I really believe that Jesus reconfigured Israel around himself. Israel was to be God’s people, especially chosen to suffer and rescue God’s world. Having abandoned their vocation, Jesus does for Israel what they couldn’t do themselves. He becomes their representative. He is what they were to be as the “people of God” — embodying God’s transforming presence on earth in order to reconcile and restore creation.
In this light, I think the doctrine of substitutionary atonement misses the real focus of the cross. Don’t misunderstand me. Jesus died for our sins. That alone is such a beautiful and wonderful fact that I completely understand why so much of western Christianity concentrates on this fact.
But I think Jesus’ death for our sins is meant to accomplish more than making divine forgiveness available. Here is what Paul says in Titus 2:11-14:
“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
A couple of things stand out. First, salvation is described as a transformed life in the present, not a blissful disembodied existence in the future. Salvation is abandoning patterns of living that are destructive to myself, others and the world (ungodliness and worldly passions) and embracing patterns of renewal and repair for myself, others and the world (self-controlled, upright and godly). I cannot emphasize this enough. Salvation is not being snatched away and rescued from this world in the future. Instead, salvation is living a new kind of life (as defined and demonstrated by Jesus) in this world here and now. This new kind of life is a small piece of the future New Creation. So in a way, we anticipate and pave the way toward the future by living it now.
Second, salvation isn’t primarily about my blessing or privilege. Paul’s words reflect Abraham’s calling in Genesis 12 (“I will bless you… and you will be a blessing.”) Paul says that Jesus gave himself for us in order that we can give ourselves for the world. He redeemed us from wickedness (that’s our blessing) so that we can be purified as his people, zealous to do what is good (that’s our blessing to the world). We have been saved for the sake of the world.
How does the cross do this? I think it must start at a cosmic level and move inward. First, the cross breaks the back of all the powers that have dominated humanity and creation (Col 2:15). Then it reconciles everything in heaven and on earth back to God (Col 1:20). Then it rescues us personally from the dominion of darkness (Col 1:13) and deals with our personal rebellion and self-destruction with divine forgiveness (Col 1:14).
But it doesn’t stop there. As Jesus is Israel reconstituted, I think the cross is Israel’s calling reconstituted (blessed to be a blessing). The “salvation” of the cross from the cosmic level all the way to the personal level must now be embodied, demonstrated and announced from the personal level back to the cosmic level. We have been saved for the sake of the world. We are being taught to abandon our old way of life and to embrace God’s new way of life. We are redeemed from wickedness and purified to be Jesus’ new community, eager and prepared to actually go out and make God’s New Creation happen in our world. And as Christ was the fullness of God in a human life, we have been given the fullness of Christ and join him, above every ruler and authority (Col 2:9-10).
So when we see moments in the Gospels where Jesus is “seeking and saving the lost,” he’s doing much more than offering them God’s forgiveness for their sins. His focus is on Israel. They have “lost” their vocation. They have lost their way of being God’s people on earth for the sake of the world. So Jesus seeks them out and saves them. He rescues them out of their rebellion, their confusion and their destructive false identities and back into their vocation as God’s people.
That’s what the cross is all about! The cross is rescuing people back into the vocation of being God’s image on earth, about being God’s restorative community for the repair and renewal of the world, about being the fullness of God so that heaven and earth actually overlap and connect in the practical moments our lives. Like Israel in the past, we are blessed with relationship with God, with forgiveness of sins, with divine presence and love and grace… so that we can bless the world.
For God so loved the world… Now so must we!