Fr. Tom takes an extensive look at the death of Christ and the juridical assumptions that have been taught largely in the West. This talk was given in March 2009 at Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Charleston, SC.
April 13, 2009 Length: 56:34
As Father mentioned, this [middle week] of the Great Fast is the week dedicated to the Cross. The cross is there, decorated; it’s usually right in the middle of the church when the chairs aren’t in, and we have been contemplating the Cross of Christ Friday night, all day yesterday, and this morning at the Liturgy, and now tonight we’re finishing. Tonight we have a very specific topic, and that has to do with the understanding of Jesus’ death as an expiation or a propitiation for sin and as a redemption, a buying-back or a ransom—these are all words that are biblical words; they’re Old Testamental words; they’re New Testamental words—why is it that when Jesus, because Jesus is crucified, and indeed because of his whole life which is culminated, ultimately, in his passion and death, why is this considered to be a redemption, our redemption, or a redemption from our sins? In the popular way of putting it, which is also written in, for example, the writings of St. Paul, it would be that Christ died for us; he died for us, pro nobis or hyper ēmōn. He died for us.
And how is that understood, especially in terms of ransom, in terms of payment? Because the imagery is used of “bought with a price.” We don’t belong to ourselves; we belong to him because he purchased us with his blood. These are images that are used in Scriptures. In the Hebrew Scriptures, they’re used in certain ways, and then they’re used in the Scriptures of what we call the writings of the New Testament, all of which were written by Jews and were interpreting the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets of what we would call the Old Testament.
So what we want to do tonight is to focus on that particular issue, and to do so, as Fr. John mentioned, because it really appears that some Christians, perhaps many, perhaps even most, understand the suffering and the death of Christ when they’re looking at it within these images primarily in terms of punishment. Simplistically put—very over-simplistically put, but sometimes that over-simplistic way is expressed very graphically and very strongly in certain type of writing and in film… For example, the film by Mel Gibson that was quite popular a couple years ago around this time of year. What was it called? The Passion of the Christ.
It seems to be something like this: Human beings, or Adam, or humanity, has sinned. God is angry because of the sin. And in order to be made right with God, you’ve got to get punished for what you have done. However, since it is God who is offended, human beings cannot pay the proper penalty or the proper punishment. Therefore, God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, who is divine with the same divinity as God is himself, born on earth of the Virgin, born as a human, to pay the penalty of punishment that is due to the sins of humanity and that, therefore, the passion and suffering of Christ and his being put to death is interpreted as a punishment for our guilt.
If you’ve committed a crime, by law, you’ve got to pay the penalty. The penalty has to be equal to the crime, but if you offend God, then you have to pay a divine penalty, but no one can pay a divine penalty. The whole of humanity cannot pay a divine penalty, because none of us are divine. So then the solution to that particular problem is: God loves the world—and it’s an act of love—sends his Son to be punished, to suffer—and the penalty is suffering, you see, getting beaten, mocked, ridiculed, spit upon, nailed to the cross, and killed. And then God is satisfied.
This theory is even sometimes called the Satisfaction Theory. You’ve got to satisfy divine justice, and you’ve got to assuage divine wrath, and the only way the wrath of God can be taken off from us is if justice is served, and the only way that justice can be served is if the penalty is paid, and the only way the penalty can be paid is if there is a divine Victim who gets punished enough that God would be satisfied.
Sometimes this theory is called the Vicarious Atonement Theory, that God’s Son, Jesus, is in our place. We can’t do it, so he takes our place. He takes our place and stands in our stead, kind of like a scapegoat in the Old Covenant, or in the Hellenistic world a pharmakos, some kind of a victim that’s offered for the sake of the healing or the salvation or the liberation or the redemption of other people, and that’s a common theme in human life and human literature, both Abrahamic, both Jewish, Muslim, Christian tradition, as well as Hellenistic and even other peoples on the planet earth. The idea of the innocent victim being sacrificed for the sake of others, and so on, to pay the penalty, to get rid of the guilt. So that’s a kind of theme that human beings are familiar with.
So it’s sometimes called a Vicarious Atonement. Sometimes it’s called the Satisfaction, to satisfy the condition of the law, to satisfy divine wrath. Sometimes it’s called Substitutionary, in our place, and that’s a way that many people understand the expression, “Christ died for us. Christ died for you. Christ died for me.” It’s interpreted as being, “In place of me.
