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Book Review

Tom Wright on the Crucifixion

In his earlier work, Surprised By Hope, Tom Wright shook up traditional thinking about life after death and eschatology. In his latest popular work he does something similar with the cross and the atonement. The book is The Day The Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion by Tom Wright (SPCK, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-281-06145-7). What, he asks, is the cross really all about? Our answer to that question will always shape the message we proclaim.

The death of Jesus, in the understanding of the first Christians, triggered a revolution. This was something far bigger than a personal ‘you can be saved from your sins and be sure of going to heaven’. It was a revolution with huge implications for the world at large. The fact that, for many today, it is something less is due to developments over two thousand years of church history, which Wright helpfully summarises.

He then goes back in history to place the cross in its original, first century, setting. He explores the Gospels at length, plus Paul’s letters, with a detailed treatment of Romans in particular—and, even more particularly 3:21-26. Here he exposes the traditional ‘works contract’ for the error it is.

Messiah dealt with the ‘powers’, notably Sin itself, by his cross. In so doing he brought Israel’s long, unfinished story to its astonishing conclusion. Now we, as human beings, are free to embrace the vocation for which we were made: to be a ‘royal priesthood’ under God.

En route, the author has some fascinating observations on related topics. The Reformers’ doctrine of penal substitution, for example, was chiefly a reaction against the doctrine of purgatory. And he holds that there is no room, biblically, for the doctrine of the ‘appeasement’ of an angry God by Jesus stepping in between him and us, his intended victims.

While this is a ‘popular’ book, as against Wright’s academic writings, it is no light read. I went through it three times before I felt I had got a real handle on all its essentials. But it rings true to Scripture in every respect, reflecting Wright’s compendious grasp of the Bible as a whole and standing in stark contrast to the glib reductions of the ‘gospel’ that we hear all too often.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Do you have the guts to tackle it? If you do, you will be forever grateful. Hopefully the following quotations will whet your appetite.

[I have produced a PDF synopsis of the book, which you can access
and download here.]

[Note: the numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

I had been taught, that the death of Jesus was all about God saving me from my “sin,” so that I could “go to heaven.” That, of course, can be quite a revolutionary idea for someone who’s never thought of it before. But it’s not quite the revolution the early Christians were talking about. In fact, that way of putting it, taken on its own, significantly distorts what Jesus’s first followers were saying. They were talking about something bigger, something more dangerous, something altogether more explosive. (76)

What deep layers of meaning are hidden in the deceptively simple phrase “for our sins”? (281)

On the level of preaching and teaching, how can we best articulate the central gospel message, so that its impact comes from its original meaning rather than from dodgy illustrations that can easily distort the truth? (362)

Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century, was the first one to work out in detail what has come to be known as the “satisfaction” theory of the atonement: God’s honour has been impugned by human sin and must be satisfied. (397)

The sixteenth-century Reformers never sorted out what to say about the ultimate future (for which the technical term is “eschatology”); and, as we saw, whatever we mean by “atonement” is directly related to whatever we think about God’s ultimate future, particularly about what happens after death. How we are saved is closely linked to the question of what we are saved for. (422)

In general terms the Reformers and their successors were…trying to give biblical answers to medieval questions. They were wrestling with the question of how the angry God of the late medieval period might be pacified, both here (through the Mass?) and hereafter (in purgatory?). To both questions, they replied: no, God’s wrath was already pacified through the death of Jesus. (482)

The New Testament insists, in book after book, that when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place. And the early Christians insisted that when people are caught up in the meaning of the cross, they become part of this difference. (602)

The New Testament, with the story of Jesus’s crucifixion at its centre, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. (602)

The idea of an angry, bullying deity who has to be appeased, to be bought off, to have his wrathful way with someone even if it isn’t the right person fits uncomfortably well with the way many human authority figures actually behave. (663)

To understand any event in history, you must put it firmly into that history and not rest content with what later generations have said about it. That is certainly true of the crucifixion of Jesus, and unless we allow first-century contexts and insights to surround the event, we can be sure we shall fail to grasp its original meaning. (759)

Jesus himself chose Passover as the moment to do what he had to do, and the first Christians looked back to Passover as one of the main interpretative lenses for understanding his death. (950)

All the great prophets of the exile had insisted that Israel’s disaster (including the destruction of the Temple and the consequent sense of being excluded from the divine Presence) was the result of Israel’s own idolatry and sin. If and when, therefore, a fresh act of deliverance were to undo this long exile, it would be a divine act of “forgiveness of sins.” (950)

