We’re half-way through the FaithRethink Series focusing on the atonement of Jesus. Some of you have been holding out for Cruciform: How the death of Jesus on a Roman cross changes everything where I will share the atonement theology I subscribe to.
For now, I want to pick up from where we left off. In Hijacking the Biblical Story of the Atonement, we considered the content of the story we were taught was the Biblical Story only to discover that it had far more in common with Middle Platonism and second century Christian Gnosticism than it did with the stories of Scripture or Jesus’ teaching. And then in the last article, Reengaging with the Bible’s Biggest Themes, we spent time reflecting on some of the biggest themes of Scripture. As we did, we gave ourselves the permission to acknowledge where our theological knowledge base (including our view of the atonement) may have been influenced by second century Gnosticism rather the teaching of Jesus and the early followers of Jesus as recorded in Scripture.
Today, we’re going to look at seven of the most prominent Stories of Scripture in order to shape (or perhaps reshape) our view of the atonement. Since so much of church history within the last two-thousand years has been steeped in second century Gnosticism, becoming more familiar with the stories of Scripture might help us gain a better (even more deeply Biblical) grasp on how we might interpret and understand the atonement of Christ.
The Creation Story
The creation stories in the first book of the Bible reveal to us a God who creates life and calls his creation very good. But more than that, and often missed in Christian discussion, this God creates by ordering together existing stuff to form new stuff. Genesis speaks of ancient formless matter and chaotic waters of the sea existing prior to creation (Yes, that’s in the Bible!). This is not to say that God didn’t create even the formless stuff or the chaotic waters of the seas (and actually, this is the way ancient Near Eastern creation myth stories sometimes began). My point is simply to notice that the Hebrew Scriptures included these bits, bits that are often ignored or explained away in an odd fashion by modern Christian pastors. According to the authors of Genesis, Elohim, the God of creation, orders this formless matter with his words and then his Spirit tames the chaos of the seas (see Peter Enns’ book, The evolution of Adam, for more on ancient creation myths and for understanding the Hebrew narratives better). This theme—new stuff created with old stuff—will later reappear in the New Testament narrative of new creation.
A hallmark of God’s very good creation in the Genesis narrative is humanity. Humanity is represented by Adam (meaning man) and Eve (breath or life). God places them in a beautiful Garden, Eden. As mentioned in the last article, Eden is a type of temple. Adam and Eve are a type of temple images. They are to reflect and represent their maker. Unfortunately, however, they decide to do something else instead. They listen to the voice of a creature that is also part of God’s good creation. And this voice leads them to do something contrary to what God said. Apparently, good creation can do things that is remarkably against their Creator. This creature’s advice is not merely anti (against)-God; it’s anti-creation (against creation). The ancient creature (the snake) attempts to bring disorder to God’s ordered world. He will show up again later in another story of Scripture as one who accuses creation.
As time moves one, the first couple’s son Cain incorporates other harmful elements that are not in the original beautiful garden: hatred and violence against other creatures within creation, beginning with his own brother. And so, the theme of anti-creation continues.
Anti-creation gradually compels the nations of the earth to use natural resources to build extravagant buildings, fortify cities and store vast amounts of military supply. Nations collect more stuff and use that stuff to dominate, subjugate and kill other nations. Mankind acts as agents of anti-creation repeatedly. The ancient Hebrews, also get wrapped up in this vicious cycle. It begs the question, is humanity being responsible with their calling to be images of God or are they wasting their lives?
Enter Jesus and Paul and the topic of new creation. Paul says that “in Christ, we are now new creation(s).” That is a profound statement. What once contributed to anti-creation, what once was an agent of anti-creation, has been restored and repurposed. This, Paul says, is new creation. God took the old stuff and made new stuff and he did in Jesus.
Not only this, but God promised that he would create a new heavens and a new earth. And part of this new creation would be resurrection bodies (as we covered in yesterday’s article). Again, God takes old stuff (yes, the old stuff he created) and remolds and remakes that old stuff into new stuff. Old into new.
New with old.
This is good news. In some mystical, powerful, transformative way, in and through the person and the death of Jesus Christ, old stuff has been made new again. It’s repurposed.
It’s new creation.
