“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus cried out those words from the cross, a horrifying, overwhelming scene. The sky had turned dark. The wind, we imagine, whipped a cold blast frosting over the already cold hearts of the Roman soldiers and pharisaical mob as they watched in satisfaction. But it also must have left the hearts of those few who loved him feeling equally barren, echoing the words of agony pouring out from Jesus’s torn body and parched lips: “Where is God?” But we, separated by an ocean from the site and an ocean of time from that scene, flip back to the OT, to Habakkuk 1:13: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil.” And we in cold, clinical, resignation, decide, “Ah! God turned away from Jesus because of our sin imputed to Jesus’s spirit, making him too evil for the purity of God to look upon.” And thus Jesus died.
Wait a minute . . .
Jesus, in love, bore the guilt of sin, embracing the curse, while God the Father, his perfection not allowing him to be a part of that, to love quite that much, had to turn away in revulsion? Is that right? Can that be possible?
At the moment we suppose God the Father turned away from the redemption scene in his purity while God the Son held a heart blackened by sin, which one was our God? Surely it couldn’t be both. It couldn’t be the guilty, cursed Son against whom the pure Father was flinging his unbridled wrath in torturous punishment. We couldn’t claim that one as our God, could we? God is infinitely true, good, and beautiful. This beaten, abused Son was receiving (again, we suppose) just anger and punishment for embodied falsehood, evil, and ugliness from the righteously true, good, and beautiful Father. Right? That is our picture of the crucifixion scene, isn’t it?—Jesus having had our guilt magically transferred to him, offering up himself to face the wrath of the infinite God, who beats him down with his righteous, glorious, powerful right arm of infinite destructive force!
Wait a minute!
Isn’t this blackened, sin-bearing Jesus the one of whom we read in Hebrews as the same yesterday, today, and forever? This one who bears our sin, who becomes sin for us, who receives the gleeful punishment by the Father, who is blackened and stained is the same as before? Is the same as now. “No,” we quickly backtrack, “not the same in that way.” What other way, then? I’m going to say it again. As the infinite wrath of the Father was being poured out on this Jesus, what about Jesus was the same as yesterday and now today? The picture painted shows him to be nothing like our God. But wait, what about love?! Doesn’t this show the love of Jesus, which is the same yesterday, today, and forever? Are we saying, then, that the Father was bludgeoning with all his wrath this Jesus who was at the moment expressing infinite, glorious love? Something is confusingly wrong!
Those things bugging us about this scene, those things that make us say, “Wait a minute,” do, in fact, show that there is something wrong with that picture. We dive into this pool of impossibility, demanding that certain elements be true, but if true, they alter the very nature of God. So we can cling to our misguided picture, but if we do, we must give up our understanding of God as the infinitely true, good, and beautiful one.
This topic is huge, and obviously not fully answerable in one short or even long discussion. But it is hugely important and bears consideration. We’re going to look at it somewhat tonight, trying to see it (or a part of it) from the perspectives of Paul and of Jesus.
Let’s start with Paul. Of course, this problem of the immutability (unchangeableness) of God in all his persons is not the only problem with the crucifixion picture commonly presented, but instead of simply going into all the impossibilities that result by thinking this way, I’m just going to simply offer the right way to view the crucifixion scene that actually results in harmony with all that Scripture has to say in the whole redemption story from Genesis through Revelation.
If there is any one place in Scripture that sums up in a beautifully clear statement everything about the nature of the atonement, it has to be Paul’s statement in Romans 8:1–4. So, part 1 of this discussion now is looking at this passage. Part 2 will be to look at Christ’s perspective of his Passover sacrifice.
Romans 8:1:“Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus,”
This statement holds the conclusion of what the atonement accomplished. What it means to be in Jesus we’ll discuss a little more later and a lot more next time in discussing the resurrection. But Paul’s conclusion here sums up that we have no more condemnation. So we are looking for why that is true.
