The Death and Resurrection of Christ
So far in this Course we have dealt with the "big" themes; our paradisal state and fall, salvation history and the Church, Man’s position in the Cosmos. It is important after all not to "miss the wood for the trees." However, we now approach the "trees," or rather "two trees in one," the cross, which is the tree of death and the resurrection, which is the tree of life. I have said "two trees in one" because it is vitally important not to separate them. Both the cross without the resurrection and the resurrection without the cross are meaningless. A Saviour who cannot die has not done battle with death. A Saviour who has not risen remains in the thrall of death, together with everyone else of course! The preaching of the early Church in Acts, St Peter’s first sermon in fact refers to: -
" … this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised Him up, having loosed the pangs of death, for it was not possible for him to be held by it." [Acts 2:23-24]
Make no mistake, we are at the heart here of the Christian gospel. It is God who in the death and resurrection of Christ has saved us and it is in that faith and life that we must "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling," [Phil 2:12].
When trying to explain the power and the significance of what happened on the Cross and at the Empty Tomb, the Apostles used extremely rich veins of terminology and practice derived from what we know as Old Testament salvation-history and promise. Sometimes they used metaphorical or allegorical language but the reality they described was always flesh and blood … the work of God in and through one singular and unique Person, Our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
These are the main categories used, in no particular order of importance: -
(In this we shall be looking for a "key," a frame, a context that will both open up and hold together all the diverse strands of meaning to be found in the death and resurrection of our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ).
The language here is that of the altar. Sacrifice for the Jews was what put them right with God. On the Day of Atonement each year, animals would be sacrificed and the High Priest (only) would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple to make atonement for the people. By a costly offering of life, God would be appeased. His righteousness would be satisfied by a change in the hearts of His People as they responded to the meaning of the nation’s offering in Jerusalem.
The connection here with the death of Jesus was patently obvious to the early Church. Sacrificial references to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world abound in the New Testament. It sets the tone right at the beginning of the ministry of Christ on the lips of the Prophet and Forerunner, St. John the Baptist: -
"Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." [(John 1:29].
It is also reflected in the apostolic writings: -
" … he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." [1 John 2:2]
There is something richer here than forgiveness, although it certainly includes forgiveness. The sacrificial death of Christ opens up our access to God universally. It is our reconciliation. The tearing in two of the Temple curtain is its most eloquent symbol. The New Temple is now the Church of Christ’s Body and Blood through which there is direct access for all who repent, believe and are baptised. The writer to the Hebrews takes up a large section of his letter showing how the sacrifice of Christ is both the fulfilment and replacement of Old Testament sacrifices that it far exceeds in power, depth and range. Furthermore it is Christ Himself as our great High Priest who offers himself on our behalf. In so far as He is therefore both Priest and Victim, we have a radically new understanding of sacrifice of God, offering himself to himself, for the love of mankind he wishes to forgive, cleanse and restore.
Can then sacrifice be both key and context for a biblical understanding if salvation? Not on its own, no. Sacrifice has no need of resurrection anymore that we would expect an animal sacrificed to live again to make its point and we have seen how the resurrection can in no wise be left out of the frame when searching for the key to an understanding what God in Christ has done as a whole.
The language here, the metaphor, is that of the court but not like any mere human court of law. The metaphor sees Man standing as it were "in the dock," hopelessly condemned by his failure to maintain the covenant relationship with God. The remedy enacted by God, however, cannot simply be understood in terms of the theory of "substitutionary atonement," that distorted but much beloved doctrine of our Protestant brethren.
According to this theory, all Christ has to do is to substitute himself for us, take our punishment for sin, and allow us to walk free. This degraded version of justification is unsatisfactory because it glosses over in some sort of cheap legal transaction the human and sacrificial elements of the death of Christ that are so vital to its converting power. Justification means, "making righteous." We lose sin and gain righteousness not in legal transactional terms but in a personal inward manner that involves a titanic struggle against the evil forces that enslave humanity. If, therefore, justification remains connected to the historical dimension of sacrifice, (as it does in St. Paul’s letters), then the legal metaphors are very useful. However, justification by itself cannot provide both the key and the context to a holistic understanding for the same reason that sacrifice cannot. The resurrection is not an integrated part of the vision of man made whole in this scheme either.