There has been little agreement on the meaning of sacrifice in Jesus’s world. Since both he and many of his earliest followers used the language of sacrifice in relation to his death (remarkable enough in itself, in that the Jews did not believe in human sacrifice), it will be important to clarify some at least of the meaning that seems to have been attached to the ritual slaughter of animals in the Temple. This is harder than some might imagine. (996)

In the Bible, God’s plan to deal with sin, and so to break the power of idols and bring new creation to his world, is focused on the people of Israel. In the New Testament, this focus is narrowed to Israel’s representative, the Messiah. He stands in for Israel and so fulfils the divine plan to restore creation itself. (1008)

The human problem is not so much “sin” seen as the breaking of moral codes—though that, to be sure, is part of it…—but rather idolatry and the distortion of genuine humanness it produces. (1045)

…the first three chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. There, one of the key technical terms is “righteousness,” in Greek dikaiosynē. For many centuries in many traditions, “righteousness” has been understood as the moral status we would have if only we had kept the “works contract” perfectly, and then (by various explanations) as the status we can have by faith because, despite our moral failure, Jesus has taken the punishment and so provided the “righteousness” as a gift (“the righteousness of Christ”). The problem—to put it bluntly—is that this is not what Romans is all about. (1069)

What the Bible offers is not a “works contract,” but a covenant of vocation. The vocation in question is that of being a genuine human being, with genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for his world. The main task of this vocation is “image-bearing,” reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker. Those who do so are the “royal priesthood,” the “kingdom of priests,” the people who are called to stand at the dangerous but exhilarating point where heaven and earth meet. (1081)

Most people suppose that when Paul explains what is wrong with the human race, he focuses on “sin.” This is wrong. What he says about “sin” in Romans 1–2 is secondary to what he says about idolatry. The primary human failure is a failure of worship. (1208)

The biblical story addresses…the “sin” problem but goes much farther. The problem is that humans were made for a particular vocation, which they have rejected; that this rejection involves a turning away from the living God to worship idols; that this results in giving to the idols—“forces” within the creation—a power over humans and the world that was rightfully that of genuine humans; and that this leads to a slavery, which is ultimately the rule of death itself, the corruption and destruction of the good world made by the Creator. (1232)

Only when we give full early Christian weight to the phrase “in accordance with the Bible” [1 Cor 15:3] will we discover the full early Christian meaning of the phrase “for our sins.” And this means renouncing the Platonized views of salvation, the moralizing reduction of the human plight, and ultimately the paganized views of how salvation is accomplished. (1329)

When we read Genesis and Exodus together, the construction of the tabernacle toward the end of Exodus and the role of Aaron the high priest within it can be seen as a renewal or restoration of the original creation. In the “little world” of the sacred tent, close up and divinely personal, the story echoes the original creation. Heaven and earth belong together. God himself is mysteriously present. Humans, bearing the divine image, play their priestly role at the centre. (1354)

Just as the Creator chose the covenant people to be the means of rescuing the human race, so now, with the chosen people themselves in need of rescue, God might do the same thing again. He might act in a new way to call from within exilic Israel a remnant, perhaps even a remnant of one, through whom he would deliver Israel. (1365)

When humans sin, they hand to nondivine forces a power and authority that those forces were never supposed to have. And that is why, if God’s plan is to rescue and restore his whole creation, with humans as the active agents in the middle of it, “sins” have to be dealt with. That is the only way by which the nondivine forces that usurp the human role in the world will lose their power. They will be starved of the oxygen that keeps them alive, that turns them from ordinary parts of God’s creation into distorted and dangerous monsters. (1426)

Exile is therefore to be understood as a kind of corporate national death. Leaving the land is leaving the garden; leaving the ruined Temple means being debarred from the Tree of Life. (1475)

When the early Christian formula says that Jesus’s death happened “in accordance with the Bible,” it really does mean, as Jesus himself indicated in Luke 24, that the single great narrative had now come forward to its long-awaited goal. (1500)

It is startling to reflect on just how diminished the average modern Western Christian vision of “hope,” of “inheritance,” or indeed of “forgiveness” itself has become. We have exchanged the glory of God for a mess of spiritualized, individualistic, and moralistic pottage. (1641)

The book of Daniel bears witness to a recurring theme found in some parts of scripture and then in some postbiblical Jewish literature. When Israel’s God finally acted to accomplish the long-awaited end of exile—which, as we saw, meant the forgiveness of the sins that had caused the exile in the first place—this would come about through a time of intense suffering, either for the people as a whole or for a particular group within the people. (1713)

