Easter and the Christ

“Penal substitutionary atonement” … There’s a phrase to get a party started, if ever there was one! In all seriousness, though it is an idea that’s causing a lot of controversy and debate in theological circles at the moment. Without wanting to patronise anyone, I thought I’d better explain. Penal substitutionary atonement (as I understand it) is the idea that Christ died on the cross, taking the place and punishment earned by sinful mankind. As Jesus hung on the cross, God the Father poured out on Jesus all his wrath and anger at man’s sinful rebellion – Jesus, being perfect and sinless was able to take the punishment on himself, thus meaning that God could still be just (because sin has still been punished) and yet graciously forgive those in rebellion against him.

For many, this whole idea of God being angry, of punishing his beloved son, of pouring out his wrath – it all paints an uncomfortable and disturbing picture of God – often being compared to an angry and vengeful tyrant with no hint of compassion or love. One writer has even called this understanding of the cross as being equal to an act of cosmic child abuse and not consistent with the Bible’s clear teaching that God is love. (1 John 4:8)

But how did the Christ himself understand the meaning and significance of his death?

It’s hard to read the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry without realising that the crucifixion did not come as a surprise to him. Jesus is well aware that this is where he is heading, and while the prospect of a gruesome death is not one he looks forward to, nevertheless he goes to it willingly. In Gethsemane we see the torment and anguish he goes through in anticipation of what he is to face (Matt 26:36-46). He pleads with God that if there is any other way, that he might be spared. And yet he goes, he does not resist arrest (Matt 26:47-56), he does not speak up in his own defence during the farce of his trial (Matt 26:57-66), he does not plead mercy from Pilate (Matt 27:11-14), he does not give an impassioned plea to the crowds to choose him ahead of Barabbas the criminal. (Matt 27:15-26) The Christ is not a passive agent, he goes to his death willingly. But why? What did Jesus understand that it was going to achieve?

I think we get a massive clue from two things: The Meal and The Cry.

The Meal

The night before he was crucified, Jesus sits down to dinner with his friends. Given that he knew what was going to happen, it would be far too easy to view this just as a poignant goodbye to those who had been closest to him for the last few years. But the occasion itself and Jesus’ actions through the course of the meal make this an almost impossible situation.

The meal itself was the Passover Meal, the occasion celebrated by the Jews ever since the first Passover in Egypt several thousand years earlier. In the first few chapters of Exodus, we find that God’s people were in brutal slavery under a tyrannical Pharaoh in Egypt (Exodus 1-3). Pharaoh had set himself up against God and refused to let the Israelites go, instead seeking to make their lives worse and worse. God in turn had clearly demonstrated himself to be the true living God through a series of devastating plagues on Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. (Exodus 5-10) After Pharaoh’s constant refusal to heed God’s warnings and submit to his Lord and Creator, God brings a final plague on Egypt. God would pass in judgement through Egypt and all the first-born sons would die. (Exodus 11)

However God makes special provision for the people of Israel – they are to take a perfect unblemished Lamb, kill it and paint the blood on their doorposts. This was because, if left to themselves, the sinful people of Israel would be just as much deserving of God’s judgement as the Egyptians. So, a perfect lamb dies in their place and they are marked out by the blood. When God comes in judgement on Egypt, he passes over the houses marked with blood and those inside are mercifully saved. (Exodus 12)

The Passover was a massively significant event in Israel’s history and a major celebration on the Jewish calendar. Exodus 12:13 explains quite explicitly what’s going on – what was to be remembered  “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”  It was the blood of the lamb that rescued the Israelites from destruction at the hands of an awesome and holy God – because that destruction has already fallen on the lamb.  So when Jesus takes the bread and breaks it, and takes the cup of wine – he is taking ordinary parts of the Passover meal.

And yet the words he says as he does these things, shows that Jesus is not just wanting his disciples to remember the Passover in Egypt but to look to a new Passover that is imminent.  “This is my body broken for you”, “this is my blood shed for you”. (Matt 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20)  Coming the day before his death on the cross, can this be anything other than Jesus telling his disciples that he is the Passover Lamb? He is the perfect sinless Lamb who is killed and his blood shed so that God’s people can be rescued and spared from his right judgement.  This seems to be the understanding of the apostles and the early church – Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:7 “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” 

As Jesus prepares to go to the cross, he is demonstrating that he is about to lay down his life.  Christ is to bear God’s judgement, the Lord’s just punishment for sin, that his people might be rescued and be brought back into right relationship with their God and creator.

