Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus's Crucifixion by NT Wright

WrightThis past week, I began reading, for my New Testament devotions and study, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus's Crucifixion, by N. T. Wright. I will be blogging through this book over the next few weeks. I think this is a very important book which brings the discussion of the meaning of the atonement into the 21st century with a solid biblical basis. I am also posting from my reading in New Testament theologies and devotionals on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the book are in blue.

Chapter 1, A Vitally Important Scandal Why the Cross?, begins the introduction to the book. In this chapter Wright discusses the amazing power that the story of the cross has had across time, cultures and places. It speaks to the shared experience of human tragedy and has provided light, hope and love to countless millions over the last 2000 years. Wright's purpose in writing the book goes beyond this though. His goal to show that the cross and resurrection of Jesus was the decisive event in God's plan for the world and that, it not only provides forgiveness and life to those who believe, but it starts the process of setting all creation right and calls all believers to play a part in making that happen.  

According to the book of Revelation, Jesus died in order to make us not rescued nonentities, but restored human beings with a vocation to play a vital part in God’s purposes for the world.  5

The crucifixion of Jesus is a plain, stark fact, etched into real space and time and, even more important, into the real flesh and blood of a human being. People today, in a wide variety of ways, simply intuit that it has powerful and profound meaning for them. Others, of course, see nothing in it except an unpleasant tale from long ago. 7-8

You don’t have to have a theory about why the cross is so powerful before you can be moved and changed, before you can know yourself loved and forgiven, because of Jesus’s death. 12

In chapter 2, Wrestling with the Cross, Then and Now, Wright discusses the importance of having a biblical understanding of the cross and some of the ways the church has understood this meaning through history. The NT is clear that, to the culture of the 1st century crucifixion was a scandal, but to the church it is the central part of the gospel and to an understanding of God. The Bible makes clear that Jesus died "for us" and "in our place." It also talks about the cross as a demonstration of God's love and the means to God's victory over evil and the re-creation of a new heaven and earth. Wright insists, and I would agree here, that the cross must be interpreted in terms of this eschatology and not in terms of getting me a pass to go to heaven some day. Personal salvation is included, but is only a part of what the cross accomplished. Wright also, rightly, dispels the notion of an angry Father God who pours out His anger on His Son. He will explain how Jesus is a sacrifice for our sin without going to this "pagan" idea of the satisfaction of an angry deity in a later chapter. The big point is that the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is the way God deals with evil and brings about His "kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven."

But over against this downplaying or mocking we also see, from the earliest documents of the New Testament right on through the first five or six centuries of church history, the resolute affirmation of the cross not as an embarrassing episode best left on the margins, but as the mysterious key to the meaning of life, God, the world, and human destiny. 21

The New Testament insists, in book after book, that when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place. And the early Christians insisted that when people are caught up in the meaning of the cross, they become part of this difference. 39

My point is this: unless Jesus’s death achieved something—something that urgently needed to be done and that couldn’t be done in any other way—then it cannot serve as a moral example. 47

Chapter 3 places The Cross in Its First-Century Setting. In this chapter, Wright looks at the meaning of the cross within the Greco-Roman and Jewish worldviews. The Romans used crucifixion as a way to project power and to let subjugated peoples know who was in charge and what happened to rebels. It was a humiliating, shameful and painful death. It was an unlikely event to become a centerpiece of a world movement. The Jewish background was basically the feasts, especially Passover and the Day of Atonement, and the idea in the prophets, especially Daniel, that YHWH would return to His people and forgive their sins. However, the Jews would not have expected the cross would be the event that accomplished this.

Just as the resurrection of Jesus cannot be fitted into any other worldview, but must be either rejected altogether or allowed to reshape existing worldviews around itself, so the cross itself demands the rethinking of categories. 60-61

There was no template of expectations out of which, granted the crucifixion of Jesus, one might have anticipated the sophisticated range of interpretation that the early Christian movement in fact produced, understanding the death of Jesus as a messianic victory and connecting it with the long-awaited divine return. 65

Since sin, the consequence of idolatry, is what keeps humans in thrall to the nongods of the world, dealing with sin has a more profound effect than simply releasing humans to go to heaven. It releases humans from the grip of the idols, so they can worship the living God and be renewed according to his image. 68

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