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Chapter IV - Jesus and the Wrath of God
by Dr. David P. Scaer
Maybe instead of speaking about wrath, another theological and Biblical term, familiar to practically everybody, should be used - hell. This is hardly the place for a lecture on its regular use in the English language. Modern man might have advanced in many areas, but he still shows a predilection for the word's use in such a variety of ways, so staggering the linguistic imagination that it approaches the status of being the universal word in our speech. (The propriety of the printed page prevents giving examples.)
Hell is the kind of subject that forces itself into most discussions about religion. Somewhere tucked away in the back corners of the human mind is the idea of hell. Unbelievers not excluded. The way people get around the haunting scepter of hell's prince, whose presence is more faithful than our own shadows, is to assert that hell is something that people create for themselves on earth. This thought recurs with faithful precision wherever people talk about religion. All this business about countering "hell on earth" is hardly more than whistling in the dark. Man has created plenty of "hells" for himself on this earth. Calling a place or a situation "a living hell" is frequently an apt and appropriate expression. But limiting hell to earth is really only a game that people play. The thought of hell on earth is much more tolerable than facing hell after death. A hell on earth has to end. The same cannot be said with any confidence about hell after death.
A hell after this life is so uncomfortable not only to the average man but also to many professional theologians that many religions have tried to dispose of the whole nasty business. The Mormons teach that man has another chance after life. The Jehovah's Witnesses - and they are followed by many main line Christians in this respect - teach that annihilation and not hell is the fate of those who do not follow their doctrines. Annihilation or a return to nonexistence is preferable to the torturous existence of hell. Jesus even said of Judas, as He thought of his fate in hell, that it would have been better if that traitorous disciple had never been born.
Many theologians in the last 200 years have influenced the major denominations with their ideas that hell has no real existence but that it belongs to the inventions of man's creative imagination. Many hybrids of this type of thinking can be readily found. One of the most popular is that God is so loving that He would hardly hold men responsible for their mistakes. In this type of thinking Jesus dies not to take away sin and its awful consequences but to alleviate man's consciousness of guilt. Jesus dies to show man that everything is all right. His death is hardly more than an object lesson. (One can imagine more fitting object lessons.) For others hell is simply symbolical of men's alienation from God or from each other. At worst, "Hell is other people."
God's Wrath (Otherwise Known as Hell) -
The Overarching Reality
Everywhere in our New Testament, God's wrath or personal anger over sin is written in capital letters. It is the backdrop without which the mission of Jesus can never be understood. The angelic message to Joseph about Mary's Son states that the Child is going to save His people from their sins. This does not mean that with the appearance of Jesus, people are going to stop sinning. It does mean that He is going to save them from the hellish consequences of their sin. Sin carries with it the idea of penalty, liability to punishment. It's the penalty of sin that frightens people. This motivates them to shove hell under the rug or to exchange it for something less unpleasant. Death and hell are sin's ultimate penalties. Even for the day-to-day "little sins" the cause and effect principle is at work.
The Mosaic Code, especially as it is found in the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, prescribes specific penalties for specific sins. For us who are removed by time and culture from the ancient Israelites, the cadence of sin and punishment might be both uninteresting and inappropriate. Still God was teaching the lesson with loud and clear words that sin is a real offence to Him and that the penalty must be extracted. If we avoid it, we do so only for a time. Sin's penalty is inevitable. Even the world quips that we can only be sure of two things: death and taxes. The guilt of sin has more reality than a psychological disturbance.
The idea that sin demands payment is hardly foreign to the Gospels. The woman caught in adultery faces the prospect of stoning. Jesus questions not the propriety of her fate, but the qualifications of the executioners who should be destined to the same reward. Judas is fully conscious of perpetrating the death of an innocent man and knows that for his part in this murder, his own life must be forfeited. The principle of a life for a life is still valid. By returning the money to the priests he attempts to pay the penalty for treacherously taking an Innocent life. Even precious metals are never sufficient payment for human life. By suicide he attempts to follow Moses' directives to make atonement for the one act, but hardly for all the acts for which God still holds him accountable. The famous question of Peter of how many times he must forgive his brother contains the haunting reminder that sooner or later each man is held accountable for his own actions. The reply of Jesus, that forgiveness should be an infinite quality in Christians, does not suggest that God does not exact a penalty for sin, but rather that since God has provided the payment of the penalty further restitution demanded by Christians is not only unnecessary but even offensive to God.
The Jews at Jesus' time were very conscious of the cause and effect relationship between sin and punishment. At one time His disciples asked Jesus whether a certain man's blindness was caused by his own sin or his parents'. They had interpreted the man's blindness, rightly or wrongly, as a penalty for a specific sin which they were trying to pinpoint. The Book of Job is a series of conversations discussing what sin Job had done to earn such calamities.
The relationship between sin and God's wrath as it manifests itself in specific punishments and the more general punishment of hell gives essential meaning to the death of Jesus. Many have offered other explanations for the death of Jesus. Here are several examples: Jesus died to show us that God is not angry and that we don't have to fear death, even the most torturous; Jesus died because He was considered by the Roman occupation forces as an insurrectionist; Jesus died because he threatened to destroy the ecclesiastical establishment; Jesus died because He interpreted this as His fate; it was the inevitable. The last one is the message of Jesus Christ Superstar. To this could be added many other explanations. These opinions - some containing perhaps even more than a grain of truth - should not obscure the real cause of His death, God's wrath over sin as God placed it on Jesus. This is the message of the four Gospels and attested to by the other New Testament writings.
