N. T. (Tom) Wright and Penal Substitution

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have received a few questions regarding Tom (N. T.) Wright’s stance on the doctrine of penal substitution. The questions have gone something like this: since Wright is a prominent proponent of the New Perspective on Paul, which by-and-large rejects the imputation of Jesus’ so-called active righteousness, does Wright, in turn, also reject the imputation of Jesus passive righteousness (that is, our sin to him)? Put more simply: Does Wright believe that on the cross Jesus bore the legal punishment (i.e., the wrath of God) that our sins deserve?

Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach in their profoundly helpful book Pierced for Our Transgressions, define penal substitution as follows:

The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin (21).
So, where does Wright land on this doctrine?

N. T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans (NIB Vol. 10)
The idea of punishment as part of atonement is itself deeply controversial; horrified rejection of the mere suggestion has led on the part of some to an unwillingness to discern any reference to Isaiah 40-55 in Paul. But it is exactly that idea that Paul states, clearly and unambiguously, in [Romans] 8:3, when he says that God “condemned sin in the flesh”—i.e., the flesh of Jesus.

Dealing with wrath or punishment is propitiation; with sin, expiation. You propitiate a person who is angry; you expiate a sin, crime, or stain on your character. . . . [I]n [Romans] 1:18—3:20, Paul has declared that the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness and that despite God’s forbearance this will finally be meted out; that in 5:8, and in the whole promise of 8:1-30, those who are Christ’s are rescued from wrath; and that the passage in which the reason for the change is stated is 3:25-26, where we find that God, though in forbearance allowing sins to go unpunished for a while, has now reveled that righteousness, that saving justice, that causes people to be declared “righteous” even though they were sinners.

The lexical history of the word hilastērion is sufficiently flexible to admit of particular nuances in different contexts. Paul’s context here demands that the word not only retain its sacrificial overtones (the place and means of atonement), but that it carry the note of propitiation of divine wrath—with, of course, the corollary that sins are expiated (475-476).
N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God
Having said that [that “theories of atonement are all, in themselves, abstractions from the real events”], I find myself compelled toward one of the well-known theories of atonement, of how God deals with evil through the death of Jesus, not as a replacement for the events or the stories nor as a single theory to trump all others, but as a theme which carries me further than the others toward the heart of it all. I refer to the Christus Victor theme, the belief that on the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil. Once that is in place, the other theories come into play their respective parts. For Paul, Jesus’ death clearly involves (for example in Romans 8:3) a judicial or penal element, being God’s proper No to sin expressed on Jesus as Messiah, as Israel’s and therefore the world’s representative . . . the death of Jesus is ‘for me,’ in my place and on my behalf” (94).

All theories of atonement adequate to the task must include both a backward look (seeing the guilt, sin and shame of all previous generations heaped up on the cross) and a forward dimension, the promise that what God accomplished on Calvary will be fully and finally implemented (95).

The personal message of Good Friday, expressed in so many hymns and prayers which draw on the tradition of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) and its NT outworking, comes down to this: “See all your sins on Jesus laid”; “The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me”; or, in the words which Jesus spoke at the Supper but which God spoke on Good Friday itself: “This is my body, given for you” (96).
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Part of the whole point of the cross is that there the weight of the world’s evil really did converge upon Jesus, blotting out the sunlight of God’s love as surely as the light of day was blotted out for three hours. . . . Jesus is “giving his life as a ransom for many” (20.28), and the sin of the “many,” which he is bearing, has for the first and only time in his experience caused a cloud to come between him and the father he loved and obeyed, the one who had been delighted in him. . . .

Jesus’ death—described by Matthew as “breathing his last” or “giving up his spirit”—is the point towards which the gospel has been moving all along. . . . [Jesus] takes with him, into the darkness of death, the sin of the world: my sin, your sin, the sin of countless millions, the weight that has hung around the world’s neck and dragged it down to destruction (190-2).
In response to Wright’s clear favoring of Christus Victor as the atonement’s organizing principle, Roger Nicole’s comments from the concluding essay of Hill and James’ edited work The Glory of the Atonement are particularly helpful. There Nicole describes substitution as “the major linchpin of the doctrine of the atonement”:
This central doctrine of the atonement has its own center in the substitutionary interposition of a sin-bearer who absorbs in himself the fearful burden of the divine wrath against our sin and secures a renewal of access to God and of the reception of his wonderful grace. . . . Substitutionary sacrifice is the fundamental basis of the whole process of salvation according to Scripture (446).