The Story of Adam and Humanity
The Bible’s first book, Genesis, says that God created humanity and the rest of creation. Adam and Eve represent humanity in this first story of The Story. We don’t really hear much about them through the rest of the Bible until we get to the letter the apostle Paul wrote to the Roman church titled Romans. What we do know of the first couple, and by extension all humanity, is that we were given the task of image bearers. This wasn’t a static thing merely existing by nature, though it was that too. This was a material calling. Humanity was to “rule” creation. From an ancient perspective, to rule over others carries a lot of oppressive baggage. But looking backward through the lens of Jesus and his cross, being a ruler takes on the meaning of caretakers. To be a caretakers changes how we view the land and the sea. It means rethinking how we might make our earth a habitable and sustainable place where community survival is at stake and maintained. We don’t do this by exploiting creation, but by utilizing creation for good. Humanity has failed at all the above. As the story of humanity in the books of the Bible enfold, nation building, violence toward neighbors and exploitation of the planet and food resources became our most grievous sins. Idolatry, in its most deviant and destructive expressions, is not merely worshipping other gods; it’s worshipping self to the exclusion of others. This was a human problem. Humanity had failed to live into their true humanity, their true calling as image bearers of God. They were living less than human.
After Jesus’ time, the Biblical figure of Adam takes on greater significance for the apostle Paul. Paul sought to find ways to make sense of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection for his people, the Hebrew people, and what it might also mean for non-Jews (Gentiles). As he did, he used a formula of the first Adam and last Adam. In Paul’s theological framework, whatever happens to Adam, happens to us because Adam represents us.
For Paul, in the first Adam, sin entered the world and infected all of us “in Adam.” Everyone. Yes, “All have sinned.” But a descendant Adam, Jesus, entered the world. He succeeded where Adam did not. Jesus represented(s) and reflected(s) God to others. He succeeded where Adam failed—where we failed. Jesus became the very image of God. He is the truly human one.
As Paul wrote beautifully, “So, then, just as, through the trespass of one person, the result was condemnation for all people, even so, through the upright act of one person, the result is justification – life for all people.”
And in Hebrews, the author states that “Jesus is the exact representation of God’s nature and upholds all things by the word of his power.” And in John’s gospel, “the word became flesh and dwelled among us.”
According to the early Christians, in the human person of Jesus of Nazareth, God had entered our world.
God entered our space. Our mess.
Because of this mystery, in the person and in the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the effects of sin through Adam have somehow been reversed and now “life for all people” is available and present.
The Story of Abraham and Israel
Abram, whose name later became Abraham, was from the land of the Chaldeans in ancient Mesopotamia. He was a polytheist, meaning like most people and nations of the ancient Near East (not to mention in the entire world) he believed in and worshipped many gods and goddesses, perhaps hundreds. We are told by the author of Genesis, that God called Abram to leave his people and nation and move. In this prophetic word he received, God said the following:
“1 Go from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
2 And I will make you into a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing;
3 And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who [a]curses you I will [b]curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
We might call this the Abrahamic blessing. The critical thing for us to know is that God chose him and his descendants in a special way—to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. This would mean, in part, that God would somehow make other nations aware of who they were as a people. It would also mean that God would develop them into a great nation, but the aim of all of this was so that all families of the earth would be blessed in (or rather, through) them. Following this prophetic message, as we continue to read the developing narrative of Abraham and his family in the Hebrew Scriptures, God intended to use Israel instrumentally to express and inhabit God’s presence and ways in a way that had been unseen across the earth. It was clear that God’s holy ways and holy presence would be clearly seen in the people of Israel. However, while that was God’s intention, Scriptural narratives reveal that this was not always the case.
Rather than blessing surrounding nations, Israel isolated themselves from other nations and at times subjugated them. Rather than act as a blessing, they acted more in line with a curse. They brutalized other nations as the Canaan mandate makes abundantly clear. To clarify, I am not saying the ancient Hebrews were unique in this. Many nations did the same thing, so we should be careful to not overly criticize the ancient Hebrews as if this phenomenon was something unique to their people. The ancient Hebrews and later Israelites were acting in similar ways that many other nations and empires in the ancient world had acted. You did things to survive, and to keep your people alive. They killed, they raped, they took, they subjugated others, even took slaves. They, as most ancient nations and empires had done, had missed the beauty of what it might mean to be God’s image and God’s blessing through it. Israel had failed to be God’s images like the rest of us. And they had failed to be a bless all the families of the earth.
