The Royal Revolution: Fresh Perspectives on the Cross
N. T. Wright DD FRSE, University of St Andrews
Calvin College January Series
January 24, 2017
Thank you so much for your welcome. It is always good to be back at Calvin and to have the honour once again of being part of the prestigious January Series. From a glance at the programme it’s obvious you’ve had an amazing Series, and I wish I could have been here to soak it all up and get involved in the many discussions. But I’m glad I have the chance now to bring it all back home by focusing on the event without which there wouldn’t be any Christian faith at all – and, as I shall be explaining, without which the principalities and powers would still be ruling the world unchallenged and unchecked.
What I’m going to say is based on, though it will go a little beyond, the argument of my new book, The Day the Revolution Began. (And, before I forget, let me do one piece of shameless advertising: this book, and several other topics, are featured in a series of online courses which you’ll find available at ntwrightonline.org.)
All my conscious life the crucifixion of Jesus has been a powerful presence to me. My earliest Christian memories are of being overwhelmed at the thought of Jesus loving me enough to die for me. Nothing in all the years of academic study has changed that. So I have preached on the cross, I have lectured and written about the cross, many times over many years. But until this book I had never sat down to try to pull it all together into one place. (Indeed, this book is only really a start; there are many things, for instance in the Letter to the Hebrews, for which there wasn’t room.) But as I worked I found myself coming to conclusions which surprised me and which have given me a fresh perspective on what still remains unfathomable, the deep meaning of Jesus’ death.
I have been conscious that in much popular Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant, both liberal and conservative, both charismatic and socially conscious – there is a gap at this point. It’s always dangerous to say this sort of thing at Calvin, as I discovered five years ago when I spoke about the forgotten meaning of the gospels. Various people, notably Jamie Smith, told me in no uncertain terms that it hadn’t been forgotten here. But I think I am on safe ground in saying that we all find it easy to lapse into an oversimplified, and perhaps distorted, vision of what the cross achieved. When we stand back and look at the New Testament afresh we find new angles of vision which might, perhaps, help us not merely to navigate the traditional topics of soteriology, the mechanism of ‘how we get saved’, but also – and hence the word ‘revolution’ in the title both of the book and of this lecture – to glimpse again the fact, as the early Christians took it to be, that because of the cross a new world order has been launched, a royal revolution in which the followers of Jesus are committed to live and which they are committed to implement. So here, at the end of this remarkable January Series, I am not simply asking you to go back to the Bible and the gospel; I am suggesting that when we do so we might see fresh perspectives on what it means to be Passover people, people of the royal revolution, as we face pressing issues of many kinds in our society and culture.
So where to begin? Reading dozens of books on the meaning of the cross over the last few years I have been impressed – perhaps I should say depressed – by the fact that almost all seem largely to ignore the four gospels. Interestingly, some recent scholarship on the gospels does the same in reverse. Richard Hays’s amazing new book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, a stunning and field-changing achievement, concentrates on Christology and pays little attention to the scriptural echoes which help us understand the cross. So, although of course Paul remains central to the early Christian understanding of Jesus’ death, I think we need to probe deeper into the gospels.
All four gospels make clear one vital point: that Jesus chose Passover to go to Jerusalem and confront the Temple establishment with his radical counter-claim, knowing where it would lead. He didn’t choose Tabernacles or Hannukah; he didn’t choose the Day of Atonement. He chose Passover, because Jesus’ understanding of his own vocation was to accomplish, once and for all, the New Exodus for which Israel had longed. Passover-imagery isn’t just miscellaneous decoration around the edge of an atonement-theory whose real focus is elsewhere. It is the flesh-and-blood reality.
Within the gospels’ recounting of that ultimate Passover, one scene stands out with special poignancy and power. John’s gospel displays deft artistry and fathomless theology throughout, but especially in the footwashing scene in chapter 13. In a few lines we glimpse a tableau both intimate and touching and scary and dangerous. Having begun his gospel with the all-creative Word becoming flesh and revealing God’s glory, John begins the shorter second half with an acted parable of the same thing. Jesus removes his outer garments and kneels down to wash the disciples’ feet, summing up all that is to come in this act of divine humility, of loving redemption, of cleansing for service. For John, as indeed throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ vocation to rescue the world from its plight, and in so doing to reveal the divine glory in action, is focused, symbolized, encoded in an action simultaneously dramatic, fraught with cosmic significance, and gentle, tender with human emotion. If you want to understand the great mysteries of Christian theology, of Trinity, Incarnation, and atonement itself, you could do worse than spend time with this scene.