A linchpin in a mechanical contrivance makes possible the unified function of several other parts. If the linchpin is removed, the other parts no longer perform their own functions but float away in futility. This, I believe, is precisely what occurs in the doctrine of the atonement (446-7).

Thus penal substitution of Christ is the vital center of the atonement, the linchpin without which everything else loses its foundation and flies off the handle so to speak (451).
In other words, the fact the Jesus died “in our place” (that is, as our substitute) means that His victory is our victory. Without the principle of substitution, which then arrives at our personal doorsteps in the form of spiritual, by-faith union, Jesus’ victory remains abstracted from us. He suffered under the curse (both for individuals as well as for creation itself) in order to set free those for whom he suffered. He conquered in the place of those who could not conquer alone.

“the dramatic launching”

Matthew 28:11-15
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
In this passage Matthew returns to the chess-game once more, to ward off more thoroughly a move that was regularly made in his day to enable people to avoid coming to terms with the resurrection as an actual event. . . . the disciples, they say, came at night and stole his body (201).

[Similarly] don’t be fooled by the idea that modern science has disproved the resurrection of Jesus. . . . Everybody in the ancient world, just like everybody in the modern world, knew perfectly well that dead people don’t get resurrected. . . . The Christian belief is not that some people sometimes get raised from the dead, and Jesus happens to be one of them. It is precisely that people don’t ever get raised form the dead, and that something new has happened in and through Jesus which has blown a hole through previous observations. The Christian thus agrees with scientists ancient and modern: yes, dead people don’t rise. But the Christian goes on to say that something new and different has now occurred in the case of Jesus. This isn’t because there was on odd glitch in the cosmos, or something peculiar about Jesus’ biochemistry, but because the God who made the world, and who called Israel to be the bearer of his rescue-operation for the world, was at work in and through Jesus to remake the world. The resurrection was the dramatic launching of this project (202).
Aaron Orendorff
In gospel-terms, the resurrection of Jesus is the sole, encompassing foundation for all legitimate hope. Followers of Jesus do not hope in providence (though it is a great comfort to know that God is working everything together for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose). They do not hope pragmatically in fruit or in results. They do not hope in the work of their hands, their abilities, or even God’s visible blessing.

All hope is laid here: that Jesus Christ is risen, that the grave is overwhelmed, that God, through His Son, has conquered sin, the devil and death. Hope revolves around the resurrection like the earth revolves around the sun. As such, the resurrection not only trumps but categorically excludes all other hopes, inviting us, in the wake of the new world that it brings, to die and thereby see that it is true.

The Resurrection of Jesus and the Birth of God’s New World

Matthew 28:1-8
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
The point, of course, is that what is happening is the action of God himself. The God who remained apparently silent on Good Friday is having the last word. . . . And what God is doing is not just an extraordinary miracle, a display of supernatural power for its own sake, or a special favor to Jesus. What God is doing is starting something new, beginning the new world promised long ago, sending the disciples to Galilee in the first place but then, as we shall see, on to the ends of the earth and the close of the age with the news of what has happened. A whole new world was opening up in front of them. . . .

[T]he crucial thing is that Jesus’ resurrection is not about proving some point, or offering people a new spiritual experience. It is about God’s purpose that must now be fulfilled. They must see Jesus but that seeing will be a commissioning, a commissioning to a new work, a new life, a new way of life in which everything he told them before will start to come true (198-9).

This event had changed the world for ever. It announced, not as a theory but as a fact, that God’s kingdom had come, that the son of man had been vindicated after his suffering, and that there was dawning not just another day, another week in the history of Israel and the world, but the start of God’s new age that would continue until the nations had been brought into obedience (200).

“They . . . made the tomb secure . . .”

Matthew 27:62-66
Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
The central claim of the early church was, of course, that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead. The central claim want’ that he was a great teacher, a powerful healer, an inspiring leader, or that he was the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. All of those were true, but they wouldn’t add up to the early Christian faith and life. The crucial fact, they believed, was that Jesus had been bodily raised to life after being well and truly dead and buried. This is what they announced to the startled world, the world of Jews and Gentiles (194).

