Headlines are notoriously difficult to write. Even news editors who’ve been in the business for decades can struggle with the task. When you write a headline, you have to summarize the story in a few words, and do so in a way that hooks people and makes them want to keep reading. You have to be clear, concise, and captivating. You have to be journalistically accurate and grammatically correct. You have to be somewhat clever without being overly cute or trite. Above all, you have to be careful that you never communicate an unintended meaning—an oversight that, in the end, can make you look silly as a writer.
After looking at a few bad (and humorous!) headlines, this Christmas Eve message looks at a headline God doesn’t want anybody in the world to miss: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). That’s the message of Christmas, and it’s front-page stuff. It’s a banner story. It’s the best headline ever. It’s clear, concise, and captivating. It’s theologically accurate and doctrinally correct. And it’s still as exciting and relevant as when it was first hot off the press. It certainly was for Paul, who gives us an abbreviated testimony here. He gives us the scoop on himself.
Paul used to be a terrorist. He was the Osama bin Laden of his day. But the headline of Christmas radically changed his life. He writes in sheer wonder at the grace of God that was lavished on him despite his past: “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). He’s saying, “Folks, I’m Exhibit A of the grace of God. I deserved judgment; but in Christ I received mercy. I deserved punishment; but in Christ I received pardon. I deserved condemnation; but in Christ I received salvation. Essentially, Paul is saying, “If Christ can save someone like me, then he can save anyone!”
That’s the best headline ever. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. Christmas is for you, too—as long as you recognize you need a Savior. Indeed, Paul reminds us here that Jesus came to save us and show us that no one is beyond the grace of God. No wonder he ends his brief testimony with a doxology, a burst of praise: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17). Christmas made him thankful.
How about you? Are you grateful for Christmas—the birth of the Savior? The old Christmas carol puts it so well: “Where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.” So, do what Paul says here in this passage: “Believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).
“If life had a second edition,” wrote John Clair, “I would correct the proofs.” But as Steve Miller used to sing, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future.” No part of our lives can be un-lived or re-lived. That’s why guilt can be such debilitating factor in many people’s lives. Past failures can feel like a ball and chain around the soul. Is there a solution for such a spiritual bondage? There is indeed, and we get a glimpse of it in Zechariah 3.
God gave the prophet Zechariah a message for the Jews who had returned from exile, many of whom were trying to get back on track with the Lord. They, too, had a past that was filled with shame. In picture form, God gives them his promised solution for sin and the guilt that usually comes with it. It’s the picture of Joshua, a high priest, who has dirty clothes and therefore is disqualified from ministering in the temple. God’s solution is to rebuke Joshua’s accuser in court and give the priest a new set of garments: “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you” (Zechariah 3:4). Case dismissed!
But how can God unilaterally dismiss a case without sufficient grounds? Wouldn’t he be violating a sense of due process in his own courtroom? Wouldn’t he be violating the canons of earthly ethics and eternal justice? Wouldn’t he be appealing to a legal fiction to simply declare that Joshua is now both sin-free and guilt-free? No, not in this case, for God speaks of that which is “symbolic of things to come” (Zechariah 3:8)—a “servant,” a “branch,” and a “stone,” all terms that refer to the coming messiah.
God says, “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day” (Zechariah 3:9), and he did—on Good Friday. The case against God’s people is dismissed because God in Christ has paid their debt on the cross. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Apostle John wrote, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1). Indeed, when God is your advocate, all charges against you will be dropped.
No part of our lives can be unlived or re-lived, but we can still have a new life in Christ by faith. It’s a life in which not only are the charges against us dropped, but we are also sentenced to eternal life in the unrelenting love of God. That’s why we call it the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus Christ.
All the characters in this short letter get “squeezed” by the gospel. Onesimus gets squeezed by having to take responsibility for his crimes against Philemon and make an effort to be reconciled to him. Philemon gets squeezed by having to accept Onesimus back into his home after the whole family was offended by his departure. Paul gets squeezed by having to navigate the social customs of his day as well as the relational tension between two people he deeply cares about. It’s a classic case of triangulation, and the path forward for everyone is both challenging and awkward.
In this final message of the series, we look at who is doing the squeezing. If everyone in this situation gets squeezed, we have to ask, who does the squeezing? Who is putting the pressure on all the people involved? A careful reading of the passage shows us it’s the character who never comes on stage. He’s the silent showstopper who never delivers a line. He’s also the script writer and the wise director of the whole production.
Paul knows who he is. He writes to Philemon, “Perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 1:15-16). Philemon might have thought to himself, “Was separated?” What do you mean, “Was separated (passive voice)? The kid ran away (active voice)!”
Paul is introducing yet another character into the story. Not only does he introduce this additional character, he also introduces a higher purpose. Paul is essentially saying, “Philemon, I want you to consider something in this whole mess that you might not have considered up to this point. Someone came and parted Onesimus from you in order for a greater purpose to be served—namely that you get him back for good as a true believer and a brother in the Lord.” That someone is God himself.
Paul goes beyond all secondary causes of the situation right up to the primary cause of all situations—God himself. Paul understands that God is sovereign; he is above all circumstances, and yet he is in those circumstances at the same time—letting Philemon and Onesimus be parted for a greater ending to the story.
Grammatically, we call it “the divine passive.” That is, God is the agent behind the event, playing 3D chess in the world to bring about his perfect plan. Indeed, all the events of this world have their origin in—and are superintended by—the all-wise, infinitely good God whose name is “Love.” That means life is not a series of blind chances or accidents. God leverages the contingencies of this world, including its resident evil and the free choices of fallen human beings, to bring history to its rightful conclusion.
Peter brings these two paradoxical realities together in his Pentecost sermon: “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:23-24). God in his sovereignty used fee human choices to pull the greatest good in history out of the worst crime in history. The result was “God and sinners reconciled.” That’s the motivation for Philemon and Onesimus themselves to be reconciled.
Quite significantly, Paul tells Philemon, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (Philemon 1:18). That’s a tiny picture of the gospel. Onesimus has a debt toward Philemon he cannot pay, and Paul offers to pay it. Fallen human beings have a debt toward God we cannot pay, so Jesus offered to pay it. He was squeezed when he was on the cross, and what came out was pure love and forgiveness. May the same be true of us when we get squeezed.