‘Having loved his own who were in the world’, John begins in 13.1, ‘Jesus loved them to the end, to the uttermost’. Here we see what it means that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son’: a love at once powerful and humble, sovereign and sensitive. As always, Jesus surprises his followers, as he was to do even more devastatingly at the climax of the story the following day. Peter characteristically raises an objection, but Jesus waves it away: If I don’t wash you, he says, you have no part in me. This produces a typically Petrine over-reaction: well then, says Peter, not my feet only, but my hands and my head. Calm down, says Jesus: you are already clean, because I have washed you; all you now need is the regular footwashing. This is already a wonderful image of the whole-person washing of the gospel itself, needing only the regular smaller-scale washing of dusty feet. But, like everything else in John’s story, it points forward to the great saving act to come, in which the filth and mire of the centuries would be washed away in the torrent of water and blood.
Jesus then resumes his garments, and explains the surface layer of meaning: as I have done this to you, you should do it for one another. Already this points forward to the ministries of the gospel unleashed through the Spirit in John 20: As the Father sent me, so I send you. Atonement then; atonement now. The theology of the cross is only ultimately complete when it issues in the footwashing, fruitbearing and world-transforming mission of Jesus’ followers.
Into this scene of prophetic action and symbolic power John has woven the dark strand which explains why all this is necessary and how the great redemption is to be accomplished. This is at the heart of the fresh perspective I am exploring. The accuser, says John, had already put it into Judas’s heart to betray Jesus. The accuser – the satan – is the dark, sub-personal force that has dogged Jesus’ footsteps throughout his mission, rather as Gollum is never far away while Frodo and his companions undertake their fateful journey; indeed, I rather think Tolkein was tracking a profound biblical theme in that strand of his narrative, including its final denouement. Jesus knows of course that the satan would do this. He had already hinted that one of his own followers would act out the great Accusation, the charge that would take him to his death. You see, it isn’t that Judas is merely succumbing to a miscellaneous temptation. Rather, he is doing the Accuser’s work: the hate and shame of all the world, the raging howl that rises from the accumulated forces of evil, of anti-creation, of tyranny and spite and sneering and lies, has gathered itself into one and has focused its deadly spotlight on the enfleshed Word, the living embodiment of the loving and wise creator. And love only makes it worse: it is after the footwashing, where Jesus warns that ‘you are already clean, though not all of you’, that the satan finally enters into Judas. ‘Do it quickly,’ says Jesus; and Judas goes out into the night. People sometimes say that St Luke was an artist; but if ever a biblical scene had all the elements of a great canvas, holding many different characters and moods within a single tableau, it is the footwashing in John 13.
I begin with this scene partly because, knowing I can’t say much in one lecture, I want to stir your imaginations so that you move beyond theories, models and schemes that can be played off against one another, and reach into the vivid historical reality. John has positioned the footwashing story with deliberate care to launch the final moves that will take us to the foot of the cross, and on, beyond, to the fresh morning in the garden and the warm breath of the outpoured Spirit. We will come presently to the theories. But the theories mean what they mean as interpretations of the story, of the real-life narrative of the word made flesh, of the flesh made shameful, of the shame itself killed and buried. The theories about ‘atonement’ are, at their best, battered little signposts pointing towards that larger reality. And the gospels are written, not to provide lively ‘illustrations’ of those theories (!), but to name and invoke the historical reality towards which they point. When Jesus wanted to explain to his followers what his death would mean he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal on the one hand and a dramatic action on the other. The Word became flesh, and it is in flesh – his flesh, and then, worryingly, our flesh – that the truth is revealed. God forgive us that we have answered rationalistic scepticism with rationalistic fideism. The Word – the Logos, the ultimate Reason in Person – became flesh. It is in the flesh that the world was saved; it is in the flesh that the glory was, and is, revealed.
