In light of Good Friday, does it matter that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah?
I suspect that for many who are lovingly observe this day, the answer is no. Christ died for our sins in the sense that the debt of our transgressions required a corresponding payment. This required a guiltless man, and any guiltless man would do. When ‘payday’ came, he could have been Senegalese, Anglo-Saxon or a member of the Inuit tribe- just as long as he was sinless. Why not?
Of course Jesus was Jewish. I get that; but would it have made a difference, if God had chosen to become incarnate, say, in a Viking chieftain, who traveled down to Jerusalem just in time to come under Pilate’s sentence? For that matter, could the Chieftain have made atonement by dying in Norway?
My understanding of the atonement was once more abstract, non-historical and (for lack of a better word) mechanistic. I believed that justice requires so much suffering to balance the books. Either the books or the compensating suffering then obligate God to pass a certain sentence. Its as if the precise weight of individual sins requires a critical mass to move the finely machined gears of justice. Once Christ ‘pulled that lever,’ the whole thing gets into motion and the sins of the world are ‘dealt with.’ God is free- no, compelled to forgive.
In this view God wants to act, but there are rules that need to be overcome first. Dealing with sin means taking care of that ‘paperwork.’ I realize that will seem an unfair characterization, but it seems the case that according to popular theories Law- not sovereign love- is the ultimate reality. Ask yourself, why did he have to die?
I’ve come to believe that St. Paul’s understanding of the cross is much less theoretical. It is rooted in the actual history of Israel, and it depends on Jesus being the Christ, the Messiah, the King of Israel.
I think it goes like this:
Israel was called for the sake of the world (e.g. Gen 12:3). Counterintuitively (because of our idolatrous notions of divinity), to be ‘the elect’ of God is to be used up for another. This is because this particular god eternally exists by giving himself away: Father begetting; Son begotten, and Spirit proceeding. This ‘self-giving’ was Adam’s calling as God’s image bearer. It was Israel’s calling as God’s new humanity; it was Christ’s as the true Israelite, and so it is ours, too. This calling worked itself out historically as Israel brought salvation to the world by concentrating sin in her own body. She became the bomb squad’s disposal trailer for the sake of the world. This was the mysterious purpose of the covenant of Torah.
Way back at her national birth, Israel placed herself under specific covenantal blessings and cursing. As a nation, she would be cursed in the event of rebellion/transgression/sin. The covenant (Torah) stipulates the consequences. (e.g. Duet 28) These consequences are just and deserved. This isn’t an extra—historical reality. The history of Israel before the coming of Christ is the working out of this covenantal reality.
She was unfaithful- cursed with exile and foreign occupation.
The NT finds Israel still longing for an end to the consequences of their national covenantal failings. This is where Jesus arrives. As her King, he took those consequences onto himself. He died outside the walls of his capital city, executed by a method explicitly cursed by the covenant and at the hands of his people’s conquerors- the same conquerors who were the curse of the covenant. Through his perfect faithfulness and as the King, he exhausted the curse of the (very historical) covenant by freely accepting the judgment that Israel’s sinfulness deserved.
In his people- through her King- God condemned sin in the flesh (not Christ or sinners, but sin itself) ‘This’ he clearly declared, ‘is what sin deserves.’
Not only did God judge sin by rewarding it with what it deserved in Israel, through her King, but he also passed judgment on the underlying idolatry of Israel’s/Rome’s vision of divinity (and humanity). While fallen men declared their version of power and glory, Christ offered a different vision and invitation, altogether.
God judged sin on Good Friday, but on Easter, he passed judgment on Christ (and by implication his opponents).
On Easter morning God cast his vote by vindicating/judging/delivering/justifying the true revelation of God and man by raising and glorifying the crucified King.
So, in working out the culmination of Abraham’s very historical story, Israel’s sin (and all sin by representation- for Israel was a nation of priests) was judged by God once and for all in the person of her King, who took the consequences of his nation’s transgressions (the ones spelled out in the historical covenant) onto himself.
By dying he left this cursed reality through the only door available. In raising him, God brought into existence the eschatological New Creation that Israel longed for. By sharing his Spirit (the Spirit of the Age to Come) with all men and women, he allows Israel’s salvation to extend to the world.
It is not that Christ did something ‘beyond history’ for the world and then Israel is invited to share in it. Rather, its that God accomplished the ultimate salvation of Israel through her specific and historical situation (Rom 5:20), and then invited the nations to share in that.
In Christ (because he was the Christ)- Sin and death were judged and vanquished; God was faithful and made perfectly known; salvation came through Israel; humanity offered perfect submission, repentance, a life of mature faithfulness, hope and love and assumed its place on the throne of creation that God had in mind from the moment he formed our first parents from the dust.