When asked why Jesus had to die, we often jump to an explanation called “Penal Substitution” which basically says that sin requires death and Jesus stepped in and took on the punishment in himself. The basis for this view of “atonement” is found in Romans 8:1-4. There is more going on at the cross than this. Penal Substitution isn’t wrong but it isn’t the full picture, though we’ve often forced everything we say about the cross into this view. What do the Gospels say about the atonement? Think back to the sermon series this summer about the four speakers in the surround sound system (no I don’t expect you to remember them!). My purpose for that series was to help us see that so much more is going on in the gospels than just build up to “Jesus dying on the cross to save me from my sins.”
There are a number of things in The Story where I haven’t been 100% with the commentator in their abridged parts of the narrative. I think it is healthy to have differences of beliefs and views. I can ignore most things. This week, I feel the need to make two comments on what the commentator says on page 379: “So Jesus waited that day…for death to overcome him.” And “God poured out humanity’s rightful punishment for sin upon his Son.”
First, Jesus is depicted on the cross as giving up his spirit. I believe the gospel writers are communicating loudly that Jesus’ spirit was not taken from him but that he gave it up. Even in his last moments, he was in control. Mark is the only one that doesn’t point to this control and simply says, “He breathed his last.” Spend some time focusing on how Jesus dies in each of the gospels: Matt 27:50, Luke 23:46, and John 19:30.
Second, the picture of “God pouring out humanity’s rightful punishment…” is a picture I keep trying to come back to. A lot of my atheist friends have asked questions about this wrathful God who so desperately wants to destroy us. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” When we present only the Penal Substitution view of atonement, we unintentionally present God more like the pagan gods who need their wrath subdued. I heard a scholar speak on this once, who said we talk about God and Jesus in a way that says, “For God so hated the world that he murdered his one and only Son.” The gods of Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome all were angry gods demanding sacrifice. The God of the Jews, the God of Jesus, was a God of love who created the world out of love. We need to be careful that we aren’t turning the one true God into another god in the Pantheon. There is a lot more to be talked about on this topic in regards to what the sacrificial system was for Israel and how Jesus plays into that. Maybe we can talk about that in class on Sunday if you are interested. For now, I want to encourage you to remember the story of Creation, Israel, and what God is accomplishing in this world as you think about Jesus on the cross. What is Jesus accomplishing?
In the Gospels, when Jesus wanted to explain what his death would mean, he didn’t give them a theory of atonement, he gave them a meal and a dramatic action. The Lord’s Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet become the lens through which we see everything else. The Lord’s Supper connects us back to the Exodus story. There is an oppressor who needs to be conquered for God’s people to find freedom. Jesus’ death on the cross conquered the oppressor, the dark powers of this world whom he allowed to do their worst to him. He came as the perfect Man, the New Adam, and redeemed the creation for what God intended it to be. In his resurrection, we are given New Life (We’ll talk more about this next week). In the foot washing action, Jesus demonstrates all of his teachings for how we are to live in the Kingdom. Those who aspire to be great in the Kingdom will be a servant to all. This two-fold action points not only to the type of life lived but also to the reality that he has made them clean to go and live a Kingdom Life.
Christ has made you clean to receive the Kingdom of God. The Spirit has come to you in your baptism. You gather around the Lord’s Table to remember the Exodus that we took part in when we were liberated from sin. God loves this world. He has always loved this world and he has not given up on what he intended for this world. Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord for conquering death so that we might find Life.