When we pan back from John 13 and see this tableau within the larger context of the fourth Gospel as a whole, we discover that the whole book is about the revelation of the divine glory precisely in the salvation of the world. And this means what it means within the vast and sprawling scriptural story of Israel and the world. One of the reasons we need fresh perspectives on the cross is that we have failed to pay attention to that great story, reducing it to a string of proof-texts for doctrines culled from elsewhere. John insists otherwise.
In particular, John’s prologue urges us to see his whole story within the long reach of the first two books of the Bible. John focuses on the Temple, on Jesus’ upstaging of the Temple, on his implicit warning to the Temple and its guardians, and on his finally doing what the Temple could not. What has that to do with Genesis and Exodus? Time for some basic, but often ignored, biblical theology.
Genesis 1 and 2 describe, to first-century eyes, the construction of the ultimate Temple, the single heaven-and-earth reality, the one Cosmos within which the twin realities of ‘God’s space’ and ‘our space’ are held together in balanced mutual relation. The seven stages of creation are the seven stages of building a temple, into which the builder will come to take up residence, to take his ‘rest’: Here is Zion, my resting-place, says Israel’s God in the Psalms.
Within this Temple the final element, created on the sixth day, is the Image through which the rest of creation sees and worships the creator; the Image through which the sovereign creator becomes present to, in and with his creation, working out his purposes. Genesis 1 declares that the God who made the world is the heaven-and-earth God, the God we know as the one who works through humans in the world. And with this we understand both the beginning and the climax of John’s gospel. The start: in the beginning, en arche, bereshith: in the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh. And the climax: on the last Friday, the sixth day of the week, the representative of the world’s ruler declares ‘behold the Man’: like Caiaphas earlier, Pontius Pilate says far, far more than he knows, acknowledging that Jesus is the Proper Man, the true Image. When we gaze at him we see the Father; through him the Father is present, working powerfully, to bring about his desire and design. And in the end, when the light has shone in the gathering darkness and the darkness has tried to extinguish it, the final word (19.30) echoes Genesis once more: tetelestai, it is finished. The work is accomplished. There follows the rest of the seventh day, the rest in the tomb, before the first day of the new week when Mary Magdalene comes to the garden and discovers that new creation has begun. John is writing a new Genesis, and the death of Jesus places at the heart of this new heaven-and-earth reality the sign and symbol of the Image through which the world will see and recognise its Creator and know him as the God of unstoppable love, the sign and symbol of the Image through which the Creator has established that love at the climax of world history, the revolution that changes the world, the fountain-head for the rivers of living water that will now flow out to refresh and renew his whole world. That is the primary story John is telling.
But if it is a new Genesis it is also a new Exodus. Here there is a problem. For years, when reading Exodus, I used to misjudge what Moses says to Pharaoh: ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert’. I used to think this was just an excuse: we want to go to our promised land, so let’s tell Pharaoh that we want to worship our God and we need to do it in the desert. But the whole logic of Exodus, and of the Pentateuch as a whole, forbids that interpretation. If you read Exodus at a run you will easily arrive at Mount Sinai in chapter 20; but the pace then seems to slacken as we get some miscellaneous rules and regulations. But in fact the narrative is now moving swiftly towards the main purpose, the restoration of creation itself. This is the purpose for which God called Abraham’s family in the first place, the purpose to join heaven and earth together once more, only now in dramatic symbol and onward pointing sign. The giving of Torah itself is just preparation. What matters is the Tabernacle.
We should thank God for the many studies of Temple-theology now available, and we should repent for way we Protestants have ignored that whole dimension. The Tabernacle is the microcosmos, the little world, the heaven-and-earth place, the mysterious, untameable, moving tent in which the living God comes to dwell, to ‘tabernacle’ indeed, in the midst of his people, in the pillar of cloud and fire. The whole book of Exodus is itself moving towards this moment, in chapter 40. The Tent is constructed and decorated with the highest human artistry, which itself is part of the point, and the Divine Glory comes to dwell in it, so that even Moses couldn’t enter because of that glorious presence. Exodus 40 answers to Genesis 1 and 2: creation is renewed, heaven and earth are held together, the world itself is halted from its slide back towards chaos, and the people of God, tent-makers and tent-keepers and pilgrims wherever the glory-filled Tent will lead them, are to live the dangerous and challenging life of a people in whose midst there now dwells, in strange humble sovereignty, the living hope for the whole of creation. (This is course is why Leviticus is where it is and what it is, with the priests as the humans who stand at the intersection of heaven and earth; but that’s another story.)
