Wright a little fuzzy on this point but my understanding is that since our problem is idolatry not sin, Jesus’ death did not need to “pay” for our sin in a works-contract fashion, but instead his death freed us from the slavery to sin and death (the effects of our idolatry), thus restoring our ability to worship.
At this point Wright spends several chapters showing that passages used to justify the works-contract, such as the “Romans road”, are misinterpreting the text by what I call “endogesis” or reading meaning into the text. (Since “exegesis” means deriving the meaning “from the text”; since “exe-"/"exo-" means “out”, the opposite must be “endo-" [e.g. “endothermic” reaction pulling heat into the chemical reaction], so pulling the meaning “into the text” must be “endogesis”.) Wright argues that the works-contract interpretation assumes that Jesus is solving the problem of humanity being unable to get to heaven because of our sin. Since that starting assumption is incorrect—our final destination is the physical New Jerusalem on the New Earth—that interpretation cannot be what Paul means in his letters. He wryly notes that the reason commentators find Romans 6 a “difficult” passage, is because it does not support their interpretation. When approached from the perspective of Jesus restoring humanity’s vocation of a royal priesthood at the intersection of heaven and earth, he shows that Paul’s assertions line up easily with that line of thinking. Unfortunately, his arguments are too detailed to effectively summarize, and I refer you to the notes below.
Since Jesus’ death “in accordance with the Scriptures” fulfills through God’s lovingkindness his promise to Abraham, our life as Christians is to live out our restored vocation as a royal priesthood at the intersection of heaven and earth. Our role is to be the bring about—through God’s power through the Holy Spirit—"on earth as it is in heaven”. This is so much richer than simply endeavoring to have a righteousness through obedience to the commandments (“the law”) and relying on God’s grace for the gap. We have the privilege and responsibility of bring heaven to earth, to bring God’s wisdom in our stewardship and cultivation of the earth, and to push back the chaos of creation just as God created the earth out of the chaos. We have the privilege and responsibility of reflecting worship back to God.
There is even more richness: the means that we live out our vocation as a royal priesthood is the same as Jesus lived it. Jesus brought this about through giving his life self-sacrificially, and this is how the kingdom of God that Jesus talks about in the Gospels comes about. Paul is clear that the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and to Israel (and to humanity in Genesis after the Fall) is the expression of God’s love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” Jesus showed the disciples “the full extent of his love” by taking the form of a servant and washing their feet, as a physical parable of his life, which took the form of a servant, not considering equality with God something to be held on to. As citizens of the inaugurated Kingdom of God, we too build the kingdom by lovingly taking the form of a servant.
The Day the Revolution Began is a thorough examination of what the early Christians meant by “in accordance with the Scripture”. I read the book because I had lived past the point at which the works-contract is sufficient to live a fulfilling Christian life. The works-contract does not offer meaning for this life. It simply offers an unachievable standard and an abstract paradise after death; so what do we do until then? Is the only acceptable activity for believers singing worship songs and evangelizing? How does the Christian deal with times where our physical or relational needs are not met? Just white-knuckle through the pain until we die or it gets better? What do we really have to offer the world if the world is temporary existence in an inferior physicality until we die into the superior abstract spiritual existence?
I was not disappointed in my hope that Wright would offer a richer, more
purposeful Christianity. Not only does the Bible become a story with a
tragic beginning (humanity’s embrace of idolatry and subsequent exile from
God’s Presence), a hopeful promise but more tragic choices (Israel’s
embrace of idolatry and subsequent exile from God’s Presence), to a
stunning conclusion where God’s love fulfills his promises despite our
failure and restores humanity to it’s original place as the image of God
in the temple at the intersection of heaven and earth. It gives us a
magnificent vocation: the world is good (God even said so in
Genesis!) and we get to embrace God’s creation and cultivate it. We get to
build God’s Kingdom! So gardening is part of building the Kingdom,
learning (and teaching) is part of building the Kingdom, creating things
is part of building the Kingdom; art and music and Beauty are part of
building the Kingdom. Early Christians embraced martyrdom because they
wanted to be like their master. We can copy Jesus less literally by
becoming people who love with the same intense quality of love that builds
the Kingdom through self-sacrifice as we host God’s Presence in the
Temple, letting his love become our love, and showing the world the full
extent of God’s love by taking the form of a servant.
This book is a through, accessibly academic meditation of Jesus’ death “in accordance with the Scriptures”. We see the paucity of the works-contract all around the West, where people realize that the works-contract is not rich enough to hold the weight of life, and therefore abandon Christianity. Wright has articulated the fulfillment of God’s vision for humanity in a way that is both academically rigorous and rich enough to be “good news” to a society desperately searching for a meaning for this life (among other things). This is definitely one of the most influential books I have read, and rigorous enough to have a confidence that this is not just an interesting idea. This summary hardly does his argument justice, so I recommend reading the notes, and if you are intrigued, the full book.
Ch. 1: A Vitally Important Scandal (Why the Cross?)
- Despite criticism that it is outdated, the Cross has an enduring resonance even to this day. It inspires art that deeply resonates with people, and portrayals of the Cross in art and music in recent years have been popular and moving.
- So what is it that happened on the Cross? Early Christians thought that something had happened, that a revolution had begun.
Ch. 2: Wrestling with the Cross, Then and Now
- The early Christians emphasized what was a social taboo to Romans (polite Romans did not talk about crucifixions, because those were for criminals) and not even an option for Jews (a Messiah who dies by the hand of the foreigners oppressing Israel is simply not the Messiah). They also emphasized the resurrection, which was frequently viewed as nonsense, then and now.
- The early church did not define what had happened when Jesus “died for us”. Certainly there is value in letting it remain a mystery, but both faith and love seek understanding, the purpose in love being so as to love better. And failing to understand is like cooking without instruction—you are likely to get malnourished (but the spiritual effects take longer to manifest).
- The Reformers (notably Luther and Calvin) offered biblical answers to medieval questions. But it would be better to figure out what questions the Bible is actually answering.
- By the late middle ages, God’s wrath in Purgatory was a cultural force (rich people gave money for people to pray for them), and Purgatory had been shown to be a corrupting force in the Church—canonically, the sale of indulgences, but also in abuse of power by the clergy.
- Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1000s, Anselm, created the “satisfaction” theory, whereby humanity’s sin had ruined God’s honor, and Jesus’ death satisfied God’s honor. Apparently this was reasonable, given medieval views of honor.
- Abelard had an opposing view, which was that Jesus’ death served as a “moral example” of how God loves us and how we should love others.
- The Reformer’s “penal substitution” theory was in reaction to the idea that we are still sinful when we die so our sins need to be purged in Purgatory. Their answer was the biblical assertion that our sins are already paid for by Jesus, so any additional payment in a Purgatory would be additional works. Similarly, in the Mass, the priest could not be sacrificing Jesus all over again, since he died once for all.
- The problem is that the Reformers did not address the assumption of a wrathful God and a heaven-and-hell cosmology, although God’s wrath was extinguished in Jesus.
- Furthermore, the view that a disembodied “heaven” is our home is not a biblical view, which looks for a new heaven and new earth and a bodily resurrection. It is an idea of Plutarch, who thought that in our present life we are “exiled” from our home in heaven.
- When this combined with the Enlightenment’s Epicureanism, in the 1800s and later, a heaven-and-hell view returned, with the consequence that spirituality became detached from now and concerned only with leaving the world and going to heaven.
- The problem is visible a little bit in the fact that Reformation churches do not really know what to do with Easter; despite the historical centrality of Easter to the early church, Good Friday is the center point now.
- The problem with God’s wrath being satisfied by killing Jesus is that this is very disturbing news on a number of levels.
- While preachers will carefully note that God killed Jesus out of love for us, it certainly does not actually look that way: it basically flips John 3:16 into “for God so hated the world that he killed his only son”. And not only does it make God a despot, but it also is a pagan way of relating to the gods.
- It is also uncomfortably similar to how unhealthy human authority behaves (dictators, rulers, bosses, drunken fathers, etc.)—like God is an angry father who has to be bought off or appeased somehow, and saying “love” while it is happening does not make it better. People who have been abused this way can think that they certainly do not want a God like that.
- If God’s solution to sin is violence (killing Jesus), then maybe it is an acceptable solution for us. Constantine conquered in the sign of the Cross. Terrorists killed people by destroying buildings? Well, go bomb them. (Wright does insist that there are no easy answers; kneejerk pacifism is not a better solution.)
- There are also intellectual problems: why did anyone have to die at all, couldn’t God just forgive us if that’s what he wanted to do? Why does God think that violence is an acceptable? And how is a gruesome death an example of love?
- The Bible offers two views of what happened on the Cross, which are briefly discussed:
- Jesus gained victory over some sort of evil powers. This is not the answer, though, because evil does not seem to have abated after the cross.
- The New Testament repeatedly refers to Jesus example as the highest example of love. This is also not the answer, because a) the Bible is not a set of moral examples (proof by counter-example: Jephthah is not an example of how to relate to your daughter) and b) if we were to die for a fellow human it generally does not solve any problem: jumping into a raging river when your friend is safe on the bridge is stupidity, and likewise, Jesus needs something to achieve with his death. Yet, we are urged to copy Jesus’ example.
Ch. 3: The Cross in Its First-Century Setting
- We need to understand how 1st century people saw the cross before we can have any understanding of what early Christians meant when they said that the Cross changed everything.