"Giving Them Hell"
The Concept of Wrath in the Preaching
of John and Jesus
Before Jesus had begun His public ministry, John the Baptizer, Jesus' forerunner, preached on the wrath of God in such a way that it reminded the people of the preaching of many of the Old Testament prophets, especially Elijah. Men like Elijah were associated with the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel, the Ten Tribes, by the Assyrians, and the deportation of Judah by the Babylonians. Theirs was a message with teeth and there was no doubt in the people's mind that when God spoke His message of wrath through His prophets, He meant business!
It is no wonder that when John appeared in the wilderness around the Jordan there was a mass exodus that crossed the denominational boundaries of that time. The Judeans could not forget that their brothers in the north had once been removed from God's presence by permanent exportation and that their own capital city of Jerusalem had been reduced to ashes by foreign hordes around the year 600 B. C. Their own ancestors had been forced to live in Babylonia.
John immediately suspected the motives of those who flocked into the river for baptism. Were they coming for baptism because they believed sincerely that they had offended God by their lives; or was it only an insurance policy against divine extermination? The fiery preacher hardly greeted them with open arms. Here was one "congregation" which demanded more of the applicant than that he sign a yellow card professing that he sincerely loves the Lord Jesus. He called them snakes, children not of God but of that creature in whom Satan had become incarnate. Later Jesus called them snakes right to their faces.
People are not 'just bad.' They are agents of Satan; and God's wrath zeroes in on the person and on his allegiance to Satan. When God's wrath appears, all status relationships disappear. Abraham's sons can be replaced by stones. They have the marks of religiosity as far as men are concerned, but with God they have registered only negatively. They are headed for the fire.
Like it or not, God's wrath is associated with fire. Little wonder that a common English expression indicates the intensity of heat with the words: "hot as hell." Both John and Jesus use the word fire to express God's final eschatological displeasure over man's rebellion. However, the thought is not new with them. In the Old Testament psalms, for example, God's anger burns. Zephaniah states that "in the fire of His jealous wrath all the earth shall be consumed." Malachi compares the day of judgment with the heat of a burning oven. When fire is used of God's wrath, it means the destruction or removal of what God considers offensive to Him.
John introduced the 'fire' concept of God's wrath into the New Testament preaching. Trees cut down faced further destruction in fire. As fiery as John was, he promised that the message of Jesus would be even more severe. John preached about the fire, but Jesus would burn all those opposed to Him with what John calls "the unquenchable fire." Jesus lived up to all of John's expectations. The tares, the people who have the marks of Christians but really are not, are consigned to the fire. Those who have not done good to the least of Jesus' brethren are told to go to the eternal fire. Chorazin and Capernaum are to face a fate worse than Sodom's. That city with Gomorrah was literally burned alive by fire in Abraham's day. Some archeologists assert these two ancient cities lie beneath the Dead Sea. In the parable of the wedding feast for the king's son, those who refuse the invitation have their cities burned. Such preaching was not wasted on the Jews.
Fire is not the only way God's wrath is described in the New Testament. Equally effective is the idea of separation from God. John told the Pharisees and Sadducees that without a sincere change in their lives, they would be cut off from God's people in spite of their blood relationship to Abraham. The workers in the parable of the vineyard are given a one-way ticket out of their possession - almost in the style of Adam and Eve's exit from Eden's garden. Those who have not acted positively to the least of Jesus' brethren hear the gruesome verdict: "Depart." The parables of the net and the tares teach the same lesson: separation from God's righteous ones.
Hell's fire, whatever else it involves, provides no light. Already in the Old Testament, the day of the Lord's eschatological judgment is one of "deep darkness." Believing Gentiles bask with Abraham and the patriarchs in eternal light. Unbelieving Jews, whom Jesus calls the "sons of the kingdom," are to be thrown into the outer darkness. The guest without the wedding garment faces a similar doom.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable feature of God's wrath is its eternal quality. Many Christians, some of them quite sincere, have tried to get around this. Yet the preaching of Jesus leaves little doubt about hell's durable quality. Jesus never speaks about the second chance. The fire that burns does not go out. The unforgiving servant is imprisoned and can obtain no release till he pays all. Of course this can never happen.
God's chief agent in carrying out His wrath and managing hell is Satan, who receives adequate assistance from His own angels. All who have rebelled against God or who have refused to repent deserve each other. The presence of evil in this world is a mystery. Philosophers have tried to explain it but with no success. The Bible explains it as the traitorous act of men and angels, both of whom were made somewhat like God Himself and whom God had even taken into His confidence. Strange as it might seem, God uses His most eminent opponent, Satan, to execute wrath and judgment. He is thus an instrument in God's hand and under His control.
Many other things could be said about God's wrath, but some of its chief characteristics according to the preaching of John and Jesus can be recapped here: It is associated with fire. It involves separation from God and His chosen people. It cloaks its victims with an eternal shroud of darkness. It never ends. Satan is active in carrying out God's wrath.
Only when God's wrath is understood in such strong terms does the task of Jesus of Nazareth become clearer: No words can adequately describe God's wrath, but it would be to this indescribable wrath that Jesus would submit Himself. In connection with the words of John, Jesus says that all righteousness must be fulfilled. In His baptism Jesus puts Himself in the sinners' place. Not only does He do what they should have done, but He suffers the penalties for what they have done.
The Hidden Agenda
The death of Jesus of Nazareth some time around the A. D. 27 was not a particularly shattering event so far as most of His contemporaries were concerned. It was business as usual on the next morning and the next morning and so on. Just one more politically dangerous person had been put away by the authorities. It is common practice to get rid of the troublemaker when a situation promises to get out of hand. It wasn't so many years ago that the Soviet Union quietly and still deliberately took from the public eye the popular First Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek.