The world cares very little about our Christian beliefs, but they cannot argue with a life beautifully lived. In Romans 12:17-21, the Apostle Paul shows us what a beautiful life looks like. He does so by giving us three instructions for when we’ve been personally wronged. But first, a caveat because this is one of those texts that gets over-applied by some people, under-applied by other people, and mis-applied by a lot of people.
When we look at the whole sweep of biblical teaching, there were three realms of response when it came to handling various wrongs that could be inflicted on people in a fallen world. The first realm was in times of international aggression (e.g., sieges, invasions, captivities, atrocities, etc.). God’s people were to seek divine guidance through their national security council (prophets, priests, and kings). Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give their national leaders an appropriate response.
The second realm was in times of criminal activity (e.g., thefts, kidnappings, rapes, murders, etc.). God’s people were to seek justice through their established legal system (laws and judges). Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give their judges his wisdom for a just settlement or resolution to a serious issue.
The third realm was in times of personal offense (e.g., slights, insults, disputes, insensitivities, etc.). God’s people were to seek relief through their own reconciliation efforts, beginning with extending personal forgiveness. Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give them the emotional support they needed to move beyond the offense. God wanted his people to handle these kinds of situations themselves and not clutter up the legal system with them. He modeled forgiveness for them, and he wanted his people to follow in his footsteps.
Romans 12:17-21 and other similar passages are meant to address personal offenses, not international aggression, or even criminal activity (cf. Rom 13:4), though reconciliation is always the goal. Paul says more about those kinds of situations in the next chapter—the state bearing the sword to punish wrong-doers, etc. But the passage at hand addresses personal offenses, not international aggression or even criminal activity.
Paul’s instructions in the case of personal offense are as follows. First, we do not try to settle the score ourselves. Second, we find ways to be kind to our offenders. And third, we trust that God will make things right in the end. This is how Jesus responded to the wrongs done to him when he was on the cross. Indeed, believers are never more like Christ than when we respond to personal offenses like Christ.When we live like this, we live beautifully, and we give the gospel credibility in this generation.
In Part 2 of our series, we put ourselves in the sandals of Philemon, the slave owner. As Paul’s letter unfolds, Philemon begins to get the point: “Your slave, Onesimus, who stole from you and ran away, is coming back. In fact, he’s standing outside the door right now.” And it’s obvious you’re being asked by the Apostle Paul to love him, forgive him, and reconcile with him—something totally unheard of in the first century. It’s Philemon’s turn now to be squeezed.
Philemon’s initial reaction would surely have been something like, “Paul, you want me to do what? If I go soft on Onesimus, my other slaves will be more inclined to run off now, too. I can’t allow that! And what about all the other slaves in Colossae? If I receive Onesimus back without any punishment, word will spread that Christianity turns you into a doormat that people can walk all over. The other Christian masters will despise me!”
“And what about gospel outreach? It’s tough enough trying to witness to Christ in this empire. After all, Romans despise love. To them it’s not a virtue; they mock it and sneer at it all the time.” Philemon has a lot to think about when he gets Paul’s letter. He knows firsthand that when Christians loved each other, the Romans thought they were crazy. We have ancient correspondence that says, “These Christians are so crazy, they love each other even before they’ve met.”
Into that atmosphere, you’re going to talk about a gospel of love and forgiveness? Even for slaves? That’s insanity! To the pagan world, slaves were just “living tools” or “breathing machines.” You don’t forgive your household tools; you simply use them and get rid of them whenever they stop working. So, it’s going to be tough for Philemon to try to explain to the other slave owners in Colossae why Onesimus isn’t getting branded, flogged, or punished in some other way.
The book of Philemon is for believers today, too. Indeed, the grace of God in Christ takes believers off one hook (i.e., the hook of eternal judgment) and places us on another hook (i.e., the hook of forgiving others as we ourselves have been forgiven). It was Jesus himself who taught his people to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In other words, to have been forgiven makes you a forgiver. That’s the consistent message throughout the New Testament.
But how do we forgive others who’ve hurt us, wounded us, betrayed us, or offended us in some significant way? And how do we go beyond mere forgiveness into the realm of genuine reconciliation? It takes a miracle. It takes Jesus—the one who is infinite love himself and has shed abroad his love in our hearts (Romans 5:5).
Ever since humanity “fell” in the garden back in Genesis 3, relationships have been difficult. Interactions with others can often be strained, awkward, and painful—sometimes even vicious or violent. But ever since Jesus died and rose again from the dead, relationships have been given new hope and a real potential for peace, sincerity, depth, and authenticity. It’s a long road back to the serenity of Eden, but it’s a road paved with the blood of Jesus Christ, so it’s a road worth traveling.
The Book of Philemon answers the broad question, “What does Christianity look like when it’s put into practice, especially as it pertains to relationships? What does our faith look like when it’s set in motion—not only in the Roman Empire of the first century, but also today—in the twenty-first century? Philemon gives us a partial answer, and it involves the spiritual practice of forgiveness. C. S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” He was right, and that’s why we sometimes feel squeezed in the Christian life. As recipients of forgiveness, we’re called to be distributors of it as well.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is only 355 words in the original Greek, but it carries a weight far beyond its length. Everyone here is being “squeezed.” Onesimus, the runaway slave is being squeezed. Philemon, the slave owner, is being squeezed. Even Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is being squeezed. Our focus in Part 1 is Onesimus, who shows us that the more we try to run from God and his ways, the more he puts the squeeze on us, pulling us back to himself. Moreover, Onesimus shows us that so often we run from one set of circumstances to another—trying to find true freedom and personhood—only to get imprisoned in our own escape routes.
The good news is that God does his squeezing with the gentle hands of love so his people will be conformed to the image of his Son. But the shaping can make us uncomfortable. We come to see that a change in circumstance doesn’t change who we are on the inside. Indeed, we discover that we can run from one set of circumstances to another—trying to find true freedom and personhood—only to get imprisoned in our own escape routes. Thankfully, the gospel of Jesus Christ re-humanizes us so we can flourish in this life, regardless of our circumstances. That’s because freedom is a mentality more than a locality.
The book of Philemon shows us that sometimes God doesn’t want our situation to change; he wants us to change in the situation. Such change is possible with the help of Jesus Christ, the one who died by crucifixion—a slave’s death—though he himself was completely innocent of all wrongdoing. Running to him is the only way to find a true and lasting freedom.
