The Revolution 5: What happened on Good Friday? Paul’s letters

Fifth post on 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 fourth chapter of Part Three. This is the second of four chapters in which Wright examines the New Testament texts—here Paul's letters other than Romans—to answer the question, What exactly happened on the first Good Friday?. The previous post (The Revolution 4) on Tom Wright's book is here.

Paul's letters other than Romans

Wright's goal in this chapter is to make sense of the ‘bewildering range of imagery’ in these letters. Passages from them say in various ways two things that the early Christians had recognised:

  1. Humans were to be saved for the new creation, sharing in royal priestly work in the present world and in world to come.
  2. That goal was attained by means of ‘the death of Jesus, through which the powers of sin and death were defeated’: ‘Jesus, representing Israel and the world, took upon himself the full force of the divine condemnation of Sin itself, so that all those “in him” would not suffer it themselves.’

Those who found salvation in Jesus the Messiah would be active participants in the work of new creation, ‘free from the lure and drag of the dark forces that had previously prevented this’. Those who celebrated Jesus’ death as the ultimate revelation of God’s love would find themselves renewed and summoned to holiness and unity, suffering and mission that are the heart of the church’s vocation.

Central to this is 1 Corinthians 15:3 (see The Revolution 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; …’ (emphasis mine)

This was understood in terms of the history of Israel, the nation’s sin, and its consequences. 1 Corinthians 15 says clearly that the achievement of the cross was ‘the kingdom-establishing event, winning the initial decisive victory, which would be complete at the resurrection.’ This summary is reflected in other brief statements:

He died for us, so that whether we stay awake or go to sleep we should live together with him (1 Thessalonians 5:10)

Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. That is why the Messiah died and came back to life, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Romans 14:8–9)

Paul does not ‘explain why or how the cross of the Messiah has the power it does’, but he seems able to assume in (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22–25 that his readers know this:

The word of the cross, you see, is madness to people who are being destroyed. But to us — those who are being saved — it is God’s power. . . . Jews look for signs, you see, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we announce the crucified Messiah, a scandal to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, the Messiah—God’s power and God’s wisdom. God’s folly is wiser than humans, you see, and God’s weakness is stronger than humans.

He alludes to it again when he writes in 1 Corinthians 2:6:

But this isn’t a wisdom of this present world, or of the rulers of this present world—those same rulers who are being done away with. (emphasis mine)

Galatians

The central theme of the letter to the Galatians is unity (not, as often assumed, salvation). Paul argues that on the cross Jesus has defeated the powers that kept the Jews enslaved to sin and the non-Jewish nations enslaved to their gods (4:3–7). The nations have now been set free to live God’s new creation life as a single body together. If they go back to the Jewish symbols of circumcision and eating separately from others, they deny the new creation and treat the cross as useless (4:9)

The letter opens (1:3–4):

Grace to you and peace from God our father and Jesus the Messiah, our Lord, who gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of God our father.

This opening draws together two strands of meaning. ‘For our sins’ represents forgiveness and freedom. The rescue ‘from the present evil age’ fits standard Jewish eschatology, which divided time into the “present age,” in which the world was still out of joint, and the “age to come,” in which God would deliver the world and his people from all the evil entailments of the “present age.”

The letter ends (6:14–16):

As for me, God forbid that I should boast—except in the cross of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. Circumcision, you see, is nothing; neither is uncircumcision! What matters is new creation. Peace and mercy on everyone who lines up by that standard—yes, on God’s Israel.

Paul gathers together the deeply personal and the worldwide. None of this makes sense unless the resurrection has given birth to the “age to come”.’ … those who belong to Jesus are now part of the “new creation,” “God’s Israel.”’ Wright remarks that his interpretation of this last phrase is controversial, since many believers ‘have resisted the implication that Paul would use the word “Israel” to refer to the whole people of Israel’s Messiah, whether they were Jewish or non-Jewish.’ But this is the thought of the whole epistle, Wright stresses.

In the middle of the letter is what Wright calls a ‘dense and allusive’ passage (3:10, 13–14):

Those who belong to the “works-of-the-law” camp are under a curse! Yes, that’s what the Bible says: “Cursed is everyone who doesn’t stick fast by everything written in the book of the law, to perform it.” . . . The Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law, by becoming a curse on our behalf, as the Bible says: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” This was so that the blessing of Abraham could flow through to the nations in King Jesus—and so that we might receive the promise of the spirit, through faith.”