Back in the first century, Pontius Pilate and the high priests acted in a similar way. Jesus was a troublemaker that simply had to be disposed of. We could even suppose' that they had had previous experience in handling political mavericks. Stepping over, around and even on people is still the way to get to the top - and to stay there! The words of the high priest Caiaphas, in John's Gospel, that Jesus should die to insure their positions and to prevent further Roman intervention, are classic to this very day. "It is expedient that one man should die for the people!" The threats of the crowd against Pilate that he would be no friend of Caesar's unless he brought death to the Nazarene are just part of a lesson in practical politics. The dripping hands of Pilate over the wash basin teach that for this world political power is more important than the question of right and wrong, guilt and innocence. But more was at stake in the death of this "rebel" than the political careers of a governor and a few wheeling and dealing priests.
For this occasion there were two audiences. While the Jewish and Roman authorities seemed fully in charge on Golgatha's Hill - it had gone better than their fondest hopes - God was not only watching the events, He was the prime director. Hidden beneath the arrest, trials, and crucifixion of the Teacher from Galilee was God's own agenda. John in his Gospel explains that the high priest's words about the expedience of one man's death for the people really meant that all people in all times could benefit from it in an eternal way. Paul also speaks about God's hidden agenda.' The Jews and Romans would not have acted as they did, if they had known that they had the Lord of glory on their hands.
Who then is responsible for Jesus' death - God or the Jews and Romans? This is not the place to put first-century sinners on trial. Peter told Jerusalem's inhabitants that they were guilty of the crime, and many of them felt sorry for their actions and repented. Others went to their death stubbornly asserting their innocence in the face of the evidence. Let the matter rest there. The Jew today is no more guilty of Jesus' death than the Christian. Church verdicts absolving Jewish guilt for Jesus' death are at best hypocritical.
For the moment we have to push through the events of that Friday in early April some time around the A. D. 27 to see what was happening so far as God was concerned. According to all our Gospel accounts, Jesus knew what was going to happen to Him. He was in complete control of the situation. Just after Peter had confessed Jesus as God's Son, the Messiah, Jesus explained that the Messianic kingdom would come about through His death. "The Son of Man must go up to Jerusalem and be handed over to the chief priests."
The clue to the death of Jesus can be found in the word "must." This is not merely an inner compulsion or fanatical whim. Compulsive people get something on their mind that they have to do something; and they are not satisfied till it's done, even though there is no apparent necessity for the action. The "must" in Jesus' life is not from within but from without. It is a "must" that comes from God. Even before the world took its final shape, God had prepared an agenda that His Son would become a man and that His life would be a payment for sin. For thousands of years the world was writing its own history, but beneath every page God was bringing His own planning to completion. Secular historians never mention what God was doing - simply because they were not aware of God's plans. Empires, some whose names we know, like the Egyptian, the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Greek, the Roman and others whose existence still lies hidden in the ruins of time, are all tools in God's hands, directed to bringing about what He considered the most important of occurrences, the appearance and death of His Son.
Jesus was fully aware of God's plans and accepted the divine obligation. Christians hearing about the death of Jesus are frequently filled with the emotion of righteous indignation at the death of an innocent man, wishing that it hadn't happened; we still try to second-guess God. Why didn't Jesus stay away from the authorities in Jerusalem and pursue a peaceful ministry in the north country of Galilee? Why did Jesus have to offend the ecclesiastical establishment? Jesus could have possibly avoided arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. A miracle performed for Herod could have saved Him from the cross. A pledge of allegiance to Tiberius Caesar, the reigning Roman emperor, would have meant immediate release from custody and the end of a bloody business. All these are our thoughts, but not God's.
Without the death of the God-Man, mankind, this mass of humanity, would wallow in its own sin and drown. The justice and the love of God had written the word "must" over the death of Jesus. From God's point of view, it was unavoidable. Jesus had spoken about the irrevocable divine verdict of death that hung over His life right after Peter's confession. At least on two other occasions, Jesus would use virtually the same words. The disciples had to be prepared. Nothing had pleased the disciples, Peter, James, and John, more than what they had experienced on the Mount of Transfiguration. All of earth's problems and even its glories melt and evaporate in what heaven has to offer. If they could only stay there - but they can't At least they couldn't stay then. Heaven could only be reached by going to Jerusalem and to the cross.
Again as Jesus made the final preparation to go into Jerusalem, the disciples anticipated the final glory. They were already dividing the spoils of God's kingdom among themselves and not without a fair amount of disagreement about who would get what. Jesus again must remind them that final glory comes only through His death by a cross. The disciples were looking forward to their rewards; but Jesus was reading God's hidden agenda. Right in the middle of this agenda were written the words: DEATH BY CRUCIFIXION.
The agenda that Jesus was following was not really so hidden or secretive. God had written it in the Old Testament. The problem was that God's people had read it but did not want to understand its full implications.
The Old Testament - The Hidden Agenda
There is no lack of Old Testament passages cited in the New. If the plans of God were hidden, they were hidden only to the world, which does not take God at His word. God had spoken; the world had not listened. (This is an old business going back to Satan, Adam, and all the children of men.) At least for Jesus this is the way the Gospel writers, particularly Matthew, describe it. The Old Testament was God's blueprint, which permitted no deviation. It was like a musical score for a conductor. It gave the words of a play which set down the actions and the words of the actors very precisely.
On Thursday, when Jesus knew that the Father had given the divine cue, He told His disciples that His hour had come. God had set the events of trial and crucifixion in process. There was no turning back now. Oh, yes, those historical figures were all playing a part, a part for which they would be held responsible, but it was the part that God had given them. "The Son of Man was going as it had been written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed." The Old Testament Scriptures were unfolding like a divine plot. Even the fickle nature of cowardly disciples came as no surprise. When the shepherd was struck down, the sheep would scatter. At least this is what one Old Testament prophet had said.
