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What was the purpose of Jesus dying on the cross?
- Was it payment for sins?
- Was it a demonstration of non-violence?
- Was it to forge a new covenant?
- Was it an avoidable act of murder?
- Was it all of the above?
I know penal substitution atonement is the traditional view, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The cross is a test, trial, and demonstration of the character, worthiness, faithfulness, obedience, endurance, and humility of Jesus Christ. It is a vivid demonstration of all of the qualities and characteristics that God delights in. The cross tests and demonstrates the perfection of Jesus Christ’s character: His obedience to the Father’s will, His humility, His faithfulness to His Father, His endurance, His love and devotion to His Father, etc. These are the qualities that the Father delights in and these are the qualities the Father rewards. Having passed the test, the Father rewarded the Son with resurrection, a kingdom, and a throne, and all power and authority in heaven and earth. The Son then uses that power and authority to save and redeem creation. “He humbles Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore, also, God highly exalts Him, and graces Him with the name that is above every name…”(Phil 2:8,9)
There are five main points in this process that are repeated over and over in scripture in various ways. These are the five main points:
1) Worthiness. The worthiness of the Son especially as that worthiness is tested in the context of
trials and suffering.
2) Delight. The delight of the Father in His worthy Son.
3) Reward. The Father rewards His worthy Son with Power, Authority, a kingdom, a throne,
4) Judging, saving, redeeming, reconciling, etc. The Son uses His power and authority to
save, judge, redeem, etc.
5) Praise and Honor. Every knee bows and every tongue confesses to praise and honor Him.
Here is how these five points are expressed in Philippians 2:5-11:
1) Worthiness: “…He humbles Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”(Phil 2:8) Here the worthy qualities are humility and obedience. Jesus spoke often about the need for humility in order to be great in the kingdom of God. In humility, He was the servant of all, and God exalted Him to be the Lord of all. Jesus Christ was obedient to His God and Father even when that obedience cost Him His own life.
2) Delight: We get a small implied hint of God’s delight in His Worthy Son with the words “Wherefore, also, God Highly exalts Him..”(v.9) but it is just a hint. Just a few verses farther down in Phil 2:13 we read “for it is God Who is operating in you to will as well as to work for the sake of His delight.” The fullness of God’s Spirit dwells in Jesus Christ and works in Him for the sake of God’s delight. Jesus expressed this when He said, “for what is pleasing to Him(my Father) am I doing always.”(John 8:29) If you stop and think about it, this is the most audacious and remarkable statement ever uttered by any man! What son can say that he always does the things that please his father? Only one man could every make that statement. On a couple occasions in Jesus’ life the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son in Whom I delight.” In another place in Philippians we read this concerning God’s attitude towards sacrifice:
I have been filled full, receiving from Epaphroditus the things from you, an odor fragrant, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God.”(Phil 4:18)
The sacrificial gifts that the Philippians gave to Paul where something in which God delighted, they were “an odor fragrant”, a “sacrifice acceptable”, and “well pleasing” to God. We will see later that this is God’s attitude toward the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as well.
3) Reward: “…Wherefore, also, God Highly exalts Him, and graces Him with the name that is above every name,…”(Phil 2:9) God exalts Him and gives Him a throne, and all power and authority in heaven and on earth based on the worthy qualities he demonstrated in his life and death. In this passage He is exalted based on the worthy qualities of humility and obedience. “Must not the Christ be suffering these things, and be entering into His glory?”(Luke 24:26) His suffering is directly linked to His glory. This is because the worthy qualities He displayed on the cross are the worthy qualities that delight God and moved God to grace Him with a name that is above all others and to give Him all power in heaven and on earth.
4) Judging, Saving, reconciling, etc. This passage doesn’t go into any details about what Jesus Christ will do and accomplish with the exalted status and power and authority that is given to Him, but elsewhere we read that He will abolish death(2 Tim 1:10, 1 Cor 15:22+26) bring all in the heavens and all on the earth under His Headship(Eph 1:10), reconcile all in the heavens and on the earth to God(Col 1:20) and judge the living and the dead. All of this work that He will accomplish for all of creation flows out of His humility and obedience on the cross and is a result of the fact that God exalts Him and graces Him with a name that is above all others which is Jesus which means “Savior.” And it is in the name of this Savior, in the name of Jesus, that every knee will bow. And because every knee will bow to Him and every tongue confess Him as their Lord, we can conclude that Jesus Christ will abolish all idolatry and bring every tongue to praise and honor the true God.
