On the day of the crucifixion, only one man understood what was happening fully. He was not a believer, but a most unexpected person. He alone understood what Jesus was accomplishing upon the Cross. Later on, Paul and other early Christians like the one who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews and those Jewish converts who preached the Gospel, they understood.
But today, many scholars reject their understanding. In so doing they refuse to accept the primary evidence, they push credibility to the limit in imagining alternate ideas, and they deny an essential aspect of the life and death of Jesus Christ.
1. MODERN ATTITUDES TO THE ROLE OF JESUS. Some modern scholars have rejected the Biblical role that Jesus fulfilled, and have imagined what they believe is more realistic roles. Scholars among the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus differently. One Bruce Chilton, "A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible", (Glazier Wilmington 1984) regards Jesus as a local rabbi who courageously takes on the learned scribes and Pharisees. Another S G F Brandon claims that Jesus was a Zealot who wished to bring about the kingdom through political action ("Jesus and the Zealots" Scribners New York 1967).
In 1995 Ben Witherington Ill in "Jesus the Sage" (Clark, Edinburgh) suggests Jesus was a wandering sage who proclaimed catchy sayings to crowds that gathered around. Another scholar E P Sanders in "Jesus and Judaism" (Fortress Philadelphia, 1985) believes Jesus was a prophet proclaiming the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God.
Two imaginative views rejected by scholars are from Barbara Thiering claiming Jesus was an Essene from Qumran ("Jesus the Man" Doubleday New York 1994) and Morton Smith believing Jesus was a magician ("Jesus the Magician" Harper & Row New York 1978). One Roman Catholic scholar who is co-chair of The Jesus Seminar Fr J D Crossan ("The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant" Harper SanFrancisco 1991) argues Jesus was a peasant who believed in God's kingdom as the answer for human dignity and a totally different social structure.
Ben Witherington Ill ("The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jesus of Nazareth" IVP Downers Grove 1995) has provided a good critique of these views and provided scholarly reasons for their rejection. Newsmagazines have written up some of these imaginative claims with journalistic licence. ABC TV gave Theiring great uncritical promotion. But history, reason, and faith call us to challenge the theories of these revisionist scholars.
For the last century some scholars have tried to argue away the miracles, the virgin birth and the resurrection. Movies, like the 1970's "The
Passover Plot" claiming to be new, have given fanciful and often sexual interpretations to the life of Jesus. They usually have magnified the role of Mary Magdalene as the sex object (any woman within twenty miles would do!) and Judas as the betrayer. Jewish scholars like Hershal Shanks, editor of "Biblical Archaeological Review", in his book "Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls" dismisses the claims of people like Thiering saying the Dead Sea
Scrolls do not support new revisionists theories. Why do they persist in denying Jesus Christ?
There is outside the New Testament significant references to Jesus in early nonbiblical sources among non-Christian writers like Tacitus, Josephus,
Pliny and several others from the first century which confirm Jesus as a historical figure. I will deal with them on October 26th. They contain no new details, no Mary Magdalene stories, no tales of disciples stealing the body, no hints of Jesus as a political revolutionary. In fact the story of Jesus in the Gospels is the most credible and cogent account of all. If you dismiss the scriptures all you have left is speculation and fantasy.
The real problem is scholars and writers who abuse the evidence that is there. And no-where is the rejection of the Lordship of Jesus more clear, than in the scholars rejection of His person and purpose. When scholars reject the virgin birth, His death by crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus as do Barbara Thiering and Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book: "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?" (Harper SFO 1994) then we have an emasculated Jesus who has relevance to people neither then nor now. Their Jesus would never have been crucified with such venom as He was. The crucifixion of Jesus demands reasons beyond the fancy suggestions of some of these modern scholars.
2. WHAT THEN IS THE CRUCIAL ROLE OF JESUS? The primary purpose of the life of Jesus was to "save His people from their sins".(Matt 1:21) Matthew thus declares it at the beginning of His Gospel. Jesus was to accomplish reconciliation between God and humanity through His death, burial, and resurrection. This was in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies and the continuing need within human hearts.
In the Old Testament, God allowed humans to make an offering to restore fellowship with Himself. Such offerings removed the bad effects of human sin. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered the holy of holies to make sin offerings for himself, his family, and the people of Israel. So sins were removed or covered by God. In the New Testament the atoning sacrifice of Jesus is usually translated "to reconcile" meaning to establish relationships by friendship between God and humanity. Paul used this word to describe Christ's work of salvation (2 Cor 5:1820). Rom 5:10-11 "When we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son. We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation."
