Monday 21 July 2014

The Cross

Around this time last year, I was asked to write a 750-word piece on the cross for a product related to the showing of the recent TV production of The Bible. Below is a fairly heavily referenced draft of the article.

The cross – as God’s way of dealing with sin and its consequences – stands at the heart of the Christian faith. The term traditionally associated with exploring its significance is ‘atonement’, encouraging us to see the cross as God bringing about ‘at-one-ment’.

Affirming the centrality of the cross

All four gospels devote considerable space to Jesus’ death. Not for nothing have they been called ‘passion narratives with extended introductions’. Jesus proclaims the arrival of God’s reign in his teaching and acts of power. But as the gospels move on, it becomes clear that the liberating reign of God will come about through Jesus taking on the role of a servant who would suffer and die on behalf of others. That this happens at Passover gives his death an ‘exodus’ flavour, as Jesus brings about a new release for the people of God, sealing a new covenant in his body and blood – for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:26–28).

Jesus’ death is consistently understood by New Testament writers as tackling sin. An early confession of faith – in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 – declares that ‘Christ died for our sins’. Other passages (Romans 3:25–26; 4:25; 2 Corinthians 5:15, 21; Galatians 3:10–14; 1 Peter 3:18) provide equally clear statements of the substitutionary nature of his sin-bearing death. According to Paul, we were ‘God’s enemies’ (Romans 5:10), ‘alienated from God’ (Colossians 1:21), and ‘deserving of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3, explored more fully in Romans 1:18–3:20). What happened at the cross is bound up with God’s holy anger against sin, which would bring his judgment were it not that Jesus bears it in our place (Romans 8:3; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24), providing an atoning sacrifice (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 7:27; 9:14; 1 John 1:7; 2:2; 4:10).

This was anticipated in the law for dealing with sin, particularly the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). As Peter makes clear (1 Peter 2:21–25), it was also prefigured in the Servant of the Lord of Isaiah 53, suffering and dying on behalf of others, bearing the penalty of their sins.

Grasping the significance of the cross

Various images describe what Jesus’ death achieved. The cross not only saves us from the consequences of sin, but allows us to be declared ‘right’ – justified – before God (Galatians 2:15–21; Romans 3:23; 5:1), results in victory over Satan and the powers of darkness (Colossians 2:13–15; Hebrews 2:14–15), redeems us from slavery to sin (Romans 3:24; 6:11–23; Colossians 1:14; 1 Peter 1:18–19; Revelation 1:5; 5:9), reconciles us to God and with each other (Romans 5:10–11; 2 Corinthians 5:18–21; Ephesians 2:14–18; Colossians 1:19–22), brings about adoption into God’s family (Romans 8:16, 23; Galatians 4:4–7; Ephesians 1:5), and more besides.

Crucially, all this flows from God’s love. Crude caricatures of the cross can make God sound vindictive and distant, but nothing could be further from the truth. The link between God’s love and the giving of Jesus – expressed in John 3:16 – is seen elsewhere too (John 13:1; 15:13; Romans 5:8; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 5:2, 25; Titus 3:4–5; 1 John 3:16; 4:9–10). Far from involving a cold transaction, atonement is rooted in the heart and actions of the triune God – the overflowing love of the Father, the redeeming death of the son, the applying grace of the Holy Spirit.

Even then, the cross is not the end, for God raised Jesus to be ‘Lord’ (Philippians 2:5–11). Moreover, for all their centrality, the crucifixion and resurrection need to be placed in a yet larger story – as the means of God’s plan to restore ‘all things’ (Colossians 1:20), liberating men and women and renewing creation itself.

Following the pattern of the cross

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper provide ongoing reminders of the significance of the cross. Baptism depicts dying and being raised ‘in Christ’ (Romans 6:3–4; Colossians 2:12). The Lord’s Supper proclaims the Lord’s death ‘until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:23–26). Meanwhile, as we take up our cross (Luke 9:23) and conform to its pattern (John 13:15; Ephesians 5:25; Philippians 2:5–11; Hebrews 12:3; 1 Peter 2:21), Christian discipleship becomes ‘cruciform’ in shape, with the cross influencing and defining our everyday lives as followers of Jesus.

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