And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
When we look at the Cross, we are confronted with the question: What does this mean?
On one level, the crucifixion of Jesus is exactly what it looks like: The unjust execution of an innocent man by conspiring Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire. It is just another example in a long series of how the powerful define for themselves truth, justice, and reality, at the expense of the weak and powerless.
But with the Resurrection, God vindicates the life and work of Jesus. Accordingly, the Cross as a symbol of Roman torture and domination becomes re-interpreted. The Cross, the most terrible form of execution the Romans had come up with, was now held up by Christians as if to say: “Because of our Lord, we are not afraid of you or of any other power.” The Resurrection, which the church reflects on throughout the season of Easter, infuses new meaning into the crucifixion.
So I want to list below several themes of Scripture which meet their unlikely fulfillment in the crucifixion of Jesus. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it should give a flavor to the multi-dimensional reality of the work achieved by the Cross and vindicated by the Resurrection.
Jesus Christ proves that he is the true Adam, the true Son, the true Man who bears the divine Image, in his absolute obedience to the Father. Adam disobeyed the Father in the Garden of Eden, even though the Father’s command was to preserve Adam’s life. Jesus obeyed the Father in the Garden of Gethsamene, even though the Father’s command was for Jesus to march to his own death.
Through his obedience in life and in death, Jesus restores the right relationship between mankind and God by living a perfect life of devoted worship. Now, by being joined to His death and new life, we can receive the Holy Spirit and be renewed divine Image-Bearers.
Lurking in the background of the biblical narrative is the shadowy figure of the Accuser, who uses the power of sin to enslave mankind to destruction and death. In Mark’s Gospel, at the very beginning of his public ministry (Mark 1:21-28), Jesus drives out demons and declares war on the forces of evil.
This confrontation grows to its crescendo and resolution at the Cross. This view of the Cross as the victory of Christ over Sin, Death, and the Devil, has long been advocated by various streams of Christianity.
In the words of John Calvin in the Institutes II.xvi.7:
Death held us captive under its yoke; Christ, in our stead, gave himself over to its power to deliver us from it. So the apostle understands it when he writes, “He tasted death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). By dying, he ensured that we would not die…Finally, his purpose was “that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the Devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
This is in accordance with what the Reformer Martin Luther taught, as captured in the Lutheran confession, the Formula of Concord:
We believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power.
And nobody has explained the concept of the Victorious Christ more fully and more beautifully than the Church Father Athanasius in his work, On the Incarnation:
Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered his body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die, and the law of death thereby abolished because, when he had fulfilled in his body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This he did that he might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of his body and by the grace of his resurrection.
By death, Christ entered into Death, so as to fill Death with Himself. Death believed that it had swallowed up Christ, little knowing that in doing so it was being swallowed up by Christ’s New Life. All things are on Heaven, on earth, and under the earth are under the sovereign rule of Christ.
The Devil no longer has any realm from which he can plot against from the holy ruling power of God; for now Christ has the keys to Death and Hades.
Another important theme is the idea of Christ’s legal substitution in our place. He enters the curse of death in an exchange for our curse under the law. This image is powerfully made manifest in the explicit substitution of Jesus Christ for Barabbas in the Passion Narrative:
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.
Notice the names. Barabbas means “son of the father.” So Pilate is asking the crowd, who do you want me to release? Jesus, son of the father, who is a violent revolutionary? Or Jesus, Son of the Father, who claims to be Messiah–though perhaps not in the way you were expecting? And the crowd chooses the violent Barabbas to be freed, and the innocent Christ to be executed.
John Chrysostom, an early Church figure famous for his powerful sermons, explained the substitution this way in his commentary on Galatians 3:
Cursed is every one that does not continue in the things that are written in the book of the Law. (Deut. 27:26).
To this curse, I say, people were subject, for no man had continued in, or was a keeper of, the whole Law; but Christ exchanged this curse for the other,
As then both he who hanged on a tree, and he who transgresses the Law, is cursed, and as it was necessary for him who is about to relieve from a curse himself to be free from it, but to receive another instead of it, therefore Christ took upon Him such another, and thereby relieved us from the curse. It was like an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another sentenced to death, and so rescuing him from punishment. For Christ took upon Him not the curse of transgression, but the other curse, in order to remove that of others. For, He had done no violence neither was any deceit in His mouth. (Isa. 53:9; 1 Peter 2:22.) And as by dying He rescued from death those who were dying,so by taking upon Himself the curse, He delivered them from it.”