- The ancient world was a violent peace. Peace meant freedom from fairly arbitrary wrath of rulers (both the Illiad and the Aeneid begin their first line with anger) and gods. Even when Augustus said he came to bring peace, what he meant was peace for Rome; peace for the rest of the world was obedience to Rome enforced by the sword. And by crucifixion for those who got out of line and rebelled.
- Crucifixion involved roping, or more commonly, nailing, the victim to the wood frame. The victim was first whipped and scourged, so they were already bloody. The death would be slow and lingering for days, as they slowly bled and painfully breathed. Flies would be buzzing around them, and crows and other birds would peck them. The victim could see and hear for most of that time, and they could hear the insults of the people passing by, and the weeping of their helpless relatives who sat vigil with them. Once dead, they were often left hanging until all the flesh was gone, and all the family got back was bones.
- This was the most excruciating and humiliating death that humanity could think of—as even Cicero says.
- There was no pre-existing framework for thinking of a Messiah that died for the sins of mankind.
- By the first century, many Jews saw Roman domination as a continuation of exile, which was caused by their sin. So Passover was not only celebrating past deliverance from Egypt, but also future deliverance from Rome. Since all the prophets agreed that the exile was because of Israel’s sins, this would require forgiveness, which was available on the Day of Atonement (nearby Passover). So many Jews were looking for an event that would both be a new Passover and forgiveness of sins.
- They were not expecting a Messiah who died, or even suffered. Some expected a time of great suffering that would end with Israel’s deliverance but this was not connected with the Messiah. Some expected a Messiah would would deliver Israel, but did not expect him to suffer. Others expected God to come in a new way (Isa 52) and judge his people, but neither Messiah nor suffering was expected in this view.
- Romans did have the idea of dying sacrificially for your country (in one of the histories, Cato is given a speech where he says his death in the civil war will pay for the nation, because the other guy will not have a reason to fight once he is gone), but it is a noble death to die in battle for your nation or for a value that you believe is essential to the nation. It is not noble to be crucified; Jesus’ death is not what they had in mind. Cicero thought it was a death completely unfit for a Roman citizen.
- We also need to understand how the early Christians thought of things. A jumble of new ideas comes out, but they reference the OT in ways that do not seem to fit, but yet they say that all this happened “in accordance with the Bible”. There are odd passages like the poem Paul quotes in Phil 2:6-11, which descends to the depths Man can descend to the Cross in the central line. (Figuring this out seems to be one of the main points of the book)
- They did not seem to think that animal in the sacrifices died so that humans would not have to.
Part II: “In Accordance with the Bible”
Ch. 4: The Covenant of Vocation
- Much of Protestant thinking (and preaching) about the Cross developed in the 1700s and was formalized in the 1646 Westminster Confession. Wright calls this idea the “works contract”, because although it often goes by the name “covenant of works”, some groups mean something else by that.
- The “works contract” is that God told humanity to keep his moral code in the Garden and it was that perfect keeping of the code (“righteousness”) that enabled them to stay in the Garden. Death and expulsion was the punishment for breaking it. The code was revised and more detailed with Moses, but the same idea (and the same results). So humanity is heading for hell. But Jesus perfectly obeyed the moral code, and those who believe in him can get his “righteousness” and be with God in heaven.
- Wright describes the “works contract” as “a travesty. It is indeed unbiblical.” (76) and “trivial compared to the real thing” (76) Not only that, but the revolution it would bring about would be very different from what the NT had in mind.
- The problem is not violating a moral code (“sin”), the real problem is the idolatry that caused the violation in the first place.
- “What the Bible offers is not a ‘works contract’ but a covenant of vocation" (76, emphasis in original).
- Our vocation is to be a genuine human being: a creature created in God’s image, that are a “royal priesthood” and “kingdom of priests”, who stand where heaven and earth meet. “Humans are called not just to keep certain moral standards in the present and to enjoy God’s presence here and hereafter, but to celebrate, worship, procreate, and take responsibility within the rich, vivid developing life of creation.” (76-77)
- Death isn’t the punishment for sin, it is the direct consequence of idolatry. “Call to responsibility and authority within and over the creation, humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within the creation itself. The name for this is idolatry. The result is slavery and death.” (77) The slavery and death results from how the forces and powers act upon humans, and it is not a positive action.
- A royal priesthood
- The royal priesthood are people who are “worshipping stewards” (77) at the boundary of the new heavens and new earth. Not people who have Christ’s imputed moral perfection so that they can leave earth for heaven. This can be seen in Rev 1:5-6, Rev 5:9-10, Rev 20:6, and it is a reinstatement of Israel’s vocation in Ex 19:5-6.
- The royal part is the stewarding (including stewarding the development) of earth, and the priesthood part is reflecting creation’s praise to the Creator.
- Aside: Why does the Bible describe the perfect state of humanity as a “kingdom” and “priests”, both of which are frequently corrupt or authoritarian hierarchies that extract from their subjects, and the former of which is widely seen as a poor form of government? Just because people have twisted the role of king away from constantly thinking about the poor and need does not mean that the role as God intended is also twisted. (Likewise for the priesthood) In fact, if our problem is idolatry, we should expect that the role would be twisted from serving others to serving oneself.
- Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5) is not reconciling us to God in the “works contract”. Instead, Jesus both announces and embodies “the faithfulness of the creator God to his covenant [of vocation] and his world” (82).
- In 2 Cor 6:2 (quoting Isa 49:8), “Paul is not summarizing the ‘works contract’ (Jesus takes our sin and we take his ‘righteousness'). He is doing what Revelation is doing: celebrating the fact that Jesus’s reconciling death sets people free to take up their true vocation.” (82)
- In Gal 3:13 the “curse of the law” is not the moral code that we cannot keep. In 3:14 he says that the Messiah bore the curse of the law so that the blessing of Abraham—Jesus—could bring the promise of the Holy Spirit through faith. Paul is not saying here that the Messiah is rescuing people from hell (although the Messiah does rescue people from hell). Gal 3 is about Jesus having gotten rid of the roadblock to the covenant of vocation, and now the Spirit can equip us to live our vocation.
- Similarly, Rom 5:17, contrasting Adam’s disobedience with Christ’s work, is not about the works contract—the end of the verse says “they will reign in life”. The gift of covenant membership is the gift of participating in the covenant of vocation.
- Even Rom 1 is not about man’s failure to keep a moral code. It shows the consequences of not keeping it, but Rom 2:1-16 makes it clear that “Paul’s concern is that the Creator’s whole plan is put in jeopardy by the failure of humans to worship him alone.” (85, emphasis in original)
- “Sin” leads to “death” not because of some arbitrary punishment, but in that same way that while a ticket for driving too fast is punishment for breaking the legal code; driving too fast around a wet curve causes “powers” to take over, resulting a crash. “[D]eath is the intrinsic result of sin”. (86)
Ch. 5: “In All the Scriptures”
- The OT, as a story, does not come to a satisfying conclusion. Nor do the sub-stories. Adam and Eve are left outside the Garden. Israel parallel’s the same story of Adam and Eve’s failure, both in it’s large arc, and it’s sub-arcs (the pattern of the Judges, the pattern of the Kings).
- The story of the OT is how Israel went into exile. This larger story is made of other exile stories: Adam and Eve into exile, Abraham’s family into Egypt, Israel into repeated domination by foreigners, and ultimately its destruction by Assyria and Babylon with the Exile.
- God leaves his Temple in Ezekiel before the destruction of Jerusalem, but God does not seem to have come back after the exiles return. Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi suggest God has not returned. Malachi promises that he will return in the future. By the time the book of Daniel was written (200s BC in its final form), Jeremiah’s 70 years of exile was seen as 70 weeks of years, or 490 years of exile. So the story is still unfinished at the end of the OT.
- The language used by the early Christians for what Jesus did—"redemption” (a metaphor from the slave market), “justification” (a legal term), and “sacrifice"—are metaphors that do not fit will together unless seen within the context of the story of the OT.
- The story of the OT is that humanity rejected its vocation of reflecting creations praises to God and God’s wisdom and guidance back to creation, and instead served things that are not God (money, power, sex, most notably, but not limited to that), and the result of serving those things instead of God is that they bring death.
- Adam and Eve are symbols of the process for humanity in general
- Abraham is chosen so that his family can restore the vocation to humanity (being truly human, as Wright says), In Ex 19, God says that he will make Israel into a nation of priests so that his glory may fill the earth (since we are the divine image in God’s earth-temple).
- The Promised Land is supposed to be a place of life, a return to the Garden where humanity can fulfill its vocation of being the divine image, reflecting the glory of God so that it fills the earth. (“Life” being the opposite of “death” and “return” being the opposite of “exile”)
- See Deut 30:14-20, Gen 3:22-24; Num 14:21, Ps 72:19, Isa 11:9, Hab 2:14. Also there are some hints that “the land itself was seen as an advance signpost for something much greater” (96), see Ps 2:8, Ps 72, Ps 89, and Isa 11.
- But Israel rejects this vocation. And they proceed to consistently serve idols throughout their history.
- So at the exile, the hope for humanity—Israel—is gone, with just a promise of restoration.
- “Sin” does not mean breaking arbitrary rules in the Bible. The normal Greek word means “to miss the mark”, which in this case refers to our failure to attain our vocation of being a royal priesthood. The Hebrew words refer to a “prior disease”, namely a failure to worship.