All of this and much more – think of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 8, think of the vision in Isaiah 6 – is then poured by John into the dense revolutionary reality of the Prologue as it reaches its climax. In the beginning was the Word; and the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us; and we gazed upon his glory. We have been allowed where Moses was not. We have seen the glory, the heaven-and-earth reality, the human microcosmos, the Tent where the God of the Exodus is revealed as the One God of creation and new creation. John is describing the ultimate Exodus, through which creation itself is rescued and renewed to be the new creation which comes to birth on the eighth day, after the dark power, the great and terrible Pharaoh, has been defeated once and for all.
Of course it isn’t just Genesis and Exodus. Indeed, Genesis and Exodus themselves indicate that things are not going to be straightforward. Genesis 1 and 2 give way to the whispering serpent, the original exile, the first murder, and the long decline into human arrogance which ends with the tower of Babel. Eden and Babylon, like Jesus and Judas at the Supper, frame the action which follows, as Abraham and his family are called to a stupendous vocation and come repeatedly within a whisker of throwing it all away; as the children of Israel, gloriously rescued and on their way to their promised inheritance, make a golden calf at the very moment when the true microcosmos was about to be constructed among them, so that Moses has to engage in frantic verbal fisticuffs with God to prevent him aborting the entire operation. As the Pentateuch moves to its dark and puzzling conclusion it becomes clear that the people of God, the tent-keepers if you like, are still themselves a rebellious people who will have to suffer the fate of all those who put other Images at the intersection of heaven and earth. They, like their primal forebears, will go into exile, not despite the fact that they are the covenant people but precisely because of that dangerous reality. God will fill his creation with his glory; but it will come through the casting away and the receiving back of his tent-keepers. And, ultimately, through the casting away and receiving back of their royal representative, their King, their Messiah.
Genesis and Exodus, then, give us the structure, the framework of all subsequent biblical theology, and perhaps of John’s gospel in particular. God will rescue and restore his heaven-and-earth creation, and the Tabernacle is the sign and seal of that promise. Aaron and his sons are the image-reflectors who hold that hope together; Israel as a whole is the royal priesthood for the whole of creation. The Five Books give us the story, stretching forward in the final chapters of Deuteronomy to embrace the whole period of kings and prophets, of exile and restoration. The kings, themselves of course a deeply ambiguous lot, are nevertheless called in the Psalms to be image-bearers, to be the spearhead – the metaphor is not too harsh – of YHWH’s victory over the powers of evil, to be the focus of his reign of justice and peace. There is to be a royal revolution against the principalities and powers.
Or so it seems – until kings and priests alike fail miserably. The prophets, particularly Isaiah and Ezekiel, see the glory of God and the shame of Israel in severe counterpoint, with the consequence that the shame is complete and the glory departs. But Ezekiel then describes the creation of the new Temple, with Ezekiel 43 corresponding to Exodus 40 as the divine glory returns at last. And Isaiah, in his gospel of comfort, describes the scene of majesty in which the sovereign God comes back: the mountains are flattened, and the valleys filled in, for his glory to be revealed for all flesh to witness it. The majesty is joined with tender intimacy, exactly as in John 13: he will feed his flock like a shepherd, gather the lambs in his arms, and gently lead the mother sheep.