There are two different words for redemption in the New Testament. The first, lytro-o, (lutrow ) means to "buy off" or "ransom." It has three applications: -
1. ransoming from captivity … as in the release of prisoners. Christ has forgiven our sins by his sacrificial death.
2. ransoming from debt … as in the forgiveness of money owed. Christ has dealt with what we owe God from whom we have estranged ourselves.
3. ransoming from slavery … the meaning of this is clear. Christ has set us free from the curse of our own moral helplessness and the death that is its due.
Unlike sacrifice and justification, ransom is much more focussed on the goal of salvation being our liberation from sin, suffering, evil and death by the victory of Christ. It embraces the resurrection as the crowning glory of Christ’s justifying sacrifice for our freedom. Not unsurprisingly, therefore, it is redemption that is most often used by the Church Fathers as the key and context to the experience of salvation in the Church; precisely because it incorporates the other biblical ideas connected with sacrifice and righteousness in a paschal frame of reference. The great deliverance of humanity from the grip of evil and death was secured at the resurrection but it will not be manifest in its entirety until the Last Day, the Judgement and the New Creation.
When the Church fathers handle this theme of redemption, although they talk metaphorically about Christ deceiving the devil by the hook or bait of his humanity as He bleeds and dies on the cross, they are at pains to point out that the ransom was paid neither to the devil nor to God the Father. The heresy associated with the first option is that the devil has rights over God, which, of course, he does not. This is dualistic and anti-Christian. The heresy associated with the second option is that the ransom of the Son offers satisfaction to the Father. This heresy is not as rare as one might think. Anselm came perilously close to it in the post-Orthodox west and bequeathed a dangerous legacy to Catholic and Protestant Christianity in the maturation of that heretical idea that the compassionate Son surrenders himself to appease the wrathful Father.
Metaphors, then, should not be pushed beyond their appropriate range and appropriateness. "Ransom" in Christian thought means simply that we are in a mess of our own making and God has himself got involved in Christ to set us free. Meeting sin and death on their own ground, He has put both to flight. "To whom payment is due?" is a question both irrelevant and unnecessary. Attempting to answer it is dangerous. We are dealing here with deep mysteries, not logical propositions and dialectical reasonings. Our language must not be stretched beyond its breaking point. St. Gregory the Theologian reminds us that those who try and pry into the mind of God go mad.
The second Greek word, agorazo, (agorazw ), means to "buy for oneself." This occurs in 1 Corinthians, amongst other places: -
"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." [1 Corinthians 6:19-20]
"You are not your own." By this is indicated that our ransom from slavery to the devil means that we now are the servants of God. The mark of salvation is not then merely freedom, but liberation to be totally free in service to the Lord. This obedience is born, not out of craven fear, but a loving and respectful relationship of trust and confidence in a friend, who is Jesus. (John 15:15). Through him we have access to the Father in the Spirit. We receive by that same Spirit our adoption as sons of God.
Effortlessly, then, the theme of redemption moves us into the heart of the ongoing Christian life that is as much part of the salvation process as that defining Easter event which gives it its shape and content. Our final redemption, therefore, awaits us as we walk in the Light of the Risen Christ. We may now complete in understanding that crucial text in Romans introduced in the third study of this series when we examined the relationship between the Cosmic and the human in salvation terms: -
"We know that the whole of creation has been groaning in travail together until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." [Romans 8:22:25]
Orthodox Christianity teaches that the term redemption is the both key and the context that opens up and holds together the whole biblical witness concerning our salvation. This is for the simple reason that both the cross and the resurrection are brought into view and it is the only interpretation that can include all the aforementioned themes of sacrifice, justification and victory in one coherent message.
With redemption in mind, it becomes both necessary and expected that Christ, having done battle with evil and death on the cross, should rise from the dead in order to ransom our souls and bodies from their bondage to death and oppression by evil, within and without. All this is the action of Love that cannot bear to see its beloved humanity languishing under the curse of sin and death. So, while His body remains yet still in the tomb, Christ also descends to Hades to liberate the righteous from before his earthly time from their dark prison. This enduring image of our iconography of Pascha offers real hope to a broken and dying world. Salvation means that we cannot put piece the pieces back together on our own: but God can. He has done so and He will do it finally … if we work with Him and for Him!