It was in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus reached the agonizing apex of what it meant to follow God's written directives. Three times He made a special petition to the Father to remove "the cup." This is a strange expression for us. What does it mean to take away a cup? Several of the Old Testament prophets, for example Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel speak about the cup of God's wrath. God's fury is compared to being forced to drink a cup of wine in which the bitter-tasting particles sink to the bottom.
This was more than just a vivid expression of speech. It was used to describe how God would destroy the sacred city of Jerusalem and bring the independent nationhood of the elect people to an end. Just as God had rejected Israel, His chosen and now prodigal "son," God was planning to reject Jesus, His chosen and faithful Son. The role that should have been played by the first Israel was assumed by the Second Israel. (Since God has vented His furious wrath on Jesus, the cup of the Christian flows over with blessings. "My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.")
At the end of these struggles, Jesus faces the divine inevitable. He signals the final act with the words: "Behold the hour is at hand and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners." The Father had chosen the hour and the Son voluntarily submits Himself to even the most minute details - even the time schedule. God's plans moved flawlessly along.
For a moment it looked like Peter would ruin things. He had tried this before when he attempted to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem to His death. Now the overenthusiastic disciple pulls out his sword. Jesus rebukes him with the reminder that God's plans in the Old Testament take precedence over even the deepest loyalty. "But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled that it must be so?" There was no way of getting around the inevitable.
This is not the place to show how many times the Old Testament is applied to Jesus in the New Testament. Many scholars have no use for what is called Messianic prophecies. They claim that the Old Testament prophets were just speaking to the people of their day and that their message was exhausted by contemporary events and persons. The reasons for their disbelief and weakness cannot be presented here. Rabbi Hugh Schonfeld in his widely publicized book, The Passover Plot, supports the idea that Jesus not only read the Old Testament but also tried to act out the Messianic role deliberately. Of course the rabbi holds that Jesus was somewhat of an imposter and that his scheming did not work.
Regardless of the glaring insufficiencies in the rabbi's position, it is an interesting testimony to the fact that God did lay down some definite plans in the Old Testament for the Messiah and that Jesus submitted Himself to them. Some scholars, who are really quite agnostic even about the existence of Jesus, offer the theory that Matthew, for example, wrote the account of Jesus' suffering with a copy of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52 and 53 in front of him. Unlike these scholars, Christians have no hesitancy in asserting the real and historical existence of Jesus; but these scholars are right in pointing to the obvious parallels between these particular portions of the Old Testament and the account of Jesus' suffering.
Sometimes Christians call Jesus the Lord of Scriptures. At least from what we know about Jesus in the Gospels - and these are our best, earliest, and obviously only legitimate sources - He is the Servant of the Scriptures. This is not to deny that it was the Son of God who really was speaking to the Jews in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament He appears, as St. Paul says, in the form of a servant. Not even the Son of God in human form can escape the divine directives.
Everything and everyone in the world has his price. Some famous men have a speaking fee of several thousand dollars for an hour. Others will speak for nothing. The right amount of money in the right places often brings about the desired end. Kidnappers demanding ransoms and prison inmates holding guards as hostages are waiting for their prices to be met before releasing their victims. Jesus looked upon His life as a payment that had to be paid if man was to be released from sin and the fear of death.
The word for payment or ransom had many meanings for the Jewish people. The Lord God Himself had made the payment to release the Israelites from the hated Egyptian enslavement. God had looked upon the Jews as His own kinsmen or relatives and had offered His "outstretched arm?' as the ransom price. The Jewish people had to buy their first-born boys back from God. God in turn regarded the Israelites as His first-born among all the families and nations of the earth. In this sense He bought them back not only from Egypt, but He rescued them from their iniquities and from the grave. He bought the Jews collectively as a nation for Himself and He acted individually in rescuing persons who demonstrated faith and repentance. The word for payment or ransom is also used to describe the animal or money that must be paid in the case of accidental death. The Jewish tradition is very rich in its understanding of payment or ransom. In Jesus God was making an adequate payment for the world's sins.
One of the Civil War practices which has since fallen into disuse was the use of mercenary substitutes. Men forced to serve in the army of the Union could and often did evade military service if they had the money to pay a substitute. Substitutes are simply parts of life. The stepfather or stepmother takes the place of the real parent. Catalogs of colleges and universities list names of acting presidents, deans, and professors. During World War II the Germans invented a substitute coffee, and the Americans buttered their bread with margarine instead of the dairy product. Clergymen called vicars act instead of others. There is no need for further examples. A substitute is needed when the person or thing appointed to do the job cannot, for one reason or another, meet his obligations. The substitute assumes the responsibility for a task which he did not originally have.
Most pagan religions know of the concept of substitution. Human sacrifice meant death for some people in the religion community so that the remainder might be spared the wrath of angry deities. The Jewish people also knew the concept of substitution. They did engage at times in human sacrifice, but always at the displeasure of God. Genesis, the first book in the Bible, tells how Cain, Abel, Noah, Abraham, and others offered various sacrifices to God. Elaborate details for making commanded sacrifices can be found in the Book of Leviticus. The center of the worship life of the Jewish community was the Jerusalem temple with its altars crowded with animal sacrifices.
The Jewish sacrifice was a form of substitutionary payment for wrong which had been committed. Ingrained in the mind of the Jew was that for each sin God would extract a payment. The sacrifices never really did make adequate restitution to God, but they alerted the Jews to the justice of God. In addition to all the sacrifices, the high priest year after year on the Day of Atonement had to offer a sacrifice for all the sins of the people. For some sins no animal sacrifices could be substituted. If a life had been wrongfully taken, the life of the offender had to be taken.
