[Note: for previous posts in this series, see here, here, here, here, and here.]
"Mors turpissima crucis." Thus wrote the ancient church father Origen to describe the "utterly vile death of the cross" endured by Jesus (Commentary on Matthew, on 27:22ff.). That Jesus' death, executed in a fashion worthy of slaves and rebels against Rome, proved to be "folly" (mōria) to Greeks and a stumbling block (skandalon) to Jews (1 Cor 1:23) is not surprising. What is surprising is that Paul the Apostle, the preeminent intellectual of the early church and a man born into both diaspora Pharisaism and the privileges associated with Roman citizenship, would turn such thinking on its head and view the cross as the supreme example of God's "power" (dynamis) and "wisdom" (sophia) (1 Cor 1:24).
No one gloried in the death of Christ more than Saint Paul did. Indeed, in his inimitably paradoxical way, Paul considered the cross his sole ground of boasting, as he expressed in what is (probably) his earliest letter: "God forbid (mē genoito [note: here the old KJV perfectly expresses the force of the idiom, which, translated literally, is the forceless "may it not be"]) that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal 6:14a). Of course, the existential reason for his change of thinking was his dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road (Acts 9), at which time he believed the risen Christ had appeared to him and commissioned him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Prior to this, as his pogroms against the "Hellenists" (Greek-speaking Jewish Christians in Palestine) attest, he had certainly been aware of the earliest teaching that Jesus' death had atoning significance. Yet is was to Paul, more than anyone else, that the church is indebted for a deepened understanding of the theological significance of that death. One, perhaps the primary, category used by Paul to explicate this significance is that of Christ's death as cultic sacrifice. Indeed, Paul alludes to this understanding of Christ's death in his manifold references to Christ's blood (e.g., Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; Col 1:20). Crucifixion indeed was not a particularly bloody method of execution. This itself is an indication that references to Christ's "blood" are to be understood, via metonymy, to be shorthand for his violent death, interpreted in sacrificial terms (cf. Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross [3rd ed.; London: Tyndale, 1965] 112-28, the classic discussion in which has never been supplanted). Beyond such shorthand references, however, Paul explicitly discusses the sacrificial character of Jesus' death in three texts.
1. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 — Christ as "Our Paschal Lamb" (to pascha hēmōn)
Your boasting is ill-founded. Don’t you know that a little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old leaven, so that you may be a new unleavened batch — as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 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.As always, Paul's theologizing comes in the service of his response to specific issues plaguing the nascent church. In this instance, the ethically-challenged church at Corinth was actually "boasting" in self-satisfaction (kauchēsis) over a case of a habitual incestual relationship among their members (1 Cor 5:1-6). In response, the Apostle cites an apparent proverb about the permeating character of leaven (similar to our proverb, "one bad apple spoils the whole bunch"), in keeping with the standard biblical metaphor of leaven's negative effects (cf. Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1). Not surprisingly, the mention of leaven also takes his mind to the twin festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12; cf. m.Pes. 1.1), which began with the ruthless removal of all leaven (the hametz) from one's house. In this context Paul, in keeping with our Lord (Mark 14:22-25) and John the Evangelist (John 1:29 et passim), interprets Jesus' death as the New Covenant counterpart to the sacrifice (etythē) of the Passover lamb in that through Jesus' death deliverance from judgment and bondage is obtained through the costly interposition of blood. Here Paul's characteristic dialectic between the "indicative" and "imperative," in which the same content is found in both moods in the same context, comes into play here. The Corinthians, Paul says, are already the new batch of unleavened dough by virtue of Christ's sacrifice. This new identity must, therefore, work itself out in the perpetual "keeping of the feast" in which the leaven of sin, the power of which was decisively vanquished on the cross, is purged and God's people, as Raymond Collins nicely puts it, "get on with the celebration" in the holy manner that befits them (Raymond F. Collins, First Corinthians [SacPag 7; Collegeville, Minn.: Glazier/Liturgical, 1999] 215).