- “Idolatry and sin are, in the last analysis, a failure of responsibility. They are a way of declining the divine summons to reflect God’s image.” (100-101, emphasis in original) Shirking our responsibility never results in something positive, and something else will fill the gap.
- Despite having given up a medieval-style Devil to explain the destructive forces that happen when humanity shirks its responsibility, even liberal western thinkers came up with a something of a similar flavor to explain how the destructiveness of the twentieth century could seem to be more than simply our own folly.
- Sin is vocational failure, not a moral failure. Proper functioning can only happen when worship preceeds action [presumably not in a literal sense].
- So this failure of worship and failure of vocation is the pattern repeated again and again in the Bible.
- The Exile was a sort of corporate death, because of Israel’s sin. And the Exile could not be undone, and humanity’s vocation restored, until Israel’s sin was dealt with.
Ch. 6: The Divine Presence and the Forgiveness of Sins
- In Eze 10, Ezekiel sees the divine Presence leave the Temple; thus, destruction was inevitable. The reason given in the Prophets is the sin of the people.
- Although the people came back from exile, no one thought that God’s Presence had come back. The rabbis eventually made a list of the way that the second temple was deficient from the first, and the lack of the shekinah Glory, God’s Presence, was one of the deficiencies.
- But Eze 43, Isa 40, and Isa 52:8 promised that it would happen, as did Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
- God’s glory did return, but in the person of Jesus. John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and lived among us”, “lived” is the Greek word for “tabernacled” or “pitched his tent”. John is saying that God once again dwelt in a tabernacle with his people, but the tabernacle was in a person. (In fact, Wright says that John’s gospel portrays the moment of the full unveiling of God’s Glory as when Jesus was crucified.)
- “Modern Christians need to be reminded regularly that Jews in this period did not perceive themselves to be living within a story of an angry moralistic God who threatened people that he would send them to hell if they displeased him. Nor were they hoping that, if somehow they could make things all right, they would go to a place called ‘heaven’ and be with God forever. Some ancient pagans thought like that; most ancient Jews did not.” (113) Instead, Jews were longing and hoping that God would rescue and renew them within the world, in accordance with the promises to the patriarchs and in Psalms.
- Forgiveness of sins was required for God’s Presence to return; we see in a number of places how God’s holiness and Man’s rebellion cannot coexist.
- The Prophets spoke of this as having been accomplished (Lam 4:22, Isa 40:1-2, Jer 31:31-34), yet it did not seem to have happened yet.
- There are three themes to discuss: God returning as a king (the rest of this chapter); the redemption would be accomplished not just in the context of suffering, but by means of suffering (next chapter); and forgiveness and the end of exile would be accompanied with covenant love (next chapter).
- The kingdom of God [theme 1]
- God is clearly portrayed as ruling over all kings. Isa 52 shows God toppling Babylon (the superpower of the 600s BC) and the captives being freed.
- The freedom from the dark power of Babylon would be a new Exodus, but unlike the first one, it involved forgiveness of sins.
- The early Christians indeed claimed that Jesus had overthrown the powers of the world and had delivered forgiveness to his people. Jesus, too, spoke of his kingdom.
- In Daniel 2, 7, and 9, the exile is extended over 70 weeks of years (even ending with the destruction of Jerusalem).
- In Dan 7, one like a son of man is seated next to the the Ancient of Days, which puzzled the rabbis in what it meant for the Messiah to be seated next to God and sharing God’s authority.
Ch. 7: The Divine Presence and the Forgiveness of Sins
- Redemption through suffering [theme 2]
- Albert Schweitzer pioneered this idea
- There was a feeling that suffering would get worse until finally God delivered Israel. This was sometimes seen as “messianic woes”, in that it would precede the Messianic Age (e.g. the time of anguish of Dan 12:1).
- Ps 22 starts off with suffering, and then suddenly changes to triumph in the middle.
- In the beginning of Isa 53 the servant suffers, but in v. 12 he “divide[s] the spoil with the strong”, so not only did he suffer and procure forgiveness of sin, but there is victory.
- In all of the OT, only Isa 53 combines suffering as the means (not just the context) of the deliverance (namely, forgiveness).
- The pagans, in contrast, had many instances of suffering producing victory, but it was always the human appeasing the divine, not the divine resolving the problem.
- Maccabees seems to take the pagan idea, and claim that their martyrdom will/may resolve the sin 2 Macc 7:32-33, 37-38, also 6:12-16, 4 Macc 1:10-11, 6:27-29; 2 Macc 17:20-22. Indeed, the revolt was successful in creating an independent kingdom (ruled over by a royalty to were Levites, if not priests). But the idea that the suffering may be the means of deliverance is certainly not alien to Jewish thinking of this time (e.g. Maccabees and Isa 53).
- God’s faithfulness and covenantal love [theme 3]
- Isa 40-66 (but not in Maccabees) prominently says that when God brings his redemption, it is the result of his love.
- (Note that when God is angry at sin, his anger is like a violin maker being angry at someone using a violin he made as a tennis racket. His anger is not an anger that needs to be appeased, unlike the pagan view.)
- God’s love being what redeems Israel is a consistent theme: Deut 10:14-15, 21; Isa 43:1, 3-4; Isa 63:8-9; Jer 31:3; Lam 3:22-23; Hos 11:1, Isa 40:10-11; Isa 41:8-10. His covenant love for Israel is later extended to the nations: Isa 42:6-7, 55:1-3. There is the divine comfort of Isa 49:13-16, 51:3, 54:5-10.
- In these it is God who initiates the redemption and God who accomplishes it, unlike pagans where it is man that initiates and accomplishes the appeasing of divine wrath.
- No Jew would have put these pieces together into the Christian ideas—until Jesus died, and then they did. But Jews would have seen three themes: 1) the end of exile through forgiveness of sin, 2) accomplished in a new Exodus with a new Passover, and 3) the rescuing Presence of God will come through God himself.
- But what can be seen are Ps 2, 72, where the servant’s vocation is to die an unjust death which produces victory; and that God does this himself (Isa 53:1-2, 59:15-16, 63:5,9) and that the Messiah seems to be part of it, and so he somehow must do it by embodying God’s redeeming love.
Ch. 8: New Goal, New Humanity
- We have Platonized our eschatology (that is, our view of the final end is that we leave the physical world for an ideal, spiritual world), we have moralized our anthropology (that is, made moral performance the goal of life, instead of life being a vocation), which resulted in paganizing our soteriology (our view of Christ’s work [“soteriology”] is that his death appeased God). (147, not quoted directly)
- Thus heaven is where “good” people go; “bad” people go elsewhere. But since we are all “bad” people, we need someone else’s “goodness” to be “reckoned to our account”. (158)
- But this makes life a performance of morality [to which we never measure up]—the works contract—which is completely different from looking at life as the vocation of being a royal priest at the intersection of heaven and earth.
- Furthermore, “heaven” is “the realm of God” in the Bible, and the Bible doesn’t promise we go to heaven, it promises us a new heaven and new earth.
- Zechariah (Luke 1:68-77) defines God’s deliverance as “deliverance from fear and from foes, so we might worship him, holy and righteous” (149), then saying that John the Baptist will be announcing this salvation, which will happen through the forgiveness of sins.
- It is the sins of Israel (and by extension, us) that prevent God from returning (see Isa 59:2). So forgiveness of sins is release from bondage. Acts 5:30-32 says that Jesus is Israel’s savior, who brings salvation by repentance (by Israel) and forgiveness (to Israel). But Acts 10 extends forgiveness to non-Jews as well (10:41-42, also 13:38-47). So not only is God bringing salvation to Israel through forgiveness, but he is also bringing non-Jews into Israel, and accomplishing both promises at once.
- Biblical forgiveness of sins does include sin separating people from God and setting up a system where anyone, anywhere can repent and be forgiven, but this is only part of the picture. The larger part is that God is restoring Israel’s vocation as a kingdom of priests, and at the same time, uniting mankind into Israel so that we are all restored to our original vocation as priest-kings at the intersection of heaven and earth, so that we are the means that “on earth as it is in heaven” is reality.
- Likewise, living morally is obviously essentially to being a priest-king living out God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”, but living morally is not the end goal, merely the requirement for being a priest-king.
- “What might it look like for the ‘kingdom’ to be ‘restored to Israel’ [as the disciples ask in Acts 1:6-8]? Many Jews of the period, faced with that question would have said three things at least. First, Israel must be set free from the domination of pagan overlords. Second, Israel’s God, perhaps through the agency of his Messiah, would become ruler of the whole world, bringing to birth a new reign of justice and peace. Third, God’s own Presence would come to dwell with his people, enabling them to worship him fully and truly.” (160, emphasis in original)
- Jesus took the hope of Israel, but he redefined it. Note that Jesus is not saying “I’m not doing the physical restoration for a while, you’re going to have to wait. In the meantime I’m doing this spiritual thing.” No, he is actually restoring the kingdom to Israel, just not in a form they expected.
- Jesus’ death restored worship and God’s dwelling with his people (#3):
- Jesus (a man) ascended to heaven (God’s realm, not “up” or “out”), thereby uniting earth and heaven. Furthermore, God’s Spirit now dwells in man, again united heaven and earth.
