The Revolution 3: The Old Testament narrative and Jesus’ passover meal

Third post summarising N.T. Wright, 2016. The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. London: SPCK.
The day the revolution began is divided into four parts, and this post attempts to summarise the first and second chapters of Part Three, where Wright looks at how the New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament and at how, through the last supper, this interpretation reaches into the New Testament narrative itself. The previous post (The Revolution 2) on Tom Wright's book is here.

Continuing the Old Testament narrative

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3: ‘What I handed on to you at the beginning, you see, was what I received, namely this: “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible…”.’ The way Paul introduces this strongly suggests that this was the universal proclamation of early Christians, and the words ‘in accordance with the Bible’ point us to early Christian interpretation of the Old Testament.

Looking back at the Old Testament scriptures, the New Testament writers see that God’s promises to Israel have at last been fulfilled, but in a completely unexpected way. They take their lead from Jesus himself. The expectation of the disciples whom the risen Jesus met on the Emmaus road was that he would fulfil Israel’s messianic hope:
“But we were hoping that he was going to redeem Israel!” (Luke 24:21)
For these disciples ‘redeem’ had the meaning it had when a slave was ‘redeemed’, i.e. set free. Then Jesus redefines the redemption of Israel, explaining that his death is precisely in accordance with the Old Testament narrative:
“This is what had to happen: the Messiah had to suffer, and then come into his glory!” So he began with Moses, and with all the prophets, and explained to them the things about himself throughout the whole Bible. (24:26–27)
Israel would not be snatched from the world, but people would be liberated for the role in the world for which they were designed, while
… we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which justice will be at home. That is what he has promised. (2 Pet 3:13)
Luke certainly understood Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel.This understanding brackets his gospel. The opening bracket is the prophetic words of two aged men. First, we glimpse Jesus’ destiny through the words Zecharaiah utters over his son John (the Baptist):
‘Blessed be the Lord, Israel’s God! He’s come to his people and bought them their freedom. He’s raised up a horn of salvation for us in David’s house, the house of his servant, just as he promised, through the mouths of his prophets, the holy ones, speaking from ages of old: salvation from our enemies, rescue from hatred, mercy to our ancestors, keeping his holy covenant. He swore an oath to Abraham our father, to give us deliverance from fear and from foes, so we might worship him, holy and righteous before his face to the end of our days. You, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest One, go ahead of the Lord, preparing his way, letting his people know of salvation, through the forgiveness of all their sins. The heart of our God is full of mercy, that’s why his daylight has dawned from on high, bringing light to the dark, as we sat in death’s shadow, guiding our feet in the path of peace.’ (Luke 1:68–79)
When Simeon greets the baby Jesus in the temple, he extends this fulfilment beyond Israel to the nations, citing Isaiah 24:26:
These eyes of mine have seen your salvation,
Which you made ready in the presence of all peoples:
A light for revelation to the nations,
And glory for your people Israel. (Luke 2:30–32)
The closing bracket of Luke’s gospel is Jesus’ words before the Ascension:
Then he said to them, “This is what I was talking to you about when I was still with you. Everything written about me in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and the Psalms, had to be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Bible.

“This is what is written,” he said. “The Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and in his name repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, must be announced to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are the witnesses for all this. Now look: I’m sending upon you what my father has promised. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44–49)
Luke continues the theme of the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel in Acts, when Jesus morphs the ancient hope and vocation of Israel into his disciples’ active role throughout the world:
So when the apostles came together, they put this question to Jesus.
“Master,” they said, “is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
“It’s not your business to know about times and dates.” He replied. “The father has placed all that under his own direct authority. What will happen, though, is that you will receive power when the holy spirit comes upon you. Then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6–8)
The Holy spirit indeed comes upon the disciples at Pentecost, then Peter preaches a message that the ancient prophecies have been fulfilled in Jesus and that “forgiveness of sins” has happened as an event in real space and time:
‘So now repent, and turn back, so that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshment may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he will send you Jesus, the one he chose and appointed to be his Messiah. He must be received in heaven, you see, until the time which God spoke about through the mouth of his holy prophets from ancient days, the time when God will restore all things. Moses said, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me, one from among your own brothers; whatever he says to you, you must pay attention to him. And everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be cut off from the people.” All the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and his successors, spoke about these days too. You are the children of the prophets, the children of the covenant which God established with your ancestors when he said to Abraham, “In your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” When God raised up his servant he sent him to you first, to bless you by turning each of you away from your wicked deeds.’ (Acts 3:19–26)
Heaven had come to earth again. When many Jews reject Paul and Barnabas’ message, they announce that this repentance is for the whole world:
‘God’s word had to be spoken to you first.… But since you are rejecting it, and judging yourselves unworthy of the life of God’s new age, look! We are turning to the Gentiles! This is what the Lord has commanded, you see: I have set you for a light to the nations [again citing Isaiah 24:26], so that you can be salvation-bringers to the end of the earth'. (Acts 13:46–47)
The book of Acts declares that (1) God's kingdom has already been launched through the death and resurrection of Jesus (8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31); (2) this kingdom will be fully and finally established when Jesus returns (1:11; 3:21); (3) in this final new world all God's people will be raised to bodily life (4:2; 24:15, 21; 26:23).

No Jew prior to Jesus had had in their heads a messianic story like the one Luke tells, but when the early Christians looked back, like the pair on the Emmaus road, they realised that the kingdom of God was being ushered in 'on earth as in heaven'. The resurrection was, in Wright's words, 'the archetypal forgiveness of sins moment',[1]  the long-awaited 'age to come', when individuals can be forgiven and in which the repentant are God's image-bearers, his 'royal priesthood'. Stephen's witness of Jesus at God's right hand and his prayers for those who are stoning him (Acts 7:56–60) are a graphic example of one who, in Wright's words, stands 'at the uncomfortable intersection of heaven and earth'.

