Tuesday, April 06, 2021

The Death of Jesus (Part Two)

The following is the transcript of the second part of my two part podcast talk for Easter.

The Death of Jesus – Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part talk (podcast) for Easter on the death of Jesus. In my previous talk, I described how the death of Jesus is popularly understood. Jesus’ death, on the common understanding of it, was a consequence of the life he led and the teaching he gave. The resurrection of Jesus is understood as God vindicating Jesus.

God, on this understanding, by raising Jesus from the dead is telling us that Jesus got it right. Jesus is now to be our example and guide and one day God will raise us too. The death of Jesus is a fact of history, but, on this understanding, it is his life both before and after his death that matters to us now. His life shows us how to live our lives and his resurrection inspires us and gives us the strength we need. I called this the LEGO model of the atonement: (L) A loving God, (E) enters our existence as one of us, (G) gives us freedom and forgiveness, and (O) offers a new way of living. Jesus’ death was historically inevitable given his life, but hardly the purpose of it or the reason why he came.

This model of the atonement uses bits of the New Testament to construct it. The problem, however, lies in the bits it does not use. It treats these unused bits as unnecessary. In this second part of the talk, I want to identify the bits missing from the LEGO model of the atonement and to argue that far from being unimportant, they are in fact essential to understanding what our Lord has done for us on the Cross.

1. The Centrality of Jesus’ Death

St Mark devotes three-fifths of his Gospel to the suffering and death of Jesus; St Matthew two-fifths; St Luke a third. St John divides his Gospel in two. The second part begins on the night before Jesus’ death. What are known as the passion narratives are central to the story of Jesus in all four Gospels.

In St John’s Gospel, as we have seen during Lent, what Jesus refers to as ‘his hour’ is there from the very beginning (John 2:4) and everything builds up to it. The same is true in the other Gospels, St Mark, for example, writes:

‘Then he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mark 8:31)

In St Luke’s Gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus says to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus:

‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ (Luke 24:26)

The LEGO model of the atonement is right to stress that in the life and teaching of Jesus, we see God revealing himself. As Jesus says, ‘He and the Father are one’ (John 10:30). The LEGO model of the atonement, however, treats the death of Jesus, not as the central part, but as just one part of the story. While in the LEGO model of the atonement, the death of Jesus may have been an ‘historical inevitability’, an unavoidable consequence of the life Jesus lived, it was not, on this understanding of Jesus’ death, strictly necessary.

Instead, Jesus’ death serves to emphasize what was already there in his life rather than to add anything new as such to it. Yes, Jesus’ death shows Jesus commitment to the truth and to his message. It illustrates the length that Jesus was willing to go to demonstrate his love for us. If, however, we ask if it would ultimately have mattered if Jesus had not been put to death, then, based on the LEGO model of the atonement, it is hard to see how it would. The impact of Jesus’ life may not have been as great; a martyr dying for what they believe in always leaves a mark. There is, however, nothing about Jesus’ death, on this understanding of it, that can’t be explained in purely historical terms.

There is, in other words, a marked difference in the significance that is attached to the death of Jesus in the New Testament compared to how the death of Jesus is regarded in the LEGO model of the atonement. In the New Testament, the death of Jesus is central and significant in a way that in the LEGO model it is not. In the New Testament, Jesus has to die; he was born to die; it’s why he came. At the end of his public ministry in St John’s Gospel, Jesus says:

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’ (John 12:27)

Advocates of the model may argue that this is all about emphasis, but at the very least the difference in emphasis should alert us to the fact that there may be a problem in the way many people today understand the death of Jesus.

2. The Lamb of God and the Sacrifice in his Blood

The last thing Jesus did before his arrest and crucifixion was to have a Meal with his closest disciples. This Meal is described in the Gospels as a Passover Meal to which Jesus gave a new meaning. The original Passover, still celebrated by Jews today, remembered how God told the people of Israel to sacrifice a lamb and put its blood out on the door posts of the houses where they lived, so that the angel of death would ‘pass over’ them and they would be saved from the death that God brought to the first born of Egypt (Exodus 12:1-32).

At the Meal with his disciples, Jesus took the bread with which the Meal began and told them it was his body given for them. At the end of the Meal, he took the cup and told them it was his blood that was shed for them. By doing this, Jesus makes clear that he sees his death as itself a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. It is the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:20; see also: 1 Corinthians 11:25).

Jesus’ death, in other words, was not just that of a martyr dying for what he believed in, but more like the sacrifice of a lamb in the way the Passover Lamb was sacrificed in the Temple. Jesus’ sacrifice would change things in a way that they could not be changed without it. What is more, Jesus by linking his sacrifice with the forgiveness of sins also implies that without it they would not be forgiven. The first words spoken by anyone in St John’s Gospel to describe Jesus are spoken by John the Baptist who says:

‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29)

St Paul describes Jesus using the same imagery. He writes:

‘For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.’ (1 Corinthians 5:7)

This sort of language is used throughout the New Testament. It isn’t the only thing that the New Testament says about the death of Jesus, and it is not the only image used in the New Testament to describe it, but it is an image that is absolutely central. So central that believers made repeating the Meal the focus of their meeting together.

