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The Meaning of Jesus' Death
Introduction To Christians living in the 21st century, it might seem that the doctrine of atonement is and has always been simply that Jesus "died for our sins." The current paper discusses the various understandings of Jesus' death in Christian history and some more recent interpretations in Christian thought. Understandings of Jesus Death in the Gospels Many Christians may be surprised to learn that the Gospels do not speak with one voice on the meaning of Jesus' death. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, there is very little commentary on what Jesus' death means and only a few fleeting In the Gospel of Mark, we read: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." (10:45) Similarly, in Matthew: "Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." ( 20:28) The understanding of Jesus' death in these verses is that it was somehow a "ransom" for us, but to whom was the ransom paid? As we'll see later, the early church had various thoughts on this. However, other than the notion that Jesus' death was a "ransom for us", Mark and Matthew are not clear on precisely how the ransom worked and are silent about what, if anything, our sins have to do with Jesus dying. In the Gospel of John, which was the latest of the Gospels, we see this theme clarified to a greater degree. When John the Baptist sees Jesus coming, he exclaims: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." The narrative of the Gospel of John explains Jesus' death as being like the sacrificial slaughter of the Passover lamb, even going so far as to place the time of Jesus' death at exactly the same time as the Passover lambs would have been slaughtered in the Temple. (The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) disagree with John in this respect. The Synoptics have Jesus crucifixion and death the next day). It should be noted that many Jewish people find odd the notion that Jesus equivalence with the Passover Lamb should have a connection to the forgiveness of sins. In the Jewish religion, the Passover Lamb was not a sacrifice for sin, it was a remembrance that God had passed over their houses when he was killing the first-born of the Egyptians. The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is the time when sin sacrifices are given.
So we see from this that Matthew, Mark and John see Jesus' death as a "ransom" or sacrifice, but what about the other Gospel? What does Luke say? Before answering this question, we need a little background. Most biblical scholars believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke used some of the same sources for their stories because some of their stories are word-for-word the same in the original Greek. One of the common stories that they used was the story of the disciples arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. It is at the end of this story that Matthew and Mark give the saying of Jesus about him "giving his life as a ransom for many". Luke tells the same story, but their is something very striking about Luke's account - he removes the part of the story that has Jesus saying he is giving his life as a ransom. Here is Luke's version: "For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves." In fact, if you look at all that Luke wrote, which is about one quarter of all the New Testament, he seems to explicitly leave out any notion that Jesus death was sacrificial or that one had to believe something like this to be saved. As you may know, the author of Luke also wrote the Book of Acts. If we look at the speech of Peter in Acts 2, here is how Luke has Peter explaining Jesus' death and resurrection. "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know-23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it....This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses....Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified." 37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" 38 And Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Note that the phrase in bold does not connect Jesus' death directly with the forgiveness of sins, but repentance and the act of being baptized in Jesus' name. Note also that this was very much in keeping with the ministy of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4 - In the wilderness John the baptizer began preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.). The only operative difference in Luke's account is that the baptism be done in the name of Jesus.
Understanding of Jesus Death in Paul's Letters In Paul's letters, especially his letter to the Romans and Galations is where we get the first fully enunciated theology of Jesus dying for our sins. It is Pauline theology that we get the orthodox notion that has been handed down to us that Jesus death was a sacrifice for our sins.
In Galatians 3:10-13, we read: "For all who rely on doing the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not keep on doing everything written in the book of the law.” Now it is clear no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous one will live by faith. But the law is not based on faith, but the one who does the works of the law will live by them. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (because it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”) The quote "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" comes from Deutoronomy 21:22-23: "If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God.You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. Paul's understanding of the Hebrew Scripture here is novel. The scripture in Deuteronomy is about someone being executed and then hung on a tree and the requirement to take the body down before sundown so that the land will not be cursed. Paul sees the cross on which Jesus was crucified (while he was alive) as equivalent to the tree that a corpse would be hung on. We see that Paul's theology became the accepted theology in the early church, from a passage in 1 Peter that was written much later than any work by Paul. 1 Peter 2:24 ""He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed." (Note also the tying of Jesus' death to the 'suffering servant' of Isaiah 53) Understanding of Jesus Death in the Early Church With Pauline theology becoming the orthodox teaching of the church, we might be tempted to think that the understanding of Jesus' death was a settled matter, but it was argued throughout early church history. Origen (c.185-254) developed the "ransom theory" developed from Mark 10:45 and explained the atonement as a price paid by God in Christ to the devil. By our sin, we were children of the devil and so God had to pay ransom to the devil for our souls by the death of Christ. The devil accepted the payment, but then was surprised to find that God had paid the price but then overcome him by raising Jesus from the dead. Saint Anselm (c.1033-1109) developed the "satisfaction theory." He explained the atonement as an act of satisfaction paid by Christ as man to God the Father, who demanded from man perfect obedience to the law, which he could not fulfill because of his sinfulness. Anselm's theory embodied the notion that the sin of man was an affront to God's honor and so in order to put
things right, God's honor must be satisfied and so a payment for the sin had to be offered to God. Many theologians see the Medieval system playing a large part in Anselm's thinking. In the Medieval order, an insult or affront to the Lord (Ruler) had to be avenged for order in the system to be restored. Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142) suggested that Jesus' life and death is primarily a moral example to humanity. That it can inspire us to lift ourselves out of sin and grow towards union with God. It is the individual Christian believer seeking wholeness. Jesus life and death are intended to inspire us. We are to be "willing to take up our crosses daily in the service of some good cause to mankind, and thus work out our own salvation."
Modern Objections to Traditional Understandings of Atonement Many in the church today have problems with traditional understandings of Jesus' death as a sacrifice for our sins. One of the most common objections is that since God is understood to be omniscient, omnipotent, omnibeneficient, just, and ethical, it is illogical to assume that he would be willing to allow his son to be tortured to death if there were another way to achieve atonement. God might have, for example, simply forgiven people for their sin because he is forgiving in nature. Jesus repeatedly taught that extending forgiveness is taking the moral high road. Additionally some people see some of the teachings of Jesus as undermining the traditional understanding. For example, in the story of the Prodigal Son (told only in Luke!), the father (who represents God) does not demand that his prodigal son kill something (a sacrifice) before the father will offer forgiveness to him. When the son returns home, the father runs out to him with no pre-conditions and no demand for sacrifice or satisfaction, forgives him and wraps his arms around him and welcomes him in. In the "lost" stories of Jesus (ones about the lost coin and the lost sheep), he tells of how there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner returns to God. There is no mention in the stories of God having to have his sense of justice satisfied by a sacrifice. People who reject the traditional atonement theories, see the teachings of Jesus as an echo of the prophets who said that God is not pleased with sacrifices but wants simple repentance and compassion. What the prophets said was remarkable for their time: that ritual and cult in themselves were of no value to God. Humanity, justice, and morality were superior to any cult. They said God did not want rituals; He wanted higher moral standards from mankind. They said that God abhorred sacrifice [without heartfelt repentance], that it was no sin not to offer sacrifice, and that the sin was corruption and the perversion of justice."
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