The pursuing God, summary (Part 2)

This is the second of three posts about Joshua Ryan Butler’s The pursuing God: A reckless, irrational, obsessed love that’s dying to bring us home (Nashville: W Publishing, 2016) (The first post is here). It summarises Part Two, subtitled ‘Crucifixion’. Butler seeks to communicate something of what happened on the cross.

The cross is the climax of God's pursuit (Ch 13). Traditionally, Christians have described it as Jesus receiving the punishment due to us, but this is sometimes referred to today as 'divine child abuse'. God is all-loving, goes the response, so he would never have taken his anger out on his son. For Butler this is a caricature of what happened on the cross because the child abuse metaphor sees Jesus as a victim. Not so: he was a willing agent (John 10:18)[1]  who knew in advance what would happen (Mark 8:31, 9:12, Luke 9:22).[2], [3]  Butler writes, ‘The cross is not happening to Jesus; Jesus is happening to the cross.’ He is motivated by love (Galatians 2:20b).[4]  It is an act of service (Mark 10:45).[5]  Those who love him are to ‘take up their cross’ and follow him (Matthew 16:24).

The atonement

So Jesus takes our punishment, but what is this punishment? It is exile and death. This was Adam and Eve’s punishment. It was Israel’s punishment: Ezekiel 37 depicts Israel’s national death in Babylonian exile. The early church saw Jesus’ life as a recapitulation. Jesus relives Israel’s story: his virgin birth recalls the nation’s miraculous birth from Sarah’s barren womb; his early years in Egypt recall Israel’s early years under Pharaoh; the temptation relives Israel’s desert testing; his life and ministry fulfil Israel’s kingdom vocation to live out God’s reign. In his rejection and crucifixion, Jesus bears Israel’s exile and death. As Israel’s Messiah he carries her story within himself in order to redeem it. As he is cast outside the city, he recapitulates Israel’s exile from the land. He is personally innocent, but, crucified under the pagan powers, he takes upon himself the death of his people. And more than this, he bears our exile and death—and exhausts its power. By becoming a man the Son of God shares our humanity and becomes sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). He broke the power of death (Hebrews 2:14–18). Like the artist in the painting, Jesus absorbs our destruction.

Sin diminishes our humanity. Irenaeus declared that ‘The glory of God is a man fully alive’. Jesus was fully alive because he was sinless. And because he was sinless he was the perfect sacrifice. He is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15). In Jesus we see the Father’s face clearly displayed (John 14:9).[6] 

Some people find the idea of substitution, that Jesus was punished instead of the guilty, unacceptable because it seems unjust (Ch 14). But Jesus is like the CEO who takes responsibility for the actions of his corporation when he is personally innocent. Jesus became the head of humanity, sharing our corporate identity and destiny, participating in our fate in order to redeem it. So on the cross, Butler writes, ‘humanity is being punished in Jesus’.

Some people ask why God hasn’t simply forgiven humanity without repayment. But forgiving someone for the damage they’ve done doesn’t fix the damage. Using another big business analogy, when during the housing crisis the US government deemed the banks ‘too big to fail’, the government ‘forgave’ the debt, but the debt didn’t disappear. It was ultimately covered by the American people. At the cross, the triune God forgives the debt by covering it himself. The artist absorbs the corruption of his masterpiece. And when human beings crucify Jesus, they demonstrate their rebellion yet again.

Revisiting the 'divine child abuse' image, Butler asks, ’Was the Father actively involved in the murder of his Son?’ No, he answers, ‘The cross is an act of the Father’s love’ (Ch 15).

The absence or presence of God in the Bible is quite ambiguous. The Babylonian exile was the result of God’s leaving the Temple, as Ezekiel (10:18)[7]  saw in a vision. Yet God was present insofar as the Babylonians were his unwitting instrument in sending Israel into exile.[8]  The same ambiguity is present on the cross. God’s glory has departed from the temple of Jesus’ body, leaving pagan powers to destroy it. Jesus is forsaken (Matt 27:46;[9]  see also the post here). Yet Paul sees God as actively present in his reconciliation with the world (2 Corinthians 5:19a, Colossians 1:19–20).[10]  Humanity put Jesus on the cross to kill him, but God uses this to pursue us. As Joseph said to his brothers, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’ (Genesis 50:20)

Butler writes, ‘If God’s love is not the primary thing we see displayed at the cross…, then we’re not looking through the same lens that Jesus does’ (Ch 16). Paul and John were well aware that harming one’s child was an act of brutality, not of love, yet they still saw that through God’s astonishing power the Romans’ most brutal instrument of punishment is turned into, in Butler's words, ‘a miraculous instrument of love’ (1 John 4:10),[11]  exercised ‘When we were enemies…’ (Romans 5:10). God endures the death of his son (and, I think, endures it for eternity, as he is not time-bound). Deliberately inflicted suffering is not just physical—it is relational: it expresses the torturer’s contempt for the tortured. God endured this too.