From the very beginning there has been room for doubt, and many have taken that option. But Matthew is concerned that the doubt be located in the right place. There was no confusion about the details of the burial. If you are going to doubt whether Jesus was raised from the dead it must be because you doubt whether the living God could or would do such a thing for Israel’s Messiah, the one on whose shoulders rested the weight of the world’s salvation (196).
Aaron Orendorff
Psalm 2 begins with a question: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?”
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (vv. 2-6).
As early as Acts 4, the first Christians saw in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus the fulfillment of Psalm 2.

“They,” Matthew writes, “made the tomb secure . . .”

All the powers of the world were arraigned against the tomb: religious power—“Herod . . . and the people of Israel”—political power—“Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles”—natural power—“a great stone [was rolled] to the entrance of the tomb”—and even supernatural power—“the wages of sin is death.”

Yet for all this security, for all this power, the stone was rolled away, tomb was emptied and death itself defeated.

“If God is for us, who can be against us.”

The Death of God’s Son

Matthew 27:45-46 & 50-54
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” . . . And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Part of the whole point of the cross is that there the weight of the world’s evil really did converge upon Jesus, blotting out the sunlight of God’s love as surely as the light of day was blotted out for three hours. . . . Jesus is “giving his life as a ransom for many” (20.28), and the sin of the “many,” which he is bearing, has for the first and only time in his experience caused a cloud to come between him and the father he loved and obeyed, the one who had been delighted in him. . . .

Of course, Psalm 22 [which Jesus is quoting, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”] goes on, after a long catalogue of suffering, to speak of God’s vindication of the sufferer, and of the establishment of God’s kingdom (Psalm 22.22-31). But that isn’t what Matthew wants us to think here. . . .

Jesus’ death—described by Matthew as “breathing his last” or “giving up his spirit”—is the point towards which the gospel has been moving all along. . . . [Jesus] takes with him, into the darkness of death, the sin of the world: my sin, your sin, the sin of countless millions, the weight that has hung around the world’s neck and dragged it down to destruction. . . .

The disciples, including the women watching from a distance, see only darkness, gloom and death. But Matthew’s reader already knows what they will discover three days later: that this death was not the failure of Jesus to show himself as the son of God, but the way in which his identity, vocation and mission were confirmed and accomplished. As we join our voice with the centurion and others, in declaring that Jesus was indeed God’s son, so we commit ourselves to living by that faith, and to learning every day, by looking at the son, more about the love of the father (190-3).

The Irony of the Cross

Matthew 27:39-43
And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”

So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Now, in almost the exactly the same tone of voice [as tempter in Matthew 4], we find the mockers challenging him: If you really are God’s son, why don’t you do what you said—destroy the Temple and rebuild it? If you really are God’s son, why don’t you come down from the cross? If you really are God’s son, why doesn’t God deliver you? Surely he can’t want you to be hanging there in agony? Surely he doesn’t want you to . . . die?

Now . . . we see where it was all leading. Opposition and rejection from his own people combined with the hared and anger of the non-Jewish world put Jesus on the cross, and this was in fact the hidden secret of his world public career. Jesus didn’t, as it were, have an early period of success followed by a later period of failure and defeat. . . .

From his baptism onwards he had know what lay ahead: a path that went down into the deep water, like Israel going into the Red Sea. He had trusted, not that God would deliver him by taking him back again to the dry land from which he’d come, but that God would take him through the water and up the other side, leading him of to the promised land that lay ahead. This was the true-Israel path, the Exodus path, the path that led through death itself to a new world, a new life, the other side. He wasn’t simply going to defeat the Romans, or for that matter the chief priests. He was going to defeat death itself (186-8).
Aaron Orendorff
The “irony of the cross” (as D. A. Carson and others have called it) rests like a thick, blanketing fog over the words of Jesus’ mockers.

V. 40: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!”

Of course, what we, as Matthew’s readers know from the perspective of Easter morning, is that on the cross God’s true temple—the body of His son, the meeting place of God and man—was utterly destroyed and through the resurrection eschatologically “rebuilt.”

V. 42: “He saved others; he cannot save himself.”

Again, from the perspective behind the curtain, it was only by not saving himself that Jesus could ultimately save others.

V. 43: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now . . .”

Jesus trust in God (as Gesemene reveals) is precisely why his Father did not deliver him.

