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

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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.

Jesus as Mercy Seat

(Rom. 3:22-26 NET)  For there is no distinction,  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  24 But they are [reckoned covenant faithful] freely by his [generosity] through the [purchase out of slavery to Sin] that is in [King] Jesus.  25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat [where God granted atonement at intersection of heaven and earth in the Holy of Holies] accessible through faith[/trust/faithfulness to Jesus]. This was to demonstrate [Jesus’ covenant faithfulness], because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.  26 This was also to demonstrate [God’s covenant faithfulness] in the present time, so that he would be [covenant faithful] and the [one who reckons faith/trust/faithfulness in Jesus as covenant faithfulness] of the one who lives [and is included in the covenant community] because of Jesus’ faithfulness [to the covenant].

The mercy seat was the space above the Ark of the Covenant where God’s Divine Presence dwelt from the dedication of of the tabernacle until the Babylonian Captivity and Exile. This is a place where heaven and earth intersected — a portal from the tabernacle, and later the Temple, directly into heaven where God lived, so that God’s special Presence could exist both in heaven and on earth at once. (God is, of course, omnipresent, but he had a special, intense presence in the tabernacle/Temple.)

The Holy of Holies was entered only once a year. The high priest would go in and make atonement for the people. The blood of a sacrificed goat was spread on the ark of the covenant to ceremonially cleanse the Holy of Holies so that God’s Presence could exist there despite the sins of the community.

No animal flesh was offered to God to slake his anger. The ritual was all about cleansing the Holy of Holies of the nation’s sins so that God could live there.

(Lev. 16:15-19 ESV)  15 “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.  17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel.  18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around.  19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.”

The high priest would then ceremonially place the sins of the people on a second goat (the scapegoat) and send it into the wilderness alive. The goat that was killed was killed to provide blood to cleanse people, the Holy of Holies, and the altar.

I have to admit that it makes no sense to me that blood somehow cleanses ritual objects — the ark, the altar, the tent — from ritual uncleanness. I mean, to me (and most Westerners) blood is something to be cleaned, not something you use to clean. In fact, trying imagine an ark of the covenant covered with literally centuries of animal blood placed there to cleanse it seems very counter-intuitive. I’d be reaching for the Mr. Clean. As it turns out, the rabbis called for weekly cleansing of the altar and Temple for this very reason. But the penalty for entering the Holy of Holies was death, unless you were the high priest, and even then, only on the Day of Atonement.

Milgrom explains,

The impurity system pits the forces of life against the forces of death, reaching an ethical summit in the blood prohibition. Not only is blood identified with life; it is also declared inviolable. If the unauthorized taking of animal life is equated with murder, how much more so is the illegal taking of human life?

Jacob Milgrom, A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 15–16. (This is an excellent commentary, by the way.)

If “life is in the blood,” as the Torah so often says, then the idea of “cleansing” with blood is that death and anything death-associated is removed using blood. Blood becomes the universal solvent for those things opposed to life — and God is the source of all life.

Thus, when Israel sins, the stain of the sin affects the tabernacle and its implements. Sin leads to death. The death-ness is cleansed using blood. Life replaces death.

Now, when it comes to the crucifixion, we see at a symbolic level that the blood of the perfect Sacrifice defeats Sin and Death and gives life. Over and over, Paul says that the blessing of the atonement is “life” and the defeat of Sin and Death. What would be the ultimate cleansing agent other than the blood of a perfect, spotless Sacrifice?

This leads to many images that orbit the atonement doctrine. Jesus’s blood parallels the Passover lamb in that it also promises life rather than the Death Angel. Jesus’s blood parallels the sin offering, because his blood purifies the worshipers from sin and, as we’ll soon see, allows God’s Presence to enter the worshiper  through the Spirit just as God’s Presence entered the Holy of Holies. Sin is accumulated and heaped up in Israel, and Jesus as Israel’s King becomes their representative, bearing the penalty that all Israel deserves — because Sin is condemned by God in the sinless flesh of Jesus on the cross. His blood sacrifice defeats Death and brings life — immortality because of the perfection of the blood that is poured out.

Obviously enough, all this makes sense within the narrative of scripture. And obviously enough, very little of this stands us to scientific scrutiny. But then science doesn’t deal with things like guilt, forgiveness, sacrifice, and immortality. These questions place us in a different world, requiring us to learn special skills to understand them as well as we can — as well as God’s revelation permits. After all, our minds are to God’s mind as ant minds are to us. There is no rational reason that we should feel entitled to understand the atonement at all. To the extent God gives us a window into his thinking through an Ancient Near Eastern perspective, the challenge is for us to learn to think in ANE terms, not to demand that God re-explain it all in 21st Century terms.

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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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