Thursday, April 1, 2010

Reprint: Why Did Jesus Die (Parts 1-3)

Why Did Jesus Die? (01) To Heal God’s People

There’s a rather strange story in the Old Testament about an incident that occurred as Israel was journeying from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land:

Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread." So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.

Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people.

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live."

So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:6-9)

What’s curious about this story is the method God uses to cure His children. A bronze serpent on a pole, what’s with that?

Christian readers, though, see here (as in virtually every page of the Old Testament) a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. And where do we get this idea? From Jesus Himself! For this is one of those times when Scripture does interpet Scripture. Jesus said:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:14-17)

All Christians are fond of quoting John 3:16, but for some reason, few quote these verses just before and after it. But when we do read the context, we notice two or three very interesting things. One is that the phrase, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” occurs twice within three short verses. Jesus repeats Himself, as if for emphasis. I have come to heal you, who have all been bitten by the ancient serpent of Eden. I am like that bronze snake Moses lifted up. As those who looked upon the bronze serpent lived, so those who look to Me in faith shall live forever.

This theme of destroying death and giving of life, the Lord’s own analogy (though not His only one), is the central, guiding motif of Orthodox teaching about the Cross: Jesus died to bestow upon the world eternal life. Every other thing we say about the atonement is one or another facet of this gem, is another way of getting at the fathomless mystery of how Christ destroys death and gives immortal life. This is the framework into which all the other pieces are fitted: that by death, Christ trampled down death and bestowed life upon those in the tombs.

We notice, in passing, that the story in Numbers gives no hint of that bronze serpent being punished in the place of disobedient Israel! It was raised for their healing, for their life. That’s what Christ twice says. In fact, it lifted their punishment. When Moses prayed, God simply forgave, without punishing anyone. The serpent on the pole was the form His forgiveness took. He demonstrated His forgiveness by healing the people. In just such a way, Christ, too, while on the Cross, prayed to the Father, "forgive them, for they know not what they do." And the Father did, still without having to punish anyone, and the Cross is the form His forgiveness takes, for upon it, our death is healed.

And yet, in an entirely different sense, that bronze serpent mounted on the pole definitely implies punishment; see the next post in this series, in which we will also examine how Christ's death could heal anybody else of death. How does that work?

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Why Did Jesus Die? (02) To Crucify Death and Sin

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

In the previous post, we saw how Moses fashioned a bronze serpent and raised it on a pole; how those who had been bitten by live serpents were healed when they looked at that bronze serpent and lived; and how Christ compared His coming crucifixion to that healing, life-giving event.

But a serpent, of all things, to typify Christ? Why? Isn’t that more of an anti-type? Hasn’t the serpent always, since Eden, typified the devil?

Yes, and that is exactly why God told Moses to fashion that particular symbol: on purpose to foreshadow the fact that Christ, in dying, crucified sin. Or as St. Paul puts it, “[God] made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin.” (Corinthians 5:21)

This does not mean any such simplistic thing as that God the Father was blaming the Blameless One for everybody else’s sin! Even if we do sometimes say so metaphorically, at the literal level we would never consider that any form of justice, much less Divine Justice.

Instead, “[God] made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin” means that when Christ dies, so does sin. In His death, sin is crucified. How does His dying destroy sin? By destroying death. Think of death as a scorpion, whose tail, lashing out, stings us. The stings it inflicts are sins. (cf. I Cor. 15:56)

Yes, it works both ways. Originally, sin (not God) made us mortal. Now mortality, death, residing in our very genes, erupts in us as sin, making a disastrous downward spiral. The more we sin, the more we die (move further and further from God-our-Life) and the more we die, the more we sin. The sicker we become, the more symptoms we show; and the more symptoms appear, the sicker we feel. To be free from the symptom (sin) we must be free of the disease (death). If we are not to keep on being stung by sin, the scorpion, death, must be killed.

How does death cause us to sin? It does it in two ways, for death means two things.

First, death is the separation of body and soul from God, a condition we inherit, in which we are born. (It is not a reciprocal separation, for if He were to abandon us, we could not live a moment! But it is separation in that we have abandoned Him.) In this separation, we are largely blind to God and to all the things concerning Him. We are more oriented toward ourselves than to our Creator, meaning we are warped. From this blindness come sins. From this self-serving come more sins.