Fast forward to the apostle Paul writings. In Paul’s theology, Israel and their forefather Abraham become part of a formula for how he sees God’s rescue plan (i.e. plan of salvation). Israel was to be the people through whom God rescued the world from the sins of Adam. Israel, according to Paul, was God’s representative to the world (harkening back to Isaiah’s prophetic words). In a sense, just as what happens to Adam later happens to the rest of humanity, so what happens to and through Israel is what happens to and through the rest of the world. It happens to Israel first. And it happens through Israel for the sake of the world.
But Israel, themselves, got caught up in the sins of Adam like everyone else. Israel failed as Adam did to be the images of God. They also failed to be the blessing to the nations.
Enter Jesus. Jesus, a descendant of Abraham and the people of Israel, becomes the true Israelite. The one who truly reflects what God is like. Jesus becomes Israel’s blessing to the nations (see Romans chapter 2-4 and Galatians chapters 3-4). This is Paul’s line of thinking throughout. It’s what New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright calls “the single plan of God through Abraham.” And part of this “blessing” according to Paul is that in the person and death of Jesus, God has brought together Jews and Gentiles into one single family. They are not both ethnic Jews. Only the Jews are ethnic Jews. Rather, they are invited and included into a much larger family called “the children of Abraham”—which Paul means to refer to the large human family whom God has rescued in and through Jesus of Nazareth. The blood of Jesus and the death of Jesus both act as a blessing because somehow they represents the vehicle through which God rescues the world (See N.T. Wright’s book Judas and the Gospel of Jesus to see how he lays out this concept of the “single plan of God through Abraham” and for a thorough analysis of Paul’s use of “the righteousness of God” and “covenant faithfulness” see Justification: God’s plan, Paul’s Vision and the introduction to his commentary on the book of Romans).
I purposely left out the Law in this section NOT because it’s not important (IT IS) but because often in Christian discussions about the failure of Israel has solely been on their failure to keep the law or suggesting some legalistic formula of where Jews are wrong because they are “trying to earn God’s forgiveness by following the Law,” and Christians are right because they “simply accept God’s grace by faith.” That formula simply misses the point of Paul and the New Testament’s vision entirely. The Law is an incredibly important part of any discussion on Jewish and Christian theology, but time will not allow to go into depth here.
The Story of David
David is one of the favorite Hebrew kings of Scripture. For many reasons, not least because he was passionate about his love for Yahweh, the God of Israel. A sizable portion of the Psalms, both prayers and songs, are attributed to him. His fantastical defeat of the giant Philistine, Goliath during his youth is part of Jewish legendary history. His underdog quality stayed with him as he later joined King Saul’s military, and he made quite a name for himself as a military leader on behalf of Israel. Saul became jealous of David and tried to have him killed, but David escaped multiple times, even sparing Saul’s life a few times. After Saul’s death, David became king. Despite many personal failures (including murder and adultery—a royal tragedy and fall from his more admirable and honorable days of boyhood), David had a desire to build God a permanent house similar too but unique from the Tent of meeting. He never had the opportunity to do this because as Yahweh said, “he had blood on his hands.” Instead, God had his Solomon build the Temple. But what is interesting about David, if that wasn’t interesting enough was that David was given a promise: “you would always have an heir sit on your throne.” Historically speaking, this did not happen. A great divide happened in David’s family. One son committed incestual rape with his half-sister. One son jealously wanted David’s throne. The kingdom eventually was divided into two following Solomon’s reign, with the southern half being renamed the Kingdom of Judah under Rehoboam’s leadership (Solomon’s son) and the northern half named Kingdom of Israel under the leadership of Jeroboam.
A series of horrendous kings both in Israel and Judah rose to power. Only a few honorable kings would take the throne again, usually from house of David. In time, things got so bad in both kingdoms that the prophets warned of an invasion of foreigners sent by God to punish them for lack of justice toward their own people and their engrossed engagement with idolatry.
During their time in exile in Babylon, there came to be a belief that arose among of the people of Judah that God would keep his promise to David and there would come a future descendant who would turn the tide for Israel. He would overthrow the foreign empires enslaving Israel in their land and return them fully to the promised land.
Isaiah, in his prophetic book, echoed this belief.