Finally, vv. 40 and 42 identify Jesus as “the Son of God” and the “King of Israel,” which the cross, the crowds assume, nullifies and disproves.

Yet the mystery of cross is that it is because Jesus is God’s Son and Israel’s true King that he cannot (or perhaps better, will not) come down. (Later, in v. 54, a Roman centurion—the last person who should have understood—will be the first to recognize and confess: “Truly this was the Son of God.”)

How the Kingdom Came . . . and Comes . . . and Will Come

Matthew 27:27-31 & 35-38
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. . . .

And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
What for Pilate and the soldiers was Jesus’ “crime”—his claim to be Israel’s true king—was for Matthew the sober truth. And the crucifixion was the means by which his kingdom would be established. . . .

Why? Because the kingdom Jesus had spoken of, from the Sermon on the Mount onwards, was never a kingdom to be established and maintained by military force. If it was to be God’s kingdom, it would come about by God’s means; and the means that the true God chooses to use are the means of self-giving love. . . .

The point of it all is this: Jesus is leading the way he had spoken of from the beginning, the way of being God’s true Israel, the light of the world. He himself is set on a hill, unable now to remain hidden (5.14). This is how he is shinning the light of God’s love into the dark corners of the world: by taking the evil of the world, the hatred and cruelty and unthinking mockery of the world, the gratuitous violence, bullying and torture that still defaces the world, and letting it do its worst to him. Never let it be said that the Christian faith is an airy-fairy thing, all about having wonderful inner, spiritual experiences, and not about the real world. This story takes us to the very heart of what Christianity is all about; and here we meet, close up and raw, the anger and bitterness of the world, doing its worst against one who embodies and represents the love of the creator God himself (182-3).
Aaron Orendorff
What does it mean to serve a king enthroned on a cross? What does it mean to live as the citizen of a kingdom that comes not by taking power but by surrendering it, not by enacting violence but by suffering it?

The point certainly isn’t masochism—pain for the sake of pleasure. Knowing why we suffer doesn’t make suffering any less awful.

No, the point is found by recognizing that God’s pattern—the way His kingdom comes—is through the cross. God’s kingdom does not erase evil; it subverts and redeems it. As Dorothy Sayers wrote, “[On the cross] God did not abolish the fact of evil: He transformed it. He did not stop the Crucifixion: He rose from the dead.”

For Jesus’ followers then this means that the kingdom must advance not in victory and triumph—or at least not by what the world would call victory and triumph—but by reenacting and reembodying (much like celebrating communion) the death and resurrection of Gods Son. The kingdom came and comes and will come through paradoxical cycle of death and resurrection.

Jesus and Barabbas

Matthew 27:15-18 & 20-26
Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. . . . Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
As the story of Jesus’ crucifixion winds towards its great climax, pulling more and more characters and motives into its wake, there now emerges into the light one who summed up, in the most unlikely way, one of its central themes. When Jesus dies, Barabbas goes free. . . .

By the end of the passage it is crystal clear. Barabbas represents all of us. When Jesus dies, the brigand goes free, we all go free. That, after all, is what a Passover story ought to be about. . . .

The point for Matthew is that all are guilty: the chief priests and elder who have handed Jesus over; Pilate the weak bully; and the crowds themselves. And part of the reason for stressing universal guilt is that, with the death of Jesus redemption is offered to all. What happened, close up and in sharp focus, to Barabbas is now open to all. When Jesus ides as King of the Jews, he draws on to himself the guilt and death of Israel, and thence also of the world (178-9).

The Fruit of [Inauthentic] Repentance

Matthew 27:3-5
Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
[T]here are levels, and degrees, of remorse. We saw when we looked at Peter, at the end of the previous chapter, that there is a big difference between remorse, such as that of Judas, and genuine repentance, such as that of Peter. . . . Remorse and repentance both begin with looking at something you’ve done and realizing it was wrong. But the first goes down the hill of anger, recrimination, self-hatred and ultimately self-destruction, the way that leads to death. The second goes down the route Peter took, of tears, shame, and a way back to life (174).
Aaron Orendorff
John the Baptist—Jesus’ wild-eyed, locust eating, camel-fur wearing cousin—chastised his curious audience: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:18).

