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Saving the World, Revealing the Glory: Atonement Then and Now

N.T. Wright ABC Religion and Ethics 12 Apr 2017

Unless we understand what it means that the Messiah died for our sins “in accordance with the scriptures” we will end up with a version of atonement theology that is both distorted and shrunk.

Credit: Perseomed / Getty Images

N.T. Wright is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He is the author of The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion.

The deft artistry and fathomless theology of John’s Gospel is powerfully displayed in the footwashing scene in chapter 13. In a few strokes of the pen we are offered a tableau intimate and touching, on the one hand, and scary and dangerous, on the other.

Having begun his masterpiece with the all-creative Word becoming flesh and revealing God’s glory, John begins the shorter second half of his Gospel 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 the astonishing act of divine humility, of loving redemption, of cleansing for service.

This is a good place to

begin our quest for a fresh glimpse of what we in the Western churches have traditionally called the atonement.

For John, as indeed throughout the New Testament, Jesus’s 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, “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, 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 tries to object – a Johannine equivalent, in a sense, of Peter’s protest in Matthew 16 – and Jesus waves away the objection: 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, and all you now need is the regular footwashing – a wonderful image in itself of the prior whole-person washing of the gospel, needing only the regular smaller-scale washing of dusty feet, but like everything else in John’s story pointing forwards 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.

And then Jesus resumes his garments and explains at least the surface layer of meaning: as I have done this to you, you should do it for one another. As usual John gives the simple explanation in order to nudge his readers into the deeper ones, but this already points forward to the ministries of the gospel which will be unleashed through the outpoured 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 and fruitbearing mission of Jesus’s followers. That is part of the point of the long discourses which follow chapter 13 and thereby prepare the way for the dramatic scene before Pilate and on the cross itself.

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. The accuser, he says, 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’s footsteps throughout his mission, rather as Gollum is never far away while Frodo and his companions undertake their fateful journey in The Lord of the Rings; and, indeed, I rather think Tolkein was tracking a profound biblical theme in that strand of his master-narrative, including its final denouement.

Jesus knows, of course, that the satan would do this, and had already hinted that one of his own followers would act out the great Accusation, the charge that would take him to his death. It isn’t just that Judas is succumbing to a miscellaneous temptation; rather, the hate and shame of all the world, the raging howl that rises from all 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 can-vas, holding many different characters and moods within a single tableau, it is this footwashing scene in John 13.

The Gospel of John: A New Genesis

I begin with this scene partly because I want at least to stir your imaginations so that your reflection on Jesus’s crucifixion is not a matter of theories, of schemes of thought to be played off against one another, but a matter of vivid historical reality captured in a story like the footwashing, as indeed in so many others, but with this one positioned with deliberate care by John 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.

I will come presently and briefly to the theories, but the theories mean what they mean as interpretations of the story, the real-life narrative of the word made flesh, of the flesh made shameful, of the shame itself killed and buried. The theories are battered little signposts pointing towards that reality, and the gospels are written not to provide lively illustrations of those theories but to name and invoke the 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, and 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 quickly discover that the whole book is about the revelation of the divine glory precisely in the salvation of the world, and that the way to understand these large abstractions is to see them within the vast and sprawling story of Israel and the world as set out in scripture.

In particular, John positively urges us in his prologue to see the whole of the story he will tell within the long reach of the first two books of the Bible. John, after all, focuses his story again and again on the Temple, on Jesus’s upstaging of the Temple, on his implicit warning to the Temple and its guardians, and on his final performance of that which the Temple itself could not effect.

And what has that to do with Genesis and Exodus? Well, everything: because Genesis 1 and 2 describe, to anyone with 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 proper balance and mutual relation. The seven stages of creation are the seven stages of constructing 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 there is, of course, as the final element of construction, the Image: the true Image through which the rest of creation sees and worships the creator, the true Image through which the sovereign and loving 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 working-through-humans-in-the-world God. (I wish there was a word for that; it might be easier in German – or perhaps we could take the Greek and speak not just of an anthropic God, a God who was appropriately bodied forth in human life, but a dianthropic God, a God who desired to express himself perfectly by working through humans in the world.)

