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What is the benefit of Jesus’ death for the Gentiles?

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.

Comments

Gentiles are “saved” by the salvation of Israel. The scriptural quotations that follow make just this point.

This is stated distinctly by Jesus himself. In John 4:22 Jesus stated, “salvatoin is of the Jews”!

Very good Andrew! I am absolutely loving this series by you. With every word you write you demonstrate my position from a fulfilled-covenantal perspective concerning both protology and eschatology. Keep up the great work!

Whether you know it or not but this whole understanding/perspective your putting forth concerning salvation is of the Jews has already been presented in Max King’s work, “The Cross and the Parousia of Christ”.

The only point concerning your presentations that I disagree with concerns the law. The question that needs to be addressed is when does the law begin that Israel needs “saved” from? While most think it started at Sinai, the truth is it actually started in Genesis.

In your The forgiveness of Israel’s sins in Hebrews you stated the following.

His death redeemed Israel “from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15).

and

Jesus’ death dealt with the sins committed by Israel under the old covenant in order that a new covenant might be inaugurated

and

It is specifically “under the Law” that the shedding of blood is required for the forgiveness of sins.

What you show here, and is true, is the law and the old covenant go hand in hand. So, when did the old Covenant begin?

We read in Hos. 6:7

“But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me”

This shows there was one over arching Covenant that Israel was under and violated just like Adam, which his where it began. This is also when law began that Israel was under. Paul said the Mosaic law was “added” (Gal. 3:19). “added” to what?

Now you’ve done a great job of showing that only Isreal was “under law”. So, this shows that Adam was not the first human being to ever live, otherwise the Gentile would be under law and the covenant too. Yet Paul states in Eph. 2:12

“remember that you were at time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world”

Adam was the first Covenant man. He was pulled out from among mankind and put into Covenant with God; Israel’s beginning. This is also seen in the fact that Paul is dealing with Israel on a corporate level throughout the NT and he always took Israel back to Adam (Romans 5, 1 Cor. 15). Adam was Israel corporate head. Yet, Paul in Eph. 2 also showed there were two corporate heads. Adam and the Gentile man (Eph. 2:15).

You can also see this in the OT as well. Who was Cain afraid of in Ge. 4:14? Where did Cain get his wife?

I would like to discuss Romans 5:13 some day too, which shows there was sin prior to Adam “sinning”. What has been called the “fall” is not really what evangelicalism says it is.

There is much much more, but to keep it simple and short I’ll end here.

Your argument is a good one, if you see Israel as a stand alone character in the narrative. But, I maintain that it ignores the point of the existence of Israel. If Israel is meant to be a an end in itself then your soteriology runs headlong into Chris Camillo’s arms. If Israel only exists as a means of telling the story of humanity in general then you can overlay Israel’s soteriological theology onto all mankind without much effort. As far as I can tell, those are the only two options.

Doug

Andrew - the building blocks of your argument which you use here are, I believe, still flawed.

First - you use Galatians to justify your premise that Jesus’s death on the cross was for Israel and not Gentiles (or, as you put it, directly for one, only indirectly for the other). Galatians is the one letter where Paul does make a distinction between Jews (we/us) and Gentiles in a developed argument. (He does something similar in Ephesians, but we’ll look at that in a moment). Paul does say in Galatians “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ “, and goes on to distinguish how such Jews (ie believing Jews) are “justified by faith in Christ and not be observng the law” - 2:16. He then makes it even more personal, reverting to the first person singular rather than plural.

However, this is within an argument which is addressed to Gentiles who were seeking justification (righteousness before God) through observing the (Jewish) law in addition to faith in Christ, but actually nullifying the latter by the former. Paul is pointing out the folly of Gentiles seeking justification by law when it didn’t work for those for whom the law was designed, ie Jews by birth like himself. He is not saying that the death of Jesus was only applicable to Jews within their history.

The broader direct applicablility of the death of Jesus for Gentiles can be seen in Galatians 3. In verse 2, Paul says “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law or believing what you heard?” The relevant question is: what did the Gentile Galatians hear? It was not, as you put it vaguely: “by trusting in what God is doing in this time of dire eschatological crisis”. What the Galatians heard was what is described in verse 1: “Before your eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified”. This is what the Galatians had in the first place believed, and Paul makes no qualification whatsoever here. The death of Christ was for Gentile Galatians to beileve in for themselves, as a result of which they received the Spirit. It is nonsense to say that they received the Spirit by believing that they heard Christ had died for someone else, and it runs counter to the actual sense of Paul’s presentation.

The death of Christ for Gentiles as well as Jews is emphasized by Paul’s use of Abraham in the argument. He was both a paradigm of faith and the original inaugurator of the gospel, the evangelion, which was a justification (declaration of righteousnes) by faith which would bless all nations - Galatians 3:8 - with the same declaration of righteousness before God. It runs counter to the whole sense and flow of the argument to then say that actually only the Jews, the natural descendants of Abraham, were the recipients of this gospel - the gospel of forgiveness of sins and justification/declaration of righteousness.

The key to Galatians is not that Paul is arguing a limited death of Jesus for Jews only, but that he destroys the logic of the Galatian proselytes to Judaism by arguing from within their logic as a Jew. The death of Christ was, on the contrary, universal, in an unbroken argument leading to the climactic statement of Galatians 3:26.

