Understanding Easter (or “A Short Easter Essay”)

Today is Good Friday.

I want to use this opportunity, if I may, to set out (more or less) clearly some things I’ve been thinking about recently in regards to the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – things that may seem a little different to what is often called the “traditional” view, but things that I think are helpful in understanding what this event actually means.

By the way, this is going to be quite a long post, so you may want to get comfortable if you’re going to read it all the way through…

Anyway, the so-called “traditional” view, as expounded in many churches of a Reformed heritage, is that Jesus died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven – the perfect “Lamb of God” standing in the place of the guilty, the righteous in place of the unrighteous, in order that the wrath of God in regards to sin could be fully satisfied. The wages of sin is death, after all, and thus God could not leave sin unpunished (and still be a righteous God). In God’s mercy, however, Jesus was offered in our place, as the perfect “sacrifice of atonement” that allows us, if we are to place our trust in Jesus, to stand before the great Judge and be declared “not guilty!” Jesus’ righteousness has somehow been imputed to us in this great exchange, and we are set free!

Hallelujah!!!

The first thing I’d like to say is that I think there is probably a legitimate basis for this in the Christian Scriptures. I have had debates about this with a number of biblical scholars and theologians, but I think it’s fair to say that the apostle Paul (at least) seems to offer this idea, in part, as one of the many different ways he explains what happened in the event of the cross.

But this is just the point.

This sort of imagery is offered as part of a range of ideas that made sense to the people to whom Paul was writing. The sacrificial imagery was perfectly acceptable to first century Jews and Gentiles alike, and didn’t really present much of a conceptual problem. The idea that God’s wrath must be poured out on sin made a lot of sense in a context where the pagan gods were always angry at something, and needed to be placated. Thus, Paul works within that framework and suggests that, unlike the pagan gods who were capricious and vindictive, the [Judeo-]Christian God was always and only angry at sin. Unlike the pagan gods who forced the worshipper to take the initiative, the Christian God took the initiative in presenting Jesus as the perfect sacrifice of atonement. Unlike the pagan gods who needed to be placated by many and various measures, the Christian God was only satisfied with the sacrifice of Jesus who was, after all, both fully God and fully human. (I’ve basically plagiarised most of this summary from Leon Morris’ The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, and would recommend checking it out if you’re interested in these things.)

So, in summary, Paul presents the idea (among others) that God offers God to God, in a sense, so that God’s righteousness remains intact while at the same time God remains ultimately merciful.

Paul was brilliant! He was an absolute genius! He did theology in his own context, interacting with the ideas that were current and that made sense to the people he was talking to. Three cheers for Paul!

Our task is to do the same.

Our problem, however, is that the whole idea of sacrifice doesn’t really make sense any more, and thus we need to be far more creative in the way we present the meaning of the cross to people today (not to mention the fact that the view described above tends to lead towards a very individualistic understanding of the Gospel as “Jesus dying so my sins could be forgiven”).

Fortunately for us, there are a whole bunch of other ideas in the Scriptures that we can work with. There are a range of ideas that give us a bit of elbow room to move and work out how to best explain the game-changing work of the cross and what it might mean for us today.

I want to start with the Gospel of John, chapter 2, verses 13-20.

Jesus goes up to Jerusalem around Passover time, walks into the Temple courts, and begins to tear.it.up! He drives out the animals, overturns the tables, and basically gets pretty cranky at the whole scene.

Some people have suggested that maybe Jesus was just having a bad day when he did this, or perhaps just couldn’t control his temper as well as one would expect of the Son of God (tsk tsk!).

But there’s more going on here.

It’s interesting to note what the Jewish authorities say to Jesus: “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” This was all about authority. This was all about who was in control, and who could change the system.

The system was corrupt. The office of the High Priest was able to be bought from the Romans (who were in control), and the Temple authorities were becoming quite wealthy due to their decisions to play the Roman game and work within that broader system.

But Jesus steps in and overturns the heart of the system – the profiteering from the sacrificial system that was the means by which covenant relationship was maintained to that point.

It’s even more interesting to note that in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) where this incident occurs, Jesus actually quotes from Isaiah 56:1-8.

This passage from Isaiah is extremely important!

Basically, it suggests that those who had formerly been specifically excluded from taking part in the Temple cultic system in the Law (foreigners and eunuchs) were now being called to fully join the people of God. As long as they “bound themselves to Yahweh” they could no longer be excluded, for “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7).

The point of it all was that Israel was meant to be the shining light to the nations of the world, drawing them in to come and worship the one, true, Creator God.

But it hadn’t turned out this way.

Israel’s system had become hopelessly exclusive – working on principles of keeping people out rather than drawing them in.

And this is what Jesus overturned.