And then there’s a kind of further interpretation that, because this has happened, that then I can—how can you see?—plug into it and make it my own, you see. And that is often explained that the way you do it, and here, again, this is incredibly over-simplified in a caricature-almost form, but historically the ways that were… I’m tempted to say “dreamt up” to explain this… And by the way, historically, this theory was first very detailed and written by a man called Anselm of Canterbury, who was in England; he was a Benedictine monk in the eleventh century. He wrote a book called Cur Deus Homo—Why God became Man—and what I’m describing now is a or the popular understanding of what he said. Some of you might want to get into a debate of what he actually said, and I wouldn’t mind doing that if you would like to; it might be boring to many people here, but I think there’s a way in which he could be understood as an Augustinian Platonist rather than a feudalistic Middle Age man.
But in any case, this became a popular teaching, and then the question was: Well, how do I relate to Christ’s death if he died for me so that the effects of his death could become my own? And here, again, in a very over-simplified manner, there were certain Christians who said: You do this by acquiring the merits of Christ’s death on the Cross through actions of the Church, like sacraments, making pilgrimages, giving donations. And there was even a system developed that each person has so much punishment to pay for their sins, and they’ve got to pay it before they die. It was called the temporal punishment due to sin.
But if you couldn’t pay the punishment before you died, then you went to purgatory. And then that punishment was even measured, symbolically or literally, depending on how people interpret it, as days: so many days of punishment that you would have to pay. Then the claim was: if you did certain actions, like donations, pilgrimages, even beatings—people would beat themselves and so on to pay off the days—and then they had less to suffer and they could go to heaven when they died. And if they didn’t, they went to purgatory and they either paid the punishment or actions in the Church, like having Masses for them or lighting candles for them or giving donations for them or going on pilgrimages for them, could reduce the punishment.
But it was basically a punitive type of understanding. Generally speaking, again, terribly over-simplifying, there were Christians, which we normally call Protestants, who said, “No, we don’t believe that. You accept Jesus as your Savior, and all the sins are forgiven. The guilt is taken away. The punishment is paid. He paid it totally on the Cross. There’s nothing more that we can do. We’re saved by faith, not by works. There’s no indulgences. None of this is acceptable. You accept Jesus as your Savior, and then God’s wrath is taken off you because it was put on him. You don’t have to get punished any more, because he got punished for you. He substituted for you. He died for you. He died for me. And if you accept it that way, then you are now right with God, and everything’s okay, and if you die you go to heaven, if you believe it.”
Now, this particular theory was repulsive to many people. And then you had some Christians who said, “All of this is just total nonsense.” I remember once I went to the American Academy of Religion, and I went to the Lesbian Christology meeting. I used to like to go there. I wrote a book a little bit on that subject. But I’d go there and sit there and listen to all the speeches, and I remember once where I was in total sympathy with the speaker, who said: This is nuts! It’s as if God were a punitive Father who had to beat his kid in order so he could be satisfied, and he’s so angry that he’s got to punish him so much or the anger doesn’t go away, and he can’t punish us enough, so he sends his Son and he beats him up on the Cross or he lets him get beat up on the Cross, and then the Father’s happy because he punished his Son sufficiently, and if people believe in it, then they can go to heaven. And that woman said, “This is absolute madness!” And I wanted to—I didn’t do it, but I wanted to—stand up and say, “Yeah! I agree with you!” [Laughter]
It’s total madness. It’s ridiculous. It is not biblical. It is not the understanding. It is not. And that’s the theme for tonight. Now, the theme for tonight, then, is: if that isn’t how it should be understood, the language of “he bore our iniquities,” the language of “by his wounds we are healed,” the language of ransom: “he paid the price,” the language of redemption, the language of propitiation, the language of expiation, the language that says when he died on the Cross all the requirements of the Law of God were fulfilled, everything was made right; even the understanding that, because of Christ’s death on the Cross, any wrath or anger of God that he would have for his creatures is removed—those are biblical teachings, that we are bought with a price, [then how should we understand these things?]
He purchased us with his blood, and he was mocked, spit upon, reviled, beaten, whipped, left half-dead and then dragged the cross, and somebody had to carry it, and then he was nailed to it and hung on it, and then they put a spear in his side, and he died, and that’s the center of the Christian faith. The passion of Christ and the death of Christ on the Cross is the center of the Christian faith, and it is a salvation, a healing, a redemption, a ransom, a deliverance, a liberation, a healing, a making right, a reconciliation. All this is true, but how, then, do you understand it? How is it to be understood?