Jesus, with a similar bend, warned his disciples that the difference between authentic sheep and “ravenous wolves” will be seen by their “fruit” (Matt. 7:16, 20).

The dual stories of Peter and Judas bear this truth out. The key difference between these two failed disciples—one an deserter, the other a traitor—is in the fruit their “changes of heart” bore. Peter, broken and weeping, clings to the hope that this cannot be the end. He clings to his friends, and eventually clings to Jesus. Judas, on the other hand, surrenders himself to failure. Judas gives himself over to despair and goes the heart-breaking way of death.

Peter Weeps

Matthew 26:74-75
Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Peter’s tears at the end of this story are the main thing that distinguish him from Judas in the next chapter. There is all the difference in the world between genuine repentance and mere remorse, as Paul wryly notes in one of his letters to Corinth (2 Corinthians 7.10). The one leads to life, the other to death. Peter’s tears, shaming, humiliating and devastating though they were, were a sign of life. Judas’s anger and bitterness led straight to death.

The muddled motives and mixed emotions were no match for the three little questions, from a couple of serving-girls and a courtier with an ear for a northern accent. They were like small pins stuck into a large balloon, and Peter’s world exploded in a roar of oaths and a flood of bitter tears (170-1).

“From now on you will see . . .”

Matthew 26:62-66
And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?”

But Jesus remained silent.

And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?”

They answered, “He deserves death.”
Daniel 7:13-14
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
Psalm 110:1
The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”
Aaron Orendorff
The question circling Jesus and his revolutionary, “temple-destroying,” kingdom-of-God movement was a relatively simple one: “How will the kingdom come? How will God’s Messiah—the king and rightful Son—usher in his reign?”

Jesus answer to Caiaphas’ charges and the narrative that follows reveals the answer: “From now on you will see . . .”

What will they see?

For Caiaphas, the Council, the crowds and Roman soldiers, what they will see is a man crushed—utterly decimated—by the world’s most terrifying symbol of imperial and religious power—the cross. And yet, what Jesus says they will see is God’s king enthroned, ascending on the clouds of heaven, ruling and reigning over a kingdom that will never end, never perish and never be destroyed.

it must be so

Matthew 26:26-29
Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
Aaron Orendorff
Intentional, determined, resolved.

On the heels of what would have been (up to that point) the darkest moment of his life, Jesus walks with calculated intensity into the heart of a gathering storm. The cross is no accident. The mob is not sovereign. The Scriptures, as Jesus twice repeats, must be fulfilled. The Father’s will must be done. The “cup” must be drained. And so, just as Jesus predicted, the shepherd is struck, the sheep scatter and the fate of a fallen world begins rushing to meet a deserted, betrayed and unwavering Jew.

Gethsemane is where to go.

Matthew 26:26-29
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.”

And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.

Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”

And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.

Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Jesus had been sad at various times. He’d been frustrated with [the disciples] for not understanding what he was talking about. He’d been cross with the people who were attacking him, misunderstanding him, accusing him of all sorts of ridiculous things. There had even been tension with his own family. But basically he’d always been the strong one. Always ready with another story, another sharp one-liner to turn the tables on some probing questioner, another soaring vision of God and his kingdom. It was always they who had the problems, he who had the answers.

And now this.

Jesus was like a man in a waking nightmare. He could see, as though it was before his very eyes, the cup. . . . The cup of God’s wrath.

He didn’t want to drink it. He badly didn’t want to. Jesus at this point was no hero-figure, marching boldly towards his oncoming fate. . . . He was a man, as we might say, in melt-down mode. He had looked into the darkness and seen the grinning faces of all the demons in the world looking back at him. And he begged and begged his father not to bring him to the point of going through with it.

And the answer was No.

Actually, we can see the answer being given, more subtly than that implies, as the first frantic and panicky prayer turns into the second and then the third. . . . if it has to be, “may your will be done.”

[W]hen we find the ground giving way beneath our feet, as sooner or later we shall, Gethsemane is where to go. That is where we find that the Lord of the world, the one to whom is not committed all authority, has been there before us (159-61).

