The Death of Jesus – Why We Miss the Point

the_date_the_revolution_beganI finished reading NT Wright’s latest “The Day the Revolution Began” on Christmas day 2016, and have been ruminating on it since. It is indeed the paradigm challenging book that it was touted to be, although some of his arguments are familiar to fans who have read his other books. And though Michael Gorman helped exorcise my atonement theory demons last year, it seems Wright has put the final nail to the coffin. So I intend in this post to share some lessons I have learnt from these 2 theologians about how to read the Bible properly in order to understand Jesus’s behaviour and actions, including understanding perhaps the most important action of all – his death on the cross.

1Center The Discussion – Start from The Gospels

Just like Gorman, Wright challenges us to answer this all important question by not first looking to later commentaries about Jesus’s death, especially from Paul’s letters, but by starting from the the best record of Jesus’s own life themselves ie from the Gospels. And just like Gorman, he brings in the significance of Jesus choosing to die not on the day of atonement (Yom Kippur), but rather during Passover. Some of the results of doing this is already mentioned in my review of Gorman’s book, and in this respect he and Wright are aligned in their thinking so I will not repeat it here. Suffice it to say that they point out a very obvious problem that I have noticed in Christendom – we just don’t pay enough attention to the Gospels, and even when we do, we totally ignore the fact that the context for understanding the Gospels is 2nd Temple Judaism, not 21st century Christianity (or any other period of Christian history).

2“According to Scripture” – Know the Story of Israel

In 1 Cor 15:4, Paul makes a very important statement – “Christ died for our sins, ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURES”. Many Christians I have met and interacted with assume that Paul is talking about proof-texting ie finding 1 or 2 passages in the Old Testament that seem to foreshadow Jesus’ death. And in the case of answering why Jesus died, the go-to place has been Isaiah 53. But as Richard Hays points out in his book “Reading Backwards”, such attempts to look for individual passages or chapters in the OT to explain the NT without understanding the story of the people of Israel always leads to abuse of scripture. When Paul said “according to scripture”, he meant according to the whole witness of the Old Testament regarding the purpose of existence of the people of Israel, and not according to individual scriptural passages taken out of their historical context – which is the aforementioned story of Israel.

Let me give a clear example of how this bad attitude within Christianity towards the story of Israel has so distorted our understanding of scripture.

If you were to ask an ordinary Christian, or myriads of pastors, what Jesus meant by “forgiveness of sins” in his statement at Passover ie. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:27-28 NIV)”, you will get the classical answer which goes from Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden to how Jesus died to save us from the effects of this one particular sin. They will totally jump over the biblical story of Abraham, the Exodus, Israel as a nation as well as the exile and return from exile, as if none of that intervening bit recorded in the bible matters.

But when a Jew of Jesus’ day hears Jesus talk about “forgiveness of sins”, the “sins” that would have come to mind are not Adam’s sin which they inherited, but the sins of their forefathers which led them into exile, and even after returning from exile, into a state of slavery in their own nation. In an interesting set of coincidences (all Chapter 9), one can see which “sins” they mean by reading the prayers for Yahweh’s mercy on Israel recorded in Daniel 9, Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 – 3 different prayers from 3 different people offered during and after the exile. I quote from some of these passages below.

Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws … All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore, the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses … have been poured out on us … You have fulfilled the words spoken against us … by bring on us great disaster” (Dan 9:4-12, Daniel’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy during the exile).

I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens … Because of our sins, we and our kings and priests have been subjected to the sward and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hands of foreign kings, as it is today” (Ez 9:6-7, Ezra’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy after returning from the exile)

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had waned them in order to turn them back to you … So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them … But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so that they could eat it its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, it’s abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress” (Neh 9:26,27,36-37, A prayer of the people of Israel to Yahweh for mercy after returning from exile)

But one may then ask – if “forgiveness of sins” was about the sins of Israel leading to exile, then how can we, non-Jews who didn’t participate in the “sins” that lead to the exile, receive “forgiveness of sins” in Jesus’s death on the cross? Here we go to the 3rd lesson.

