by Lindsay Kennedy
“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” – 1 Corinthians 2:2
The crucifixion is central to Christianity. Christ’s death, along with his descent and resurrection, are the pivot point of history. Even each of the Gospels devote such a large portion of their narratives to Jesus’ final week that some have quipped that the Gospels are essentially a Passion Week with an introduction. While an exaggeration, this point is clear—the last days of Jesus life are of huge import.
The irony is that, while central to Christianity, Jesus’ death was not at all what his first followers expected. The disciples couldn’t believe that their Messiah would die. In fact, his death seemed to be a sign of God’s disfavor. They had seen many suffer the same fate under the Roman occupation. Jesus seemed like just one more victim.
This is all to say that the crucifixion needs to be explained. All facts must be interpreted, and the crucifixion is no exception. What does it mean that Jesus died? How is his death different from any other in history?
Though so much has been written about Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have hardly reached the depths of what Christ has accomplished for his people. In fact, the New Testament itself uses several different metaphors to explain Jesus’ act of salvation.
This blog post will highlight a few of these images. We encourage you to read each of the scriptures (or at least the ones in the headings).
Our Substitute (Gal 2:20; Rom 8:1–4)
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom 5:6)
A primary image that the New Testament uses is that of substitute. Jesus died “in our place.” Not only does Jesus’ death “for us” mean that he died for our benefit, but it also means that he died a death we should have died. Each of us stands condemned by our own sin (Rom 1–3), but can be forgiven due to Jesus’ death (Rom 3:21-26). In this passage, Jesus is called a “propitiation.” Though this word is translated variously, it probably refers to Jesus taking the wrath that was due to us. As sinners and enemies of God, we were under his wrath (Eph 2). Due to his great love, God sent Jesus—and Jesus willingly gave himself—to receive this penalty in our place.
Our Victor (Rom 8:31–39; Rev 12)
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Heb 2:14-15)
The Bible presents humanity as being under the oppression of three enemies: Satan and his minions, sin, and death. Each was introduced in the first chapters of the Bible and has been a constant enemy ever since. Jesus, in his death, not only dealt with the wrath (of God) against us, he also defeated these enemies. In Hebrew “Satan” means accuser. Throughout the Bible, Satan accuses God’s people (see the book of Job). Satan actually has a weapon against us: our guilt. In paying the penalty of our sin, Christ disarmed Satan of this power (Col 2:13–15; Rom 8:31–39). Likewise, in his resurrection, Jesus defeated death (Rom 6:1–7).
Our Redeemer (Eph 1:3–14)
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph 1:7)
Not only did our penalty need to be paid and our enemy defeated, but we needed to be made free. The exodus is Israel’s great story of salvation. Israel was enslaved under an oppressive enemy and unable to worship God. Through judgment on this enemy, God brought his people out of slavery and into a new life of freedom and privilege and a great inheritance as God’s “son” (Ex 4:23). The NT regularly uses this image of exodus to explain what Jesus accomplished for us. Paul says in Galatians that we were born under slavery and that God sent Christ “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5). Creation itself also needed to be freed, for it too is under the curse of death (Rom 8:22–23). Now, as sons (and daughters) of God, we have a great inheritance, a great promised land—a new creation—to await.
Our Reconciliation (Rom 5:1–11)
“More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Rom 5:11)
The idea of Christ as our reconciliation appears four times in the NT. In each context, it has a different implication. At its heart, reconciliation means “peace-making” (see Rom 5:1, 11), and this peace is accomplished by Jesus. First, we have “vertical” peace between ourselves and God (Rom 5:1–11). We also have “horizontal” reconciliation between ourselves and other “tribes” (Eph 2:11–22). That is, while distinctions and diversity remain within the body of Christ and should be celebrated (Rev 7), God has undercut any basis for enmity between people because all must approach him as forgiven sinners. Christ also accomplished “cosmic” reconciliation. That is, he brought peace to the cosmos, including unseen and hostile spiritual beings (Col 1:15–23). That doesn’t mean they are forgiven; they are pacified (Col 2:15). Finally, we have been entrusted with a calling to live out this reconciliation and call others to receive it (2 Cor 5:17–21). This should cause us to rejoice, because not only are we forgiven, we have restored relationships!
Our Second Adam (Rom 5:12–21; 1 Cor 15:20–28)
“For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (Rom 5:17)
Scripture teaches that through Adam, all have been born into sin and death (Rom 5:12). As the first and foremost man, Adam’s actions affected all who came after him (Rom 5:19). What we need is a new representative. Jesus is this perfect “second Adam.” While Adam was the first man, Jesus is the true man (Col 1:15; 3:10). While Adam was created in the image of God, Jesus is the image of God. While humanity has fallen short of our calling, Jesus embodied the ideal of humanity. While Adam and Israel were disobedient, Jesus was a true obedient Son (Matt 4:1–11). Where Adam brought sin and death into the world, Jesus defeated both by giving his people forgiveness and resurrection.
Our New Covenant Sacrifice (1 Cor 5:7)
“In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” – 1 Cor 11:25
Despite God’s grace in redeeming his people from Egypt, the story of Israel reveals that the problem goes deeper. To follow God, we all need transformation. This is what the New Covenant promised (Jer 31:31; Ezek 36:27). The New Covenant would transform God’s people from the inside out. In many ways, the Passover “created” the nation of Israel. The Passover lamb’s blood protected Israel from judgment. The death of the firstborn was also the final plague that caused Pharaoh to finally free Israel. As Israel left Egypt, it left as a new nation. What’s more, Israel remembered the Passover yearly. It was a community-forming event. Similarly, Christ is our Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7) who accomplished the New Covenant (1 Cor 11:23–25) and as we take communion, we are reminded of Jesus and reshaped as a community that is united around him.
This is but a sample of the Bible’s rich teaching about Jesus’ sacrifice and what he accomplished for us. Though we cannot all be together, we are united together as Christ’s body. This Easter, let us dwell upon Jesus and the great majesty and mystery of who he is and what he has done.