The Means of Reconciliation
In my last post, I examined one of the very earliest Christian statements of the purpose of Jesus’ death. According to the tradition encapsulated in 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus died “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (15:3). Yet this text doesn’t explicate further the way in which the death of Christ deals with the problem of human sin. For this explication we must turn to 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
This text assumes that our relationship with God outside of Christ is not a happy one. If we need to be reconciled to God, then we are not just out of touch with God, but alienated from him. Indeed, as Paul says rather bluntly in Romans 5:10, sin has made us God’s enemies. Many people today think that the basic human problem is merely a lack of knowledge of God. If we search for God, then we can find him and have relationship with him. But the biblical perspective is much bleaker at first. Yes, we lack knowledge of God. Yet this is only a symptom of a far deeper and in fact terminal disease – our eternal alienation from God because of sin.
So how does God deal with our sin, so that we might be reconciled to him? We find the answer in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Though scholars continue to debate the precise nuances of this verse, its basic sense is clear. Allow me to paraphrase: “For our sake, God the Father treated Jesus as if he were sin itself, so that in Jesus we might experience right-relationship with God the Father, the kind of relationship that Jesus himself had with the Father.”
When did the Father treat Jesus as if he were sin? In the crucifixion. Far more horrible than the physical pain Jesus experienced was the spiritual reality he endured, being forsaken by his Heavenly Father, entering into the very essence of Hell. This was necessary, not because Jesus himself deserved it, but because humanity deserved it. Yet in God’s amazing grace, Jesus’ suffering counted for all of us. In his death Jesus bore the sin of the world. So we read in 1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” Behind the logic of 2 Corinthians 5:21 and 1 Peter 2:24 we find, once again, the image of the suffering Servant of God in Isaiah 53: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and be his bruises we are healed.”
What is the result of Jesus’ being treated as if he were sin? We get to “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Or, to put it differently, we are reconciled to God. That which once separated us from God and in fact made us God’s enemies – sin – has now been banished by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Thus we can experience reconciliation with God, and this impacts everything in life. Indeed, when we’re in Christ, “there is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). Not only are we ourselves made new, but also we begin to live in the new creation of the future.
To sum up what we’ve seen in 2 Corinthians 5, Jesus had to die in order to regarded by God as if he were sin, so that we humanity might be reconciled to God and live in right-relationship with him. Through the death of Jesus, we experience personal renewal and, indeed, the beginning of the renewal of all creation.
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.
As we have seen, Jesus not only predicted his death, but also spoke of it as being necessary (e.g. Mark 8:31). Why? Why did Jesus think he needed to die?
Jesus provides several different answers to this question. They include:
- Jesus believed that his death was the will of his Heavenly Father, so he chose to obey the Father’s will (John 10:17-18; Mark 14:36).
- Jesus believed it was his calling to “drink the cup” of God’s judgment, taking upon himself the righteous judgment of God upon the sin of Israel (and, indeed, all humanity) (Mark 10:38; 14:36).
- Jesus believed that his mission as the Son of Man was to serve rather than to be served, and in fact to give his life as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Thus he combined the Old Testament visions of the Son of Man (Daniel 7) and the suffering Servant of God (Isaiah 52-53).
- Jesus believed that his death was at the center of God’s plan for salvation, even as the exodus from Egypt was central to Old Testament salvation. Through his broken body and shed blood the new covenant would be inaugurated (Mark 14:22-25).
From a historical point of view, one can argue that Jesus died as the victim of Roman oppression or the machinations of Jewish leaders, or both. But from Jesus’ point of view, he was no victim at all. As the Good Shepherd, he chose to “lay down [his] life for the sheep” (John 10:15). “No one takes it from me,” Jesus said, “but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18).
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the earliest Christians reflected upon the meaning of his death. Basing their reflection upon what Jesus himself had taught, they saw his death as the crux of God’s plan for the salvation, not only of Israel, but also of the world. To the early Christian reflections I’ll turn in my next post.
The Blood of the New Covenant
As the Last Supper draws to a close, Jesus refers to the cup of wine as “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). This is an allusion to the story in Exodus 24, where the people of Israel endorsed God’s covenant. Then, having sacrificed many animals, Moses “took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, ‘See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words’” (24:7-8). The new covenant will also be ratified with blood, but in this case with the spilled blood of Jesus, who, like the lambs sacrificed in the first Passover, will give his life so that God’s people might be spared.
Jesus wasn’t the first one to connect the blood of the covenant with the coming of God’s kingdom. The prophet Zechariah made this same connection in a passage we associate with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Because of God’s covenant with Israel, which was ratified with the blood of sacrificed animals, God’s king will rule over a global kingdom and God’s people will be redeemed from bondage. Jesus comes as the divinely-anointed king, not at first to lead Israel to victory, however, but to offer his own blood so that the new covenant and God’s universal kingdom might be inaugurated.
What is the nature of this new covenant? Here is the description from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah:
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 . . . 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. (Jer 31:31, 33-34).
To sum up the meaning of Jesus’ actions and words in the Lord’s Supper, it’s as if he were saying:
- Even as God once saved his people from slavery in Egypt, so God is now saving his people from slavery to sin through me.
- Even as the blood of lambs once enabled death to “pass over” Israel, so my blood will lead to the forgiveness of sin.
- Even as the first covenant was sealed with sacrificial blood, so the new covenant will be sealed through my blood, poured out for many. I am choosing the way of death, Jesus says, so that the new life of the new covenant may come. My sacrifice will overcome the problem of sin, so that God’s kingdom may be established in all its fullness.
In my next post I’ll sum up what we have discovered about Jesus’ own perspective on the necessity of his death.