According to Matthew’s genealogy, Jesus was a descendant of David. Bingo. The thing about Jesus though is that he didn’t come to overthrow anyone. He didn’t come to start a war, at least not with fists and swords. He did enter a few fighting matches with words with the religious leaders of his day, but use of force, he did not use. But like David, he did come to rescue his people. How?—by embodying the Way of Israel’s God in his life, teaching and behavior.
If Israel was to take up their mantle again as the agents of blessing to the nations, they were going to have to confront their internal conflicts that corrupt the body and soul—those personal demons they had carried for hundreds of years, their own lust for power, their lust for war, their lust for religious performance over doing justice, loving mercy and living humbly before God. This was never a uniquely Jewish problem because all human beings have sinned, but if they were to be the light of the world (another way to speak of the Genesis 12 blessing passage), they were going to need a deep-seated change of heart. But they were trapped and enslaved like everyone else.
They needed a rescuer who might go out in front of them in the battle and take on their enemies. Again, not to fight human enemies, but stand up to human enemies and in doing so stand against the evil powers working through those enemies. This son of David, Jesus, would demonstrate his leadership as king not by sitting on the usual kind of throne or with the might of fist and sword but by the power of servanthood—by laying his life down for others. He would willingly become the scapegoat created by Jewish authorities so that Rome would be pacified. Because if you go around the land of Israel saying the kinds of things Jesus said and doing the kinds of things Jesus did, you were naturally going to attract the wrong kind of attention by people in power. People like certain religious leaders (the Pharisees) who were jealous because Jesus made such a positive impression on the people and other religious leaders (the Sadducees) who were concerned that if Jesus says anything mildly inflammatory to the ears of the Romans, they will have Rome breathing down their throat and perhaps act violently toward to their people. It was time to get rid of him. Jesus was a threat to their positions and to the good standing Israel had with Rome (in as far as they had good standing). Jesus had to go.
Jesus, as the new son of David, represented a threat to the establishment and the world power of the day, the Roman empire and its head Caesar. And here’s the critical issue. Jesus’ kingdom—his way of being king—was not to pick up rocks, swords or fists. It was to go the extra mile. It was to turn the other cheek. It was to fight with the words of the spirit because his words were life.
If we are not careful here, we will miss the very earthy material world vibe of this story. Don’t try to make it gnostic or middle Platonist. It is about this world. This earth. This Jerusalem. Not going to heave when we die. As the people’s king of Israel, Jesus was killed for the way he was living and what he was teaching. Not merely in some abstract sense of dying for sin. Yes, I believe Jesus died for sin, but not in the abstract. Whatever that could or should mean, follow the storyline to get there. A descendant of David had come to rescue his people. He confronted the powers that be. They didn’t like it and they had him killed.
Instead of leading an armed fight against Rome, or for that matter the religious leadership, Jesus demonstrated a different way to be king, a different way to lead. Power through weakness. Power in weakness. Power through humility. Power in service. This was a different way to show power. It was a power for this world, though it originated elsewhere.
The Kingdom of God Story
And that flows right into this next narrative of Scripture. At one level, the kingdom of Israel looked like any ancient kingdom at the time in the ancient Near East. You had a king. You had a royal family. You had a state military. You had national life often represented by and reflected by the king and his army. Of course, Israel also contained the temple system with its priests, high priest and workers doing daily sacrifices and maintaining the temple obligations, which I will get in another section below.
A reoccurring problem in the story of the ancient Hebrews is that they began to imitate the surrounding nations. They imitated their kings and they imitated their kingdoms. They subjugated surrounding neighbors. They even talk of genocide of the tribes and nations living in the land of Canaan so that they could occupy their neighbor’s land. Do you know what they called the Land where they spoke of committing genocide—the Promised Land. Food for thought. But again, Israel as a nation didn’t do anything different than the other surrounding nations and empires. Power was displayed with military force and it was survival of the fittest—every nation for its own. You take, you kill, you take some more. This is what I and other theologians call the story of empire.
Now, while so much of Israel’s ancient history was soiled with empire building. It was also filled with empires taking from them, stealing from them and forcing them into exile. They have been both the oppressor and the oppressed. I don’t make light of either end of the spectrum the ancient Hebrews have been in. Both demonstrate brokenness.
