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Leading Question: What do Jesus and Gospels tell us about salvation before Jesus died on the cross?

Given the strong emphasis on substitutionary theology in evangelical circles, a position which sees the death of Christ as essential in the salvation process, it is instructive to note the teachings of Jesus on the theme of “salvation,” teachings which would have been given before he died to pay the price for our sin. 

The tantalizing nature of this question is further enhanced by the realization that none of Jesus’ listeners believed that the Messiah would come to suffer and die. At least that is the perspective presented in the synoptic Gospels. That question is explored in the second lesson for this quarter, the lesson on “The Son.” 

Key passages from the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) reveal that Jesus could promise salvation to individuals without any reference to a “transaction” involving the death of Christ:

            Mark 2:5 (NRSV), Jesus to the paralytic:

            “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”          

            Luke 18:9-14: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (NRSV)

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 15: Lost Coin, Lost Sheep, Lost Boy: None of these salvation stories include the element of substitution or transaction:

And yet, John’s Gospel could refer to the “lamb” as crucial to God’s way of dealing with sin and salvation. At least two passages can be cited:

            John 1:29 (NRSV), quoting the words of John the Baptist:

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

            John 11:49-51 (NRSV), quoting the words of Caiaphas:

49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51 He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation.

Mysteriously – the Gospels do not tell us how it happened – Jesus discovered Isaiah 53, the so-called “suffering servant song” and applied the theme of suffering to his own ministry.  And yet that application was not clearly seen and accepted until after his death and resurrection. These words are so familiar to us that we easily forget that they struck Jesus’ listeners as a jarring impossibility. Jesus’ interaction with Peter is perhaps the clearest example. After Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah, a confession for which Jesus praised him, Jesus proceeded to tell of his coming death. Peter reacted sharply to Jesus and Jesus even more sharply to Peter:

Matthew 16: 21 (NRSV):  From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

So how did these moving words become rooted in Christian theology? That is a tantalizing question that may take an eternity to understand. But they have indeed become a powerful part of the Christian message of salvation:

4 Surely he has borne our infirmities

    and carried our diseases;

yet we accounted him stricken,

    struck down by God, and afflicted.

5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,

    crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

    and by his bruises we are healed.

6 All we like sheep have gone astray;

    we have all turned to our own way,

and the Lord has laid on him

    the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

    yet he did not open his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

    so he did not open his mouth. – Isaiah 53:4-7, NRSV

In the Old Testament itself there seems to be no evidence that the sacrificial lamb was understood as a type of the coming Messiah. In time, that truth would be forever anchored in the faith of the church. But initially it was so unexpected. Here again, the words of C. S. Lewis, as cited in Lesson #2, are worth repeating:

My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.  –C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, IV.15

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