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 last week, 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.
But much of Western Christianity and American evangelicalism in particular does not see it like this. Instead, the dominant view is that going to heaven when you die is the end-all, be-all of the Christian experience. Wright refers to this way of looking at things as the “works contract” and it goes something like this: There is a place called heaven where good people go and a place called hell where bad people go. Humanity was given a moral task (for Adam and Eve it was “Don’t eat that fruit”, for Israel it was “Keep the Law”) which it failed and failed miserably, so we are all going to hell. But Jesus stepped up and took the punishment from God that was due for us, so now you too can go to heaven when you die, provided you’ve prayed the prayer and can articulate all this at a satisfactory level of doctrinal/theological precision.
Wright says that Western Christianity has made a three-layered mistake:
We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting “souls going to heaven” for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of salvation (substituting the idea of “God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath” for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore).
Wright begins this segment with the Emmaus story, with the two disciples walking along the road and Jesus (incognito at that point) walking them through the entire Old Testament to show them what had to happen. In those days the Jews were actively attempting to work out what it would look like for God to fulfill the ancient promises at last; different groups had different ideas that were all over the place. Still, no one had the idea that this rescue and redemption of Israel would be to take them out of the world to a disembodied spiritual existence in a place called heaven. The rescue they were hoping for was not a rescue from the world, but a rescue for the world, with a redeemed humanity at last fulfilling the vocation for which they were created. But the idea of Jesus fulfilling those promises through his death on the cross was nowhere on the map of first-century Israel. The Old Testament scriptures pointing to Jesus required a radical redefinition of the ancient Jewish hope, just as in our day it requires a radical redefinition of the vision of saved souls going to heaven when they die.
“Forgiveness of sins” is a key part of the Jewish hope, and a phrase which crops up over and over again in the scriptures that speak to this hope. But it does not mean what you probably think it means. In our Western “works contract” way of looking at things, good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. But we are all bad, we have all failed to keep the moral code, so if anyone gets into heaven it is because our “sins”, meaning our failure to keep the moral code, have been dealt with, or because someone else’s righteousness has been reckoned to our account, or both. That is what is commonly meant by “forgiveness of sins” in our day and age.
But in reality, the notion of “forgiveness of sins” is much bigger than that. The reality is what Wright keeps coming back to over and over again: Something happened in our world of space, time, and matter, and the end result is that everything is different now. By 6 PM on the evening of Good Friday, the world had changed, and changed radically. Heaven and earth had been brought together, thereby creating a cosmic “new temple”. Or as Paul would say it: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Or “[bringing] all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). In Romans 8 we see the new creation being birthed out of the old, with powerful allusions to Exodus along the way. Creation will have its own “Exodus” moment, being led out of bondage to decay and corruption and sharing in the freedom that comes when a redeemed humanity at last fulfills the vocation for which God created it. All of this is what Israel was hoping for and what was unexpectedly fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and it is all encapsulated in the phrase “forgiveness of sins”.
Here we see that the Church’s mission lies in direct continuity with the ancient hopes of Israel and how those hopes were transformed in Jesus. When these hopes were fulfilled, the Jews believed, three things would happen: First, Israel would be set free from the domination of pagan overlords. Second, God, perhaps through the agency of the Messiah, would rule over all creation, inaugurating a new reign of justice and peace. Third, God’s presence would return to dwell with His people, enabling them to worship truly and completely.
When Jesus ascended to heaven a piece of earth (namely his earthly body) was joined to heaven, becoming fully and completely at home there. When the Spirit came upon the first disciples, a part of heaven was joined to earth and became completely at home here. This scene, as well as the scene of all the disciples speaking in tongues at Pentecost, are the New Testament equivalent of God’s Presence indwelling the tabernacle in Solomon’s temple with cloud and fire. The early Church saw themselves and their communities as the new Temple. Through the new life of worship depicted throughout Acts, the early believers found themselves standing, priestlike, at the uncomfortable intersection of heaven and earth via worship and ministry.
