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Did God die on the cross? Part 1

This has been giving me a headache.

Luke has Paul say to the Ephesian elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). In a sermon posted last week on The Gospel Coalition site Jason Helopolous insists that the last part means what it says—or, at least, what it appears to say: God saved or preserved the church “through his own blood” (dia tou haimatou tou idiou).

This has to be wrong, surely?

The New Testament nowhere (correct me if I’m wrong) speaks of God dying on the cross or of people being saved by the blood of God—or even of God suffering. The story is that God sent his Son, as he had earlier sent the prophets, to the vineyard of Israel; the Son suffered and died; God made that suffering the ground for the renewal of his people; and God raised his Son from the dead and exalted him to a position of the highest authority. Father and Son are two distinct actors.

When Jesus died on the cross, he was not God, he was not taking the place of God. He was Israel, he was taking the place of Israel. He was the despised but righteous Jew who suffered because of the transgressions of the many. He was the prototype for the suffering churches (cf. Rom. 8:17).

In Luke-Acts “blood” is part of a narrative about the persecution of the prophets and judgment on Israel. The “blood of all the prophets” will be “required of this generation” of Jews (Lk. 11:50-51). Pilate’s shedding of the blood of the Galileans in the temple prefigures the coming judgment on Jerusalem (Lk. 13:1-5). The high priest expresses concern that the blood of Jesus will be brought upon the Jews (Acts 5:28). When Paul is reviled by the Jews at Corinth, he declares, “Your blood be upon your own heads!” (Acts 18:6; cf. 20:26). Paul admits having stood by when the blood of Stephen was being shed (Acts 22:20).

There is no place in these narratives of suffering and destruction for the belief that God shed his own blood in order to redeem a people for himself. Paul’s soteriology states that God put forward Christ Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood” (Rom. 3:25)—again, two distinct actors—and even this idea is hard to find in Acts.

Following the healing of the lame man on the way to the temple Peter says: “But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18). Two distinct actors.

Hebrews twice has the expression “through his own blood” with reference to Jesus, though in a slightly different form. Jesus “entered once for all into the holy places… by means of his own blood (dia… tou idiou haimatos)”; he sanctified the people “through his own blood (dia tou idiou haimatos)” (Heb. 9:12; 13:12). If anything, the different construction suggests that we should look for a different interpretation for dia tou haimatou tou idiou in Acts 20:28. See point 4 below.

Nevertheless, attempts have been made to defend the “blood of God” interpretation.

Helopolous recognises the seriousness of the problem but resorts to a convoluted Chalcedonian solution, which I think can be reduced to: Jesus is fully God, therefore it can be said that God’s blood was shed on the cross. But whatever value this may have as a post-biblical theological rationalisation, it is worthless from a historical-critical point of view.

Fitzmyer rather lamely proposes that “Luke may be thinking of the action of God the Father and the Son as so closely related that his mode of speaking slips from one to the other; if so, it resembles the speech patterns of the Johannine Gospel”. But even John, as far as I can tell, maintains a careful distinction between the Son who suffers and the Father who consecrated him and sent him into the world (Jn. 3:17; 8:26; 10:36; 17:18, 21, 23, 25).

Keener also thinks that the language “might perhaps be intended to imply the unity of Jesus with his Father to the extent that it was as if the Father offered his own blood”.1 The critical phrase in that statement is “as if”: the “blood of God” becomes more or less a metaphor for the closeness of the Father to the Son in his suffering. Keener goes on to suggest that the expression is rhetorical: “Perhaps Luke deliberately provides a jarring statement to grip attention, functioning something like hyperbole.” But he makes no attempt to explain why such a jarring and unaccountable figure of speech should be introduced here.

But if the Trinitarian interpretation is unsatisfactory, what are the alternatives?

1. Some manuscripts have “church of the Lord” instead of “church of God”, in which case “through his own blood” could be taken to refer to the Lord Jesus rather than to God. But since “church of God” is the more difficult reading here, scholars tend to assume that it was original and that a puzzled scribe “amended” the text to remove the theological problem. Moreover, while the expression ekklēsia tou kyriou (“assembly of the Lord”) appears occasionally in the Greek Old Testament (Deut. 23:2–4; 1 Chr. 28:8; Mic. 2:5), it is found nowhere else in the New Testament.

2. It has been suggested that “blood” means “blood relationship, kin”, so we might perhaps translate: “which he obtained by his own kin”. In a papyrus text on adoption we find the expression “begotten to you from your own blood” (ex idiou haimatos gennēthenta soi), but “blood” here refers not to an individual relative but to the biological relationship. In any case, it’s difficult to see why Luke would want to stress the “blood” relationship of Jesus to his Father.

3. Wall thinks that Luke may have been grammatically careless “because of his lack of theological interest in the efficacy of Christ’s blood in saving people from their sins”.2 But the consistency of the “blood” themes in Luke-Acts (see above) make this unlikely.

4. It could perhaps be argued that verses 25-27 are a parenthetic remark about Paul’s apostolic responsibility towards the Ephesian elders. The main line of thought is that Paul is leaving, he doesn’t know what the future holds, he continues to pursue the ministry that he received from the Lord Jesus, so the elders must shepherd the “church of God”, because after his departure “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock”. Into this argument he interjects the personal and rather startling testimony that he is “innocent of the blood of all”. In this case we might suppose that the clause “which he obtained with his own blood” looks back to “the Lord Jesus” in verse 24: they are to shepherd the “church of God”, which was obtained by the blood of the Lord who gave Paul his apostolic ministry. Perhaps. To my mind a fall-back position if the next one really doesn’t work.

5. The best alternative would seem to be to translate dia tou haimatou tou idiou not as “through his own blood” but as “through the blood of his own”. The absolute phrase “his own” would be a term of endearment referring in this case to “his own Son”. There is supposedly evidence for the usage in the Greek papyri. Bruce cites: “So-and-so to his own (ho deina tōi idiōi), greeting”.3 But a couple of examples in Acts also roughly illustrate the point: when the apostles were released, they “went to their own (tous idious)…” (Acts 4:23); Felix gives orders that Paul should be kept in custody but that “none of his own should be prevented from attending to him (tōn idiōn)” (Acts 24:23). Perhaps Luke had a liking for the idiom. The sense, then, would be close to “He who did not spare his own Son (tou idiou huiou), but gave him up for us all…” (Rom. 8:32).

Fitzmyer regards this as “a last-ditch solution for this text-critical problem”, but it seems to me a lot more plausible than the “God’s blood” interpretation.4

6. One further observation may help to account for the “through the blood of his own” reading. I noted above that “blood” in Luke-Acts belongs primarily to narratives of persecution and judgment, so that a reference to the redemption of the church even by the blood of Christ seems out of place. But Paul has just insisted that he is “innocent of the blood of all (apo tou haimatos pantōn)” (Acts 20:26). It may be, therefore, that “through the blood of his own” (dia tou haimatou tou idiou) has been constructed as a rhetorical counterpart to the previous expression. The elders are corporately accountable (their blood is now on their own heads, not on Paul’s) for a community that owes its existence to the “blood” of God’s own Son.

  • 1. C.S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary 3: 15:1-23:35 (Kindle locs. 22400-22401).
  • 2. R.W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles (The New Interpreters Bible, vol. 10, 2002), 284.
  • 3. F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary (1951), 381.
  • 4. J.A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (1974), 680.
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