The Death of Christ in the New Testament

In the turmoil of Judea and the surrounding areas in the first century AD many insurrectionists and rebels against Roman rule arose and the cross was a common sight not only in this area but throughout the whole Roman empire. Indeed, in some purges hundreds of people were crucified and exhibited along the main highways. If crucifixion was so common why was Jesus' crucifixion so significant? His message was radical and a challenge to society, especially the Jewish and then Roman leaders. It was inevitable that Jesus would be executed, both as a religious and political upstart[1]. Rather than seeing his death as failure, his followers understood it as the climax of his mission. It was the resurrection of Jesus which shone a whole new light on his life and teaching. He was the Saviour, not only of Jews but the whole of humanity. God sent Christ and his mission was to die and it was the cross which was the focus and means of salvation.

The New Testament does not present a formulated doctrine of salvation but uses a number of metaphors which find more emphasis in some of the writings than others. The New Testament presents Jesus as Saviour by pulling together into one a variety of ideas found in the Old Testament. The central theme is sacrifice, especially the חַטָּאת (sin offering). Sacrifice was associated with relationship. There was expiation of sin, gratitude and fellowship with God. For the ancient Hebrews it was the means of being able to approach God. But as the prophets warned, the act of sacrifice was not enough, it was the attitude which was of first importance (Isa 1:11; Jer 7:22; Amos 5:21; Micah 6:7). Sacrifice was closely bound up with Yahweh's covenant with his people. The covenant was an agreement in which God set out the terms of relationship. Sacrifice was the means of entry into covenant relationship. There is no explanation of what sacrifice accomplished in the Old Testament, except perhaps Leviticus 17:11.

In the New Testament, there are four basic Old Testament images: the Temple; Exodus/slavery; the law; and the family. It was Paul who first developed a theology of the cross[2]. It is the power of God  (1 Cor 1:18)  and the focus of Christ's obedience (Phil 2:8). It is the means of atonement with God (Col 1:20; 2:14; Eph 2:16). It was central to the preaching of the early Christians (1 Cor 15:3) and formed the core of the gospel content (1 Corinthians 1:17-18). Paul clearly describes Christ's death as sacrificial. So what does Jesus' death on the cross mean? Paul states that in Romans 3:25 that Jesus was offered as an ἱλαστήριον, a covering sacrifice by his blood shed on the cross (Cf. Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). In the ancient Greek writings this word carries the sense of appeasing or satisfying the anger of the gods but the Bible does not use it in this sense according to many scholars. Some see it as the cleansing of sin as a stain upon humanity, or a disease. Baillie points out though, that the idea of appeasing God's anger is seen in Jewish early Christian writings outside the Bible[3] and it can certainly be seen in the Old Testament (Gen.32:20; Prov. 16:14). So judging from the Bible itself there is an intrinsic element of averting God's anger. Jesus is our 'advocate' (1 John 2:1-2) and 'anger' appears frequently in Romans 1-5 in relation to God. John Stott points out that sin always arouses God's anger[4]. It is possible that 1 Peter 1:2 is reminiscent of the Exodus story where the blood sprinkled on the door posts averted the “messenger of death” (Exodus 12:21-23, 29-30), and in a similar manner the blood of Christ has averted God’s wrath.

