Atonement is one of those complex and tricky words in our Christian vocabulary.

It is easy to assume we all know what we mean when we use it. It’s theological shorthand for how sins are dealt with. But as Professor Wright warns in The Day the Revolution Began, “It is easy to imagine that it carries a single and obvious meaning. It does not.” Often we don’t agree on the meaning of it. Atonement reaches back into the story of Israel and reaches forward to the culmination of all things with the death of Jesus at the center.

It is easy to imagine that atonement carries a single and obvious meaning. It does not. Click To Tweet

In Accordance with the Scriptures

We could start with the theological puzzles created by theologians over the years if we want to make sense of atonement, but a better way is to look at the crucifixion of Jesus within the context of the big story the Bible is telling. When we step back from the debates about atonement theories and take a look at the how the death of Jesus fits within the story of Scripture, then with fresh eyes we can begin to see what the atonement is all about.

We all believe “…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3 ESV).

“In accordance with the Scriptures” doesn’t refer to a few select verses in the Old Testament, but to the entirety of the story of Israel climaxing in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Messiah. The atonement means what it means in the context of the story of Scripture beginning with the story of Israel.

God’s Presence with God’s People

The God of Israel created the entire world to be a temple in which God could dwell with the creatures he made. But sin created a division between heaven and earth. The tabernacle, and later the Temple in Jerusalem, became the place where God dwelt with God’s people on the earth. Within the holiest place within the tabernacle sat the Ark of the Covenant, the lid of which is called, in Greek, hilasterion, best translated as the “place of mercy,” “mercy seat,” or the “place of atonement.” Once a year on the Jewish Day of Atonement the high priest would sprinkle the blood of a bull and goat on the mercy seat in order to wash the people of Israel, cleansing them from their sins (Leviticus 16:30).

The Passover event, with its liberation from Egyptian slavery, signaled God was King (Exodus 15:18). God had not abandoned his people. The Exodus event doesn’t mention atonement, but it becomes important to how the New Testament writers understood the death of Jesus. The expectation of many first century Jewish people was for God to act in order to overthrow the pagan oppressors and forgive Israel’s sins in order to bring the exile to a full and final end.

This action would be what Professor Wright calls a “new Exodus” for the people of God. God’s people were sent into exile because of their sins. Therefore, to be released from exile Israel’s sins needed to be pardoned.

The Suffering Servant

The end of exile, and thus salvation for Israel, would come through suffering. The prophet Isaiah revealed that suffering was not only the context of the coming deliverance from exile but also the means by which that deliverance will come. Isaiah 53 includes both the language of redemptive suffering as well as victory language (Isaiah 53:12).

According to Isaiah the suffering servant “…was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5 ESV). The wounding of God’s servant would heal the wounds of sin. He would be the means by which Israel experienced the forgiveness of sins and their long awaited end of exile.

The Cup of the Covenant

The gospel writers did not pepper their gospel accounts with atonement theories but they wove their own interpretation of the death of Jesus into the fabric of their Spirit-inspired narratives. Jesus described the meaning of his own death in the clearest of terms in the Upper Room as he shared the Passover meal with his disciples.

“When Jesus wanted to explain to his followers what his forthcoming death was all about, he did not give them a theory, a model, a metaphor, or any other such thing; he gave them a meal.” (N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began)

Jesus transformed the Passover meal from looking back towards the Exodus to looking forward to his pending death. The cup of wine was the “blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28 ESV). The death of Jesus would be an experience of liberation and victory. This offering of his life was an announcement of the coming of the kingdom from heaven to earth. Jesus renewed the covenant as Israel’s representative substitute, taking upon himself the vocation and fate of Israel, laying down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

This new Exodus event coming through the death of Jesus would be an act of forgiveness of sins and thus the long-awaited end to exile and a defeat of the dark powers. In Jesus we see Israel’s covenant-faithful God taking sin upon himself in order to move the story of redemption forward. Atonement from the perspective of this sacred meal is more of a story for Christians to enter than an abstract theory to try to understand. Sharing in the bread and the cup makes followers of Jesus active participants in God’s story.

Sharing in the bread and the cup makes followers of Jesus active participants in God’s story. @derekvreeland Click To Tweet

The Place of Mercy

The forgiveness of sins by the death of Jesus was necessary for the story, which has the redemption of the world as its great goal, to continue. Paul draws upon redemption language in his letter to the Romans:

“God’s covenant justice comes into operation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who have faith….They are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus. God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood.” — Romans 3:22,24-25, The Kingdom New Testament

Through his shed blood Jesus provided redemption for the world, which has roots in the Exodus where the Jewish people were “purchased” by God and delivered from bondage in Egypt. God did not choose Israel in order to confer most-favored-nation status upon one nation. Rather God choose Israel so that through Israel God could shine the light of his love to all the families of the earth. In this way Jesus became a curse so that “the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles” (Galatians 3:14 ESV).

Without the foundational story of Jesus found in the Gospels, a story rooted in the story of Israel, the death of Jesus too easily becomes a “paganized doctrine” where an innocent person dies to appease an angry deity. With these stories in view, Paul’s summaries of what happened when Jesus died become much clearer, namely that God, the God of Israel, the Creator God, was in Christ “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19 ESV). Through Jesus’ death the God of Israel demonstrated his faithfulness to the covenant to bless all the nations of the earth through the people of Abraham.

Looking Towards The End

How the cross saves is connected to how things end. In other words, what God is saving us for determines how God saves us. As we look at the end of the story of Scripture we see a picture of new creation in full bloom.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” – Revelation 21:1 ESV

The future isn’t a matter of human beings leaving the earth to go be with God in heaven. The picture we see in Revelation is a picture of heaven coming to earth, restoring the beautiful harmony between God’s space and humanity’s space. In this redemptive harmony “(God) will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3 ESV).

With these closing chapters, our sacred story comes full circle. New creation takes us back to the experience of creation where the new heaven and the new earth serve as a garden temple where God dwells in community with God’s people, a reunion made possible through the atonement.

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Derek Vreeland (D.Min. Asbury Theological Seminary) is the Discipleship Pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He is a regular contributor to the Writing Collectives at Missio Alliance. He is also the author of numerous books including, 'By the Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus' and 'N.T. Wright and The Revolutionary Cross', a reader's guide to Professor Wright's book 'The Day The Revolution Began'.