Ask any person what they think is the big point about Jesus and they are likely to talk about how he died for people. The death of Messiah, as an act of love for people in need of forgiving and healing, is a cultural theme in Western society. Never mind that without the resurrection and ascension the cross would have been the end of an ineffective martyr. What people are reacting to is the sacrificial love and the beauty of the idea that all people can have redemption.
The theme people are thinking about, in its deeper meaning, is atonement. The word atonement is not really found in the Bible. It is more of an idea bringing many terms together. It was coined in English from the phrase “at one.” In the ultimate sense atonement is being made “at one” with God. But how does atonement work? Is it a Christian idea or a Jewish one?
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There are two basic ways to work on a theory of the meaning of Yeshua’s atoning death. One way is to start with the cross and work backwards into the Hebrew Bible. This approach, which is a Christian one, re-read verses of the “Old Testament” in light of certain presupposed ideas about the cross. The other is, as much as possible, to read it forward. That is to say, we can read the ideas related to atonement in the Hebrew Bible and understand the cross in light of what came before.
Many interpretations have used the first approach with what I would argue are inaccurate results. The realization that Messiah is our atonement came into being from a rich background that already existed in the Jewish scriptures. Yeshua came as Israel’s Messiah, so it is incongruous to think our task should be to erase the lessons of Torah about atonement and overwrite them with a new theology. If Yeshua is not the apex of all the sacrificial symbolism of Israel’s Tabernacle and Temple, then how is he Israel’s Messiah?
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Let’s have some discussion and feel free to tackle any one or two of these questions in a comment.
- How does an over-emphasis on the death (as opposed to incarnation, resurrection, ascension, return) of Yeshua distort our faith? Specific examples helpful.
- Have you heard some bad examples of interpreting the “Old Testament” in light of the cross that you can share?
- What does atonement mean to you?
- How is Yeshua’s death like a sacrifice?
- How is Yeshua’s death not like a sacrifice?
- What have you learned about Messiah and atonement that deepened your faith?