N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross: Week 3

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 third 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] [Week 2]

A Renewed Covenant and the Passover
The Day the Revolution Began (Chapters 8-9)


Chapter 8: New Goal, New Humanity

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus we waiting for (longing for!) the redemption of Israel. As Jesus spoke to them, he was revealing that indeed redemption had happened through the suffering of Christ, who had come into his glorious reign as King. They just did not know it. Israel had been redeemed through the death of Messiah, but they would have to rethink what “redemption of Israel” meant. God was redeeming Israel as a rescue mission to restore Israel, and thus all humanity, to their original calling of reflecting God’s image into the world. This reimagined hope is not about going to heaven, but experiencing a new creation on earth. The death and resurrection of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah causes the followers of Jesus to rethink the entire story of Israel. The questions we ask at this point are two-fold: What are human beings called to do and be in God’s new creation? How is God rescuing human beings from the devastation of sin so they can become what God has called them to be?

Wright argues that Christians have made a three-layered mistake in answering these questions: “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)” (147). A Platonized eschatology describes God’s future goal as discarding the physical world and taking human spirits to a non-physical heaven. A moralized anthropology describes humanity’s essential purpose as keeping God’s moral rules. A paganized soteriology describes Jesus’ death as that which necessarily satisfies the wrath of God in order for us to experience salvation.

Yes, we find a heavenly element in God’s new creation. Yes, the human vocation contains a sense of moral obligation. Yes, the death of Jesus is both representative and substitutionary in nature. But all of these themes need to be reassigned in a way consistent with the big story the Bible tells. This reassignment begins by returning to Israel’s Scriptures where we find the hope of Israel is not abandoned. Israel’s hope included the forgiveness of sins, which implied not that Jewish people would go to heaven upon death, but that Israel would be redeemed and the Gentiles welcomed into the family of God.

The suffering and death of Jesus read as a fulfillment of Israel’s prophecies made the forgiveness of sins possible, meaning Israel and the world were released from the captivity to sin. The goal of God’s redemption of the world through Christ was not the blessedness of heaven for those who had departed the earth in faith. This worn-out mistaken view is not what is meant by the “forgiveness of sins,” a phrase which belongs to the story of Israel. The book of Acts opens with the assumption that the kingdom had been launched. The disciples, still unaware of the significance of what has happened, asked if Jesus is going to restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). They did not ask if now they need to go tell people their sins were forgiven so they can be assured of heaven upon death. In their minds, the work of Jesus was related to the kingdom of God on earth. Without this historical context, we can easily shrink the gospel down to a “detached spirituality” (156). Within the long sprawling story of Israel, the “forgiveness of sins” implied a new Passover, a new exodus, a new covenant, and a new creation.

One of the problems with a focus on heaven, and not new creation, as the goal is the modern myth that heaven is where good people go and hell is where bad people go after they die. Some Christian traditions want to respond to this myth by saying we are all bad people and all that has made us bad has been dealt with at the cross and the goodness of Jesus has been added to our account, making us good. However both this myth and the Christian response is distorted in that goodness vs. badness is placed at the center of an equation that is supposed to lead to heaven. Living as the good people of God finds a role in God’s redeemed people carrying out their calling. God’s new humanity has been redeemed to be a “kingdom and priests” for the world.

The restoring of Israel fulfilled the three hopes of Israel (1) freedom from Roman occupation and domination, (2) Israel’s God becoming King of the world, (3) God dwelling once again with his people. We see the fulfillment of these three expectations in the book of Acts in the theme of the kingdom of God. Modern readers tend to connect the kingdom with the second coming of Jesus, while Luke describes it as a present reality. Wright describes three kingdom symbols in the book of Acts.

The first symbol is the “restoration of true worship” (161). Jesus has ascended into heaven joining together heaven and earth in his very person. We reject the idea of heaven as a far away spiritual place. We reject this idea in light of Jesus’ ascension. Jesus causes us to rethink things. “In Christian theology we have to start with Jesus and reconfigure our ideas around him, rather than trying to fit him into our existing worldviews” (162). The followers of Jesus become the living temple, a new community where the one true living God is worshiped.

The second symbol is the witness of the Christian community to God’s rule over the entire world. The principalities and powers colluded to put Jesus to death publically. As the Apostles proclaimed the gospel, the “forgiveness of sins” was communicated as a real historical event and the whole world was called upon to turn from sin and believe the good news. The rulers of this world have been defeated as God has made Jesus “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). The Apostle Paul would go on to proclaim this message throughout the Mediterranean world enduring the suffering associated with proclaiming the kingdom of God. In God’s rule, God’s people are the royal priesthood doing the work of the kingdom through worship and witness.

