Christ became the garbage heap for all our garbage
The accounts of Jesus life are not mythological, though they are mystical; they are not fabricated, though they have been woven into Time and have reworked history around them; they are not disputed by any serious historical or archaeological scholar in the world today.
Jesus Christ lived and died in Palestine during the rule of Tiberius Caesar in a time/ space known to historians as Second Temple Judaism. Contrary to what some folks have thought, the narratives of Jesus’ life and death – called the Gospels – were not clever works of hopeful, religious nonsense. When the Gospel stories were being written down for the first time they were read and proofed by people who’d been alive while Jesus taught and was executed. The Gospels endured because they were accurate and proven to be of good account quickly after the death of Jesus. In fact, compared with any similar document out of antiquity, the amount of proof that we have for the historicity of the Gospels (and, indeed, for all of the New Testament) is simply staggering. The historicity of Jesus and the events surrounding the time of his life has been well established by early Roman Greek and Jewish sources. The New Testament mentions such historical facts as rulers, nations, people groups, political events, and the existence of Jesus. In addition, non-Christian historical sources such as Josephus confirm the accuracy of the Biblical text. Because we have so many manuscripts and because those manuscripts are so close to the original writings in the New Testament, we can have great confidence in the historicity and authenticity of the biblical text.
I mention all of this only so that you understand that my remarks are part of a much larger academic conversation. I speak with the weight of evidence – and though there is neither time nor space here to delve all the way down into that evidence – anyone can quickly verify those things I happen to omit with a simple search engine and a cup of coffee.
I am concerned here, primarily, with the details of Jesus’ death. I want everyone to know that he actually died as a result of his crucifixion so that we can all share an appropriate sense of distaste for the crack-smokers who think it would have been possible for him to have faked his death somehow. I want everyone to know that his death was the result of a collaborative crappiness on the part of all people – not just Jews, and not just Romans, and not just pagans. I want everyone to know that his death was wickedly painful and – perhaps more painful than the pain itself – wickedly humiliating. I want everyone to know that his death was not an accident – that he died as something quite significantly more than a martyr.
Jesus was not just some young preacher who got caught on the wrong side of public opinion. He wasn’t a Yiddish Malcolm X or the Martin Luther King of the Jews. Jesus did, indeed, suffer at the hands of an unjust politic and a corrupt religious system; but his death means more than that. His death was ultimately about God’s Love for the world.
In our earliest stories we have been made to understand that because God is perfect He cannot abide the presence of imperfection. Yet, because of our human nature, we are all imperfect – the biblical term for our imperfection is sin. In the ancient world the way to get rid of our sin and become (temporarily) perfect was through a sacrifice.
One of the central events involved was the Day of Atonement – the one day each year that the high priest would offer a sacrifice to cover all the sins of the people. The priest would take two perfect goats – chosen to represent perfection – slaughter one, and release the other. The slaughtered goat was the symbol of sin and the penalty it incurred – Death. The live goat – called a scapegoat – was released into the wilderness after the high priest confessed all the sins of the people, thereby representing the departure of sin from Israel. The writer of Hebrews points out that it is “impossible for the blood of bulls and goat to take away sins” (10.1). Only the blood of Christ, our substitute, can take away our sin, because He alone was the perfect sacrifice, since he alone lived a perfect life. His blood “purifies us from all sin” and removes our pollution (1 John 1.7). Sin, then, must be washed away (hence the cultic purity rituals of ancient Israel involving an offering that was either sprinkled or poured), born away, covered, removed, and/or cleansed. The main point? Once sin has been committed, someone must suffer the consequences. Christ suffered the consequences.
He paid off the debt of humanity.
The saving benefits of Christ’s death were not an afterthought – like a retail blow out or a stimulus package once everything went to hell – no, no, no. God orchestrated the sacrificial death of Christ – the human hardware into which divinity downloaded – in order to die in Jerusalem for our sake.
Sin is pollution that fouls us, and the good news of the gospel is that Jesus makes us clean. Jesus becomes the offering that is sprinkled on the sacrificial altar to wash away our sins.
But it cost him something. It cost him his life.
He became the garbage heap for all my garbage.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com