In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete talks about what he sees as the uniqueness of Christianity as he explores the following questions:
- What is the paradox of shame?
- What was the starting point of the Jesus movement?
- Why was it important that Jesus was crucified and not killed in another way?
- What does Pete mean when he talks about the reversal of sacrifice?
- What made Christianity unique in the ancient world?
- Who is Martin Hengel?
- What is the honor/shame dynamic?
- How was the Christian message counter-intuitive to people in the ancient world?
- What possible reasons would Paul have to “be ashamed of the gospel?”
- What did “knowing Christ” mean for Paul?
- What is the cruciform life?
- Why is Jesus’ crucifixion referred to as a sacrifice in the New Testament?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete you can share.
- “The New Testament writers bear witness to what they and the early Jesus follows believed and taught to be true.” @peteenns
- “The crucifixion is the event that the resurrection faith of early Christians had to try to make sense of.” @peteenns
- “Not only does the Christian faith feature a crucified founder, but God, the creator, is behind it all making it happen.” @peteenns
- “The cross makes a public spectacle, not of those who believe it but of rulers and authorities.” @peteenns
- “No one in their right mind is going around peddling a religion that has a crucified king as its center but that is exactly what the New Testament writers did.” @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: Exodus for Normal People
- Book: The Cross and the Lynching Tree
- Book: The Son of God
- Book: Crucifixion
- Book: Byzantium
- Support: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
0:00[Music begins, then fades out slowly when speaker starts]
Jared: We are excited to bring you the launch of Season 5 of the podcast The Bible for Normal People in just a minute, but before we do that, we also have something else really exciting to share that’s also available now. It is the second book in our series, Exodus for Normal People, written by none other than the great Peter Enns, which is out now. So, you can go to https://peteenns.com/, there on the home page you’ll find more information about it, or you can just go directly to Amazon. You can pick up a print copy there, or the eBook version, which you can also find at Barnes & Noble and other places online. So, just head to https://peteenns.com/, check out Exodus for Normal People. If you’d like a introduction and guide to the second book of the Bible written in a way that everyone can understand, no Ph.D.’s necessary. All right, now back to the launch of Season 5 of the podcast.[Music begins, then fades out]
Pete: Hello everybody! Well, today’s topic is one that I think about a lot and I get asked about often. But you know, I’m just sort of like, feeling my way through it. I’m trying to figure out, I’m trying to get a sense for this. And the topic is “What Makes Christianity Different from Other Religions?” Now, in a way, all religions are different from each other anyway. So, laying out the differences of one of those religions doesn’t mean that religion, say Christianity, is absolutely unique. And it doesn’t mean it’s made better by those differences. Now, I’m just making a point of this because behind the question of what makes Christianity different is more often than not another question – which is what makes Christianity better or more true or right.
Now, that’s not a topic I’m interested in getting into, because it can’t be answered. You know, I don’t want to get into Yelp reviews of Christianity. But I do want to talk about what I think is something that stands out for me about the Christian faith – something that has caught me by surprise over the years, and at times helps me recover some sense of wonder in the Christian faith when things are not going so smoothly, when Christianity makes less sense than it did to me in my omniscient youth, if you know what I mean. So, I just want to be clear on that. I’m not here to defend the superiority of Christianity. That’s not the point of this. But I just want to maybe bring to the surface something about the Christian faith that continues to attract me to invite me to keep pondering, exploring, and living into this ancient faith. I want to talk about something that I think makes it distinct.
So, okay, well, what is that thing? What is that thing that makes Christianity different or distinct? What distinguishes it from other religions? Well, simply put, I think it has to do with the cross, specifically, and I’d like to talk about two dimensions of Jesus’s crucifixion. The first, and this is going to take up most of our time together, the first is, well, let’s just call it the paradox of shame. And the other, let’s call it the reversal of sacrifice. Now, that might sound a little bit boring, but just give me a few minutes, I think it’s going somewhere very, very helpful.
Okay, so, now I’m going to be clear that what we’re talking about here reflects how the New Testament writers understood and explained the crucifixion. I don’t want to dump too much out here onto the table as we begin, but I think it’s important to say. In my opinion, the faith of the New Testament writers was shaped by their experience of the risen Christ. I want to say that again, that’s very important. The faith of the New Testament writers was shaped, its foundation, was their experience of the risen Christ. And I think, as I think many people think, I think they truly believed that Jesus was raised bodily – and that resurrection faith is the starting point for the Jesus movement and what eventually became Christianity.