Well, I’m going to try now to explain how the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition understands this, beginning with the interpretation of the Bible, Isaiah, the Law, the Psalms, the Prophets, and the four gospels, and the writings of the apostles through history. We’ve been saying here—and some apologies to those who were here Friday and yesterday; we had to repeat a bit—that it is our conviction that Christianity appeared on the planet earth as a gospel, and a gospel is a good news, but it’s not good news in general; it’s a specific, technical term, evangelion, which means the good news of a king that he has been victorious in battle over his enemies and that he has triumphed, that he has conquered, and his subjects and his people are now safe; they are now saved; they are now protected. Nothing can harm them; no evil can touch them. The last enemy, death itself, has been destroyed, and everything has now been made right; everything is the way that it ought to be. The king is rejoicing, and everyone is rejoicing with him, and the deliverance has taken place. That’s the Christian Gospel, basically.
This Gospel also presupposes or includes that Christianity is therefore a conviction about a Person. Christianity is not a spiritual path. Christianity is not a moral code. Christianity is not a cultic ritual system. Christianity is not a philosophy or an ethical system. And I would even like to say, very clearly: Christianity is not a religion. It’s the fulfillment of all thrēskeia, of all religion, and it’s not a religion at all. It is the activity of God, the one, true God, and the knowledge of that God and the understanding and the communion with that God that is given to human beings forever as a free gift through the Incarnation on the planet earth of God’s divine Son, and that’s Jesus of Nazareth.
And the very first Christian creed that you find if you read the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, particularly—the first confession is the confession that answers the question of Jesus to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Not: “What do you think of my teaching?” “How do you relate to my doctrine?” “What do you think of my philosophy?” “Would you like to follow my path?” No. “Who do you say that I am?” And in Mark and Luke the profession is made by Peter, the leader of the apostles, “You are the Christ.” So the minute that he is called the Christ with a definite article, the Anointed, the Messiah… “Christ” is the Greek word for the Hebrew word “Messiah—Māšîaḥ—the Anointed One”—so there’s a confession about him being the Christ.
At the time of Jesus, there were many, many, many theories about what a christ would be like, what he would do, how it would work; there was not one clear idea at all. And, in fact, what Christians—we Christians, anyway, Eastern Orthodox Christians—believe is that the disclosure and the revelation of what it meant for Jesus to be Christ was outrageously blasphemous to most of the people of the time. In fact, the Apostle Paul would say to the Jews it was a skandalon and to the Greeks it was idiocy—moria—that’s where you get the word “moron”—moronic. It was a scandalous and moronic teaching.
But he’s confessed as the Anointed One, the Christ. That is a very unique understanding of what it meant to be the Christ, and what it will be, because we’re pressed for time here tonight, it will be the most outrageous teaching that the Christ is the suffering Servant of Yahweh. He is the One who is led as a lamb to the slaughter, who before his shearers is dumb—it’s the 51st chapter of the Prophet Isaiah—who does not open his mouth, who bears the scorn of the people, who is ridiculed without beauty or form, who bears the sin of all, who is the man of sorrows, covered with grief, with malefactors in his death, with the rich man in his burial.
And Christians interpreted that as the reason for confessing Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, because all those things happened to Jesus, and then he was raised from the dead and the tomb was empty. And then they had to say what was that all about, and probably it took them a little while to figure it out or to see what it was, and probably the main person of early Christianity who saw it most clearly and explained it most explicitly was a Pharisaic Jewish disciple of Gamaliel named Shuel who became Paul the Apostle.
So there’s the first confession: Jesus is the Christ. But the Christ has to be crucified. The Christ has to be crucified to be the Christ. He has to suffer; he has to be degraded, rejected, ridiculed, beaten, mocked, spit upon, and put to death in order to enter into his messianic glory and in order to fulfill his messianic ministry. That is the outrageous teaching of the Christians that we identify with from the first century.
Now, in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?”—first he asked, “Who do the people say that I am?” they gave various answers, then he said, “Who do you say that I am?”—in Matthew you have a longer confession. The confession of Peter in Matthew’s gospel is “You are the Christ”—same as Mark and Luke—”the Son of the living God.” The Son of the living God. And not to get into that at all tonight. The interpretation of that sentence was: he is the only Son; there isn’t any other. And God—the one, true, living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and all the prophets—is literally his Father. And that will be put in the theological gospel, the gospel according to St. John, by in the very first chapter identifying Jesus with the Devar Yahweh of the Jews, the Word of God.