The passage alludes to Deuteronomy 27, where Moses sets out the conditions of God’s covenant with Israel, and then describes the curses brought down by disobedience (Deut 27:15–26), ending with “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.” But the covenant isn’t solely about individuals; it is about Israel as a whole, which through its disobedience will incur the ultimate curse of exile from the promised land. Paul here says that the exile is over because the ‘curse’ has fallen on the Messiah himself, representing Israel. Israel is now set free to exercise its vocation—to be a means of blessing to the world, but Paul’s emphasis is that God has one family, not two, and that’ to deny this is to deny the gospel itself’.

1 Corinthians

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul assumes that his audience knows the Passover story and warns them against falling back to their old lifestyle (5:7–8; 6:19–20):

It’s Passover-time, you see, and the Passover lamb—the Messiah, I mean—has already been sacrificed! What we now have to do is to keep the festival properly: none of the yeast of the old life, and none of the yeast of depravity and wickedness, either. What we need is yeast-free bread, and that means sincerity and truth. . . . Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the holy spirit within you, the spirit God gave you, so that you don’t belong to yourselves? You were quite an expensive purchase! So glorify God in your body.

He draws on their knowledge that the Messiah’s death is the basis of their new identity (11:26):

Whenever you eat this bread and drink the cup, you are announcing the Lord’s death until he comes.

The final chapter affirms Paul’s belief that Jesus is already ruling the world (15:25, quoting Ps. 110:1):

He has to go on ruling, you see, until ‘he has put all his enemies under his feet’.

Jesus’ death and resurrection are the crucial event of the kingdom age (15:17):

If the Messiah wasn’t raised, your faith is pointless, and you are still in your sins.

i.e. if evil had not been conquered, death would still rule and the Corinthians would still be slaves to sin.

2 Corinthians

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians includes much personal reflection, an outcome of news from Corinth and of (undescribed) crushing events at Ephesus. He explains how his ministry is shaped by the cross (4:7–12). His understanding of the cross and the vocation that comes from it is centrally expressed in 5:14–21:

The Messiah’s love makes us press on. We have come to the conviction that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all in order that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised on their behalf. . . . It all comes from God. He reconciled us to himself through the Messiah, and he gave us the ministry of reconciliation. This is how it came about: God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah, not counting their transgressions against them, and entrusting us with the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors, speaking on behalf of the Messiah, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore people on the Messiah’s behalf to be reconciled to God. The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant.

Many traditions are misled by the conventional translation of this last clause,[1]  taking it that our sins are ‘imputed’ to Jesus and his righteousness is ‘imputed’ to us:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (5:21 NIV)

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. (5:21 NLT)

— but that isn’t what Paul says. His point is that in his self-giving love God through the cross has liberated people from sin, so that they can be God-reflecting working models of divine covenant faithfulness in action. That is what 2 Corinthians as a whole is all about. ‘It is the story of the victory of that love, because that self-giving love turns out to have a power of a totally different sort from any other power known in the world (which is why Paul is happy to say in 12:10 that he is strong when he is weak).’

‘But here at last,’ Wright continues, ‘we begin to discover why it has that all-conquering power. If the enslaving powers are to be overthrown, they must be robbed of their power base; and their power base is . . . the fact that humans hand over power to them by worshipping them instead of worshipping the Creator, by the idolatry and consequent distortion of life that can be lumped together as “sin.” Once that sin has been dealt with, the power of the idols is broken; once the Messiah has been “made sin for us,” the way is open for the ministry of reconciliation to fan out in all directions.’

Philippians

Wright focusses on the famous poem[2]  in 2:6–11, ‘a masterpiece of compressed biblical theology’:

the Messiah, Jesus: Who, though in God’s form, did not Regard his equality with God As something he ought to exploit.
Instead, he emptied himself, And received the form of a slave, Being born in the likeness of humans.
And then, having human appearance, He humbled himself, and became Obedient even to death,
Yes, even the death of the cross.
And so God has greatly exalted him, And to him in his favour has given The name which is over all names:
That now at the name of Jesus Every knee within heaven shall bow— On earth, too, and under the earth:
And every tongue shall confess That Jesus, Messiah, is Lord, To the glory of God, the father.