You see, here’s what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to describe the historical event of the resurrection faith of the early followers, which is not the same thing as describing the resurrection itself. Proving the resurrection of Jesus is another topic altogether, which I personally think can’t be done. It’s a matter of deep, personal conviction. My point is that the New Testament writers, they bear witness to what they and the early Jesus followers believed and taught to be true – things they reflected on deeply. These are the church’s first theologians, and I want to understand their theology.
Okay, now, let’s tie this to our topic, the crucifixion. The crucifixion, this is another important thing here that I really want to try to get across. The crucifixion is not the event that led to the Christian movement. Rather, and again, this is so key to what I’m trying to get across here. Rather, the crucifixion is the event that the resurrection faith of early Christians had to try to make sense of. Because the crucifixion makes no sense.
See, think of it this way. It’s one thing to ask a question like, you know, why did Jesus have to die? Or something like that, and the answer given is usually something like, you know, to atone for our sin, or something similar—and what all THAT means is a big and complicated issue all on its own and we’re not gonna get into here. But the question I’m asking is actually a little bit different: Why did Jesus have to be crucified? That’s not the same question. You know, why crucified? Why not shot through with arrows, or beheaded, or beaten to death?
I think the New Testament writers were animated to explain the significance, not just of Jesus’s death, but of this manner of death. And that brings us to that first dimension of the cross I want to talk about, the paradox of shame.
The question is why Jesus—the Son of God, the Messiah—why Jesus was crucified. That question had to be addressed because of the type of death crucifixion is. For one thing, it was a form of punishment not for the elite or well-to-do, nor for the average bloke who stole a piece of bread. It was for those deemed a threat to the state, such as political insurrectionists. So, having your messiah – which, by the way, is just a fancy word for king coming from the Hebrew. It means anointed, but you know kings were anointed, so it’s a royal title. Anyway, having your messiah, your king crucified would have posed a bit of a problem for Jews at the time.
It would be analogous to—and I hope you all hear me in the spirit I intend this—but it would have been analogous to having your leader hung and lynched. James Cone, the famous theologian, he made that connection in his book In the Cross and the Lynching Tree, I’m not the first one to say that.
Crucifixion, in other words, was no hero’s deathand the Romans made sure of that. They did not invent crucifixion, but they perfected it as a means of not simply execution, but of bringing shame and humiliation to the victim, and of course to be a deterrent for those who might want to follow in this poor sap’s footsteps.
See for one thing, unlike the depictions of the crucifixion in famous paintings where Jesus, you know, is hung way up high off the ground, those crucified in Roman days were at eye level and they were naked, not to mention in excruciating pain. When you walk by you are looking them in the eye, and they you. That’s a humiliating stance right there. You know, most of us, say amen if you hear this, most of us don’t want to get on a zoom call when we are all unkempt because of a flu. We feel shame to be exposed like that. And you know—more seriously— I’ve known people who have had cancer and eventually succumbed and did not want visitors in those last days and I get it. We don’t want to be in the public eye when we are looking so horrible.
So, the Christian faith has as its center piece a beaten, tortured, and crucified king. And here’s the thing: if you’re starting a religion either in the ancient Mesopotamian world or in the Jewish tradition as a whole, you know, this is not your first move. This makes no sense. It’s really absurd. And it’s not a way to gain followers.
I’d like to read a couple of brief quotes from a guy by the name of Martin Hengel, he died in 2009. And he was one of these typical old school German, semi-omniscient scholars, very influential. And his field was Christian origins—that means he dealt with how Christianity arose amid Greek, Roman, and Jewish influences. And He has a couple of books I’d like to mention that came out in 70’s, that are, get this folks, under 100 pages long (when do scholars write books that are under 100 pages long?) and very readable. One is called The Son of God and the other is called Crucifixion and they were both put out by, let me check here, Fortress Books. Yes, I am correct because I have the book right in front of me.
So, the opening lines, I want to read this to you because I think this gets the point across really, really well. The opening lines of The Son of God, itgoes like this, this is literally how the book begins, page 1. He says, this is the chapter entitled “The Problem.”