And already, with this vision of Genesis before us, we understand both the beginning and the climax of John’s gospel: in the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word became flesh.” And on the last Friday, the ultimate 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, the one at whom, when people gaze, they see the Father; the one through whom the Father is present, and powerfully working, to bring about his desire and design.

Then in the end, when the light has shone in the gathering darkness and the darkness has tried to extinguish it, the final word 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 and as 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.

The Gospel of John: A New Exodus

But if it is a new Genesis, it is also a new Exodus. For years, when reading Exodus, I confess that I used to misjudge what Moses says repeatedly 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 home to our promised land, but let’s just tell Pharaoh that we want to worship our God and that we can’t do it in his land, surrounded by his gods. But the whole logic of the book of Exodus, and indeed 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; up to that point it’s a page-turner, one dramatic incident after another, but then suddenly the pace seems to slacken as we get miscellaneous rules and regulations, though not (to be honest) very many of them yet. Don’t stop there, forge ahead, because the whole narrative is indeed moving swiftly forward to the aim and object of the whole thing, which is the restoration of creation itself, the purpose for which God called Abraham and his family in the first place, the purpose through which heaven and earth will be joined together once more, only now in dramatic symbol and onward pointing sign.

The giving of Torah itself is just a preparation; what matters is the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is the microcosmos, the little world, the heaven-and-earth place, the mysterious, untameable, moving tent in which the living God will come to dwell, to tabernacle, in the midst of his people, in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. The whole of the book of Exodus is itself moving towards this moment, in chapter 40, when the Tent is set up, 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 the Tent 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 the people in whose midst there dwells, in strange humble sovereignty, the promise and 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 and world-shaping 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. The Exodus through which creation is rescued and renewed; 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. This is the story that John is telling.

New Creation: The Glory Returns

But it isn’t just Genesis and Exodus, and indeed Genesis and Exodus themselves indicate well enough that things are going to be anything but straightforward. Genesis 1 and 2 of course give way to the whispering serpent, 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.

But as the Pentateuch unwinds to its dark and puzzling conclusion it becomes clear that the people of God – the tent-keepers if you like – are still in themselves a rebellious people who will themselves have to suffer the fate of all those who put other images at the intersection of heaven and earth. They 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.

Genesis and Exodus, then, give us the structure, the framework. God will rescue and restore his heaven-and-earth creation, and the Tabernacle is the sign and seal of that promise, with Aaron and his sons as the image-reflectors to hold that hope together and Israel as a whole the royal priesthood for the whole of creation. Genesis to Deuteronomy give us the story, stretching forward in its final chapters 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 to be image-bearers, to be the spearhead of YHWH’s victory over the powers of evil, to be the focus of his reign of justice and peace. Or so it seemed, 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 with the mountains flattened and the valleys filled in for his glory to be revealed for all flesh to witness it; and the majesty is joined with gentle intimacy, exactly as in John 13, as he will feed his flock like a shepherd, gather the lambs in his arms, and gently lead the mother sheep.

A new Exodus, in other words: the great prophetic theme which 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 – the themes come rushing together.

Jesus chose Passover as the moment to do what had to be done, the moment he knew would awaken precisely those biblical resonances which would appropriately frame his final kingdom-bringing action and passion. 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 the long-delayed obedience of Israel, on the one hand, and the long-awaited return of Israel’s God, on the other. When St. Paul, quoting the early Christian 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 neo-Marcionite rationalists; what matters is the story.

New Exodus: Rescue from the “Ruler of this World”

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 of this the prophets see – particularly, once again, Isaiah for whom God’s kingdom will be established through the overthrow of the dark power and the redeeming return of YHWH to Zion.

