August 21, 2011

No New Testament writer takes the position that the death of Jesus was merely due to human selfishness on the part of a treacherous disciple, obstinate Jews, or Roman politicians. The death of Jesus fulfilled a divine purpose in some way. Luke presents this interpretation in a variety of contexts. Earlier we noted the word of Jesus concerning Judas: "For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!" (Luke 22:22).

When the resurrected Jesus appears to the two on the Emmaus road, he interprets to them the scriptures and chides them with these words: "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" (Luke 24:26). Later, when Jesus appears to his disciples, he says to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46-47).

This necessity of Christ’s suffering and death is also reflected in Luke’s account in Acts. In his Pentecost sermon Peter says to the Jewish people gathered in Jerusalem, "This man [that is, 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. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power" (Acts 2:23-24).

After Peter and John are released from prison, the community of believers gathers to pray and ask for boldness to speak the word. In this prayer they recite the things that happened to Jesus their Lord: "For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place" (Acts 4:27-28).

So here we have it: necessity of Christ’s suffering according to God’s definite plan, foreknowledge and predestination. According to these passages from Luke-Acts, it appears that the death of Jesus was not merely the result of human foul play but in some way in accordance with divine purpose and foreknowledge. In a word, Christ’s death was predetermined by God. But how, and why?

First, the statement that "the Son of Man is going as it has been determined" (Luke 22:22) does not excuse the human role of the betrayer, even though it is God who has determined the going of the Son of Man. "Human responsibility and divine sovereignty are not to be played off against each other." Danker sees in this statement of Jesus a word of warning and an opportunity extended to Judas to change his mind. Nevertheless, divine predetermination is clearly stated here.

But secondly, scholarship has long noted that Luke views the death of Jesus as part of the redemptive work of God in history. God has predetermined to act redemptively in the world. In this respect, the passage in Acts 4:27-28 does not quite assert that Jesus’ death itself was predestined by God. It states that Herod and Pilate and the rest of the people gathered against Jesus to do whatever "your hand and your plan had predestined to take place." What God predestined is not primarily or exclusively that Jesus die. The purpose of God is to act redemptively in the world. God is so committed to that purpose that even the worst case scenario, namely, the death of Jesus, could not dissuade God from his redemptive purpose. When human beings had done their worst, God still found a way to be gracious and redemptive, even to the point of turning this dastardly deed of humanity into an act of redemption. The death of Jesus becomes redemptive because God chooses to make it so. Human beings can kill Jesus, but only God can make his death into an act of salvation. It is not so much that God predestined the death of Jesus as that God overturned the tragedy of Jesus’ death by raising him from the dead and making him "both Lord and Messiah" (Acts 2:36).

Here, again, just as in Mark, so also in Luke-Acts, one does not find explicit statements that the death of Jesus was for sins. In the eucharistic words, the body and blood are given and poured out "for you" (Luke 22:19-20). This of course does not mean that the death of Jesus in Luke is non-salvific. But its significance lies elsewhere. The indication in Luke is even more emphatic than in Mark that the Last Supper was a Passover celebration (22:15), signifying that Christ’s vicarious suffering and death, rather than being an atonement for sin, is intended for humanity’s liberation from slavery and bondage. The significance of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection is that "repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations" (Luke 24:47).

In this respect, note the way 1 Peter states the issue of the predestination of Christ and his death in these two passages:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry, inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated when it testified in advance to the sufferings [destined] for Christ and the subsequent glory (1:10-11; brackets and emphasis added).

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake (1:18-20).

It should be noted first that the word "destined" in verse 11 is not in the Greek text. The Greek text simply says "testified in advance to the sufferings for Christ" (emphasis added). Michaels translates it "the sufferings intended for Christ," which is not that different from "destined." Secondly, it is the "Spirit of Christ" in the prophets that testified in advance to Christ’s sufferings. That the Old Testament bears witness to Christ and his sufferings becomes understandable only after the Christ event itself. Pheme Perkins raises the issue of the Christian appropriation of the Old Testament and urges that Christians today

. . . need to be more self-conscious than 1 Peter about the difference between reading the prophets as witnesses to their own time . . . and reading them as witnesses to Christ. We cannot suppose, as 1 Peter argues, that God had only the Christian community of faith in mind throughout the Old Testament.

Perkins suggests that other Jewish groups such as the Essenes also found connections between the prophets and their community. Is the Christian connection to the prophets more valid than the Essene? I am simply making the point that prophecy cannot be understood naively as prediction of the future and on that basis conclude that the future references in the prophets are predetermined.

It was the early Christians who after their experience of the death and resurrection of Jesus that looked back to the prophets and searched the Old Testament scriptures to make sense of their own cognitive dissonance relative to the awful enigma of a suffering and dying Messiah. In the Old Testament scriptures they found ample evidence that the vicarious suffering of the innocent for the guilty is very much the way things have been from Abel in Genesis to the suffering servant in Isaiah 53.

Third, the statement in 1 Peter 1:20 clearly states that it is Christ himself who was "destined before the foundation of the world" and not necessarily his death, which is mentioned in the previous verse. The noun cases in the Greek text clearly support this translation in the NRSV. One cannot build a firm case for the idea that the death of Jesus itself was intended by God before the foundation of the world and predicted by the prophets. It is Christ himself who is in the purposes of God from eternity to eternity.