At the feast of the Passover, in the year 30 in Jerusalem, a Galilean Jew was nailed to the cross for claiming to be the Messiah. About twenty-five years later, the former Pharisee Paul quotes a hymn about this crucified man in the letter which he writes to one of the communities of the Messianic sect which he has founded in the Roman colony of Philippi.
So, of course, we’re about to hear a quotation from the letter to the Philippians, and this is from 2:6-8, it’s pretty well known, it’s this hymn where Paul extols Christ. Okay, here is the, here’s the passage:
“He was in the form of God…”
Christ, of course.
“But did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of man and found in human form. He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
Okay, so Hengel continues, he says:
The discrepancy between the shameful death of the Jewish state criminal and the confession that depicts this executed man as a pre-existent divine figure who becomes man and humbles himself to a slave’s death is, as far as I can see, without analogy in the ancient world.
Yeah, this is pretty unheard of. Remember, think of it this way, he’s not so much talking about who Jesus is. I mean, he may believe this or not believe this, but that’s not the point of this. What he’s saying is that the religion, the Christian religion that has on the one hand a leader who is a pre-existent divine figure and at the same time meets a humiliating, shameful end, one reserved for enemies of the state, bringing those two things together is, as he says, “without analogy in the ancient world.” There is no such other thing.
And then he goes on to say, this is now on page 2, that Paul founded the church in Philippi in the year 49 (about 6 or 7 years later he wrote the book of Philippians). But that’s a pretty early time period, that’s maybe 20 years after Jesus’s crucifixion. And that means that this really odd, even revolutionary, reference to the divine and yet crucified Christ was on people’s minds pretty early. You know, when he wrote this in 49, sorry, he wrote this a little bit later, but he visited them in 49, for Paul to quote a hymn like this is probably quoting something that was already known, right? So, this idea had been floating around fairly early in the development of the Christian religion, this paradox of a pre-existent divine figure who meets this most humiliating, shameful of deaths at the hands of the Roman powers.
Now, in his book, speaking more about Hengel, in his book Crucifixion, the other one I mentioned, the first chapter is called “The ‘Folly’ of the Crucified Son of God.” The foolishness, and it is, the foolishness of the crucified son of God, and on the first page Hengel says this, “It is the crucifixion that distinguishes the new message from the mythologies of all other peoples.” And he was talking about Greco-Roman religion. It would have been offensive, he goes on to say this on page 2, it would have been offensive to a Roman, “that one who was honored as a god had been nailed to the cross by the Roman authorities as a state criminal.” Again, this is the kind of thing you don’t just put out there if you want to convince people that you have this wonderful God. It makes no sense. Okay, one more quote, this is from page 5. Hengel says, “The heart of the Christian message, which Paul described as the “word of the cross” (he gets that from 1 Cor 1:18), he says, that ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the ideas of God held by educated people.”
In other words, this is not how you start a religion.
And the whole idea is summed up nicely in 1 Cor 1:23 where Paul says, “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” And if you’re anything like me, you know, I think we tend to skip over that, “Christ crucified,” that’s really the emphasis, “Christ crucified.” You know, for many years, I would read this and I would blame these Jews that Paul mentions for being weak-kneed and these Gentiles, these Greeks, for being arrogant, but the more I’ve thought about it, the less I blame them for steering clear of such an idea as a crucified Christ, a crucified king, a crucified savior, a crucified messiah. No one in their right mind is going around peddling a religion that has a crucified king as its center, but that’s exactly what the New Testament writers did.
Now, let me take this a step further. Not only does the Christian faith feature a crucified founder, but God, the Creator, is behind it all making it happen. God is willingly associated with such an ignoble act as crucifixion. And such a move did not only run up against sophisticated Roman sensibilities, but the Jewish tradition as well. To be clear, this is not some angle towards supersessionism, you know, I really steer clear of all that. But I’m trying to make a point of what I see as being distinctive in the gospel message, and having God associated like this with a humiliating death, that’s something that would’ve been a problem, not only for Greco-Roman thinking, but I think for Jewish thinking as well. And I want to put myself on there too. If I were a Jew living at that time, and somebody said, “God’s messiah, your savior, your leader was crucified,” I would’ve kept walking. So, it is something that goes against the sensibilities of the Jewish tradition and how is that? Well, when leafing through the Bible, it doesn’t take long to see that a good bit of it presents Israel’s God as part of, here’s a key phrase coming up, part of an honor/shame dynamic.