Secondly, we are all aware that one day, inescapably, our bodies, too, shall die. This awareness spurs more sins. Pause for a while (preferably a long while!) to reflect how differently we would live if there were no fear of death; how different would be our behavior if we knew nothing could ever harm us, nothing could ever end our lives, if we weren’t always thinking, “Life is short,” as in, “too short to put up with you,” or, “too short not to enjoy as fully as possible, even at the expense of others.” There would be no point in so much of our sinning if it just weren’t true that “tomorrow we die.” As it is, though, death is the devil’s whip, keeping us slavishly, even feverishly, pursuing his agenda. Quick, amass your fortune now, he whispers, so you can live high in whatever time remains. Be ruthless if necessary. Or, You’re getting older now; you are going to have to get tough if you are to become famous enough for your name to live on after you. Or, Since you will die unless you ____ (fill in the blank with steal, kill, lie, or any other sin), do it.

The more we ponder it, the more we realize how free we would be, free as Adam and Eve were, free from compulsion to sin, free to choose goodness, but for the death we carry around inside us.

Fr. John Romanides explains in detail how the fear of death causes us to sin.

In the first place, the deprivation of divine grace impairs the mental powers of the newborn infant; thus, the mind of man has a tendency toward evil from the beginning. This tendency grows strong when the ruling force of corruption becomes perceptible in the body. Through the power of death and the devil, sin that reigns in man gives rise to fear and anxiety and to the general instinct of self-preservation or survival. Thus, Satan manipulates man’s fear and his desire for self-satisfaction, raising up sin in him, in other words, transgression against the divine will regarding unselfish love, and provoking man to stray from his original destiny. Since weakness is caused in the flesh by death, satan moves man to countless passions and leads him to devious thoughts, actions, and selfish relations with God as well as with his fellow man. ..

Because of death, man must first attend to the necessities of life in order to stay alive. In this struggle, self-interests are unavoidable. Thus, man is unable to live in accordance with his original destiny of unselfish love. This state of subjection under the reign of death is the root of man’s weaknesses in which he becomes entangled in sin at the urging of the demons and by his own consent. Resting in the hands of the devil, the power of the fear of death is the root from which self-aggrandizement, egotism, hatred, envy, and other similar passions spring up. In addition to the fact that man “subjects himself to anything in order to avoid dying,” he constantly fears that his life is without meaning. Thus, he strives to demonstrate to himself and to others that it has worth. He loves flatterers and hates his detractors. He seeks his own and envies the success of others. He loves those who love him and hates those who hate him. He seeks security and happiness in wealth, glory, bodily pleasures… (The Ancestral Sin, pp. 162-163)

So the very condition of death and corruptibility (being liable to harm), itself, plus the fear of death, together keep us in subjection to sin.

But Jesus, dying, transforms death. Exactly how He does this is a mystery beyond human comprehension, which is why we have so many models of what goes on in the atonement. But we sometimes compare it with what happens when a strong light is turned on in a dark place: the light “wins” out and ends the darkness - because darkness is nothing but lack of light particles. Similarly, when death and Life Himself meet, His infinite Life more than cancels out death - because death is nothing but the absence of life. Jesus destroys death the way you destroy ignorance when you give someone knowledge: by bringing to it what was lacking, by filling up the void. Jesus dies as Man, and as God fills up death with His own, immortal, infinite, eternal Life. And in destroying death as The End, in making of it a portal to new Life instead, Jesus destroys our slavery to sin. That’s why we say that in dying on the Cross, Jesus crucified sin. Hence, the bronze serpent fashioned by Prophet Moses. It was to signify this beforehand.

It is not a case of God the Father judging the whole world guilty and then transferring that guilt to the only innocent Man who ever lived. Besides being the grossest injustice imaginable, such a notion ignores the revealed fact that God the Father is not our Judge; only Christ Himself is. (John 5:22) Moreover, the judging of the world is reserved for when Christ comes again; it did not happen on the Cross, except in the sense that the world there supremely demonstrated its guilt. “And He shall come again,” we say in the Creed, “to judge the living and the dead…” Christ shall judge the world when He returns and shall pass sentence. But not yet, not this time, “For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

Meanwhile, on the cross, the world indeed gets its day in court, but notice: not yet as the defendant! “Now is the judgment of this world,” says the Lord, “now shall the prince of this world be cast out.” (John 12:31) The “prince of this world” means the devil. The world, here, is in court as the victim who is to be awarded the verdict it seeks against its tyrant. God’s Justice here is freeing His people and reclaiming us from the tyrant, for we are rightfully His own. Now the ancient serpent is about to be defanged, on the Cross. (See Genesis 3:15) Now, by dying, Christ is about to trample down death by death.