The institution of the Meal is also described by St Paul just 20 years or so later this time in writing, not to Jews used to celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem, but to ex-pagans in the Greek city of Corinth. The Meal had already become central to the Church’s life there. St Paul writes that he had passed on to them what he had himself received, received that is from the first believers in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 11:23). St Paul had established the Meal in Corinth when he first came there, suggesting that this was what he did everywhere he went. St Paul writes:

‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (1 Corinthians 11:26)

The LEGO model of the atonement passes over this sort of language and imagery. It is an embarrassment to many in the Church that our worship is so centred on sin, death, and the shedding of blood. This is one reason so many, when they celebrate the Eucharist, want to focus instead on the elements of bread and wine as the gifts of creation rather than the body and blood of Christ.

The Eucharist, however, puts Christ’s bloody death at the centre of the Church and of what it means to be his followers. St Paul tells us that we have ‘redemption through his blood’ (Ephesians 1:7). St John tells us that it is the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). The writer to the Hebrews even goes as far as telling us that ‘without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins’ (Hebrews 9:22). St Peter describes those he writes to as ‘chosen and destined by God the Father’ to ‘be sprinkled’ with Jesus’ blood (1 Peter 1:2). In the book of Revelation, those who have died for Jesus are described as having conquered the Devil by the ‘blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony’ (Revelation 12:11).

The blood of Jesus flows through the pages of the New Testament. In the LEGO model, it is scarcely to be seen.

3. Jesus’ Death Divinely Ordained

As I have said repeatedly now, the common way today of understanding the death of Jesus is by reference to historical circumstances and forces. We are told by advocates of this understanding that Jesus himself, seeing where his situation was heading, could have avoided his death by turning back or escaping while there was time. Jesus, however, remained true to his convictions and provides us in so doing with an example of courage and commitment.

Jesus’ death, then, on this understanding, is understood as being the death of a someone who stood up for what they believed in, accepting the consequences of doing so. In this, Jesus was like those before and since who have also suffered death for what they stood for. Again, as I have said, Gandhi is a good example of such a person, but he is by no means alone.

According to the LEGO model of the atonement, Jesus’ death shows how the powerful will always act to protect their privilege and position. Those, then, who were responsible for Jesus’ death are the Roman Governor Pilate, who ordered it, the Jewish authorities who handed him over to it, and the crowds who called for it.

The LEGO model of the atonement explains Jesus’ death using historical cause and effect, putting the blame on the powerful, who conspired to bring it about. But here it stops. The New Testament doesn’t. St Peter says to the crowds on the Day of Pentecost:

‘… this man [Jesus], handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.’ (Acts 2:23)

The shocking message of the New Testament is that ultimately it was God who was responsible for the death of Jesus and the historical circumstances that led to it. The people who carried it out were only acting according to his purpose and plan. As far as we are concerned, the death of Jesus took place on what has become known as Good Friday in AD 30 or AD 33. In reality, it took place before human history even began.

God gave his Son, not simply in the sense that he gave his Son over to historical forces, but gave him in the sense that God was actively involved in Christ’s sacrifice as the Lamb of God. God was guiding and controlling historical events to bring them to this conclusion. That God was in control was certainly Jesus’ own understanding of what was going on. In the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, Jesus prayed that, ‘if it were possible, the hour might pass from him’ (Mark 14:36). St Mark writes that Jesus said:

‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ (Mark 14:36)

Then, when they came to arrest him and Peter tried to prevent it, St John tells us that Jesus said to Peter:

‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ (John 18:11)

The reason that the Son of Man must ‘suffer and be killed’ is that God says he must.

The idea that God was actively involved in the death of his Son is repugnant to many in the Church today. In many ways, the LEGO model of the atonement that I have been describing is a reaction to it. The sacrifice of God’s Son has been described as ‘cosmic child abuse’. It is, however, one thing to reject it and another altogether to refuse to acknowledge that this is how the New Testament writers understand it. It is not the only way they describe the death of Jesus, but it is a way that is integral and foundational to all the other ways that they describe it. Rather than rejecting it out of hand because it offends our present day prejudices and sensibilities, it is better to try to understand it.

As far as the New Testament is concerned, Jesus was not a helpless victim, nor did he simply choose to die for what he believed in. Jesus died because that was God’s will for him; it was the path God had chosen for him.

