N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Part 16 (Covenantal Substitutionary Atonement, Part 2)


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.

Abraham’s Covenant of Blood with God [JFG, based on a lesson taught by Ray Vander Laan]

For thousands of years, men have sealed covenants in blood. In the Middle East, they used to say that they “cut a covenant,” meaning the covenanting parties cut their arms and sucked a bit of one another’s blood. The mingling of blood was considered to bring the parties together so tightly they’d have to honor their words.

This practice gave way to the sharing of animal blood in a ceremony that surely seems strange to us today. Even today in some Middle Eastern societies, when a covenant, such as a marriage, is made, the heads of the household make a solemn pact that the wife will be faithful to her husband and that the husband will not abuse his wife. The two men take an animal, cut it in two, and then take turns walking between the two halves, stepping in and through the blood.

The ceremony has this meaning: if I do not keep my promise, you may do to me what we’ve done to this animal. The two men pledge their lives to seal the covenant. And in those societies today, when a husband beats his wife or the wife commits adultery, the head of the offender’s household is often found dead, killed by the other family in fulfillment of the oath. And the authorities do nothing about it. After all, honor requires that the head of the offending family give his life to make his word  good.

Now consider God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 –

(Gen 15:1-21 ESV) After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”

4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars — if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

7 He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

8 But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

Notice the audacity of Abram’s question. He literally questioned whether he could take God’s word! We’d be terrified to ask such a question, but Abram did not have thousands of years of history with God. He believed in God, but God had not yet performed all the miracles of the Exodus. Abram’s faith was weak — but the point is that he had faith, not that he had great faith!

9 So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” 10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.

13 Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates — 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

God wanted to assure Abraham of the certainly of his promise, and so he made a solemn covenant. Abraham’s end of the bargain was to have faith in God and to be righteous and just (Gen 18:19). God promised to make a great nation of Abraham’s descendants.

Before the ceremony, Abraham suffered “a thick and dreadful darkness” (v. 12), which means he was terrified. What was there to fear in making a covenant with God Almighty?

Well, we need to understand the meaning of “faith.” We take “faith” to mean that we accept the truth of what is said. We “believe” the person speaking. But the thought is deeper.

Josephus was a First Century Jew and a soldier. He tells a story of a soldier under his command who was disloyal. He caught him and threatened his life. He then told him to repent and be loyal to Josephus and he’d spare his life, giving him a second chance. Well, the word translated “be loyal” is what we translate in the Bible as “believe.” He literally told the soldier to “believe in me.” He didn’t claim to be deity. He just wanted the man’s loyalty. You see, “faith” includes “faithfulness.”

Abraham’s end of the covenant was not just intellectual assent, accepting God’s word as true. Abraham was to be loyal to God.

(Gen 18:19 NET) 19 “I have chosen [Abraham] so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just. Then the LORD will give to Abraham what he promised him.”

Indeed, the words “right” (or “righteous”) and “just” are almost always used in the Old Testament of God. God called Abraham so his descendants would be like God — indeed, in his image.

Now, imagine having God himself come to you and ask for a blood oath of loyalty. You could hardly say no! But then, would you really want to bet your life on your ability to keep your word — knowing that the penalty for a violation is death?

To firmly establish the seriousness of the covenant, God asked not for an animal, but every kind of animal used in sacrificial worship. Indeed, Abraham lined up each of the very animals that would later be used as a sacrifice under the Law of Moses centuries later!

But when night fell and it was time for God and Abraham to each walk between the animals and through the blood, an amazing thing happened. God passed through both as a torch of flame and as smoke pot. God went through twice — and Abraham didn’t pass through at all. (God is often referred to as smoke and fire. Exo 19:18; 2 Sam 22:9; Psa 18:8; Isa 4:5.)

Rather, when it was time for Abraham to walk in the blood, saying if I don’t keep my promise, you may do to me as we have done to these animals, God himself took the walk for Abraham — and only God. God promised to pay the penalty for Abraham!

God, symbolized by the smoke and fire, actually passes through the divided animals (v. 17). God here acts alone; this specifies the unilateral character of the promise. The deity takes on the only obligation in this covenant (royal grants in the ancient Near East are a possible parallel). God’s personal involvement constitutes the unusual character of the rite. In an act of self-imprecation, God in effect puts the divine life on the line, “writing” the promise in blood!

Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” in General Articles; Genesis-Leviticus, vol. 1 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 446.

Over two thousand years later, God indeed paid the price for the sins of his people. This is the nature of God’s covenant with Abraham. This is atonement.

When Jesus died on the cross, it was indeed Jesus. But Jesus is God. It was God himself paying the price, just as he’d promised Abraham. This was not a Son appeasing the wrath of an unsympathetic, vengeful, hate-filled Father. It was God dying for us in the only way God can die — by taking human form and surrendering heaven to walk among us as one of us. God himself suffered death to give us life. That’s how he dealt with his wrath. He gave himself for us.

As Paul said to the elders at Ephesus,

(Act 20:28 ESV) Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

Paul declares that God obtained the church “with his own blood”! Paul declares plainly that it was God’s blood that was shed on the cross.

Although many commentators seek to avoid the implication that Christ’s death is presented here as the price paid for redeeming his people, the verb peripoieomai in combination with the expression dia tou haimatos tou idiou, surely means ‘acquired by means of the blood’. …

The specifically covenantal language employed in 20:28 (periepoiēsato, ‘bought’) and 20:32; 26:18 (hēgiasmenois ‘sanctified’; cf. Dt. 33:3) reminds us of Luke’s record of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples ‘wherein he grounds the “new covenant” in his own death (Luke 22:19-20).’

In Acts 20, as in Jesus’ discourse in the Upper Room, the shedding of the Messiah’s blood is the means by which the New Covenant is inaugurated and Messiah’s people are sanctified for their share with him in his eternal inheritance. … In other words, Jesus’ atoning work in Luke 22 and Acts 20 is not simply the basis for the proclamation of forgiveness but also for the forming and maintaining of the eschatological people of God.

David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 570.

So was God angry? Well, yes, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But God knew from the time of Abraham — more than 2,000 years before the crucifixion — that one day he’d have to make good on his word. He’d have to pay the price of our disobedience of the covenant — in his own blood.

And yet, fully knowing the price and the future, God voluntarily entered into a one-sided covenant, binding himself to die for Abraham and his descendants. This is not about anger. It’s the most amazing act of love found in scripture — indeed, in the history of the world.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Part 16 (Covenantal Substitutionary Atonement, Part 2)

  1. a) The covenant establishes that the death of the animals signify what should happen to the one who breaks the covenant being made.

    b) God passes between the animal on behalf of himself and on behalf of Abraham and thereby takes the responsibility for breach of the covenant upon himself.

    c) God in Jesus pays what the covenant requires on behalf of Abraham (humanity).

    Question: Why is payment required?

    The covenant was not broken, was it? God indeed made Abraham’s descendants like the sand of the sea and they did go down into Egypt and they did come back (though I am not certain how to figure out “the fourth generation” timing).

  2. Randy, Jay notes in the post that there is a condition for Abraham and his family, stated in Genesis 18:19. To keep the covenant, they had to do “what is right and just.” That’s the part of the covenant that was broken.

  3. Dwight says:

    This reflects why being brought up in a Godly household reflects later when we come to God. Man and wife teaches a covenant relationship and ideally we as parents should be trustful. Children learn about love, faith and integrity first from their parents, then these things are translated hopefully when they leave to the outside world by the children.
    One of the things missing in the man and wife bonding was the concept of a sacrifice, at least in most of the cases. This didn’t mean that it didn’t happen, but rather that it was not argued for from the scripture as that which bound one to another. This was done by agreement between parties and it was a bond a contract a covenant, even to the point that even during what was called a betrothal period before they married, if they committed fornication they could be stoned.
    Verbal oaths and such were taken very seriously. Now take that verbal oath and then seal it again with blood. The blood would be the testifier. It stains. The rocks of the altar could not be hewn, but rough. One could come back to the site and say here is where we made the agreement.
    Passing through the halves would seem to indicate exactly what is going on… a rite of passage. When things go between other things they are joined between them….together. The people of Israel passed through the waters as a nation, before they were just slaves.

  4. Jonathan Sullivan says:

    Wow… that is a really terrific explanation! I just finished NT Wright’s ‘The Day the Revolution Began’ and no offense to Tom Wright but I have to say this is a much more concise explanation of covenantal substitutionary atonement.

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