The 'age to come' would reach its final fruition in the new heavens and new earth,[21]  described in Revelation 21–22, and in the image of the messianic battle in 1 Corinthians 15:22–27:
All die in Adam, you see, and all will be made alive in the Messiah. Each, however, in proper order. The Messiah rises as the first fruits; then those who belong to the Messiah will rise at the time of his royal arrival. Then comes the end, the goal, when he hands over the kingly rule to God the father, when he has destroyed all rule and all authority and power. He has to go on ruling, you see, until 'he has put all his enemies under his feet' [citing Psalm 110:1]. Death is the last enemy to be destroyed, because 'he has put all things in order under his feet'.
This was not quite the culmination of the messianic story that first-century Jews expected. They expected freedom from pagan domination. Instead they got freedom from the powers of evil (Acts 2:40). They expected that Israel's God would become the ruler of the whole world, ushering in a new reign of justice and peace. He has, but the ushering in continues. They expected God would come to dwell with his people, enabling them to worship him fully and truly. He did.

Jesus' special passover

Wright says more than once that immediately after Jesus' crucifixion no one realised that a world-shaking event had just taken place. Small wonder: Jewish expectations had been dashed. Only after the resurrection do we find the beginnings of an interpretation of the crucifixion. Jesus had experienced a terrible death and come out the other side, and his resurrected body was the first element of the new creation. Even so, the resurrection didn't immediately generate an atonement theology. The synoptic Gospels offer no interpretation of what had happened, with the important exception of Jesus' statement that the Messiah had to suffer as part of the divine plan (Luke 24:26). This takes us into the encounter on the Emmaus Road, and back into Israel's scriptures. But Luke does not explain this either here or in Acts.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews, however (writing at about the same time as Matthew, Mark and Luke), is well versed in Temple practices, and offers a more direct explanation. He makes it clear in chapter 9 that if Jesus' death is to be understood as a 'sacrifice', it would not be complete with his death alone. The Temple sacrifice was not the death of the sacrificial animal, but the blood, symbolising the life that would 'cover' all impurities. Jesus , Hebrews tells us, offered his own blood:
how much more will the blood of the Messiah, who offered himself to God through the eternal spirit as a spotless sacrifice, cleanse our conscience from dead works to serve the living God! (Heb 9:14)
John, writing somewhat later, when early understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection had started to solidify, has John the Baptist identifying Jesus as the Passover lamb: "God's lamb! He's the one who takes away the world's sin!" (1:29; also 1:39), a theme the writer returns to after the crucifixion: 'These things, you see, came about so that the Bible might come true: "No bone of his will be broken"' (John 19:36), as Exodus 12:36 instructs that the legs of the Passover lamb not be broken.

Jesus evidently chose Passover to go to Jerusalem and force a showdown with the authorities because Passover was when Jews celebrated their exodus from Egypt and prayed that God would liberate them afresh. Jesus' ministry had embodied the battle against the dark powers through his healings and his exorcisms of demons. He had announced that God's kingdom had come, that God's people were set free from the dark powers that had enslaved them. Jesus took the Passover meal and added to its commemoration of past liberation a meaning that looked forward to his crucifixion the next day. Taking the cup of Passover wine, Jesus said, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me" (1 Corinthians 11:25). The conjunction of "blood" and "covenant" says that the new meaning of Passover is the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34, which in turn refers to the original covenant ceremony in Exodus 24:
Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, "We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey." Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, "This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words." (Exodus 24:5–8)
Jesus identifies his own blood with the purifying blood of the Mosaic covenant.

This brings us a step closer to understanding what happened on the cross. Israel's continuing 'exile' was because of its sins, as Ezra and Nehemiah lament. 'At the centre of the whole picture we do not find a wrathful God bent on killing someone, demanding blood. Instead, we find the image — I use the word advisedly — of the covenant-keeping God who takes the full force of sin onto himself.' (my emphasis) In Wright's words, 'Something was about to happen through which, as was fitting for an ultimate Passover, God would overthrow all the powers of the world and liberate his people from them once and for all.'

Wright asks again, 'In what sense and by what means would Jesus's death effect "forgiveness of sins"' that Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:3? He says that the answer must lie in Jesus' own interpretation of Israel's scriptures, and here 'the historical ground is less certain'. But there are lines that converge. Texts all the way from the 8th-century BC prophet Hosea through to the writings found at Qumran testify to a belief that redemption would come through suffering. One text, Isaiah 32:13–53:12, tells us that this suffering would be focussed on one person, the 'servant', who would do for Israel what Israel could not do and yet was called to do for the world. Jesus' vocation can be traced back to his baptism by John, when the voice from heaven said:
'… This is my son, my beloved one', said the voice. 'I am delighted with him'. (Matt 3:17)
echoing the servant calling of Isaiah 42:1:
"Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him
and he will bring justice to the nations.
— And the royal vocation of Psalm 2:7–8:
"You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.
Ask of me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession."
Jesus himself says:
'… The son of man didn't come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life "as a ransom for many".' (Mark 10:45)

The next post on N.T. Wright's The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion is here.


  • [^1]  :'As Paul said, if the Messiah is not raised, "your faith is pointless, and you are still in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17).'
  • [^2]  :See N.T. Wright, 2007, Surprised by hope. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
  • [^3]  :The problem was not, as often assumed, commercialisation of the Temple. The sale of animals was essential to its functioning, as animals had to be unblemished and therefore purchased on the spot. By stopping the whole sacrificial process, Jesus is declaring God's judgement. He is also saying that the sacrificial system is redundant because he is the sacrifice: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45). (Wright, Mark for everyone).
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