Jesus understood His own life as substitution. He had come to earth not to receive the homage due God but to offer His life as a substitute payment in exchange for the life of the world. Behind this thinking that one Man, instead of sacrificial animals, would stand in the place of humankind, were certain key passages in Isaiah 53. The prophet speaks about a Servant who bears our sins and carries our iniquities. Not only does He bear the guilt of others, but the consequences of this guilt. Thus the Servant, not the people, is rejected by God.
Above it was said that a substitute is needed when the person originally given the task can no longer accomplish it, even if he wants to. Man by his own depravity and perverseness is so alienated from God that he is incapable of meeting God's requirements for him. The sad and pitiful thing is that man tries. Judas tried doing it with money and then his own ills. Jesus bad explicitly told His disciples there is nothing that a man can give to regain his life. This would have to be an action initiated and completed by God. He would provide the substitution. His name - Jesus.
The account of the trial and crucifixion is history, but it is more. Jesus is the "stand-in" for each man individually and for all mankind collectively. It is an account that cannot be read objectively, since the reader, no matter how disinterested and dispassionate, should really have been in Jesus' place.
The Life - The Blood
In many of the ancient mystery religions and modern cults, blood plays a prominent part in the worship ritual. To most people, with perhaps the exception of the clinically trained, the sight of blood causes deep feelings of repulsion, fear, and anxiety. The sight of blood suggests that a life has been violently taken or is at least threatened. It means that a person has not been allowed to finish his life in a normal way. Gruesome murder scenes and pictures of bloodied wounded men are photographically produced in color by only the most sanguine and sensational types of newspapers, magazines, and films. Good taste in our society makes every effort to cover up the traces of death taken in a violent manner.
The term blood also played a prominent role in the preaching of Jesus' apostles. Peter writes that we were ransomed or bought back not with gold or silver, but by the precious blood of Christ, who was like a lamb without imperfections. Of course at these words the Jew in the first century would immediately think about the sacrifice of lambs to atone for sins. The writer of the Book of Hebrews also states that Jesus has redeemed us through His own blood.
The Christian church has followed the direction of the apostles and has had a lot to say about blood in its hymns. One thinks about such well-known compositions as "Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness" and "Just as I Am Without One Plea But That Thy Blood Was Shed for Me."
All this "blood business" can be traced back to Jesus Himself. When He took the cup at the Last Supper, He initiated a blood theology with the words, "This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." What Jesus is saying is that His life offered in the violent manner of crucifixion would release people from their sins. Before Jesus' birth, Joseph had been informed of the redemptive characteristics of the Child. The concept of sin removal is not a new thought. Jesus adds the dimension of His own blood as the means for bringing this about.
As just stated, most men at the sight of blood surmise that life has come to a violent end. A natural death does not involve the shedding of blood. The Jewish people had an especially rich association with the whole concept of blood. Their existence as a nation from a loose confederation of families came about with their escape from Egypt in the exodus. They could not forget that on this occasion, while the eldest son in each Egyptian family was taken in death, the lives of their sons were spared. The lives of their oldest sons had been "bought" from the angel of death by the exchange of the lives of slaughtered lambs. Blood smeared on the front of Jewish homes was the signal to death's angel that God in His righteousness had been appeased by the blood of lambs. God would not extract the ultimate penalty of death from Jewish families. Just as the blood from thousands of lambs had been a declaration of independence for the Jews from their Egyptian captivity and which gave them a national existence, so the blood of Jesus poured out for the establishment of the covenant was creating the "new people of God."
Later in the prescribed sacrificial life of the Jews, blood would become the center of cultic attention. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would first take the blood of the sacrificial goat and throw it in the direction of the altar, and then he sprinkled it upon the people. Such a ceremony would certainly strike most as being rather unusual. But there was no mystery in it for the Jew. Blood spilt on the altar signified that it would be only through death that God would be appeased. The remainder of the blood scattered on the Jewish people gathered for worship was the assurance that since God was now appeased, they would no longer have to fear His wrath. In the institution of the Lord's Supper, Jesus stands before His church as God's final High Priest. He pours out His own blood toward heaven and God, just as His predecessors had spilt the goat's blood on stone altars. Jesus' blood establishes the covenant with God. Then Jesus turns around and faces the universal church and offers His blood to His people, but now in a cup. When Christians participate in Christ's blood they know, just as the ancient Jews did, that their sins are forgiven because God has been appeased. In the new covenant God has gone a few steps further. The blood of brute animals has been replaced by the blood of God's own Son; and a superficial sprinkling is replaced by the much more intimate ritual of drinking.
In the Old Testament God had established the principle that wherever life was taken with premeditation another life had to be offered in exchange. On earth there is nothing more precious than the life of a man, since according to God's instructions to Noah, man is made in the image of God. Property can be destroyed and animals killed. These offenses can be rectified by a money payment. But no money can replace the life of a man. Judas had attempted this but without any success. Cain's curse is that as a marked man people throughout the world will recognize him as the first murderer. The lives of innocent men taken in vengeance murders demand restitution by taking the life of the offender. God tells Cain that the blood of Abel, his brother, is calling from the ground for vengeance.
This same type of blood restitution talk abounds throughout the rest of the Scriptures, but particularly in those few days just before the Crucifixion itself. In at least two cases Jesus informs the Jews that God is going to hold them responsible for the blood murder of the prophets. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard those who kill the servants and the son of the owner, that is, the prophets and Jesus Himself, must pay with their own lives. As Jesus says, "He will certainly kill those evil men." In a more explicit speech Jesus tells the Jews that they are responsible for the blood of all innocent men from Abel to Zechariah.
