The gospel of the kingdom and the doctrine of the atonement
According to the theological models that dominate Christian thought, Jesus came to die as a sacrifice for sin. Although he performed deeds of power, taught concerning the kingdom, and debated issues of Torah observance, such actions were ultimately subordinate to his true mission: to make atonement for human transgression. Jesus was, as the song goes, “born to die.”
Yet despite its pride of place in traditional theological schemata, few interpreters have been able to locate in the Synoptic Gospels a Jesus who openly or consistently preaches about his impending death, let alone his impending sacrificial death. Instead, the good news that Jesus brings in the Synoptic traditions concerns the impending arrival of God’s kingdom (cf. Mark 1:15; 38, Acts 1:3). As such, virtually all of the Synoptic parables, Jesus’ primary mode of instruction (cf. Mark 4:34), pertain to this approaching divine rule; virtually none of them pertain to salvation by faith in the Messiah’s atoning death.
So while those who are committed to viewing Jesus’ mission and message primarily in terms of atonement for sin can find verses here and there to support their emphasis, the center of Jesus’ message in the first Gospels is decisively the coming kingdom, not the propitiating death.
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God [by] saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message [of the kingdom] in their synagogues and casting out demons. (Mark 1:38-37)
Like his predecessor John the Baptist then, Jesus is presented in the earliest traditions as a prophet of repentance, a prophet sent to prepare Israel for the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 23:37, Romans 15:8-12, Acts 3:26, etc.). The doctrine of his sacrificial death was only later incorporated into the kingdom-gospel message.
The death of a prophet
But if not as a sacrifice for sin, what significance did Jesus’ death initially hold for the gospel narrative? What did the crucifixion mean to the first post-resurrection believers?
In accordance with the earliest traditions about Jesus, the prophet of the kingdom, the first Christians viewed their master’s demise primarily as the death of a prophet. Jesus had died in submission to God on account of his prophetic message and for such obedience was promptly vindicated by resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:3-4, Philippians 2:5-11, Revelation 5, Acts 2:36, Mark 10:33-34). Through his gruesome death and bodily resurrection to heaven, the prophet of the kingdom was made to be the kingdom’s principal agent, the future judge of Israel and the nations.
If the apostolic speeches remembered by Luke are any indication then, the loss and renewal of Jesus’ life were firstly eschatological in scope, not sacrificial. When these earliest Christians did proclaim the forgiveness of sins, they did so not on the basis of Jesus’ sacrificial death, but on the basis of his exaltation and authorization (Acts 2:37-42, 3:11-26, 4:8-12, 13:26-41, cf. Mark 2:1-12, John 5:26-27). In this earliest stage, Jesus forgave by virtue of the name and authority he had been given by God on account of his obedient prophetic death (1 Timothy 6:12-16).
Slowly but surely, though, the cross would become the archetypal symbol of self-giving love.
A sacrificial death?
So how did the idea that Jesus died as an offering for sin emerge and prevail? Why have we come to understand his mission in predominantly sacrificial terms?
In this post I want to explore these questions by outlining what I think represents a reasonable progression of the concept, beginning with its origin late in Jesus’ ministry.
Stage one: Jesus rejected by Israel
Despite being chronologically subsequent to the gospel of the kingdom, the conceptual genesis of the doctrine of the atonement is very early, likely sprouting at the end of Jesus’ life and blossoming shortly after his resurrection. Paul’s creedal material attests to this fact, particularly his preservation of the Last Supper discourse (1 Cor 5:7, 11:23-25, 15:3, Romans 3:25-26, cf. Mark 10:45). So while the first Christians tended to view Jesus more often as a martyred prophet than as a sacrificial lamb (cf. Acts 7:52), both images were present in earliest Christian proclamation and in Jesus’ own teaching.
How then should we connect Jesus’ earlier message about the kingdom to Jesus’ later message about the cross? Here’s one solution.
At a relatively early stage in his ministry, Jesus provoked the religious leaders to anger. The shepherds of Israel were unable or unwilling to bear the prophet’s harsh message, and so, rather than repent at his calling, they began to plot his demise. Although Jesus consistently and intimately engaged with Pharisees, lawyers, priests, scribes, elders, and even Herodians (Luke 7:36-50, 11:37-54, 14:1-24, cf. Mark 5:22, 15:43, Luke 8:3, John 3:1-21), the backwater prophet could not melt the hardened hearts of Israel’s religious establishment. They were set against him.
As these tensions rose Jesus’ ministry began to shift in two primary ways.