And all of this is retrieved by the Gospel writers, and particularly John, as he leads the eye up from his prologue all the way through to the footwashing scene and on to the cross. Jesus’s signs, starting with the wedding at Cana (itself symbolizing the marriage of heaven and earth), reveal his glory; and the sequence of signs leads us, if we follow the clues John is leaving us, all the way to the cross itself where the dark glory of God is revealed as the glory of the true Image, the priest, the king, the lover.

This theme, picked up in the footwashing scene as we saw with Judas embodying the satan, is already highlighted as John draws together the first half of his gospel in chapter 12, where he quotes precisely those passages from Isaiah in which the themes I have been sketching come to sharp relief.

The crucial passage, John 12:20-36, begins with a typical piece of Johannine puzzlement. Some Greeks come to the feast, and want to see Jesus. But instead of arranging a time later that day when they could sit down for a coffee together, Jesus proceeds to speak in riddles. This is the sign, he seems to be saying, that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, for the grain of wheat to fall into the earth and die in order to bear much fruit.

What on earth has that got to do with these poor Greeks who simply want to see him? Jesus looks 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 understanding the world – to adapt Marx’s dictum – but rescuing 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’s death will be the means by which – in a moment of shocking and intense paradox, picked up by all the New Testament writers in their own ways – 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 power of a 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 resurrection itself and with it the launch of the new creation. First, in chapter 7, the Spirit cannot be poured out through and out of the hearts of the disciples until Jesus is “glorified.” And second, 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, to hold him perhaps within their world of theory when what matters is the world of the new temple, the new cosmos, the ultimate Image, the word made flesh.

Jesus’s death will be the overthrow of the power, the “ruler of this world.” That is why the long scene in chapters 18 and 19, of Jesus in sharp dialogue with Pontius Pilate – the kingdom of God against the kingdom of Caesar – is so vital to the whole meaning of the story. Pilate asks about kingdom, and Jesus replies about truth; Pilate doesn’t know what truth is, because the only truth he knows is 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 is the footwashing power, the power of radical, transformative love.

On the cross, as John makes clear, that love goes to work, with the tender moment with Mary and John, on the one hand, and Pilate himself, on the other, despite himself, declaring “what I have written I have written” – the ruler of this world declaring unwittingly that Jesus is indeed the King of the Jews, and hence, according to the Psalms and the prophets, the ultimate ruler and justice-bringer for the whole world.

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; creation ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.

“According to the Scriptures”

This is all to demonstrate why we should never even attempt to construct something called an “atonement-theology” unless we understand, with John, what it means that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.

Because, of course, we have tried – along with the entire Western theological tradition – to do it in many other ways. We have told many different stories, so that Israel’s scriptures become merely a source-book for random prophecies to be fitted into the redemption-narratives we have gleaned from other cultures. We have then distorted those texts to play the role demanded by these other narratives: narratives of divine honour offended, of a divine law court sitting in judgment, of human muddle and mistake.

All of these matter but if we start with them we will skew the whole. Atonement – and the word is far less precise than we normally imagine – must include so much more, including the notion 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 all these ideas can themselves be distorted, and have themselves been distorted, as we have put them into our different frameworks.

In particular, we have radically misread the entire sacrificial tradition of ancient Israel, in which animals were not subjected to a vicarious death penalty but were killed so that their blood – 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 is driven away, bearing Israel’s sins into the wilderness.

As I try to explain in The Day the Revolution Began, the much-cherished and heavily guarded statements of atonement theology that we all learned from the sixteenth-century reformers, though vital as a bulwark against error, were themselves framed far more in terms of the late mediaeval ideas, particularly of purgatory and the mass, to which the reformers were reacting.

The reformers were doing the noble job of trying to give biblical answers to fifteenth-century questions, but the Bible upon which they rightly insisted makes it clear that this is not enough. We must get inside the world of the Bible, and understand what it means that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with, as the fulfilment of, the great single narrative of Israel’s scriptures. Only in so doing will we get fresh clarity in our thinking and, equally importantly, fresh energy for our mission.