In addition to the words of Jesus during the last week about blood and blood guilt, there are a number of episodes during the same period of time that reinforce the thought that for death caused by vengeance, God in turn demands another death. The high priests refuse to take back the money from Judas which they had paid for the capture of Jesus because it is blood money, that is, money that has resulted in the death of a man who is in nocent. Instead the money is used to buy a graveyard for paupers and strangers. The graveyard is called the Field of Blood since it was purchased with the money that was paid for the life of an innocent man.
Pontius Pilate stands before the Jewish crowd washing his hands in a gesture symbolizing with actions his words that he is not guilty of taking the life of a guiltless man. The Jews enthusiastically respond that Jesus' blood is upon them and their children, that is, they will gladly accept any responsibility for His death. From a historical point of view, the high priests, Judas, the Jewish crowds, and Pontius Pilate share equally and fully in the blood guilt of executing an innocent man. As any other murderers and their accomplices, they must expect to bear the consequences of their crimes. And they do.
The high priests and the Jews would lose the last vestiges of nationhood with the destruction of Jerusalem, their beloved capital city. Judas is doomed to suicide. Pontius Pilate, so secular sources inform us, would end his life in misery and failure. But here again we cannot let the historical details (let the reader understand this in the right sense) obscure the real action of the story. Of course God is interested that the guilty participants in this crime in the third decade of the first century A. D. pay. God is just in every case, even in the most minute, and seeks restitution. Still, a higher justice is being satisfied.
On that fateful Friday, God was not primarily concerned with the guilt of those whom history had happened to place on the scene. But on Calvary's hill God is making another Person pay - and pay with His blood. God's justice is manifest in the death of public criminals. There can be no doubt about this, However, God's justice hovers over every man who has sinned publicly or in the hidden recesses of the heart. In God's eyes hate is on the same plateau as murder and eventually earns a murderer's penalty, death. Thus everyone must die. Now His prime concern was with the blood guilt heaped on the back of Jesus. So far as God was concerned, Jesus was the world's number one sinner. Not only His hands, but His entire body reeked of blood guilt and God was exacting the penalty, the blood of the offender.
If the reader is disturbed by these descriptions, let him remember the words of Jesus that He came to give His life as a ransom for many. Or, His blood poured out for many would be the basis of a new covenant. Since Jesus offered His life in blood, that is, violent death, I think we can understand why Christians have talked, sung, painted, and written so much about the blood of Jesus.
According to the Book of Revelation, the saints are washing their robes and making them white in the blood of the Lamb. One could quip here that this is God's own divine chemistry. It explains why Christians, especially at the time of crisis and death, receive Christ's blood in the cup. It was the blood that satisfied God's requirements. The details of the trial of Jesus and the death scenes themselves will further describe the shedding of blood.
Crucifixion - Sacrifice and Blood Offering
Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet, had already given the clue to the violent death that God's Servant would face at the hands of God Himself. He was to be smitten and afflicted by God. It was completely the planning of God that He should be beaten and whipped so that the soul or life of the Servant could be the offering for sin. God Himself had chosen the instruments of torture!
In the early church the disciples never simply proclaimed that Jesus had died, but that He died by crucifixion, that is, on a cross. References to the cross death are generously scattered in the New Testament. In a hymn that many scholars find to be one of the oldest in Christendom, Paul tells the Philippians that Jesus not only consented to humiliate Himself to the point of death, but even to death on a cross. In the first sermons of Peter to Jews in Jerusalem, he specifically mentions that they had put Jesus to death by a cross. Numerical counts at this time might be useless in demonstrating the obvious importance of the cross in the apostolic preaching. It can be pointed out, however, that in all the Gospels Christ's crucifixion is the high point and climax of the account. All of the events in each Gospel are on a line of ascension that points the reader's gaze to the cross. No other event or episode in the life of Jesus receives an even or near equal amount of attention to that of His death and the events directly leading up to it. His birth and resurrection (here we think of Christmas and Easter with their high celebrations in the church) do not even occupy the same amount of space in the Gospels - even when they are placed together.
Throughout His ministry Jesus was directing the gaze of His disciples to His final end on a cross. Christianity is not primarily the religion of Christ's incarnation or the resurrection, it is the religion of the crucifixion. What St. Paul said is still valid for the church: that he was determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Incarnation with nativity makes possible the crucifixion, and resurrection is crucifixion's divine certification. The beginning, heart, and end of Christianity is the crucifixion. The attention that our churches have given to the crucifixion through the adornment of our altars by crucifixes and the celebration of Lent is not at all amiss; it is putting the attention of the Christian where it should be - on the cross of Jesus. We must therefore understand carefully what crucifixion means.
According to all four Gospel accounts, the high priests acting in conjunction with the Sanhedrin find Jesus guilty of blasphemy. The evidence of the witnesses turns out to be inconclusive when contradictory testimony is given. The case is finally sealed against Jesus on the basis of His own admission in the form of an answer to a question that He was the Christ, the Son of God. According to a prescribed ritual, the ruling high priest, Caiaphas, tore his garment. This was a calculated action with feigned emotion. The usual penalty for crime of blasphemy was death by stoning, at least according to Leviticus 24:16. "He who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him."
The Jews also knew of hanging as another form of execution. Hanging and crucifixion are similar. Crucifixion may be considered another form of hanging. The cross offered a more prolonged death than the quicker death by the rope. What type of death the Jews really preferred for Jesus is not known, but it is they and not Pilate who suggested crucifixion as the appropriate form of death for Jesus. Hanging implied .the curse of God in a way that stoning didn't. According to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, the corpse of a hanged man is accursed by God and particularly offensive to Him. It defiles the land promised by God and given to the Jews as their own. In writing to the Galatians Paul is aware of theological significance of a death by crucifixion. "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us - for it is written 'Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree." The unusually severe curse connected with hanging was its prolonged and excruciating form of death, in distinction from instant death. It symbolized the intense wrath of God over the particular form of sin which was receiving its just punishment."