Enter Jesus. As mentioned in the above section on David, Jesus demonstrated a different kind of kingship. He talked about God’s kingdom not as a one that violently forces its enemies into submission but that finds a way to serve one’s enemies creatively. For Jesus, if the Roman soldier (an enemy of Israel) forces you to carry his gear and equipment for a one mile, go two miles instead of killing him. This enemy posture demonstrated extreme generosity and grace. It also showed that you, not your enemy, is in charge. The way of Jesus called people to go beyond what the oppressor had demanded to surprise your oppressor and shame his oppression and to free yourself from the perception of being enslaved.
Jesus himself lived his own message throughout his life, but no more evident than when he was crucified. On the headboard on top of the cross, Pilate had the words written “King of the Jews.” The prophetic irony of the gospel writers was to say that, although Jesus did not have the usual throne, he did have a throne. It was set up on a lonely hillside next to two criminals hanging and brutalized on a Roman cross.
Jesus’ throne was a cross.
However, we recognize the incarnation and atonement in the Gospel Stories, we must not miss this point: the way the God of Israel established his kingdom was on a Jewish hillside on a Roman cross.
It’s not as many well-intentioned Christians have assumed, “Peter, Jesus didn’t set up a throne during his first coming because he died for sin the first time around. It was purely a spiritual mission, not an earthly one. During his second coming, he’ll set up a real throne on earth when he comes to wipe out all his enemies.” That is a deeply tragic misreading and perversion of the Jesus’ story.
Don’t miss this! If you do, you will miss so much more.
The Prophetic Story
Today’s western understanding of what a prophet was in ancient Israel is extremely confusing and often completely mistaken. In the last two-hundred years, long-lasting influences of the prophetic movement within modern American Pentecostalism(s) and the charismatic movement(s) as well as certain misguided interpretative approaches in broader Protestant Evangelicalism to the prophetic have left a very incomplete picture of the vibrant and profoundly important Prophetic Story of Scripture. And even this short section, while an honest attempt at exploring the prophetic, only begins to crack open the door to the ancient and Biblical world of the prophets and the prophetic.
First, in the world of the ancient Near East, the prophet took on various roles. Prophets in the ancient world (not just in the Bible) often acted as a voice to the king of a tribe or nation on all matters of life, but especially topics relating to the economy, political alliances, military conflicts and social life within the community (though the list was endless). Sometimes a prophet or group of prophets were part of the regular counsel of a nation’s king. In the story of the ancient Hebrews, this was also the case. Other times, it was not.
A rule of thumb is that prophets who were regularly called upon by the king were more inclined to tell the king what the king wanted to hear for fear of their lives; they were considered false prophets. True prophets were willing to tell both the bad and the good news. Sometime prophets were part of a school as with the school of prophets in the story of Samuel and in the story of Eljah and Elisha. Other times, a person simply heard “the word of the Lord” and had no prior training, as with the farmer Amos.
The prophet wasn’t simply—as modern Christian theology has asserted—someone who tells the future (though that was sometimes a function of his/her role). In today’s Christian churches, prophecying is often understood as “telling or seeing into the future,” but this is a very misguided understanding of the prophetic in ancient Israel. In the Bible’s world at least, prophets did not so much see into the future (as if the future was guaranteed or fated) so much as they relayed what God promised or intended to do in the future. The nuance is important. Sometimes those promises were conditional based on what the response of people would be and sometimes they were unconditional and not contingent on what the people did.
The true prophets in the Old Testament narrative were known for calling the people of God (the people of Israel) back to the way of the Lord (which usually meant obeying the Lord by keeping the commandments of the Law) though their function also included communicating the word of the Lord (which was situational). In Israel’s history, particularly during the monarchy, Israel’s kings, leadership and priests had moved away from many of the practices set up in the Law. Prophets called them back to them.
