Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Meaning of Christ’s Death

That is the subject of this week’s Sabbath School Lesson. It is probably the most important part of Christianity and in the last couple hundred years it has become the strangest doctrine of Christianity. The lesson introduction says:

So, this week we will seek to try to answer the important question of why Jesus died, what purpose was accomplished by His death, and what it means for us many centuries after the fact. Did Christ, as some assert, die merely to show us God’s love and thus to change our feelings about God; or did Christ’s death, in fact, do something that changed how God relates to us? These are all topics worthy of our deepest interest.
[All lesson study quotes are taken from the Teacher’s Guide PDF found here]

I like that beginning. Did Christ’s show us God’s love and change us as Paul asks in his rhetorical question:

(Rom 2:4 NIV) Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?

Or Does Christ who is God, do something that changed how God relates to us?

(Phil 2:6-8 NIV) Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!

Does God need to change or do we need to change? Honestly how long will we have to wrestle with that question? But I bet we will have to wrestle with it because tradition has placed such a hold on Christianity and the SDA church that what is obvious will appear hazy.

The Lesson for Sunday continues:

What do the following passages tell us about the death of Jesus? Was it something that had to happen? Matt. 16:21, 26:52–54, Mark 10:45, Luke 18:31–33, John 3:14, Heb. 9:25–28.

The consistent note here is that Jesus was born to die; His death was not an accident. It had to happen. Why did it have to? Well, that is not a matter that can be explained fully by rational processes, not because

it is irrational but because it is suprarational, above human reason. It falls in the realm of Divine revelation, part of that “mystery . . . kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints”

(Col. 1:26, NIV). The Bible does not go into any long attempt to justify it or to explain it, maybe because it is not something subject to human logic. We do not have other instances elsewhere by which to judge or compare it. Biblical atonement represents a solo occurrence in the history of the universe. And our task is to seek to understand what the Bible says about it and to apply what it means to our own lives.

Is that the consistent note that Jesus was born to die. He could have accomplished that moments after his birth. No those verses tell us that Jesus knew that He would die, it is the nature of sin…it kills it results in death.

Now how far do you get when you tell your children I can’t explain that, it simply can’t be explained by rational processes just believe me. Well you would not get very far other then that your child will think you don’t know and can’t admit it. How much worse if you tried to explain something like the lesson author by saying it is beyond human reason but we must seek to understand what the Bible says about what is beyond human reason and apply the meaning to our lives. That is nonsensical but it is the standard that people who believe in the Penal/Substitution Atonement theory will use. That is why I am using this point counter point style for this article. It is easy to express the love and forgiveness and acceptance that Jesus showed on the cross people eagerly and willingly accept it. But tradition has incorporated other things into the atonement things which are very big problems and because they are big problems they hide from them by saying we can’t logically understand the problems we created. So just accept what we have said and our tradition and ignore the problems.

As we move into Monday’s lesson we see where tradition over the Bible takes precedence:

Read Matthew 26:38. What was it that hung so heavy on the Savior during this crushing agony? How did He manage to survive the ordeal? (See Luke 22:43.) “Having made the [final] decision,” wrote Ellen G. White, “He fell dying to the ground [there in the garden].”—The Desire of Ages, p. 693. This means that although He later was killed by Roman hands, the fatal blow had come much earlier, delivered by one giant, collective hand, ours. How does it make you feel, knowing that your own guilt caused the death of Jesus? More important, how should you respond to those feelings?

Matthew 26:38 says that Jesus soul was filled with sorrow. Not guilt, not sins but sorrow. Sorrow for Himself or sorrow for humanity? We don’t know as it does not say. But my conception is that it is both. Sorrow for the people and for Himself because He was going to be rejected by the very people He came to save the people of His creation. To think about that in human terms it would be the sorrow of coming to your children who are living in the streets and offering the opportunity to return and live with you and having them spit on you beat, torture and kill you.

Did Jesus fall dying in the garden of Gethsemane? Not according to the Bible which asserts that even with His sorrow and regret for what He had to go through He was not abandoned as an messenger of God strengthened Him. (Luke 22:43 NIV) An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. Certainly as Peter tells the story it is not a fatal blow that fell before the cross.

(Acts 3:13-15 NIV) The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.

Peter goes on to comfort them that their actions were out of ignorance but what can the excuse be for those who rewrite the story so incorrectly.

The lesson begins in earnest to teach Substitutionary atonement on the Tuesday lesson:

1. The Concept of Sacrifice, Offering, Substitute—Ephesians 5:2: Christ “gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering [prosphoran] and sacrifice [thusian] to God” (NIV). Hebrews 9:26: He came “to do

away with sin by the sacrifice [thusias] of himself ” (NIV). Hebrews 10:14: By means of “one sacrifice [prosphora] he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (NIV). The idea in all these passages is that of vicarious death, death in our place, death as our Substitute. Vicarious suffering is suffering endured by one person in the stead of another. In 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul says that “Christ died for our sins” (NIV); Romans 5:8 says that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV); and 1 Peter 2:24 says that Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (NIV).

