Feast of the Glorious Prophet Elijah
EVERY SUNDAY morning, Christians across America listen to sermons from the Bible. Those sermons might include a well-known Old Testament story, or a dense passage from one of Paul’s magnificent letters, or a few poetic verses from the Psalms, or a quizzical parable from one of the Gospels. Either way, those sermons are typically from the Bible (as they should be), and, they are typically in some fashion related to the person of Jesus (again, as they should be). At the close of each sermon, it is customary for many pastors to boldly “proclaim the gospel.” To them, and seemingly everyone else in the pews nodding their heads in agreement, the “gospel” is this: “Jesus died for our sins on the cross, taking the full weight and force of God’s wrath for our disobedience on Himself so that we might believe in Him and have eternal life in heaven.” For many Christians—not least American evangelicals—this is the gospel. This is the “good news” Jesus came to proclaim. This is the God Jesus came to pacify so we could go to heaven.
What is so unfortunate about equating the good news of Jesus with the forgiveness of one’s sins is that it flattens and narrows the really “good news” of Jesus’s victorious Lordship, and it furthermore radically distorts the meaning and grand scope of His death on the cross, not only for individual sinners, but for all of creation and every person within it. Forgiveness of sins and “going to heaven” are good things, to be sure. They are certainly part of the biblical story. But they do not comprise the good news, which is alone the story about the person of Jesus. What is more, resigning the cross to a mechanism by which one has their sins forgiven is a gross misconception of the meaning of Jesus’s death and all that was accomplished by it.
In his newest book, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, N. T. Wright takes aim at this misplaced view of the cross and subsequently labors to overcome it by focusing on the full sweep of the biblical narrative, instead of a few isolated verses. From Wright’s point of view, the atonement is not an abstract doctrine by which one can know how their sins are forgiven. Instead, the atonement is deeply embedded in the story of God’s cosmic plan of redemption—from Genesis to Revelation—as it climaxes in the story of Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension as Lord over all creation. Through it, sinners are liberated from death to life to be the true image-bearers of God—those who live into their intended vocation as joyful, worshipful beings. To have it any other way, Wright suggests, is to “exchange the glory of God for a mess of spiritualized, individualistic, and moralistic pottage” (115).
For Wright, it is vital that we understand that the world was fundamentally changed the day Jesus died. And Wright seeks to show us from the Bible why this event was so revolutionary and how it all got started. As Wright says, “The New Testament insists, in book after book, that when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place” (39).
Wright goes into great detail explaining the biblical concept of “sin,” the nature of “atonement,” and the way in which the two relate in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Additionally, Wright retools our ideas about eschatology and the kingdom of God: “The ‘goal’ is not ‘heaven,’” says Wright, “but a renewed human vocation within God’s renewed creation” (74).
Atonement for Wright—and the Bible—is less about a contractual arrangement whereby a person exchanges their sin for Christ’s righteousness, like traders in a public market place. The truly biblical vision, Wright claims, is about a “covenant of vocation”: Adam, and then Israel, was entrusted with a vocation to be God’s “Image-bearers” in the world. The content of their vocation was to be a “light to the nations” (Is. 49:6b) by demonstrating right worship to God (75-77). Sin distorted this vocation, however: Israel preferred to worship the creation instead of the Creator (Rom. 1:25). “The primary human failure is,” in other words, “a failure of worship” (85). As Israel’s Messiah and standard-bearer, Jesus came to fulfill the human vocation by living a life of faithfulness and worship unto God. In Himself Jesus held heaven and earth together; He was the presence of God incarnate. He therefore defeated the powers of Sin and Death on the cross—forever ending Israel’s exile—as He suffered in Israel’s place, “giving His life in the place of sinners, as ‘a ransom for many’” (222). By so doing, Jesus overcame the powers of destruction with the new “power of self-giving love.” The effect of this was—and is!—to rescue people for their priestly vocation as God’s ambassadors to the world, not to take them from the world where they will escape to heaven for eternity.
This forgoing synopsis speaks to the heart of Wright’s thesis. While there is certainly much more to unravel in his tightly-woven argument, limits of space simply do not allow such an exploration. A word should be said, however, about the way in which Jesus’s atonement is worked out in the four Gospels. In particular, the following sections will focus on Jesus’s use of the Passover to make sense of His own death and its consequent effects. Lastly, we will look briefly at Wright’s interpretation of the Gospels to see how, on his reading, the Gospel writers make sense of Jesus’s death in light of their overall narrative.
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For Wright, the Passover is the singular event by which to understand Jesus’s understanding of His own death and resurrection. “It happened at Passover time, and it seems clear that this was deliberate on Jesus’s part,” says Wright (179). Passover symbolized Israel’s liberation—salvation—from the bondage of slavery in the exodus. It was the central feast in Israel’s liturgical calendar, for it both reminded Israel of their former liberation, and it pointed forward to God’s promises to deliver His people yet again in the future. It signaled the end of exile, where God would come back to institute His kingdom and reign over His people. In short, as Wright says, “Israel’s God would become king” (180). To make the point even more forcefully, Wright continues:
Jesus believed that through His death this royal power would win the decisive victory through which not just Israel but also the whole would would be liberated: ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. The Passover and Exodus themes cluster together in an almost bewildering and overdetermined fashion: the fulfillment of ancient promise, the liberation from slavery, the crossing of the Red Sea, the coming of God Himself in the pillar of cloud and fire, the promise of inheritance. All these, in parables, healings, promises, and warnings, formed part of Jesus’s public proclamation and private teaching. Now they gathered to a greatness. (183)
In sum, the full scope of Jesus’s life and ministry was being summed up in His re-centering and performance of the Passover meal. He was reliving a familiar story in which He was, unexpectedly, playing the star role. In light of the resurrection, it provided the disciples with the necessary coordinates by which to locate the meaning and import of Jesus’s cryptic actions in Jerusalem the last week before His death.