“this is the moment”

Matthew 26:26-29
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
The heart of the matter is reasonably straightforward, though none the less breathtaking. Jesus was drawing into one event a millennium and more of Jewish celebrations. The Jews had believed for some while that the original Exodus pointed on to a new one, in which God would do at last what he had long promised: he would forgive the sins of Israel and the world, once and for all. Sin, a far greater slave-master than Egypt had ever been, would be defeated in a way God defeated not only Egypt but also the Read Sea. And now Jesus, sitting there at a secret meal in Jerusalem, was saying, by what he was doing as much as by the words he was speaking: this is the moment. This is the time. And it’s all because of what’s going to happen to me. . . .

Somehow, identifying the bread and wine with his body (about to be broken in death) and his blood (about to be spilt on the cross), and inviting his followers to share it and find in it the gift of forgiveness of sins, of new life, of God’s kingdom—somehow this action had then, and still has today, a power beyond words. A power to touch and heal parts of our broken and messy lives. A power to tell the world around that Jesus is Lord (156-7).

Worship and the Price of Idolatry

N. T. Wright, Simply Christian
What happens when you're at a concert like that is that everyone present feels that they have grown in stature. Something has happened to them: they are aware of things in a new way; the whole world looks different. It's a bit like falling in love. In fact, it is a kind of falling in love. And when you fall in love, when you're ready to throw yourself at the feet of your beloved, what you desire, above all, is union.

This brings us to the first of two golden rules at the heart of spirituality. You become what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship. Those who worship money become, eventually, human calculating machines. Those who worship sex become obsessed with their own attractiveness or prowess. Those who worship power become more and more ruthless.

So what happens when you worship the creator God whose plan to rescue the world and put it to rights has been accomplished by the Lamb who was slain? The answer comes in the second golden rule: because you were made in God's image, worship makes you more truly human. When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made, you do indeed grow. You discover more of what it means to be fully alive.

Conversely, when you give that same total worship to anything or anyone else, you shrink as a human being. It doesn't, of course, feel like that at the time. When you worship part of the creation as though it were the Creator himself - in other words, when you worship an idol - you may well feel a brief "high." But, like a halucinatory drug, that worship achieves its effect at a cost: when the effect is over, you are less of a human being than you were to begin with. That is the price of idolatry (148).

Plagues, Imaginations and the Freedom of Salvation

Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (pg. 162-3)
Each of the ten plagues were an elaborate exorcism, a casting out of the demons, that freed the imaginations of the Hebrews from domination by evil so that they were free to hear and follow their Savior and worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). When Moses began his work with his Hebrew brothers and sisters, their spirits were “broken” (Exod. 6:9) and the only “truth” they had access to was this huge Egyptian lie. But Egypt and Pharaoh were not the “real world.” They were the real world defaced, desecrated, demonized. . . . The exorcising drama of the ten plagues freed the Hebrews from this Egyptian way of understanding reality, clearing the mind to accept God’s revelation reality, energizing their spirits to live in the world of salvation. The intent was that by the time they left Egypt, they would not only be physically free from evil oppression but mentally free of the evil imagination that had crushed the life out of them for so long. The ten plagues would cleanse the “doors of perception” so that Israel could see life in a totally different way—the unreality of Egypt exposed; the untruth of Egypt laid bare—and would set them free to live in a different life when they got out of Egypt, free to live the freedom of salvation.

“because of our sins”

Matthew 26:21-25
And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He said to him, “You have said so.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
[I]n the middle of the picture once more, almost serene though deeply sad, is Jesus himself, arranging a secret Passover celebration with an unnamed supporter in the city itself, sitting with the Twelve and telling them what was about to happen. The sorrow of his approaching ordeal was overlaid with the sorrow of betrayal. And in that moment we glimpse one element of the meaning of the cross.

Jesus was going to his death wounded by the wounds common to humanity. Greed, lust, ambition: all kinds of natural drives and desires turned in on themselves rather than doing the outward-looking work the creator intended them to. When we say that Jesus died “because of our sins,” we don’t just mean that in some high-flown, abstract sense. We mean that what put him on the cross was precisely the sins that we all not only commit but wallow in (152).

