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.
At this point in our study, I’m shifting away from background and more toward the actual book itself.
“Forgiveness of sins”
The end of Exile is connected with the forgiveness of sins. Wright argues that Second Temple Jews often referred to the end of the Exile in terms of “forgiveness of sins.” (He uses quotation marks to distinguish forgiveness of sins in the special end-of-exile sense from the ordinary sense of the phrase.)
Modern Christians need to be reminded regularly that Jews in this period did not perceive themselves to be living within a story of an angry moralistic God who threatened people that he would send them to hell if they displeased him. Nor were they hoping that, if somehow they could make things all right, they would go to a place called “heaven” and be with God forever. Some ancient pagans thought like that; most ancient Jews did not.
They were hoping, longing, and praying for what the prophets had sketched, what the Psalms had sung, what the ancient promises to the patriarchs had held out in prospect: not rescue from the present world, but rescue and renewal within the present world.
Israel’s fortunes would plunge to a low ebb, and then lower, down to the very depths; but there would come a time when God would return in person to do a new thing. Through this new thing not only would Israel itself be rescued from the “death” of exile, the inevitable result of idolatry and sin, but the nations of the world would somehow be brought into the new creation the creator God was planning. And one of the central, vital ways of expressing this entire hope — rescue from exile, the rebuilding of the Temple, the return of YHWH himself — was to speak of the “forgiveness of sins.”
Exile was the result of sin. As many biblical writers insisted (one thinks, for a start, of Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the Psalms), if exile was to be undone, sin would have to be forgiven.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 1879-1890). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. Paragraphing modified to ease reading on the Internet throughout this series.
As I understand it, sometimes the scriptures speak of forgiveness of sin in individual terms, which we are all familiar and comfortable with. But when the topic is the end of Exile, “forgiveness of sins” was often a shorthand for the national forgiveness anticipated by Deu 30, Jer 31, and so many other prophecies. Thus, “forgiveness of sins” became synecdoche for not only forgiveness of the nation, but the establishment of the Kingdom, the coming of the Messiah, and the other markers of the end of Exile.
We see the idea of a national forgiveness in Deu 30 and Jer 31. When he inaugurated the Lord’s Supper, Jesus spoke of the “new covenant” (referring to Jer 31), and so “forgiveness of sins” on Jesus’ lips in the same context is likely a reference to the fulfillment of Deu 30 —
(Matt. 26:26-28 ESV) 26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Hence, by “forgiveness of sins,” Jesus means the forgiveness necessary for God to restore the fortunes of the Jews under Deu 30:1-3 and to demonstrate the realization of the promises of Jer 31.
The point isn’t that there is no individualized forgiveness of sin, of course. Rather, Wright is demonstrating that Jesus was speaking and acting in terms that would have been understood by Second Temple period Jews as declaring the end of the Exile, as promised by the Torah.
Now, if you think about it, the Exile ended only for those Jews who believed in Jesus. The rest did not submit to the Messiah, remained in Exile, did not receive the Spirit, and did not enter the Kingdom. Therefore, they remained subject to the curses of Deu 28-29. In one sense, they’d already suffered those curses centuries earlier at the hands of the Babylonians, but with the coming of the Messiah and the refusal of most Jews to submit to him, a final reckoning came due — as the Torah promised —
(Deut. 30:17-18 ESV) 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.
(Deut. 32:18-24 ESV) 18 You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth. 19 “The LORD saw it and spurned them, because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters. 20 And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. 21 They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. 22 For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains. 23 “‘And I will heap disasters upon them; I will spend my arrows on them; 24 they shall be wasted with hunger, and devoured by plague and poisonous pestilence; I will send the teeth of beasts against them, with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.
This final curse was realized with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans one generation later, as prophesied by Jesus in Matt 24.