The earliest Easter gospel is not in one of the four Gospels. It is in another reading that we sometimes hear on Easter: 1 Corinthians 15:13-4: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”
“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” What does this mean? What does it mean that the death of Christ was “according to the Scriptures”? What is the relationship between sin and death?
Perhaps you remember the story of Adam and Eve and that death entered the world because of their sin. (Interestingly, the word “sin” does not appear in the Genesis account of what is usually called “the Fall.” Come to think of it, the word “Fall” doesn’t appear there, either. But those are thoughts to be explored in another article.)
In the Old Testament, death is the penalty for sin. That remains true in the New Testament. As St. Paul wrote, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23). So, it might be natural for us to think that the only explanation for “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” means that Jesus suffered the penalty for sin (death) in our place. That is, Jesus was our substitute. In the minds of many twenty-first century people, that is what sacrifice means. We think of the French policeman who recently gave his life to save a hostage, and we think, “that’s basically what happened with Jesus,” but there is much more to understanding what happened on the Cross.
For us in the twenty-first century, sacrifice is a rare, almost beyond comprehension event. Animal sacrifice is seen as cruel, and when one person sacrifices herself or himself to save another, it is seen as something heroic but also strange. It is difficult for twenty-first century Christians to relate to the idea and practice of sacrifice that permeates the Bible. In biblical times, sacrifice was so common that it needed no explanation or justification. It was part of everyday life. “This very inevitability of the practice in ancient times is a stumbling block for modern readers of the New Testament, who tend to approach the metaphors of sacrifice as something rare and exotic, heavy with theological significance, and not the simple warp and woof of everyday religious experience that they were for their original audience” (Keeping the Feast: Metaphors of Sacrifice in 1 Corinthians and Philippians, Jane Lancaster Peterson, p. 2). Just as it is hard for those of us who have never lived on a farm to easily understand farming metaphors, it is even more difficult for modern people who have no knowledge or experience of sacrifice to understand the metaphor of Jesus as the Lamb of God.
Although some of the sacrificial offerings in the Old Testament are related to sin and guilt, most of the sacrificial offerings in the Old Testament are not sin offerings. Just as significantly, it does not appear that the sin offerings and the guilt offerings commanded by God in the Book of Leviticus are intended to be substitutes which are killed instead of the people who committed the sins. (I re-read the first 17 chapters of Leviticus to make sure this is accurate.) When God commands the sacrifice in Leviticus, there is not a substitution of the animal for the sinner. Instead, the sacrifice seems to be seen as an act of reconciliation with God because the life blood of the animal enables a new start (the power inherent in the animal’s life repairs the relationship) and the act of sharing a meal with God brings restoration of the God-human relationship. There is no sense in Leviticus that the animal is punished (killed) instead ofthe sinful human. Indeed, the sin offering and the guilt offering are only for unintentional sins or sins carried out without much thought. Direct, intentional defiance of God results in the punishment of the guilty person. The penalty is often death. But there is no offering in Leviticus that enables a person to escape judgment for a grave, intentional sin.
The text describing the main sin offering on the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for all the sins of the people of Israel, also makes it clear that the sacrificed animal is not killed as substitute or in the place of the sinful people. In Leviticus 16 the goat over which the sins of the people of Israel are confessed — in other words, the goat that “bears” the sins of the people — is not killed. It is sent out into the wilderness. The scapegoat is not killed but sent off to a faraway place while another goat is sacrificed to make atonement. This does not make sense if we are supposed to understand the goat as dying in the place of sinful humans so that humans can be reconciled to God. Instead, the scapegoat symbolically bears the sins of the people into the wilderness, another goat is sacrificed, and the shared meal with God brings reconciliation.
It seems likely that the first Christians (who were faithful Jews) would think of the Day of Atonement when they tried to understand what God was doing on the cross. In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author refers to the high priest of Israel making a sacrifice for the sins of the people once a year, and he makes it clear that Jesus is the new high priest andthe new sacrifice (Hebrews 9). As high priest and sacrifice, Jesus brings forgiveness and reconciliation with God to all people. Jesus is the one perfect sacrifice that ends all sacrifice. Jesus is the scapegoat that bears our sins away andthe sacrificial goat that provides the meal that reconciles us to God andthe high priest who offers the sacrifice. This is a very complex metaphor. This is also a different understanding than the one that is often expressed in Western Christianity — that Jesus bore the punishment for all the sins ever committed so that humans do not need to be punished, and we can go to heaven.
But Jesus’ death on the Cross means so much more than this. The Cross means not only are we forgiven, but we are also free to live in the power of Christ. Jesus who died, is also risen, and we are God’s people in this world as well as in the world to come. Jesus continues to show up in our lives and in the bread and wine we share as we celebrate communion. Jesus lives in us. As N.T. Wright, probably the greatest living New Testament scholar puts it:
[W]e are to make the story our own by the repeated meals in which the Last Supper is brought to life once more. If that was how Jesus wanted his followers not only to understand, but also to appropriate for themselves the meaning of the death he was to die, there is every reason to take it seriously as the sign and foretaste of the eventual kingdom, carrying within it the assurance that we too are those who share in the “forgiveness of sins.” And, with that, the gospels give to those who read them the energy and the sense of direction to be Beatitude people for the world, knowing that the victory was indeed won on the cross, that Jesus is indeed already installed as the world’s rightful ruler, and that his way of peace and reconciliation has been shown to be more powerful than all the powers of the world (Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion(Kindle Locations 3666-3671). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition).
We have the invitation to live right now like forgiven people under the rule of Jesus, the real King of all. Because of the Cross and Resurrection, we get a taste of heaven even today.
(Portions of this article appeared in the April 2016 Tower. I’m still working on understanding the Cross.)