As far as I can tell, within Israel’s scriptures it is only in Isaiah 53 that the intense suffering is the means, and not simply the context, of the expected deliverance, of the forgiveness of sins… Isaiah 53, above all other passages, is used in the New Testament as the scriptural clue to the meaning of Jesus’s death. (1772)

…the New Testament’s message, that what we are promised in the gospel is the kingdom of God coming “on earth as in heaven”; or, to put it another way, for all things in heaven and on earth to be summed up in the Messiah; or, to put it yet another way, “new heavens and a new earth, in which justice will be at home” (2 Pet. 3:13). (2093)

In much popular modern Christian thought we have made a three-layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting “souls going to heaven” for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of “salvation” (substituting the idea of “God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath” for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore). (2105)

…the “forgiveness of sins” in the ancient biblical sense of the long-awaited covenant renewal and “end of exile.” (2161)

This is what “for our sins in accordance with the Bible” actually meant: that the scriptural narrative of the restoration of Israel and then the welcome of the non-Jews into this restored people…had been launched through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that the single-phrase summary of all this, operating at both the large, national scale and the small, personal level, was the “forgiveness of sins.” (2188)

Acts describes what happens to human beings who are learning to live within God’s new world: they worship and they witness. The first corresponds to the “priesthood” theme, the second to the “royal” theme. (2288)

But if heaven and earth are already joined in the ascension, with part of “earth”—the human body of Jesus—now fully and thoroughly at home in “heaven,” then they are joined again in the opposite direction, as it were, in Acts 2, when the powerful wind of the divine Spirit comes upon the disciples. This is one of the New Testament equivalents of the filling of the tabernacle with the cloud and fire or of Solomon’s Temple with the glorious divine Presence. (2327)

“Witness” is not simply about people saying, “I’ve had this experience; perhaps you might like it too,” but about people announcing that a new state of affairs has come into being. (2351)

And with the resurrection we find the beginnings of the interpretation of the crucifixion. The cross meant what it meant in the light of what happened next. (2517)

At the heart of what we securely know about Jesus’s death is the time of year at which it took place. It happened at Passover time, and it seems clear that this was deliberate on Jesus’s part. He chose, for his final and fateful symbolic confrontation with Jerusalem and its authorities, the moment when all his fellow Jews were busy celebrating the Exodus from Egypt and praying that God would do again, only on a grander scale, what he had done all those years ago. (2566)

…when Jesus himself is making his final journey to Jerusalem and telling stories about the master who comes back—an obvious allusion to the much-anticipated return of Israel’s God after the long years of exile. (2578)

As long as Israel was still in bondage to hostile powers, what was needed was a new Exodus; but, because the cause of that bondage was Israel’s sins, what had to happen was for those sins to be dealt with. This combination of themes—the Passover victory, on the one hand, and the exile-ending “forgiveness of sins,” on the other—would then become characteristic of many strands in the New Testament. (2649)

Almost nobody in the gospels warns about “going to hell.” The dire warnings in the four gospels are mostly directed toward an imminent this-worldly disaster, namely, the fall of Jerusalem and other events connected with that. (2814)

John 19:30, the last shout of Jesus from the cross, is sometimes translated “It is finished” or “It’s all done!” This is then turned into a statement about a bill being paid or an account being settled to fit in with a particular atonement theology rather than being allowed to make John’s point, which is the completion of Jesus’s vocation in parallel with the completion of creation itself in Genesis 2:2 (see also John 17:4). (2826)

All four gospels tell the story of Jesus as one of Israel’s God returning at last. (2874)

The four gospels are telling not only the story of God’s kingdom being inaugurated, but also the story of how evil draws itself up to its height so that it can then be defeated by the Messiah. (2958)

Within this larger picture, the evangelists have also explained how this “forgiveness of sins,” this “return from exile,” comes about. It comes about because the one will stand in for the many. It comes about because Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole. (3032)

Jesus is accused of crimes that Luke’s readers know he has not committed, but that are characteristic of the many revolutionary groups around at the time (23:2). He is thus to die the death of the brigand, the revolutionary, in place of rebel Israel as a whole. This is captured in the way Luke somewhat belabours his explanation of the “exchange” of Barabbas for Jesus. (3069)

Jesus’s death is seen, right across the New Testament, not as rescuing people from the world so that they can avoid “hell” and go to “heaven,” but as a powerful revolution—that is, a revolution full of a new sort of power—within the world itself. (3173)

The letter [to the Galatians] is about unity: the fact that in the Messiah, particularly through his death, the one God has done what he promised Abraham all along. He has given him a single family in which believing Jews and believing Gentiles form one body. (3376)

