Lecture 9: The Work of Christ – His Death and Atonement
Lecture 8: The Work of Christ – His Death and Atonement
We’ve been talking about the person of Christ.
Today we want to turn to a new section on the work of Christ.
The operative question in the person of Christ is who is Christ?
The operative question with respect to the work of Christ is what did he do?
The work of Christ has traditionally been analyzed by Protestant theologians in terms of the three offices held by Christ, namely prophet, priest, and king.
We want to look especially at Christ’s work with respect to his priestly office.
This is called the doctrine of the atonement.
The word “atonement” is unique among theological terms in that it does not derive from Latin or Greek, but rather derives from a Middle English expression “at onement” indicating a state of harmony or union.
The closest New Testament word for atonement in this sense is the term katallagé which means “reconciliation,” specifically, the reconciliation of God and man.
Reconciliation is the overarching theme of the New Testament.
Other important New Testament motifs such as the Kingdom of God or justification or salvation or redemption are subservient to this overarching theme of reconciliation with God.
Atonement in this sense is at the very center of the Christian faith.
But I need to alert you to a narrower sense of the word “atonement” which is expressed by the biblical words that are usually translated by the English word “atonement” or “to atone.”
In the Old Testament the word “atonement” and its cognates translate forms of the Hebrew having the root kpr - that is the Hebrew root that then is differently inflected.
The best known of these expression is doubtless Yom Kippur – the Jewish holy day or Day of Atonement.
To atone in this biblical sense takes as its object impurity or sin.
One atones for impurity or for sin.
It has the sense “to purify” or “to cleanse.”
The result of atonement in this more narrow sense can be said to be atonement in the broader sense – reconciliation.
But nevertheless, the biblical words which are translated “to atone” or “atonement” in your English Bibles need to be understood in the narrower sense of “to cleanse” or “to purify” if we are to understand correctly the meaning of these texts.
Theologically, the doctrine of the atonement of Christ concerns atonement in this narrower, biblical sense, and has traditionally been classified or treated under the priestly office of Christ.
The message of the New Testament is that God, out of his great love, has provided the means of atonement through Jesus Christ.
By his death on the cross, Christ has made possible the reconciliation of alienated and condemned sinners to God.
John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Thus the expression “the cross” came to be a metaphor which epitomizes the entire Christian Gospel message.
So Paul, for example, could refer to the Gospel message he preached as “the Word of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
He also reminded his Corinthian converts in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
So central to the proclamation of the Gospel message was the atoning death of Christ.
This wasn’t an emphasis that was peculiar to Paul or the writers of the epistles.
The four Gospels devote disproportionate amount of space to Jesus’ so-called Passion, that is to say the final week of his suffering and his crucifixion thereby emphasizing the death of Christ.
Of course, Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of the Passion story.
The Gospels conclude with Jesus’ victorious resurrection from the dead vindicating Jesus as God’s chosen one.
The death and resurrection of Jesus are thus two sides of the same coin. Paul says in Romans 4:25, “Christ was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
So death and resurrection are really two sides of the same coin.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, Paul quotes the earliest known summary of the Gospel message.
It is a four-line formula which scholars have dated to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Paul says,
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, [then he begins to quote this four-line formula] that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:11 that this is the message that was preached not only by him but by all of the apostles, and it is the message that dominates the New Testament.
Notice in this formula – in the first line – it says that Christ died for our sins. In Romans 4:25 that we quoted a moment ago Paul says that Jesus had been put to death (or literally in the Greek “delivered up”) for our trespasses.
Christ died for our sins, he died for our trespasses.
That raises the question: how is it that Jesus’ death dealt with our sins?
How did his dying on the cross overcome the estrangement and condemnation of sinners before a holy God so as to reconcile them to him?
This is question that governs the doctrine of the atonement.
In handling this question, I think it is important that we distinguish between the fact of the atonement and a theory of the atonement.
There are a great variety of theories of the atonement that have been offered down through church history to try to make sense of the fundamental fact that Christ by his death has provided the means of reconciliation with God.
So the fact of the atonement is straightforward.
Christ, by his death, has made possible the reconciliation of sinners with God.
But how this works is a matter of one’s theory of the atonement.
Competing theories of the atonement need to be assessed in terms of two criteria.
First of all, there accord with biblical teaching.
Any theory of the atonement pretending to be Christian needs to be consistent with the biblical data about the atonement.
Secondly, they should be assessed in terms of their philosophical coherence. A theory of the atonement which is logically incoherent or otherwise philosophically problematic doesn’t commend itself to us.
3rd: Greatest Being Theology.
We need to assess these competing theories both in terms of their accord with biblical data as well as their philosophical coherence.
So we want to begin by concentrating on the biblical data concerning the atonement and spend a good deal of time looking at that.
Let’s look at the biblical data concerning the atonement.
Theologians have often remarked on the multiplicity of metaphors and motifs characterizing the atonement found in the New Testament.
The biblical doctrine of the atonement, I think, has been very aptly compared to a multifaceted jewel that can’t be reduced to just one motif.
Rather it is a multifaceted doctrine and a full-blown atonement doctrine must take account of these different motifs.
Let’s look at some of the various facets of the biblical doctrine of the atonement.
The predominate motif used in the New Testament to characterize the atonement would be the motif of sacrifice.
Christ’s death is a sacrificial offering to God on our behalf.
New Testament scholar Joel Green provides the following very pithy summary of the New Testament data respecting Christ’s death as a sacrificial offering:
In their development of the saving significance of Jesus’ death, early Christians were heavily influenced by the world of the sacrificial cult in Israel’s Scriptures . . .
