N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 66B (Atonement Theories)


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 accomplish our salvation.

The Passover

What Wright does notice is that the covenant with Abraham speaks of a future enslavement and freedom from slavery to be given by God. The covenant anticipates the exodus.

Wright often argues, with some considerable support, that Rom 6-8 recapitulates the exodus. The baptism discussion early in chapter 6 reminds us of the path out of slavery through the Red Sea (which is made explicit in 1 Cor 10). The transition from slavery to Sin and Death speaks of the escape from Egyptian slavery to the new covenant with God made at Mt. Sinai. Paul’s description of how we all struggle to obey is the story of Israel in the wilderness, having its faith tested and often failing.

The presence of God in each Christian through the indwelling Spirit recalls God leading the Israelites through the wilderness by his very presence in a column of smoke and fire. The discussion of the renewed, redeemed Creation parallels the Promised Land inheritance. Our need for the Spirit to pray for us as mediator parallels Moses’ many intercessions for the Israelites before God. The conquest of all Christ’s enemies at the end of chapter 8 parallels God’s promises to Israel to defeat her enemies and give her peace in the land.

Thus, the Passover in Egypt parallels the atonement in Jesus. Both are the beginning of a journey with God. And so the atonement could be as simple as the blood of Jesus — as Passover lamb — marking God’s people as faithful and thus protecting them from the Death Angel. We don’t paint Jesus’ blood on our door posts and lintels, but we do call on the name of Jesus, and him crucified and resurrected, so that we claim his blood as protection and salvation.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that Jesus chose to inaugurate the “new covenant” through the Lord’s Supper, representative of both the flesh and blood of Jesus as Passover lamb.

The sin offering

In Rom 8:3, Paul calls Jesus a “sin offering.” This is language taken from Lev 4.

(Lev. 4:13-21 ESV)  13 “If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt,  14 when the sin which they have committed becomes known, the assembly shall offer a bull from the herd for a sin offering and bring it in front of the tent of meeting.  15 And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before the LORD, and the bull shall be killed before the LORD.  16 Then the anointed priest shall bring some of the blood of the bull into the tent of meeting,  17 and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the LORD in front of the veil.  18 And he shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar that is in the tent of meeting before the LORD, and the rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting.  19 And all its fat he shall take from it and burn on the altar.  20 Thus shall he do with the bull. As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.  21 And he shall carry the bull outside the camp and burn it up as he burned the first bull; it is the sin offering for the assembly.”

Jesus is never referred to as a bull — always a Lamb — but the sin offering is for atonement of an unintentional sin committed by the “congregation (ekklesia) of Israel” — and so Paul sets up his reference to the sin offering in chapter 7 by arguing that Israel’s (and the Gentiles’) sins are unintentional and so within this law.

The sacrificed bull is carried “outside the camp,” and so we are taught —

(Heb. 13:10-13 ESV)  10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.  11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.  12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.  13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.”

Jesus was crucified outside the city walls of Jerusalem — because dead bodies were unclean and because death by crucifixion was considered too shameful to take place inside the city itself. “Outside the camp” is a mark of shame. Lepers and other unclean people were required to live outside the camp.

But during the Exodus, the tabernacle was placed outside the camp. God himself appeared to Moses there —

(Exod. 33:7-11 ESV)  7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp.  8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent.  9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses.  10 And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door.  11 Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent. 

One commentary explains,

[E]very one who sought Him had to go to this tent outside the camp. There were two reasons for this: in the first place, Moses desired thereby to lead the people to a fuller recognition of their separation from their God, that their penitence might be deepened in consequence; and in the second place, he wished to provide such means of intercourse with Jehovah as would not only awaken in the minds of the people a longing for the renewal of the covenant, but render the restoration of the covenant possible. And this end was answered. Not only did every one who sought Jehovah go out to the tent, but the whole nation looked with the deepest reverence when Moses went out to the tent, and bowed in adoration before the Lord, every one in front of his tent, when they saw the pillar of cloud come down upon the tent and stand before the door.

C. F. Keil and Delitzsch F., Commentary on the Old Testament, Accordance electronic ed. 10 vols.; (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), paragraph 1281.

I don’t disagree, but I think there’s more to it. God lives among the abominable, among the unclean, among the lepers. It’s been suggested that in Jesus’ day, Bethany was a town made up of unclean people who could not enter Jerusalem due to disease or the like. This would explain why Lazarus, Mary and Martha were all unmarried and why Lazarus died young. And yet we see Jesus spending his time with the unclean and diseased in Bethany, outside the camp.

And since the sin offering was to be carried outside the camp — as though the sin of the people attached to the animal and had to be carried out of the city — Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross fits the narrative very well indeed.

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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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