Do you believe it’s possible for God to delight in you? That he loves you? That he takes joy in you? That he treasures you? Many people say, “Not me” in response to such questions. “God could never delight in me. You don’t know where I’ve been, and you don’t know what I’ve done.”
Maybe not. But we do know where King David has been and what King David has done. For the most part, he was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), but he also committed adultery at one point during his reign. And then he arranged a murder to cover it up. He stumbled badly on several other occasions, too, leaving him with some awful red marks on an otherwise good report card.
And yet King David could write, “God rescued me because he delighted in me.” (2 Sam 22:17b). God didn’t delight in David’s sin, but he did delight in David. He was part of the covenant. So, believers today can dare to believe that God delights in us, too. In his famous Christmas carol “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley includes these heart-stirring lyrics:
Pleased as man with men to dwell Jesus, our Emmanuel.
The truth is, God is more excited about Christmas than we are! He sent his Son into the world for the ultimate rescue. Why? Because he delights in us. In this message, we look at four delights of God at Christmas:
God delights in SURPRISING us (Luke 2:6-9). God delights in SAVING us. (Luke 2:10-12). God delights in SATISFYING us (Luke 2:13-14). God delights in STIRRING us (Luke 2:15-20).
He does these things through his Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. He’s the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. He’s the Name above every name. He’s the blessed Redeemer, the Emmanuel—the God-with-us. He’s the Rescue for sinners, the Ransom from heaven. He’s the King of kings and Lord of lords. And he’s the only one who can remove those awful red marks from our report card. Trust in him so that your Christmas can be truly merry.
My birth certificate has always been as mysterious as President Obama’s. There are, to be sure, a lot fewer people in the world who are interested in my birth certificate than there were in his. Still, mine is crazy. For starters, there were three originals, and they all had different birth dates (March 30, March 31, and April 1). Second, the named father is not my biological father but the man who would have been my stepfather. And, third, a new birth certificate had to be issued after the “Decree of Abandonment” was signed by a Montgomery County judge:
“The court…finds that Henry Morucci [yes, that was my given name, but you’re not allowed to call me that!] was abandoned by his father…immediately following his birth and delivery of custody to the Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County, he never having seen the child, and after having been contacted by the Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County showed no further interest or desire to contact, see, or know the child in any manner whatsoever.”
That’s kind of cold to read, even after all these years. But the good news is that a completely different birth certificate was issued 13 months later when I was adopted by Carl and Cherie Valentino of Reading, Pennsylvania. Another signature by the judge—this time on a “Decree of Adoption”–changed everything:
“Hereafter the said Henry Morucci shall be in law the adopted child of the petitioners and shall have all the rights of a child and heir of the petitioners, and shall be subject to the duties of such child, and your petitioners further pray that the said child shall be known as Timothy Ray Valentino.”
If the decree of abandonment is a source of coldness, the decree of adoption is a source of comfort. In one single day, I got a new name, a new home, a new set of relatives, a new inheritance, and a new hope. In one single day, I got a whole new family!
So it is spiritually with the followers of Christ. The church in Scripture is referred to repeatedly as a “family.” That is, at one time we were spiritual orphans, but now in Christ we have been adopted as his children. And that changes everything.
Adoptions are expensive, and Jesus paid for ours on the cross with his own blood. In the process, we gained many spiritual relatives and a new spiritual inheritance. That’s a tremendous blessing and a tremendous challenge at the same time. In the end, we are reminded in this message that the church of Jesus Christ is a family of believers. Be a good brother or sister in the family!
One of the most tragic changes Christianity has experienced in the last 50 years is the minimizing of the centrality of the local church in the life of believers. The Lord’s Day used to be considered sacred. It was dedicated to the worship and service of God, but now it’s treated like any other day. And local church life, which was once considered indispensable to the Christian life, is now treated like an extra-curricular activity rather than an essential part of our spiritual formation.
In his book, Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life, Kent Hughes presents six images describing today’s “de-churching” trends—trends that are held even by those who wish to retain some sort of connection to the historic Christian faith:
Cafeteria (or Consumer) Christianity
It’s hard to square these images with the lofty vision of the church found in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 2:4-12, for example, the Apostle Peter sets his sights extremely high. He writes to 1st-century believers about their continued need for Jesus, their continued need for each other, and their continued need for a genuine spiritual commitment. He knows they won’t make it or be effective in this world without these three things. In this message, we learn that the people of God are living stones being built together by Jesus Christ to reverse a crumbling world. Masonry imagery is used to describe both Christ and the church he is building:
Jesus is the living stone. (4a)
Jesus is the rejected stone. (4b, 7a)
Jesus is the chosen stone. (4c, 6a)
Jesus is the precious stone. (4d, 6a)
Jesus is the cornerstone. (6a, 7a)
Jesus is the capstone. (7b)
Jesus is the stumbling stone. (8)
Jesus is the coming stone. (12)
To the masonry image, Peter adds the temple and priesthood metaphor in his description of the church:
We are living stones. (5a)
We are a spiritual house in progress. (5b)
We are worshippers with direct access to God. (5c)
We are a chosen people. (9a)
We are a royal priesthood. (9b)
We are a holy nation. (9c)
We are a people belonging to God. (9d)
We are a people of praise. (9e)
We are a people called out of darkness into light. (9f)
We are the recipients of divine mercy. (10)
We are aliens and strangers in the world. (12)
Peter cites numerous Old Testament passages to make his case. He calls the people of God to live good lives and subdue the war around us (v. 12). But for that to happen, the church must also live godly lives and subdue the war within us (v. 11). The challenge is great, which is why drive-through Christianity doesn’t cut it.
Jesus’ empty tomb sends people running on that first Easter Sunday. Everyone is dashing through the cemetery, but why? They’re running to find answers to their questions and help with their confusion. They don’t know why Jesus’ body is not where they had put it the day before. The confusion is understandable. If I were to go to the gravesite of my parents, and I saw nothing but a big hole in the ground with no vaults or caskets, I’d be asking questions, too.
So, the disciples are running around confused. Most of them are slow to believe in the resurrection—despite the fact that Jesus had said repeatedly it would happen. But here is the good news for them (and us): every time the risen Christ meets people after the resurrection, he helps them to believe in him. That’s amazing because the last time Jesus saw these guys in action, they were blowing it big time. They were denying and deserting him. But when Jesus finally appears to them face-to-face, there’s not a word of rebuke on his lips. Correction, yes, but not rebuke. Quite the opposite. He helps them believe.