3Covenant is the Key – Repent of Your Legal Filters

For centuries, and especially within Protestant tradition, many have focused on using law-court metaphors to understand not just places where they seem to appear – like Paul’s letters, especially to the Romans – but to read all of scripture, including the Old Testament. This is despite the fact that ancient Israel was founded on Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh – a relationship that was entered into not on the basis of “law keeping” but on the basis of trust – Abraham’s trust in Yahweh. The giving of the law was meant to keep the covenant relationship that had already been enacted intact, and not the basis of foundation of the covenant. Yahweh actually specifies the reason why he calls Abraham right from the get go.

I will make you into a great nation … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3).

The purpose of the relationship of Yahweh to Abraham was the salvation of the world. This is reiterated again to focus specifically on the nation Israel as the “inheriters” of Abraham’s task and promise.

I, the Lord have called you [Israel] in righteousness, I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you [Israel] to be a covenant for the people, and a light to the Gentiles” (Is 42:6)

Hence, when Abraham’s offspring missed the way, the means of salvation for the world had been missed. And since the exile was caused by the “sins” of idolatory and injustice, Yahweh needed to forgive these “sins” in order to restore covenant relationship. Hence the words of the prophets

The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah … for I will forgive their wickedness, and will remember their sins no more” (Jer 31:31,34)

Note that Yahweh didn’t say “I will make a new covenant with everyone in the world”, but with Israel and Judah – the northern and southern parts of the divided nation which had both gone into exile.

Abraham (and subsequently, Israel) is God’s vehicle of salvation of the world, including Gentiles like you and I. Therefore, Jesus’s death is the means of restoration of the covenant so that you and I, 2000 years after, can also be beneficiaries by becoming part of the chosen people of God – becoming part of the new Israel constituted “in Christ”.

This is why Paul says

Christ redeemed us [Jews/Israel] from the curse of the law [exile] by becoming a curse for us; for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole’. He redeemed us [Jews/Israel] in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal 3:13-14 NIV)

Reading the bible with legal-metaphor filters however prevents one from seeing why covenant is so crucial to the bible. To make sense of the bible in a legal manner, Protestants especially, following their favourite forefather St. Augustine, have had to resort to reading Adam and Eve as breakers of moral laws, which sin is transmitted via direct inheritance (aka Adam as the first man) in order to make everyone guilty so that Jesus can come to save us all. It has been interesting to me listening to friends and pastors who read scripture with this filter explain Paul’s references to Israel, Abraham, “law”, “sin”, “inheritance”, “promises” etc that appear all over his letters, all the while skipping over the details of Israel’s story and trying to universalize the guilt of everyone so scriptures which applied to Israel will somehow apply to us all.

4Recover Vocation – Re-Read Genesis and Revelations Again

And so we begin at the beginning. NT Wright makes a very important suggestion about reading the bible, not just in individual books but especially about the beginning (Genesis) and the end (Revelations). Reading the end of every story helps you to understand what the beginning and middle was all about. This is obvious advise, which is why the end of a movie or a novel explains all that happened before. And in that sense, he points out a very important but critically overlooked point in the book of Revelation. That there are 3 passages which point out the purpose of salvation, but which hardly feature in most people’s conversation about salvation.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (Rev 1:6)

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10)

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev 20:6)

You will note that the idea of being made a kingdom of priests and a royal nation is exactly the reason why Yahweh chose Israel in Ex 19.

You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6).

Now, step back a bit, and ask yourself how God made human beings? He made them “in his image and likeness” (Gen 1:26). This would mean then that salvation is about that primary reason he created man – to set us free to become fully human, properly bearing the image of God. Humans were created with a vocation – to be priests and kings mediating God’s presence on the earth and reflecting his praises to him. The failure of Adam and Eve then is not simply about “law-keeping”, but about refusing to act as images of God through reliance on him as their source of wisdom, and deciding to be images of themselves, making themselves the ultimate source of wisdom. This is why “Wisdom” is such an important concept in the Old Testament – there was no true wisdom without “the fear of Yahweh” (Prov 9:10).

