N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross: Week 2

I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began, creating an outline of the book as a small group study I am leading at our church. This is the second of six blogs in this series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Click here for previous weeks [Week 1]

The Stories of Israel
The Day the Revolution Began (Chapters 4-7)

Chapter 4: The Covenant of Vocation

Some approaches to atonement make the wrong assumption that sin implies that human beings have done wrong and thus need to be punished. This is in addition to the mistake of heaven as the goal of salvation.
Wright describes these mistakes as a “platonized goal” (going to a disembodied heaven) and a “moralizing diagnosis” (the problem is that human beings have not kept the rules God commanded), which together lead to a “paganized solution” (Jesus’ death pacifies the anger of God).

The primary problem is not merely that human beings have failed to obey God’s moral commands, although that is a part of the problem. The primary problem for which human beings need rescue is idolatry and the corruptive forces unleashed on the earth when human beings reject the worship of the one true God and begin to worship idols.

Wright calls the mistaken view the “works contract,” whereby humanity was under contract with God to keep a certain code of moral behavior. Either humanity obeyed and was rewarded or they disobeyed and were punished. The good news for humanity according to the works contract was Jesus obeyed God’s rules according to the contract and took the punishment for disobedience that humanity deserved for not obeying God’s rules.

For those who believe in Jesus, “righteousness” was transferred from Jesus to believers. “Righteousness” from the perspective of the works contract was a moral status, like five gold stars, that has been conferred from Jesus to believers.

The problem with the works contract is that it is a shrunken view of the story the Bible tells. The works contract view ignores the heart of the Old Testament and it oversimplifies the problem of human sin. The story the Bible tells about God’s creation, humanity’s purpose and failure, and God’s solution in Christ is what Wright calls a “covenant of vocation.”

This vocation, this job, given to humanity by God was to reflect God’s image into creation and echo all of creation’s praise back to God the Creator. When God’s people fail to obey God’s commands they not only break God’s laws, they empower dark forces through idolatry that ends up enslaving them and all Creation. The solution needed to correct this problem is not that human beings need to be punished, but that these enslaving forces need to be broken.

Idolatry does not embolden God’s desire to punish; idolatry corrupts the primary human vocation whereby we improperly live out our humanity. We not only fail to rule effectively in our royal position, but idolatry corrupts our ability to live as adequate priests standing between heaven and earth.

According to Wright, “We humans are called to stand at the intersection of heaven and earth, holding together in our hearts, our praises, and our urgent intercessions the loving wisdom of the Creator God and the terrible torments of his battered world” (80).

One place where we see God’s persistence in the viability of his covenant of vocation is 2 Corinthians 5:21, which is obscured by the works contract. Wright translates it like this: “The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant” (81). The context of 2 Corinthians 5:21 is not “going to heaven when you die,” but new creation and reconciliation (See 2 Corinthians 5:17).

Part of why Jesus saves us is so God’s redeemed people can become the place where God’s promises to Abraham are extended to the world. The Messiah’s death, according to Galatians 3:13-14, does not save us from hell, but from the curse of the law so that the blessing of Abraham would come upon the nations of the world. In his death, Jesus is obedient not in the context of a works contract, but, according to Romans 5:17, in the context of a priestly vocation.

The death of Jesus restores humanity to their original vocation of being God’s image-bearing caretakers of God’s new world. Sin implies a failure of that vocation. Idolatry, lying at the root of sin, represents humanity’s fundamental rejection of that vocation.

A helpful way to think of death associated with human sin in the context of a covenant of vocation rather than in the context of a works contract is to think about the difference between getting a speeding ticket and experiencing a car wreck. If you speed you could get pulled over and get a ticket as a form of punishment. Or you could speed and end up in a car wreck. The ticket and the fine would be the punishment we would receive for breaking the law. This is the form of punishment in the works contract. The car wreck is the form of punishment in the covenant of vocation. This view of punishment is one that is not enforced from the outside, but is rather the natural consequence of our actions. So if Jesus was punished for our sins it was like the punishment of a car wreck, not a speeding ticket.

In the works contract view, somebody has to get a ticket and, good for us, God the Father gave God the Son the speeding ticket that we deserved. In the covenant of vocation view everyone is getting into car wrecks all the time. Jesus entered into our car-wrecking world and, even though he wasn’t speeding, allowed himself to get into a car wreck in order to break the power of sin and idolatry which was the reason we have been wrecking our cars.


Chapter 5: “In All the Scriptures”

The phrases “royal priesthood” and “a kingdom of priests” draws upon the primary vocation of Israel to be the representatives of God to and for the world. As we read through the Old Testament we join the ancient people of God looking for the ending to Israel’s story. Israel had gone into exile in Babylon and even though they had returned to their homeland to begin to rebuild they were still living as exiles as an occupied people.