The three persons of the Trinity are always totally one, and none is ever subordinate to another: ‘the cross is a triune act’ (Ch 17). The concept put forward by some Reformed theologians of a pre-creation ’covenant of redemption’, an agreement among the three persons on a plan for our redemption, implies that one or more of the persons needed to be bound by contract. It was properly criticised by perhaps the 20th century’s greatest theologian, Karl Barth (1996–1968; Barth 1961:62). The only force that compelled the Triune God was love welling up from God’s very nature, and it is this that has been and is present eternally.[12] 

Temple and sacrifice

Jesus’ upending of the traders’ stalls in the Temple precinct (John 2:14–16) was an action prophecy of the building’s destruction in 70 AD (Ch 18).[13]  Jerusalem was at the crossroads between ancient empires, and God had placed Israel there to live a life that was to display his kingship to all who passed through (Exodus 19:6; Isaiah 49:6).[14]  The Temple was an immense and unmissable building, the ‘hot spot’ of God’s presence on earth. But because of Israel’s rebellion God withdrew, allowing the destruction of his Temple and the obliteration of Israel’s national life.

Immediately after his prophetic action, Jesus said, ‘Destroy this Temple and I’ll raise it up in three days’ (John 2:19). He was referring to his own body, but by calling it ‘this Temple’ he alludes to the fact that he is the new Temple. He is the place where God is most present in his creation—in Butler’s words, ‘the umbilical cord that brings life to the earth’. The destruction of the temple of Jesus’ body by the Romans at the crucifixion ‘pre-capitulates’ the Temple’s destruction. When he dies, the curtain of the Temple’s Most Holy Place is torn apart, signalling the Temple’s end. Three days later, ‘God raises Jesus as the Temple rebuilt’.

But Jesus is more than the temple—he is also the sacrifice (Ch 19). This sacrifice was never about us keeping God happy. It was about his sacrificial love for us. Animal sacrifice was the norm in the ancient world, a mark of gratitude for life given to sustain us. The sacrificed animal was eaten either by the priests or by those who made the sacrifice. In most ancient cultures it also meant appeasing the gods, but for Israel sacrifice was a way of saying ‘Thank you’ or ‘I’m sorry’. Jesus, however, ‘provided the once-for-all sacrifice that sets our world aright,’ and after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, Rome was the first among these cultures to abolish sacrifice, as it was no longer needed.

In the ancient Middle East, an agreement was sealed by sacrificing an animal and sharing a meal together (Ch 20). In the case of God’s covenant with Abraham, Abraham brought animals that were cut in half with a pathway between the halves (Genesis 15:9–10). Customarily the two parties would walk along this path together. But God walks it alone, signifying his one-sided faithfulness to the agreement whatever the other party does. He promises to make Abraham’s descendants a great nation and through them to bless and restore the world.

One reason why Israel sacrificed and feasted was to celebrate and proclaim God’s commitment to their nation. ‘We’re invited to a similar feast today,’ Butler writes. While we don’t kill animals in church, we celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection, remembering that Jesus made a new covenant with us, sacrificing his own body and blood. ‘We do it,’ says Butler, ‘to be shocked afresh at how serious God is about us.’

From another angle sacrifice ‘soaks up death’ (Ch 21). In Isaiah 6 the prophet is in the Temple, and sees God in his throne room. Isaiah knows that his sin leaves him unclean and unable to be in God’s presence, as its purity reveals his uncleanness. An angel touches his lips with a coal from the altar, telling him, ‘your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’ The issue here is again that sin can’t exist in God’s presence. The coal from the altar signifies sacrifice. In ancient Israel sacrifice dealt with two kinds of uncleanness: ritual and moral. Ritual purity was the means of promoting hygiene. Moral impurity demanded cleansing in order that Isaiah could stand to be with God. Jesus’ sacrifice does this for us, allowing us to enter God’s presence and reflect that presence to the world.

What is God’s wrath like?

To respond to the problem that people have with God’s wrath and with punishment, Butler uses the image of a fish that has jumped out of the water and flaps around on the ground (Ch 22). We are made, he says, to swim in the ocean of God’s love. But if we choose to do things for which we were not made, there are negative consequences. (At this point Butler’s analogy doesn’t quite work, as the fish isn’t morally responsible, but we are.) These consequences are God’s punishment, built into the nature of things (Romans 1:18, 24, 26, 28). Thomas Aquinas said something very similar. In Butler’s words, ‘The natural consequences we experience are mediated by God’s sustaining presence in the creation we’ve disordered.’ Jesus participates in our disorder to bear the devastation we’ve brought upon ourselves and to bring us back into the ocean of God’s love.

