Easter season is upon us, and I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the cross. For all too many Christians, the cross is the great display of God’s wrath let loose on an innocent victim so that we, the guilty, might not have to suffer His wrath.
While we might have many systematic constructions that try to explain this as loving and just, there is nothing in Scripture to give us this notion, and nothing to suggest that the murder of an innocent party might display the love or the justice of God.
While we see God’s justice as retributive (He cannot forgive without punishment), the Scriptures tell us the exact opposite. “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” (Psa. 103:10). Jesus, who revealed to us the inner Trinitarian life of the Godhead, shows us the way: we are to “follow in his steps” by imitating Him: “when He was abused, He did not return abuse; when He suffered, He did not threaten; but He entrusted Himself to the One who judges with justice,” (1 Pet. 2:21, 23; see also Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-31; Rom. 12:17-21; 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Cor. 4:12-13; 1 Pet. 3:9).
The truth is, God does not need and never needed blood to forgive us. In fact, the punishment of the innocent for the guilty was illegal under the Torah (Deut. 24:11; Ezek. 18:20). God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hos. 6:6; Matt. 9:13; 12:7). “Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (Psa. 50:13; 51:17; 40:6; 1 Sam. 15:22; Isa. 1:11; Micah 6:7-8; Prov. 21:3). Yahweh’s declaration is that “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,” (Ex. 33:19).
God frequently forgives without sacrifice or shedding of blood. The penalty for eating of the Tree of Knowledge was death (Gen. 2:16-17), yet God spared them. No atonement was made. God spares Cain despite the fact that “your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground,” (Gen. 4:10) and preserves Cain from retribution (Gen. 4:15). Yahweh tells Solomon that if Israel humbles herself, prays, and repents, He will forgive them, without sacrifice or atonement (2 Chron. 7:14). A Seraph makes atonement for Isaiah with a coal, not a sacrifice (Isa. 6:7). Sprinkled water will cleans them, not sacrifice (Ezek. 36:22-25). Jesus is constantly forgiving people who have not made atonement sacrifices (Matt. 9:2; Luke 7:48; 18:14) and that “all sins will be forgiven the children of man,” (Mark 3:28), except for the sin of refusing the Spirit.
The Jubilee debt cancellation is a central typology of the cross. Deuteronomy 15 records that the debts of the people were to be forgiven, or cancelled. To cancel a debt means the refusal of the person owed to force the person owing to repay the debt. They were gone and struck from the books, to be remembered no more. Paul declares that Jesus cancelled our debts with the cross: “having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross,” (Col. 2:13-14). If God required the repayment of debt, Paul would not have said it was cancelled, or appealed to the Jubilee liberation for his understanding of the cross. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus depicts God as the Jubilee master who “released him and forgave him the debt,” (Matt. 18:27).
Jesus came to destroy the devil and all his works (1 John 3:8; John 12:31-32; Matt. 12:27-29; Acts 10:38; 29:18; Heb. 2:14-15; Col. 1:13, 15; Acts 2:24). Jesus’ death and resurrection is the means by which humanity is led out of slavery (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). Luke 9:31 tells us that “they were speaking about His departure (exodos), which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” His death is the means by which liberation came to the world. He gives “his life as a ransom for many,” and this word “ransom” (lytron) refers to the redemption of being bought out of slavery: “I am Yahweh, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment,” (Ex. 6:6). Paul presents Christ’s death in just this way, as a “release” and a “redemption” (Rom. 3:24; 8:22-23; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:7-8; Titus 2:14).
It was not God who was estranged from us because of sin, but us from Him because of sin (Eph. 2:1-3). No unfaithfulness of man can nullify the covenant of love and faithfulness which God swore toward humanity (Rom. 3:23, 3-4). He will never abandon us. The cross is the great display of His love toward humanity (Rom. 5:8) by dying for our sakes when we still believed He was our enemy (Rom. 5:10). The cross “makes peace” (Eph. 2:14-16; Col. 1:19-22).
God’s wrath is not revealed toward humanity, but toward Satan and all his minions. The common narrative has it that sin entered the world in Genesis 3, and that from this point on God’s wrath has been exposed against all humanity, and becomes a universal attribute, a component of God’s holiness. But this does not seem to me to be the Biblical witness. In fact, sin and death are the great oppressors of humanity, pictured as the “surface of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations,” (Isa. 25:7). It is an enslaving force that kept humanity “subject to enslavement/bondage,” (Heb. 2:15) in the “domain of darkness (Col. 1:13), a prison set in a deep pit (Isa. 24:22), a “land of deep darkness” where all people dwell (Isa. 9:2). Paul identified the rules of Israel and Rome as colluding with this power (1 Cor. 2:8). Jesus identified it with Gentile power and authority (Matt. 22:25-28), and gave it the name Mammon (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13).
Those who participate in this system of Gentile wealth and power were storing up wrath for themselves by being oppressors (Rom. 2:5). For those who “obey injustice, there will be wrath and fury,” but “if an uncircumcised man keeps the justice of the Torah, his foreskin becomes circumcised,” (Rom. 2:8, 26). Mercy trumps judgment, but judgment without mercy comes for those who show no mercy (James 2:13). Forgiveness will be revoked for those who do not forgive (Matt. 18:32-35). They have identified themselves with Satan, the ultimate one who lacks mercy, and have become oppressors. “Yahweh works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed,” (Psa. 103:6).
Jesus is the ultimate death eater. Isaiah 25:7 presented sin and death as a veil and a shroud that envelops and covers all the peoples. But this statement comes in the midst of a mighty promise:
And He will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people He will take away from all the earth,
for Yahweh has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God;
we have waited for him,
that He might save us.
This is Yahweh;
we have waited for Him;
Let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation,” (Isa. 25:7-9).
As we remember and celebrate Holy Week, it is important to remember what is actually going on. Jesus was not murdered by a Father who demands repayment in blood from an innocent victim, like the heathen gods of old. The cross is not the sign of punishment, but of liberation, not of wrath, but of love. It is the mark of release, the place where God was killed and did not retaliate, where God died and in so doing swallowed death.