If you are not familiar with that word, the word “cult” doesn’t mean a sect or an aberrant teaching.
Cult here refers to the ritual that was performed in the tabernacle and in the temple. Religious cult in this sense is more like liturgy.
. . . and by the practices of animal sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple . . . The expression “Christ died for all,” widespread in this and variant forms throughout the New Testament . . . is thematic in this regard, as are references to the salvific effects of the blood of Christ [which has reference to the blood of the sacrifices]. . . . Jesus’ death is presented as a covenant sacrifice . . ., a Passover sacrifice . . ., the sin offering . . ., the offering of first fruits . . ., the sacrifice offered on the Day of Atonement . . ., and an offering reminiscent of Abraham’s presentation of Isaac. . . . The writer of Ephesians [5:2] summarizes well: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
This motif of Christ’s death as a sacrificial offering to God is central to the New Testament data with respect to Christ’s death.
Let’s look more closely at Jesus’ attitude toward his death.
The interpretation of Jesus’ death as a sacrificial offering was not some ex post facto rationalization on the part of the early Christians of Jesus’ ignominious death by crucifixion.
Rather Jesus himself had seen his impending death in this light.
Jesus predicted his death and even provoked it by his messianic actions in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast such as, for example, the triumphal entry into the city.
Jesus’ selection of the Passover festival as the time for the climax of his ministry is no accident.
This was deliberate.
As he celebrated his final Passover meal with the disciples he says these words in Mark 14:22-24,
And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
Jesus evidently saw his impending death symbolized in the elements of the Passover meal.
It was the blood of the Passover lamb that was smeared on the doorposts of the Israelite houses that had saved the Jewish people from God’s judgment when the death angel passed over them and smote the firstborn of Egypt.
Moreover, the expression that Jesus uses - “this is my blood of the covenant” - recalls Moses’ words in Exodus 24:8 when he inaugurated the Mosaic covenant with the people:
“And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’” Now Jesus says, “This is my blood of the covenant.”
Jesus, as the Messiah, is inaugurating by his death the new covenant which had been prophesied by Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
Jeremiah says [starting at verse 34],
And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
In this passage God is presenting a new covenant that would bring restoration and forgiveness of sin.
Moreover, going back to Jesus’ words in Mark 14, his words that his blood is poured out for many hark back to Isaiah’s prophecy of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53:12.
God says, “he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
Jesus evidently saw himself as the suffering servant of the Lord described in Isaiah 53 who, in verse 10, “makes himself an offering for sin.”
Earlier in Mark, Mark 10:45, Jesus describes himself in the following way:
“For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The Son of Man that Jesus refers to here is a divine-human figure from the book of Daniel 7.
Daniel 7:14 says, “And to him [the Son of Man] was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”
In Mark 10:45 Jesus stands this saying on its head.
In Daniel it says that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve the Son of Man.
But Jesus says the Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
He comes in the role of a servant, like the servant of Isaiah 53, and he gives his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus evidently saw his death as a redemptive sacrifice like the Passover sacrifice. He saw himself as a sin-bearer inaugurating like the Mosaic sacrifice a fresh covenant between God and man that would bring restoration and forgiveness of the people.
In the last words of Jesus at the Last Supper, as well as this ransom saying of Mark 10:45, we have a clear insight into how Jesus understood his death which he deliberately provoked.
He saw this as a redemptive sacrifice for sin that would inaugurate the new covenant.
We can gain insight into Jesus’ death as a sacrificial offering by examining the function of the Old Testament sacrifices which formed the interpretive framework for Jesus’ death.
So I want to turn now to a brief discussion of the Old Testament background of sacrifice.
When we turn to these Old Testament sacrifices we enter a world which is utterly foreign to modern Western readers.
Most of us, I dare say, have never seen an animal butchered much less done it ourselves.
Used to as we are to buying our meat or poultry in antiseptically wrapped packages and refrigerated bins, we are apt to find these animal sacrifices in the Old Testament revolting as well as bewildering.
Moreover, most of us have no familiarity with a world in which ritual practices which were fraught with symbolic meaning play a major role in one’s interaction with the spiritual realm.
So these Old Testament rituals may often strike us as bizarre and opaque.
If we are to understand these practices we have got to shed our Western modern sensibilities and try to enter sympathetically into the world of a bucolic society which was not squeamish about blood and guts and which had a highly developed ritual system for its approach to God.
The challenge of understanding these ancient texts is compounded by the fact that they often describe rituals without explaining their meaning.
The meaning of these rituals was probably known to their contemporary practitioners but we don’t have that advantage.
So we have to try as best as we can to discern the proper interpretation of these practices based upon the clues that we have.
Fortunately, I think we do have sufficient evidence to form some reliable idea about how these Old Testament sacrifices functioned.
The Old Testament sacrifices come in a bewildering variety, the distinctive functions of which are not always clear.
Fortunately, I think we can determine the general function of these sacrifices without going into a delineation of the various kinds of sacrifices that were prescribed.
In general, the sacrifices served the twin fundamental purposes of the expiation of sin and the propitiation of God.
The word “expiate” means to cleanse or to purify.
The word “propitiate” means to appease or placate or satisfy.
The purpose of expiation is to cleanse or purify from sin and impurity.
The object of propitiation is God – to appease or satisfy God’s wrath or justice.
It is important to keep these two notions distinct.
The object of expiation is sin or impurity; the object of propitiation is God.