A guest post by Rodger Kube, Senior Minister at Hillside Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri.
The New Testament contains a rich diversity of teaching and images about how the death of Jesus on the cross accomplishes our atonement (at-one-ment) with God. The contextual rootedness of the New Testament is nowhere more on display than in its understanding of atonement. Drawing on the language and though patterns of Israel’s faith tradition and their life experiences in the Greco-Roman world, the New Testament writers struggled to make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion. The saving significance of Jesus’ death is chiefly (although not exclusively) represented in the pages of the New Testament through 5 clusters of metaphorical images:
• The court of law—justification
• Commercial dealings—redemption
• The battleground—triumph over evil
• Personal relationships—reconciliation, both among individuals and groups.
Why does the New Testament enlist so many images in developing its understanding of Jesus’ death? First, because language for atonement is metaphorical, and given the nature of metaphor, it is hard to imagine that one word picture or model could express all that can be said about the saving significance of Jesus’ death. So, even if Christians could have always spoken with one voice about their affirmation of Jesus as Savior, already in the New Testament, and certainly ever since, readers have understood the affirmation in various ways.
A second reason for the variety of New Testament images of atonement is pastoral. Because very different models and images were employed to describe the ‘lost-ness’ of the human family prior to Jesus, different descriptions of how humans have been ‘recovered’ by Christ’s death needed to be developed. If people are lost, they need to be found. If they are oppressed, they need to be delivered. If they exist in a state of enmity, they need to be reconciled. And so on.
Third, the early Christians used a variety of metaphors to draw out the saving significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection because of wider cultural considerations. If hearers in ever-expanding locations and cultural circles were to understand the message of salvation, then leaders were compelled to articulate the message in a culture-specific way. . .
If we are to be faithful to Scripture, we need to use metaphors that communicate the atonement in our day and age, drawing on images from the everyday experience of people’s lives. We not only must seek to be understood by people, we are also called to shape them in the way of Christ.