2. Romans 8:1-4 — Christ as a "Sin Offering" (peri hamartias)
There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God has done. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.The key phrase here is peri hamartias in verse 3, rendered "for sin" by most translations. I have translated it "as a sin offering" for one simple reason: at least 44 of the 54 instances of this Greek phrase in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament in use in the first century) refer to the so-called "sin offering" ([le] chatta’th) (Leviticus 4) (cf. esp. N. T. Wright, “The Meaning of perὶ ἁmartίaς in Romans 8.3," in The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and Law in Pauline Theology [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992] 220-25). Despite the objections of some scholars, it appears to me almost certain that the key to the inner workings of the sin offering is to be found in that part of the ancient ritual in which the sinner laid a hand on the head of the beast to be sacrificed. By such an act, the offerer was acknowledging that they were identifying themselves with the beast, and that, accordingly, the animal to be slain was acting as the representative — indeed, as the substitute — of the offerer. Klaus Koch nicely summarizes the meaning:
[T] animal becomes sin in the literal sense, i.e., the sphere of chatta'th becomes concentrated in the animal ... Through imposition of hands ... the act of transfer is made manifest (TDOT, 4:317).This sense is made explicit in the scapegoat ritual laid down in Leviticus 16:21-22:
Aaron is to lay his two hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins, and thus he is to put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man standing ready. The goat is to bear on itself all their iniquities into an inaccessible land, so he is to send the goat away in the wilderness.Indeed, it is likely that the scapegoat and the second goat that was to serve as the "sin offering" are to be understood in tandem as two sides to the same coin. The scapegoat vividly depicts what the sin offering was intended to accomplish: the removal (expiation) of sin and the corresponding immunity to judgment conferred upon the people whose sins were borne by the sacrifice. And so, Paul argues, Christ's death secures his people's freedom from the judicial penalty and existential power of sin.
3. Romans 3:23-26 — Christ as the Propitiatory Antitype of the "Mercy Seat" (hilastērion)
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as an atoning sacrifice through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.No passage in the New Testament is more important than this to understand the theological significance of Christ's death than this. I have already discussed this text in depth (here and here) in my investigation of the gospel. Hence I will merely summarize what I said in those places.
The key term is hilastērion, which I have rendered "an atoning sacrifice" in the above translation. It is very significant that in non-biblical Greek, the verb hilaskomai and its cognates (including hilastērion) consistently refer to the notion of propitiation or the appeasement of the wrath of the gods. Thus the prima facie meaning here is that Christ's death is the event in which God's wrath was turned away from sinners. And, despite the demurrals of overly sensitive scholars, there is no reason to question this understanding in a context in which the universal need of humanity is described in terms of deliverance from God's "wrath" (orgē; cf. Rom 1:18ff.) and in which believers' future deliverance from the ultimate expression of that wrath is already secured by their present "justification" by Christ's "blood" (Rom 5:9).
More importantly, however, is the observation that in 20 out of the 27 occurrences of hilastērion in the LXX, it is used to refer to the so-called "mercy seat" (kappōret), the golden lid of the ark of the covenant (Luther = Gnadenstuhl). The implication, if this identification is accepted, is significant. Christ, Paul is saying, is the "antitype" of the mercy seat. It is to Christ, in other words, that the lid of the ark metaphorically pointed forward. To put it as plainly as possible: Christ, in his gruesome death on the cross of Calvary, is the place where atonement was made. Indeed, God's wrath is turned away from the sinner because, in the death of Christ, the guilt of their sin is removed in an act of substitution in judgment. This is the logic of penal substitution, and it a logic manifestly articulated by Paul the Apostle. More than that: it is a logic in which I, as guilty a sinner as ever walked the earth, can glory and make it, as with Paul, my only ground of boasting. For it is only because of what Jesus of Nazareth did for me as my proxy that I could ever stand with confidence in the presence of my Father in heaven.