Lent Week 4: Paul and the Cross

This year during the Lenten season, we are working our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright.  I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.

Wright’s big idea is that something happened on the afternoon of Good Friday which changed the world.  By six o’clock that evening, the world was a completely different place than it had been just a few hours earlier.

As we saw earlier, humanity’s vocation was to be God’s image here on earth, representing him to all of creation and presenting the praises of all creation to God.  But this went badly off track when humanity refused its vocation and instead worshiped idols, created things.  These created things thus took on a power they were never meant to have and enslaved all of humanity, running amuck and turning our world into a hell on earth.  Israel was intended as the means by which God would rescue humanity, but they too failed to live up to their vocation and wound up in exile.  Jesus entered the picture as the representative of Israel, and with his death he defeated the forces of sin and death in the universe, thereby robbing them of their power, and rescued Israel and humanity and restored them to their proper vocation.  To be a Christian is to enter into this revolution, to step into the role which God intended for humanity and to bring God’s rule to pass here on earth as it is in heaven.

Last week we looked specifically at Jesus and the cross, in an attempt to understand Jesus’s death in the way the first Christians would have.  We looked at what the Jews of Jesus’s time were hoping for and how Jesus fit into that.  We looked at how the first Christians came to understand Jesus’s death as the unexpected fulfillment of all that God had promised Israel.  We looked at how all this contrasts with the “works contract” way of looking at things which is so prevalent in present-day Western Christianity, in which Jesus sacrificed Himself to pacify the wrath of a God who was rightfully angry because of our sin (read: failure to live up to God’s moral demands) and now we get to go to heaven when we die.  In reality, sin is much bigger than a failure to live up to God’s moral demands, it is a failure of worship.  It is refusing the vocation which God has given us as humans, worshiping all the wrong things so that those things take on a destructive power they were never meant to have and all of humanity becomes enslaved to that power.  It means that God’s plan for humanity and for creation is not moving forward.  Jesus’s death is much bigger than just a sacrifice to appease a rightfully angry God:  it was deliverance for all of humanity and creation from the dark powers ruling over the world, a new Exodus if you will.  It meant that God’s plans for humanity and creation were back on track.  It meant that the original human vocation of being God’s image here on earth was once again a possibility.  It means that God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven, and we get to be a part of that.

This week we turn to Paul.  Paul is the first place most people think to look when seeking to understand Jesus.  Paul’s writings contain a bewildering variety of imagery regarding Jesus and the cross, and it is easy to fit Paul into one’s favorite theological framework, such as imputation or penal substitutionary atonement which support the “works contract” way of looking at things.  But that involves softening or else ignoring a lot of what Paul says that doesn’t quite fit the mold.  If we look at Paul straight out, we find that he fits right in with what Wright has been saying all along:  We are not saved for heaven–that is, a state of disembodied spiritual bliss with God–but for the new creation, that is, the new heaven and the new earth that are part of the coming age.  This is accomplished by Jesus’s death, by which the powers of sin and death are defeated.  Representing Israel, and by extension all humanity, Jesus took upon himself the full force of the divine condemnation of sin itself, so that all those “in Him” would not suffer it themselves.

Wright looks at several key passages from throughout the writings of Paul which bear this out.  He eventually gets to Romans and spends a couple of lengthy chapters there.  It is in Romans, the first four chapters of it, that the “works contract” way of looking at things finds much of its support.  Wright unpacks Romans in great detail to show how it supports what he has been saying all along:  Israel had been faithless to its divine vocation of bringing healing to all the nations, but God has dealt with this failure in the proper way, that is, the reality toward which the Day of Atonement had been pointing all along.  Jesus the Messiah had accomplished in his death the purpose for which Israel had been called.  The covenant purposes of God for Israel and for the entire world through Israel were established, with Jesus’s blood as the blood of the new covenant.

Paul’s writings, and Romans in particular, do not simply offer a roundabout way of saying “We sinned, God punished Jesus, it’s all good now”.  Instead what Paul is saying is “We all committed idolatry and sinned; God promised Abraham to save the world through Israel; Israel was faithless to that commission; but God has put forth the faithful Messiah, his own self-revelation, whose death has been our Exodus from slavery”.  If we get away from that, Wright says, we Platonize our eschatology and moralize our anthropology with the result that we paganize our soteriology.

So what would Paul say happened by 6 PM on Good Friday evening?  First, he would say that the age-old covenant plan of God for humanity had been accomplished; the new Passover had taken place, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.  Next, he would say that all this had been done by God himself, acting out of his covenant faithfulness or love.  Next he would say that people of all sorts, Jews and Gentiles alike, were now free of past sins and free to come together as part of God’s family.  Next, Paul saw this new Passover as the dealing with sins by which Israel’s state of exile was undone, where Passover and “Day of Atonement” come together.  Finally, Israel’s representative Messiah was “handed over for our trespasses” in the sense intended by Isaiah 53, thus robbing the powers of sin of their power.  This is the key that unlocks all the other doors.

So where do we fit in the story?  If Jesus’s death marked the start of a revolution, what does it mean for us to be part of it?  We will take up these questions next time.

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