One of the seminal texts that comes to mind here is in Matthew’s Gospel.
22 Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. 23 All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” 25 He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? 27 If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 29 Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered (Matthew 12:22-29, NRSV).
The occasion of this account is the healing of a blind and mute man who was possessed by demons. The Pharisees’ interpretation of this event is found in verse 24 where they suggest he drove out the demons by Satan’s power. But Jesus reveals the absurdity of this response in verses 26-29.
The point Jesus makes here is that he has complete power over the demonic because he has already entered the domain of evil and found its source. When did this “binding” take place? Most biblical scholars agree that Matthew 4:1-11 is the answer. In the temptation in the wilderness our Lord met Satan in person. Most are agreed that this temptation was not in his moral character but rather in view of his messianic calling. Satan sought to divert Jesus from his mission. Jesus’ refusal signals an important turning point in the narrative of the Gospels. The synoptic Gospels all reveal the power of Jesus over evil. The healing miracles are directly linked to this power. Webber rightly concludes: “Evil was perverting the purposes of the structures of existence that had been created to provide order and meaning to the world so these structures–the powers–had to be dethroned in order to set the creation free from ‘its bondage to decay’ (Rom. 8:21)” (Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 50).
In Colossians the apostle Paul says that the death and resurrection of Jesus “disarmed” the powers and authorities and “made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15). Christ is revealed as Lord in his death and resurrection because here he exposes the deception of Satan and all the evil influences in our world. Adds Weber, “The illusion that life or death, humanly devised religious observances, or human social regulations are ultimate is now exposed for the lie it is. Likewise, all other aspects of the created order that people elevate to positions of ultimate authority are stripped of the power to deceive” (Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 51).
At this point it is important to bring the theme of the kingdom of God into our consideration of the meaning of Christ’s death. I believe no category mistake is more common among conservative Christians than this one. In reacting to the liberals and their stress on the moral example of Jesus, joined to the nature of his present kingdom in this world, conservatives stressed the future aspect of the kingdom to a place that was equally out of balance. Serious Bible students should examine every reference to the kingdom of God if they wish to understand just how important this theme really is to the life and death of Jesus.
We must acknowledge that the kingdom is a central theme in the teaching of our Lord and we must also acknowledge that there are a number of texts that present considerable challenge to us reading this material twenty centuries removed from the context. Webber argues that there are three “underlying themes that permeate the kingdom uses” in the New Testament (Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 54). These are:
- The rule of God is over all areas of life.
- The kingdom of God is a gift.
- Jesus is himself the embodiment of the kingdom.
To preach the gospel is to preach Jesus and his kingdom. In Jesus “both the publication and the actualization of the Good News are brought together. He not only proclaims the Good News but he is and does the God News. He is the content of his message” (Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 55). When we read the Gospels carefully we quickly discover that the theme is Jesus–the kingdom! When you come to the Book of Acts you discover that the apostles were not preaching facts or propositions. And they certainly were not preaching a view of Christ’s death that fits with most modern interpretations. The apostles preached “an event.” Their message was that Jesus lived, died, and rose again for the sin of the world! Salvation is no mere assent to the facts about the king, but an actualization of repentance, faith, and obedience. This is the Good News that saves (1 Cor. 15:2)” (Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 55).
What has all of this to do with the doctrine of the atonement?
I will offer a fuller response to this question in my final blogs in this series (next week) but for now I leave you with this question I posed before and have stated again in different words: “If the death of Jesus is fundamentally about vindicating the honor of his Father, and thus turning away his wrath, can this particular image of God fuel your love and obedience to the Holy Trinity?” I confess that in my life this particular image failed me miserably. It did not make me love God but rather created a simmering state of terror for years. I was finally forced to grapple with the teaching of the early church as well as several modern ideas about restoring broken relationships.
A different, and I believe much better, answer to the question of the atonement is to ask if the payment so clearly referenced in Scripture with regard to Christ’s death is a payment that true forgiveness and restoration ultimately requires. I will explain this idea further next week.