Jesus comes as the ending to the Israel story. Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension marks the fulfillment of the law and prophets (Matthew 5:17). In Romans 10:4, Paul writes, “Christ is the end of the law.” The word “end” is the Greek word telos which is better translated here as “culmination” as read in the New International Version.

Reading the Old Testament and New Testament as a cohesive account of the story of redemption implies that the Jesus conclusion makes sense only when it is read in connection to the story of Israel. The early Christians used various metaphors to describe Jesus’ death, and these metaphors only work together when we consider them in the context of the Old Testament.

When Paul passes on what he received of “first importance” regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus, he did so saying Jesus died for our sins “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). This is not shorthand for “according to a few hand selected Bible verses in the Old Testament,” but “according to the entirety of the story told in the Old Testament.”

The story of Israel is a microcosm of what God intended for all creation. God designed the whole world to be saturated with life and the personal presence of God. Both Israel and Adam and Eve rejected God and were sent out of the land. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden and Israel was sent into exile, a picture of perpetual death on Earth. Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God would be faithful to the covenant and faithfulness seen ultimately in Jesus.

The problem which sent Israel into exile, the problem which Jesus becomes the answer for, is sin. The Greek word most often translated “sin” is the word hamartia meaning “missing the mark.” Some Christians interpret “missing the mark” as missing God’s moral standard (works contract). Yet the unfolding story of Scripture describes sin as missing the mark of humanity’s created purpose (covenant of vocation). Humanity has failed as God’s image-bearing people.

Since human beings become transformed by their objects of worship, sin is rooted in a failure to worship the one, true, living God. As we worship anything other than God (i.e. participate in idolatry) we give power to an idol to reflect an image into the world, but it is always a broken image which produces corruption in the earth. We have become like spoiled children who have been invited to participate in a theater production, but instead of learning our lines and playing our part we have tossed the script to the side and done our own thing. The results are disastrous.

If we think of sin as the failure to maintain God’s moral standard, and death as the just punishment for such failure it is easy to imagine Jesus’ death as necessary in terms of divine justice so that sins may be forgiven (works contract). We can find individual verses we can force into that narrative, but it does not fit the big sweeping description of sin and redemption in the Old Testament; the failure of Adam and the failure of Israel was much more of a vocational failure than a moral failure.

The story of Israel’s exile and hope for restoration becomes a signpost for early Christians attempting to understand the death of Jesus. Exile and restoration become a very “Israel-specific” picture that cannot be sanitized into an abstract theory of atonement, which is why Paul speaks of the death of Jesus as a death in accordance to the Scriptures, meaning the Old Testament scriptures.

To ignore the story of Israel is to pull the death of Jesus out of Scriptures. The forgiveness of sins by the death of Jesus was necessary; Israel’s sins had to be dealt with so the story of Israel could go forward, a story which has the redemption of the world as its great goal.


Chapter 6: The Divine Presence and the Forgiveness of Sins

Within the big story the Bible tells, the theme of God’s presence weaves its way through the story of Israel. The ark of the covenant became a predominant item connected with the presence of God throughout Israel’s wandering story.

The lid for the ark was called the “mercy seat,” the place where God promised to meet with his people (Exodus 25:22). Any discussion of the mercy seat in the New Testament is in the context of this bigger story of God dwelling with his people, which is both the story of God and Israel as well as God and the world.

King David looms large in the story of Israel. The “house of David” turned out not to be a building, but a human being, the coming Messiah. Through this King the glory of the God of Israel would fill the entire earth (Psalm 72:19). God’s presence dwelt in the Temple until it was destroyed and the people of God were carried off into exile. The Temple had been rebuilt by the time of Jesus, but the presence of God had not returned.

Jews of Jesus’ day were not looking for rescue from an angry God threatening to send people to hell. Most Jewish people were looking for “rescue and renewal with the present world” (113). A shorthand way to communicate this rescue was by talking about “forgiveness of sins,” which included a return from exile, rebuilding of the Temple, and the return of God’s presence.

God’s people were sent into exile because of their sins; therefore, to be released from exile Israel’s sins needed to be pardoned. Forgiveness of sins from this perspective emphasizes the heart of the revolution taking place on the cross where (1) Israel’s God was becoming king, (2) suffering was a necessary component, and (3) God’s covenant love was being demonstrated. Israel’s audacious claim to the pagan world was that their God was the world’s true King. The Psalms celebrate this fact particularly in Psalm 2, 46, 72, and 98. These Psalms are filled with kingdom-of-God language. For example see Psalm 2:8.