The focal point of God's atoning work is the Cross of Christ. The Cross is emphasised throughout the New Testament. At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was identified as John 1:29 "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" The purpose of His coming was Mark 10:45 "to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 14:24 Jesus said "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many." Jesus is the atoning sacrifice enabling our sins to be forgiven. Romans 3:21-26 "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood."
The early Christian preaching included as the Cross as central: (Acts 2:21; 3:6,19; 4:13; 5:31; 8:35; 10:43). Paul proclaimed "Christ died for our sins"(1 Cor 15:3). He said Eph 2:13 "now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ." Hebrews declares Heb 9:28 "Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people." Jesus has become "a new and living way" (Heb. 10:20) into God's presence. Peter wrote 1 Peter 2:24 "Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed."
Atonement issues from love. It is as a divine gift, never as human achievement. "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" Rom. 5:8. Christ is both our representative and substitute: He represents us on the Cross and substitutes His death for ours.
3. BUT HOW CAN JESUS BE OUR ATONING SACRIFICE? He
experienced the suffering and death each of us deserved. As Charles Wesley exclaimed in wonder:
"Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me!"
Christ the atoning sacrifice is in the New Testament often seen in terms drawn from Old Testament sacrificial practices. So His death is called a "sacrifice for sins" Heb 10:12. Paul writes 1 Cor 5:7 "Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed." Through Christ's death sin is forgiven (Eph 1:7), and the conscience is cleansed (Heb 9:14). One twentieth century example might help us understand Jesus as the atoning sacrifice.
Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest, was deported to Auschwitz in May 1941. Few who passed through the Concentration Camp gates left alive. The only way out of the camp was through the chimneys of the crematorium. Father Maximilian received the striped convict garment and was tattooed with the number 16670. He had to carry blocks of stone for the construction of a crematorium wall. Although he was suffering greatly, he secretly continued to minister to inmates.
Prisoners were slowly and systematically starved to death. Father Maximilian however, shared his meagre rations with others. His said, "Every man has an aim in life; for most men it is to return home to their wives and families. For my part, I want to give my life for the good of all men." Men gathered in secret to hear his words of love and encouragement. He set an incredible example.
Camp law, viciously enforced, stated that if anyone attempted to escape, ten men would be selected for death by starvation in a dreaded, windowless underground bunker. Near the end of July, a prisoner apparently escaped, and the prisoners were paraded knowing what to expect. One man from each line was selected at random, including Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek. He cried out: "My wife, my children, I shall never see them again!" Then Father Kolbe stepped out from the ranks and offered to take Gajowniczek's place. The SS guard, "Butcher" Fritsch, did not care who went to the bunker, so long as there were ten of them. He was not just saving the life of the tenth man, but Father Kolbe wanted to be with and help the other nine to die with dignity and Christian comfort.
In their death bunker, those wretched people felt a protective presence, and their cells resounded with hymns and prayers. As Jesus said John 15:13 "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Today Sergeant Gajowniczek, 95 years, is alive giving thanks to God for Father Kolbe who died in his place.
So Jesus took our place in paying our penalty for sin. The Bible declared Rom 6:22-23 "Now that you have been set free from sin... the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." On the Cross Jesus died for the penalty of your sin, in your place He was the atoning sacrifice.
Scholars may make up their own definition of Who Jesus is and what He accomplished but the Bible is clear. On the day of the crucifixion, only one man understood what was happening fully. It was not a believer, but Barabbas, a criminal who had been released from his crucifixion by Jesus who died in His place. One poet had Barabbas, years later listening to Paul, explaining how Jesus was our atoning sacrifice, taking our sins, and dying in our place upon the Cross. The poet has Barabbas saying: I heard a man explaining
(They say his name was Paul)
How Jesus on that fateful day,
Had died to save us all.
I found it hard to follow His finespun theory,
But I am very, very sure, He died that day for me."
He died for me! That is the essential truth of what happened upon the Cross. Do you believe he died for you? Do you in gratitude live for Him?
REFERENCES USED IN THIS SERMON:
THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF SAINTS D Farmer 1978
THE HISTORICAL JESUS J D Crossan Harper SFO 1991
THE JESUS QUEST Ben Witherington Ill IVP 1995
THE CROSS OF CHRIST John R W Stott IVP 1986
RESURRECTION: MYTH OR REALITY? Bp J S Spong
(Harper SFO 1994)
Return to sermons home page