He overturned the Temple system that set up dividing walls between where Jewish men could go, where Jewish women could go, and where Gentiles could go – each being kept respectively further and further away from the Temple itself (remembering that the Temple was meant to symbolise the very presence of God). It may be useful here to also reflect on where the money-lenders’ tables and the animals for sale were probably located – in the court of the Gentiles, taking up more space and further excluding them from getting near the Temple.

But Jesus couldn’t leave it this way.

So he overturned the tables, symbolically overturning the whole system, demonstrating in the most effective way he could that he was challenging the very authority of the Temple and the whole system set up around it.

And the Jewish authorities asked him: “Show us a sign to prove that you have the authority to do this.”

And Jesus offers them this cryptic response: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19).

At this the Jewish leaders scoff. “It’s taken 46 years to build this thing. What, are you going to have some sort of Amish barn-raising to try to build the thing again or something?”

But the author of the Fourth Gospel adds in a very important note at this point: “But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:21-22).

Jesus was suggesting that he was to become the “new Temple.” The Temple was the centre of the Jewish faith, with its sacrifical system around it, but Jesus was suggesting that he himself was to become to the new centre of Israel’s faith. Israel was now to be organised around Messiah, rather than Temple. A new day had arrived.

Jesus was pretty smart.

He knew that the Temple system was headed for destruction. He knew that the way Israel was organised would only lead to death. This exclusive system had come to be based on nationalistic zeal, and, though the Temple authorities were alright with the fact that they were profiting off their relationship with the Romans, the Jewish people would ultimately come into direct conflict with their Roman overlords in all-out war. The Jewish people, with the stories of Gideon and Judas Maccabeus to guide them, would one day pick up the swords that they kept under their beds in anticipation of the coming of the military Messiah who would lead them to victory, and would run headlong into battle with the mighty Empire.

And this is just what happened in 66-70AD. It didn’t work out very well.

But Jesus knew this. He knew that if nothing changed, death would follow. He knew that the nation of Israel would die the death of Roman criminals if they kept on their course.

And so he offered himself.

He offered himself in their place. He offered himself as the Temple to be destroyed, rather than the physical Temple to be destroyed in 70AD. He suggested that, if Israel would re-organise around him, then they wouldn’t die the death of Roman criminals.

He would instead.

And here’s the beauty of it: If they kept their course and ended up in all-out conflict with the Romans, their system would be thoroughly destroyed. The Temple has still not been rebuilt! But, if they organised around Messiah, then he would take on the destruction to himself. And rather than being destroyed forever, he would rise again three days later. In this, he not only demonstrated that he was truly the Jewish Messiah; he demonstrated that he was truly the Lord of all.

He went up against the most powerful Empire that the world had ever seen – with their god-like Caesar and all – and yet he overcame. Death could not hold him down. He rose again on the third day and demonstrated once and for all that he was truly Lord.

And what this all means is, I think, something very profound.

In re-organising Israel around himself, Jesus did away with the exclusive system that kept people separated from God.

Paul says it like this:

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) — remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:11-22).

For Paul, the prophecy of Isaiah 56 has finally been fulfilled in Jesus.

For Paul, Israel is now not the people organised around the physical Temple and its system, but around Messiah. There is now no longer any separation between those who wish to centre their lives on God, because the only badge of membership is faith in the Messiah.

And this is great news!

We, those of us who are not Jewish by birth, are now able, though Jesus, to be part of the true Israel of God – the family of faith organised around Messiah (which includes, by the way, the concept of the forgiveness of sins, albeit within a broader understanding of the gospel).

But Jesus is not simply the Jewish Messiah; through his death and resurrection he has been demonstrated to be Lord of all!

What this means, if we go a little further into Ephesians, is that this family of faith, true Israel or “the Church,” is the demonstration of God’s manifold wisdom. God is holding up the Church as “Exhibit A” declaring that what he has done here – uniting together in family parties that formerly saw each other as arch-enemies – is the foretaste of what he will do with the whole of creation.

The unity of the Church is the very demonstration of God’s wisdom, as we live together in peace and unity as a living demonstration of what will come in full one day.

And therefore, this Easter, as we ponder the work of Jesus on the cross, I want to suggest that we think very carefully about what this means.

The unity of the Church is the demonstrations of God’s manifold wisdom.

We often make God look like a fool.

This Easter, I want to suggest that, for those of us who call ourselves “Christian,” we think about these things deeply.

Let’s pray this Easter that the Spirit of peace would work among us to help us live up to this great task.

Let’s put aside the useless squabbles and remind ourselves once more that we are united in Christ by the Spirit – that we are meant to be the inclusive family of God that lives out true reconciliation and peace.

We are meant to be the demonstration in the now of what will come in full in the not-yet.

Let’s take this responsibility seriously.

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