The Earliest Christian Reflection
We have relatively little direct information about what the very first believers in Jesus thought about his death and its meaning. Acts of the Apostles gives us a small window into this period of time, but not much more. The earliest of the New Testament writings are the letters of Paul. Yes, they come after the Gospels in the Bible, but they were actually written before these accounts of Jesus ministry.
Several of the letters of the Apostle Paul were written around A.D. 50, or just about twenty years after the death of Jesus. These letters often contain earlier bits of Christian tradition, elements that get us back to within a very few years of Jesus himself. From these snippets of Paul’s letters we can learn what some of the very earliest Christians believed.
One of these passages occurs in 1 Corinthians 15. There, Paul refers to the core truth of the Christian faith, that which had been handed on to him from the first believers, and which he in turn passed on to the Corinthians. Then he quotes verbatim a portion of this tradition:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: the Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (15:3-5)
Notice that the first statement of this creed-like formulation concerns the death of Jesus and it’s meaning: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” His death was not simply a terrible accident or a result of his having offended Roman and Jewish authorities. Jesus died “for our sins,” both because of our sins and in order to insure our forgiveness. By implication, Jesus had to die so that we might be saved from that which caused our lives to be broken.
How did the earliest Christians know this? Because it was “according to the scriptures.” Remember that the scriptures of the first Christians were not the writings of the New Testament, but rather the collection we know as the Old Testament. These Jewish scriptures, though written centuries before Jesus, nevertheless pointed ahead to his death and its purpose.
The first Christians didn’t make up this idea, of course. They got it from Jesus himself. During his earthly ministry he connected his death with the suffering Servant in Isaiah. There, as you may recall, the Servant “was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5). Indeed, the Servant of God “bore the sin of many” as he “poured out himself to death” (53:12).
Yet what Jesus said about his death prior to Good Friday was cryptic at best. That’s why none of his followers got it. After Easter, however, the resurrected Jesus himself explained to his disciples how the Old Testament foretold the necessity of his death (Luke 24:26). No doubt Isaiah 53 figured prominently in Jesus’ explanation, but it included far more, even “Moses and all the prophets” (24:27). So, following Jesus’ own example, the earliest Christians looked to the Old Testament for a way of understanding his death. And there they discovered, time and again, that Jesus died “for our sins.”
1 Corinthians 15 does not explain exactly how the death of Jesus was “for our sins.” The text doesn’t lay out some sophisticated notion of substitutionary atonement, for example. That we’ll find elsewhere in the New Testament. But in the simple language of earliest Christian reflection, we hear a clear and necessary connection between sin and the death of Jesus. He died, not only as a result of human sin, but also as a means for that sin to be forgiven. Through the death of Jesus, the new covenant was dawning, that of which Jeremiah prophesied:
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Our starting point for understanding the early Christian perspective on the death of Jesus is the basic statement that he died “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Upon this foundation the first believers reflected further on the meaning of Jesus’ death. In my next post I’ll examine these additional reflections.