In fact, the risen Christ deals with all of his followers personally and uniquely—according to their own needs, experiences, weaknesses, and hard-wiring. The attentiveness of Jesus to everyone in this story is remarkable. And what was true 2,000 years ago is still true today: Jesus gives people time and space to wrestle with—and then plenty of reasons to rest in—his resurrection from the dead. Consider the figures mentioned in John 20, and how Jesus interacts with them—both before and after his resurrection:
JOHN is the portrait of an EASY-COMING faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need significance in my life.” And John discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new identity and purpose. PETER is the portrait of a GUILT-RIDDEN faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need forgiveness for my sins.” And Peter discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new freedom and power.
MARY MAGDALENE is the portrait of a GRIEF-STRICKEN faith. Her personal struggle seems to be, “I need comfort for my despair.” And Mary discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new intimacy and hope. THOMAS is the portrait of a SHOW-ME faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need irrefutable evidence to believe.” And Thomas discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new assurance and confidence.
Because of his humility, Jesus does not coerce faith, but because of his authority, he deserves it. The risen Christ still gives open-minded and tender-hearted people what they need to believe in him. What is it that you still need to believe?
In his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus achieved something that God the Father recognized, namely, humanity’s sin crisis was rectified once and for all. To use longstanding theological categories, the atonement was objective (i.e., directed toward God), not merely subjective (directed toward humanity). The reason the atonement can be viewed objectively is because the New Testament presents Jesus as God’s acceptable representativeof—and chosen substitutefor—all humanity:
Christ died for the ungodly (Rom 5:6).
Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).
Christ died for our sins (1 Cor 15:3).
God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Cor 5:21).
…who gave himself for our sins (Gal 1:4).
…who gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13).
…who gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim 2:6).
Christ suffered for you (1 Pet 2:21).
Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet 3:18).
Historic Christian orthodoxy has largely understood the “for” in these verses as “in the place of.” That is, the atonement involved the substitution of Christ “for” or “in the place of” the sinner. As the old hymn by Phillip Bliss (1838-1876) puts it:
Bearing shame and mocking rude, In my place condemned he stood.
This essay seeks to explore the legitimacy of understanding substitution as one facet of the atonement diamond. As N. T. Wright said on a recent podcast, care must be taken when presenting the atonement in such a way. To paraphrase his comment, we preachers don’t want to find ourselves in a position of saying, “For God so hated the world that he killed his only Son.” Such a proposition would be a travesty, which is where we will begin our analysis.
The Cross—A Travesty of Justice?
Substitution is not the only legitimate image of the atonement, but it certainly is prominent in both the Old and New Testaments. An animal in the Garden of Eden dies so that Adam and Eve don’t have to. A ram in the thicket dies so that Isaac doesn’t have to. A Passover lamb dies so that the firstborn doesn’t have to. Two Yom Kippur goats die so that the nation of Israel doesn’t have to. The entire sacrificial system is built on the concepts of propitiation and expiation. Animal substitutes die so that humans alienated from God may live. In Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), animal sacrifices give way to the ultimate substitute, the Son of God (cf. Heb 10:4).
Nevertheless, this understanding of Jesus’ death has been widely criticized in recent years. The rationalistic Professor at Oxford University, Sir A. J. Ayer once called the idea of substitutionary atonement “intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous.” The common objection of unbelievers usually goes something like this: “I can’t possibly believe in a God who has to see blood before he can forgive sin.” To the contemporary mind, the very idea is offensive, disgusting, primitive, and obscene. Even believers, when we ponder the issues surrounding forgiveness via the cross, we have to admit it’s an extraordinary claim we’re making. In some ways, it’s scandalous (cf. 1 Cor 1:23).
That God should victimize the innocent Jesus in order to acquit the guilty sinner is seen to be a travesty of justice. It seems to attribute to the court of heaven a more monstrous corruption than the court of Pilate. At least Pilate resented the crowd’s cry to execute Christ rather than Barabbas. Even though he eventually yielded to it, he didn’t like it. But the Bible goes out of its way to suggest that God planned the cross as a similar kind of judicial exchange. Isaiah 53:10a says, bluntly, “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” Indeed, the whole thrust of Isaiah 53:4-6 features substitutionary language:
4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Victimizing the innocent in order to acquit the guilty—that’s what scandalizes people. But it’s not just unbelievers who make this objection anymore. In the last few decades, even some believers have begun to describe the concept of substitution as “divine child abuse.” As such, we can’t understand the cross as “penal substitution,” they say. That which is so predominantly advanced in Scripture has to be re-thought now because people don’t like it, and we’ve gotten it wrong for so long. Consequently, alternative views of the cross have been elevated in our day, including subjective or “moral influence” theories. Why? Because they’re far less offensive to contemporary sensibilities.
The Cross—Just an Example?
The purpose of the cross, they say, is for God to provoke some sort of emotional impact in us, or moral influence on us. In other words, when we look at the cross, we feel conscience-stricken about our failures, and we determine to live our lives as better people as a result. So, the cross is our example to live well and to do good. It’s our model for living a more selfless, self-sacrificial, and non-retaliatory life. That’s the purpose of the cross, it is proposed, and that’s why, ultimately, it “works.” That’s why God honored his Son’s sacrifice with a resurrection to follow.
There is indeed some truth to this view. Christ’s behavior on the cross is explicitly described as an example for believers in 1 Peter 2:21-23:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you anexample, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
When we look at the cross and see what Christ did there, we can’t help but be moved by the depth of his love and sacrifice on our behalf. It has emotional power in and of itself.
The Cross—More Than an Example
But the cross is much more than an example for humanity. Peter goes on to say of Jesus in the same passage, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24a). That is, he didn’t just die to show us how to live. Indeed, if the cross is not more than an example, then we have to conclude that Jesus saw his death as little more than a form of emotional blackmail. His intent was to get us to behave in a certain way by making us sad about his ordeal or sad about ourselves. Such a view, however, puts the cross of Christ into the same category as a political hunger strike.