The most notable and honored prophet in the history of the Hebrew people was Moses. Moses was in a class to himself with regards to the prophets of Scripture. He was known as the only person who had “seen the face of Yahweh (the Lord’s name)” and lived. Moses also functioned for time as a priest before the giving of the Law, but he was known mostly as the prophet. As a prophet, he spoke God’s words and messages to the Hebrew people. As the prophetic leader of the Hebrew people, he accomplished three primary objectives: confront the king of Egypt (Pharaoh), deliver his people from Egypt through signs and wonders, establish the practice of Passover, give them the Law of the Covenant and lead them into the promised land—but because of one act of disobedience Moses could only lead them to the point of entry to the Promised Land, but was not allowed by God to enter it with them. At the close of Moses’ life in the book of Deuteronomy, we find a small passage of Scripture where God tells the people via Moses that another prophet will come who they should follow. For the ancient Hebrews, that statement would have merely referred to future prophets who would rise up like Moses to lead and guide the people of Israel with the prophetic word. It was not at the time a Messianic designation.
Flash forward to the New Testament, one of Twelve disciples, Philip, says something that seems to allude back to the Deuteronomy 18:18 passage, suggesting that he believed that Jesus was the prophet spoken of by Moses. The four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) all see Jesus as the new prophet of Israel following the death of John the Baptist. In fact, you can’t read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life without seeing him as the new voice of the Lord speaking into Israel’s life and community. While the Gospel writers claim much more than this, they are not claiming anything less. Jesus, as the prophet of the Lord, is calling the people back to their original calling to be a blessing to the nations when he said things like, “you are the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.”
For Jesus, however, he taught them to not merely obey the Law, but to obey its intentions. He was also willing to call into question some practices within the Law with statements like “You’ve heard it said, but I tell you.” This was no clearer than in his commands about how to treat neighbors and enemies. As Israel’s prophet, and in line with many of the Hebrew prophets of old like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos, Jesus spoke of impending doom and destruction on the land of Israel. But interestingly and news to some of us, Jesus’ message in his great Olivet Discourse (recorded in Matthew 20-25) was not about what modern Christian dispensationalist theology refers to as the second coming of Christ; it was about the events pertaining to the first coming of the Messiah. In fact, Matthew 24:34 makes this abundantly clear. The coming destruction Jesus spoke of was nothing less than the destruction of Jerusalem in AD/CE 70 during the First Jewish-Roman War which left a horrific bloodbath in the streets of Jerusalem. In fact, Jesus’ use of the Greek word γέεννα—properly transliterated Gehenna and often mistranslated “hell” in numerous English Bibles—was most likely referring to the Valley of Hinnom on southwestern corner of Jerusalem, which had become a garbage dump during the time of Jesus. Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian, mentioned that this Valley would have been the site where all or much of the dead were thrown after the siege of Jerusalem. Coming to terms with this actual destruction begins to shed light on Jesus’ prophetic statements about a place “Where the worm does not die and the fire is not extinguished.”
My point: Jesus’ prophecy about a coming destruction was about the destruction of Jerusalem. The prophecy, like many Biblical prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures, was conditional. If the people would “repent” (turning things totally around in life and faith) and turn to Yahweh they would avoid this destruction. How did Jesus assume they should repent? At a minimum, it meant resisting the pagan practice of excluding “the untouchables and outcasts” in the community and hatred and violence against Israel’s enemies.
Some 1st century Judaeans and other Jews around Palestine did repent and began to follow in the Way of Jesus—the way of non-violent enemy-embracing love. But it was not enough. Violent Zealot groups, who may have otherwise thought Jesus a good man and teacher, refused to follow his way of non-violent love. Passionate about the Law of God and passionate about reclaiming the Land for themselves, they believed that overthrowing the Romans through the sword was the only option. They held the Romans at bay for a time but were later crushed as Rome’s might came down with great severity on the city of Jerusalem. Much more can be said about this and how many modern Christians have completely misread Matthew chapters 20-25, but I digress.
Jesus’ way of non-violent enemy embracing love was and remains the most powerful weapon of all. This later gets echoed in Paul’s teaching about how agape love expresses itself, who real enemies are and how to fight with different kind of weapons altogether (see Romans 12:1-21, 2 Corinthians 10:1-6 and Ephesians 6). His teaching about loving your neighbor and loving your enemies comes into full force by his implementation of non-violent love on Roman cross. Following Jesus’ example is how the early Jesus’ movement aspired to live for the first 100-200 years of the Christian faith. They did this because they believed it was Jesus’ way. It was (and remains) a big part of what it means to follow Jesus. It is us that have been misled by Constantine’s empire building mixture of sword and faith in modern day Christianity.