Although the Christian Church had the New Testament since it’s inception the Substitutionary theory of atonement was quite late in development. See the history of the atonement. Sacrifice and offering are clearly in the verses presented but the sacrifice is of God and by God not to God.

(Rom 3:25 NIV) God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—

The sacrifice was a fragrant offering because it the work of God, when you read the context you see that: (Eph 5:1-2 NIV) Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

He “gave Himself for us” the demonstration of God in love. The Greek has no inclusion of “sacrifice to God” it could just as easily be “sacrifice of God” the sweet-smelling savor of God. There is no doubt that Jesus suffered because of sin, He bore the results of sin, the hatred and cruelty the injustice that marks and mares our sin filled lives. But that is not substitution. Even the oft quoted verse (2 Cor 5:21 NIV) God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Is used as a paradoxical statement to sum up how the love of God compels us. (2 Cor 5:14-15 NIV) For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

The idea being that we die to our old ways and live again for the one who died for us all as His love compels us to do, raised to a new way of life just as Christ was raised to life. We do a great disservice to God by taking difficult statements away from their context. None of the lesson verses presents, “death in our place, death as our Substitute”.

The lesson goes on about ransom, thinking that paying a price is the same as substitution. It is of course not. If it was who was the ransom paid to. Certainly not God as Jesus is God. The ransom is the idea that God had to pay a price to reconcile us, just as to ransom a captive relative required giving up something, usually money. As it says: (1 Cor 6:19-20 NIV) Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

(1 Cor 7:22-23 NIV) For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord's freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ's slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.

The cost of God becoming like one of His creation would be huge in itself similar perhaps to a man becoming an ant. But on top of that God allowed Himself to be abused tortured and killed and there is clearly a large price God paid to reconcile us back to Him. The price paid is the sacrifice God made, the giving up of something important, this is the type of ransom that God paid, not to Himself or to Satan or even to man but the cost of His actions. But then that is what love does, it is not self interested, it is other centered and the cost becomes minor compared with the joy of reconciliation.

(Heb 12:2-4 NIV) Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Wednesday’s lesson tries to begin well then becomes as bad as what it denies:

The Concept of Propitiation (or Expiation) (hilasterion): In regard to the mission of Christ, the word is found in Hebrews 2:17, where it speaks of Christ making “propitiation for the sins of the people” (NKJV). “Propitiation” has the sense of pacifying someone. The belief was that when a god was angry, the people should make a gesture of appeasement (hilasterion) in order to render the god hilaros (happy, joyous) once more. What students of the New Testament repeatedly have noted, however, is that its authors, though borrowing vocabulary from classical Greek and elsewhere, nevertheless fill that vocabulary with brand-new content and meaning.

Accordingly, many Bible scholars agree that a better English translation of the word is “expiation.” So understood, the idea is that by means of Jesus’ death, God “expiates,” “covers,” “erases” our sin. Any idea of human appeasement of God would be utterly foreign to the New Testament writers. Instead, they wanted to emphasize that the entire human race, threatened by the righteous wrath of God on account of sin, was rescued by Jesus’ death. Jesus became our hilasterion, covering us from the wrath of God (see Heb. 9:5).

Notice how they have moved from the results of sin which has long resulted in death (sin pays a wage...death Rom 6:23) to salvation from the “righteous wrath of God on account of sin” we are now saved from the wrath of God that is just some much better then the idea of appeasing an angry God!

What is funny about the above is they reference Hebrews 2:17 which probably is peculiar among English Bibles that it even uses the word propitiation. As the King James Version does not even use it: (Heb 2:17 KJV) Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.

Most who do use propitiation use if from the King James verses Rom 3:25, 1 John 2:2,1 John 4:10 all of which are translated in modern English as “atoning sacrifice” or “Sacrifice of Atonement”

That really sums it up however, atonement is all about reconciliation the sacrifice is directed at swaying us back to God not changing God to accept us. He is the one making all the moves at reconciliation while we are far off, while we are enemies of God He comes to us. This is not a God of wrath, not a God that is in need of a change, not a God that has to figure out how He can forgive and reconcile by punishing the innocent. Not even a God that we have to say it is beyond human reasoning, because we have seen love and we know the power of love maybe not in full but even in our own ways we know what love is and how love forgives and embraces. It is time we give God the credit for being love and leave behind our foolish traditions.

1 comment:

Herb Douglass said...

Ron: Your analysis would have been better placed as counterpoint in the actual lesson so that thoughtful Adventists, young and old, would have a platform to see the Big Picture. The problem in many revered English translations is that certain translators unconciously allowed their theological presuppositions to select their particular words. For instance, the same Greek word, dikaiosune is translated either as justification or righteousness, which allowed for much different connotative differences in English. The same for pistis, the Greek word most translated as "belief, believe, etc." A world of difference but the basis for Calvinism and must of the translators. The fundamental question is: What does God want to accomplish with His Plan of Salvation? What kind of rebels does He want to entrust eternal life to? Cheers, Herb