In fact, the Passover was just one of many reminders to God’s people of their need for a substitute.  In Leviticus 16 we get the description of the Day of Atonement, an annual event for Israel in which sacrifices were made in place of a sinful people.  One goat was killed in place of the people because of their sin (Lev 16:16) and the blood sprinkled around the Mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant (The symbolic dwelling place of God among his people)  The sins of the people would then be confessed over another goat before it was sent out of the camp to die in the wilderness.  This was to symbolise the two-fold nature of the sacrifice – one goat suffered the death that sinful humans deserve for their rebellion against the living God – the goat takes the punishment instead.  The other goat removes the sin of the people, removing the barrier that cuts them off from a holy and awesome God.

The Christ knows that this is God’s will “Yet your will be done!” (Matt 26:42), he knows that through the evil, treachery and injustice committed by the authorities around him, that behind the whole thing lies a greater sovereign authority whose will is the most gloriously amazing plan of rescue and salvation. 

Jesus is no passive victim – he knows this is the good and loving will of his Father and so in obedience and humility, he willingly submits himself to a gruesome death on a Roman cross (see Philippians 2:5-11) … he offers himself as the perfect Passover Lamb, the one who turns away God’s right anger at sinful humanity.  As Jesus’ body is broken, the relationship between rebellious mankind and God is healed.  As Jesus’ blood is spilled, God showers his people with his undeserved love and mercy, his grace.  This is a plan conceived and brought about by the loving Father God and the gloriously willing and obedient Son, so that the people he lovingly created might be restored to a right relationship with him.  As Jesus celebrates the Passover Meal, he points his disciples and us to the fact that He is in fact the Passover Lamb – that they are about the witness the Ultimate Passover, where a perfect and Holy God will come in judgement and yet pass over his people because a lamb without blemish has taken their place.  The Meal shows us that Jesus was a willing, humble and obedient sacrifice, who lovingly and self-sacrificially takes God’s wrath on himself, so that we might approach God and call him our loving Heavenly Father.

The Cry 

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ”  (Matt 27:45-46)

It’s midday on the Day of Preparation for the Sabbath and an execution is taking place outside of the city walls, just a few days after the Passover festival.  Crucifixions usually drew a crowd, but they weren’t exactly an uncommon sight in Roman-occupied Judea.  This one, however had aroused a lot of interest.  Not so much for the criminals but for the man on the middle cross.  Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter turned itinerant preacher and miracle worker, who had made some pretty bold claims, rubbed the religious authorities up the wrong way and was often seen associating with the dregs of society. 

An eerie darkness had descended and the few remaining of the Nazarene’s followers huddled together weeping desperately.  The soldiers called back and forth and the crowd hurled abuse at the criminals, and even at the carpenter.  Cruel taunts and insults spewed forth and yet the man on the middle cross remained quiet.  It seemed an eternity had passed and the crowd was beginning to tire, when Jesus called out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

He wasn’t the only one there asking that question.  His followers no doubt were stunned that a man of such peace and love, a man who spoke with such great authority, who performed miracles and who forgave sins, who welcomed children, tax collectors and prostitutes and who challenged the self-righteous, pious and religious … that God could be allowing this to happen to him.  The religious authorities must have been quite satisfied – the man who they had condemned as a blasphemer, an impostor and a heretic just hours before – was now admitting defeat, he was now resigned to the fact that God had abandoned him – surely a glorious confirmation of their unpopular verdict.

However, it was only the man on the cross who fully understood these words.  Yes God had forsaken him – the darkness was a clear sign of God’s judgement. The cry of anguish is one not borne out of pain or physical torment, but out of the fact that Jesus was cut off from God.  God the Father and God the Son who have related to one another with perfect love and harmony in all eternity, are now cut off.  God turns his face from his dear beloved Son, and for the first time in history Jesus, the perfect man, knows what it is to be at odds with the almighty Lord God.

As a Father does not delight in punishing and rebuking a disobedient child, God the Father takes no sadistic pleasure in pouring out his wrath – especially because this is the dear Son who he loves.  And yet, rather than punish the children who have rebelled against their Creator and Heavenly Father, God the Son who never rebelled offers himself in our place.  He submits to receiving the punishment that we were due, even though he was perfect.  He is willing to be forsaken for us even though he had never forsaken God himself.