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Why Did Jesus Die? (03) To be our Passover Lamb

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. (I Corinthians 5:7)

On the night God had promised to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and to lead them out of that country, they had assembled, per His commandment, to sacrifice lambs and roast them, to eat the meat with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They came with their belongings packed, fully dressed, down to their belts and sandals, every woman and young girl wearing gold and silver jewelry she had begged from her Egyptian mistress. They had obeyed God’s order to smear some of the lambs’ blood over the doorposts and lintels of each house they occupied. God had warned that on this night, He would cause all the firstborn of Egypt to die, including every firstborn animal. But the angel of death would pass over any house marked with the blood of the sacrificed lambs. So the people of God huddled over their feasts, while a great cry went up all over Egypt, for there was not a house in which someone had not died. Pharaoh sent word to Moses, imploring him to take the Israelites and get out of Egypt immediately. He did. Six hundred thousand Israelites departed, plus a mixed crowd of others, plus herds and flocks, with all their belongings, plus all the borrowed jewelry. They carried with them the bones of their forefather, Joseph, who had foreseen this day and had asked them to carry his bones out with them. (For the full story, read Exodus, Chapter 12.)

But after the initial shock had worn off, the Egyptians began regretting that they had released their slaves. Pharaoh sent his chariots after them to bring them back.

And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. So the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. And the Egyptians pursued and went after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.

Now it came to pass, in the morning watch, that the Lord looked down upon the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud, and He troubled the army of the Egyptians. And He bound their chariot wheels, so that they drove them with difficulty; and the Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the face of Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians."

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen." And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and when the morning appeared, the sea returned to its full depth, while the Egyptians were fleeing into it. So the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. Then the waters returned and covered the chariots, the horsemen, and all the army of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them. Not so much as one of them remained. But the children of Israel had walked on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

So the Lord saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Thus Israel saw the great work which the Lord had done in Egypt; so the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord and His servant Moses. (Exodus 14:19-31)

The Passover festival has been kept by the Jews annually ever since, all these thousands of years, to commemorate those two nights, the night Israel left Egypt, and the night Israel crossed the sea dry-shod and was rescued from the Egyptian army.

Of all the kinds of sacrifices in the Old Testament, the kind the biblical writers find by far the best typifies Christ is, perhaps surprisingly, not the sin offering, but the Passover lamb. Christ was a sin offering, too, although not in the Western sense of that phrase (and I'll make that the topic of two other posts), but more than anything else, He is viewed as the Passover Lamb. That is why He died at Passover, and why His last meal was the Passover meal. That is why St. John goes out of his way to point out that none of Christ’s bones was broken. (John 19:36). That “a bone of him shall not be broken” is a prophecy in Psalm 34:20, but it is also something God had commanded the Israelites concerning the Passover Lamb: “In one house it shall be eaten; you shall not carry any of the flesh outside the house, nor shall you break one of its bones." (Exodus 12:46)

That "the Lamb of God" refers to the Passover lamb, is seen even more clearly when we consider that a sin offering, if it was to be a lamb and if it was to be offered by ordinary people like you and me, had to be female! (Leviticus 4:32, 5:6) Thus, the lamb-as-sin-offering is not a particularly apt image of Christ. We have to believe this is no accident. Goats and cattle had to be male. We have never heard of anyone saying, "Behold the Goat of God!" or, "Behold the Calf of God!"

Christ died as our new Passover Lamb. We celebrate the new Passover at every Divine Liturgy, where His flesh feeds us and His blood, the Fountain of Immortality, keeps death from our door. He leads us safely across the dark sea of death to the promised land on the far side.

How His blood could possibly keep the Angel of Death at bay or His flesh could be the bread of eternal life will be the topic for the next post of this series.

2 comments:

Anam Cara said...

Did I say, "Thank you?" I have saved this as a word doc so I can reread anytime I want.

容郁雨茵 said...

It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.............................................