So we’ve been talking about the story of the Bible, and we started with the premise that God’s goal in creation and everything that follows is to draw people into fellowship with himself so that they could experience his love in the fullest possible way. And we traced the contours of the Old Testament to see how the big pieces of the story fit within that overarching goal.
We’ve now arrived in the New Testament where Jesus announces that the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand. We talked last week about what the Kingdom is — a new society in the world — a Jesus Society — in which God’s redeemed people will function as agents of blessing in the world, demonstrating what life with God looks like and how it impacts the way we treat one another, and serving as what Paul calls “ministers of reconciliation,” inviting others into that.
But there’s a piece of all this that we haven’t talked about. And we’ve arrived at the point where we need to talk about it, and that is the subject of sin and atonement, and Jesus’ death on the cross.
The Gospel is that Jesus’ death on the cross is the culmination of Israel’s story, and we just can’t treat it as something unconnected from the story of Israel in the Old Testament.
We first have to set the discussion, because for many Christians, when they think about the death of Jesus, they think about their own personal story: “I’m a sinner, and Jesus died for me so that when I die, I can go to heaven.” It’s okay to start there, but we have to move well beyond that point, because in the New Testament, the death of Jesus is the moment when history changed.
Part of the difficulty with all this is that in many churches, the idea of atonement is hooked into the idea that we need to go to heaven when we die and that’s the end of it. But the New Testament idea is that God intends to make a new creation — the new heavens and the new earth — with us as renewed human beings. THAT is a subject we’ll explore further in a later episode.
But one of the great statements about the meaning of the cross is in Revelation chapter 5:9-10, which says that the lamb was “slain, and he purchased people for God by his blood from every tribe and language and people and nation. And He made them a kingdom and priests to our God . . . .” In other words, we are redeemed not just to hang around being saved and waiting to go to heaven when we die, but to be renewed human beings with renewed human vocations and a renewed agenda.
But the New Testament also makes it clear that the death of Jesus really did win the victory of God over the dark forces of sin, corruption, and death. But the way that was achieved was through Jesus dying on behalf of and in the place of sinners.
And we have to talk about this idea of Jesus taking the punishment that we deserved. And we have to be very careful about how we talk about that. Because we can talk about that in ways that are pretty damaging. I’ll just tell you that a lot of young people hear us talking about Jesus taking the punishment that we deserve, and what they hear is that there is this big angry God who is very upset with us all, and he’s got a big stick and he’s about to lash out. But thankfully, his own son stands in-between us and God, and takes the beating for us, and somehow that makes it all right, and whew! — we all get off. And sadly, they think that’s what the gospel is, and they’re struggling to know whether to believe it or not.
And I want to say that if that is what people are hearing, then we’ve got some serious work to do, because we’ve taken John 3:16, which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son . . . ,” and what some people have heard is, “For God so hated the world that he killed his only son . . . .” And in a world with the realities of child abuse and domestic violence and things like that, some people think all this sounds too much the bully in their own lives. So we’ve got to be really careful about how we talk about all this. Because that is not the message of the Bible, and it’s certainly not the message we want to present.
The truth of all this is that what happens on the cross is the sovereign act of love on behalf of the Father himself. The death of Jesus reveals the love of God. Paul says in Romans 5:8 that “God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Jesus the Messiah died for us.”
And we have to see that Father and Son are on the same page here. This beautiful community of love that we started all this off with back in Episode 2 — Father, Son, and Spirit — cooked up this plan together to redeem man.
And we also have to understand sin in all this. Sin is a failure, rather than the breaking of rules. It’s a failure to be who God made us to be and to reflect his image. And whenever we’re tempted to sin, what’s actually happening is that there’s something that we’re supposed to be doing and being that will honor God in the world, and in our family, and in our own lives. And sin draws us away from that, and presents us with a cheap alternative, which we can rightly call an idol. And when we worship those idols, which we all do to a greater or lesser extent, whether it’s money, power, sex, whatever — and of course repentance is always a turning away from those idols — but when we give in to those idols, we give them power over us, just like Adam and Eve gave power to the serpent in the garden.
And that power causes us to sin. And every time we sin, we are increasing the grip of those powers on us and on our lives. And we call that bondage.