Do we really want to suggest that Jesus intends to manipulate us into being better people by this kind of emotional lever—a histrionic gesture that achieves nothing but embarrassing those of us who have to watch it? If so, that could rightly be considered an immoral influence. Moreover, viewing the cross in this way not only reduces it to a form of crass manipulation, it renders the theory hopelessly incoherent. Yes, the death of Jesus can serve as an example to us, but the cross must first have a real (objective) value in order for it to have any personal (subjective) value. Why is this the case?
Imagine seeing a man standing on top of a tall building, and hearing him yell, “I love you all, and to prove how much I love you, I’m going to jump from this building and die for you.” Would you go home saying, “Wow, I saw a most wonderful demonstration of love today”? Or, “I saw a man die for me today”? No, you’d go home saying, “I saw a mentally disturbed man jump to his death today. How sad.” And you’d be right, because unless some objective benefit flows out of that death to somebody else, it can’t be considered a moral example. It is more rightly considered a tragic display of lunacy. On the other hand:
If I were drowning out in the middle of a frigid lake, and somebody jumped into the icy water to save me, drowning in the process himself, then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
Or if I were a terminal cardiac patient in a hospital and needed a transplant, and someone stepped in and said, “I’ll give you my heart so that you can live,” then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
Or if I were on death row expecting execution at dawn, and someone stole into my cell the night before and said, “I’ll take your place on the gallows tomorrow,” then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
There has to be some real situation of danger in which I am placed, and some real, objective benefit flowing to me out of the other person’s death. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense to say that the other person died for me. In the same way, we can only have a subjective view of Jesus’ death if there’s an objective benefit preceding it. Otherwise, the death of Christ for me is incoherent.
The Cross—Where the Punishment Really Falls
Still, people object to this view of the cross—that it was a substitutionary sacrifice—because they think it portrays God as a spiteful and ruthless monster. He comes across as a deity who punishes an innocent third party in order to satisfy his insatiable lust for revenge that he has somewhere in his heart. He’s like a rogue soldier who executes innocent civilians who aren’t even part of the battle. We’re outraged when something like that happens, and rightly so. Punishing the innocent is no virtue.
Those who criticize an objective, substitutionary view of the cross say it portrays God like that—punishing an innocent third party so that the guilty can go free. But that’s a caricature and gross misrepresentation of what the Scriptures teach. According to the New Testament, and according to Jesus’ own self-understanding, Christ is not a third party. Of course God could not take an innocent man and arbitrarily make him a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. That would have been a total miscarriage of justice. But what the New Testament dares to suggest to us is that at the cross, God did not arbitrarily punish an innocent third party; he deliberately punished himself.
Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus said, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus is called, “Emmanuel,” God with us—God in human flesh (Matt 1:23). So, Jesus is not some innocent third party. He’s innocent, all right, but he’s not a third party. He’s the first party. Consequently, when we look at the cross, we shouldn’t think of Jesus as being there doing all the work in isolation, with God the Father being somewhere far away—totally disinterested in what’s happening, or totally unaffected by it (cf. Hos 11:8c). No, Paul said that at the cross, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19; cf. Gen 15:17-18a).
The Father was right there “taking it on the chin,” so to speak, as his own Son bled and died for humanity. God in Christ took full responsibility for human sin, even though it obviously wasn’t hissin. That’s why Acts 20:28 refers to “God’s own blood.” In God’s mind, divine blood shed is the price required for divine forgiveness granted. God did not sweep humanity’s sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with his adult Son’s permission (cf. John 12:27; Mark 14:32-42; Matt 26:52-54; Heb 10:5-7). This can hardly be considered divine “child abuse.” It’s more akin to the brave and noble soldier going off to war and giving his life in battle for the sake of his fellow citizens.
The Cross—God’s Instrument of Reconciliation
We sometimes assume it should be easy for God to forgive sin. After all, when does God ever have to break a sweat to do anything? Besides, isn’t it God’s job to forgive sin? It’s just what he does, right? God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Why then can’t he likewise say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and there is forgiveness? In short, why is forgiveness not by divine fiat?
Historically, the former statement, “Let there be light,” has always been seen as entailing no breach of God’s nature or ways. God is creator, and God is light. The latter statement, however, “Let there be forgiveness,” has often been seen as entailing a potential violation of at least some aspect of God’s nature and ways. God is holy, so sin must be punished. God is love, so sin must be pardoned. Herein lies the dilemma, and one that doesn’t seem to have an easy resolution. God must always be true to his own nature; otherwise, he cannot be God.
So, in the end, will God’s justice lead to the condemnation of sinners, or will God’s grace lead to the forgiveness of sinners? Is there a way for God to cut this Gordian knot, admittedly of his own making (by virtue of the fact that he created a race he knew would rebel against him)? Is there a morally acceptable way for him to separate sinners from their sin so that he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all his attributes perfectly intact?
However the issue is resolved, one can surely say that if forgiveness is by divine fiat alone, it renders the cross of Christ little more than a foolish waste. As Paul writes (in a related but slightly different context), “If righteousness could be attained through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal 2:21). That the eternal Son of God should come to earth and deliberately squander his life in crucifixion—which he had the power to prevent—for no objective gain or benefit is unthinkable.
It appears, then, that there is a divine necessity to the cross. Hebrews 8:3 says, “Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one [Jesus] also to have something to offer.” Moreover, Hebrews 9:23 says, “It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these” (Heb 9:23). In God’s mind, the cross of Christ was objectively essential to the full grant of divine forgiveness.
But how does the cross of Christ effect the final atonement that God accepts? How and why does the cross “work”? The dilemma is acute. If God overlooks evil, it’s as good as saying morality doesn’t matter in his universe after all. His righteousness would be undermined by his own neglect and inconsistency. Moreover, God would be open to the charge of moral apathy. But that is an accusation God cannot allow to pass unchallenged. His moral consistency must remain flawless and unimpeachable. He must always act justly, or the very idea of righteousness loses its meaning.
And that is why forgiveness can be said to be “difficult” for him—if we dare speak of deity in such terms. Forgiveness is “difficult” precisely because it is not easily distinguishable from moral indifference. How could one tell the difference between a God who forgives sin and one who couldn’t care less about it? If goodness is to mean anything in his universe, it is absolutely necessary that God’s righteousness should be beyond dispute. God must, in some way, dissociate himself personally from evil in this world. He must make a clear stand against it. If he doesn’t, then all moral standards and values are themselves called into question. So, how is forgiveness possible if God is to remain righteous? It is possible because no dilemma is bigger than God. Consider a similar dilemma in earthly terms.
