(If you’re just joining us, you’ll need to start with Part One for the series to make sense.)
Closing in on the end of our series, yesterday we reviewed the historical reasons that led to Jesus’ death. Basically, his telling of Israel’s story (and his outline of the next chapter he was writing) clashed with almost everyone else’s. He proclaimed a rival kingdom to that of Rome, leading to (unfounded) fears that he’d lead a rebellion. He proclaimed a non-violent kingdom, disappointing many of his followers who wanted a military uprising. He forgave sins, opening himself to the charge of blasphemy (doing something only God could do), and bypassing the corrupt Temple leadership in the process – not helping matters by his judgmental act of cleansing the Temple. He welcomed the repentant sinners of Israel into the kingdom, yet challenged those who sought status with God on the basis of law-keeping – which made the Pharisees cranky, like the resentful elder brother outside the party for the returned prodigal. And, of course, there was the danger that his return-from-exile, I’m-the-Messiah, coming-rule-of-God message would be heard by the people as a call to rebellion: and Rome would intervene, meaning the end of the cosy power-sharing arrangement the Jewish leadership had managed to set up for themselves. The historical answer is that Jesus trod on everyone’s toes: that’s why he ended up getting killed.
But what’s the theological answer?
I mean, in the plan of God to rescue his world, why did Jesus die? The usual answer (which isn’t wrong) is so that he could pay the price for human rebellion against God. And the price – you may recall from Genesis 3 – was death. God himself takes the punishment that should have been ours, so we don’t have to die; more than that, so we can live in a restored relationship with him.
But if that’s all the story, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a bit contrived. God turns up as a human, does enough to annoy everyone so that eventually they’d get sick of him and kill him. Then God says, “Hah! That’s just what I wanted to happen! You kill my son (who’s also me – no innocent third party here) so I can put the sins of the world on him, thereby upholding justice while being able to show great mercy. Now let’s print the tracts.” Maybe. But if God just wanted to get himself killed, it could have been a whole lot simpler if he’d turned up, for example, in twenty-first century North Korea, kicked the Dear Leader in the proverbials, and calmly waited to be executed. There must be far more to it than that. There’s a reason Jesus died in that particular time and place and in that particular way. The theology and history of the cross can’t be separated that easily. But in presenting our theology of atonement (Jesus’ sacrificial death in our place) we often remove it from the historical reasons that got Jesus killed in Jerusalem, by the Romans, around 500 years after the first return from exile. To recap a bit of our Tom Wright quote from part one of this series:For many conservative theologians it would have been sufficient if Jesus had been born of a virgin (at any time in human history, and perhaps from any race), lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and risen again three days later. (JVG, pp.13-14)
Jesus, Israel’s representative
If you cast your mind back to when Jesus entered our series (around part nine), you might remember we talked about how Jesus re-enacted key “scenes” from Israel’s story: like Israel, Jesus is God’s “son” who was rescued from danger (“out of Egypt”), was baptised in a river, and then wandered 40 days in the desert – but this time, getting it right, resisting the temptations offered to him. Having proven himself to be a worthy representative, or “champion” of Israel (like David represented Israel against Goliath), Jesus then proceeds to ascend a mountain to bring a new kind of “law” to God’s people, and to bear God’s image the way Israel was supposed to. In other words: Jesus becomes Israel’s substitute, doing what Israel was supposed to do – succeeding where Israel (mostly) had failed, and was continuing to fail.
But a crisis was looming. Instead of trusting and waiting on God, Israel was courting disaster. Time after time Israel tried to take their story in the wrong direction, taking matters into its own hands by rebelling against foreign rule – for the most part, getting them nowhere. If Israel kept going down that path, it would only lead to disaster – being crushed by Rome. Jesus warned them as much:Matt 24:1-2 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Luke 21:20 “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.”
Jesus, Israel’s substitute
So continuing in his role as Israel’s representative, Jesus takes this, too, upon himself.He steps in and takes Israel’s punishment as her substitute – crucified as a rebel against Rome.
And what was it he was accused of?
He was presented as the leader of a rebellion. Yet he was innocent of that charge, although (ironically) Israel themselves were guilty – both of wanting to overthrow Rome, but (more significantly) of rebelling against their true authority, God himself.
He was falsely accused of threatening to “tear down” the physical temple. Again, he was innocent, but Israel was (again ironically) guilty, since if they continued down their current path, the temple would be destroyed. And 40 years later Jesus’ warning was vindicated, when Rome besieged then destroyed Jerusalem.
And he was accused of blasphemy. Innocent, of course, since he was indeed God, and could forgive sins. It was the Jewish leaders who had blasphemed – ascribing his works to the devil (which is the context of Jesus’ comment about “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” not being forgiven, Mark 3:22-30) and rejecting God when he returned as king.
So Jesus – as Israel’s representative – steps in and takes the punishment that should have been theirs. He becomes Israel’s substitute, dying for the sins of the nation.
Caiaphas unwittingly says it, and John the Gospel writer is quick to point out the irony:John 11:49-53 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.
Pilate (unwittingly?) does the same, when he orders the sign read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (and not, as the Jewish leaders want, “This man claimed to be king of the Jews”). Israel’s king dies as its representative. The innocent in place of the guilty.
The Suffering Servant
So how did Israel fail to spot this? They saw enough of the signs: Jesus’ wilderness-wandering, his teaching, his miracles, his parables. They knew he was in some way claiming to be the “anointed one” who would restore Israel. They picked up enough of the story to want to kill him.
What they didn’t get – since, as far as we can tell, it hadn’t been done before – was that Jesus was combining the expectations of the Messiah who would lead God’s people back from exile with another Old Testament image: that of the servant of God who suffers for God’s people. We find it in the book of Isaiah, surrounded by passages about the restoration of Israel (e.g. Isaiah 40), although none none in Israel seemed to connect it with the Messiah. You’ve probably heard it read countless times at Easter:Isaiah 53:4-6 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:10-12 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
But this wasn’t a part of the storyline God’s people were expecting, so they didn’t spot it, even when Jesus tried to make it clear:Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Anytime he tried to explain it, even his disciples wouldn’t accept it:Mark 8:31-33 things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Yet Jesus knew it had to be this way. The Son of Man first had to suffer for the sins of people before experiencing victory. So he becomes Israel’s substitute, taking the penalty for the sins of the nation – suffering the consequences of Israel’s failure to be image-bearers the way God intended. He’s crushed by Rome as a rebel, so Israel is not. Poignantly, in Passover week, he becomes the spotless lamb that dies in Israel’s place: the sacrifice-to-end-all-sacrifices. In so doing, dealing with sin and purifying God’s people once-and-for-all (as Hebrews 10 explains).
Yes, Jesus’ substitutionary death takes the penalty for human sin – but not in an abstract way that could have occurred at any time and place in history. It does so as part of Israel’s story. And by that very act, he brings about the next chapter in that story – a chapter in which God’s people are transformed so that they’re freed from repeating the failures of the past. And a chapter that involves you and me, too. But we’ll get to that tomorrow.