Christus Victor: Jesus and the Victory of God

We have, I believe, committed a triple error in our thinking about the Cross – though it doesn’t start with the Cross, but, like so many things, with our eschatology. We have platonized our eschatology, speaking and praying about “going to heaven when we die” without realising that this is the first-century teaching, not of the New Testament, but of Plutarch and the other middle Platonists. The New Testament is not about souls going up 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.

And this isn’t just a matter of tinkering around the edges of what we say about our ultimate future – and about God’s ultimate future. What we say about the future plays back at once into how we conceive the problem to which the cross and resurrection are the God-given solution. If we are simply thinking about our souls going to heaven we quickly shrink the human vocation – to be the Image-bearers, the Royal Priesthood – into mere morality. Morality matters vitally but it matters because it is the by-product of being Image-bearers, summing up the praises of creation rather than worshipping and serving the creature. Morality matters because only through true Image-bearers will the rescuing divine justice flow out into the world.

But if we focus on morality – 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 is going to do about it. And, as 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 but as the story of humans failing an exam, deserving punishment and the punishment eventually falling elsewhere.

Though there is indeed truth within that shrunken narrative – the truth of the Cross is so vast and deep that it shines out still even from our distortions – if we put that little moral equation at the centre, we will never understand what the Bible as a whole, what Jesus as a whole, was and is all about. We have, then, platonized our eschatology, and to fit we have moralized our anthropology.

The result is that we have again and again 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 and an innocent victim and a king or an expedition or a country being rescued from divine wrath because someone – preferably an innocent someone – got in the way at the last minute.

Now I know that few if any preachers, and few if any theologians, will own up to having preached about Jesus in that way. They will always insist that they speak of Jesus’s death as the act of divine love. But this pagan story is what generations of people in the churches have heard. And it’s all too easy for them to hear it because that is often how generations of Christians have behaved: using would-be redemptive violence, whether domestically or internationally, and always asserting that it is done out of love, and with the best of intentions.

And so people hear what they think is the gospel, and 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.” Because that pagan story is so easy for people to slip into in their imaginations, generations have done exactly that; and the biblical truth of penal substitution is thereby both distorted and shrunk.

Distorted, because there is a biblical truth we can call “penal substitution,” but it is not well expressed within this platonized eschatology and the moralized anthropology. It belongs in its clearest formulaic expression in Romans 8:1-4, where Paul declares that 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, as we might say – in the representative flesh of the Messiah.

That is at the heart of a complicated argument which I have tried to spell out in The Day the Revolution Began and won’t attempt even to summarize here, except to say that the clearest non-formulaic expressions are found where most theologians don’t bother looking for them: in the four Gospels themselves. (And this, incidentally, is one reason among many why there is such enthusiasm among Dan Brown aficionados and in some theological circles, particularly in America, for the non-canonical gospels like Thomas. This deep and dark narrative 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 astonishingly muted to this day in much modern Western preaching and teaching – even among so-called “Bible Christians” – perhaps for the reason that it generates at once, as John’s Gospel does in spades, 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, 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 cannot seem to find?

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. In the four Gospels the story of Jesus is set in counterpoint with the story of evil: the snake in the garden, the tottering tower of Babel, the power of Pharaoh killing the babies, rebellious Israel, wicked priests and kings, false prophets, idolatries to left, right and centre. Jesus goes on his way, announcing that this is how God is becoming king, and apparently drawing 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 the pathetic representatives of “the ruler of this world” – Judas and Pilate merely bring into sharp focus what is going on all along.

And evil – that is, Sin with a capital S – is 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. And with his death, exactly as Isaiah, Zechariah and the Psalms had glimpsed through a glass darkly, Pharaoh is overthrown, Babel tumbles to the ground, the gods of the world had done their worst. As Paul put it in Colossians, on the cross Jesus disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, celebrating his triumph over them.

The way this happened was by Jesus – representing Israel, representing thereby the whole human race, and equally representing and embodying the one God himself – taking 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.

