Gentiles are saved by the salvation of Israel? Really? What about this, that, and the other?

Read time: 10 minutes

I make this point frequently: the theological content of the New Testament is not structured systematically and universally. It is structured narratively and historically. So, for example, we are not presented with a general doctrine of atonement that applies under all circumstances. What we see, I think, is Jesus’ death interpreted as part of an unfolding narrative that is only diminished by translation into the generalised abstractions of a systematic soteriology. If the narrative was good enough for the New Testament churches, it should be good enough for us. It runs something like this:

  1. Jesus died as a servant to the circumcised (Rom. 15:8), because of the sins of rebellious Israel. Such a death at the hands of the Roman occupying power could properly be regarded as pre-empting the punishment of Israel by the agency of the armies of Titus, and figuratively as an act of propitiation analogous to sacrifices made in the temple for the atonement of Israel’s sins. But the rationale is simply that God was graciously willing to forgive Israel’s sins in recognition of the faithfulness of Jesus, his obedience unto death (Rom. 3:25).
  2. This death changed the terms by which Jews would be “justified” at this critical moment in their history—not by “works” of Law or by violence but by belief that God would soon intervene to “judge” his people and transfer management of the vineyard of Israel to his Son and to those who were not ashamed to identify themselves with him. I emphasise “belief” here: I continue to disagree with Matthew Bates that “allegiance” is an adequate translation of pistis.
  3. It was this dramatic change in the terms of justification or “righteousness” that opened the door for Gentiles to be included in the community of eschatological renewal without adopting patterns of Law-observance that no longer guaranteed a future for Israel. So I think it is correct to say that the Gentiles were saved by the salvation of Israel, or perhaps that Jesus died directly for the sins of Israel and indirectly for the sins of the Gentiles.

It has been suggested to me, however, that Paul makes a number of statements that do not fit this complicated model. So why not just keep it simple: Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all people? Three passages in particular are considered here.

The brother for whose sake Christ died

For the one being weak is destroyed by your knowledge, the brother for whose sake (di’ hon) Christ died. (1 Cor. 8:11, my translation)

The “brother for whom Christ died” is probably here the “weak” Gentile who has not really grasped the fact—obvious to a Jew—that “an idol has no real existence”. He cannot shake off the thought that eating food offered to idols entails some manner of participation in an act of pagan sacrifice—arguably a participation in the “table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:19-21). So the sight of a “strong” believer eating in a temple is likely to cause him offence or make him stumble.

Does this statement mean that Jesus died for the Gentile in the same way that he died for the Jew? Let’s look at what Paul has to say in the letter about the relationship between the “brothers” in Corinth and Christ.

We are confronted immediately with the eschatological dimensions of Paul’s argument. His readers have been called into the fellowship of the Son of God, and they are waiting for the “revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7–9). This is not a pious addendum; it is the whole point of their faith.

We are still at that historical moment when the good news about the salvation of Israel was becoming the good news about the future rule of Jesus as Lord over the nations.

The “gospel” that Paul preached earlier in Corinth had centred on the cross of Christ as the counter-cultural means by which God was bringing a new age into existence. The message was proving to be a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Greeks, but Paul was convinced that it constituted the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:17-25).

So God has chosen the weak and foolish saints in Corinth—in accordance with the wisdom of the cross—to be the means by which the supernatural/political structures of the present age would be brought to nothing (1 Cor. 1: 26-29; 2:6). This fellowship of suffering and vindication was celebrated most importantly in the Lord’s supper, when they shared together in the blood and body of Christ; and as often as they did this, they proclaimed “the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 10:15-17; 11:26). Those who had “fallen asleep in Christ” would be raised at his parousia to participate in his reign over his enemies.

It is this narrative, I think, which determines the meaning of the phrase “the brother for whose sake Christ died”.

Christ died so that these Gentiles could become part of an eschatological community of weakness and folly that would inherit the age to come once the rulers of the present age had passed away (1 Cor. 2:6). We have moved beyond the death of Jesus as an “atonement” for the sins of Israel. This is an argument about the consequences of that event for the pagan world. Gentile and Jewish believers in Jesus, across the oikoumenē, were being called or chosen by the God of Israel to participate, as a concrete “fellowship” or koinōnia, in the process of historical transformation.

Paul is concerned here with the sin against the weaker brother, but not with the sin of the weaker brother for whose sake Christ died.

Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures… (1 Cor. 15:3)

But what about the assertion in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures”? Doesn’t that include the Gentile believers in the church in Corinth? Here, I think, Paul is speaking on behalf of the Jews; he has in mind the “sins of Israel”.