But God’s wrath is not merely mechanical (Ch 23). Because he continues to hold his creation together, he is personally touched by the consequences of sin. The theologian Miroslav Volk (2005:138–139) says that the horrors of the war in former Yugloslavia brought him to the point where ‘I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil… God is wrathful because God is love.’ When people aren’t treated as they should be treated, as objects of God’s love, God is upset—and it is the triune God who is upset, not just the Father. Jesus’ parables include images of an angry God, like the landlord who punishes the tenants who have murdered his messengers (Matthew 21:33–41). This is righteous anger. Theologian Anders Nygren (1932-39:I, 75) wrote, ‘Only that love which pronounces judgment on all that is not love is in the truest sense restoring and saving love’. When Jesus prays that ‘this cup’ might be taken from him (Mark 14:36),[15]  he sees himself as drinking ‘the cup of God’s wrath’[16]  and suffers the curse of the crucifixion (Deuteronomy 21:22–23, quoted in Galatians 3:13 )[17]  in our place.

Jesus absorbs not only our personal and social judgment, but also cosmic destruction as well (Ch 24). The Creator is in his creation, holding it together, but he responds to man’s insistence on independence from him by withdrawing from creation, so that chaos returns. Regardless of how one reads the early chapters of Genesis, Noah’s flood represents a reversal of creation. The Hebrews feared the sea, as it reflected uncreated chaos (Genesis 1:2),[18]  and the flood reversed the separation of water, sky and land (Genesis 1:6–10).[19]  Israel viewed creation as a temple for God to live in (Walton 2009:71–91), and Adam as its priest, a fact underlined by similar Hebrew wordings across the Pentateuch. But instead God grieves over the genocidal violence in the world he has created (Genesis 6:12–13).[20]  The flood reflects his departure from his temple: ‘he pulls back his sustaining presence.’, Butler writes. On the cross ‘The one through whom the world was made is himself unmade.’ But order is restored in the resurrection, and Jesus is ‘the resurrected head of humanity and firstfruits of the new creation.’

The third and last post on The pursuing God is here.


  • [^1]  : No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

  • [^2]  : He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:32; also Luke 9:22)
    "Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?" (Mark:9–12)

  • [^3]  : Butler writes, ‘… one popular illustration pictures Jesus as a child who goes to work with his father at the railroad. The father sees a train coming, full of passengers, and needs to lower the bridge so the train can cross the river. Unfortunately, he sees his son playing under the bridge in the gears. With tears in his eyes, the father pulls the lever and crushes his son in order to save the people on the train.’ Butler thinks this a ‘horrible analogy for a number of reasons’, one being that Jesus was an adult.

  • [^4]  : The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

  • [^5]  : "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.”

  • [^6]  : "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father."

  • [^7]  : Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim.

  • [^8]  : 2 Chronicles 36:15–17; Jeremiah 25:9, 15, 29; 28:14; 29:4, 7, 20; 43:10; Ezekiel 21; 29:28; Habakkuk 1:6,12.

  • [^9]  : “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

  • [^10]  : that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:19)
    For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:19–20)

  • [^11]  : This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

  • [^12]  : The Messiah was destined for this the cross from before the foundation of the world . . . (1 Peter 1:20)
    He the Father chose us in him Jesus before the world was made, so as to be holy and irreproachable before him in love. ( Ephesians 1:4)

  • [^13]  : His action is often seen as a cleansingof the Temple, but this is wrong, as the trade was necessary to the Temple’s ceremonial and sacrificial functions (Wright 1996: 418–424).

  • [^14]  : ". . . you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exod 19:6)
    "I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

  • [^15]  : “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

  • [^16]  : In the hand of the LORD is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs. (Psalm 75:8)
    Awake, awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger. (Isaiah 51:17)
    You will be filled with shame instead of glory. Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed! The cup from the LORD’S right hand is coming around to you, and disgrace will cover your glory. (Habbakuk 2:16)
    Also Ezekiel 23:31–34.

  • [^17]  : If a man guilty of a capital offence is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22–23 NIV)
    Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13 NIV)

  • [^18]  : Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

  • [^19]  : And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day. And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

  • [^20]  : God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.

  • References

    Barth, Karl. 1961. Church dogmatics. v. 4, Part 1, Doctrine of reconciliation, trans. G.W. Bromiley. Edinburgh : T.& T. Clark.

    Nygren, Anders, 1932-39. Agape and eros. London: SPCK.

    Volf, Miroslav, 2005 . Free of charge: Giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace. Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

    Walton, John, 2009. The lost world of Genesis One: Ancient cosmology and the origins debate. Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press.

    Wright, N. T., 1996.  Jesus and the victory of God . Minneapolis: Fortress Press.