Out of worship and prayer grows witness. This is not just people saying “I’ve had such-and-such an experience, perhaps you might like it too” but instead announcing that a completely new and different order has come into being. This started at Pentecost with the first disciples announcing to the startled crowds that everything they were hoping for had been fulfilled in Jesus who had died and was raised from the dead. It continued with Peter at Cornelius’s house, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and ultimately with the missionary career of Paul. Through all this, and through the Church’s continued witness down to this day, the worldwide rule of God is slowly but surely coming to pass.
Finally, the hope of Israel’s rescue from pagan rule was fulfilled when Jesus, the Israel-in-person, was raised from the dead, thereby being set free from death itself, the ultimate weapon of every tyrant and the ultimate exile imposed by every Babylon. Many Jews, including many of the chief priests, became part of the new Jesus community, and the early Christians saw this community as the fulfillment of the promise of liberation from pagan overlords.
It is only by keeping all three of these strands of the Jewish hope as well as the new vocation of humanity as God’s royal priesthood in view that we can properly understand Jesus’s death in the same way the early Christians did. So how did the early Christians interpret Jesus’s death? They believed that, as Wright keeps coming back to over and over again, something happened on the cross as a result of which the world had become a completely different place. In short, a revolution had begun. But what had changed and how? Now we can begin to address these questions.
To do this, Wright turns to the Gospels. For starters, it is important to note that the crucifixion of Jesus had no meaning in and of itself. As crucifixions go, this was just one more instance of brutal Roman justice doing what it did best: liquidating and making a shameful spectacle of any and all opposition. No one who saw Jesus being crucified that day would have seen it any differently. None of Jesus’s followers were expecting this, despite Jesus’s warnings repeated throughout the Gospels that he was going up to Jerusalem and it would not end well.
Indeed, no one would have seen it any differently until three days later, when reports of the empty tomb, and later, of Jesus himself being seen very much alive, began to trickle back to the disciples in Jerusalem. For as unexpected as Jesus’s death was, this was even more unexpected. It meant no less than that Jesus had gone through death and come out the other side, just as much alive as ever before. The cross meant what it meant, not in itself, but in light of what happened afterward.
So why did Jesus choose Passover? Note that it was during the feast of the Jewish Passover that all this went down. Why? Because the Passover was all about the Jews’ deliverance from slavery at the hands of Egypt, the Exodus story. The Jews at that point were awaiting a new Exodus in which God himself would return and lead his people out of slavery to the pagan powers of the day. Jesus had come to announce that the long-promised return of God was at hand and the new Exodus was about to get underway. Just as Moses had defeated the power of Pharaoh and of the myth-laden Red Sea to deliver the Jews from Egypt, so Jesus would face down the dark powers of the world, and the dark powers of sin and death which lay behind them, and through his death would win the victory that would deliver not just Israel but all humanity from bondage to the dark powers of the world. Thus the Passover timing made perfect sense.
Looking at what the Gospel writers had to say, we see the picture of Jesus coming to announce the coming kingdom and new Exodus. Jesus is part and parcel of the larger story of Israel, linked to the prophetic traditions (Mark 1, Luke 1-2), Abraham (Matthew 1), Adam (Luke 1), and even to creation itself (John 1). But Jesus’s announcement of God’s coming kingdom did not fit with anyone’s expectations of what it would look like. He faced intense opposition from day one, as the Gospel writers were clear to point out: Herod attempting to kill him as a baby (Matthew), the people of Nazareth attempting to push him off a cliff (Luke), Pharisees and Herodians plotting against him from early on (Mark). John has him as a marked man from the Temple incident in chapter 2 and the Sabbath healing in chapter 5. This opposition intensified and came to a head at the cross: All the evil in the world came together and drew itself up to its very height and there was crushed by Jesus in his decisive victory at the cross.