In Scripture God always takes the initiative in salvation. His love for us has never changed, it is his relationship with us that has altered. Sin caused a barrier to fellowship with God but through his death on the cross Christ has removed the obstacle. Because of sin God needed to be propitiated so the New Testament affirms that it was God himself in Christ who re-established communion with mankind (2 Cor.5:18ff). Stott goes on to say, “There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship."There is also the idea of the slave market in the New Testament, tied up with ideas from the Exodus and the story of Ruth. The key word is redemption. Israel was redeemed from Egypt and Babylon (Exodus 6:6; Psalm 77:15; Isaiah 48:20) at the cost of energy and commitment from God. In the story of Ruth, the cost was commitment (Ruth 1:16-18; 4:7-10, 14). This idea of cost is summed up in the word translated 'ransom' or 'redemption'. The cost of salvation was the death of Jesus (1 Peter 1:18-19). There is no mention as to whom this price was paid, but throughout the New Testament the cost is spoken of in terms of Christ’s “blood”. Which must point to, as Bicknell thinks, a life offered up to God. So in some sense God in his Son paid the price of our release through the offering of the ultimate, a life which was divine, and therefore all sufficient. Is there any sense of substitution in Christ's death? Jesus said that he came to give his life as a 'ransom for many' (Mark 10:45. Cf 1 Timothy 2:6). It seems probable that this verse reflects Isaiah 53 where Yahweh's Servant has become a sacrifice on behalf of the people (Isaiah 53:10. Cf.Acts 8:32ff; 1 Pet.1:24). Isaiah says that the Servant 'carries our sins' (Isaiah 53:11). Paul says that Christ was made a sin offering for us (in the Old Testament, the sin offering was simply called 'sin' or 'חַטָּאת') in 2 Corinthians 5:21 (Cf. Gal. 3: 13). It was not a transfer of moral qualities but legal consequences. Jesus did not become sin or a sinner but took the penalty for sin. It is at this point where I see in the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:5ff as an adumbration of Christ’s death. This view has been ridiculed by many scholars on the grounds that the scapegoat was not sacrificed but simply sent away. But as Stott points out both the ram which was sacrificed and the scapegoat are singularly called a ‘sin offering’, and this is where the analogy lies: the offering is both sacrificed and made to bear or take away the sins of the people (Cf. 1 Pet. 2:24). Also, the mention of Barabbas in all four Gospels may indicate the idea of substitution. If each writer had theological reasons for the way in which they wrote the Gospels then Barabbas represents every man for whom Jesus became the vicarious sacrifice. In 1 Cor. 6:20 Paul states that Christians have been bought a with price (Cf. ch. 7:22f ). The purchase price of Christians is said to be God's,“...own blood.” (Acts 20:28). There may be an intimation in Galatians 3:13 and Colossians 2:14 that mankind was in some way indebted to the law, so that through the cross the demands of the Torah were obviated.Salvation is linked to justification in the New Testament. This is not surprising because justification is a matter of relationship. Hebrew law was bound up with the covenant and the people under it as a community. In many situations in the Old Testament an act of sin resulted in banishment from the community of Yahweh; in a sense the treatment of lepers was an analogy in real life of sin and its effects. The leper was excluded from the people of God until the priest pronounced him clean. Then he was received back into fellowship and enjoyed all the privileges of community life; in other words the obstacle had been removed and he was justified.This analogy falls short in the New Testament though because for believers, sin is not removed but condemnation is. People are placed in a right relationship with God, it is a legal and not an ethical standing. In the New Testament this image of the law court is mostly employed by Paul, especially in Romans. He tells us that justification is achieved through Christ’s blood, that is, his sacrificial death (Romans 5:9). And this rests upon the premise that sin is a universal condition affecting all people (Romans 1-5, esp.3:9, 23). Because of this the law was introduced, not so much to be kept but to show people as transgressors (Gal.3:19; Romans 7:13). So when Christ died upon the cross having completely fulfilled the precepts of the law he did away with the law’s hold upon people's lives (Romans 7:1ff). God was able to place humanity in a right relationship with himself and forgive sin. But for Paul all this hinged upon faith, without it there could be no justification, no relationship with God (Cf. Romans 5:1). Those without faith remain 'enemies of God' because the opposite of justification is condemnation. The resurrection proved that Christ’s death has indeed brought about justification to those who believe (Romans 4:25). It is, the forgiveness of God.

The most personal term relating to salvation is reconciliation and is only used by Paul. The cross opens the way for restored relationship with God (1 Cor 7:11). The most apt word to use today is alienation and this is perhaps the root consequence of sin: remoteness between humanity and God, estrangement and hostility between people, and disharmony between humans and creation. Paul asserts that reconciliation was achieved by the death of Christ (Romans 5:10). Cranfield says that the cross manifested God’s love to mankind and so broke the hostility between the two[5]. For Paul it is always God who reconciles; through the cross the way is opened up to friendship with God, and this idea of access is also developed by Paul.The cross is pictured as a door by which people can enter into relationship with God and each other (Romans 5:2; Eph. 2:11-22). Also connected to reconciliation is the thought of adoption, where Paul uses as an analogy the Roman practice where a slave can be adopted into his master's household and become a son. He states that God has accepted us into his family so to speak. The Gospels and Paul connect the last supper to the concept of reconciliation. It is probable that the writers had in mind Jeremiah 31:31 where a new covenant was promised. The meal was to be a mark of fellowship between God and man which was culminated in the sacrifice of Christ (Cf. Exodus 24).