- The wind of God’s Spirit in Acts 2 is the new filling the temple with God’s Presence, like Solomon experienced. The difference is, that the temple is now the people of God, rather than a building. (This latter point is why all the arguments in Acts revolve around temples, because we are God’s temple.)
- These are priestly aspects.
- Jesus’ death restored the rule of God (#2):
- To be sure Caesar is still ruling, but Acts is clear that the rulers of this world are powerless to prevent the spread of God’s kingdom: Herod failed to persecute the church (Peter was released from prison, and Herod died soon afterwards), and the authorities could not prevent Paul from going to Rome and preaching. Everywhere Paul goes, he is confident that the local Roman authorities are under God’s authority.
- Paul was still beaten, Israel was still under the thumb of Rome, but all that did not prevent God’s kingdom from advancing. In fact, it “only strengthened the kingdom of God, since that kingdom was accomplished precisely through Jesus’s death and then implemented through the suffering of his followers.” (164)
- This is the royalty aspect.
- And Israel is indeed rescued from pagan rule (#1):
- Israel is set free from death, which is ultimately the only real weapon the tyrant has. [Plus, our activities in God’s kingdom cannot be prevented by the kingdom of the world, as seen above.]
- “We should be in no doubt that Luke, like most other early Christian writers, saw the messianic community focused on Jesus as the liberated, redeemed people, those in and for whom the long-awaited promise of rescue from pagan overlords had been fulfilled.
- So the early Christians were living in the hope of Israel come to fruition, restored to their vocation of being priest-kings at the intersection of heaven and earth, implementing “on earth as it is in heaven”.
Ch. 9: Jesus’ Special Passover
- Theologians writing about the meaning of Jesus’ death (that is, “theories of the atonement) very rarely spend much time in how much the Gospels portray it, nor do they spend much time in how Jesus thought about it. Hence this chapter.
- Jesus chose to die on Passover, not any of the other festivals—including not on the Day of Atonement. Why? Because Passover is about deliverance from bondage, so that Israel can be a kingdom of priests (the highlight of Exodus is not the giving of the law, it is the construction of the tabernacle, where heaven and earth once again intersect).
- It is clear that Jesus chose when he died, both from intentionally going to Jerusalem on Passover, and then picking a fight with the authorities by clearing the temple.
- On Friday evening, no one was thinking Jesus was the Messiah. Crucifixion was a familiar punishment by a pagan occupying nation. Jesus tried to warn the disciples, but it wasn’t successful. Nobody thought a Messiah would die by the pagan forces he was expected to overthrow. It was only after the Resurrection when they began to think that something had happened at his death—people do not normally have a bodily life after a bodily death. If the prison door is open, someone must have opened it.
- This resurrected body seemed to be at home in both God’s sphere and Man’s sphere. The Jews believed in resurrection, but everyone, and the beginning of the new age. So when Jesus resurrected, clearly this must be the start of the new age, even though it wasn’t like they expected.
- Jesus on the road to Emmaus explains how he had to die using the narrative of Scripture (it says “beginning” with Moses and progressing through the prophets). So Jesus saw the meaning of his death in the narrative of Scripture.
- Luke’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death is sophisticated, but explained through narrative instead of a formula.
- The notice above the crucified person stated their crime, the reason they were crucified. Jesus’ reason is explicitly stated as being king of the Jews. Now Jesus had been repeatedly talking about the “kingdom of God” and placed himself in the vocation of bringing that kingdom, so saying that “‘Jesus announced God’s kingdom and died as a would-be Messiah’” (179) would be an reasonable thing for a Roman to write.
- Part of how Jesus saw his vocation is that “[t]o announce God’s kingdom is to announce that God is at least overthrowing the dark powers that enslave his people” (180), and it is to say that God is rescuing them and giving them a new vocation, and it is to say that God is coming back in glory and power. This is certainly something for a new Exodus.
- Given that Jesus had in mind a new Exodus, this time from the dark powers, Jesus cleansing of the Temple is reminiscent of Moses vs Pharoah (that is Jesus vs the religious establishment). He also talks about the Temple being destroyed, which is reminiscent of the fall of Babylon. It does suggest he was not too happy with the current Temple.
- The people at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) believed that they themselves were the true Temple (because the current one was so corrupt), and Jesus seemed to think along those lines, too.
- Just as the Exodus has a lot of clustering of miracles (cloud of fire, food, etc.), a promise of inheritance, etc., so does Jesus’ exodus. The miracles follow in the Jesus’ theme of deliverance: healing from sickness, from dark powers, from hunger, etc.
- The victory over the powers is by dealing with the sin of the people. The people are still in exile, still in their sins as evidenced by being enslaved by dark powers (and pagan powers).
- Jesus’ Passover is an acted story, like the first Passover, so the question of whether the bread is Jesus’ actual body is missing the point. The point is that it links the participant to the original action. It says “this happened, and we are part of the people for whom it happened.” (Or in the Last Supper, it was about to happen)
- That Jesus references blood implies sacrifice, but it is not the sacrifice at the temple, because “covenant” comes next. It references the sacrifice of the covenant, where half the blood was thrown on the altar, and half on the people. Jesus is remaking the covenant. (Also, note that the lamb in the Passover was not being punished instead of Israel)
- It’s not surprising, given Jesus’ statements that he would talk of covenant renewal. The surprising part is linking it with his death. As we saw previously, later parts of the Bible foresaw redemption through suffering, particularly Isaiah. Jesus appears to have understood his vocation as being that of the servant in Isaiah: God’s arm working salvation by taking the suffering that Israel (and the rest of the world) could not.
- There are a couple curious statements along this idea by Jesus that were never developed. Jesus says he wanted to protect Israel like a hen covering her chicks, but the people refuse (Luke 13:34). And in Luke 23:31 “Jesus is the green tree, innocent of the violent revolutionary dreams because of which the wrath of Rome will fall upon the Jewish people, but all around him are the young firebrands, zealous for revolt and so like dry sticks for the coming conflagration.” (189) Jesus also is explicit in the garden that if they are coming for him, they should leave his disciples alone (and he prayed for protection earlier, too.)
- Jesus was consistent in announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom “on earth as in heaven” everywhere he went by hanging out with people of questionable backgrounds, healing people of diseases, and offering forgiveness of sins. (And as we have seen, “forgiveness of sins” is sort of a shorthand for return from exile, covenant renewal, etc.) When John says that Jesus loved them until the end and that no one has greater love than giving his life for his friends, it comes across as consistent with Jesus’ actions.
- Jesus said he came to give himself as the ransom for many. “The covenant renewal itself is explained by the principle of the representative substitute, namely that the ‘servant,’ the quintessential Israelite, takes upon himself the fate of the nation, of the world, of ‘the many.’” (193) But this is the same love that took away leprosy, uncleanness, and death in the body.
- “But the overwhelming historical impression from the gospels as a whole is of a human being doing what Israel’s God had said he would do, of a human being embodying, incarnating what Israel’s God had said he would be across page after page in Israel’s scriptures.” (194)
Ch. 10: The Story of the Rescue
- The Gospels are not given much of a place in modern “atonement theology”, because modern theology presupposes that the goal is to get to heaven, which is prevented because we are sinners deserving hell. The Gospels do not have much to say about “going to heaven”, though; they talk about the kingdom of heaven, where “heaven” is a stand-in for God [like “the White House” is a stand-in for the executive branch of the US government, or “Washington” means “the US government”]. Instead, the Gospels are telling the story that Jesus is the critical part of.
- The answer to question “why did Jesus die?” was not “so our sins could be forgiven so that we can go to heaven” historically. The proximate answer is “because Jesus angered the Jews with his subversive ideas, his actions at the temple, their jealousy over his success and the Romans went along with it because they suspected he might be a rebel leader”. That sort of begs the question “well, what was God’s reason”, and the answer in Acts is that it was God’s purpose to do it, but you Jewish leaders acted evilly in killing him (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28). And if all the Gospels’ constant talk about the kingdom of God/heaven, which ends with Jesus being labelled “the King of the Jews” by Pilate, is surely not irrelevant to the answer, even though it is irrelevant to the modern answer.
- How the Gospels tell the story
- Jesus is portrayed as upholding the old traditions yet criticizing the present abuses, but at the same time being incredibly caring to people. Indeed, they say that Jesus embodies God’s love, which is not the case of revolutionaries (nor does really show through in John the Baptist). Yet Jesus is clearly also confrontational with the abusing authorities. John says that Jesus death is the completion of his love (John 13:1).
- Israel’s history includes plenty of evil, including within major positive figures (Abraham sells out his wife, Israel cheated, Moses begins ministry with a premeditated murder, David committed adultery and murder, etc.). Evil is seen as the problem, but evil is not just outside of Israel, but within. The Gospels see evil as converging towards Jesus: Matthew shows Herod killing the baby’s near Jesus, Mark shows the Jewish leaders plotting against Jesus from the beginning, Luke shows Jesus neighbors in Nazareth trying to throw him off a cliff, and John shows Jesus as having deadly enemies from the beginning (his actions in the Temple in chapter 2, and his healing on the Sabbath in chapter 5).
- In fact, exorcisms are most prevalent in the Gospels, with only a couple in Acts, and the demons wanted to announce who he was and subvert his mission. But, Jesus greatest exorcism was freeing the hold that the powers of evil had on Israel and the world.
- Ps 2 describes the forces of evil gathering, and it is quoted in Acts 4:26, as having been gathered—as predicted—in the persons of Herod and Pilate.