In the light of the passage from Deuteronomy, St. Paul interpreted Jesus' death by hanging or crucifixion as an expression of God's curse. It was God who found that Jesus was accursed, "for a hanged man is accursed by God." Elsewhere in Matthew's Gospel there are the words of Jesus to the disciples to take up their crosses and follow Him. Jesus understands these crosses or afflictions of the disciples in the light of His own cross. The crosses for the disciples are not of their own choosing but of God's. Thus also the cross as an instrument of death is not Jesus' choice but a burden placed on Him by God to demonstrate that He was rejected and became repulsive.
Three Incidents: Scourging, Darkness, "Eli, Eli"
There is nothing in the Passion narrative which is not of immediate redemptive significance. Three of these events need special attention - at least by a brief mention.
In Matthew's Gospel Pilate's order for crucifixion is given in the same breath as the one for scourging or whipping. As soon as the whips, knotted with small pieces of metal, struck the back of Jesus, God's redemptive process had moved into high gear. With each stroke the world's sin was being heaped upon Jesus; each time the burden became heavier. Isaiah had already said about 600 years before that "with His stripes we are healed." Peter reflecting on the same scene, the scourging of Jesus, would later say, "By His wounds you have been healed." What was physically detrimental to Jesus became spiritually beneficial to man.
Also in Matthew is the report of a darkness that blanketed the whole countryside for about 3 hours beginning about noon. It would not be adequate to state that the evangelist is merely informing his readers of local weather conditions in Palestine as available from the resident meteorologist. The significance of this darkness must be interpreted in the light of what the evangelists say about it in other places. The torture endured by the Son of God at the hands of an angry God cannot be understood by human minds and cannot be expressed in our words; but darkness will point us in the direction where the tragic drama is unfolded.
In addition to the reference to the darkness that covered the earth at the death of Jesus, Matthew uses the term darkness five times in his Gospel and each time the word has a religious or theological meaning and does not refer to phenomena in nature. In one place darkness refers to people living in sin and without hope and doomed to death (4:15-16). In the Sermon on the Mount it is applied to people who have deceived themselves into believing they are religious but still have not found the truth so far as God is concerned (6:23). In the other three places darkness means hell. The Jews, the original sons of the kingdom, are thrown into darkness because they refuse to accept their own Messiah. Their refusal is even the more hideous to God, since the Gentiles have recognized Him and are already sitting down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at heaven's banquet (8:11). The guest without the wedding garment, the imposter in the kingdom, is also headed for the "outer darkness." (22:13). The worthless servant who did not invest his own talent is doomed to the same fate (25:30).
In this one Gospel darkness suggests wrath, doom, ignorance of God, and hell, and throughout both Testaments these thoughts are connected with this word. In Joel and Zephaniah darkness carries with it the thought of the impending foreboding doom of God. In the New Testament Paul, Peter, John, and Jude all use it to describe that territory where Satan reigns. The darkness over the land of Palestine at the crucifixion of Jesus means that God was pouring down the wrath earned by His own people on the soul of Jesus. This wrath which Jesus had preached and warned about would find its target in His own soul.
A third incident in connection with the crucifixion has to do with a few foreign words. Our New Testament was written in Greek, but still here and there a few Hebrew or Aramaic words were left in the original even though they are written in the Greek alphabet. Where we find these foreign words in the text, we can conclude these words are old and important. The writer thought the words in the original language expressed a thought that could not adequately be translated into another language. Shortly before His death, Jesus uttered words that have been recorded in their original language and to which the evangelists give a translation. Jesus' words "Eli Eli, lema sabachthani?" (NEB) mean, "My God, My God, why did You forsake Me?" (Beck). In other places the Gospel writers have no hesitancy in translating any of the original preaching of Jesus into Greek, without giving the wording in the original, but these words expressed such a high and sacred mystery that they put them into their writings just as Jesus had spoken them.
One of the pictures of hell in the preaching of Jesus, as shown above, is dismissal from the presence of God. The servants in the vineyard who act murderously towards the king's servants and son are permanently exiled. Those who have not acted compassionately with the most insignificant follower of Jesus are told to depart. This is the judgment scene between the sheep and the goats. It is a parable of the final and last Judgment when Jesus seals the fate of the doomed with an irrevocable sentence, "Depart from Me!"
Just as the Son would order expulsion at the final eschatological judgment of the world, so now at the moment of crucifixion, the Father sits in the seat of judgment, faces the eternal Son, and utters the heavy judgment, "Depart from Me! You are accursed in My sight more than any man! The unrighteousness placed on You has made You an abomination in My sight!" From the defendant and victim comes the plea, "My God, My God. Why did You abandon Me?" (TEV)
The mystery of this moment is unmatched even by the other great mysteries: incarnation or resurrection. These words present a few questions. If the Father is God and Jesus is also God in the Trinitarian sense, how was it possible for God to forsake Jesus? What about the omnipresence of God? Isn't God present everywhere? Do the words of Jesus mean that the eternal Logos forsook Jesus as the Gnostics, an early heretical sect, taught. Where was the Spirit of God?
At this point a few distinctions can help us. The Trinity, the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit, is an eternal relationship. It existed before the created world and is not dependent upon anything that happens on earth, including the events in the life of Jesus. You might even say that the Son had a double role at that moment. He was both the punisher and the punished. (If you think of these things spatially, you will not understand.) The Trinity remained untouched even at this critical moment. God was also with Jesus as He is everywhere. He is even in hell, not to save but to sustain. Just as God would be with any condemned and dying man, He was with Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was not excluded from God's omnipresence.