So the prologue of St. John’s gospel, which… By the way, some of you who are not Orthodox who are here should know, it’s the gospel that’s read in this church, in the Orthodox Church, on Easter. If you come to the Eucharistic service on Pascha—what we call Pascha, Passover, that’s how we call it, Easter normally it’s called in Western languages—and you come to the church service, the main church service, the Divine Liturgy of Paschal night, the gospel is not an account of the resurrection of Jesus. That comes, it’s at matins, it’s during the week, it comes again and again, but at that particular moment it’s not. What is it? It’s the gospel of St. John’s beginning.
“In the beginning,” which is the same words the way the Bible begins; that’s the first words of Genesis: “In the beginning.” So St. John begins: “In the beginning,” he says, “was the Word,” the Logos, the Verbum in Latin, in Hebrew Devar. “And the Word was with God” or around God, pros ton Theon.” And then he writes, “the Word was Theos—the Word was God, the Word was divine.” And then he says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God,” and then he says, “All things that came to be came to be through him, and nothing that came to be did not come to be except through him.” All things were created by him, and the Apostle Paul will say not only by him but through him, in him, for him, and toward him and because of him.
And then it says, “In him was life. In him was light. And he was in the world, and the world was made by him, but the world did not accept him. He came to his own; they did not receive him.” And then it says, “There was a man sent from God named John,” and that meant John the Baptist, and he said, “and he came to bear witness to this light, to this truth, but he was not the Christ.” And then it says—and this is the punchline, 14th verse, “And the word became flesh—kai o Logos sarx egeneto—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Actually, in Greek it says, “the grace and the truth.”
“And we have beheld his kabod.” That’s a technical term in Hebrew also. His divine, splendid, majestic, divine glory. We have seen it, the glory of the monogenous Hios, the only-begotten Son. And some ancient texts even say, “monogenous Theos,” the only-begotten God. “We have beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten God, and of his fullness, his plēroma, we have received charin anti charitos—grace on top of grace.”
And then it says, “For the Law came through Moses, the grace and the truth came through Jesus”—and then you have the word “Christ” already—“through Jesus the Christ.” And then it says, “No man has seen God at any time, but the only-begotten Son who dwells in the loins, the guts, of the Father, the bosom of the Father, he has”—in English translation it says “made him known.” It says literally, “he has exegeted him, he has revealed him.”
Interestingly enough, the word in Hebrew, “devar,” which is “word,” doesn’t just mean a spoken word. It certain doesn’t mean a written word only: the Bible. And too many Christians read the Bible as if it were a Quran. The Bible is not the Quran. It doesn’t fall from heaven intact. And for Christians the Word of God is not a book; the Word of God is a Person. It’s a Person. It’s Jesus of Nazareth, the only-begotten Son of God who becomes flesh.
And then, in Hebrew the word “devar” doesn’t only mean “word”; it means “act,” it means “thing.” It’s a synonym—act, thing, word—because the Hebrews were not metaphysical and abstract; they were concrete. The word for truth, for example, is the word for rock: real, dependable, right? Now, this word becomes us as Jesus, and then it says this John bears witness to him. And in the very first chapter of the gospel of St. John, John the Baptist witnesses to him, and what does he call him? He calls him the Lamb of God who takes upon himself the sin of the world.
Now, “lamb” is a very biblical symbol. You have the scapegoat lamb; you have the lambs of the sacrifices in the temple. Most important of all, you have the Passover lamb that is slain. And “lamb” becomes one of the titles of Jesus in the New Testament: the Lamb of God. And you should know that in the Orthodox Church the bread for the Holy Eucharist, it’s called the lamb; that’s the title for it. In Latin churches, it’s called the “host,” and hostia means sacrifice; it means the lamb also. The lamb is used throughout the New Testament, and in the Apocalypse it’s used 38 times, that Jesus is the Lamb who conquers, he’s the Lamb who is victorious, he’s the Lamb through whom God destroys all the enemies, but he is the Lamb who was slaughtered, who was dead and made alive again, you see.
So it all comes, ultimately, to the Cross. Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, God, the Lamb of God, the life, the light, the truth, the way, the peace, the power, the redemption, the sanctification—all these are words about Jesus in Christian Scriptures, in what we call the 27 canonical books of the New Testament. But central to it all is: he must suffer and die. In order to do the victory of God, he must be betrayed, given up, surrendered, put into the hands of the Gentiles, put to death in a death which, according to Mosaic law, was a curse, because it’s written in Mosaic law, “Curséd is everyone who hangs upon the tree of the cross.” He has to die that particular death and no other way, at the hands of Gentiles, as a criminal, with other criminals.