And that, not some cheap and logic-chopped scheme, is why there is forgiveness of sins; that is why there is now a Gentile mission; that is why the followers of Jesus 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 sharpest pain in order that by the Spirit they may embody the love of God and the pain of God right there, and so bring the healing of God and the hope of God into the world that so badly needs it.

Unless we read the Gospels like this 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 formulae. 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. They 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.

What Changed on Good Friday?

This is why 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. At the heart of The Day the Revolution Began, I ask the question: by the evening of the first Good Friday, what had changed in the world? Clearly all the New Testament writers think that something had 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 have in their heads a narrative in which world history arrived at its redemptive moment in the eighteenth century with the rise of science and technology and the banishment of God to a distant realm, to be visited by the pious few like a family calling on an elderly relative every Sunday. The Western churches have regularly colluded with this absurd diminishment of the Bible and the gospel.

But the Cross, told as the climax of all four Gospels and particularly that of John on which I have focused here, 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, and must once again become flesh, 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 resumed his clothes 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 victory on the Cross, will as he promised be flooded with his glory and knowledge as the waters cover the sea. That is the meaning of atonement, then and now.

N.T. Wright is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He is one of the world’s most distinguished and influential New Testament scholars. His most recent book is The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion.

See also




Categories: Teologice

4 replies

  1. Ce este acest Cuvânt?

    Povestea intima şi de neînţeles a Crăciunului.