Romans 8:2: “because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”
What is the law of sin and death? We who have been Christians all our lives may think this question rather simple. The law of sin and death is obviously that if you sin, you die. But there is more to it than that. In the Garden, Adam and Eve did sin and were given the consequence of death. But that death was a death requirement of the whole person—flesh and spirit. Immediately, because of God’s ordained restoration plan, Adam and Eve had the opportunity to gain forgiveness. I don’t know when exactly that occurred, but the animal-skin covering provided by God indicates, I think, that forgiveness was given. But individual forgiveness didn’t just spill over to all of physical essence. We realize this because an individual’s new birth in Christ doesn’t make either his or her flesh clean or the flesh of another individual who had not repented seeking forgiveness. The physical essence—our oneness as humans—was cursed and remained cursed from the original Fall. It had lost the goodness pronounced over it at creation. Now, without Christ’s crucifixion—without the redemption of the physical—since the flesh is the essence of us as creatures, we will, in our existence, die with that essence. And that’s the law of sin and death—our spirits dying with our essence (flesh) because of the curse of sin placed on that essence. Paul says as much in the last verse of the previous chapter: “So then, with my mind I myself am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh, [I am a slave] to the law of sin.”
Romans 8:3a: “What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did.”
Further detail of law through the Mosaic Law could not wipe out the hold that the flesh had over us to remain a slave and even to increase our servitude to the flesh because of the Law. That fact is what the whole of Romans 7 is discussing from verse 7 on.
Romans 8:3b: “He condemned sin in the flesh”
Here we come to the most important, most exciting part of the atonement’s full and necessary purpose—how did God, not simply forgive us for acting wrongly but, in that forgiveness, take out the tumor embedded in our flesh causing us to constantly to turn against God. How did he condemn—put to death—that sin cause, which actually is our flesh?
Romans 8:3c: “by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and as a sin offering,”
And here it is. Jesus—God—came in flesh like ours, not just physical like ours, but “under sin’s domain,” in other words flesh like ours that had been cursed by God. This corrupted and corrupting flesh has, since the Fall, held sway over every other single human born on this planet, influencing to sin and securing that soul with it to its eventual and eternal consequence of separation from God. Jesus came in that flesh to stand against that influence—to remain holy and righteous, without falling to its temptation. And then without sin, Jesus put that flesh to death, accomplishing what no other human had or could accomplish—the separation of cursed flesh from the pure and righteous spirit.
Romans 8:4: “in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
Pay close attention to what this means! The law’s requirement is death to the body. Read these verses from Romans 7:21–23 with that understanding: “So I discover this principle: When I want to do what is good, evil is with me. For in my inner self (my spirit—individual person existence) I joyfully agree with God’s law. But I see a different law in the parts of my body(cursed physical essence), waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body.” And the point? We need rescue from the body! Paul says, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus saves! He saves us—rescues us—from our dying cursed flesh. He accomplishes that rescue because he put the body (humanity’s physical essence) to death.
I know this discussion is impelling us right toward the next brilliant point—that resurrection of the body awaits, but that is going to have to wait a week until Resurrection Sunday.
Let’s look now at Christ’s perspective as he moves through that passion week to see whether his outlook matches what Paul has been telling us.
It’s been about 3500 years since the first Passover, so Jesus was closer to the last Passover while he was on earth than we are to that one of the Passion week. The Passover was instituted for a purpose, and the purpose was not merely to get Moses and the children of Israel out of Egypt. Israel and all its feasts and laws and travails and rescues are (as Hebrews tells us) shadows or signs or symbols or types of the plan of God he would provide for the world in Christ. So since it is a symbol and since Jesus was well aware, not only that it was a symbol but also that it was a symbol about him, we should take a look at that first Passover to ensure we understand its teaching as a symbol.