All that has to happen—that’s the Christian Gospel—for the victory of God to be won on the planet earth. All that has to happen. It begins from the moment he’s conceived in Mary’s womb. And we like to say as a shorthand—we said it a couple times yesterday—for Eastern Orthodox Christians, the whole Gospel of God and the victory of God and Jesus Christ is about Mary’s womb and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Isaiah said he would be with a rich man in his death, and it was a rich man who took his body from the tree and buried it in his own new tomb.
So this Jesus of Nazareth is divine who becomes human. He’s God’s own Word through whom he creates the ages. He is the one by whom, through whom, and for whom all things hold together. He is the dēmiourgos of God, the arm of God, the hand of God. All this is the biblical way of speaking about him. But he’s really divine and becomes really human in order to suffer and to die to effect God’s victory, and therefore to show that he is the Anointed One.
Now, the Messiah, the Māšîaḥ, the Anointed One, in our understanding, has to be the last and the final Prophet. He has to be the ultimate Teacher. So we have to have a Messianic Prophet: the Prophet, the one that Moses spoke about, who said, “The day will come when the Prophet will appear, and if you don’t listen to him, you’ve had it.” And the Apostle Peter, on the day of Pentecost, the [50th day] after the crucifixion and glorification of Jesus, preached the first Christian sermon, and he referred to Moses, and he said, “This is the Prophet. Jesus of Nazareth, whom we crucified, is the Prophet. He’s the last one. He shows the truth of God.” And that is a salvific, healing, redeeming act.
Why? Because we must be healed from our ignorance. We must be healed from our stupidity. In a good biblical word, we must be healed from our foolishness. We must be healed from our darkness, from our ignorance that comes to us through our sin. So the Messiah has to be the ultimate Teacher, but the Messiah in the New Testament understanding about Jesus of Nazareth, he’s not only the ultimate Teacher, the ultimate Rabbi: he is the Word itself! He is not only the Teacher; he’s what is taught. He is not only the Proclaimer; he’s the Proclaimed. He’s the One who shows God, reveals God, speaks the ultimate word of God, is the ultimate Word of God on the planet earth, and that is all perfected and fulfilled when he dies on the Cross.
In fact, in St. John’s gospel, the theological gospel, the last word of Jesus from the Cross is one Greek word: “Tetelestai” in Greek. In Latin, it’s two words: “Consummatum est.” In English, usually it’s three words: “It is finished.” And most people don’t understand it, because when they hear, “It is finished,” they think it means he’s going to die; that’s not what it means. It means everything is now accomplished. Everything is now fulfilled. Everything is now completed. There’s nothing more that God can say, there’s nothing more that God can show, there’s nothing more that God can do. In the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Lamb of God, God has done his final act. That’s it. It’s fulfilled. Nothing can surpass it. That’s it.
So the first level of redemption, of healing, is the prophetic act of the revelation of God to redeem us and ransom us from our ignorance, our stupidity, our darkness, our not knowing what life is about. It’s a revelation of the truth. That’s why Jesus says, “I am the Truth.” He doesn’t say, “I’ll show you the truth”; he says, “I am the Truth. I am the light of the world.” St. Paul says, “In him is hidden all the fullness of divinity sōmatikōs, in bodily form.”
So the first level of redemption and salvation is the salvation from ignorance, foolishness, darkness, madness, insanity, as Jesus the Messianic Prophet, and he shows this on the Cross. Why? Because on the Cross he reveals God. The Cross does not conceal God; the Cross reveals God. And here there might be a little difference from certain Western Christian groups, because the West—some Western churches—say the Cross is the theologia crucis, and then the Resurrection is the theologia gloriae; that the Cross is the humiliation and the darkness, and then the Resurrection shows the glory.
In the Eastern Church and in the Bible, the Cross itself is the glory. The Cross doesn’t conceal God; the Cross reveals God, reveals God as love, as mercy, as forgiveness, as absolutely faithful to his creatures, as the one like the mad lover in love with a harlot-whore, as the prophets would write: he’s faithful to her even until death and comes after her and shows what he is. So Jesus shows us what, who, how, and even why God, his real Abba-Father, how he is.
Now, the Messiah is also king. He’s the messianic king. What does the king do? The king destroys the enemies. What are the enemies? The enemies are not the Canaanite people, the Moabites, the Jebusites, the Edomites, whom God slew back and forth if you read the Bible, but he’s slaying them because they were idolaters. All that battles and blood of the Old Covenant is battles between gods, to prove that only Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, is the real God. He’s the God of gods, the Lord of lords, and those terms will be applied to Jesus in the New Testament. In fact, the Gospel of Jesus applies everything that the Bible applies to God the Father to him in his divinity. But he reveals it in his humanity, in his humiliation, and in his death on the Cross.