As Paul mentioned in Romans 1 when condemning non-believing Gentiles, whenever humans refuse to worship Yahweh and follow in his ways, they become less of themselves, falling to immoral behaviour. The solution then, is a restoration to covenant relationship, and learning from the Human One – Jesus the Messiah – what it means to worship Yahweh, and to be made in Yahweh’s image – which is fully revealed in Jesus.

Afterall, a certain apostle once wrote.

“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son” (Ro 8:29)

I have more to say about salvation as a recovery of the human vocation as “the image of God”, but let me finish reading J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1”, and i’ll give you my thoughts.

Suffice it to say that moving the conversation from “savings souls from hell to heaven” to “inviting people into a community where they can live life as genuine human beings both now and in eternity” is where we need to be headed. And I’m definitely on board with Wright, Gorman,Walton, Middleton et al.

The revolution against the powers of sin and death has begun in the death of the Messiah on the cross. Long live the revolution!!!

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6 thoughts on “The Death of Jesus – Why We Miss the Point

  1. I agree that the idea of sin would primarily have been seen covenantly but I do not see how that excludes Adamic sin or even sin of a generic kind. The argument is that Christ dying according to the scriptures means the idea of national guilt that resulted in exile. I accept the new exodus narrative in the gospel. It is certainly according to the scripture but the story of Adam’s sin is also part of scripture. In 1 Corinthians 15 where he says the Messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures a few verses later he says as all in Adam died all shall be made alive through the Messiah. He clearly connects Adam’s sin that brought death into the world to the sacrificial death of the Messiah. It is clear that Paul’s understanding of the cross is that it’s a universal sacrifice even though it has a Jewish anchor in human history. You cited the prayers of Nehemiah about forgiveness of sin to mean the sins that resulted in exile. The reason why Nehemiah prayed in such a way is because of what Solomon prayed in dedicating the first temple. He clearly said that when they are exiled for their unfaithfulness they should pray toward the temple and God will forgive them. In that prayer in 2 Chronicles 7 he anticipates them going into exile because according to Solomon all human beings sin. He clearly connects covenantal infidelity with generic human sinfulness. Aside from that the idea of exile as punishment for the breach of covenant parallels the primal couple’s expulsion from Eden when they sinned. If Abraham’s descendants failed in fulfilling Adam’s task it expresses the idea that sin is a universal problem. What happened to the Israelites leading to exile was archetypal of the human condition. According to the scriptures cannot only mean the specific events of Israel’s national history. In the gospels Jesus compared his death to what happened to Jonah. The prophet was going to minister to Gentiles. It shows that Jesus understanding of his sacrificial did not only cover the focal point of Israel’s sins but the entire world. Other OT allusions from Jesus show he believed his ministry would have universal significance

    1. The question is not whether sin or salvation is universal. The question is how has God intended for salvation come to the world. It comes via a certain chosen nation, who themselves get messed up. Therefore they need to be “set right” themselves, in order for the whole word to also be set right. Jesus therefore embodies Israel, so he can be the faithful Israel through whom salvation can then flow to the rest of the world.

      Your example of Jesus quoting Jonah is actually in line with my point. Jonah is a story told to Israel of how God’s mercy also reaches the Gentiles. But the reason why it has failed to reach the Gentiles is because the Jews had conspired to keep Yahweh to themselves. That is why Jonah got angry with Yahweh, because Yahweh is willing to be merciful to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the captors of the northern kingdom of Israel (and therefore enemies of Israel).

      To be faithful to the original plan (Israel will save the world), Jesus becomes Israel, so his faithfulness will lead to the salvation of the world.

      I know our Augustinian readings of scripture means we always want to universalize first, but we do this at the peril of what the OT says about the role of the story of Israel. Skipping over that is what makes most of us 1). blind to the covenantal nature of scripture 2). work ourselves into conundrums about Paul’s language about Abraham, the Law, sacrifices et al.

      When Paul says “the gospel was preached to Abraham”, we do need to pay attention, and work out our theology from there.