This is, then, a new Exodus. This prophetic theme stretches like a long question-mark over the four hundred years after exile in Babel, until a voice in the wilderness declares that the time has come. King, temple, new exodus, new creation; John sees the themes rushing together. Jesus chose Passover as the moment for action, the moment to awaken the biblical resonances which would frame his final kingdom-bringing action and passion, his royal revolution. The gospel writers, following this foundational insight, tell the story of Jesus as the story of the strange new Exodus in which the glory returns at last, in a form nobody had seen coming. No wonder Caiaphas and his cronies were alarmed. Their priestly role, standing between heaven and earth, was about to be upstaged once and for all and for ever by the true Image, the Word made flesh, who would sum up in himself both the long-delayed obedience of Israel and the long-awaited return of Israel’s God. When Paul, quoting the early formula, says that the Messiah died for our sins ‘in accordance with the scriptures’, it is this complex narrative, full of doom and glory, which he has in mind. Proof-texts are for the birds (or, more accurately, for neo-Marcionite rationalists). What matters is the story. The true story.
Both John and Paul draw out one theme in particular from Exodus, from Isaiah, from the entire earlier narrative. Babel must be overthrown if Abraham’s people are to inherit the world. Pharaoh must be overthrown if Abraham’s family are to be rescued. Babylon and its gods must be overthrown if the new Exodus is to be accomplished. All this the prophets see, particularly again Isaiah for whom God’s kingdom will be established through the defeat of the dark power and the redeeming return of YHWH to Zion . . . both of which will occur in the work, and the shameful death, of the Servant. All this is retrieved by the gospel writers, particularly John, as he leads the eye up from his prologue through to the footwashing scene and the cross. Jesus’ ‘signs’ unveil his glory, starting with the wedding at Cana, itself a temple-image, symbolizing the marriage of heaven and earth. The sequence of signs leads to the cross itself where the dark glory of God is revealed as the glory of the true Image, the priest, the lover, the king. The royal revolutionary.
This theme, picked up in the footwashing scene where Judas embodies the satan, is highlighted in the previous chapter. In John 12, where the first half of the gospel comes together, John quotes just those passages from Isaiah in which the themes I have sketched come to sharp expression. The crucial passage – John 12.20-36 – begins with a typical Johannine puzzle. Some Greeks come to the feast, and want to see Jesus. But instead of arranging a time to meet, Jesus speaks in riddles. The hour has come, he says, for the Son of Man to be glorified, for the grain of wheat to fall into the earth and die to bear much fruit. What has that got to do with these poor Greeks who simply want to see him? Jesus is gazing beyond the immediate request to the ultimate purpose. The world upon which he looks out – the pagan world, and also tragically the Jewish world – is in the grip of the Pharaoh, the dark Babel-gods, ‘the ruler of this world’. There is no point simply having a chat with these Greeks here and now. What matters is not to understand the world, but to rescue it. This is the time for God’s name to be glorified, for judgment to be passed on the world: ‘Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world is to be cast out; and when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’. Here we have it. Jesus’ death will be the means by which the power that has gripped the world of Greek and Jew alike will be overthrown by the greater power, the power the world never imagined, the revolutionary power of a royal love which loves its own and loves them to the end.
In John’s gospel there are two things which cannot happen until Jesus has died – apart, of course, from the launch of new creation in the resurrection itself. First, in chapter 7, the Spirit cannot be poured through the hearts of the disciples into the world until Jesus is ‘glorified’. Now here in chapter 12 the dark power which has held the whole world in its grip must be defeated before it makes any sense for the Greeks to come and see Jesus. Look wider and weep for what the church has done. The Greeks cannot hold him within their world of theory; they need to be embraced by the world of the new temple, the new cosmos, that will open up when their present captivity is undone. Jesus’ death will overthrow the Power, the ‘ruler of this world’, and then it will be time, as Paul sees in 1 Corinthians, for the hidden wisdom to shine forth.
This is why chapters 18 and 19, where Jesus engages in sharp dialogue with Pontius Pilate, the kingdom of God against the kingdom of Caesar, is so vital to the meaning of the story; and also for the implications of the royal revolution in our own day. Pilate asks about kingdom, and Jesus replies about truth. Pilate doesn’t know what truth is, because the only truth he knows is power, in his case, the power to kill. All power, says Jesus, comes from above. And what he doesn’t explain, because like the Greeks Pilate just wouldn’t get it, is that the ultimate power, the revolutionary power, is the footwashing power, the power of radical, transformative love. And on the cross, as John makes clear, that love goes to work. John explains, again, with scenes rather than theories. There is the tender moment with Mary and John; there is Pilate himself declaring ‘what I have written I have written’, not realising (again as Paul says in 1 Corinthians) that by declaring Jesus to be King of the Jews Pilate is acknowledging him as the Lord of the world, the ultimate ruler, justice-bringer, revolutionary. Tetelestai, it is finished: the new tabernacle, the new creation, rescued from the wreck of the old, through the king who is also the Passover lamb whose bones remain unbroken. New Exodus; real return from exile; return of YHWH to Zion; messianic enthronement; priestly work complete; revolution accomplished; creation itself ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. My friends, please don’t ever think of trying to construct something called an ‘atonement-theology’ unless you know, with John and Paul, what it means that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.