The third symbol is the hope that Israel would be finally free from living under the rule of a pagan power, that they would truly be freed from exile. Jesus fully embodied Israel’s identity becoming Israel-in-person and as Jesus was freed from death, the ultimate weapon of all pagan powers, Jesus freed Israel (and the world) from the power of foreign oppressors. In this regard, God is not rescuing people so they can escape the world. Rather God is rescuing people so they can escape death and cooperate with God in the work of redeeming the world. This work is the work of the kingdom of God accomplished by the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Chapter 9: Jesus’s Special Passover

At the very center of the book is the burning question: How did the earliest Christians understand the death of Jesus? The Christians during the time of the Apostles believed that something had happened with the death and resurrection of Jesus, “something as a result of which the world was now a different place. A revolution had been launched” (169). So, the pressing question as we consider the meaning of the atonement is: What changed and how did things change with the death of Jesus? Much of the theological work on atonement has ignored the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and have failed to connect the death of Jesus with the kingdom of God. The Gospel writers record what Jesus said about his death and how he said it. The most significant thing Jesus said in talking about his death is that he chose the Last Supper to describe in the clearest of terms what his death meant. The larger context for the Last Supper is the Jewish Passover, a central, and often overlooked, aspect to how the early Christians understood the death of Jesus.

If the goal of salvation is a disembodied heaven, then the gospel writers have very little to say about the implications of the death of Jesus. Furthermore, many of those who have worked on the meaning of the atonement have treated the gospels as the backstory, whereby the four gospels simply tell us what happened to Jesus at the end of his life, whereas Paul in the epistles tell us what it means. This approach is a mistake. As we have seen, the goal of salvation is new creation and, contrary to popular approaches to the atonement, the gospel writers have much to say about the atonement, each in their own way.

The crucifixion of Jesus in its historical setting held no immediate significance other than the message of despair and defeat. No one who witnessed his death understood he was dying for the sins of the world. None of the disciples expected Messiah to die for their sins. On the day of his death, nobody was doing what we now call “atonement theology” at all. The death of Jesus was the end to everyone’s hopes and messianic dreams.

The catalyst for the reinterpretation of the death of Jesus was the resurrection. Many Jewish people in Jesus’ day believed in the resurrection of the dead, which would usher in God’s new world at the end of this age. Nevertheless followers of Jesus believed he had risen, physically and literally, from the dead in this present age. This central belief caused them to look back at the cross through the resurrection and for the early Christians this reflection did not immediately produce the atonement theories we know today. The gospel writers did not pepper their gospel accounts with atonement theories; rather, they wove their own interpretation of the death of Jesus into the fabric of their narratives.

When we look to the four biographers of Jesus for how they understood the meaning of his death, we see first that Jesus was crucified by the Roman officials who displayed a sign above Jesus’ head which read: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Jesus had regularly proclaimed the revolutionary nature of God’s kingdom and therefore died as a Jewish king. Rome regularly executed rival kings. The gospel writers also make it clear that Jesus died around the time of the Jewish Passover. Jesus had entered into Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna!” Jesus challenged Jerusalem one last time while the nation was celebrating God’s act of freeing them from slavery in Egypt. Jesus chose Passover for this final proclamation of God’s coming kingdom, because the in-breaking of God’s kingdom implied the overthrow of enslaving powers. Moses confronted Pharaoh before the Exodus; Jesus confronted the Temple establishment before his death. Israel was leaving Egypt in order to worship God; Jesus’ death, and soon-to-follow resurrection, would reimagine worship and the meaning of the Temple for the renewed people of God. Jesus’ death was a new Exodus.

Jesus describes the meaning of his own death in the clearest of terms as he is with his disciples in the Upper Room sharing a Passover meal with them. According to Wright, “When Jesus wanted to explain to his followers what his forthcoming death was all about, he did not give them a theory, a model, a metaphor, or any other such thing; he gave them a meal” (182). Jesus transformed the Passover meal from looking back towards the Exodus to looking forward to his pending death. The cup of wine was the “blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The death of Jesus would be an experience of liberation and victory and the launch of God’s kingdom. Jesus connected his death with the Passover tradition.

The victory over the powers of slavery was secured as Jesus’ death dealt with the sins of Israel and the sins of the world. The Jewish people were still experiencing exile. Even though they were in their ancestral homeland, they were still in bondage to the powers of their Roman oppressors. This New Exodus event coming through the death of Jesus would be an act of forgiveness of sins and thus the long-awaited end to exile. With the Last Supper in sight, we can rescue our discussions about the cross from the pagan ideas of a wrathful God demanding satisfaction. Instead, we find a covenant-faithful God taking sin upon himself in order to move the story of redemption forward. Atonement from the perspective of this sacred meal is more of a story for Christians to enter than an abstract theory to try to understand. Sharing in the bread and the cup makes followers of Jesus active participants in God’s story.