  2. A small reminder here.
    1). First century Jews, like modern Jews, do not believe in original sin or original guilt – the idea that humans are sinful because they inherit a “sinful nature” from Adam. This is a Western Christian construct, thanks to St Augustine
    2). 1st century Jews read the Adam & Eve story as a reflection of the human problem in a different way than Western Christians do. They read it as an example of human desire to obtain “wisdom” independent from relying on Yahweh, the source of true Wisdom. Hence the real problem is idolatory, worshipping false gods (including our own selves) because we discern we can obtain “wisdom” from them. Hence the critique “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom”.
    3) Point 2 above is made clear by Paul in Romans 1:18-32. Paul doesn’t say Gentiles are sinful because they inherit Adam’s sin, but that they are sinful because they refuse to acknowledge Yahweh, and rather worshipped “the created instead of the Creator”, leading to false humanity (ie immorality and unethical behaviour).

    So there is no doubt that all human beings are sinful and need salvation. But the OT shows clearly how Yahweh had intended to bring his salvation – through Abraham and his descendant nation Israel, whose failure is rescued by Jesus the Messiah so that blockage can be removed for us Gentiles to be beneficiaries.

    1. Thanks for your response. Much appreciated. Here’s a little clarification of what I asserted and some push back to your response.

      I did not mention Augustinian original sin. I wanted to point out in the Old Testament and in the second Temple period among Christians at least, there is a concept of general human sinfulness which some how began in early human primal history, that is, with Adam and Eve. This is not the same as a theory of ancestral sin which is genetically transferred. So though I agree that the first thing the Jew of that era would think of in terms of “our sins” would be national/ethnic, I contend that in the early church it is found within the larger idea that humans are sinful. So speaking of national sin would in some way imply wider human sinfulness.

      I think in Romans Paul argues that the Jewish failure to be a righteous nation further accentuates the problem of the fallen human condition. If Israel is the representative embodiment of all humanity before God, as the Old Testament suggests a leader for the nations, the specific example of her failings in the light of all the divine privileges given to her, highlights the severity of human sinfulness. I said that the cross had a universal effect but had a Jewish anchor in history which means I totally agree with you that salvation is of the Jews. If this rescue is coming through the Jews, surely it means the problem is not limited to the Jews. Therefore to speak of how they communally understood sin but without at least implying the sin of every other people would be odd. If Israel somehow bears her own guilt and also embodies the sins of the world, it would make sense of the Messiah as the true Israel being able to bear national and transnational sin in himself.

      If they are paralleling their exile with Edenic expulsion, which I mentioned in my initial response, aren’t they recapitulating the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the human race that transcends their specific historical failings, where Israel is the primary evidence that the problem is bigger and more serious than was previously imagined? So I am not arguing a flattened Augustinian concept of human sin, but rather a two step approach of Israel and the world similar to how in Levitical law atonement is broken down into two stages of purging the guilt of the priesthood and then the people.

      I would also like to point out again that Paul’s understanding of sin includes Adam and the human race in right there in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul and presumably the rest of the church made that connection ahead of other Jews. Scholars suggests that the wider Jewish conception of sin as Adamic and hence generic came after the destruction of the second Temple. Crisis moments caused both the early Church and the Jewish people to rethink the meaning of sin to. For the Christians that crisis was the crucifixion of Jesus. This shows that in the Jewish worldview it is possible to have a generic concept of sin developed from a rereading of the Old Testament in the light of catastrophic events.

      You said with Jonah’s story Israel was colluding to keep God for themselves. I do not think that was what was going on for a number of reasons but I would agree that somehow Israel had failed in its mission to the world. Hope my overly long, garbled response makes some sense.

    2. I get your point. There is no doubting the fact that there has always been the general sense of something being wrong with humanity, which we all categorise as sin. That is not a point worth belabouring, nor is it what I intended with this post.

      I’m simply trying to point out that attempting to universalize sin without paying particular attention to the nuances of the story of Israel means even when the OT (and sometimes the NT) mentions “forgiveness of sins”, the default Protestant hermeneutic move is to equate it to universal sin. This then mutes the role of Israel itself as the bearers of the salvation of the world, and fosters the easy co-opting of the covenantal, communal story with our own moralistic, individualistic readings, whose consequences are obvious for any student of Christian history to see.

    3. OK. I am interested in a balanced emphasis, so we don’t go of too far in one direction to the loss of other important things. I do think the idea of generic sin has to be rethought in the light of the Jewish story.

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