So when Jesus dies, it is death that is put to death. When light enters the darkness of the tomb, the darkness is overcome. When righteousness is in touch with unrighteousness and injustice, it’s the injustice that is destroyed. When what is innocent and pure is entering into what is ugly and unholy, it’s the unholy that is defeated. It’s the unholy that is defeated. And the only way that God can do this is by sending his Son in the form of a slave to die on the Cross so that he could become curse for us, sin for us—these are all the words of St. Paul—that he can become a humiliated slave for us, and that becomes, then, what the holy Fathers call the blessed exchange.
He who is powerful becomes weak; through his weakness, his power is victorious. He who owns everything, is rich, becomes totally poor; through his poverty the riches of God is given. Through his being shut up in the darkness of the tomb, the light of God comes and destroys that darkness. And ultimately when he dies, he is the one who is ultimately victorious. So the main hymn of Pascha, of Easter in the Orthodox Church, is: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
But what about the messianic priesthood? What about the sacrifice? What about the redemptive act? He could be messianic Prophet, he could be messianic King, but why did he have to offer himself as a Victim on the Cross? Why did he have to be the Lamb of God who, as it says in the Apocalypse, was slain from before the foundation of the world? Why did he have to say to his disciples, “The Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give himself as a ransom?” A ransom, a lytron hyper pollōn—for the multitude. By the way, when it says “for many,” that’s a Hebraism; it means for everyone. It means for the multitude, for everybody, for all.
Why is it that John in his letter twice will call him [an] ilasmos, translated in the King James Bible as “propitiation for sin,” translated in the Revised Standard as “expiation for sin”? Why is Isaiah’s canticle about the ebod Yahweh, slave of God, who is like a lamb beaten, slain, despised, hated, sorrowed, put to death bearing our burdens—why does that apply to him? How does that work? Or, to put it in the way we started, why is it that his death fulfills the law? Why is it that his death satisfies divine justice? Why is it that his death removes the wrath of God from God’s creation that was duly, rightly put upon it because of sin and transgression? In other words, why does it work? Why does it work?
And here’s where we get to the main point for tonight. It is not because he’s punished. God doesn’t want the punishment, and in the Scripture God wants to punish nobody. It is not that he’s paying off God. St. Gregory the Theologian, one of the great Greek Fathers of the fourth century, said, “To think that paying the price was paying God is a blasphemy. God doesn’t want to hold us in our sin, and God is not the one holding us. And if he would not even accept the sacrifice of Isaac from Abraham, why would he want to kill his own Son? And why would he rejoice in such a thing?” He says, well, in the 1898 English translation that I first read when I was a student, it said: “Fie upon the outrage!” that anyone would think that when Scripture says, “He offered himself as a pure sacrifice to God,” it was because God was holding him and wanted him beaten up and slain so that God could “let us off.” Then there were some people who thought, “Maybe he’s paying the devil. It’s the devil who’s holding us. It’s death who’s holding us,” so there’s a transaction, so to speak. Again, the Fathers say, “Fie upon the outrage!”
But then they said: But how do you interpret this language? How do you interpret the language of “paying the debt,” of “purchasing with blood,” with “effecting a redemption,” of “offering an expiation or a propitiation”? How do you understand all that? And this is their answer. Their answer is: The law is holy, just, and good. And the law must be fulfilled. And when the law is broken, then things are not right, and that everything is madness and we’re in the hands of demons and we die and everything is no good. And from the very beginning, humanity has sinned. That’s the meaning of the Adam and Eve story.
So the only way that the world could be saved is if there would be a new Adam, a new Adam who doesn’t sin, a new Adam who really loves God the Father with all his mind, soul, heart, and strength, loves his neighbor, loves his worst enemy, loves people who are killing him, beating him, mocking him, scourging him, crucifying him, and he still loves them and he still puts the love of God on them, and he never sins in the smallest way. When that would happen, then the law would be fulfilled and there would be no wrath of God upon humanity.
So the teaching as we understand it is the following. Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, born of the Virgin, becomes a man to be the Man, the Son of man… And he always refers to himself, by the way, in Scripture, as “the Son of man”; other people confess him as the Son of God, [but] he speaks about himself as the Son of man. There has to be the Son of man who is completely and totally obedient in love and trust to God, no matter what, even when the whole world is hating him: the religious leaders, the imperial leaders, the politicians, the priests, the high priest, the scribes, the Pharisees, the leaders of the people, the crowds—everybody, as it says in the psalm, the whole world has risen up against the Lord and against his Christ. Handel’s Messiah, right?