There are some other aspects to the cross and salvation in the New Testament. At the cross Jesus defeated evil. He released us from the hold of sin and death (1 Cor.15:54ff) and he conquered Satan and the spiritual principalities and powers (Mark 3:23-27; Luke 4:1-13; Matt. 4: 1-11; John 12:31ff; Colossions 2:15; Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:6). Paul asserts that through the cross Christ has disarmed or put off these powers so that they should no longer dominate Christians. Through his death Christians share in the conquests of Christ and are liberated from every adversary (Romans 8:32-39). The Book of Revelation describes Christ as the 'Lamb'. It seems as if John has combined the Servant in Isaiah 53 with the lamb of Jewish apocalyptic writings. Substitutionary sacrifice and victory are bound up in the work of Jesus on the cross (Rev 5:9).The New Testament overwhelmingly asserts that the death of Christ was the culmination of the divine plan and therefore very necessary. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus is portrayed as resolutely moving on to Jerusalem. In fact most of the Gospels are taken up with the passion of Jesus. Even during his mission his teaching is interspersed with references to his death (Mk. 2:18ff; Matt. 9: 14- 17;Luke 5:33ff. Also Matt.12:40). At both Caesarea Philippi and the Transfiguration the emphasis is on urgency and necessity. Mark focuses upon victory through suffering and abandonment (Mark 10:45; 15:34). Matthew shows us God’s anointed one who offered his life in obedience to God. For Luke Jesus was the Passover lamb of the Exodus (Luke 9:43) and linked it with glory. In John’s Gospel Christ’s death is shown to be part of a great plan. His death is known as his 'hour'. The sacrificial aspect emerges in several places: He is the “lamb of God”, the “bread from heaven”, “corn of wheat”. That the soldiers did not break the tradition in which no bones were broken on the Passover lamb (John 19:36). For John Jesus was completely in control of his destiny (10:11,15ff). Suffering and glory are connected; Jesus was “lifted up”. In John the cross was a revelation, and a magnet drawing people (12:31). The last cry was not of abandonment but fulfilment, “It is finished!" There on the cross hung the very expression of God’s love to humanity. In Hebrews the emphasis is upon Christ as both priest and sacrifice. King and Priest after the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110).In conclusion, Jesus died as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin (1 Cor 5:7; Eph 5:2; Rom 8:3). He died in our place. There is probably both an objective and subjective aspect to Jesus' death on the cross. Bicknell states that it achieved something which was independent of our apprehension of it [6]. He then goes on to say that the cross is  “... the disclosure in time of the wounds that our disobedience is ever inflicting upon the heart of God". Christ did not die to save us from the punishment of sin but from sin itself. Ultimately the death of Christ manifests the love of God, “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life."
[1]  PAST EVENT AND PRESENT SALVATION.              Fiddes, Paul S.
[2] SACRIFICE IN THE BIBLE.                                      Ringgren, H.
[3] GOD WAS IN CHRIST.                                             Baillie, D. M.
[4] THE CROSS OF CHRIST                                          Stott, J.
[5] CGTC (MARK)                                                           CEB Cranfield.
INT STANDARD BIBLE ENCYCLOPAEDIA                     Bromi1ey, G.
NEW BIBLE DICTIONARY.                                             I.V.P.
CGTC. (COL. & PHIL)                                                     Moule, C. F.D.
WORD BIBLICAL COMM. (COL.& PHIL)                       O’Brien, P. T.
PRINCIPLES OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY                    Macquarrie, J.
PAULINE CHRISTIANITY                                              Ziesler, J.
CREEDS IN THE MAKING                                           Richardson, A,
EPISTLE OF THE GALATIANS                                      Bruce, F.F.