For a start, any death for sins and resurrection on the third day that is “in accordance with the Scriptures” must be confined to Israel’s story. There is no sacrifice or suffering for the sins of the nations in the Old Testament, and the motif of a resurrection on the third day belongs to the story of the restoration of Israel after judgment (Hos. 6:1-2). If there is an allusion to the redemptive suffering of Isaiah’s servant, then this is a death for the transgressions of Israel (cf. Is. 53:4, 6, 11, 12 LXX).

According to Luke, Paul had turned up in Corinth with a story to tell about what God had done in Israel to vindicate his Son, whom the Jews had killed. He first testified to the Jews “that the Christ was Jesus”, and when they opposed and reviled him, he turned to the Gentiles (Acts 18:5-6). This is exactly what had happened at Antioch in Pisidia. Paul declared in the synagogue that God had vindicated Jesus and made him king. Therefore, forgiveness of sins was proclaimed to all Jews who believed, meaning that they would not suffer the sort of judgment prophesied in Habakkuk (Acts 13:26-41; cf. Hab. 1:5). The next week the Jews turned against Paul, so he began to preach a message to the Gentiles about the coming wrath of God against the pagan world (cf. Acts 14:15-17; 17:29-31; 1 Thess. 1:9-10).

So when Paul says that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures”, he is speaking quite self-consciously as a Jewish apostle on behalf of the Jews. We are still at that historical moment when the good news about the salvation of Israel, which was being rejected by the Jews, was becoming the good news about the future rule of Jesus as Lord over the nations, which was being received with some enthusiasm by the nations.

What bound believing Gentiles to the death of Jesus was not that he died for their sins but that he had inaugurated the way of weakness and folly by which the eschatological community of the saints would bear witness to the new future that God had in store for the Greek-Roman world.

Christ died for all

For the love of Christ sustains us, having judged this—that one died for all, therefore all died; and he died for all, that those living should no longer live for themselves but for the one who for their sake died and was raised… (2 Cor. 5:14–15, my translation)

This statement could be read in much the same way as 1 Corinthians 15:3: Christ died and was raised (it now appears) for both Jews and Gentiles as the forerunner of a community of eschatological witness, which, through patient suffering, would usher in the new age of the rule of Christ over the nations. There is no thought of atonement here; it is a matter of participation in the story of Israel’s Messiah.

But I am still inclined think that Paul is speaking here more narrowly of the apostles as ambassadors of a Jewish messiah. The whole letter to this point has been a vigorous defence of Paul and his companions: they suffered in Asia, they have been accused of vacillation, they are like captives led in a triumphal procession, they are being transformed through these painful experiences into the image of the Christ who suffered before them, they carry the dying of Jesus in their bodies, they yearn to escape the suffering by putting on a heavenly body, they expect to stand before the judgment seat of Christ to receive what is due for the work that they have done as apostles, whether good or evil (2 Cor. 1:3-5:10). All the way through this lengthy passage “we” refers to the apostles, and this ought to be the starting point for a consideration of 2 Corinthians 5:14-15.

Because they “fear” the eschatological judgment of the Lord, they endeavour to persuade others. They are held together or sustained in this difficult and draining ministry by the love of Christ for them as apostles, having judged that “one died for all, therefore all died; and he died for all, that those living might no longer live for themselves but for the one who for their sake died and was raised”.

In the context, it seems at least possible that Paul means:

  • Christ died for all—implicitly the “all” who have died in him;
  • therefore, the apostles, who carry in their bodies the dying of Jesus, no longer live for themselves but for the one who died and was raised,
  • so they no longer think about Christ as they used to; not least through the personal experience of hardship, they have come to understand the power and wisdom of the cross as the means of eschatological transformation;
  • in that regard the apostles are “new creation”;
  • all of which comes from God, who did not reckon the trespasses of Israel against those Jews who believed in Jesus, making a new “world” (kosmon) in them;
  • on the strength of this the apostles, as representatives of redeemed Israel sent out among the nations, have been given the ministry of reconciliation and now appeal to the alienated Corinthians to be reconciled to God.

The thought, therefore, is either that the church in Corinth as an eschatological community is bound to participate in the death and vindication/resurrection of Israel’s messiah, or that the Jewish apostles, as ambassadors for Israel’s messiah, because of whose death their trespasses have been forgiven, participate in the suffering and dying of Jesus and hope to be rewarded for their diligence and faithfulness on the day when he will be revealed to the nations (cf. 1 Cor. 1:7).

So I think the thesis stands, at least for the dominant New Testament narrative (the Johannine perspective is different):

  1. Jesus died for the sins of Israel, his death was a propitiation for the sins of Israel;
  2. the sins of both Jews and Gentiles are forgiven because they believe that YHWH has seated Jesus at his right hand, eventually to rule over the nations;
  3. believing Gentiles participate on the basis of this pistis only because Jesus’ death has done away with the dividing partition of the Law;
  4. both the apostles and the churches must participate in the death of Jesus if this movement of eschatological transformation is to be successful.