But the Christ does not sin. No matter what’s going on, he shows the love and mercy of God. No matter what is going on, he fulfills the commandments of God. And it’s written in the New Testament as well as quoting the Old that all of the Law and the Prophets hang on two commandments: Deuteronomy 7 and Leviticus 17. You know, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord God, he is one. The Lord, he is God—Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Eḥad.” The Lord is God and the Lord is one. And you will love the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, who saved you, who chose you, who loved you, who was with you, who protected you, who killed everybody around you so that you could live, so that the Christ could come and save the world, so that Jesus could be born.
God did all these things, and he loves us first, and the Lord is, it says in every single book of the Law, Psalms, and Prophets, the Lord is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and mercy; he does not always chide; he does not deal with us according to our iniquity. And anyone who would say that the God of the Old Testament is not a God of love, well, should be sued in court and beaten. That’s not true. But that love has to be shown perfectly and totally and completely, and that’s what the Messiah does. And he shows it on the Cross, where God is loving us to the end.
But in the same Cross, in the same crucifixion, it’s the new Adam who’s loving God back. In that same act of the death of the Messiah, you have the total perfection of the love of God for us and the total perfection of the love of humanity for God! And he’s the only one who loved God totally, therefore he’s the only one who fulfills the law, therefore, when he dies that death, he makes everything right! Everything is okay now! The world is re-created. The handwriting of the law written against us is washed away, not because he’s punished, but because he’s righteous! Because he loves. Because he forgives. Because he endures all of that for us. Why? Because we can only be saved if there is one of us who is completely, totally perfect in every possible circumstance and who loves us totally, even when we are blaspheming, ridiculing, mocking, spitting, and killing him.
Here the biblical teaching is very clear. Every single one of us crucified Christ, because every one of us is a sinner. Every one of us, without exception. You can’t blame it on some Adam; we’re all Adam in that sense. And St. Symeon the New Theologian said we’re worse than Adam. He was some slimy creature who came out of the mud, didn’t know what he was about, had this wife and some crazy serpent tells him [something], and he blew it all. St. Irenaeus said we should pity him, not judge him. But Irenaeus and St. Symeon, they said: We Christians claim to know all this, and how do we act? What do we do? They said we’re a million times more guilty than any one of them, a million times more.
The letter to the Hebrews, which, by the way, is the letter, the New Testament letter, that’s read all through Great Lent… And people say, “Father, what’s a good book to read during Lent?” The letter to the Hebrews is a very good book to read during Lent. Read it three times at least, because everything I’m saying here is in that book. That it’s no more the offering of lambs and bulls and cows and blood and so on; it’s God offering his own blood, which stands for his life, in total and complete love for God and for every worst possible sinful creature, which means every human being who’s ever lived, who is guilty of his crucifixion.
But the crucifixion saves them. Why? Because he loves them, and God is love, and love is the fulfillment of the law. And that’s what paying the debt means. When it says he “paid the debt” on the Cross, it’s not the debt of being punished; it’s the debt of loving. St. Paul said, “Owe no one anything but to love one another.” In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught his disciples the prayer, “Loose us our debts as we have already loosed the debts of those who owe us.” In other words, “Loose us from our fact of not loving you, as we forgive, in imitation of Christ and together with him, those who are killing us.” And if you’re a Christian, you don’t kill people; if you’re a Christian, you get killed. You get killed, and you forgive the person who kills you. That’s the teaching of the Gospel.
Now, one last thing, and then we’ll open it up for your rejoinders. There is a certain substitutionary character to this, because none of us can do it, so he has to come and do it for us in the sense of in our place. But, by the way, the “for” in a lot of the English translations should rather be translated, at least from the Greek Old Testament, as “because of our sin he dies, because of us he dies.” They translate it often “for,” but there are three words for “for” in Greek: peri, hyper, and dia. And it’s used differently in different places, but in English almost every time it just says “for,” but there’s a different nuance every time.
But it’s because of our sin, on account of our sin. He has to be the man of sorrow, bearing our grief, because of our sin, you see. And God places this all on him, as it says in Isaiah, because he took it all upon himself to expiate it in his own broken body and spilled blood, which is the greatest expression of keeping the law of God and loving God and the neighbor. And it’s interesting that in the Eastern Orthodox Church, on Great and Holy Friday… And by the way, I would just point out to you: nowhere in the Bible and nowhere in the Orthodox Liturgy is the word “punishment” ever applied to the death of Jesus, nowhere; if you can find it, show it to me—but it says by his righteousness, everything has been made right through what he suffered, through what he died. He puts things right. He pays the price to make everything right. And the way he does that is by being the incarnate Word who keeps all the words of God in the human life.