The cry that goes up from the cross is one of wrenching emotional torment – a dearly beloved Son separated from his loving Father.  Jesus understood that he was being forsaken by God as he hung on the cross … He understood he was the perfect and ultimate Passover Lamb.  He went to the cross sacrificially, willingly and obediently.  But why?

The questions about penal substitutionary atonement and comments about “cosmic child abuse” do raise the genuine question – How can a loving God act like this?  People are absolutely right to assert that God islove.  That’s how he describes himself in his Word.  But does that negate what else the Bible tells us about the nature and character of God?  God is also good, he is just, he loves right and hates evil.  People are right to assert that a lot of things are achieved in Jesus’ death on the cross – victory over evil, God’s salvation act of gathering a new covenant people for himself, Jesus’ ultimate act of self-sacrifice, humility and servant-hood – after all it’s the single most important event of the Bible.

Many participants of the debate seem to want the different understandings of God’s character and purposes to be mutually exclusive.  If the Bible tells us that God is love, and tells us that God punished sin in Jesus on the cross, then it’s mischievous to try and play the two ideas off against each other.  Often I think it’s because we can’t really be bothered to work hard, to pray for wisdom and understanding on how these things work together.  We get lazy and it becomes easier to discredit and ignore Biblical teachings we don’t understand or don’t find particularly comfortable.

What seems hardest to comprehend in this particular controversy, is this.  The very idea that God is love is followed by a clear explanation of how God shows his love;  1 John 4:8 tells us clearly that God is love – it is in his very being, it defines him. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Therefore, if God is love then whatever God does must always be loving.  But 1 John 4 doesn’t stop there – in verses 9-11 John explains exactly what the love of God looks like

“9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

So far from being contradictory doctrines, “God is love” and “God punishes Jesus on the cross” actually support one another – God the Father and God the Son clearly demonstrate their love of sinful mankind in sending Jesus as an atoning sacrifice.  Penal substitutionary atonement does not undermine but rather it massively underlines the fact that God is love.

As a doctrine, it’s always likely to make us feel uncomfortable as it makes us realise the impact, the seriousness, the offensiveness of our sin against God.  It reminds us that because of our horrific rebellion against the one who created, blessed and sustains us, the perfectly innocent Jesus had to suffer an appalling and excruciating death, and to be cut off from God so we could be rescued and redeemed.  It’s not the most flattering thing for our inflated human egos, but then we like to think we’re not that bad really. 

But is it not encouraging to know that God is so incredibly loving, that the extent of his love is so great that even though we spurned him and turned our backs, that he should give of himself so graciously and generously?  That while we were his enemies, that Jesus should come and willingly die in our place so we could not just be called friends of God, but be welcomed into his family?  That God the Father should be willing to do this even though it meant the pain and anguish of punishing his innocent and dearly beloved Son on the cross?  That God the Son should be willing to do this even though it meant being cut off and forsaken by his Father and beaten, broken, nailed, pierced and crucified?  Is that not love of the greatest kind?  And if God loves us enough to do that, can we not have complete confidence that he will keep us, that he will love us and remain faithful to his promises for all eternity?

The authors of “Pierced for our Transgressions”, a recent work on this very subject (very highly recommended) have given their book the sub-title Re-discovering the Glory of Penal Substitution.  I think this is absolutely right – this should be a teaching that causes us to rejoice and give thanks to God, not to argue and fall out about it.  It’s an amazing thing that God has done on the cross, and something that should be a source of praise and thanksgiving.

However, in the reality of our churches and theological circles, it seems to be an idea under great attack.  To my mind, it is the clear understanding of Jesus Christ himself and the overt teaching of the Scriptures, that a loving God punishes his willing Son in place of us, that we might be a rescued and redeemed people who recognise God as Lord and King and seek to honour him in everything.  As John says in 1 John 4:

 7Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”  


3 Responses to “Easter and the Christ”

  1. 1 Phill February 4, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Thanks Joe, very interesting 🙂 I will have to read through in more detail and give more informed feedback over the next day or two!

  2. 2 Phill February 21, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    Hi Joe,

    I’ve just read through this properly. It’s a good overview 🙂 I do have some comments to make about the use of sacrifice in Leviticus, but I want to explore the theme of sacrifice in the atonement in a bit more depth so I will probably write a blog post about it at some point.

    Anyway, thanks for this, I enjoyed reading it! 😀


  3. 3 Immovably June 24, 2008 at 10:27 am

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Immovably!

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