- Jesus redefined the kingdom of God from the nation of Israel back to its larger intent, and in so doing ignored what the people felt were their distinctives. (As if a Scottish party also wanted independence, but thought that kilts, haggis, whiskey, and bagpipes as unimportant.) Jesus warned people what would happen if they rejected his way (the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:42)
- In Matt 4:9, and Luke 4:6, the satan has the authority over the kingdoms of the world, but in Matt 28:18, after his resurrection, Jesus now claims them. “Something has happened to dethrone the satan and to enthrone Jesus in his place. The story the gospels think they are telling is the story of how that had happened.” (207) Luke 4:6 talks about the ruler of this world, who is being thrown out (12:31-32), who comes to get him (14:30). (But the Spirit will enable Jesus’ disciples to face the pressure, and even to call the world to account (16:8-11))
- John has Jesus predict victory (ch. 12) through love (13), and throughout the Cross is victory and love.
- Jesus is seen as God returning to his people (Emmanuel: God with us), yet he is the Passover lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, Matt 1:21).
- Jesus is also shown as fulfillment of Dan 7, where “one like a son of man” was seated next to the Ancient One and given authority over the world (Dan 7:14). Likewise, in Dan 2, the anointed one is cut off, but then in Dan 9, smashes the statue of the nations of the world.
- How the Gospels think forgiveness of sins and return from exile happened
- “It comes about because the one will stand in for the many. It comes about because Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole. It comes about because from the beginning Jesus was redefining the nature of the kingdom with regard to radical self-giving and self-denial, and it looks as though that was never simply an ethical demand but, at its heart, a personal vocation. It comes about because throughout his public career Jesus was redefining power itself, and his violent death was the ultimate demonstration-in-practice of that redefinition.” (211) This summarizes a number of themes of the Gospels.
- Caiphas prophesies that one man should die instead of the nation, and John adds that it was not for the nation only, but for the world.
- In John 12, the Greeks look for Jesus, and he says that once the satan has been cast out, he will draw the world to himself (12:32). “This is the deep theological root of the Gentile mission, hitherto impossible, but now, with the defeat of the dark power, an open possibility. The servant will die for the nation [of Israel], but will thereby do for the world what Israel was called to do but could not do, setting the nations free ... to join the single People of God.” (211)
- John references the bronze snake of Moses. The snake showed the problem (venomous snakes) and was also the solution. Sin and death are lifted up by the Cross and made visible, but the Cross is how they are dealt with. Hence, John 3:16.
- Luke is clear that the Cross is the means of accomplishing the goal of the kingdom. Jesus is accused of standard revolutionary crimes of the groups around him, although he is innocent; thus he dies as a rebel in the place of rebel Israel. Luke even shows Jesus being exchanged with the rebel Barabbas to make that clear. And then shows Jesus crucified in-between two rebels, one of whom asserts that Jesus is innocent of rebellion, unlike themselves. One of the soldiers also proclaims him innocent. Luke clearly shows that, “First, [the cross] is the means by with the powers of darkness (note again 22:53) are defeated, so that God’s kingdom, his newly minted sovereign rule over the world, can at last begin. Second, this is accomplished because the innocent Jesus is dying the death of the guilty.” (215)
- (Luke 13:1-5 does not talk about hell, when Jesus says that if you do not repent you will be destroyed like when the tower of Siloam collapsed; he is saying that Jerusalem will be destroyed and you’ll be killed by falling buildings.)
- In the parable of the vineyard, the owner’s son dies, foretelling Jesus’ death.
- Matthew shows what the kingdom would look like: the Beatitudes describe a kingdom that comes not by imposing its will by force, but by people of a difference quality. The blessings are because these are the quality of people through whom the kingdom comes. He also describes the people of the kingdom as salt/light of the world (5:13-16), seeking forgiveness and reconciliation (5:21-26), purity (5:27-32), truthfulness (5:33-27), loving their enemies (5:38-48). And Jesus modeled this lifestyle.
- Mark highlights this same kingdom-nature when James and John try to politic their way to Jesus’ left and right. Jesus says that they would need to drink his same cup of wrath, and undergo his same baptism. Then he says that exerting power over people is not greatness in the kingdom, but that serving others is greatness: the son of man came to be a servant, to give his life as a ransom for many. (Then he says the places on his left and right when he comes into his glory are not his to grant, but have been reserve by the father. Wright notes that Mark places the two rebels on Jesus’ left and right, when he comes in his glory on the cross.)
- Even before Paul, Jesus “dying for our sins” is “refocused, recontextualized, place within a narrative not of divine petulance [Jesus standing in-between us and God and expending God’s wrath], but of unbreakable divine covenant love, embodied in the actual person, life, actions, and teaching of Jesus himself. This means that in order to appropriate this for ourselves, to benefit from this story, it is not simply a matter of believing a particular abstract doctrine, ... No, the gospels invite us to make this story our own,” (224) and put ourselves in the crowds, and to become part of the story through re-enacting the Last Supper. [As well as, in earlier parts of the chapter, to bring about “on earth as it is in heaven” by taking up Jesus’ Beatitudinal lifestyle.]
Ch. 11: Paul and the Cross (Apart from Romans)
- Wright asserts that works-contract theologians ignore the parts of Paul that do not fit with their ideology.
- The fact that Paul’s letters could fairly obliquely refer to the meaning of Jesus’ death without explaining it in detail must mean that early on there was fairly uniform consensus about the meaning of Jesus’ death.
- Paul’s view of the goal of redemption is that humanity is redeemed “to share the royal and priestly human work within both the present world and the world that was to be”, and they would be rescued from God’s wrath on the current world into the new creation. (Not saved for heaven. The goal was not even “to be with God forever”, although it is true statement.)
- The goal was accomplished by means of the death of Jesus, whereby the temporal and spiritual powers of the world were defeated through Jesus, representing Israel and the world, took our sins upon himself, thus solving the problem of sin that gave the powers their power over us.
- 1 Cor 15:3 gives the formula that Jesus died for our sins according to Scripture; the context of 1 Cor 15 is that Jesus’ death established his kingdom, won the decisive but initial victory, which was completed at the Resurrection. (1 Thess 5:10 and Rom 14:8-9 also summarize this in a similar way)
- In 1 Cor 2:6-8 Paul says that the Cross won the victory over the powers of the present world (which if they’d realized what would happen, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory). Here, Paul does not explain how this happened, but he can obviously assume that his readers understood what he was talking about.
- It is essential for Paul that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, not simply the world’s Messiah; we cannot understand Paul otherwise. Rom 15:8-9 states that “the Messiah became a servant of the circumcised people in order to demonstrate the truthfulness of God—that is, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, and to bring the nations to praise God for his mercy.” (233) The purpose of Abraham’s people was not to escape the world and go to heaven, it was a world of united worship.
- Galatians is not about salvation (which is never mentioned), it is about unity. That is, the Messiah fulfilled the promise to Abraham, and given him one family, composed of believing Jews and believing Gentiles. (Thus, Paul says, all believers have equal standing before God.)
- In Gal 1:3-4, “Jesus the Messiah ... gave himself for our sins”; “for our sins” implies forgiveness / return from exile, which implies the “new Passover”, which “is all about release not from political enslavement under pagan empires, as in the original Exodus, but from the ultimate enslavement under the force of Sin as a power”. (235)
- Gal 6:14-16: both circumcision and uncircumcision are nothing because what matters is the new creation. This makes no sense unless the new age has come. Without the Resurrection, the Cross could not support this assertion, since “if Christ was not raised, you are still dead in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17) Indeed, the world would still be in sin and therefore still in exile.
- Within these bookends, Paul sees the period between the promise to Abraham and the fulfillment of his single family as temporary, like Israel in Egypt, but applying to the whole world. “[T]he center of the letter is a compressed Passover narrative design to deal with this situation of total human slavery” (237), thus Gal 4:3-7.
- (In light of which, Paul says that Gentiles getting circumcised is denying that the promise to Abraham has been fulfilled and essentially continue as if we were in the old age.)
- The new Passover required the forgiveness of sins. Gal 3:10,13-14 (cursed be anyone who does not obey the law; cursed be anyone hung from a tree) references Deut 27 which gives the covenant requirements to Israel and prophesies that they will break them. Deut 27 is not about disobedient individuals being punished or even a regular cycle of disobedience/punishment (although that existed, see Judges, etc.). In the first century Deuteronomy was read as saying that Israel, the nation, will rebel and be exiled from the Promised Land in a similar way as Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden, and then there will be a restoration.
- Obviously Israel had a problem in that their sins exiled them. But Israel’s “charter” for Abraham was to be a blessing to the world, which their exile had also made it impossible for them to bring. “This explains what Paul means when he says that the reason that the ‘curse’ fell on Jesus and was therefore exhausted was ‘so that the blessing of Abraham could flow through to the nations in King Jesus.’” (239-240) So the exile is over!
- The death of Jesus here is obviously both “penal” and “substitutionary”. But Gal 3:10-14 is not “just a roundabout way of saying ‘We sinned, God punished Jesus, and we are all right again.’” (240) It is not works-contract, it is a covenant-vocation, specifically Israel’s vocation, which is now free again to flow to the world. The sign of the covenant renewal is the down-payment of the Holy Spirit on the full inheritance.
- The passage shows that Jesus can be a substitute because, as Messiah, he is Israel’s representative.