Second - Romans argues the universality of Jesus’s death on the cross much more clearly, as I have already shown from Romans 3-4 in particular in a previous post. Romans 15:8-9, as a summary statement, does not at all show a limitation of Jesus’s life and death to Israel. Again, it is part of a wider argument, the background to which is a community of believers in which Jews and Gentiles seemed to be at loggerheads, each believing in their own superiority to the other. Paul has argued that neither had grounds for complacency or self righteousness. Gentiles owed a debt of gratitude to Jews, just as Jews needed to see that their history was not about a superior status which was to separate them from Gentiles, but rather was designed expressly for the benefit and blessing of a Gentile world - which was “the righteousness of God” intended for all, not just Israel - Romans 10:1-4.

So in Romans 15:8-9, with this background in view, and avoiding a “proof text” interpretation, Paul is encouraging eirenic attitudes between Jew and Gentile at this point. Christ became a servant of the Jews, from which Jews may take vindication, to fulfil promises which were made to the whole world through Abraham, from which Gentiles may take vindication. The whole purpose of God’s plan for Israel was to bring salvation to the whole world - a salvation which went beyond 1st century events alone.

Your interpretation of the third building block is also flawed, Andrew. Indeed, it seems to me almost blind to the main point in Ephesians 2:11-17, in which you make its meaning something quite different from what the passage is saying. Here, you say

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”

But this is splitting the unity of the argument into opposing parts. It was precisely because of Jesus’s death on the cross that he broke down “the dividing wall of hostilty”, or as Paul says in verse 16 - “in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross”. It wasn’t God reconciling Israel alone to himself through the cross, and then Gentiles being reconciled because they believed what God was doing for Israel but not for them, and from which they would only benefit indirectly.

Your argument is not illustrated at all by Cornelius and his family. Their instantaneous Spirit reception, based on willing reception of Peter’s message, shows for Peter’s benefit that what he and other devout Jews had received, and believed was for them alone, was also available for believing Gentiles - based on their common appropriation of the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross. This would have been readily accessible to Cornelius, since he already had the background of the story as a “God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people”. In other words, one who already knew and respected the God of Israel, and who knew the story of Israel’s God.

Acts 13 also in no wise demonstrates a separate ‘gospel’ for Gentiles rather than Jews. Paul preaches “the word of God” (ie the gospel of forgiveness of sins and justification by faith in Jesus) to Jews and Gentile God-fearers, and then preaches the same word of God - Acts 13:46 - to Gentiles outside and beyond the synagogue.

Jesus died on the cross for Jews and Gentiles, then and now, fulfilling the story of the whole scriptures. It came as a surprise to many, such as Peter, who, like yourself Andrew, believed the death was limited to Israel, and only, if at all, indirectly applicable to Gentiles. It was a universal death. What God has joined together, let no man tear asunder.

The death of Christ was for Gentile Galatians to beileve in for themselves, as a result of which they received the Spirit. It is nonsense to say that they received the Spirit by believing that they heard Christ had died for someone else, and it runs counter to the actual sense of Paul’s presentation.

It seems to me that you are again reading into the text something that is not there. Paul emphasises the fact that Christ was presented to the Galatians as crucified for the reasons that he gives in 3:10-14: Christ redeemed Jews from the curse of the Law. He makes the point because the Galatians appear to want to adopt the Law in addition to faith in what God has done.

But the gospel that was preached to them was from the start a gospel about the significance of Jesus’ death as the means by which Israel was redeemed from the curse of the Law, by which the dividing wall of the Law was broken down—with the result that Gentiles might become part of God’s people simply by believing in what the God of Israel was doing.

Paul’s argument here is exactly the same as we find in the other passages. Jesus died for Israel’s sins, he became a servant to the circumcised, he redeemed those under the Law, he broke down the dividing wall of the Law and one consequence of this was that Gentiles who believed in what God was doing through this whole thing and put their trust in him were justified and received the Spirit.

But I’m repeating myself, and will only continue to do so if I try to respond to your other points.

Having read this (and other previous responses to other posts!) I’m amazed at how little you have actually taken note of what I was saying, Andrew.

You overlook the framework of Galatians which provides the specific reason why Paul casts himself in the role of a Jew by birthright. He is contending with the drift of the Hebrew believers to Judaism, or rather, to add observance of the Jewish law, including circumcision, to faith in Christ. That they were not in the first place intentionally rejecting Christ, and what he had done for them, is evident from Paul’s appeal to what they had gained from faith in Christ, in contrast to observing the law. This is supported by what we understand of the “agitators” and their activities in other letters.

This is the context in which Paul’s appeal to the portrayal of Christ crucified, which he had made on his previous visit, is to be understood. It was a portrayal to Gentiles, which they believed in for themselves, and was sufficient in itself to bring about the Spirit reception and activity which validated the belief. The argument Paul is making is that they needed to add nothing to this belief, as he himself had found as a Jew.

Paul is in no wise making a different argument, that he as a Jew had a separate and unique appropriation of thr death of Christ, which was only relevant to Gentiles in a secondary and indirect sense. Nowhere in the letter is there a hint of this.

Correction: 2nd paragraph, should have read “the drift of Galatian believers to Judaism”, not “Hebrew believers”. I’ve got Hebrews on my brain, but there are some points of similarity in the two letters.

I haven’t overlooked the frame of Galatians. We just read it differently.