Jack and Jill were married. They had been living together for several years, and everything seemed perfect. But then along came Joe, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, muscle-bound boy with an English accent and a bronze tan. Jill became infatuated with him, so one day, quite suddenly, she walked out and left her husband Jack so she could go be with Joe. Six months passed—six months in which Jack spent a good deal of time weeping inconsolably. But eventually, he pulled himself together. He decided that he was better off living alone and tried his best to put Jill out of his mind.
Then, as suddenly as Jill had departed, there she was again—on the doorstep now, luggage in hand. Things hadn’t worked out with Joe. She discovered that her English hunk had a mean streak and a wandering eye, so the infatuation fizzled. She wanted to apologize to Jack and make amends. She wanted things to go back to the way they were. She wanted to come home. All this she communicates to Jack while standing on the stoop.
The question at this point is this: “What is Jack going to do?” What would you do? It’s possible that Jack’s love for Jill has died—murdered by the cruel stab in the back of her betrayal and desertion. Perhaps he now just feels emotionally numb to the relationship. If so, his reaction to Jill’s appeal is going to be one of total indifference. “Well, you can come in and collect the rest of your stuff if you want, but that’s it. I couldn’t care less about you or anybody else anymore. I’m done with women. I’m done with marriage. I just want to be left alone.”
Another possibility is that Jack is still fuming with inner rage, his sense of honor scalded by his wife’s callous infidelity. If that’s the situation, he might well lose his temper and scream, “How dare you come back to me! Get out, you wretched woman! I don’t ever want to see you again! Go to hell!” Both scenarios are real possibilities.
But what if Jack’s love for Jill is still burning within his heart? What if he has long dreamed of their reconciliation? What if he wants to be with her again? How would he react then? He can’t fake indifference; he cares about her too deeply. He can’t pretend he isn’t angry, because he is, and he has every right to be. Yet, he can’t tell Jill to get lost either, because he desperately wants her to stay. So, what does he do?
For Jack to be true to himself, he has to say something like this: “I still love you, Jill. And I do want you back. I’ve longed for you to come back. In fact, it’s my heart’s desire that we be together again. But you have to understand how much you’ve angered me and hurt me by what you’ve done. Your betrayal caused me deep personal pain and great public humiliation. I was devastated by it. And I’ve never felt so dishonored in all my life. You really hurt me.”
If there is to be any chance of their relationship being restored, Jack must find the inner resources to absorb the injury that Jill has inflicted on him. His love must be large enough to overcome his indignation. His grace must be deep enough to swallow his own dishonor. His mercy must be great enough to accept the pain associated with extending the hand of reconciliation toward his wayward wife. For Jack to forgive Jill, he has to be willing to suffer whatever pain there may be in not exacting vengeance, drinking instead the bitter cup himself.
While this may not be a perfect illustration, according to the New testament, something like that is happening on the cross. We have deserted God, as Jill had deserted Jack. We have angered God as Jill had angered Jack. We have dishonored God as Jill had dishonored Jack. We have broken God’s law, and, more to the point, we have broken his heart. We have sinned against him—every one of us. And, as a result, God could have turned the cold shoulder of indifference toward us. Or he could have, with perfect justice, vented his wrath toward us and told us to go to hell.
But here is good news that spells hope for the world. God’s divine heart yearns for reconciliation. He does not want to give us up (cf. Hos 11:8), so he says to humanity, “I love you, and I want you back. My deepest desire is that we have a true and lasting relationship once again. I want genuine reconciliation. But you have to realize how much you’ve dishonored me by what you’ve done. That’s all I ask. Just come back to me humbly, and grace will be yours in abundance—and we can be together again. I am willing to swallow the pain myself to make it happen.”
Do we realize the cost of human reconciliation with God? Do we need to see it spelled out in dramatic form? If so, look at the cross, for it’s there we see the God of the universe allowing his heart to be ravaged by the sin of this world. There we see the cataclysmic collision of divine attributes—holiness and love, justice and mercy, righteousness and grace—all resolving themselves in mutual satisfaction until there is a just and settled peace in the violent death of his beloved Son.
When we look at the cross, no one can accuse God of moral indifference now. As Paul argues in the book of Romans, the cross of Christ demonstrates the righteousness of God, not simply the grace of God. All things are properly settled now. As gruesome as it may be to consider, the bruised and bleeding Jesus—humanity’s perfect substitute—became the focal point of God’s revulsion toward sin. Here, then, is the gospel at its core. For those who embrace Jesus as their substitute, no divine revulsion remains. Humanity’s sin crisis has been rectified once and for all.
Conclusion: The Death of Christ—It Is For Us
On one occasion, Jesus said to his disciples, “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Additionally, the Apostle Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The cross, then, is good news for a fallen race. A great transaction took place there that God the Father accepted. He planned it, authorized it, carried it out, and honored it. That transaction is this: God treated Jesus as we deserved so that he could treat us as Jesus deserved.Whatever else the cross may entail, it surely entails the concept of substitution. As Charitie Lees Bancroft (1841-1892) wrote:
When Satan tempts me to despair And tells me of the guilt within Upward I look and see Him there Who made an end of all my sin Because the sinless Savior died My sinful soul is counted free For God the just is satisfied To look on Him and pardon me
Luke Garrett (1959-2016) captured the same theological truth in his song, “Wondrous Exchange”:
The victim on a cross of execution The Lamb of God that sacrificed his life And the sky grew dark, and the rain poured down The price of my redemption was so high
For on that hill was done the great transaction As God paid out the ransom for my sin I can walk away; I am truly free From the prison and the hell my life had been
A wondrous exchange A wondrous exchange An offer so great I can scarcely believe His crown for my shame His loss for my gain His death for my life What a wondrous exchange
The objective dimension of Christ’ redeeming work on the cross opens up a wide variety of legitimate subjective expressions of its efficacy and impact on believers and their spiritual lives.
In his book The Cross of Christ, John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) writes, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” In similar fashion, Edward Shillito (1872-1948) wrote in his poem “Jesus of the Scars”:
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Finally, the subjective impact of Christ’s objective atonement is illustrated well in the famous hymn by Horatio Spafford (1828-1888), “It Is Well with My Soul”:
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought— My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
The atonement is objective before it is subjective—and that is precisely what gives its subjective dimension so much power for the church in every age. Because Jesus is our substitute, we love him and want to follow his example.