- Once sin is dealt with, the powers no longer have power.
- Paul takes this understanding of Jesus death and illustrates it through his confrontation with Peter, ending with Gal 2:19-20. Peter’s behavior implied that one could belong to God’s people through obeying the Jewish law (also the implication if the Galations tried to observe the Jewish law). But “if Jesus was raised from the dead, the he was the Jewish Messiah (Rom. 1:3-4)” (243), but if not his death was a tragedy and forgiveness of sins has not happened and the powers are still in charge. “[T]he important thing was to live within and celebrate that new world, not go rushing back to the old one where sin and eath still held sway and where Jews and Gentiles ate at separate tables.” (243)
- To summarize, the point of Galatians is that Gentiles are included in Abraham’s family without needing circumcision. This is because the powers have been stripped of their power and so all people now have freedom. This was accomplished through the forgiveness of sins (and thus any objection to including Gentiles because they are “sinners” is void because sin is forgiven and thus “anyone who is ‘in the Messiah’ cannot therefore any longer be categorized as a ‘sinner'.” (243). For Jews, joining the Messiah’s family is also getting a new identity, namely “it is no longer I who lives but that Messiah who lives in me”. Throughout this letter Paul writes from the view that Jesus is Israel’s representative.
- An additional point is that since we are living “in the Spirit-driven ‘age to come’ (244) we must live appropriately, that is crucifying the flesh and its passions. This is part of the covenant-vocation.
- The first letter has lots of Exodus allusions: redemption, getting rid of leaven, 1 Cor 5:7-8, 6:19-20. In 1 Cor 10 he urges them to not rebel like the people of the first Exodus but to learn from their instruction (1 Cor 10:11)
- 1 Cor 15:17 states that Jesus’ resurrection meant that death was conquered, and therefore sin was dealt with.
- 2 Corinthians is essentially Paul demonstrating what true apostleship looks like: “the victory that was won through the cross has to be implemented through the cross” (251, emphasis in original):
- 2 Cor 4:7-12; 2 Cor 6:4-10; 2 Cor 12:9-10; 2 Cor 5:14-6:2: “The heart of the gospel is the innocent Jesus dying the death of the guilty. ... It is the story of the victory of that [faithful, covenental, Messianic] love, because that self-giving love turns out to have a power of a totally different sort from any other power known in the world (which is why Paul is happy to say that he is strong when he is weak). But here at least we begin to discover why it has that all-conquering power. If the enslaving powers are to be overthrown, they must be robbed of their power base; and their power base is, as we saw the fact that humans hand over power to them by worshipping them instead of worshipping the Creator, by the idolatry and consequent distortion of life that can be lumped together as ‘sin'.” (253-4, emphasis in original). Once the sin is dealt with, then the powers have no power, and the exile is over.
- Phil 2:6-11 is a twenty-six word Greek chiastic poem that elegantly says "This is how the cross establishes God’s kingdom: by bearing and so removing the weight of sin and death. The kingdom of God is established by destroying the power of idolatry, and idols get their power because humans, in sinning, give it to them. Deal with sin, and the idols are reduced to a tawdry heap of rubble. Deal with sin, and the world will glorify God.” (257)
- Who, though in God’s form, did not
Regard his equality with God
As something he ought to exploit.
Instead, he emptied himself,
And received the form of a slave,
Being form in the likeness of humans.
And then, having human appearance,
He humbled himself, and became
Obedient even to death.
Yes, even the death of the cross.
And so God has greatly exalted him,
And to him in his favor has given
The name which is over all names:
That now at the name of Jesus
Even knew within heaven show bow—
On earth, too, and under the earth:
And every tongue shall confess
That Jesus, Messiah, is Lord,
To the glory of God, the father. (2:6-11) (quoted from 254-255)
- In the first half of the poem, Jesus does not exploit people like earthly powers do (on full display via the Roman Empire/Emperor’s governance). “[E]veryone knew how worldly emperors behaved, and Jesus did the opposite. His self-emptying, his humility, his obedience to the divine plan even though it meant his own cruel and shameful death—all this is the complete opposite of normal human behavior, normal imperial behavior. The result is that the cross establishes the kingdom of God through the agency of Jesus. That is what the last three stanzas of the poem are celebrating.” (255-6, emphasis in original)
- In context, the poem serves as an example for the Messiah’s people (Phil 2:2-4), not just an example of behavior, that this life is found in a place (“in the Messiah”), in an identity. We can copy this, because we have the mind of Christ.
- Paul either wrote or quoted this in the 50s, so only 30 years after Jesus.
- Col 2:13-15: God made us alive with Jesus by forgiving our sins, nailing the demands against us to the cross, and stripping the armor of the powers and displaying their armor publicly. Although the rulers and authorities celebrated their victory over Jesus, they got it wrong, you have to see it the other way.
- Obviously this was nonsense, at least on the surface. Caesar was still emperor, the Jewish leaders were still running the Temple and nation, and Paul was in prison. But Paul is clear that what happened was that the powers were disarmed through the forgiveness of sins.
Ch. 12: The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (The New Exodus)
- The four sections of Romans (1-4, 5-8, 9-11, 12-16) work together and must be taken as part of the flowing argument, rather than independent systematic theology topics. “[W]e should beware of isolating any single section and treating it by itself as a statement of the ‘gospel'.” (266)
- The works-covenant, systematic theology approach sees 1-4 as talking about justification and 5-8 as sanctification, but that view ignores the renewal of Creation (8:18-25), which is the climax of 5-8. Furthermore, Romans cannot be about the goal of salvation being “going to heaven”, because heaven is only mentioned twice, and not as a destination.
- “The primary human problem that Paul notes in Romans 1:18 is not ‘sin’ but ‘ungodliness.’ It is a failure not primarily of behavior (though that follows, but of worship. Worship the wrong divinity, and instead of reflecting God’s wise order into the world you will reflect and then produce a distortion: something out of joint, something ‘unjust.’ That is the problem, says Paul: ‘ungodliness’ produces ‘out-of-jointness,’ ‘injustice.’ Since this out-of-jointness clashes with the way things actually are, humans then suppress the truth as well, including ultimately the truth about God himself, and so the vicious circle continues; people continue to worship that which is not divine and swap the truth for a lie (1:18-26)” (268, emphasis in original) Sin is not doing forbidden things, it is failing to be a royal priest.
- Abraham in 4:18-22 contrasts with that failure. And in 12:1 Paul exhorts us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, because the goal is for us to share the royal priestly ministry of the Messiah.
- Rom 3:21-26 (we are the righteousness of God) is not how the atonement works, it is a summary statement of “the redemption found in the Messiah” (271).
- Rom 5:9 is a problem for a works-covenant interpretation: if we are saved from God’s wrath by the death of Jesus, then why does 5:9 say that being declared right by Jesus blood will save us from God’s coming anger?
- Rom 5-8 are Paul’s discussion about how the new Exodus works. Wright sees the word “redemption” as strongly connoting the Exodus, and likewise baptism <=> passing through the Red Sea. But in the new Exodus, the rescue is of humanity from slavery to Sin, and the destination the new creation instead of Canaan.
- Paul goes from “sins” (plural) to “sin” (singular), where “‘Sin’ is being treated as an active power, more than simply the sum total of all human wrongdoing” (280)
- The Jews of the Second Temple period understood the story of their nation to be a larger parallel of Adam and Eve. And just as future deliverance was promised to Adam and Eve, so the prophecies of Deut 26 - 32 predicted disobedience, curses, and then exile, and the Prophets predicted a renewal of the covenant and liberation after a time of exile. But as the Church lost track of the narrative of Israel, it lost track of the Messiah’s fulfillment of that narrative, and so there had to be another narrative, which settled out into the works-contract.
- Paul’s point in Rom 7 is that the Torah, which actually produced death and increased the trespass, was God’s intention. Israel’s story was not that of the failure of a group of people to fulfill God’s covenant-vocation. The Law was intentionally given to a rebellious people and Paul says the purpose is that Sin would be gathered into one place. In 7:13, Paul uses “I” as a representative of Israel (being a Jew and all), and says that the Sin-powers that humanity’s sin unleashed were gathered into one place under the Law, so that it could be condemned.
- 7:14-20 is not Paul describing the experience of someone trying not to sin, he is personifying Israel in the first person and showing Israel’s experience under Torah.
- Rom 8:1-4 does talk about penal substituation, but it is not works-contract. “Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus.” (287) Jesus’ suffering was real, but it was not Jesus that God was punishing, but Sin. So it is substitutionary (God condemned Sin in the flesh of the Messiah so that all who are “in Christ” are not condemned”), and it is penal (punishment is meted out to Sin), but it is not Jesus get punished in our place.
- Paul has joined up Israel’s story with the kingdom of God: sin grew to its full extent in Sin, and Israel’s sin needed to be dealt with to return from exile. “At the heart of this conjoined double story he has told the story of the Messiah, the one who represents Israel and who therefore becomes the ‘place’ where Sin does its worst. Again, this resonates with the narrative of the four gospels, in which, as we saw, evil of every sort was building up like a thunderstorm as Jesus went about announcing the kingdom. It gathered itself together and finally unleashed its full fury on him. This is the story the gospels were telling. It is the story behind the use of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:23-31. It is the story Paul has now encapsulated in this powerful and crucial little statement.” (288)
- Paul describes Jesus’ death as a sin offering, which is an offering for unwilling or unintentional sin. The point is not for the animal to be punished instead of the person. In Rom 7 Paul uses “I” to describe Israel in the position of someone needing a sin offering.