5) Praise, Honor and worship. Every knee will bow to Him and every tongue will acclaim Him to be their sovereign Lord. And this is for the glory(praise and honor) of God, the Father. (Phil 2:10,11)
The example of Joseph
-God was with him.(Gen 39:2; 21) A man in whom is the spirit of God.(Gen 41:38)
The spirit of God in man is the very cause and foundation of his worthiness.
-Everything he did prospered(Gen 39:3;23)
-He was a faithful, and wise administrator of Potiphar’s household and
of the prison.
-He resisted the temptation of Potiphar’s wife.
-He was discerning and wise(Gen 41:39)
-He was a delight and found favor in Potiphar’s sight and the Keeper of the Prison.
–Joseph’s worthiness is rewarded when He is “resurrected” out of slavery and prison and
exalted to the highest position in Egypt just under Pharaoh. All power and authority in
Egypt became his.
4) Judging, saving, redeeming, etc.
The worthiness of Joseph becomes not only the foundation of blessing for himself but for
all of Egypt. Joseph uses his power and authority to save Egypt from famine and death.
When the people no longer have money to buy food from Joseph, then Joseph uses the food
to buy the people themselves and their land for Pharaoh and all the Egyptians become
Pharaoh’s servants and belong to Pharaoh.(Gen 47:13-22)
5) Praise, Honor and worship. Even before his trials and sufferings came upon him, Joseph has two dreams in which his parents and brothers bow before him and honor him.(Gen 37:5-11) Since Joseph became known as an interpreter of dreams, these dreams no doubt comforted him and gave him hope within his trials. Joseph is honored with Pharaoh’s ring, fine clothes, a gold chain, and Pharaoh’s second chariot.(Gen 41:42,43) All of Egypt bowed before Joseph(41:43).
Joseph’s brothers bowed before him.(Gen 42:6)
Frank Viola once described the cross as a multi-faceted diamond. You can turn it different directions and constantly be awed by it. That’s why I’m a bit hesitant to subscribe to a sole theory about the atonement. None of them can capture the entirety of the cross. Since you’ve already done such a great job talking about Christus Victor (my primary view), I’ll take a different look at the cross, from Peter’s perspective in the early chapters of Acts.
Acts 2:23-24 “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” Sounds like a good summary of the crucifixion and resurrection to me.
One current point of contention is whether or not the death of Jesus was, as you said, “an avoidable act of murder” or if it was intended by God. According to Peter the answer is a bit of both. In Acts 2:22-23 Peter describes how the Jews crucified Jesus, but he also says that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God”. Peter again in 2:36 places responsibility for the death of Jesus on the people of Israel and does though yet again in 3:13-15. But in 3:17-18, Peter describes the suffering of Christ as being foretold. In short, it seems like Peter is saying that mankind crucified Jesus, but that the crucifixion was actually part of God’s plan. This same theme is seen yet again in Acts 4:10, where Peter says “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” It seems to me as if God was fully aware of human nature, that inevitably, we would reject what was best for us and thus turned our violence and hatred into the tool of our redemption, our restoration. Who knew that looking at the use of pronouns in Biblical study would be so important?
Peter also gives us some good insight into the why of Jesus’ death. In 2:24 Peter explains how in Jesus’ resurrection the “pangs of death” were loosened. In 3:17-26 the results of Christ’s suffering are explained as “times of refreshing” and restoration. Peter culminates his speech by describing how God “raised up his servant…to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” There’s not a lot (or any!) talk here about an angry God, vengefully pouring out his wrath on Jesus, instead on us.Instead, the crucifixion is intrinsically connected to the resurrection, to “the pangs of death being loosened”, to the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, to refreshing, to restoring, and to blessing. For me, what seems to tie these all together is Acts 2:36 “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” There is an inescapable factor of exaltation in the cross and the tomb. It is the exaltation spoken of in Philippians, of the servant God who stooped so low as to take the full brunt of human wrath and hatred, so as to deliver us from it.
I’ve found it helpful to take a look at Peter’s writings on the cross, especially given how many Protestant churches tend to go straight to Paul’s writings, especially in Romans. We rob ourselves by limiting the crucifixion to narrow ideologies and viewpoints.
Now one question I have about the atonement actually has to do with the resurrection. It seems to me that the crucifixion are rarely spoken of as separate events throughout the NT, but often are tied together. How do our understandings of the cross shape our understanding of the resurrection? You talked about that in the most recent article, but I’d love to dive even deeper into that.