Modern Christians would do well to take head to Jesus’ prophetic warning, even though those warnings were specific to the destruction of Jerusalem. Wherever we invite the way of violence, hatred and exclusion into our church communities, our conversations and our faith, we can expect to find ruin and destruction waiting for us. Thankfully God is patient and kind, not only with us who attempt to follow Jesus and fail miserably, but with everyone. God’s loving posture, according to the New Testament disciples, extends beyond the church to the lost sheep of this world.
To close this section on the prophetic, I want to point out that the New Testament author of the Letter to the Hebrews spends a considerable time comparing Jesus with Moses the prophet and the entire sacrificial system, including the Temple itself, and he concludes with this: “Jesus blood speaks a better word.”
We would be wise to listen to that word.
The Temple Story
In the ancient Near East, polytheism was the only viable way of understanding the world. Everyone who is anyone believed in multiple gods and goddesses, sometimes hundreds, sometimes even thousands. Often, worship carried a regional component; for instance El was the chief or high god among the Canaanites and An was the chief god of heaven among the Sumerians. The same is true of the Egyptians or tribal nations who lived in Asia Minor. Also, certain gods and goddesses were depended on to help with specific life circumstances as with Baal, the god of fertility or Ashtoreth, the goddess of war and sexual love.
For thousands of years, nations and tribes set up alters and shrines to honor these gods. Typically, a sculptured object (an idol) was placed at the shrine as a physical reminder to the people of the god’s influence and power in their lives and to signify that the god was present with them. Some idols were believed to carry the very presence and power of the god they worshipped. Eventually, larger shrines and temples were built as places where the religious community would meet with the god or goddess.
For ancient Israel, that place was the Tent of Meeting—a sort of travel size temple without the bricks, stone or metal used in permanent structures. They traveled with the Tent of Meeting during their forty years in the desert on the way to Canaan Land (ie. the Promised Land). Within the Tent of Meeting were two primary chambers—the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. The most sacred place was the Most Holy Place (or Holy of Holies) and was only to be entered by the high priest once a year. Within the Holy of Holies was the ark of the covenant, and within the ark was the ten commandments. The ancient Hebrews believed that God’s very presence was in, around and on the ark. The only ones who were authorized to carry the ark during their travels were the Levitical priests. If anyone else attempted to carry the ark, they were struck down dead.
Aaron (Moses’ brother) and his sons were the priests who managed the sacrificial system which maintained ritual purity for all community members and covenant relationship with Yahweh. Sacrifices included both animal sacrifices and meal offerings, and they were shared with the priests, who represented Yahweh to the people at the Tent of Meeting. Some sacrifices were burned, and others were eaten. Some sacrifices and offerings were used to repair broken covenant with Yahweh, and some were simply offered in celebration of what Yahweh had provided to Israel; his provision included their food (as with the manna and quail in the desert), shelter, military successes, miraculous intervention (as with the parting and crossing of the Red Sea), and their hopeful anticipation of entering the Promised Land.
In addition to the daily and weekly sacrifices, there were yearly festivals that also included sacrifices and offerings as well. Notable was Passover. Passover was the most significant festival in shaping the identity and history of the people of Israel. It was a yearly reminder of God’s rescue from the angel of death that took the lives of the children of Egypt but spared the Israelite’s children whose parents had placed the blood of a lamb over their doorposts. Another yearly festival, Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, too was also incredibly important. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest offered two sacrifices to Yahweh inside the Most Holy Place for the sins of the entire nation (including his and son’s sins). First, the high priest would slaughter a bull and offer it as a burnt offering on the bronze alter in front of the Tent of Meeting (or the Temple during the time of the kings). He would take some of the blood of the bull and a firepan full of coals from the burnt offering and bring them into the Most Holy Place. He would also take two goats, one of which he would sacrifice in front of the Tent of Meeting. It’s blood along with the blood of the bull would be placed on the atoning cover of the ark of the covenant. He would also lay both of his hands on the head of the second goat in front of the Tent of Meeting and confess the sins of Israel. Then he would invite a nearby Israelite to take the goat outside the camp and let it go free. This goat was called the scapegoat.
Nearly every major festival, including Passover and Yom Kippur, involved Sabbath celebration, sometimes extended Sabbaths. Outside of the festivals, the Sabbath (REST) Day celebration was a weekly observance. It, as much as Passover and Yom Kippur, deeply shaped the life and identity of Israel reminding them of God’s ability to sustain them with food when they had none in the desert and calling them to follow God’s example by taking a day to rest from their labor, as Yahweh did on the seventh day of creation.