Image Credits: gettyimage.com; gerhardy.id.au.
Parts of this essay were informed by the writings of John Stott, William Lane Craig, Roy Clements, and others who have written on atonement theory.
It all started in the garden of Eden. One man—made in the image of God—has the privilege of walking with God, talking with God, and enjoying God. His Hebrew name is Adam, which means “humanity.” He is the fountainhead of the human race, and he represents all of us. In this garden, Adam has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and all will be well, or say “no” to God, and all will be lost. As the story goes, Adam says “no” to God. In effect, he says to him, “Not thy will but mine be done.” As a result, his paradise is blitzed, the ground beneath him is cursed, and humanity is born again backwards into the darkness. Weeds of alienation start springing up everywhere. Humans are alienated from themselves, from each other, from creation, and from God himself. They’re naked and ashamed, hiding in fear.
But it’s a gracious God who seeks them out. Though he was the one dishonored, God pursues Adam and his wife to start repairing the mess they had made. He replaces the fig leaves they made to cover their nakedness, giving them instead garments of skin to wear (Gen 1:21), a more suitable covering than what they had crafted with their hands. But in order for Adam and Eve to wear garments of skin, God had to take the life of one of his own creatures to make it happen. Somewhere in Eden, then, there lies a dead animal carcass so that Adam and Eve can be spared the death sentence for their cosmic treason. As such, we are introduced on the earliest pages of the Bible to the theological concept of substitution—one dying so another can live.
If that weren’t enough, God gives them a word of hope, a prediction. He speaks of a man who will someday come to crush the head of the serpent, the creature that enticed the first couple to say “no” to God in the first place. In the process, the man will suffer a devastating wound. It’s the first hint in Scripture of the sacrificial death of Messiah to come, but God is determined to see human sin atoned permanently. And so, we wait. For thousands of years, we wait until we find ourselves in another garden. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is “the Last Adam” and the fountainhead of a new human race. In this garden, Jesus also has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and humanity will be rescued, or say “no” to God, and humanity will stay ruined. Thankfully, where Adam said, “Not thy will but mine be done,” Jesus says to his Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” Gethsemane, then, is reversing the misfortunes of Eden, as the next day, Jesus goes to the tree of death to give us back the tree of life. He becomes the carcass in the garden.
But why was the cross of Christ necessary for our salvation? Why did Jesus have to die? Why is forgiveness not by divine decree? If God can say, “Let there be light,” and it was so, why could he not also say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and it was so? Historically, the former statement has been seen as entailing no violation of God’s nature or ways. The latter, however, has been seen as a violation of at least some of his attributes. On the one hand, God’s holiness and justice require the condemnation of sinners. One the other hand, God’s mercy and grace require the forgiveness of sinners. Which will it be? Is there not a “divine dilemma” here demanding resolution? Is there a way for God to separate sinners from their sin so he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all of his attributes perfectly intact?
In addition to connecting the dots from Eden to Gethsemane, this message explores how the cross is God’s crowbar that separates sinners from their sin, allowing them to be forgiven. Indeed, on the cross, God’s holiness and justice are satisfied (sin is condemned), and God’s mercy and grace are realized (sinners are forgiven). God did not sweep human sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with the adult Son’s permission. On the cross, then, God’s attributes “collide” and find their mutual resolution in the death of Jesus Christ. And the restoration of Eden begins.
Last night I sinned. Multiple times. My son and son-in-law were with me at the time. They sinned, too, and we all had a great time doing it. Let me explain. We were celebrating my son-in-law’s birthday, so we went to a shooting range before dinner, cake, and gift giving. It’s something Micah enjoys, though he doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to do it, so we surprised him with a round at Enck’s Gun Barn. My son Drew also has more experience than I do in this area, making me the rookie of the bunch.
I’ve shot pistols before, but only a few times in the distant past and only at Coke cans set up in the woods near my brother-in-law’s house in North Carolina. Last night we used a rifle—a Ruger AR-556, which is considerably louder than a pistol, though the kickback isn’t bad at all. Given my lack of experience, I was hoping to just get my shots on the paper target!
I didn’t get a bullseye this time, but all my shots were inside the 8 and 9 rings, and one even nicked the center circle. Not bad for a beginner. But all three of us kept missing the mark, which is one of the biblical metaphors for sin. There are many other images, too, but this one is prominent.
Judges 20:15-16 says, “At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].”
The word ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ is a general word for sin, usually having the sense of missing the mark, going astray, offending, or ignoring something required by God’s law (e.g., Gen 40:1; Jdgs 20:16; Neh 13:26; etc.). It can also mean “sin offering” (e.g., Exod 29:4).
King David prays in Psalm 51:2, “Cleanse me [ṭāhēr] from my sin [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].” The word ṭāhēr means to “be clean,” “cleanse,” “purify,” or “pronounce clean,” as from a defiling condition. It can have a ritual context (e.g., Lev 11:32), or it can refer to the actual cleansing of impurities (e.g., Naaman’s leprosy in 2 Kgs 5:10).
It can also refer to the removal of impurities from metal (e.g., refined gold and silver in Mal 3:3). Therefore, the word does not necessarily have a sacramental connotation (contra Goldingay, etc.) or even a ceremonial connotation (contra Wilson, the ESV Study Bible, etc.). Indeed, David’s hope of forgiveness rests on nothing ceremonial (cf. vv. 16-17). The sense of his prayer in v. 2 is, “Purify me from my defiling sin.”
Because of his mercy, grace, and compassion (Ps 51:1), God can certainly do that. And because David came to him humbly, he did. “The Lord has taken away your sin,” said Nathan the prophet. You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12:13-14). David later wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven” (Ps 32:1).
Interestingly enough, all three of us last night were landing our initial shots low and to the right of the bullseye. That would seem to suggest a sighting issue on the gun. Our Range Safety Officer (RSO) helped us make the necessary adjustments to shoot more accurately. He also helped me with my stance and positioning vis-à-vis the target. He was patient, kind, and supportive, not condescending at all toward this novice.