Now, just hang with me here folks. The honor/shame dynamic.
Israel’s God, Yahweh, you know, you’ve read the Bible, will not suffer shame and humiliation at the hands of Israel or any other nation. And if that happens, if anybody tries it, God will act decisively, right? God will act to restore the proper honor/shame order. If you shame God, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to honor God, and if you shame God, God will do something to put you in your place. And this is why God so often responds swiftly and violently to Israel’s disobedience.
You know, the examples are pretty well known, but just one that I think is just a good place to go to see this is the list of blessings and curses that we read, for example, in Deuteronomy 27-28, they’re elsewhere too, but that’s sort of a go to place. Now, these are very tough to read, definitely not for kids. For example, if the Israelites disobey God’s commands, God will, among other things, and I’m here just quoting a few passages from these two chapters, but if you disobey God, God will “afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind; you shall grope about at noon as blind people grope in darkness, but you shall be unable to find your way; and you shall be continually abused and robbed, without anyone to help.” You know, this seems a bit over the top, but there’s more.
“Your sons and daughters shall be given to another people, while you look on; you will strain your eyes looking for them all day but be powerless to do anything.” And then there’s this: “He will bring back upon you all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were in dread, and they shall cling to you. Every other malady and affliction, even though not recorded in the book of this law, the LORD will inflict on you until you are destroyed.”
You know, it’s like, you have no idea what I’m going to do to you, here’s a list. And even the things I’m not mentioning, I’m going to do. There’s like 60 verses of this. You know, why pour it on so thick? Toward the end of this section, God says this: “Although once you were as numerous as the stars in heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the LORD your God.”
Translation – you used to be such hot stuff and you’ve gotten full of yourself, but I’m going to put you in your place. How dare you disobey me. They’re called curses in Deuteronomy—or punishments. But you know what? They’re also acts of shaming for dishonoring God by disobedience, you’re shaming God, right?
Think about this, disobedience to a sovereign figure brings shame upon that figure. Now, when I’m ticketed for speeding—to use a hypothetical—the officer is not shamed. I haven’t disobeyed him. Or when someone is found guilty of tax fraud, the judge is not shamed. But think of this not in our legal context, think of this more in terms of a parent/child dynamic—say when a toddler makes a scene in a restaurant, or a funeral, and parents say (or think), “I was so embarrassed. I felt ashamed. I can’t control my kid better than this?” Or when a teenager is disrespectful to their parents when the house is full of guests. The parents feel shame. And I think many of us can attest to the fact that we have responded out of that shame, probably not very balanced or even-handed, we tend to react.
Alleviating God’s shame is a big part of that famous scene in the book Exodus where Moses runs interference to keep God from wiping out the Israelites. You may remember that scene—Moses is up on Mt. Sinai getting the tablets of the law when God tells him that the people below are engaged in some sort of a wild party. And God is so angry that he wants to consume them all in fire and start over again with Moses. But Moses sees the problem, see, he responds to God, he basically says this, “You might want to think that through. If you do that, if you destroy us all here in the desert, what will the nations say?” Right, did you catch that? That’s the honor/shame element. What will they say? What will they think about you? They will question you for being a God who delivers his people from slavery only to kill them in the wilderness.”
See, Moses is definitely appealing to Yahweh’s sense of honor and shame. Yahweh has been shamed by the disobedient Israelites, but would be even more shamed if he pressed reset and started over. His global reputation—sometimes called his “glory”— would get marred. And you know what? Moses’s appeal worked. Yahweh relented, didn’t wipe everybody out—though he did command Moses to tell the Levites to go through the camp and put people to the sword, like 3000 people. You know, because being shamed is not something you just let go of, especially if God is being shamed.
Now, not to get the wrong idea here, there is more we could say about the Old Testament, how God is portrayed—God isn’t always portrayed like this—this isn’t the bad Old Testament God and the good New Testament God, but here is my point: the honor and shame dynamic of Israel’s own tradition is a thing, and that tradition is rather dramatically turned upside down by the Jewish New Testament writers when talking about the crucifixion. They believed that Israel’s God—that this God’s showing up in their time and place, that this God was tied to a messiah—Israel’s deliverer—who was crucified.
