I have been asked “how the death of Jesus (instead of the Maccabees, for example) had the effect of abolishing the law which divided Jews and Gentiles”. (It’s what the contact form is for. Feel free to use it.)
This seems a fair question. The deaths of the Maccabean martyrs were thought to have potential atoning value for the sins of Israel (cf. 4 Macc. 17:21-22), but there is no suggestion that this put an end to the Law or that it opened the door of membership in Israel to Gentiles on the basis of faith. Why is Jesus’ death different?
I have argued in several posts recently (the latest is Forgivenss of sins in Romans) that according to the core narrative of the New Testament Jesus’ death atoned for the sins of Israel, making a new future possible for a people that was otherwise condemned by the Law to destruction. Gentiles benefit from this secondarily and indirectly. This narrative-historical account is quite different from the traditional theological account that we are all familiar with—that God sent his Son into the world to die for the sins of humankind—though the final outcome may not be as unorthodox as appears at first sight.
Let me first run over the evidence….
In Galatians Paul has to dissuade Gentile believers, who have received the Spirit by hearing with faith, from taking upon themselves the burden of the Law of Moses. He warns them in no uncertain terms that those who rely on “works of the Law” are under a curse. No one is justified before God by the Law for the simple reason that the Jews have consistently failed to live up to the standards of the Law (Gal. 3:10-12).
However, Christ has redeemed Paul and other Jews from the curse of the Law by his death on a tree; in the fullness of time God sent his Son to “redeem those who were under the Law”; and the consequence is that the “blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles” (Gal. 3:13-14; 4:4). How is it that the Gentiles receive the Spirit? They have faith, they believe, they trust in God, because, as Habakkuk wrote, the “righteous shall live by faith” (Gal. 3:14). Jews and Gentiles alike become sons of God by trusting in what God is doing in this time of dire eschatological crisis.
The same story is told in two passages in Romans. I argued in the post on Forgiveness of sins in Romans that Gentiles would be justified on the day of God’s wrath by their belief—an act of concrete trust—that YHWH had redeemed his people through the death of his Son, whom he had raised from the dead and made judge and ruler of the nations. Jesus’ death was an act of atonement for the sins of Israel, but it was a demonstration of God’s righteousness apart from the Law. It was, therefore, something that could be believed in without fulfilling the requirements of the Law. You did not have to be a Jew to believe that the one true, living God had shown himself to be in the right by raising Jesus from the dead.
The distinction is much clearer in chapter 15. Christ became a servant to the circumcised in order to prove God’s truthfulness and confirm the promises made to the patriarchs (regarding the inheritance of the nations), with the result that even the Gentiles now glorify the God of Israel for his mercy towards his people (Rom. 15:8-9). Gentiles are “saved” by the salvation of Israel. The scriptural quotations that follow make just this point. The passage is discussed at length here and in The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, 13.
Finally, Paul argues in Ephesians 2:11-17 that Gentiles, who were once far off, have been brought near by the death of Jesus, not because he has atoned for their sins but because his death has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the Law of commandments” (this is the ESV translation, but I have capitalized “Law” to make it clear that this is the Law of Moses and not merely a universal moral law).
This is, in effect, the same as argument in Romans 3:21-31: because God has been justified apart from the Law, it is open to anyone to believe in what he has done. To illustrate the point from Acts, Cornelius and his family received the Holy Spirit and the Gentiles of Antioch in Pisidia glorified the word of the Lord not because they believed that Jesus had died for their sins but because they believed the story about Jesus and Israel (Acts 10:44-45; 13:48).
The death of Jesus changed things for the Gentiles
So how did the death of Jesus change things for the Gentiles? We instinctively want to answer this at a deep theological level, which is why some people are so unwilling to concede that according to the central prophetic-apocalyptic narrative of the New Testament Jesus dies, as I would put it, directly for the sins of Israel and indirectly for the sins of the nations.
But I would suggest that the answer to the question is rather simple. Gentiles believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead; they believed that this demonstrated that he really was the one true God and that it would have far-reaching implications for the religious-political landscape of the ancient world; and they were justified on account of this belief, becoming part of a new community of people—one person in Christ—who shared this conviction.
Jesus’ death differs from the deaths of the martyrs in two important respects. First, it is part of a kingdom narrative: he was born to be king, executed as a royal pretender, and raised from the dead as the Son who would be judge and ruler not of his own people only but also of the nations. The resurrection meant that the hoped-for vindication of the Maccabean martyrs could only be regarded as at best a foreshadowing of the faithful death of Jesus.
Secondly, it was not a death in defence of the Law and the ancestral traditions of Israel. It was a death apart from the Law, in the shadow of impending destruction, resulting in the abolition of the Law as a force separating Jews and Gentiles. In that respect, it is the Jewish War that fundamentally marks out Jesus’ death and resurrection from the suffering entailed in the earlier crisis.
What about us?
I have stressed the fact that Gentiles came to believe in Jesus within the horizon of the clash between Christ and the pagan nations. Our eschatological horizon is different, but the central issue remains the same: we are justified, saved, receive the Spirit, and are baptized into the covenant people, because we believe that the creator God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him the name which is above every name.
This “salvation”, if we want to call it that, would not be possible if Jesus’ death had not, on the one hand, atoned for the sins of Israel and, on the other, removed the dividing wall of the Law. Jesus’ death is an absolutely necessary enabling factor. In that respect, at least, it seems to me quite reasonable to say that Jesus died for me.
The danger, however, with compressing the narrative to such an elemental personal formula is two-fold. First, it tends to blind us to the public-political dynamic of New Testament thought. Secondly, it blinds us to the public political dynamic of our own existence as a people that confesses Jesus as Lord.