Probably my biggest challenge as a shooter is the fact that I’m left-eye dominant trying to shoot from a right hander’s position. My impulse, then, is to use my left eye to align the sights, but that doesn’t work when you’re pressing your right cheek to the gun stock. Here again, the RSO was perceptive and gave me some suggestions to help me “not sin.”
Our night at the range caused me to think about the fact that we’re in this spiritual journey together. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), which is why judging and condescension are out of place in the Christian life. Smug self-righteousness is just a way to justify our anger at other people because they sin differently than we do.
Our natural misalignments and daily temptations to “miss the mark” don’t go away when others scold us, humiliate us, or impose their asceticisms on us (Col 2:21-23). They tend to dissipate when those with a little more experience help us learn how to aim higher.
We are pilgrims on a journey We are brothers on the road We are here to help each other Walk the mile and bear the load
The RSO actually showed me last night how to be a better pastor. Lord knows, I need ongoing training.
If you knew you had only two weeks to live, what would you do? Where would you go? How would you spend your time? With whom would you spend it? What would be the final experience you give yourself before exiting this life and entering the next? Most people (believers included) would spin out scenarios that focus on their own interests, desires, or pleasures. It’s a natural and understandable impulse. By the time Jesus encounters Zacchaeus in Luke 19, he has less than two weeks to live before dying on the cross, and he knows it. But what do we see him doing? We see him focusing his time on “the priority of one.” And the one that Jesus focuses on is the chief tax collector of Jericho! No one was more despised or vilified than the wealthy Zacchaeus. Matthew was a garden variety tax collector, but Zacchaeus was his boss. He cheated the cheaters!
So, this famous story isn’t just about a mafia thug, it’s about a mafia don—the godfather of the first century. In fact, the rabbis in that day said, “A tax collector could never be saved. It would take a lifetime of lifetimes for him to repent of all his sins.” Jesus didn’t agree with them on that point, so he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, causing everybody to “mutter” (Luke 19:7). But it was an encounter that changed Zacchaeus’ life. Indeed, Zacchaeus received Jesus into his home, and somewhere during the visit, he received Jesus into his heart, too. The story is rich with insights about: (1) the gospel message (i.e., how the lost can be found); and (2) the gospel mission (i.e., how the found can impact the lost). It’s a story that teaches not only that God can save anybody, but also that God—and the godly—are on the lookout for the lost.
Quite significantly, in the previous chapter, a rich young ruler comes to Jesus, wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man doesn’t like Jesus’ answer, so he goes away dejected. His wealth had become an idol to him, and Jesus tells him to smash his idol and follow him. The man won’t do it. So, Jesus declares as the man is walking away, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). But those who heard him say it asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). Hear the panic in their question! The rich young ruler was a man of status and wealth, so he was assumed by most people to have been unusually blessed by God. If he can’t be saved, then who can be? The shocking truth is that Zacchaeus can be saved. In fact, Zacchaeus is the camel that Jesus got through the eye of the needle! “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Listeners are therefore challenged at the beginning of this new year to pray:
Lord, lay some soul upon my heart, And love that soul through me; And may I bravely do my part To win that soul for Thee.
There are two main words in the Old Testament for “forgiveness,” and they’re usually translated in the semantic range or cluster of “pardon” / “pardoned” / “forgive” / “forgiveness” / “forgiven” / “forgiving.” Together they form a mega-them in the Hebrew Bible. The two words are nāśā and sālǎḥ.
The first word is transliterated nāśā.
The word nāśā (accent on the second syllable, with the vowel sounding like the word “ah’”) means “the taking away, forgiveness or pardon of sin, iniquity, and transgression.” So characteristic is this action of taking away sin that it is listed as one of God’s attributes (e.g., Exod 34:7; Num 14:18, Mic 7:18).
Sin can be forgiven and forgotten by God because it is “taken up and carried away.” In Exodus 32:32, 34:7, Numbers 14:18, 1 Samuel 15:25, Job 7:21, and Micah 7:18, nāśā means “take away guilt, iniquity, transgression, etc.” (i.e., “forgive” or “pardon”). Micah 7:18-19 contains these wonderful words:
Who is a God like you, who pardons [nāśā] sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
This passage reveals that no angel or human has a character so willing to pardon wickedness done against himself or others as God does. Micah 7:18 says that God delights in showing mercy. This means he enjoys doing it. He does not pardon our sins in a begrudging way. Verse 19 here shows how far God removes our sins from us. He figuratively hurls them into the depths of the sea.
The second word is transliterated sālǎḥ.
The word sālǎḥ (accent on the second syllable, same vowel sound as nāśā, hard “ch” ending as in “Bach”) is used of God’s offer of pardon and forgiveness to the sinner. Never does this word in any of its forms refer to people forgiving each other (e.g., Exod 34:9; Num 14:19-20; 2 Kgs 5:18, 24:4; Ps 25:11; Isa 55:7; Jer 5:1, 7, 33:8, 50:20; Lam 3:42). It is exclusively a divine action.
Sālǎḥ removes guilt associated with a moral sin or wrongdoing connected to a ritual or vow. Isaiah 55:7 reveals that God calls individuals to turn from their known sinful ways and thoughts to him so that their sins may be pardoned:
Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon [sālǎḥ].
And now let us add a New Testament (Greek) word to the mix:
The Greek word is transliterated Iēsous.
Iēsous (ee-YAY-soos) is a proper noun that comes into English as “Jesus,” which is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “the Lord saves.” Matthew 1:21 says:
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus [Iēsous], because he will save his people from their sins.
According to the New Testament, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the Creator and Savior of the world, the founder of Christianity, and the sinless exemplar of the nature and ways of God. Since the name was common in his lifetime, he was usually referred to in a more specific way, such as “Jesus of Nazareth” (e.g., John 1:26).
“Christ,” which means “the anointed one,” is a title acknowledging that Jesus was the expected Messiah of Israel. In the Gospels, Jesus is usually identified as “the Christ” (e.g., Matt 16:16). After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:38, he was usually referred to as “Jesus Christ.” This composite name joins the historic figure with the messianic role that prophetic expectation and early Christianity knew he possessed.
In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is anointed by a sinful woman in the presence of Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader in first-century Israel. The scene is provocative and scandalous for its day, but the encounter ends like this in vv. 48-49:
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
That’s the right question to ask. Jesus Christ is the embodied forgiveness of God. He is nāśā and sālǎḥ in the flesh.