Devotion and Pragmatism

Matthew 26:6-13
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Here is a dinner party, the last supper before the Last Supper; and here is an unnamed woman whose love for Jesus has overflowed, quite literally, in an act of needless beauty, like a stunning alpine flower growing unobserved half a mile up a rock face. Of course, some people always want to pick such flowers and make them do something useful—to grow them in a garden at home, perhaps, to make a profit. God’s creation isn’t like that, and nor is devotion to Jesus. When people start to be captivated by him, and by his path to the cross, the love this produces is given to extravagance (148).
Aaron Orendorff
Devotion and pragmatism make for uncomfortable companions. It isn’t that devotion to Jesus shuns wisdom, or that it looks down on shrewdness—after all, the central burden of chapters 24 and 25 was to outline the way the true wisdom ought to go. Instead, the point in this brief and often perplexing story is that devotion to Jesus—particularly as it relates to his crucifixion, death and burial—will often appear foolish—needlessly and wastefully extravagant—even to other disciples.

What sort of reckless extravagance is your devotion to Jesus calling you to?

How is the way of the cross shaping that extravagant devotion?

Beware the “Beautiful Things”

For obvious (political) reasons, last year Shane Clairborne & Chris Haw’s ironically titled Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals was one of the most popular Christian books on the market. It’s a pretty fast read, thanks especially to the book’s relentless graphic design (check the web-site out, you'll see what I mean). The book wasn’t without its share of controversy, but as I was preparing this week’s message on the topic of idolatry, I remembered the following quote:

It’s the beautiful things that get us. Perhaps the greatest seduction is not the ANTI-GOD, but the ALMOST*GOD. Poisonous fruit can look pretty tasty. That’s what is so dangerous about ideas like FREEDOM, PEACE AND JUSTICE. They are all seductive qualities, close to the heart of God. After all, it’s the beautiful things we kill and die for. And it’s the beautiful we market, exploit, brand and counterfeit.


and enslaved by the pursuit of freedom. Nations fighting for peace end up perpetuating the very violence they seek to destroy. Serpents are slippery and slimy things.

MOST of the ugliness in the human narrative comes from a distorted quest to possess beauty. COVETING begins with appreciating blessing. MURDER begins with a hunger for justice. LUST begins with a recognition of beauty. GLUTTONY begins when our enjoyment of the delectable gifts of GOD starts to consume us. IDOLATRY begins when our seeing a reflection of God in something beautiful leads to our thinking that the beautiful image bearer is worthy of WORSHIP (pg. 26).

The Least of These

Matthew 25:31-33, 40, 45-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. . . . And the King will answer them [that is, the sheep, the righteous, those ‘blessed by my Father’], ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ . . . Then he will answer them [that is, the goats, the ‘cursed’], saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Justice is one of the most profound longings of the human race. If there is no justice, then deep within ourselves we know that something is out of joint. Justice is hard to define and harder still to put into practice; but that has never stopped human beings and societies seeking it, praying for it, and working to find ways of doing it better. And justice doesn’t simply mean “punishing wickedness,” though that is regularly involved. It means bringing the world back into balance.

Central to the Jewish and Christian traditions . . . is the belief that this passionate longing for justice comes from the creator God himself. Jews and Christians believe that he will eventually do justice on a worldwide scale . . . . God’s judgment will be seen to be just. The world will be put to rights.

Part of the biblical image of the coming of the son of man is the announcement that justice will at last be done (141).
Aaron Orendorff
We are never more like Jesus than when we care—both for and about—people for whom the world has no use. “The least of these,” which occurs twice in this passage, is a polite, though unmistakable reference to those people who, in and of themselves, have nothing to offer, nothing to contribute, nothing to add to society’s life. They may even be those who actually subtract from the relationships they enter. This subtraction may be economic, emotional or temporal; but whatever its nature, Jesus’ emphasis is clear: you attitude towards these people—these insignificant people—is a direct reflection of your attitude toward me.

Why is that?

The answer lies in the nature of the gospel itself. Jesus—in both his incarnation of crucifixion—become (literally become) the very “least of these.” And he did so in order to reach the very people he identified himself with.

“I was afraid.”

Matthew 25:24-30
“He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
Aaron Orendorff
The opening line of v. 25 creates an interesting twist on what appears to be one of the driving themes of chapters 24-25: fear. “I was afraid,” the “wicked and slothful servant” tells his master: Fear kept me from faithful service. As the third parable in a series of four all of which end with a stark warning involving one form or another of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” it seems odd for the unfaithful servant to be the one supposedly motivated by fear.

What was it then that the servant feared?

V. 24 explains: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed . . .”

What the servant feared was not justice, but injustice. What he feared was the unreasoning harshness of an crooked master, the cruelty of a slave-driver who demands of his servants what is not rightfully his. This is far from the picture Jesus is trying to develop.