In addition, as a faithful child of God Jesus perceived God's special help. Jesus calls out not merely "God," but "My God." Still in another way the Spirit of God was also with Jesus because as God's representative Man, Jesus was given everything He needed to accomplish His task - even the Spirit. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews even states that the eternal Spirit helped Jesus make a sacrifice of His life to God. The separation of which Jesus cries from the cross is not a separation of the Trinity, not a separation from the sustaining presence of sod, and not separation from the Spirit who never forsakes the faithful. It is the separation of the damned and condemned from God.
Who Is on the Cross?
In recent New Testament scholarship there has been a tendency to look askance at the church's doctrine of the Trinity which holds that one God is present in Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Dependent on this doctrine is the doctrine of the incarnation which holds that the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, became man in Jesus of Nazareth. Some have contended that these teachings came into existence in a later period of the church and that they reflect a strong Creek influence.
Regardless of these theories, Matthew's Gospel, which is the most Jewish of all the Gospels and perhaps the only one that was written in the Jews' native land and the homeland of Jesus Himself, has nine explicit references to Jesus as the Son of God. This one alone contains the phrase "Father and Son and Holy Spirit." What is even more revealing is that the phrase "the Son of God" is more frequently used in connection with His death than on any other occasion recorded in the Gospel. By actual count, Jesus is called the Son of God nine times in this Gospel of Matthew: twice by Satan in the temptation scenes, once by demons, once by Peter in the great confession, once by the disciples at the miraculous draught of fishes, and four times in connection with His death!
The high priest asks Jesus whether he is the Christ, the Son of God. To this question Jesus gives an affirmative answer. The mocking taunting crowds cluttered around the cross shout up to the tortured victim that if He is the Son of God He should make His own arrangements to come down. Again, they suggest that since "He said that He is the Son of God," He should be able to save Himself. The death scene concludes with the postscript from the centurion, "Truly this was the Son of God." Whatever else the evangelist wanted to teach in connection with Jesus' crucifixion, he most certainly wanted to teach that the victim on the cross is none other than the Son of God Himself. The blood sacrifice nailed to the cross was God Himself.
To this point the evangelist has painted a masterful picture. Jesus is not only the Son of God in faith or for faith, He is the Son of God (not the Redeemer in faith) also for those who do not benefit from His work. Satan, the demons, the high priest, and the Jewish crowds, wittingly or unwittingly, provide testimony that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus Himself does not deny but affirms the allegation in the trial before the high priest. Even Peter and the disciples, who are sincere in their affirmations of Jesus' deity during the last week, are weak in commitment and somewhat deficient in their understanding.
The finale of the nine confessions is left not to a Jew, one of God's people, and not to a disciple, one of Jesus' people, but to a Roman centurion, a twice-hated man, a Gentile, and a subjugator of God's people. From him come the formal words of confession, "He really was the Son of God."
At death the remains of the deceased or the corpse must be recognized by the next of kin or a friend. This is a legal procedure. Some, like Joseph of Arimathea, come and claim the body; but only one is unhesitating about the true identity of the dead body. This is not merely the body of a rabbi or teacher of Nazareth. This is the body of the Son of God Himself!
As soon as we understand that God was the victim on the cross, all the rest of Jesus' life comes into focus. The angel had already informed Joseph that Mary's child would save His people from their sins - only God can do that. Jesus said that His life would be the ransom payment for the sins of the whole world - but is there a sufficient price in life or money that can make restitution for each and every sin? Can God in any way be satisfied? Who is able to meet God's requirements? Matthew's answer is that God Himself has provided an answer to the dilemma in Himself. What happened on the cross was really a private matter in God.
Paul would later write that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. Matthew teaches the same thing. God was in heaven as the avenger of justice and He was on the cross as the victim of justice. Since the victim was the Son of God Himself, the victim's death had all the value and force of the death of God. It was as infinite in its scope as God Himself. It was the "super-cosmic" event because the person dying could not, as Solomon said in his prayer at the dedication of Jerusalem's temple, be contained by an earthly building, or even earth' or the highest heavens. At the death of God, the earth offered a minor salute with a tremor to recognize an event that was more than universal. Justice had placed the world's sin in the balances with the death of God, and it pronounced a verdict of innocence and righteousness over the world.
There are several places and circumstances in the Scriptures where Jesus can be seen clearly as Lord and God. He called the creation into existence and showed His creative control through His miracles. Today He still demonstrates His power in directing the course of history and of the nations for the benefit of His church. One day He will be acknowledged as Lord and God even by those who opposed Him and His cause on earth. But there is one place and only one place where He really desires recognition of Himself as Lord and God and that is on the cross. The cross with its agony is not separate from God, but in Jesus they have become one. The Christian religion is a theology of the cross.
Whoever is so offended by a God on the cross that he refuses to acknowledge the divine in the midst of that agony will be excluded from the final reign of Jesus. Peter had seen the miracles of Jesus and heard His preaching and confessed that Jesus was the Son of God. The Roman officer had heard the cries of the victim and seen the suffering and saw God's real work. And he saw more than Peter. Right on the cross God was more of what it really means to be God than in any other moment of history. (Let the reader understand this correctly!) Justice and love had met, neither was destroyed, but both were reinforced. The result was the agony of the Son of God Himself.
Matthew must have thought how difficult people would find the concept of a "God on a cross." On that account he brings down the curtain on Golgotha with not merely, "He was truly a righteous man," or even, "He was the Son of God"; but with "He was really God's Son." "Without a doubt, this Jesus was the Son of God" is another way of saying it. Let not the heavens and the earth be searched for God. He can be found on the cross.
Strange as it may sound the One on the cross was also the King.
Chapter excerpted from What Do You Think of Jesus? by Dr. David P. Scaer. Used by permission of Concordia Publishing House. This material is not to be electronically transferred. Download for personal use only.
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