Because of course we have tried – the western tradition has tried – to do it in many other ways. We have erected many different structures, with Israel’s scriptures merely a source-book for random prophecies to be fitted into the redemption-narratives we have gleaned from elsewhere. We have then distorted those texts themselves to play the role demanded by these other narratives: narratives of divine honour offended, of divine lawcourt sitting in judgment, of human muddle and mistake. All these matter in their way, but if we start with them we will skew the whole. ‘Atonement’ itself – the word is far less precise than we normally imagine – must include so much more, including the notions of sacrifice, which itself demands that we stop not at the cross but with the Ascension where, according to Hebrews, the Son offers his once-for-all sacrifice in the heavenly temple. And these ideas themselves can be and have been be distorted, as we have put them into our different frameworks.
In particular, we have misread the sacrificial tradition of ancient Israel. Animals were not subjected to a vicarious death penalty. They were killed so that their blood, itself a gift from God, would cleanse the sanctuary to maintain the heaven-and-earth reality in the midst of an as yet unredeemed world. Passover itself was not an atoning sacrifice. The only animal that has sins confessed over its head is the only animal in the Levitical rituals that does not get killed: the scapegoat bears Israel’s sins into the wilderness.
These and other misreadings are enshrined in our traditions. The much-cherished and heavily guarded statements of atonement theology that we learned from the sixteenth-century reformers, vital in some ways as a bulwark against error, were themselves framed far more in terms of late mediaeval ideas, particularly of purgatory and the mass, against which the reformers were reacting. The reformers were trying to give biblical answers to fifteenth-century questions. A noble aim; but the Bible itself, rightly seen as the authority, makes it clear that this is not enough. We must get inside the world of the Bible in ways they never did. We must understand what it means that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with, along the line of, as the fulfilment of, the great single narrative of Israel’s scriptures. Only so will we get fresh clarity in our thinking and, equally importantly, fresh energy for our mission.
I have tried in the book to summarize in three moves what I think has gone wrong. First, we have platonized our eschatology. We have assumed that the aim is ‘going to heaven when we die’, not realising that the people who taught that in the first century were not the Christians but the Middle Platonists; not Paul, but Plutarch. The New Testament is not about souls going to heaven, but about the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, about the new creation already symbolized in the wilderness tabernacle and brought into reality by the Royal Priest, Israel’s ultimate representative, the Word made Flesh. This isn’t just a matter of adjusting some nuts and bolts of what we say and think about our ultimate future – about God’s ultimate future! What we say about the future plays back into how we conceive the problem to which the cross and resurrection are the God-given solution.
Second, then, if we simply think about souls going to heaven we shrink the human vocation – to be the Image-bearers, the Royal Priesthood – into mere morality. Morality matters, but it matters as the by-product of being Image-bearers, summing up the praises of creation rather than worshipping and serving idols. Morality matters because only through properly functioning image-bearers will God’s rescuing justice flow out into the world. But if we focus on morality – thereby making the knowledge of good and evil the fruit around which we construct our theological menu – then we turn the whole large drama of creation and new creation into a self-centred play about me and my sin and what God’s going to do about it. And, with a great deal of western theology, we then re-read Genesis and all that follows, not as the story of the Temple and the Image, and not (in consequence) as the story of idolatry, but simply as the story of humans failing an exam, deserving punishment, and the punishment eventually falling elsewhere. In the Bible what matters ultimately is not sin but idolatry, wrongly directed worship; that produces sin. That is why the Christus Victor theme – victory over the dark powers – takes priority over, and then contextualizes, dealing with sin. When we worship idols we give them the power we ourselves ought as image-bearers to be exercising. We have, then, platonized our eschatology, and to fit we have moralized our anthropology.