Now again, if you’re making some new claim about God in that ancient world, this bit of news is not your lead. I think we can appreciate how hard a sell Paul had when spreading the “good news” of Christ on his journeys throughout the Roman empire. His message was counterintuitive, it was ridiculous—it was, again, in the words of 1 Corinthians 1:23, it was a stumbling block for Jews and downright foolishness to gentiles.
See, as I see it, according to the NT writers, what made Jesus Lord of Jew and gentile alike was simply this, it was his being raised from the dead by God the Father. That is what drove Paul’s faith and clinched the argument for him, as far as he was concerned. That’s the foundation. That’s the starting point. But what he still had to deal with was the counterintuitive, paradoxical nature of the way Jesus died. He was killed (that’s humiliating enough) . . . by the Roman empire . . . as a state criminal . . . God’s man was an object of humiliation, of shame, and of scorn.
See, Paul is aware of this problem, he alludes to this in a couple places at least. But one of which is in 1 Corinthians 1:27, he says, “but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,” right? “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.” God chose something that you would normally be ashamed of and turned that around to shame the wise. “God chose what is weak in the world,” this is all talking about the cross, folks. “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Paul is turning the tables on the honor and shame dynamic. The cross is foolishness that shames the elite.
Or Colossians 2:15, another example, “God disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross.” See, for Paul (or frankly, whoever wrote Colossians, I just don’t care), but the cross makes a public spectacle not of those who believe it, but of rulers and authorities—namely Romans ones.
We can throw in here, too, Hebrews 12:2, it’s not written by Paul. Then we read that “. . . for the sake of the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame,” or other translations, “scorning its shame.” See, shame was a thing when it came to the cross and it had to be talked about. Now, for me, the passage in Paul’s letters that really hits the nail on the head best is Romans 1:16. He says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” See, when I was young, I always heard this verse sort of people using it as a way of guilting me about, you know, not sharing my faith in Christ enough with my friends and my classmates, like I’m afraid to talk to people. I sort of was, but that’s beside the point. But you see, Paul is not saying that. He’s not saying, “I’m not afraid to talk about Jesus because people might make fun of me or no longer be my friend,” He’s saying “I’m not ashamed.” What possible reason would Paul have for being ashamed of the gospel? Well, now we know—because of how the good news got off the ground: in the shame and humiliation of a Roman cross.
And let’s not lose sight here of how Paul turns this problem on its head. Not only is he not ashamed of the gospel, but this gospel which begins with crucifixion, it’s the power of God. We might be tempted to say that the power of God is seen in the resurrection, which, you know, because it sort of undoes, or cancels out the shameful death. But I don’t think that does justice to Paul’s theology. I think Paul sees the power of God precisely in the crucifixion. Let me just point out again, that doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I like it, it doesn’t make any sense.
See for Paul, the crucifixion is not the bad thing that the resurrection fixes. Instead, the crucifixion “does” something—and by that I mean beyond, you know, Jesus’s blood saved us, or something like that. This paradoxical, counterintuitive gospel is, for Paul, valuable at a very practical level. It serves as a model for how followers of Jesus are to behave. That’s the whole point of that portion of Philippians chapter 2 that Martin Hengel quoted earlier, that Christ hymn as it’s called. This poem or hymn about how Christ humbled himself, not simply in his humanity, but in his crucifixion, is not, you know, a lesson in theology. Paul introduces that poem for a reason.
Paul is really interested here in encouraging his readers to, if I can quote the verse before this poem begins, “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” You know, Paul gets a bad rap for being sort of arrogant, and yeah, every once in a while he sort of goes off and it’s like, Paul, calm down. But Paul really is an apostle of humility and the humility of believers mimicking the humility of Christ. And, you know, to make this whole point stick, he cites this poem and introduces it by saying “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In other words, if Christ, who put his divinity to the side and became a man, specifically, a man who would suffer the shame and humiliation of crucifixion, the least you could do is live a life that echos in some small way that shocking humiliation of Jesus.
But more than that, it’s more than just a model for how Christians are to behave—as huge as that is—it is Christ’s “passion” (you know, that fancy word that covers the events of Good Friday) it’s Christ’s passion that is a deep, mystical really, point of connection between Christ and his followers.