- The condemnation of sin allows humanity to return to its covenant-vocation. “The work of the cross is not designed to rescue humans from creation, but to rescue them for creation.” (290)
- “The Temple was, after all, the place where heaven and earth met. Why not say that one particular person might be the ultimate example of the same phenomenon, a person equally at home in both dimensions?” (291) Likewise, the Torah is God’s revealed will, so maybe a person could also embody God’s revealed will, which is a strain of thought embodied in Solomon’s personification of “wisdom”.
- So when Paul says God sent his son (8:3), he brings together both the thinking about Wisdom (personification of God’s revealed will) and the Father-Son language of the Messiah in Ps 2, 2 Sam 7, etc.
- So what of Jesus’ “cry of dereliction” (292)? In Rom 8:26-27 Paul says that the Spirit groans with deep, wordless prayer even as we do not know to pray, and God, who searches human hearts, knows what the Spirit is praying. The two are in tune with each other. The Father is not just sitting, waiting for the Son and the Spirit to do their work. 1 Col 1:15: Jesus is the image of the invisible God; John 1:18: Jesus makes known God who otherwise we cannot see; Mark 10: Jesus states that self-giving love is the power that overcomes the powers. “What if the Creator, all along, had made the world out of overflowing, generous love, so that the overflowing, self-sacrificial love of the Son going to the cross was indeed the accurate and precise self-expression of the love of God for a world radically out of joint? Would it not then make sense to say that, just as the wordless groanings of the Spirit in Romans 8:26-27 are part of what it means to be God—to be both present in the depths of the world’s pain and transcendent over it but searching all hearts—so the cry of dereliction was itself part of what it meant to be God, to be the God of generous love? Might that not enable us to give an account of the Trinity as overflowing, creative love?” (293-4)
Ch. 13: The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Passover and Atonement)
- The center of Paul’s argument in the first part of Romans is 3:21-26. vv24-26 are used in the “Romans road” of the “works contract” interpretation, but this interpretation ignores Paul’s actual arguments because it does not consider how Paul is thinking. (It is also why these verses are “hard” to understand: they do not say what the “works covenant” is saying, so they are “hard” to fit into that line of thinking.)
- The “works covenant” view sees Romans 1-2 as saying “everyone has fallen short of the glory required to attain heaven, even self-righteous Jews”. In 3:24-26, the word hilastērion (“mercy seat” or “place of propitiation”) is misunderstood in the “works contract” perspective. That perspective of “justification” says that people start with no “moral credit” (as Wright puts it) but gain Christ’s righteousness and are therefore justified. This is not what Paul is saying at all. Furthermore, in 5:9 Paul says that “if we are justified by his blood, we will be saved from future wrath”, where “justified by his blood” summarizes 3:24-26. But “justified by his blood” cannot mean “saved from future wrath” because then Paul is saying “if we are saved from future wrath we are saved from future wrath”, which is meaningless. So “justified by his blood” cannot mean “saved from future wrath.”
- Paul’s point in Rom 1 is that people failed to worship God, and sin is the evidence of that.
- And in Rom 2, he agrees with the Jew that God has a special covenant with them and through them a plan to bless the world. (The “Jewish belief [was] that God’s call of Abraham and his family was designed to put right what was wrong with the world." (310, emphasis in original) The problem is that Israel also failed to worship God, and the people who God promised to used to bring his glory to the world and now they are exile from his Presence.
- But their unfaithfulness does not cancel out God’s faithfulness! (3:3-4)
- “God’s righteousness” (3:25) is not God’s state of sinless perfection but rather his faithfulness to the covenant. “Again and again [throughout the OT] God the meaning of ‘righteousness’ is not simply that God does what is right (thought that is of course true as well), but that, ... [God] is utterly reliable in following through what he said he would do [, specifically here in relationship to his covenant].” (304)
- Having stated the problem (humanity chose idolatry over worship as evidenced by sin, and the covenant people God chose to rescue the world also chose idolatry, but God somehow must be faithful), Paul is saying that the solution is that God, through the Messiah, fulfilled the Israel’s covenant, so that through the Messiah, Israel did indeed rescue humanity from sin and create a worldwide family for Abraham (the entrance to which is faith in the Messiah).
- So God’s faithfulness to the covenant is that by his grace he considers everyone with faith in Christ to be members of the covenant because of the redemption in the Messiah.
- The background for 3:21-26 is that the Second Temple Jews not only considered the vocation of Israel to be the light of the world but also that “[f]aced with Israel’s idolatry, God’s covenant faithfulness would require him to let Israel reap the consequences, which would mean exile. But that same divine faithfulness would then mean restoration. And this coming restoration, the liberation from oppressive pagan powers, would be the new Exodus. The original Exodus was the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (Gen. 15:13-16), so the renewal of the covenant would mean the newer, greater Exodus, this time involving the forgiveness of sins.” (319) See also Jer 31:31-34 and Isa 40-55.
- Justification is that people with faith in the Messiah are considered part of Abraham’s family, and furthermore, are considered in the right, so that at the final judgment they will not be punished. “The verdict of the future, as in 2:1-16 and 8:31-39, has already been announced in the present.” (322, emphasis in original)
- Similarly, God raising Jesus from the dead not only demonstrated that he was not a false Messiah (vindicating him of the verdict of the court that killed him) but that he actually was God’s representative of Israel and could fulfill the covenantal purpose.
- So in 4:24-25 Paul summarizes by saying that Jesus was “‘handed over because of our trespasses and raised because of our justification.” (323, emphasis in original) The justification was not the cause; the resurrection demonstrated that the justification had happened on the cross (see 1 Cor 15:17: if the Messiah wasn’t raised you are still in your sins)
- Paul also refers to Second Temple belief of a new Exodus. Using “redemption” (“the redemption found in the Messiah”) connotes Exodus to the Jewish mind, because that was the foremost example of redemption. In the Exodus, God redeemed his people from bondage in Egypt so they could serve him. And in the new Exodus, God redeemed humanity, through the Messiah, from bondage to the sin resulting from exchanging worship of God with idolatry, so that humanity can once again serve him.
- Furthermore, Paul also refers to the Tabernacle in “place of mercy” in v.25. In the Jewish mind, the Temple was the place where heaven touched earth. This is dangerous, because of our uncleanness, so the mercy seat, the hileastērion, purifies us so that we can commune with heaven.
- Note that punishment was not involved. The sacrificial animals were not killed on the altar (unlike the pagans); it’s throat was cut to release the blood, the life, which was used for cleansing. The only time sins are transferred is to the scapegoat, which was not sacrificed (it would not have been a worthy sacrifice at that point) but was driven into the wilderness. And sin offerings were not the animal being punished for sins, they were a sign of penitence when you accidentally sinned; there was no provision for intentional sin, “such high-handed offending was to be punished, not forgiven” (329). So Paul is not talking about Jesus being punished, he is referring to the Day of Atonement: Jesus made atonement.
- Indeed, God could not be punishing Jesus for our former sins because “in his forebearance, he overlooked” the sins of humanity—he did not punish them. (In 2:4, Paul says that this was supposed to lead us to repentence; “[p]unishment is what would happen later, if this opportunity were missed” (331).)
- Second Temple thinking was that the new Exodus required a forgiveness of sins because of Israel’s idolatry, so Passover (about redemption, not atonement) and the Day of Atonement (about atonement, not redemption) needed to be brought together, which Paul demonstrates that God accomplished through the sacrificial blood of the Messiah. Like the blood of the sacrifice, the blood of Jesus cleansed Israel and humanity of our sins.
- In 4:23-25 Paul references Isa 52:10, 15, 53:1 (obvious in the Greek). “[T]his ‘punishment that made us whole’ (Isa. 53:5), means what it means and makes the sense it makes not within the moralistic works contract, an abstract scheme of sin and punishment, but within the covenant of vocation, the image-bearing, glory-sharing covenant. The human vocation, Israel’s vocation, Jesus’s vocation. God’s vocation.” (336)
- This is not a punishment of God acting out of wrath onto Jesus, but of God acting out of love and faithfulness, revealing the arm of the Lord (Isa 53:1). “[A]t the heart of [this story] we find not an arbitrary and abstract ‘punishment’ meted out upon an innocent victim, but the living God himself coming incognito ..., coming to take upon himself the consequence of Israel’s idolatry, sin, and exile, which itself brought into focus the idolatry, sin, and exile of the whole human race. Expelled from Eden, the human race ended up with Babel Expelled from Canaan, Israel ended up in Babylon. After Babel, God called Abraham and made covenant promises to him; after Babylon, those promises were made good.” (337)
- “Love ... is, after all, the deepest meaning behind Paul’s language of ‘covenant justice.’ The covenant is after all the marriage of God and Israel.” (336, emphasis in original)
- Isaiah does talk about the Messiah being punished, but the punishment is the consequence of our actions, not anger at our actions.
