What did Jesus’ earliest followers mean when they said that Jesus had died “for us” and “for our sins,” and that believers in Christ have been justified, redeemed, and reconciled to God through his death? My work offers answers to this question that are very different from what you will find elsewhere.
What led Jesus to embark on his final and fatal trip to Jerusalem? When we look to the nature of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee rather than to some theory of atonement to answer that question, we find good reasons for concluding that Jesus realized that only by going to Jerusalem could the objectives he had been pursuing throughout his ministry be accomplished in the way he desired. While the price he would pay for going to Jerusalem would be that of his life, from his perspective the price he would pay if he avoided Jerusalem would be even greater.
In the thought of Paul, Jesus had suffered and died because he had been dedicated to the same objective that was Paul’s own in his work as an apostle, namely, building up a community of people who would live in love, righteousness, and solidarity under Jesus as their Lord. Jesus’ faithfulness and total commitment to that objective had led to his death, yet it was precisely by giving up his life that he had made it possible for such a community now to exist and to take the shape it had.
Rather than regarding Jesus’ death as the basis upon which believers in Christ are justified and forgiven, Paul maintained that it was through Jesus’ faithfulness to death to the task of establishing a community in which all would live under him in love and righteousness that he had attained God’s acceptance and forgiveness for all who would come to form part of that community. It is this idea that lies behind Paul’s affirmations that Jesus died for others and for their sins.
Over the course of history, the New Testament passages that relate Jesus’ death to the salvation of others have been interpreted in many different ways. When we analyze the traditional interpretations of the significance of Jesus’ death, however, we see that they are based on ideas and assumptions that Jesus’ earliest followers would have found highly problematic and foreign to their world of thought.
Rather than viewing Jesus’ death in isolation from the ministry that had preceded it, Jesus’ earliest followers would have seen his crucifixion as the result of the conflict and opposition that his activity on behalf of others had generated, as well as his dedication and faithfulness to that activity. To understand how Jesus’ earliest followers interpreted his death, therefore, we must view it in the context of his ministry in the same way that they did.
When Jesus’ earliest followers came to ascribe saving significance to his death, they did so in light of their faith in his resurrection and his exaltation to God’s right hand. Ultimately, it was their belief in Jesus as risen and exalted Lord and the conviction that he remained active on their behalf from God’s side in heaven that led them to interpret his death in the ways that they did.
Most of the allusions to Jesus’ death that appear in the New Testament consist of brief formulas that relate his death in various ways to the salvation and redemption of believers. Underlying these formulaic allusion to his death, however, is a basic narrative regarding Jesus and his death that was known and shared among his followers. It was the assumption that all were well-acquainted with this narrative that led them to use such formulas to refer to the significance of his death.
Pauline scholars commonly look to the ideas of substitution and participation to interpret Paul’s affirmations that believers have been justified, redeemed, and reconciled to God through Jesus’ death or blood. Here it is argued that both of those ideas as traditionally understood are foreign to Paul’s thought and that a proper understanding of the narrative that lies behind his allusions to Jesus’ death is sufficient to grasp their meaning.
In addition to speaking of Jesus giving up his life for others, the Gospel of John refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and views his death as the means by which he is glorified and lifted up to heaven. The First Epistle of John and the Book of Revelation point to Jesus’ blood as the means by which believers are redeemed, cleansed, and freed from their sins. What did the authors of these writings mean when they alluded to Jesus’ death in these ways?
Central to the argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews is the image of Jesus as a great high priest who offered himself and his body and blood up to God so that through him believers might attain salvation, redemption, and purification from their sins. While no other New Testament writing portrays Jesus in the same way that Hebrews does, its allusions to Jesus’ death can readily be understood by looking to the same basic story regarding Jesus that we find elsewhere in the New Testament.
The First Epistle of Peter affirms that believers have been redeemed from their futile ways with Jesus’ precious blood and states that Jesus bore their sins in his body on the cross. It also presents Jesus as the righteous one who died for the unrighteous and for their sins. A careful examination of the contexts and exhortations in which these affirmations appear, however, is sufficient to demonstrate that in reality they do not ascribe any type of atoning efficacy to Jesus’ death.
This two-volume work offers a rereading of the passages from the New Testament and other early Christian writings that ascribe saving significance to Jesus’ death on the basis of an in-depth study of second-temple Jewish thought regarding atonement, sacrifice, suffering, and death. Read here the full summary, chapter by chapter.