Jesus makes mention of the “blood of the covenant” as he lifted the cup in the Passover meal pointing to the sacrificial overtones of his death. Drinking blood would have been unimaginable for Jesus’ Torah-observant followers. In the face of scandal and controversy, Jesus connects the cup with blood, covenant, and the forgiveness of sins, pointing to Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant which is itself connected to the exodus event (See Jeremiah 31:31-34). Jesus connected the shedding of his blood to the blood of animals, which, when they were sacrificed, were not being punished. We have seen that early Christians understood Jesus died “according to the Scripture,” that is in accordance with the story the Bible is telling. This story included the suffering not only by God’s people, but the future suffering of God’s servant who would do for Israel what Israel could not do for herself, which includes remaining faithful to the covenant and vocation of Israel to be a light to the Gentile world.

Jesus as the servant of the Lord offered forgiveness throughout his ministry as he was announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God. As we have seen the announcement of the forgiveness of sins implied the end of exile, the liberation from oppressive powers, and a renewal of the covenant. Jesus offered forgiveness with great compassion and mercy explaining to his disciples, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Jesus wasn’t offering his disciples an abstract theological principle to understand his sacrificial death. Rather, he was summing up his entire life mission. Jesus was giving his life as a ransom because of his great love, which remained “to the end” (John 13:1).

The offering of his life, as Jesus announced at the Last Supper, was an announcement of the coming of the the kingdom from heaven to earth. Jesus renewed the covenant as Israel’s representative substitute, taking upon himself the vocation and fate of Israel, laying down his life for his friends (John 15:13). Theories of the atonement grow out of the story of Jesus as Jesus’ entire life and ministry guide us in understanding the meaning of his death. Without the foundational story of Jesus found in the gospels, a story rooted in the story of Israel, the death of Jesus too easily becomes a “paganized doctrine” where an innocent person dies to appease an angry deity. With these stories in view, Paul’s summaries of what happened when Jesus died become much clearer, namely that God, the God of Israel, the Creator God, was in Christ “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Through Jesus’ death the covenant to bless the nations of the earth through the people of Abraham was renewed. For Wright, “The cross became the encoded symbol as well as the actual outworking of the dying, and hence the undying, love of Israel’s God” (194).

Discussion Questions

1. When you first heard of salvation, “getting saved,” or “accepting Christ” was it in the context of the assurance of heaven after you died? What were your earliest memories of salvation?
2. If God would have been an angry deity demanding blood to satisfy his wrath, what would that communicate to us about the nature of God?
3. Why do you think it is still a cultural assumption that “good guys go to heaven and bad guys go to hell”?
4. Why is it important to start with Jesus and reconfigure our ideas around him when we are trying to understand the nature and work of God?
5. Look again at Matthew 26:28. What does Jesus say about his death here?
6. Look again at Jeremiah 31:31-34. What does this say about the new covenant that was fulfilled in and through Jesus?
7. Why is it necessary to understand the story of Israel in order to understand why Jesus died?
8. How would you describe the love of God you see revealed in Jesus’ life, ministry, and death?

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  • Chris Brownwell

    You’re okay with N.T. Wright’s rejection of the substitutionary, atoning death of Jesus Christ?

    • Derek Vreeland

      Hello Chris. Wright doesn’t deny the substitutionary nature of the atonement and neither do I. What Wright (and I) reject is propitiation, that is the death of Jesus satisfies the wrath of God.

      • Chris Brownwell

        So, if Jesus did not substitute himself to satisfy the Father’s wrath, for what purpose was Jesus substituted? If you deny God’s wrath you would have to reject a lot of Scripture that deals with God’s wrath. Without expiation and propitiation, there is no good news of salvation.

        • Derek Vreeland

          Expiation yes. Propitiation no. Jesus died to take away our sin. Sin was the problem. We were the ones with the problem, not God. Jesus dies to demonstrate God’s love and faithfulness. As far as wrath, Paul tips his hat in Romans 3:5 when he writes of God “inflicting wrath.” Paul clarifies that he is “speaking in a human way.” God doesn’t literally inflict wrath, rather “wrath” throughout the Scripture is a human metaphor for judgment. So we could say that the death of Jesus saves us from pending judgment, that is true enough. But again God’s judgment is connected to human sin. With sin removed, judgment too is removed.

          • Chris Brownwell

            I think you have to have a better biblical hermeneutic than an eisegectical objection to God’s wrath simply because it looks pagan.