- "God put Jesus forth, Paul seems to be saying, as the place where heaven and earth overlapped, the place where the loving Presence of the one God and the faithful obedience of the true human being would meet and merge and be realized in space, time, and matter. Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, represented Israel; Israel, called to be the light of the world, represented that wider world. In Jesus, the vocation of Israel and of all humans was summed up in faithful obedience.” (340)
- “And the argument then naturally emerges into the summary in 5:1-2, where those who are justified by faith have ‘peace with God’ and ‘access to this grace in which we stand,’ celebrating the ‘hope of God’s glory.’ The new Temple has been constructed; the ‘meeting’ has taken place. (341)
Ch. 14: Passover People
- So how does this all affect how we live?
- Frequently Christians who believe the “works contract” and that the goal is to go to heaven, actually live out the life of the kingdom. But it would be better if the Church were clearer on what Jesus actually did.
- Clearly the obvious thing is that we need to live as a royal priesthood, worshiping God and expanding his dominion over the earth.
- We need to revisit what we mean by “mission”. Missions isn’t just preaching the gospel of salvation, it also needs to involve the Kingdom. “[E]ducation, medicine, and caring for the poor ... were all concerns of the church from the earliest times. It is an open question whether such concerns can be sustained in a just and peaceful society in a world from which God has been banished [as in our Enlightenment society].” (360)
- The Social Gospel movement was, in fact, a reaction to a works-contract gospel where the only goal was to get to heaven and which ignored the problems on the earth. [But just as the go-to-heaven people chopped off the “on earth” part of the Lord’s prayer, in reaction, the Social Gospel people left behind Jesus dying for our sins.]
- Some rethinking of Mission seems to be happening already in many mission organizations.
- We cannot lose the focus on personal evangelism and proclaiming salvation to people who have not heard. But we need a richer message than everything until we die and go to heaven being unimportant. Instead we can proclaim that we are the in-between people, who live both in heaven and on earth.
- We should expect suffering if we actual proclaim this message that we are saved to live in-between, bring on earth as in heaven. The powers (earthly or otherwise) do not like this.
- Suffering, however, is essential. Jesus won the initial victory through suffering. There are still victories to be won (even though the main victory has already been won) and the way of Christ is to win those victories through suffering. This is not to say that all suffering is virtuous, but rather it is the sacrificial giving that is the strategy of Christ. “God loved me and gave himself for me” is how the victory was won for others, and it is how we win the victory. “Suffering and dying is the way by which the world is changed.” (368, emphasis in original)
- In fact, Christ explicitly rejected the fast way of coming as a conqueror.
- Suffering is interspersed with victory. James was killed, but Peter miraculously released from prison. Paul and Silas were illegally beaten, but their singing and not fleeing after the earthquake freed them led to the salvation of the jailor and his family.
- Paul talks about suffering in Rom 5:3-5 and 8:17-25. “The church, the Messiah’s people, must suffer in the present, because they share the Messiah’s life, his raised-from-the-dead life, and this is the way to implement the Messiah’s victory. This is part of what it means to share in his ‘glory,’ his splendid rule over the world, which at present is exercised through the Spirit-led work and suffering of his people.
- Dietrich Bonhoffer was in the US when World War II started, and was convinced that God was calling him to go back to Germany and oppose Hitler. He knew the cost, and he was killed shortly before the war ended. What more wonderful books would he have written had he remained in safety? But, what impact did his martyrdom have on the reach of his thinking?
- In 177 AD a pagan mob killed some Christians in Lyons, including the bishop. The new bishop, Iraneaus, went on to produce some of the greatest early church theology.
- God insists on using people to implement his kingdom. This means that we should expect to be confused as we figure out what is going on in our lives, just like the early church had to work out what had happened on the cross.
- The sacramental life is also important. Paul says that doing Communion proclaims Christ’s death to the world.
- (There’s nothing magical about the sacraments. Magic is a way of trying to gain control over the world without going through the creator.)
Ch. 15: The Powers and the Power of Love
- Forgiveness is not our sin getting in the way of our going to heaven and Jesus being punished instead of us removes that barrier. Forgiveness is part of the new reality, just has “hard” is part of the reality of “rock”; forgiveness is a consequence of God’s wild love.
- Forgiveness is not just ignoring disobedience. Sin is not mere disobedience, but the result of idolatry, and so repentance (not merely feeling bad about it) is part of accessing forgiveness. Personal holiness is also part of the new creation.
- Forgiveness is a relatively new concept for society. Traditional societies see forgiveness as weakness: if you are wronged you should get even. But this leads to keeping track of slights and being constantly enslaved to anger at the wrongs that have been done to you. Forgiveness releases that. Not only do you offer healing to others, but you heal yourself. Forgiveness is not weakness, but rather strength.
- When people forgive it is so counter-intuitive that it makes news. Some murder victims of the 2015 Charlestown attacks told the murder they forgave him and the Amish similarly did so after the 2006 Amish school shooting; both times it made national news.
- Jesus broke the power of darkness and so freed us to no longer be slaves to it and instead give allegiance to God. So Paul did not announce to the Gentiles that we can (and must) turn from idols, as a pragmatic choice because the Jews did not listen, but rather because the message is inherent to the faith. Indeed, that was what Paul said he was commissioned to do (Acts 26:16-18)
- The view that Jesus death remove the power from “the powers” must have been common place, since Paul casually refers to it (1 Cor 2:8, Col 2:14-15).
- But in order for people to turn from idols, they must be told that the idols have been disarmed. In fact, the powers are powerless to stop the message, since “[t]he reign of the crucified Jesus only had to be announced for it to become effective. [Rom 1:16] The powers that had held people captive were powerless to stop them believing, to prevent them from become part of God’s new creation.” (391)
- But the powers being disarmed does not mean “we’re free to go to heaven” but “Jesus is lord of the world and we need to live under his authority and announce the news”. “Jesus’s followers were not simple [beneficiaries of the revolution]. They were to be its agents.” (392)
- The church continues to be the agents of Jesus’ revolution. The church was instrumental in stopping slavery in the 1800s, in the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, in the downfall of Communism in Poland in the 1980s, and in the ending of apartheid in South Africa more recently. (In the 1970s people widely predicted civil war in South Africa; that it did not was not inevitable. The kingdom of Jesus rescued it into a better path.)
- The church needs to identify the modern idols and call people to repent. (The powers will not be happy about this, we should realize.)
- The three frequent idols are some of the main ones in our society:
- Mammon: when the owners of 25% of the world’s wealth can fit in a bus and poor people from Africa climb into unsafe boats to try to get to Europe, something is clearly wrong.
- Sex: there is the obvious well-known sexual exploitation of young people. But there is the less obvious exposing children to normals unheard of in previous generations, the normalization and exposure to pornography, etc. In Wright’s Britain, many leaders in the 60's and 70's were allowed to sexually exploit young people because any thought that one’s appetites should have discipline was seen as ridiculous. Even church leaders did this. “We know all this, but still in public discourse the Western world finds it unthinkable to tell any adults that their sexual desires must be resisted. [Except at least in the case of pedophilia.]” (395)
- (“‘Don’t you believe in forgiveness?’ people will ask when someone is caught in bad behavior—as though ‘forgiveness’ meant ‘tolerance’ or the declaration of a general ‘anything goes’ kind of amnesty. It does not. In the New Testament, ‘forgiveness’ goes closely with ‘repentance'; and ‘repentance’ doesn’t just mean feeling sorry (perhaps because one has been caught!), but is an active turning away from the idols one had been worshipping.” (396)
- the West places a lot of confidence in military might, but as we saw in WW I, safety in military might has a tendency to spiral out of control and create the war it was intended to prevent.
- Moral failure needs to be seen not as breaking the rules (as in works-contract thinking), but rather something worse: refusing to follow the script of the Kingdom. These days winning an election is seen as a mandate to do whatever you want, but Christians have historically being concerned about what you do in office. We need to speak truth to Power, holding up the standard to Power of what being properly human looks like.
- We especially need to speak to Power on behalf of those who are vulnerable (that is, having no power). (See Ps 72:1-2, 4, 11-14)
- “(There is a popular parody of [calling for justice and mercy] just now, in which everybody wants to be a ‘victim’ in order to claim sympathy and perhaps ‘rights.’ Little good will come of this, least of all for the many genuine victims.)” (402)
- Calling for justice and mercy for the poor and the vulnerable is not optional; we cannot just live with private justice and mercy.
- Note that power is not bad in and of itself; it is necessary for flourishing of the world; anarchy is not seen as positive in the Bible.
- “[E]vangelism needs to be flanked with new-creation work in the realms of justice and beauty. If we are talking about the victory over evil and the launch of new creation, it won’t make much sense unless we are working for those very things in the lives of the poorest of the poor. If we are talking about Jesus winning the victory over the dark powers and thereby starting the long-awaited revolution, it will be much easier for people to believe it if we are working to show what we mean in art and music, in song and story. The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, ‘It is love that believes the resurrection,’ and hearts can be wooed by glorious or poignant music, art, dance, or drama into believing for a moment that a different world might after all be possible, a world in which resurrection, forgiveness, healing, and hope abound.” (405-406)
- “‘[H]uman behavior’ from a biblical point of view is quite a different thing from the normal view of codes of either morality or self-discover, because what matters is not ‘works’ (whether ours or Jesus’s), but vocation, the human calling to worship God and reflect him into his world.” (408)
- Jesus condenses his final lesson to his disciples in a parable of action: washing their feet. Just as he took the garments of a slave to wash their feet, so he laid aside his glory to cleanse his followers on the cross. Self-sacrificing service out of love is the essence of Jesus’ kingdom.
Copyright © 2023 by Geoffrey Prewett