So as I was saying, on Great and Holy Friday, if you come to this church on Great and Holy Friday night, you have [had] the Twelve Gospels of the Passion, then there’s a big tomb put in the middle of the church with an icon of Jesus lying dead in the tomb. And by the way in our church on Great and Holy Saturday, the day between Friday and Easter Sunday, it’s called the blessed sabbath on which God finally rests from all his work, because only when the Messiah lies dead in the tomb is God Almighty finished with all of his work with us. Now he’s done everything he can do. And the holy Fathers teach us he created the world for the sake of the crucifixion of Christ and his death, because the only way God could justify himself for creating the world in the first place is by saving it, and the only way he could save it was to send his own Logos-Son in human flesh to die on the Cross. There’s no other way. And we really believe there’s no other way, none.
So on this Great Friday, most parishes, because of time, don’t do this; they do it in an abbreviated form, but if you know in the psalter, the longest psalm in the Bible is 118 (119, depending how you count them); it’s like a hundred-seventy-some verses or [so]—the entire psalm is read over the body of the dead Jesus. Why? Because it says, “If you keep the commandment and the statute of God, you cannot die.” You die because you break the commandment of God, and that’s why we’re all dead. The wages of sin is death, but when you’ve got a sinless person, that person cannot die, and that’s why we understand the death of Christ as totally voluntary. He could have kept himself alive if he wanted to. It would have been kind of stupid, because he came in order to die to save the world. He wouldn’t have been the messianic king if he didn’t die; he wouldn’t have been the messianic priest, he wouldn’t have been the messianic prophet. He had to die to reveal God and to do God’s victory.
However, why is that psalm read? It’s read because you might say in our stead and on our behalf, he keeps the law of God perfectly, and therefore his death is voluntary and therefore it destroys death and therefore the Holy One cannot see corruption, and God, so to speak, is obliged to raise him from the dead. And that’s how it works.
So when we ask the question: What does it mean that Jesus died for us? Simply put, it means that he revealed the truth, he did the truth, the truth is love. He fulfills it completely, therefore the law is now kept. Therefore God has no case against us, because he can’t have a case against us if the law is not broken, and he didn’t break it! And therefore he voluntarily enters into the realm of sin, curse, and death in order to obliterate it, to wipe it out once and for all forever. And that’s why Christians, classical Christians, believe that when the Messiah dies on the Cross, this sacrifice is all-embracing, it’s for the whole of humanity, it’s for the whole world, it’s for Jews, Gentiles, Sodomites, Gomorrahites, all the people that God himself wiped out in the Old Testament—everybody is raised by God through the death of Jesus, without exception.
And this is the judgment of the world and this is the Gospel. And we would believe, if you believe that, try to live by it, and most important of all: die together with him, because you’ve got to die with him if you’re going to live with him. You’re going to love with him. He says, “My disciples, love one another as I have loved them”—completely, totally, unqualified, even unto death, with no exception whatsoever. When they do that, then they cannot die. But they can only do that by the power of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. But this is our faith; this is our conviction.
So one last word is: He doesn’t do all this so we don’t have to do it. He does all of this so that we would have the power to do it. We’re commanded to do it, and our whole life is a struggle to love the way he loved and to keep the commandments the way he did—and he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”—and not to give into evil no matter what, even when people are spitting on us, mocking us, beating us, cursing us, stealing from us, robbing us, lying about us, deceiving us, kicking us out of Jerusalem, putting us on a cross with a couple of criminals and claiming that we are an imposter and a blasphemer.
You still love, and the victory is won, and everything is made right. That’s the view. But we have to do it, too, or a little bit more humbly: we have to struggle and pray to do it. And even a little bit more humbly: we have to confess when we don’t do it, and trust in the mercy of God to forgive us our sins, too, for our failure as Christians.
But what we must never do is to say, “We don’t need to do this.” We do. That’s the teaching. But none of us does, but God sends his Son and he does, and therefore everything is made right and we are loosed, we are redeemed, we are ransomed, we are forgiven, we are healed, we are raised, we are reconciled, we are liberated, we are glorified, we are sanctified, we are deified—all through the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus on the Cross. And then our whole life is to take up that cross and to struggle till our last breath to love as he loved and to admit it when we fail. And if we fail 70 times a day, we get up 70 times a day. We say, “Father, forgive me,” and [we] start all over, and he forgives us every single time because of the blood of Jesus.