The Tent of Meeting was eventually replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem (a permanent structure that housed the presence of God). As stated earlier, God’s presence was believed to be within the Most Holy Place within the Tent and the later Temple that replaced it. In that regard, God was always within the community of Israel traveling with them. This was both a terrifying prospect and an encouraging one. It struck fear in both the community of Israel as well as with those outside of Israel in the surrounding nations.
But midway through the Temple Story of Scripture comes an interesting revelation. After King Solomon’s artisans and builders built the Temple, he knelt in front of the Temple and made this remarkable admission: “even the highest heaven cannot contain [God]…how much less a house?” Clearly Solomon saw this in the context of building Yahweh a temple, but this admission is notable. Luke the doctor, Paul’s companion in the days following Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, also recalled this same thing when recounting what Paul said to the Athenians in Greece.
This admission is remarkable because central to Judaism was the Temple, the Law, and the Land. We could also add the priests and the sacrifices as well, but those thee carried the most weight. All of Israel’s life surrounded what happened at the Temple, what they were taught in the Law, and these things happened in the Land of Promise—the Promise Land.
So, when Solomon made such a wild claim, he (perhaps without realizing it) opened the door to a much larger question about God. What the ancients, including the ancient Hebrews, believed about gods is that gods are located somewhere. They were located in places like Temples. They were located in holy books, like THE LAW OF THE LORD. They were located in the Holy Land because God has promised the land to them.
To suggest that God was outside of that framework was a dangerous thing. In fact, it might cost your life. Fast forward a thousand years. When Jesus acted out his contempt for the injustices of the Temple’s caretakers and got out a whip to create an animal stampede in the outer courts of Jerusalem’s Temple just days before he was crucified, he was acting out God’s judgment on the very place they believed was sacrosanct. In that single act of prophetic judgment, Jesus was calling into question the Temple, the Law, the sacrificial system, the priesthood, and even the Land. Those things were intended, according to Jesus, to be part of the original calling of Genesis 12—to be used to bless the nations. But Israel had turned inward, and this attitude started at the top with the religious leadership of the Temple (though it worked its way into the larger community). It wasn’t every Israelite to be sure, but the inward focus kept them from seeing the non-Jewish world as the very people whom God had called them to love.
Who was Jesus to speak to us about what is good and holy and true? We are the caretakers of the Temple. We are the ones God chose to lead. We can’t let him get away with this aggressive accusation!!!
Although Jesus was never violent toward anyone at the temple—the whip was used to create an animal stampede not to beat people with—the leaders of the Temple would disagree. He had affronted them with a charge, and he needed to pay the price.
Enter the temporary alliance between the Temple priests (the Sadducees) and the religious pressure group (the Pharisees) and the political supporters of Herod (the Herodians). It was time to speak with the Roman governor together.
The truth was, God was never bound to the Temple, the Law, the sacrifices, the priesthood or the Land. They served a purpose for a time. But those things that had become so central to Judaism became a crutch to mistreat their own people and ignore the Genesis 12 mission they had received so long ago during the time of Abraham. As Paul the apostle and the author of Hebrews later stated, the Temple, the Law and the Land was a school tutor preparing God’s people for what was ahead. God was not bound to them.
Strangely though, God had located himself in one place the leaders did not expect, nor did the people.
And in that place—or rather in that person, God did the unexpected. A new Passover had come. A new rescue mission. A new Red Sea. A new Covenant written in blood. Would they only open their eyes to see him?
The disciples of Jesus believed that anyone who found themselves following this Jesus, had somehow mysteriously been given access to the very presence of God—this presence that had once been located in the Temple, the Law and the Land—and this presence had somehow inhabited their own person too.
As Jesus said, the Spirit blows where it wishes.
And as this Presence—this Spirit—stirred their hearts with cross-shaped enemy embracing love, it compelled them to let go of their isolated and exclusive theologies that only located God in certain places to the exclusion and detriment of others (especially their enemies), and to go out into the broader world where people looked different than them and prayed different than them and invite them into this beautiful-crazy, mercifully hopeful way of Jesus.
To be Christian meant nothing less than this.