So the way to break the power of those dark forces that we have invoked by worshipping those idols, is for sin to be punished and to be dealt with decisively. And Jesus dying for our sin releases the grip of the powers. And that is the central thing of the crucifixion.
So what do we actually mean when we say that “Jesus died for our sins, or on our behalf?” Interestingly, the very first night I ever sat down with a minister when I was trying to sort out what it meant to be a Christian, that was my burning question. I’d been hearing that phrase all my life: “Jesus died to save us from our sins.” But no one had ever explained what that meant. It was something Christians just said, but I’d never really heard it explained. And it seemed to me that if I was going to be a Christian, I ought to at least understand THAT. And so that was my first question to a minister named Sperry Hogue in the fall of 1990 in western Pennsylvania. And that discussion started me down the road I’m still on today.
So the clearest passage in Paul about all this is Romans 8:1-4. Paul says, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death, because God has done what the law couldn’t do, since it was weakened by the flesh.” And “by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh.”
So what this says is that there is no condemnation on us because God passed the sentence of condemnation ON SIN. And notice — it’s interesting that Paul doesn’t say that God condemned Jesus. He says God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus. And that’s an important distinction, I think.
And in the context of Romans 7-8, if we’re careful in our reading of a very difficult passage, we see that God gave the law in order to draw sin onto the one place where it could be condemned. And that one place where it could be condemned is to Israel’s representative (Jesus, the Messiah), who is therefore the world’s representative. So Jesus dies as the representative substitute, taking the condemnation of sin on himself. But it’s sin that’s condemned, not Jesus.
And the result of that is that we don’t have to be in bondage anymore. Which is why, at the end of Romans 8, Paul says that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” And he says, “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And so when Jesus goes to the cross, it is definitely substitutionary atonement, but it is in the service of God’s larger agenda of defeating the powers of sin and darkness and death.
And I think I can use a movie illustration to help just a bit here, although I’ll admit it’s far from a perfect illustration. No illustrations are. But it’s a scene from the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. Harry Potter represents Jesus, and Voldmort represents Sin and maybe Satan. And in the scene in question, late into the movie, Harry goes off into the Forbidden Forest to face Voldemort, and he knows he’s going to have to let Voldemort kill him. And when he walks into that clearing, Voldemort sees him, and a wry smile forms across his face, because this is exactly what he wanted. He’s about to kill Harry, something he’s long dreamt of doing. “Neither can live while the other survives,” the prophecy said. And as he raises his wand to launch the killing curse, Harry doesn’t move; he makes no attempt to defend himself. Voldemort speaks the words, launching the killing curse toward Harry, convinced that his enemy is once and for all, about to be destroyed.
But there’s something Voldemort doesn’t know. And that is, that a piece of himself — a part of Voldemort’s own twisted soul — lies within Harry. Well, the explosive curse knocks Harry and Voldemort both to the ground. And when the dust clears, and all is revealed (which takes a while in the movie), Voldemort hasn’t, in fact, killed Harry. Harry is sort of “resurrected.” And the only thing Voldemort has killed is a part of himself. And from that moment on, while Voldemort is still alive and able to wreak havoc, he is weakened, he is vulnerable, and his end is certain.
I’m sure that illustration falls down at one point or another. But I think the main points are in tact. At the crucifixion, what ultimately has been condemned is sin. Jesus is resurrected, the enthroned King of Israel and of the world. Sin and Satan are still at work in the world, but they just don’t have the power they did — at least not for Christians. And their time is short and their end is certain. And now that sin is condemned, new creation can begin. And the energy of the Spirit can now take hold. And we’ll talk about the Spirit’s work next week.
Far too often, the gospel has only been presented as a judicial verdict. You were guilty and now you’ve been pardoned. And there is certainly some truth to that. But that fails to tell the whole story. Because, there’s much more that has been changed. Jesus takes our sin and shame in himself. He lets the light of God, which we call wrath, consume sin in the likeness of sinful flesh so that it’s forever dealt with.
And now, when I live in him, I am reconnected to God through what the cross accomplished. So it’s not just that I got a get out of hell free card and I get to go to heaven when I die. Because the gospel is relational, not just judicial. What the cross was meant to do was reassert the relationship between you and God. Which is exactly what God wants.
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Music Provided by Nathan Longwell Music