You know, back to Philippians, but this time chapter 3, it starts in verse 10, Paul says, “I want to know Christ.” And Paul goes on to say, what does it mean to know Christ? You know, he goes, well, “I want to know Christ in the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…” Knowing Christ is clearly not an academic, clinical, detached kind of thing. Knowing Christ means, well, intimacy—a deep inner spiritual connection. And for Paul that “knowing” meansnotonlyexperiencing the power that raised Jesus from the dead, which is a big theme in Paul, but also “sharing in his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”
See, that’s the deal for Jesus followers. It’s not all about victory, blessing, and mountain top experiences. In fact, it’s also about—and in fact, most Christians I know would say it’s much more about—being in fellowship with the humiliation of Christ’s suffering. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I’m going to go with it anyway: we may be, according to Paul, no more connected to Christ than when we are sharing in his cross experience. This is what theologians refer to as the cruciform life—a life that is formed/mimics/shaped by the crucifixion.
I feel that the offense of the crucifixion is easily lost on us, and, you know, through no fault of our own. It’s not because we’re stubborn. We are so far removed—at least most of us are—from, first of all, an honor and shame culture (at least in the west) and certainly from Roman cruelty. But still, we sometimes talk too easily about “Jesus died for me or for you,” or “Jesus paid the price,” as if the crucifixion is a cold legal transaction to make the books balance. We might be better off getting into the habit of saying, “Jesus was shamed and humiliated for me on the cross, and the God of Israel is also willingly aligned with that shame, so the center of my life needs to reflect that kind of humility.” But that doesn’t fit on a meme very easily.
Anyway, this paradox—that God and Christ participate in an act of shame and humiliation—more than anything else, in my opinion, turns upside down how we think about the nature of God. Not reflecting the honor and shame dynamic, and I’m gonna say in the ancient world, the universal honor and shame dynamic. Not reflecting that, but reflecting a God who is vulnerable. This is how God showed up for these early Christian writers as they tried to wrap their head around why Jesus was crucified.
And this is, it seems to me certainly, a distinctive element of the Christian faith. If someone asks me what is distinctive about the Christian faith, this is my first stop. And for me, the paradoxical, nonsensical, even absurd, nature of all this is precisely what makes it so attractive and even encouraging to me.
You know, the novelist Stephen Lawhead gets this across very well in his novel Byzantium. And I like Lawhead because he very good at forcing us to look at the Christian faith outside of the familiar language and trappings that we usually use.
So, in this novel Byzantium, we meet a young scribe, his name is Aidan, living in a medieval Irish monastery. He is chosen by the order to accompany some monks to Byzantium to present a gift to the Emperor. Gotta keep the Emperor happy.
And this journey turns out to be more than he bargained for. Along the way he is captured and enslaved by Vikings, and his trek to Byzantium winds up taking a very long and distant detour, and it’s filled, of course, with you know, hundreds of pages of adventures, but also a lot of inner changes on Aiden’s part.
Now, at the end of the book, Aidan, after being gone for years, is back safe and sound in his native land when a lookout sees the Sea Wolves approaching (and that’s their word for Vikings). The abbey, of course, is in a state of panic, scurrying about, they’re hiding their treasure, blah, blah, blah. So, they send Aidan to meet them, hoping that, you know, he knows Vikings, he might even know their language. Maybe, his history with Vikings can dissuade them from sacking their abbey and killing everybody.
As they come closer, Aidan recognizes one of the Vikings as his old friend Gunnar. Soon, the invasion turns into a wonderful reunion.
Now, you see, the Vikings have come to Aidan’s land not to plunder and pillage but to seek out their friend. Throughout their long journeys together Aidan had all sorts of opportunities to respond to his harsh captors in Christian love. So now, these Vikings come bearing a very expensive gift (actually, it’s a solid silver embossed book cover if you need to know)—but the point is it’s not even really a gift. It’s a first installment of a trade agreement. They want to build “a church for the Christ” and they want Aidan, who introduced them to Christianity, to come back with them to oversee the project.
But here’s the thing. In the years that have passed, Aidan, he’s come to a point of despair and unbelief, and he even chides his visitors for trusting in a God who “cares nothing for us.” Aiden’s having a serious faith crisis.
And so his Viking friend Gunnar, without missing a beat, says that it is actually their gods who “neither hear nor care.” And now we get to the point, what makes the Christian god different, Gunnar explains, is that he came to live among the fisherfolk and was hung up on a tree to die.