Eating with sinners
First, he turned his attention to Israel’s outcasts. They alone among the Jewish people were receptive to his message of repentance in preparation for the kingdom. If Jesus’ prophetic speech and deeds could not win over the Pharisees and their followers, perhaps the public salvation of Israel’s marginalized could. Perhaps Israel’s elite could be driven to jealousy by their redeemed brethren (cf. Romans 10:9-12, 11:11-14, Luke 15).
In the end, this strategy did not succeed: “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you [priests and elders]. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:31-32, cf. Luke 7:36-50). The repentance of sinners at Jesus’ call only hardened Israel’s elite classes.
The bell tolls for thee
Second, Jesus began to consider the consequences of his continued attempts to save Israel from her disobedience. How long would the priests and the teachers of the Law put up with him? What would happen if he publicly condemned them in the Temple? Where was all of this going?
In short, Jesus began to contemplate his death.
This contemplation began with the Hebrew prophets, most notably his friend John. Perhaps he too would die as they did, rejected by the people on account of God’s word.
The two parables he told openly in Jerusalem encapsulate this conviction (Matthew 21:33-22:14, cf. 5:11-12, 23:37): Those invited to the messianic banquet were going to spurn the offer. The son sent to the vineyard to procure his father’s crops was going to be murdered and thrown over the garden wall. The leaders of Israel would do to Jesus what they had done to all the prophets before him (cf. Matthew 23:31-36).
As the possibility of this kind of death became more and more real in the weeks leading up to his final trip to Jerusalem, Jesus turned his interpretive attention to Isaiah’s suffering servant and the story of the Passover lamb; perhaps he too would save a remnant of Israel from God’s wrath through his suffering and death. Perhaps he would give his body and blood for his friends (Mark 14:12-25).
Jesus’ final thoughts on the matter come to us as words from the cross, either words of serenity, as in Luke and John, or words of agony, as in Mark and Matthew. If Jesus’ cry of despair—omitted by Luke and corrected by John (i.e.”my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)—represent Jesus’ actual feelings in part or whole, it appears Jesus continued to contemplate the meaning (and even the necessity) of his death as he died (cf. Hebrews 5:7, Mark 14:36).
The final word on what Jesus’ death meant remained to be told.
Stage two: Love poured out through the holy spirit
After Jesus’ own teachings, the next pivotal moment in the story of the cross was the arrival of Christ’s spirit among his first followers, among those who abandoned him on the night he was betrayed.
In the ecstasy of Christ’s spirit these first believers felt forgiven rather than condemned, loved rather than resented (cf. Romans 5:5, 8:26, Galatians 4:6, John 14:16). Jesus had come back to them not as an avenger but as a friend (cf. Luke 24:36-43, John 20:19-26, 21:4-8). More astounding still, through his spirit Jesus was giving his disciples manifold gifts as the first installment of their salvation and glory (cf. 2 Cor 1:22, John 20:22-23, Acts 2).
Realizing then that they were deeply loved by their master, the disciples began to reconsider Jesus’ behavior toward them during his life.
As I loved you
Through this process of re-remembering, the gruff and demanding Jesus of earliest memory was softened in light of the extravagant love he was now conveying through his spirit. The Jesus who was consistently frustrated by his disciples, the Jesus featured prominently in Mark (4:39-41, 8:14-21; 31-33, 9:17-19, 10:13-14, 14:37-42, 16:14, cf. Matthew 7:11), became much more understanding and gentle. For these first christologians, Jesus was not simply a man of history then, he was a living spirit, present and active with his disciples now and until the end of the age.
John’s writings represent the final stage in this evolution. In John, Jesus’ sharp posture towards his disciples was blunted, leaving only love. The Jesus who lived and moved in Johannine community and Johannine memory loved his own as a good shepherd, washing their feet and defending them from belligerent Jews. With the memory of Jesus transformed and illumined by the spirit, the disciples were now to love each other as Jesus had loved them and was loving them (John 13:34-35, 15:12, 1 John 4:19).
In this light, Jesus’ strange death was not just an act of prophetic obedience toward God, it was the highest expression of brotherly love. Jesus had died not just as a dedicated harbinger of the kingdom, but in some sense as an atoning lamb (John 1: 29, 15:13, 1 John 4:10, Galatians 1:3-4).
As excitement for the kingdom dwindled through the centuries that followed, the gospel of the kingdom was overtaken by the doctrine of the atonement. By what began late in Jesus’ ministry and exploded at Pentecost, the gospel of the kingdom became the gospel of the cross.