Details of the Passover, or really of the Passover week (which relate to the Passion week), are found from Exodus 11 through Moses’s victory song in Exodus 15. The background to the story is the final (tenth) plague that God was planning to inflict on the land of Egypt. The incidents of this Passover week do take about a week, and they do correspond to the Passion week. They ought to. The blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts and lintel was a symbol of the rescue through Jesus’s blood given at the crucifixion.
God was going to go through Egypt on the night of the Passover meal, and as he did, every firstborn male of people and animals would die. The object lesson is important. If Jesus is the Passover lamb, and this story is symbolic of God’s redemption for the world, we should see the death of the firstborns as the death of heritage of those apart from God’s rescue. The emphasis in the genealogies (especially, for example, in Genesis 5) is about offspring imaging those from whom they come. The death—the cutting off—then of offspring should demonstrate the death to the image bearers of those who abandon God (like the Egyptians).
Now, that death would be unavoidable to everyone in the world. But God had a restoration plan, and so that restoration plan is what Passover is all about. In Exodus 12, God gave the instructions. He said to start on the 10thday of the month. The month is the Hebrew Abib. God said this month was to be their new starting month for the year. The first month used to be Tishri (and Tishri is still considered the first month of the civil calendar), but Abib is the first month of the religious calendar. (Also, as an aside, the month of Abib began to be known by its Babylonian name after the captivity. The month in Babylon was Nisan, and so Nisan is the usual reference today.) On the 10th, God’s people were supposed to select a lamb for the Passover offering/meal. That lamb was to be without blemish. Now, why the 10th. They are told to slaughter the animal on the 14th. So the question is not necessarily what significance the 10thhas, but rather why select the lamb four days before the day when it would be slain and the meal would be eaten? Actually, Exodus gives us no clue except for the insistence that the lamb be without blemish. Perhaps the time period prior to the slaying and the meal was meant to ensure through examination that the lamb truly was without blemish—a testing period, if you will.
Exodus 12 instructs the Israelites to slaughter the lamb on the 14thof Abib (Nisan). There is an issue of clarity, however, regarding when the meal was to be eaten. Exodus 12:6 definitely says to slaughter the animal on Nisan 14. But they were to eat the meal “that night.” Since the Jewish day starts in the evening, was it the evening of Nisan 14 when the lamb was to be slain and then eaten, or was it the day of Nisan 14 when the lamb was to be slain and then eaten at evening as it turned to Nisan 15? Well, tradition has it that the second scenario holds. The Passover meal is eaten in the evening starting Nisan 15. There are several reasons showing that this is the correct understanding. First, to slaughter the lamb, clean and dress it, cook it, and then eat it would take hours. If all that had to start and end (from slaughter to meal) at evening of the 14th, supper that night would probably be past midnight (okay, maybe earlier, but still severely delayed). Also (and without going into the details right now) the discussion connection with the following seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread make most sense with understanding that the Passover is eaten on the evening of the first day of that feast. But the clearest evidence for believing the meal was supposed to be eaten at the evening beginning the 15this that Exodus 12:6 in the Hebrew actual ends the verse saying the slaughter of the animals should take place, not at twilight or evening, as most translations have it, but rather “between the evenings.” Between the evenings means during the day on the 14th, which then requires the meal to be eaten that evening, the start of the 15th.
Exodus 12 goes on to say that it was that night at midnight (presumably the evening of the 15thaccording to our interpretive understanding) that the 10thplague struck Egypt, waking Pharaoh who immediately ordered the Israelites to leave the land.
This, then, is the first part of the week through the Passover meal. Let’s now move to the Gospel of Mark (which appears to be the most detailed as to chronology of the Passion week) to discover what was happening during the last Passover week of Jesus’s life on Earth.