Jesus’s words over the bread and cup are no less meaningful. As Wright puts it: “Jesus’s words over the bread transformed this, so that it now said: the new Passover is about to happen, and those who share this meal thereafter will be constituted as the people for whom it had happened and through whom it will happen in the wider world” (186). Through His actions, Jesus was telling His disciples that God was coming back to redeem His people from the bondage of slavery and death. Through His suffering, God was becoming King. And the blood that was to be spilt as a result of His death, was nothing less than the “blood of the covenant,” a sign that something new was coming into being, a new covenant was being born (192).
Wright has made the case in previous books that the Gospel writers are, in their own distinct way, telling the story of how God became king in the person of Jesus (e.g., How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels). In another trajectory, the “four canonical gospels are careful to link the story of Jesus to the larger story of Israel, going back to prophetic traditions. . . Abraham. . . Adam. . ., and the creation itself. . .” (The Day the Revolution Began, 202). Put differently, while the Gospels tell the story about God becoming king, they also re-narrate the story of Israel through the lens of Jesus. As Israel’s Messiah, Jesus not only represents, but embodies, Israel’s vocation. To a degree, this would have made sense to first century Jews. But the evangelists go further and deeper. Jesus is not only in conflict with the powers of this world (i.e., Rome); He is also waging war against the unseen powers of darkness which have taken hold of certain individuals as a means of challenging His authority. For Wright, the notion that God, through Jesus, is dealing with sin is replete throughout the Gospel narratives. This is not just a one-off event that happens on the cross. No, Jesus had been in conflict with the powers of evil from the very beginning, and the Gospels make this clear to see, if we have the eyes to see it.
As Wright says, “Something has happened to dethrone the satan and to enthrone Jesus in its place. The story the gospels think they are telling is the story of how that had happened” (207). Where does all this lead us concerning the meaning of the cross? What does all this have to do with “the forgiveness of sins?” Wright explains by examining each of the four Gospels to see how they tell the story.
For John, the entire story of Jesus is about the atonement—God liberating humanity from sin and death—because he believes that Jesus is the light that has overcome the darkness. “’No one has a love greater than this, to lay down your life for your friends’ (15:13); and this, John has signaled in a thousand different narrative clues, is what Jesus is doing. Victory and love, both growing from the story itself: that is John’s interpretation of the cross” (208).
For Luke, Jesus’s death demonstrates the power of God over the powers of evil, which in turn unleashes the kingdom of God in the world. Perhaps more personally, Luke beautifully portrays Jesus’s self-sacrifice on behalf of all. Being innocent, Jesus took the effects of sin and guilt onto Himself—fulfilling what Israel was supposed to do—and died in their place, absorbing their punishment onto Himself.
For Matthew, sin was defeated by the arrival of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus. There is no room for sin in God’s kingdom. Thus, when Jesus arrived, sin was subverted and thwarted and finally defeated on the hard wood of the cross. Sin was further undermined by the fact that God’s kingdom was for the poor, marginalized, and seemingly powerless. As Wright says, “Jesus’s suffering and death are indeed, for Matthew, the means through which God is becoming king, through which ‘all authority’ is being given to Jesus Himself” (219). Furthermore, “this will set the pattern not just for a ‘new ethic,’ though it will be that, but for a new kind of behavior, a new lifestyle, through which the saving rule of God will be brought to bear upon the world” (219).
Finally, for Mark, Jesus’s death is seen as atoning for sin because, like Luke, “He is giving His life in the place of sinners, as ‘a ransom for many’” (222). In Mark’s Gospel, the power of God affected through Jesus by the Holy Spirit to defeat sin was not leavened with darkness. That is, God did not simply outmatch the powers of sin and darkness by their own means. They were defeated by the unassailable power of sacrificial love. Wright notes that, “A new sort of power will be let loose upon the world, and it will be the power of self-giving love. This is the heart of the revolution that was launched on Good Friday” (222).
In conclusion, Wright argues that Jesus rights the wrongs of Adam, and thus Israel, by fulfilling their originally intended vocation to be God’s image-bearers in the world. Humans were created to enjoy God and to worship Him. Jesus, as the culminating seed of Abraham, put the rightful human vocation back on track. He furthermore inaugurated the kingdom of God, ended Israel’s exile, and single-handedly defeated the powers of evil, sin, and death by dying on a cross for the sake of love. The effect of this releases humanity from the slavery of sin to once again worship the Triune God in love, joy, and freedom. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the human vocation is to build for the final consummation of God’s kingdom on earth. We are not escape artists. Jesus did not come to earth to take us away to heaven. He came to launch the revolution of new creation, and He has graciously commissioned His disciples to lead the charge.
Ben Davis is Pastor of Discipleship at City Life Church. A life-long resident of Wichita, KS, Ben is married to Lauren and is the father of Henry Tyler. Ben spends most of his time reading, discussing, and obsessing over books.
*This review first appeared on Scot McKnight's widely-recognized blog, Jesus Creed.