More than any other New Testament writing, Hebrews has much to say about Christ’s role as a superior high priest and sacrifice compared to the Old Testament. The passage in Hebrews most directly relevant to the concern of this essay is 9:23—10:18. Two comments are in order. First, the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice is to remove sin from "the heavenly things," that is, to provide a spiritual purification, perfection, and sanctification, which the old ritual sacrifices could never accomplish (9:23—10:4, 14). Christ’s sacrifice brings moral and spiritual transformation. The second comment has to do with the quotation in 10:5-7 from Psalm 40:6-8 (LXX). The point here is that God does not desire sacrifices and offerings but a readiness to do God’s will, which Christ did by offering his body, through which "we have been sanctified" (10:10). Thus the purpose of Christ’s death is not primarily judicial. Its purpose is the moral and spiritual transformation of the believer.

Two statements from Paul’s writings are relevant for the subject at hand. The first is Romans 3:21-26, which states the thesis for the whole letter. According to Kasemann, it is one of the most difficult and obscure sections of the letter. Verses 24-25 are particularly significant:

They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed."

It is widely agreed that nearly all of verse 25, with the exception of "effective through faith" (there is no "effective" in the Greek) is a pre-Pauline, Jewish Christian tradition.

Three words are especially significant for our consideration: "redemption" (apolutrosis, a)polu/trwsij), "put forward" (proetheto, proe/qeto), and "a sacrifice of atonement" (hilastarion, i?lasth/rion). In a volume of essays growing out of the Pauline Theology Group of the Society of Biblical Literature, Andrew Lincoln and Jouette Bassler comment on these verses. Lincoln notes that in these verses Paul employs three types of imagery: (1) that of the law court—justification; (2) that of the slave market and Israel’s slavery in Egypt and Babylon—redemption; (3) propitiatory sacrifice, averting the wrath of God—sacrifice of atonement.

Bassler responds with the observation that while the atonement does reveal God’s justice, "justice is not the whole of it." God’s justice does not preclude forbearance (v. 25). "Now this forbearance takes an active quality, for God provides through the atonement a means to make it productive." She goes on to point out that in Romans 5:8 the atonement demonstrates not only God’s forbearance but also God’s reconciling love. This point is powerfully made in several ways in subsequent chapters: in the confidence that nothing will separate us from the love of God at the final judgment (8:31-39), in the mediating role of mercy and compassion between God’s impartiality and faithfulness in the face of Israel’s disbelief (chaps. 9-11), and finally in the exhortations of chapters 12-15 where "God’s self-disclosure in the atonement establishes a model for human behavior" as love for one another. From such construal of Pauline theology it seems reasonable to conclude that penal satisfaction, with its emphasis on the justice or honor of God rather than his love, is not the best way to understand Christ’s death.

The verb protithami (proti/qhmi) in the middle voice means "to display publicly." According to Käsemann, the idea is that of public manifestation, not God’s predestination or apostolic proclamation.

The other Pauline statement is in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Parenthetically, perhaps a parallel to the last sentence is Galatians 3:13 where Paul says, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us." Richard Taylor says, "Jesus bore in our stead the curse of God’s wrath as if the sins were his own." It is not clear to me from Paul’s statement that the curse is that of God’s wrath. It is rather the law, not God, that puts Christ under a curse. And it is God who in Christ redeems us from the curse of the law.

The crucial statement in 2 Corinthians 5 is in verse 21, "he made him to be sin who knew no sin." One should also note that it is God who in Christ reconciles the world to himself. This is critical not only in understanding Pauline theology but also in articulating a theocentric view of the atonement. It is not that Christ appeases an angry God, but that it is God who initiates reconciliation of the world to himself. And yet Hughes interprets verse 21 as penal substitution: "God made Him sin: that is to say that God the Father made His innocent incarnate Son the object of His wrath and judgment."

The language of Ralph Martin’s comment is much more in keeping with Pauline theology, as already indicated in the previous comments on Romans and Galatians. Martin says that the purpose of God’s appointment of the innocent Christ to be sin for our sake is twofold. First, "God identified his Son with the human condition in its alienation and lostness." Second, "God declared that believers might become righteous with a righteousness that is his own. . . . The middle link of connection in this equation is that God in Christ has acted sovereignly to establish this new order."

There is a difference of opinion about the meaning of "sin" in the statement, "he made him to be sin." It has been suggested on good grounds that sin here means sin offering, perhaps echoing Isaiah 53:10, "When you make his life an offering for sin." The observation that Paul nowhere else uses such language is countered by the argument that here Paul is using an early tradition and therefore the words are not his own.

From this brief survey of Pauline statements I conclude that Paul interprets Christ’s death as an expression of God’s reconciling love rather than God’s wrath. A corollary is that it is not God who predetermines Christ’s death. Rather, when the death does occur, God makes the death an act of reconciliation.

One final passage to discuss is Revelation 13:8. One cannot be absolutely certain about the translation of this verse. The NIV and NRSV represent two different possibilities. The NIV translates it, "All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world " (emphasis added). The NRSV on the other hand renders it this way: "And all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered" (emphasis added). The prepositional phrase "from the creation/foundation of the world" in Greek can be linked either to "Lamb" (NIV) or to "names" (NRSV). The other English versions as well as the commentaries seem to be equally divided. But in either case the issue of predestination is present, whether it is Christ’s death or the name of believers in the book of life.

Even if the author’s intention was to say that it is Christ who was slain from the foundation of the world, what exactly does that mean? How was Christ put to death from the foundation of the world? Does "from" mean "since" or "at the time of"? If it means "since," there is no issue to grapple with. If it means "at the time of," which is probably the more likely meaning, it would imply that as soon as God created the world, the possibility or even the probability of the cross entered into the picture.

Next week, I will conclude this series with a some theological reflections concerning God's power to steer clear of the events surrounding His Son's death.

We believe that the Constitution of the United States speaks for itself. There is no need to rewrite, change or reinterpret it to suit the fancies of special interest groups or protected classes.