    N. T. Wright

    Un cuvânt iudeu spus unei lumi care nu înţelege; cuvântul unui copil spus unor adulţi care nu înţeleg; un cuvânt pentru o hrană de care ceilalalţi nu erau conştienţi – totul are o tentă foarte specifică lui Ioan. “La început era Cuvântul… şi Cuvântul S-a făcut trup…” (Ioan 1:1,14). Suntem atât de obişnuiţi cu acest pasaj, cu măreţele cadenţe, cu solemnul dar îmbucurătorul mesaj al Întrupării, încât riscăm să trecem cu vederea incomprehensibilitatea, bizarul şi ciudăţenia aproape stânjenitoare a Cuvântului. “Lumina luminează în întunerec, şi întunerecul n-a biruit-o; El era în lume, şi lumea a fost făcută prin El, dar lumea nu L-a cunoscut. A venit la ai Săi, şi ai Săi nu L-au primit.” (Ioan 1:5, 10–11).
    Ioan spune în mod simultan două lucruri în prologul său (de fapt mai multe lucruri, dar mă voi concentra asupra a două dintre ele): primul lucru, Întruparea Cuvântului veşnic a fost evenimentul pe are întreaga creaţie l-a aşteptat întotdeauna; al doilea lucru, atât creaţia cât şi poporul lui Dumnezeu erau destul de nepregătiţi pentru acest eveniment. Iudeii şi neamurile la un loc, la auzul acestui Cuvânt ciudat, şi-au aruncat priviri îngrijorate unii altora, asemena maestrului şi a cărturarului la auzul adevărului spus de un băieţel într-o limbă pe care nu o înţeleg.
    Acesta este puzzle-ul Crăciunului. Prologul lui Ioan este destinat să rămână în minte şi în inimă de-a lungul poveştii ulterioare. Isus nu mai este numit nici unde altundeva în Evanghelia lui Ioan “Cuvântul”, dar trebuie să privim fiecare scenă în parte – chemarea primilor ucenici, preschimbarea apei în vin, confruntarea cu Pilat, Răstignirea şi Învierea – şi să ne gândim în sinea noastră: “Aşa arată Cuvântul când este întrupat!”. Sau, dacă doriţi: “Priviţi la acest om, în trup, şi învăţaţi cum să-L vedeţi pe Dumnezeu!”
    Dar priviţi ce se întâmplă când lucrurile sunt date pe faţă. Vine la ai Lui şi ai Lui nu Îl primesc. Lumina străluceşte în întuneric şi, deşi întunericul nu o poate birui, acesta cu siguranţă încearcă să o facă. El vorbeşte adevărul, în cuvinte clare şi simple, asemenea copilului ce spune ce a mâncat la micul dejun, iar Caiafa şi Pilat, neînţelegând ce spune El, nu pot decide dacă El este nebun sau rău sau ambele.
    Deşi lui Isus nu I se mai spune din nou Cuvântul lui Dumnezeu, noi găsim această temă transpusă de-a lungul Evangheliei sale în variaţii nesfârşite. Cuvântul Viu rosteşte cuvinte vii, iar reacţia este aceeaşi. “Acesta este un cuvânt greu!”, spun cei ce-L urmau când le spune că El este Pâinea ce a coborât din cer (Ioan 6:60). “Ce este acest cuvânt?”, întreabă mulţimea uimită din Ierusalim (Ioan 7:36). “Cuvântul Meu nu găseşte loc în voi”, spune Isus, “pentru că nu-l puteţi auzi!” (Ioan 8:37, 43). “Cuvântul pe care îl rostesc le va fi judecată în ziua de pe urmă!”, insistă El (Ioan 12:48), pe masură ce mulţimea Îl respinge.
    Când Pilat aude Cuvântul, spune Ioan, i se face frică, de vreme ce cuvântul despre care este vorba este afirmaţia lui Isus cum că El ar fi Fiul lui Dumnezeu (Ioan 19:8). Dacă nu recunoaştem acest fir ciudat, întunecat, ce străbate Evanghelia după Ioan, vom domestici capodopera de artă a lui Ioan (aşa cum suntem mereu în pericolul de a domestici Crăciunul) şi vom crede că este vorba numai despre mângâiere şi bucurie. Adevărul e că este vorba de asemenea şi despre neînţelegere, respingere, întuneric, negare, urechi astupate şi judecată. În Crăciun nu este vorba despre cum Dumnezeul cel Viu vine să ne spună că totul este în ordine. Evanghelia lui Ioan nu ne spune că Isus rosteşte adevărul, şi toată lumea spune “Bineînţeles! De ce nu am realizat aceasta înainte?” Este vorba despre cum Dumnezeu face să strălucească torţa Lui aprinsă şi luminoasă în întunericul lumii acesteia, al vieţilor, inimilor, imaginaţiilor noastre – şi întunericul nu percepe lucrul acesta. Este vorba despre cum Dumnezeu, Dumnezeu ca şi copilaş, vorbeşte cuvintele adevărului, şi nimeni nu ştie despre ce vorbeşte.