Mark 11 begins with the triumphal entry. Actually, it begins with Jesus sending his disciples into Jerusalem to get a young donkey on which he could ride (in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9). But the main point for us right now is the people’s response as they see him coming into Jerusalem. They cry out, “Hosanna!’ meaning, “please, save!” They went further to say that Jesus was the blessed one from the lord—the king! They believed he would be the Messiah, the appointed Savior. The Pharisees called on Jesus to rebuke the crowd. But Jesus said that if they were silent the rocks would cry out. The point here is not so much that the rocks would cry out, but rather that what the people were saying was true—Jesus was from God; Jesus was the Lord; Jesus was the one who would save; Jesus was the Messiah! The verses the people were quoting in the Hosannas were Psalm 118: 25–26—verses normally quoted during the Passover, making a strong connection of Jesus to the Passover. They were, in fact, by their cries, selecting the Passover rescuer—the Passover lamb. They had decided that Jesus was the one without blemish. Jesus was the one who would represent them. We see this day, then, as Nisan 10—the day of selection of the Passover lamb who was without blemish.
We find after the triumphal entry that Jesus was “looking around” in the temple (Mark 11:11), and then returned that evening to Bethany. Now, remember that the Jews began their day in the evening. So as Jesus returned to Bethany, it was the beginning of Nissan 11.
It was still Nisan 11, but morning then, as he walked toward Jerusalem in verse 12. Jesus saw a fig tree with leaves in full blossom. He assumed there were the pre-fig fruits on the tree based on the presentation of the early spring leaves. But he found no early fruit. Jesus, therefore, cursed the fig tree that had the appearance of fruit but actually did not produce fruit.
Jesus continued on to the temple. There he became enraged, overturning the tables and driving out the moneychangers and animal sellers. There is a lot of conjecture for why Jesus was upset. The selling of animals was not necessarily a bad thing. All the people in Jerusalem had traveled there from all over Palestine. To bring an animal for the sacrifice would have been precarious. Remember, it was supposed to be an animal without blemish, and anything can happen during a trip across mountains and rivers. It was much easier to purchase the animals there—ones already sanctioned by the temple priests as unblemished. But to make a buck, perhaps the priests were not selling totally unblemished animals. (The demand for animals was very high; tens of thousands came to Jerusalem at this time.) Maybe that contributed to Christ’s enragement. Also, perhaps they were swindling the people, charging much higher prices than they should have, leading to Jesus’s accusation that they were making it a den of thieves. Also, in the episode recorded in John, we find implied that Jesus didn’t appreciate the selling of the animals going on in the temple courtyard.
Now, I’m sure all these reasons contributed to Christ’s anger. But I think the tipping point is indicated in the Mark narration. Jesus had just been there the previous day. He had ridden into Jerusalem on the donkey. The people had selected him as their Messiah (or, as we know, as the Passover lamb), and then Jesus went into the temple and simply looked around. Why didn’t he get enraged then? Well, it was late; he promised Mary and Martha he’d be back for supper; so well, he’d leave getting enraged for another day. Was that it? Probably not. It was Nisan 10 when Jesus was simply looking around. What was going on then was supposed to be going on—the selection of the animal on Nisan 10 as they were instructed in Exodus chapter 12. But when Jesus returned the next day and found them still buying sheep and doves on Nisan 11, he became upset. They were ignoring the command simply for convenience, because they hadn’t cared enough to make adequate preparation.
After the scene and when evening came again—the evening starting Nisan 12—Jesus left the city to return to Bethany for the night (11:19).
The next morning (the 12th) as Jesus and the disciples passed by, they noted that the fig tree Jesus cursed had withered. Here is a specific connection with the Exodus Passover selection. The OT specified selecting an animal without blemish. If the days between selection and offering were intended to ensure that the choice was without blemish, we find this fig tree event as one which illustrates the point: the demonstration of religion (full, vibrant leaves) should correspond to full, vibrant relationship with God. But there was no fruit. We can understand the fig tree example to be speaking of the lack of fruit in relationship with God regarding the Pharisees and the 1stcentury temple worship. But interestingly, Jesus’s teaching, when Peter points out the tree is withered, was not about the Pharisees but about the fact that his command over the physical tree was certain. It came to pass because he demanded it in faith. So what was really being shown? The real point was not that the Pharisees and Sadducees failed but that Jesus did not fail. Jesus showed his dominion over physical creation, proving himself to be without blemish. This incident on the morning of Nisan 11 was part of that examination period from the selection of the lamb on Nisan 10 to the slaughter of the lamb on Nisan 14.
