Post Title: Images Describing Atonement
What did the resurrection of Jesus mean to the apostles? The truth is the early church experienced the resurrection power before they explained it. It was given by grace, and it quickened them. Then, after they have come into the experience, they reflect on it, trying to explain and make sense of it all.
My own experience was like that. I received Christ as my Savior and was filled with the Spirit before I even knew what the filling of the Holy Spirit was all about. I was completely confused about it, but God did not let my confusion stand in the way of his grace. I didn't have to read books on it and intellectually understand it before I could receive it. Instead, I received it, and to this day, I am still reflecting upon it and trying to understand what all it means.
Reflecting upon the significance of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection, Paul comes to conclusions that make perfect sense because he was a Jew. The Hebrew Scriptures informed his mind and heart, so he sees what God did through Messiah Jesus as part of a scriptural continuity. It was part of God's purposes from the very beginning, which have now come to fruition in a new community bought by the blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29).
In 1 Corinthians 15:3, we have an ancient tradition from the earliest days of the church that has many implications and ramifications. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.
What about the death of Jesus had the disciples come to believe was in accordance with the Hebrew Scriptures?
But first, we must remember that the resurrection—not just his death and burial—was God's vindication and glorification of Jesus. His triumph over death and the grave confirmed that Jesus was the King coming with the kingdom, indeed that he was the Son whom the Father exalted to the place at his right hand where he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25).
It was not the death of Jesus that energized his followers. It did just the opposite; it threatened the movement he had started. The shepherd was struck down and the sheep were scattered. Contrary to their protestations, they forsook him, they fled, and in their own way, each denied him. His death was a challenge to their faith.
The Romans crucified thousands of Jewish men, but only one rose from the grave. Because Jesus has risen, there is good news (gospel). And so when we read the apostolic writings, which we call the New Testament, these things are joined together: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
I want to take a fresh look at the cross from Paul's point of view, not with the presuppositions from the time of Constantine but with the biblical priorities of God's perennial purpose, which has been, which is, and which shall be to create a new humanity, a redeemed community. Jesus went to the cross so that we might be reconciled to one another and become a reconciling community—which is the beginning of the renewal of creation itself.
Jesus' followers experienced his atonement and then began to explain it. Not so much through a systematic theology, as you and I would prefer, but rather through a series of images and pictures. Images are far superior to definitions. Definitions are concise and enclosed; images are diverse and expansive. No one can exhaust the meaning of the cross. It is rich beyond measure; it is full beyond understanding. But we can present images and pictures of it.
Paul uses several different images from the Old Testament to describe the effects of atonement.
The second Adam. What was undone by the first Adam was restored by Jesus as the second.
The image of sacrifice and offerings.
The image of vicarious suffering.
The metaphor of conflict and victory.
The metaphor of ransom and redemption – that is what Passover (the season of our liberation) is all about.
The metaphor of reconciliation.
The metaphor of adoption as sons and daughters.
The metaphor of justification.
These are images by which we try to picture, explain, and proclaim what Christ accomplished on the cross.
But if we were to look at one definitive text for Paul that spells out what he considers the most important implications of Calvary, we would find it in his letter to the church at Ephesus. I want to take an in-depth look at Chapter 2 which represents Paul's mature reflections on Christ's death, burial, and resurrection—and its effect for you and for me.
If I had the time, I could show you that in these texts, Paul alludes to or explicitly states all ten images of atonement. But there is more. I want you to see where he is headed. And I want to get into his mind, based on his Jewish background, to understand how utterly revolutionary this idea was and is.
He sets the stage with these very familiar words, For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (8-10).
He continues to spiral upward in verses 11-12. Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called "the uncircumcision" by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Paul is explaining what he believes is the most profound significance of the cross. To those of us who are not Jews by birth, he says, before you came into the Messiah, you were not even a people, you had no covenant or promises, you had no Godly inheritance, you were not even part of the commonwealth of God's purposes. You were outside the covenants. You didn't even have God or knowledge of him. You had no hope, no promises, no people.
But, he says, now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near (13). Why is Jesus doing this? For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (18-22).
We have read these scriptures so often that the ideas seem casual, almost irrelevant to us.
Yet to Paul, this is 8.5 on the Richter scale—this is breathtaking stuff. God's intent from the beginning was to bless all people, to forge them into one holy nation, one kingdom of priests, to praise him and bear his presence in all the earth!
You, my friends, are living stones he is using to build a holy sanctuary. For Paul, the intent of the death, burial, and resurrection was to create one new community. Jesus called this new community his church. It is the purpose God intended to accomplish through his Son from the beginning. Said another way, the church is essential to God's purposes in the earth, humanity, and creation itself.
How did we get from this glorious revelation to where we are today?
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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.
Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.
Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.