Precisely because the Messiah’s crucifixion unveiled the very nature of God himself at work in generous self-giving love to overthrow all power structures by dealing with the sin that had given them their power, that same divine nature would now be at work through the ministry of the gospel not only through what was said, but through the character and the circumstances of the people who were saying it. That is Paul’s central argument in 2 Corinthians. (3627)

Many traditions, misled by the normal translation of 1 Cor 5:21b as “that in him we might become ‘the righteousness of God,’” have imagined that in this verse we have a statement of what is called “double imputation”: our sins are “imputed” to Jesus and his righteousness is “imputed” to us. But that is specifically not what Paul says. (3653)

The poem [Phil 2:6-11] is a masterpiece of compressed biblical theology. One can only stand in awe at the combination of insight and expression that could encapsulate so much in a mere seventy-six Greek words. What this tells me is that already in the very early church it was common coin, first, that Jesus’s death established God’s kingdom; second, that this came about because of his servant-shaped identification with sinful humanity, sharing their death and so bearing their sin; and third, that this action was not something Jesus did despite the fact that he was “in God’s form” and “equal with God,” but rather something that he did because he was those things. In whatever way the New Testament tells the story of the cross, it is always the story of self-giving divine love. (3719)

Humans are designed to worship God and exercise responsibility in his world. But when humans worship idols instead, so that their image-bearing humanness corrupts itself into sin, missing the mark of the human vocation, they hand over their power to those same idols. The idols then use this power to tyrannize and ultimately to destroy their devotees and the wider world. But when sins are forgiven, the idols lose their power. (3756)

The first four chapters of Romans have for many years been read as though they were a statement of our old friend the “works contract.” Humans were supposed to behave themselves; they didn’t. God had to punish them, but Jesus stood in the way, so God forgave them after all (provided they believed in Jesus). Rather than going to hell, they can now go to heaven instead… I am convinced that this is mistaken. (3611)

“Sin” is not just “doing things God has forbidden.” It is, as we saw, the failure to be fully functioning, God-reflecting human beings. That is what Paul sums up in [Romans] 3:23: all sinned and fell short of God’s glory. He is referring to the glory that, as true humans, they should have possessed. This is the “glory” spoken of in Psalm 8: the status and responsibility of looking after God’s world on his behalf. This status and this activity are sustained by true worship of the true God. This is the royal vocation, undergirded by the priestly vocation. (3860)

The “I” and “me” of Romans 7 is a literary device through which Paul is telling the life story of Israel under the Torah. (4084)

[Re Romans 8:1-4]  “There is no condemnation for those in the Messiah … because God … condemned Sin right there in the flesh.” The punishment has been meted out. But the punishment is on Sin itself, the combined, accumulated, and personified force that has wreaked such havoc in the world and in human lives. Here is a point that must be noted most carefully. Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus. (4137)

The death of Jesus, seen in this light, is certainly penal. It has to do with the punishment on Sin—not, to say it again, on Jesus—but it is punishment nonetheless. Equally, it is certainly substitutionary: God condemned Sin (in the flesh of the Messiah), and therefore sinners who are “in the Messiah” are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not. (4150)

For the death of Jesus to be an expression—the ultimate expression—of the divine love, that covenant love that as we saw lay at the heart of so many ancient Israelite expressions of hope for covenant rescue and renewal, we would need to say, and Paul does say, that in the sending of the son the creator and covenant God is sending his own very self. (4174)

What then is this “righteousness of God”? In Israel’s scriptures, to which Paul explicitly appeals in Romans 3:21b (“the law and the prophets bore witness to it”), God’s “righteousness” is not simply God’s status of being morally upright. It is, more specifically, God’s faithfulness to the covenant—the covenant not only with Abraham and Israel, but through Israel to the wider world. (4380)

Paul is not saying, “God will justify sinners by faith so that they can go to heaven, and Abraham is an advance example of this.” He is saying, “God covenanted with Abraham to give him a worldwide family of forgiven sinners turned faithful worshippers, and the death of Jesus is the means by which this happens.” (4559)

God is faithful to the covenant; and, since the covenant focused on the purpose and promise to rescue the world through Israel, this is what has happened in and through the Messiah, who has offered to God the Israel-shaped obedience, the “faithfulness,” that was previously lacking. (4661)

The idea of “punishment” [in Isaiah 53] is in reality a sharp metaphor for the consequence that is writ large across the history of Israel—just as, when Paul is talking about sin and its results in Romans 1, he repeats three times that “God gave them up.” The corrupting and corrosive lifestyles he describes are not arbitrary, but rather the result, the consequence, of the original idolatry. This doesn’t mean that God is not involved in those consequences. (4925)

