N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
Why sacrifice? Continued [NTW’s argument but expanded by JFG]
To tie the Levitical sacrificial system to the death of Jesus on the cross, we need to think in terms of a expiatory [sin forgiveness] sacrifice, Passover offering, and the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement. These are three very different “sacrifices,” and all are applied to Jesus by various NT authors.
The expiatory offering
Passages such as —
(Eph. 5:2 ESV) 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
— sound like Paul has an expiatory offering in mind. In the case of general expiatory offering, the sin of the sinner is not transferred to the sacrifice and God doesn’t accept the life of the sacrifice in place of the life or other penalty owed by the sinner. Rather, the sinner is cleansed through confession and washing in water (which sounds quite a lot like baptism, does it not?), and the sacrifice — Jesus on the cross — cleanses the tabernacle/Temple of the stain of sin so that God does not depart from his Temple — which, in this case, is the church. Jesus cleanses the church, as a body or nation or kingdom, so that God can continue to dwell in the church.
Jesus is specifically described as the Passover lamb in several passages, such as —
(1 Cor. 5:6-8 ESV) 6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
In the case of the Passover lamb, the lamb is not sacrificed at the Temple in the usual sense. Rather, it’s slaughtered and the blood is drained at the Temple, but the lamb itself is taken home to be eaten by the family. It’s dedicated to God, but the lamb isn’t given for forgiveness of sin. Rather, it’s to protect the family from the death angel — the death of the oldest son — at the original Passover. Thereafter, it’s a remembrance of God’s deliverance.
Indeed, Jesus’ crucifixion took place just before Passover, and so the symbolism is surely very intentional. The Passover recalls the Exodus, which is a major theme of the NT. That is, the language and thought of the NT is very often built on the Exodus — which is a key part of Wright’s book.
If we analogize Jesus on the cross as comparable to the sacrificed Passover lamb, we have deep symbolism in the blood that poured on the ground when he was speared in the side. All animal sacrifices were required to have their blood poured out on the ground.
The original Passover lamb served to protect the family that offered the lamb from the death angel — surely analogous to the salvation found in Jesus. But the Passover lamb did not pay the price or assuage wrath. Rather, it marked the household as believers in a very public way. The Egyptians worshiped Khnum, the sheep god. According to Ray Vander Laan, it’s likely that the Israelites, had God not rescued them, would have been killed by the Egyptians for such an act of sacrilege. That is, when God insisted on the blood of a lamb on the doorposts and lintel — very public places — he was asking for a true act of faith and great courage.
Applying the imagery to Jesus on the cross, those who claim his crucifixion — believers — are marked for protection from death and made eligible for the Eucharistic meal.
But there is no substitutionary atonement in the Passover sacrifice because there is no forgiveness of sin — rather, the original Passover was the marker of great faith in God’s protection.
The Day of Atonement
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most important of the forgiveness sacrifices, except on Yom Kippur the goat who carries the sins of the nation does not die. He is sent out into the wilderness to carry the sins of the nation far away.
Hebrews makes the analogy —
(Heb. 9:5-7 ESV) 5 Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. 6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.
The author is describing the ritual for the Day of Atonement (a fascinating study but it’s very elaborate and so we’ll not cover it in detail. See Lev 16 for the details).
Two goats are used in the ritual. One is sacrificed (slaughtered) to provide blood for the ritual. The other has the sins of the people placed on it, and it is sent into the wilderness, far away from the camp.
The blood of the sacrificed goat purifies, not the people, but the tabernacle.
(Lev. 16:15-16 ESV) “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.”
The sin of the people contaminate the tabernacle/Temple. Of course, today the temple is the church — and so it seems that Jesus’ sacrifice should be seen as cleansing the church for its corporate, community sinfulness.
Another key passage is found in Romans —
(Rom. 3:24-25 ESV) 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation [hilasterion] by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
This is a very controversial translation as hilasterion in used in the LXX to mean “mercy seat,” that is, the space immediately above the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies where God’s presence dwelt and where forgiveness was given. That’s a very different meaning from “propitiation,” which is a sacrifice given to slake the anger of a deity.
The NET Bible translators explain,
The word ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion) may carry the general sense “place of satisfaction,” referring to the place where God’s wrath toward sin is satisfied. More likely, though, it refers specifically to the “mercy seat,” i.e., the covering of the ark where the blood was sprinkled in the OT ritual on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). This term is used only one other time in the NT: Heb 9:5, where it is rendered “mercy seat.” There it describes the altar in the most holy place (holy of holies). Thus Paul is saying that God displayed Jesus as the “mercy seat,” the place where propitiation was accomplished. See N. S. L. Fryer, “The Meaning and Translation of Hilasterion in Rom 3:25, ” EvQ 59 (1987): 99-116, who concludes the term is a neuter accusative substantive best translated “mercy seat” or “propitiatory covering,” and D. P. Bailey, “Jesus As the Mercy Seat: The Semantics and Theology of Paul’s Use of Hilasterion in Rom 3:25″ (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1999), who argues that this is a direct reference to the mercy seat which covered the ark of the covenant.
The NET Bible thus translates, contrary to nearly all others,
(Rom. 3:25 NET) God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.
We’ll return to this question as we consider Wright’s new interpretation of Romans.
The NT is filled with sacrificial language alluding to various OT sacrificial practices. It would take months to work through them all. But when we review the Torah’s sacrificial practices, we quickly find that they make a very poor parallel for Penal Substitutionary Atonement. That is, the goat, lamb, or other sacrifice is not killed to carry the sins of the worshiper. Rather, the scapegoat isn’t killed at all. The Passover lamb is killed but not to gain forgiveness; it’s a remembrance and declaration of faith that brings about God’s own protection. The expiatory (forgiveness) sacrifices serve to cleanse the tabernacle/Temple of the stain of sin, not the sinner.
On the other hand, in both the Day of Atonement and expiatory sacrifices, the tabernacle/Temple is cleansed, and the contemporary meaning of “temple” is the church or else the perfect Temple in heaven in the New Jerusalem described in Hebrews. In Paul, the temple is the church.
Therefore, there is a sense of corporate sin and corporate forgiveness, especially with regard to the Day of Atonement. Hence, it could be argued with some considerable force that the point of sacrifice is not to forgive your or my particular sins but to provide corporate forgiveness for the sins of the nation.
It may be too literal, but confession/repentance/baptism could be seen as forgiving individual sin, but the sacrifice of Jesus is necessary to cleanse the Temple of the church so that God can be present there. Thus, his sacrifice is seen by the NT authors as a corporate forgiveness — not because he took on the sins of the church but because his blood serves to cleanse the church from the stain of corporate sin.
That is, the purpose of the crucifixion is not suffering my punishment but to cleanse the church to allow God to be present in it and so able to draw near — even to pierce the wall between heaven and earth — so that he may forgive.