On our own merits, we stand condemned before the holiness of God, answerable for our failures to govern the world and ourselves in accordance with His Love, Light, and Life. Out of love for us, though he himself obeyed and fulfilled the law, Christ freely subjects himself to the curse to free us from the curse of the law. Now, when we are united to His life, we inherit and enjoy the riches of His Sonship.
And with the gift of the Spirit, we now have the law written on our hearts. As Paul writes in Galatians, it is paradoxically our freedom from the tutelage of the law that allows us to bear the fruit of justice and righteousness to which the law was always pointing,
This view is closely related to Christus Victor. Jesus says in Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Christ as a ransom payment to buy back God’s people from slavery to evil is associated with the biblical theme of redemption. The word “redemption” had a specific meaning–to purchase from a slave auction. The greatest act of redemption in Israelite history was God’s purchase of Israel from Egypt for His own holy uses.
CS Lewis drew upon this view of the Cross in his children’s book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Christ-figure, Aslan, confronts the Devil-figure, the White Witch, for the life of Edmund. The witch reminds Aslan:
You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill…That human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property…Unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.
Aslan acknowledges that the White Witch is correct, and freely gives himself to the witch to be slaughtered. But three days later, he rises again from the dead. When Lucy asks Aslan how this could be, he replies:
“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
The Greek Church Father Gregory of Nyssa spoke of the Cross in this way. All mankind had freely subjected themselves to the dominion of the Devil. We are all now enslaved by his murderous lies. For this reason, God buys us back from the Devil by exchanging his Holy Son in human form. The Devil willingly enters this exchange, because never has he seen a human so perfect and sinless. But death could not contain the Son, for the Son is God Himself–Abundant Life. And so the gates of Hades are cracked and shattered, and the Devil has no hold over the Son or any of his former captives.
This view is closely related to Substitution. Throughout the Old Testament, God instructs the Israelites in the sacrificial system so that He can continue to dwell with them despite their sin. The blood of the sacrificed animal is especially important, as it purifies the Temple-space so that God can truly be present.
This sacrificial system is strange and disturbing to us. But when John the Baptist sees Jesus in the Gospel of John, he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”
Christ is God’s own sacrifice of Himself, offered up for our behalf, so that we can be washed in his blood. In Revelation, Christ is revealed as the Lamb who was slain before the foundations o the world. By the purification of his blood, our hearts become a claen place where God Himself can dwell, and as the church we are knit together to be the new Temple of God.
The Birth-pangs of New Creation
In John 16:21-23, Jesus explains his coming crucifixion in these terms:
When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. On that day you will ask nothing of me Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.
Jesus employs the image of a woman with the birth pangs of labor, an image common to the Hebrew prophets as signaling a period of intense suffering before the inauguration of a new age where God will do a new work. See Isaiah 26:16-19 and Isaiah 66:8-14.
The death of Jesus Christ was the termination of an old world order, and the exposing to light of the rotten foundations of human civilization. The Cross was Jesus in labor; the Resurrection is the New Birth now offered to all of human society. As Revelation 1:5 puts it, Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead; as the Apostle Paul puts it, Jesus is the first-fruits of a New Creation.
It is through the birth pangs of the Cross that the new birth Jesus talks about with Nicodemus in John 3 is made a living possibility. This new birth, accomplished by Jesus, is now accessible by us. As we access it, we provide hope for all of Creation.
In Romans 8, Paul makes clear that what God accomplished for Jesus in the glorification of his person and physical matter into a New Creation will be appropriated to apply to us, and by us, for all Creation. He writes in verses 22-25:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
In John 12:27-33, Jesus addresses a crowd after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and hints at his imminent death. He says,
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
With his unjust trial and cruel execution by Cross–a death the Romans reserved for traitorous scum–Jesus Christ exposes the rotten foundations of human civilization and the deep corruption within every human heart.