“And I remember thinking,” says Gunnar, “this Hanging God is unlike any of the others; this god suffers, too, just like his people…does Odin do this for those who worship him? Does Thor suffer with us?”
Gunnar, as an outsider, zeroes in on something distinctive about the gospel: the Christian God is a “Hanging God,” who does not observe suffering from a distance but takes part in it.
A suffering God is a disorienting thought, if we let it sink in for a moment. It is also logically ridiculous and inexplicable. But for Gunnar, this suffering God, who embraces humiliation, unlike Odin or Thor, well, this God is truly “good news.”
OK, so that was the first dimension of how the crucifixion is a distinct element of the Christian faith. The second one I want to look at—much more briefly—is how the New Testament writers speak of the crucifixion as a sacrifice in reverse.
Now, let’s set this up, a little bit of background to get a feel for what this is about. So, as I’ve been saying, I’ve come to think that the central driving force of the rise of the Christian faith is the belief in Jesus’s resurrection. Not the virgin birth, not miracles, not parables—not even the crucifixion, but the resurrection. That astounding act of God led the early Jesus movement to work backwards, so to speak, and explain other elements of Jesus’s life in light of that astounding reality—and one of those things that needed to be explained is the crucifixion.
Now, Jesus’s crucifixion, everybody knows this. Jesus’s crucifixion is described in the New Testament as a sacrifice. I want to suggest that the reason why Jesus’s crucifixion is referred to as a sacrifice is that this was the vocabulary that was available to these Jewish followers of Jesus. We see this language, for example, a very famous passage in Romans 3:25 where Paul says that “God put forward [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood.” That’s really good Old Testament sacrifice language, no big deal. So, Jesus’s death is analogous to, or should be seen in light of Old Testament sacrifices, the purpose of which is to atone. Sacrifices atone. They reconcile in some mysterious way God and Israel.
And again, I think this language is familiar to most Christians, and I don’t want to dwell on it. But this one little verse raises a couple of questions that, if we just take a minute, might highlight something more of the distinctiveness of the Christian faith.
So, for one thing, if I’m going too fast here, let me know. Jesus, hear me, is not a goat, sheep, or dove, but a man. Can I get an amen, right? Jesus was a man who was sacrificed to atone for sins. That sounds like human sacrifice. So human sacrifice is a thing now? This topic of human sacrifice in the Bible is a bit more complicated than I’m putting it here, but basically God expressly forbids human sacrifice, namely, especially child sacrifice in the Old Testament.
But here, what do we have? We have the blood of a human sacrifice, God’s son, no less, and that blood has atoning power. Just, let that sit for a moment. That’s weird. It’s so striking. You know, it might surprise us to know, however, that this idea is not entirely unique in the New Testament. This idea of the blood of a human having some atoning qualities. It’s actually not something invented by the New Testament.
We see this in one of the books of the Apocrypha. Some of you may not be familiar with the term, the Apocrypha is a collection of Jewish writings that were written roughly, a couple of centuries before the time of Jesus, several are a little bit older, several are a little bit newer, but they’re these Jewish writings written in Greek that were never accepted by Judaism as part of their cannon. It was accepted by the Roman Catholic in Eastern Orthodox churches, but not by Judaism and not by Protestants. Because when Protestantism was formed, it was formed against what Catholics do and so they’re not going to have the Catholic books, they’re going to take the original ones, the ones the Jews had. Anyway, long story short.
So anyway, in one of these books of the Apocrypha, you have the book of 4 Maccabees and the Maccabees has to do with Hannukah, and all this kind of stuff and I don’t want to bore you with that. So, 4 Maccabees. This book reflects on a time in history around 200 BCE—when the Greek tyrant emperor Antiochus was forcing Jews to adopt Greek ways that, you know, were in serious conflict and in disobedience to God’s law – like eating pork, things like that. And, you know, some resisted, and they chose torture and death rather than disobeying God’s commands.
Now in the book, 4 Maccabees, this is towards the end, it’s in chapter 17, this author describes the death of these holy martyrs this way. He calls them, now listen to the language, see if it sounds familiar. He refers to the death of these holy martyrs as “a ransom for the sin of our nation.” Hmm. And their blood was as an “atoning sacrifice.” See, you’ve got these holy martyrs who died rather than be disobedient to God. Their blood is holy and their blood covers over, redeems, or atones for others. Right? The death of a few, the martyrs, benefited the many. Their death paid a ransom for sin and had atoning power – just like the Old Testament sacrifices did.