Israel’s past sins, the faithlessness that had apparently thrown the covenant into jeopardy, had been passed over, while the purpose of the covenant was gloriously fulfilled in the creation of a worldwide justified people. The “covenant of vocation”—Israel’s vocation to be the light of the world—was fulfilled. As a result, God and Israel “met” in Jesus. In Jesus, as Israel’s representative, God and Israel, God and the human race, God and the world met and were reconciled. “God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah” (2 Cor. 5:19). (5047)

Paul is not simply offering a roundabout way of saying, “We sinned; God punished Jesus; we are forgiven.” He is saying, “We all committed idolatry, and sinned; God promised Abraham to save the world through Israel; Israel was faithless to that commission; but God has put forth the faithful Messiah, his own self-revelation, whose death has been our Exodus from slavery.” (5059)

When we see the victory of Jesus in relation to the biblical Passover tradition, reshaped through the Jewish longing for the “forgiveness of sins” as a liberating event within history, we see the early Christian movement not as a “religion” in the modern sense at all, but as a complete new way of being human in the world and for the world. (5230)

To reflect the divine image means standing between heaven and earth, even in the present time, adoring the Creator and bringing his purposes into reality on earth, ahead of the time when God completes the task and makes all things new. The “royal priesthood” is the company of rescued humans who, being part of “earth,” worship the God of heaven and are thereby equipped, with the breath of heaven in their renewed lungs, to work for his kingdom on earth. (5243)

What we have to do is to respond to the love poured out on the cross with love of our own: love for the one who died, yes, but also love for those around us, especially those in particular need. And part of the challenge of putting that into practice is that the powers, in whatever form, will be angry. They want to keep the world in their own grip. They will fight back. (5278)

The victory was indeed won, the revolution was indeed launched, through the suffering of Jesus; it is now implemented, put into effective operation, by the suffering of his people. (5290)

The revolution he accomplished was the victory of a strange new power, the power of covenant love, a covenant love winning its victory not over suffering, but through suffering. This meant, inevitably, that the victory would have to be implemented in the same way, proceeding by the slow road of love rather than the quick road of sudden conquest. (5402)

The bread-breaking meal, the Jesus feast, announces to the forces of evil like a public decree read out by a herald in the marketplace that Jesus is Lord, that he has faced the powers of sin and death and beaten them, and that he has been raised again to launch the new world in which death itself will have no authority. (5497)

The reign of the crucified Jesus only had to be announced for it to become effective. The powers that had held people captive were powerless to stop them believing, to prevent them from becoming part of God’s new creation. (5638)

It isn’t the case that power as we know it in the “real” world is the “norm” and the Christian subversion of it is a kind of bizarre twist that might just work even though we don’t see how. The gospel of Jesus summons us to believe that the power of self-giving love unveiled on the cross is the real thing, the power that made the world in the first place and is now in the business of remaking it; and that the other forms of “power,” the corrupt and self-serving ways in which the world is so often run, from global empires and multimillion businesses down to classrooms, families, and gangs, are the distortion. (5746)

As Christians, our role in society is not to wring our hands at the corruption of power or simply to pick a candidate that supports one or another supposedly Christian policy. The Christian role, as part of naming the name of the crucified and risen Jesus on territory presently occupied by idols, is to speak the truth to power and especially to speak up for those with no power at all. (5770)

Those who are called to this particular royal and priestly ministry, to worship the Jesus who reasserted the power of love and to bring that powerful love to bear upon the enslaved world, will suffer in some way or other as they do so. (5811)

Mission, as seen from the New Testament perspective, is neither about “saving souls for heaven” nor about “building the kingdom on earth.” It is the Spirit-driven, cross-shaped work of Jesus’s followers as they worship the true God and, confronting idols with the news of Jesus’s victory, work for the signs of his kingdom in human lives and institutions. (5882)

We lift up our eyes and realize that when the New Testament tells us the meaning of the cross, it gives us not a system, but a story; not a theory, but a meal and an act of humble service; not a celestial mechanism for punishing sin and taking people to heaven, but an earthly story of a human Messiah who embodies and incarnates Israel’s God and who unveils his glory in bringing his kingdom to earth as in heaven. (6003)

Forget the “works contract,” with its angry, legalistic divinity. Forget the false either/or that plays different “theories of atonement” against one another. Embrace the “covenant of vocation” or, rather, be embraced by it as the Creator calls you to a genuine humanness at last, calls and equips you to bear and reflect his image. Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now. (6016)

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