Like the serpent lifted up on a pole to transfix Israel’s gaze when they are wandering in the desert to heal them, as recounted in Exodus, Christ’s broken body is lifted up to transfix our gaze for our healing.
When we gaze at the innocent man who is beaten, mocked, stripped of clothing and dignity, who suffers cosmic thirst and abandonment for our behalf, who prays for the forgiveness of his enemies even as the pressure of gravity upon his hanging body slowly collapses his chest over his lungs so that every additional breath grows more pained and ragged–when we see all this, and realize that all of our human systems of justice and goodness are so much moral filth in the eyes of a Holy and Loving God because it could result in the death of the only truly innocent man in all history–then our eyes are truly opened, and our view of reality is forever changed
All human structures are built on the basis of power, the twisting of truth to serve power’s ends, and the employment of violence to secure power. As Thrasymachus retorted to Socrates, in the final analysis all human justice necessarily devolves to the rule of the strong over the weak.
All men are created equal–well, some men are only 3/5 equal. We are a capitalistic society that respects property rights–unless you area savage native whose tribe isn’t sufficiently developing its property.
Every great civilization harkens back to the myth of the noble founder on a great white horse, but we build these marble monuments to cover up the graves of forgotten innocents. The reminder of the basic violence and injustice that underpins our society would rudely intrude on the narrative of national greatness we have told ourselves, and would threaten to unravel the social order.
By becoming the ultimate victim, Jesus Christ gives each murdered innocent a face and a name. His unjust crucifixion is a divine indictment of all human empires and enterprises seeking their own good apart from the Sovereign Rule of God.
Those of us who see Christ crucified realize that this rot in all human systems reaches all the way down into our own hearts. At the sight of the innocent man crucifixed, we are transfixed by a sickening horror and dread at the sight of pure evil unmasked.
But mingled with that horror, we also experience awe, gratitude, and devotion. For we are also transfixed by the divine word of mercy offered at the Cross. Christ not only exposes the rotten foundations of human civilization–he also refounds a new civilization based on his ethic of co-suffering love.
As Luke 23:34 tells us, as Jesus Christ neared the end of his life, he prayed,
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The people continue mocking and sneering. But as time goes on, and as they continue to see him hanging there, something changes. There is a realization–this man is innocent. This man is Truth. This man is Goodness. This man is Love.
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land[l] until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.
Instead of accusation, Christ on the Cross offers advocacy. Instead of rivalry, Christ on the Cross offers brotherhood. Instead of violence, Christ on the Cross offers self-sacrifice. And instead of empire, Christ on the Cross offers the Kingdom of God.
As the Centurion looks at the spectacle, he confesses the innocence as Christ. As the bloodthirsty crowds gaze at Jesus on the Cross, they repent of their violence and beat their breasts.
The Revelation of God
As Hans Urs von Balthasar said,
“Being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, Christ upon the cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is.”
In John 1, the apostle claims that no one has ever seen God, but that in these last days we have seen him in the flesh in the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ.
This can be confusing. Didn’t Adam and Eve walk with God in the Garden? What about Abraham and Moses and Joshua’s and Isaiah? Didn’t they see God?
Clearly, John is saying that compared to the revelation of Christ, all prior revelations of God were helpful, trustworthy, and true, but incomplete. Jesus Christ is the full, complete, final, and clear revelation of who God is and what God is like.
The writer of Hebrews thinks similarly. In Hebrews 1:1-3, the writer says,
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.
This means that we cannot separate the attitude of God the Father from the work of God the Son on the Cross. Jesus on the Cross is not a picture of cosmic child abuse. Jesus on the Cross is a revealing portrait into the very heart of God–A Fiery Love that longs for you to be redeemed, sanctified, and glorified.
It may be tempting to elevate one of the views explained above as “the real atonement theory.” But that would be a mistake. To elevate one view as dominant over the others would be out of line with the multifaceted picture of the Cross presented in Scripture, and it would leave unexplored rich veins of theological treasure mined in church history. All of these dimensions of Christ’s reconciling work on the Cross must be held in harmony together under the framing glory of the Resurrection, so that we can possess a full, glorious picture of the Gospel.