    Poate că sunteţi conştienţi de acea uimire, de acea incapacitate de a înţelege, de acel sens al unui cuvânt spus, care pare să trebuiască să însemne ceva, dar care rămâne ascuns. Dacă acesta este punctul în care te afli, Vestea Bună este aceea că, pe lângă această temă a neînţelegerii şi respingerii, există o temă paralelă a oamenilor ce aud şi primesc cuvintele lui Isus, crezându-le şi descoperind, aşa cum spune El, că aceastea sunt duh şi viaţă (Ioan 6:63). “Celor ce L-au primit le-a dat dreptul să se facă copii ai lui Dumnezeu, născuţi nu din sânge, nici din voia firii lor, nici din voia vreunui om, ci din Dumnezeu.” (Ioan 1:12-13). ” Dacă rămâneţi în cuvântul Meu, sunteţi în adevăr ucenicii Mei; veţi cunoaşte adevărul, şi adevărul vă va face slobozi.” (Ioan 8:32). “dacă păzeşte cineva Cuvântul Meu, în veac nu va vedea moartea.” (Ioan 8:51). “Acum voi sunteţi curaţi, din pricina Cuvântului pe care vi l-am spus.” (Ioan 15:3).
    Să nu vă închipuiţi că lumea este împărţită în mod natural în cei care înţeleg ceea ce spune Isus şi cei care nu pot înţelege. De unii singuri, nici unul dintre noi nu poate înţelege. Isus S-a născut într-o lume care, raportată la El, era în totalitate surdă şi oarbă. Dar unii, cu frică şi cutremur, au lăsat Cuvântul Lui să-i provoace, să-i salveze, să-i vindece şi să-i transforme. Aceasta este ceea ce oferă Crăciunul, nu o religie cu o putere de concentrare mai mare pentru cei cărora deja le plac astfel de lucruri, ci un Cuvânt care pare de neînţeles pentru limbajul nostru omenesc, dar care, atunci când învăţăm să Îl ascultăm, să Îl înţelegem şi să Îl credem, va transforma întreaga noastră persoană prin judecata şi îndurarea Lui.
    Din multele lucruri ce le găsim în citirea directă a Evangheliei lui Ioan am ales trei ca fiind deosebit de urgente.
    În primul rând, imaginea lui Ioan despre Întrupare, despre Cuvântul făcut trup, loveşte chiar la rădăcina negării deliberate ce a caracterizat izvorul teologiei liberale de acum treizeci de ani şi ale cărui efecte pe termen lung sunt încă vizibile. Am crescut auzind lecţii şi predici spunând că ideea că Dumnezeu a devenit om ar fi o greşeală categorică. Nici o fiinţă umană nu ar putea fi divină; prin urmare, trebuie că Isus să fi fost o simplă fiinţă umană, chiar dacă foarte strălucită. Isus arată spre Dumnezeu, dar El nu este cu adevărat Dumnezeu. O generaţie mai târziu, crescut direct sub învăţătura acelei şcoli, un om învăţat mi-a scris spunându-mi că biserica nu ştie nimic sigur. Îndepărtează Cuvântul întrupat din mijlocul teologiei tale şi totul se descoperă treptat, până când tot ceea ce îţi rămâne este echivalentul teologic al rânjetului viclean al motanului Cheshire: un relativism al cărui singur principiu moral este acela că nu există principii morale, nici urmă de judecată (pentru că nimic nu este cu adevărat greşit, cu excepţia faptului de a spune că lucrurile sunt greşite), nici urmă de îndurare (pentru că eşti în regulă aşa cum eşti, deci tot ceea ce îţi trebuie este să fii afirmat).
    Acesta este punctul în care se află societatea noastră, iar mesajul lui Ioan cu privire la Întrupare ne aminteste cu acurateţe şi promptitudine să reînvăţăm diferenţa dintre îndurare şi afirmare, dintre un Isus care atât întrupează cât şi vorbeşte Cuvântul lui Dumnezeu despre judecată şi har şi un Isus făcut de om care ne dă sfaturi bune pentru a descoperi cine suntem noi cu adevărat. Nu e de mirare că Evanghelia lui Ioan era şi este atât de ne-la-modă în multe cercuri.
    Există o anumită lipsă în ceea ce priveşte “teologia Întrupării”, care spune că slujba noastră este aceea de a discerne ce face Dumnezeu în lume şi să facem şi noi cu El. Dar acesta este numai jumătate din adevăr, şi este jumătatea greşită pentru început. Teologia lui Ioan despre Întrupare se referă la Cuvântul lui Dumnezeu care a venit ca Lumină în întuneric, ca un ciocan ce sparge piatra în bucăţele, ca un cuvânt proaspăt al judecăţii şi îndurării. S-ar putea spune de asemenea că un misionarism al Întrupării se referă la a descoperi lucrurile la care Dumnezeu spune nu astăzi şi să găsim un mod de a spune nu cu El. Aceasta era lecţia pe care Barth şi Bonhoeffer au trebuit să o înveţe în Germania anilor 1930 şi este mult prea relevantă pentru situaţia în care lumea de astăzi devine în mod simultan mai liberală şi mai totalitară. De acest Crăciun să ne trezim la realitate, să devenim ca şi Ioan şi să ascultăm din nou cuvintele ciudate rostite de Cuvântul făcut trup.