It is not therefore fear that miscarried the servants work, but a wrong understanding of the master with whom he dealt. Again, Jesus is providing an example of folly set over and against a clear picture of wisdom. The point, therefore, is not changed, merely clarified. Our understanding of God shapes how we fear Him, which in turn shapes how we serve.

“I do not know you”

Matthew 25:1-4, 10-13
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. . . . And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Even more obviously than the previous one, this story is rooted in the Jewish tradition of contrasting wisdom with folly—being sensible with being silly. . . . It’s probably wrong to try and guess what the oil in the story “stands for” . . . . It isn’t that kind of story. Within the world of the story itself, it simply means being ready for the key moment. . . . What matters is being ready; being prepared; being wise; thinking ahead, realizing that a crisis is coming sooner or later and that if you don’t make preparations now, and keep them in good shape in the meantime, you’ll wish you had (133-4).
Aaron Orendorff
Again, Jesus starts his story: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like . . .” Again, he contrasts the wise with the foolish. Again, fear (the right kind of fear, the fear of being unknown by the bridegroom, of being ill-prepared and forever outside) is used to distinguish the end of the wise from the end of the foolish.

The thought then that ought to be ringing in our ears is this: prepare now because one day it will be too late.

There’s no way to say this (nor to write this) without sounding like a wide-eyed, pulpit-pounding, hellfire-and-brimstone fundamentalist. Yet this is where Jesus leads us (again and again); and so (we must conclude) this is where Jesus wants us to be.

Fear and the Wise Servant

Matthew 24:45-51
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
The difference between the two types of slaves—the one who kept watch and did what he should, and the one who forgot what he was about and did the opposite—isn’t just the difference between good and bad, between obedience and disobedience. It’s the difference between wisdom and folly. . . . If the living God might knock at the door at any time, wisdom means being ready at any time. . . . Wisdom consists not least, now, in realizing that the world has turned a corner with the coming of Jesus and that we must always be ready to give an account of ourselves.

Of course these warnings are held within the larger picture of the gospel, in which Jesus embodies the love of God which goes out freely to all and sundry. Of course we shall fail. Of course there will be times when we shall go to sleep on the job. Part of being a follower of Jesus is not that we always get everything right, but that, like Peter among others, we quickly discover where we are going wrong, and take steps to put it right (130-1).
Aaron Orendorff
Fear is without a doubt one of the most powerful motivational forces in our lives. In a hundred different ways, fear drives us, directs us, prompts us, compels us. Our problem with fear, however, isn’t fear itself; it’s what we fear.

Jesus’ point here is simple: what (or perhaps better, who) we should fear is God. It’s no accident, as Wright points out, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Pro. 9:10). Wisdom consists in taking a right view of the world, of seeing things as they really are (not as they appear nor, as is often the case, the way they feel). Faithfulness to the work at hand and wisdom to see things aright go hand in hand. It’s only as we reverently cultivate a genuine “fear of the Lord” that we are made fit for the kingdom work that the Master of the house has prepared for us.

Be Ready

Matthew 24:36 & 44
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. . . . Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
The warning was primarily directed to the situation of dire emergency in the first century, after Jesus’ death and resurrection and before his words about the Temple came true. But they ring through subsequent centuries, and into our own day. We too live in turbulent and dangerous times. Who knows what will happen next week, next year? It’s up to each church, and each individual Christian, to answer the question: are you ready? Are you awake? (127-8)

The Point(s) of the Son Appearing

Matthew 24:29-31, 34-35
Immediately after the tribulation of those days:
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. . . . Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Aaron Orendorff
Whatever our particular opinion on what the events Jesus describes here in Matthew 24-25 refer to—whether they find their primarily referent within the life span of the disciples (v. 34) or beyond—the primarily thrust of Jesus’ teaching must not be overlooked. Three simple points—easy to define, but hard to actually live beneath—are being made. First, Jesus wins. Second, Jesus—in both his first and second coming—is the center of history. Third, Jesus’ words are true. These points are not hard in the sense of being uncomfortable or difficult to cope with; rather, their hardness stems from the weakness of our faith and our ever present desire to make ourselves the winners, the center of history and the last and final word. The most humbling truths are always the most precious.