4. The Wrath and Justice of God

One aspect of New Testament that is resolutely rejected today, and which the contemporary understanding of the death of Jesus refuses to recognize, is that of the wrath of God. The idea that God could be angry with us because of our sin and wrong-doing is completely alien to us. The idea that God could be so angry that he would punish us is seen to belong to primitive and outdated ideas about God. Hell is, for us, a thing of the past not something that faces us in the future. Any suggestion that the death of Jesus was in some way meant to appease an angry God and so enable us to avoid judgement in the future is simply not taken seriously.

That we today should find the idea of God being angry about sin is, when you think about it, somewhat strange and surprising. When an activist such as Greta Thunberg gets angry about climate change and the damage we are doing to the environment, everyone applauds her for it and nominates her for the Nobel Peace Prize, not just once but several times. But when we read that God is angry with us for the damage we have done to his creation that is a different matter altogether. And yet the New Testament is unambiguous that God is angry with us. St Paul writes:

‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.’ (Romans 1:18)

The reason that the creation is such a mess, St Paul writes, is because of our idolatry, our insistence on putting ourselves first and creating our own objects of worship. The New Testament is insistent that one day God will hold us all to account. A day will come when we will be judged. There will be justice.

St Peter, in our first reading, for Easter Sunday writes:

‘He [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.’ (Acts 10:42)

The New Testament writers all look to this Day when God will hold everyone to account for the sin they have committed. It will be a day when evil will be punished, and wrongs righted. The only way, the only way, we can be saved from the wrath of God and the judgement to come, the New Testament writers tell us, is through the blood of the Cross. The death of Jesus is seen as the sole basis for finding forgiveness and on which we can face a just and righteous God. And yet we hear almost no mention of this in our Churches today.

It is the scandal of what passes for Christianity in the present.

The very idea that God will judge and punish people is also simply dismissed out of hand. God is expected to forgive us unconditionally and accept us with no questions asked.

Which is, again, very strange given our present concern with social justice and righting the perceived wrongs of the past. Not only must the statues of past offenders be torn down, reparations must also be made and all wrongs atoned for. The language used is itself all very religious and all very New Testament. The only problem is that you are not allowed any more to use it in reference to God.

At this moment, the trial is taking place of George Chauvin who is charged in Minneapolis of the murder of George Floyd, the black man whose death while being arrested sparked riots and protests the world over and gave added impetus to the Black Lives Matter movement.

On Monday just past (March 29, 2021), the Floyd family gathered outside the courtroom before the trial began to protest against racism and to call for justice. They led those who gathered there with them in a chant of ‘no justice; no peace.’


Without justice, there can be no peace. And God is entitled to justice, which is what the New Testament tells us the death of Jesus is all about. There is nothing in the LEGO model of the atonement specifically about the justice of God and so, for all its fine sounding words, it can offer no peace with God. St Peter, again in our first reading for Easter Sunday says:

‘You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all.’ (Acts 10:36)

St Paul writes that God through Christ has reconciled all things ‘by making peace through the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1:20). ‘Christ’, St Paul writes in Ephesians, ‘is our peace’ (Ephesians 2:14).

By the death of Jesus, forgiveness and peace with God is now offered to us through faith in Christ (Romans 5:1). This is the good news. This is the Gospel. And this is why the death of Jesus is not something we can pass over and leave behind us. The Cross is not an empty symbol, but a statement of what it cost to settle what we owed. ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3). When he was crucified, Jesus didn’t simply pay the price of his convictions, he paid the price of our sin. As the famous hymn puts it:

‘There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin;
he only could unlock the gate
of heaven, and let us in.’

Only the divinely ordained death of Jesus as the Lamb of God, sent out of love by the Father was sufficient to meet the demands of justice and to bring forgiveness and peace.

We are shocked nowadays that St Paul sent a slave, Onesimus, back to his master, Philemon, and didn’t do more to free him from slavery. St Paul, we think, should have used the occasion to teach the Church about the evils of slavery and to right a social injustice.

St Paul didn’t think slavery was a good thing, but he knew that the slavery to sin that we are all in is the very worst form of slavery. It is Jesus himself who describes us as ‘slaves of sin’ (John 8:34), and it is only Jesus who can set us free. Jesus said, ‘So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:36). It is Jesus alone who can break the power and slavery of sin and release those held captive by it.

The power of sin lies not only in the structures and systems of this world, but also where sin is at its most powerful: in the hearts and lives of each one of us.

‘We preach Christ crucified’, writes St Paul (1 Corinthians 1:23). There is a reason for that. It is because the death of Jesus isn’t about a good man dying for what he believes in. It is about the death of the Son God, dying as the Lamb of God for our sin and because of our sin; the sin that brings the wrath of God on us and demands justice.

The sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the Cross meets the demand for justice and brings us peace through his blood. We who believe in him no longer fear the judgement. As St Paul writes:

‘Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.’ (Romans 5:9)

We know that we who have become one with him in his death, shall become one with him in his resurrection (Romans 6:5).

‘Alleluia. Christ is risen.’

And one day we too will rise with him to be with him forever.


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