And the result is that we have been in danger of paganizing our soteriology. It is in the ancient pagan world, not the ancient Jewish world, that we find stories of an angry God, an innocent victim, and someone being rescued from divine wrath because someone else – preferably an innocent someone else – get in the way at the last minute. Now of course few if any preachers or theologians will own up to preaching the gospel Jesus like that. They will always insist that they speak of Jesus’ death as the act of divine love. But you know, and I know, that this pagan story is what generations of people in the churches have heard. And that’s been all too easy because that is often how Christians have behaved: using would-be redemptive violence whether internationally or domestically, and always asserting that it is done with the best of intentions, out of love. And so people hear what they think is the gospel, but instead of hearing ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son’ they hear ‘God so hated the world that he killed his only son’. And the biblical truth of penal substitution is thereby both distorted and shrunk.
Distorted: because, yes, there is a biblical truth we can call penal substitution, but it is not well expressed within the platonized eschatology and the moralized anthropology. It comes to clearest formulaic expression in Romans 8.1-4, there is ‘no condemnation for those in the Messiah’ because on the cross ‘God condemned Sin in the flesh’. He doesn’t say that God punished Jesus; he says God punished Sin – Sin with a capital S, we might say – in the representative flesh of the Messiah. That is obviously penal, and obviously substitutionary; but it belongs, not at the heart of a normal western narrative about how we get to heaven after all, but at the heart of Paul’s story of how humans are rehumanized, conformed to the Image of the Son. Paul’s formulae mean what they mean within the narratives to be found where most theologians don’t bother looking for them – in the four gospels themselves. (This, by the way, is one reason why there is a fad, both in the Dan Brown circles and in American writing in general, for the non-canonical gospels like Thomas and the rest. The deep, dark reality the gospels offer has been surgically removed from those traditions, because the true gospel is far more shocking and radical than the gnostics ancient and modern have ever understood or wanted to understand.) The four gospels are all about the Kingdom of God, a theme still often muted to this day in much modern western preaching and teaching (not, of course, here at Calvin), even among some would-be Bible Christians.
Perhaps this is because it generates at once, as John’s gospel obviously does, what we today with our little categories call ‘political theology’. How can the good news that the world’s creator has rescued creation from disaster and established his Son, his true Image, at the centre of his remade world – how can this news not at once have implications for every polis, every household, every community and country, every polity and policy? How can we not at once be driven to reflect and act on the basis that the dark powers have been defeated so that the power of love may flood the world and bring about the justice and peace which the secular world knows it wants but can’t seem to find? And if we really grasped that, would we not recognise the grandiose and messianic statements of certain persons on both sides of the Atlantic for what they are – a grim and self-serving parody, a gross caricature of the truth?
This is what I mean when I say that the normal theories about the atonement have not only distorted but also ‘shrunk’ the meaning of penal substitution. One angry online review of my book accused me of failing to explain ‘how’ atonement then works. But this ignores the point. Here’s how it ‘works’. In the four gospels the story of Jesus is set in counterpoint with the biblical story of evil: the snake in the garden, the tottering tower of Babel, the power of Pharaoh killing the babies (think of Herod in the gospels), rebellious Israel, wicked priests and kings, false prophets, idolatries left, right and centre. Jesus then arrives, announcing that God is now becoming king and that it looks like this; and he draws onto himself, as though by a magnet, all the evil in the world, from the shrieking demons in the synagogue to the plotting priests in the Sanhedrin and ultimately to Pilate, the pathetic representative of the Ruler of the World. Judas and Pilate merely bring into sharp focus what is going on all along. Evil – Sin with a capital S – is thus gathered together into one place and does its worst, the worst thing imaginable, killing the one true Man, the one genuine Israelite, the Word made flesh. This is how atonement ‘works’. And with his death, exactly as Isaiah, Zechariah and the Psalms had glimpsed through a glass darkly, Pharaoh is overthrown, Babel crashes to the ground, the gods of the world are robbed of their power. As Paul puts it in Colossians, Jesus disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, celebrating his triumph over them. And this happened because Jesus, representing Israel, representing thereby the whole human race, and equally representing and embodying the one God himself, took upon himself the weight of evil hanging over all flesh. One person must die, said unwitting Caiaphas, so that the nation may not perish; yes, says John, and not just the nation but the whole scattered children of God. ‘This is your hour,’ said Jesus as they arrested him, ‘and the power of darkness’; and he went into the heart of that darkness so that Peter and the others would not suffer it; so that Barabbas and the brigand on the cross might be freed; so that, like the chickens protected by the death of the mother hen, all those who came to him for refuge would find that he had taken their place. The victory is won – ‘Christus Victor’, if you like, but a much bigger idea than many theories which have gone by that name – through the representative substitution of the Servant, the Son, the Image, the Lover, the footwasher, the one who has saved the world and revealed the glory at last. Jesus wins the victory, the revolutionary victory, which throughout the Psalms and prophets is to be won by Israel’s God himself. The role of the warrior Messiah, the royal revolutionary, turns out to be a role designed by the One God for his own personal use.