Chapter 7: Suffering, Redemption, and Love

In the Old Testament, and also in Jewish literature before the time of Jesus, a common theme could be found: the end of exile, including the forgiveness of Israel’s sins, was coming for the people of God, but it would come through suffering.

The Old Testament describes suffering during the rise of Messiah, but most often it is not described as redemptive suffering (Daniel 12:1 Psalm 22:1-2, 6-7, 16-18). The only place in the Old Testament where we see suffering as the means by which salvation would come to Israel is in Isaiah 53.

According to Isaiah, God’s servant would be the source of salvation which would include suffering (Isaiah 53:5). In Isaiah 53 we see for the first time in the Old Testament that suffering is not only the context of the coming deliverance from exile, but also the means by which that deliverance will come. It includes both the language of redemptive suffering, as well as victory language (Isaiah 53:12). Isaiah 53 became a key passage in how the New Testament writers describe Jesus’ death. The servant of the Lord who is suffering is both Israel (Isaiah 49:3) and a person (Isaiah 52:13 ff).

The suffering of God’s servant would not only occur at the time of Israel’s redemption; suffering would be the means by which Israel experienced the forgiveness of sins and their long awaited end of exile.

Jewish literature records the suffering of Jewish martyrs bringing an end to the suffering of God’s people during the Maccabean revolt 160 years before Jesus. The description of punishment by the Maccabean martyrs does not indicate that their death somehow absorbed the vengeance of God, but their description is similar to what Paul says in Romans 5-8 which Wright will discuss in later chapters. The concept of redemptive suffering was present in Jewish literature before the coming of Jesus.

Isaiah 53 is important for how early Christians viewed the death of Jesus, but this chapter must be read in the larger context of God’s faithful love. We do see God’s anger at human rebellion and sin in the Old Testament, but divine anger in Israel’s Scriptures is not like what we see in pagan religion. Israel’s God isn’t an angry god that needs to be pacified. He is a loving, faithful God whose anger at human sin is mixed with mourning. For Wright, “When God looks at sin, what he sees is what a violin maker would see if the player were to use his lovely creation as a tennis racquet” (132).

We trace God’s covenant love back to Deuteronomy 7:6-9 where Moses makes clear that the people of Abraham were chosen by the LORD who loved them. This theme continues through Isaiah (43:1, 3-4; 63:8-9), Jeremiah (31:3), Lamentations (3:22-23), and Hosea (11:1). In Isaiah in particular we see this covenant love will result in a new Exodus and this love would be extended to all the nations of the world.

Before we encounter the sufferings of the LORD’s servant in Isaiah 53, we see the love and comfort coming from the LORD to his people beginning in Isaiah 40:1-52:9. The suffering servant is “wounded for our transgressions…upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace” (Isaiah 53:5) and after this time of suffering the covenant will be renewed, when the LORD will gather the people of God again (Isaiah 54:7). The picture of rescue, or salvation, we see from Deuteronomy through Isaiah is accomplished by the LORD according to his love for his people. While suffering is included in God’s rescue plan, this suffering does not turn away God’s anger or judgment. Rather, salvation through suffering is an expression of the LORD’s love.

Three themes rise to the surface in a quick recount of the story of Israel, the ongoing exile, and the unresolved story we find in the Old Testament. (1) Forgiveness of sin implied the end of exile. Israel’s sin had led them into exile and God’s act of forgiveness indicated that their time of enduring exile was over. (2) The expected coming salvation would be a new Exodus, where the coming Messiah would lead Israel and the world out of a slavery to sin and death. (3) Salvation and redemption would come about by the LORD himself.

Isaiah’s suffering servant embodies these three themes. This servant would also embody the covenant love of the LORD, bringing forth redemption for Israel and the world.


Discussion Questions

  1. When you were punished as a child, did you understand it as the result of:
    1. breaking the rules
    2. disappointing your parents
    3. your poor choices
    4. your parents’ anger
    5. some combination of the above
  2. How have you seen people become enslaved by the idols they worship?
  3. What are the key differences between God creating a system of rules for people to follow (works contract) and God creating a world for people to cultivate (covenant of vocation)?
  4. What does it mean for human beings to “reflect God’s image into creation”?
  5. What are the differences between getting a speeding ticket and getting into a car wreck? How does this inform how God punishes us?
  6. What do we lose if we eliminate the story of Israel (the Old Testament) from our understanding of Jesus and the cross?
  7. What does it mean for God’s anger to be mixed with mourning, like a violin maker seeing a player use the violin like a tennis racket?
  8. How does Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrate the love of God?