And yes, we find this same language describing Jesus’s death in the New Testament. By the way, if you want the passage, it’s 4 Maccabees 17, which is toward the end, verses 21 & 22. Anyway, we find this same language describing Jesus’s death in the New Testament. So, the simple fact of Jesus dying for others and of his blood having an effect on others is actually not a distinctive feature of Christianity, believe it or not. What is distinctive about that though, is that for the New Testament writers, it wasn’t a bunch of martyrs, but just one, let’s call Jesus a martyr. Only one martyr’s death that would be a ransom for sin and an atoning sacrifice. So, what we have here is not really a new element entirely, but a distinctive twist on an older theme: the death of obedient Jews is not in vain, but it benefits the group. And for Paul especially, the distinctive twist is that the death of one Jew (Jesus) benefits the whole group, and not to open up another can of worms here, but that death benefits the whole group and that group will also include gentiles.
OK, so Jesus’s crucifixion as an atoning sacrifice is a distinct twist on an older idea. But that is actually a secondary point to the big point I want to make here. And that point is seen again in Romans 3:25, which started this whole discussion. Let me cite it again: “God put forward [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood.” Did you catch it? Let me read it differently: “God put forward [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood.” God is putting forward the sacrifice. God is offering the sacrifice, so to speak. Maybe this language is more familiar to us from John’s gospel—John 3:16, the famous passage. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
Now, I don’t want to read too much into this, I don’t think I am. And I may be missing something, but to my knowledge the idea of a god offering a sacrifice on behalf of humans is a bit striking.
You know, think about it. Isn’t it a bit odd to think of Jesus’s death as a sacrifice? For one thing, God initiates it. And that “sacrifice” is actually an act of violence by an empire, it’s not offered by a worshipper, let alone a priest, to God. Now, the book of Hebrews, which is not the clearest book in the Bible, by the way, but the book of Hebrews fixes this problem by speaking of Jesus as both the one whose blood takes away sin (the sacrifice) and also the High Priest responsible for offering it. So, Jesus is both the sacrificed and the sacrificer. So anyway, I just find that to be an interesting little twist there that it’s the reversal of sacrifice. God is offering the sacrifice, putting it out there on our behalf. And as far as I understand, this is also something that doesn’t have an analog in the ancient world. And if I’m wrong about that, I definitely want to hear about it.
Okay, anyway, as we bring this to a close, let me reiterate something that I hope is not getting lost here: my interest is not in claiming the truth of Christianity by any of this, but neither is it to poke holes in it. I am just trying to bring some things to light, based on what the New Testament writers say, that can rightly be seen as distinctive elements of the faith that they held.
And if you were to ask me whether there are other distinctive marks, I’d say, well yeah, probably. At least I’m open to ideas. One of those is probably the scene recorded in the gospels where Jesus forgives sins. You know, he forgives sins in general, not for specific sins committed against him, but what so and so did to somebody else. That strikes me as another distinct twist of the New Testament.
But beyond that, I am not so sure (although again, I’m all ears, and I could be wrong). But you know, people might say, well, what about the miracles? Well, miracles, no. Not that. Miracles are a staple of the Old Testament (think Moses and Elijah). Greco-Roman people, they did that kind of stuff too, you know? It’s just, that’s not distinctive of the Christian faith. What about the resurrection? Definitely not. It’s not that. If anything, it’s not that. Dying and rising is a theme in ancient myths. What about the virginal conception? Nope, not that either. Divine fatherhood is a widely known theme for describing the birth of great leaders. Okay, well, how about referring to Jesus as “savior”? Nope, not that either. Caesar Augustus was also referred to as, you know, a gift from heaven to be the savior of the people—which means safety from one’s enemies, which is also called, concerning Caesar Augustus, that’s also called the “good news.”
So, what makes Christianity distinct? And I mean not first and foremost for us personally or spiritually, that’s another topic entirely, but what makes Christianity distinct as a historical movement? And I do think this a question that is rightly discussed and debated, with all sorts of interesting angles and insights. But for me, what keeps jumping out at me is how the NT writers talked about Jesus’s death. The crucifixion was something that really needed to be explained, and the New Testament writers did so—and they did so because their resurrection faith demanded it.[Music begins]
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