And that, not some cheap and logic-chopped scheme, is why there is forgiveness of sins; that is why Gentiles are now freed from enslaving powers to enter God’s single family. That is why Jesus’ followers do not constitute ‘a religion’ like other so-called ‘religions’, to be catalogued by secular modernity, pinned to the wall like so many dead butterflies, but a polis, a new kind of city, a new kind of community, a Spirit-driven, suffering-love people who follow their Master to the places where the world is in pain in order that by the Spirit they may embody the love of God and the pain of God right there, and so bring God’s healing and hope into the world that so badly needs it. That is why the church urgently needs to reclaim (from the media, who have usurped it) our primary role of speaking truth, gospel truth, to power. Unless we read the gospels like this, and to this end, we are falsifying them, as we do when we chop them into tiny snippets and turn them into moral lessons, or even, heaven help us, into abstract theological lessons. They are the living story of how the Lord of life drew the powers of evil on to himself and, by dying under their weight, disarmed and disabled them so that from now on they are a defeated rabble, even though in our dualistic modern spiritualities we still imagine them to have power over us. The gospels are the launching-narrative of our own story, the first act in the new divine drama in which we are called to play our parts.
And this is why, as I draw to my close, we need not a refined set of theories but a larger vision of the biblical narrative if we are to understand, preach and live out the message and meaning of the cross. My new book poses a question: by the evening of the first Good Friday, what had changed in the world? Clearly all the New Testament writers think that something has changed: what was it and how do we make that new reality our own? The modern world has displaced the Christian narrative. It isn’t just that most of our contemporaries profess not to believe in God or Jesus, but that they, including many Christians, have in their heads a world narrative in which history arrived at its redemptive moment in the eighteenth century with the French and American revolutions, with the rise of science and technology, and with the banishing of God to a distant realm, to be visited by the pious few like a kind family calling on an elderly relative every Sunday. The western churches have regularly colluded with this absurd diminishment of the Bible and the gospel. That is one of the reasons why the vacuum is filled by the rough beasts now slouching towards Bethlehem. But the cross, told as the climax of all four gospels and particularly John’s on which I have focused today, leaves us no choice. ‘Now is the judgment of this world; now is the ruler of the world cast out; and if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.’ This is what it means that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.
We have some fresh thinking to do, to put it mildly. But thinking, the realm of logos, has become flesh. It must become flesh once again, our flesh, our footwashing flesh, driven by the Spirit to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel, to be the means by which the Spirit holds the world to account as Jesus held Pilate to account. Having loved his own, having revealed the glory, Jesus loved them to the end; and as he got up from the footwashing he told them, ‘This is my command: that you love one another as I have loved you.’
That is how the glory will be revealed in tomorrow’s world. That is how the world, saved once for all by his revolutionary victory on the cross, will, as he promised, be flooded with his glory and knowledge as the waters cover the sea. We are to be, in the power of the Spirit, new Genesis people; new Exodus people; new Isaiah people; new gospel people; new Jesus people. This is the royal revolution. This is the fresh perspective on the cross which we urgently need in our troubled times.