    În al doilea rînd, prologul lui Ioan reafirmă prin structura lui ordinea Creaţiei în punctul în care este provocată astăzi. Ioan aduce în mod conştient ecoul primului verset din primul capitol din Geneza: “La început, Dumnezeu a făcut cerurile şi pământul.” în primul verset din primul capitol al Evangheliei sale: “La început era Cuvântul…”. Când Cuvântul Se face trup, cerul şi pământul sunt în sfârşit unite, aşa cum Dumnezeu a intenţionat dintotdeauna. Dar istoria Creaţiei, care începe cu dualitatea pământului şi cerului, atinge punctul culminant în dualitatea bărbatului şi femeii. Când pământul şi cerul sunt unite în Isus Hristos, intenţia glorioasă cu privire la întreaga Creaţie este descoperită, reafirmând crearea bărbatului şi femeii după chipul lui Dumnezeu. Este ceva cu privire la întruparea Cuvântului din primul capitol din Evanghelia lui Ioan care vine în paralelă cu primul capitol din Geneza şi vorbeşte despre desăvârşirea Creaţiei. Vedem ce se întâmplă: Isus Hristos a venit ca Mire, Cel pe care Mireasa L-a aşteptat.
    Primul semn al lui Isus de a transforma iminenţa dezastrului unei nunţi în triumf nu este în van. Faptul că la piciorul Crucii găsim o femeie şi un bărbat nu este în van. Acelaşi început de gnosticism care spune că adevărata religie este despre “descoperirea a ceea ce suntem cu adevărat” este gata să spună că ceea ce suntem noi cu adevărat nu are nimic a face cu faptul de a fi creaţi bărbat şi femeie din punct de vedere fizic. Dar mesajul Crăciunului este despre mântuirea lumii bune a lui Dumnezeu, Creaţia Lui minunată, pentru ca ea să fie lucrul minunat care a fost făcută să fie. Acest Cuvânt este ciudat, aproape de neînţeles în cultura de azi. Dar dacă ai urechi de auzit, atunci auzi!
    În al treilea rând, ne întoarcem la masă, la hrana al cărui nume este ciudat, interzis, chiar de neînţeles celor din afară, dar cât se poate de normal pentru cei care o cunosc. Pruncul născut vine şi ne vorbeşte despre hrana pe care El o oferă: El Însuşi, trupul şi sângele Său. Este un cuvânt greu de digerat, iar aceia dintre noi care îl cunoaştem bine s-ar putea să fie nevoie să ne reamintim cât de grav este, în cazul în care am fost păcăliţi prin familiaritate, să presupunem că este uşor şi fără exigenţe. Nu este. Este Cuvântul care judecă lumea şi mântuieşte lumea, Cuvântul făcut acum trup, Pâinea dată pentru viaţa lumii.
    Ascultă, pentru că acest Cuvânt de neînţeles, Pruncul născut, iţi vorbeşte. Nu-l trata de sus; nu-L respinge; nu-L lua cu sentimentalisme! Învaţă limbajul prin care Se face înţeles. Şi vino la masă să te bucuri de hrană, hrană care este El Însuşi, Cuvântul făcut trup, Pâinea pascală, pâinea care este trupul Pruncului Hristos, Viaţa care este viaţa noastră, Lumina noastră, Gloria noastră!

    N. T. Wright a fost episcope de Durham. Acest articol este adaptat după predica sa de Crăciun, la Eucharistie, ţinută la Catedrala Bisericii lui Hristos în 2005.

  2. NT Wright e la moda, din ce in ce mai mult!
    Si eu am vreo 5-6 carti scrise de el (in lb romana)

    Numai ca, accentueaza prea mult umanitatea lui Isus, spunand ca El Si-a inteles identitatea, vocatia si misiunea dupa varsta de 12 ani,
    e ca si cum El nu stia ce se intampla cu El cand S-a intrupat, si nici in copilarie..
    e in consonanta cu ideea filmelor care spun ca Isus a aflat de la mama Lui cine era El..
    e cam cu scrtz, deci…

  3. O confirmare ce ma bucura mult.

  4. Mulțumesc pentru mesajele pe care le postați, sunt o binecuvântare pt mine frate Daniel!

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