But the fig tree is not the only incident showcasing the unblemished nature of Jesus. In Mark 11: 27 through chapter 12, they were questioning Jesus, examining Jesus. Jesus not only answered well but stumped them with a question of his own.
In chapter 13, Jesus left the temple, and we have the Olivet discourse that afternoon of Nisan 12. Chapter 14 shows other preparation for the Passover, beginning with that evening (which would be the start of Nisan 13). There we have Jesus at a meal in Simon the Leper’s house, and Mary anoints Jesus with the expensive nard for burial.
The next morning (the daylight portion of Nisan 13) was probably when Judas, who had been rebuked for complaining about the anointing, ran off to the chief priests to offer betrayal of Jesus. Verse 12 tells us that this day was the first day of Unleavened Bread when they sacrifice the Passover lamb. Okay we have a problem. We’ve been marching through the days and we’re on Wednesday, Nisan 13. The Passover lamb was supposed to be killed on Nisan 14. Yet verse 12 tells us that they were to kill the lamb on the current day. Did we lose a day somewhere? Well, no. But something was lost—lost in translation.
We actually have a couple problems here, which actually help lead us to the correct solution. Besides being on the wrong day, the verse seems to indicate that the first day of the feast of unleavened bread is when they sacrifice the Passover lamb. But that’s not correct either. They sacrifice the Passover lamb on Nisan 14. And Nisan 15, when they eat the lamb at evening, is the first of the seven days of unleavened bread. So we either have a serious mistake here, or as I said, something was lost in the translation. And indeed there was.
The word translated “first” is the Greek protos. And protos certainly can mean first. But it can also mean previous or former, indicating before as in John 1:15 and 15:18. The context talks of preparing for the Passover. Thus, the translation should say, “On the day before the day of the feast when they sacrifice the Passover lamb.” And that makes the sequence correct and also indicates that we are, in fact, on Nisan 13. And it was that evening, the start of Nisan 14, that Jesus had the Last Supper with his disciples (starting in 14:17).
Thus, Jesus was crucified on Thursday, Nisan 14 during the day. Notice in John 18:28, the Pharisees are worried about being defiled so they can’t eat the Passover. And that also goes along with our timetable because the Passover is eaten at evening, the start of Nisan 15.
This progression seems to indicate that the Last Supper then was not a Passover meal since it was eaten the night before. But why then did Jesus say, when sitting down to this meal in Luke 22:15, “I have fervently desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” Apparently, Jesus thought of this meal as Passover, and his statement was to explain to the disciples what they were doing because they were most probably wondering why they were eating a Passover meal on the wrong day,
It is immediately after Jesus spoke of his fervent desire to eat the meal with them that he instituted communion—the taking of bread and wine to symbolize his body and blood. And it is that separation of body and blood—just like the separation of body from blood at the original Passover—that is of importance. At the original Passover, the body they ate. It became part of them. The blood was placed on doorway of the home, the dwelling place of those who in faith believed and were thus safe and rescued. Therefore, the pure blood released from the body facing death is the first part of redemption. The blood, representing the spirit (Lev 17:11), had to be pure to be released from the death of the body. That’s the picture. That’s the necessary first step to accomplishing redemption—release of the spirit from death because of its purity.
So did Jesus go to the cross burdened with guilt on his spirit? Absolutely not! If his spirit died based on sin guilt, it would never be released from the corruption of its physical essence. David cried out, and Peter quoted him in Acts 2, that God would not allow his holy one to see decay. How could he be called holy if laden with sin guilt. Jesus bore no sin guilt in his spirit, neither his own nor yours or mine. He died to put death to death in the body.
And that certainly leads us to the hope of resurrection, which we will talk about next week.