He makes three points. First, the poem’s structure places Jesus on the cross right at its centre. ‘Second, the cross here is the means of victory over all the powers of the world.’ This accords with Jesus' Kingdom preaching, e.g. Mark 10. Third, in the context of Philippians the poem ‘is setting out the pattern of life that is both the foundation and the model for the way Jesus’s followers ought to behave in relation to one another.’ Ths context is:

Hold on to the same love; bring your innermost lives into harmony; fix your minds on the same object. Never act out of selfish ambition or vanity; instead, regard everybody else as your superior. Look after each other’s best interests, not your own. (2:2–4)

Jesus is ‘the place where this kind of life is to be found. The “place” is the Messiah himself, “in whom” his people find their identity: This is how you should think among yourselves—with the mind that you have because you belong to the Messiah, Jesus (2:5).’

‘But this provides a clue to how Paul at least sees the logic of the cross underneath the surface of the poem. The Messiah was lord of all, yet became a slave. He was all-powerful, but became weak. He was equal with the Father, yet refused to take advantage of this status. Add to this the echoes throughout this passage from Isaiah 40–55, particularly the “servant” poems, and we can go one step farther: he was innocent, yet he died the death of the guilty. This is how the cross establishes God’s kingdom: by bearing and so removing the weight of sin and death. The kingdom of God is established by destroying the power of idolatry, and idols get their power because humans, in sinning, give it to them. Deal with sin, and the idols are reduced to a tawdry heap of rubble. Deal with sin, and the world will glorify God.’

‘One can only stand in awe at the combination of insight and expression that could encapsulate so much in a mere seventy-six Greek words. What this tells me is that already in the very early church it was common coin, first, that Jesus’s death established God’s kingdom; second, that this came about because of his servant-shaped identification with sinful humanity, sharing their death and so bearing their sin; and third, that this action was not something Jesus did despite the fact that he was “in God’s form” and “equal with God,” but rather something that he did because he was those things. In whatever way the New Testament tells the story of the cross, it is always the story of self-giving divine love.’

Colossians

In the same way, though you were dead in legal offences, and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with Jesus, forgiving us all our offences. He blotted out the handwriting that was against us, opposing us with its legal demands. He took it right out of the way, by nailing it to the cross. He stripped the rulers and authorities of their armour, and displayed them contemptuously to public view, celebrating his triumph over them in him. (emphasis mine) (2:13–15)

The passage in bold is not just a statement of Jesus’ victory. Paul is being deliberately ironic, as victory he declares came about at the very moment when ‘the rulers and authorities’ were celebrating their victory over Jesus. Wright remarks, ‘When Paul speaks of the “rulers and authorities,” he means both the visible rulers, the Herods, the Caesars, the governors, and the priests, and the “invisible” rulers, the dark powers that stand behind them and operate through them. By the time Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross, Paul believed, these “rulers and authorities” had been stripped, shamed, and defeated.’

But victory over the powers is accomplished through the forgiveness of sins: God made you alive together with Jesus, forgiving us all our offences (Col 2:13). Again the underlying argument is that the powers gain their power from human idolatry, so that their image-bearing humanness corrupts itself into sin. ‘But when sins are forgiven, the idols lose their power.’

The fact that the message can be compressed into the few sentences of Colossians 2:13–15: tells us that this line of thought was already a regular theme in the early church. ‘The new Exodus was accomplished through the forgiveness of sins, and this was accomplished by the Messiah as the living and dying embodiment of the one true God, standing in the place of sinners and taking the full weight of their plight upon himself. Paul has already said as much in the poem earlier in the letter (1:19–20):

In him all the Fullness was glad to dwell And through him to reconcile all to himself, Making peace by the blood of his cross.

He repeats the point in 2:9: “In him . . . all the full measure of divinity has taken up bodily residence”.’

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

Footnotes

  1. [^1]   Greek: ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ‘that we might become God’s righteousness in him [Jesus]’.
  2. [^2]   Many regard this as a hymn. Improper scansion in the Greek suggests that it isn’t. Wright regards it as a poem, evidently because of its structure. Fee wonders if it is exalted Pauline prose. See: Gordon D. Fee, 1992. Philippians 2:5-11: Hymn or Exalted Pauline Prose? Bulletin for Biblical Research 2:29-46.

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