The central doctrine driving Christianity is Jesus’s victory over sin and death that is both remembered and celebrated during this Easter season. I grew up with certain narratives about how to view, interpret and internalize Christ’s atonement in ways that I simultaneously took for granted and was completely mystified by. Historically, my Easter experiences haven’t been moments of deep reckoning with these mysteries. Rather, my Sunday experiences have the same basic feel week after week with only slight variations even during religious holidays. Tomorrow, there will be Easter themed talks, our choir has been working on an Easter musical number they will perform and it’s my turn to teach Sunday School.
This year in Sunday school, we’ve been studying the Old Testament, timed to be working through the Exodus story just as the Easter and Passover religious holidays arrive. To really parse this out with the detail it deserves is going to take some time and is beyond the scope of both this post, my training and my Sunday School lesson tomorrow, but hopefully I can point out broad themes.
Before Exodus, Israel was a person (previously named Jacob) who had twelve sons who all ended up in Egypt because a famine forced this migration after Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, had been sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in Egypt. Joseph, by good fortune and revelatory skill, rose up to become second only to the Pharaoh in power and instituted a program to store food in preparation for that very famine that drove his family into Egypt with him. Joseph’s family prospered in Egypt because of Joseph’s position and power, receiving their own land, special privileges and access to resources that were broadly unavailable to the rest of the country. This privilege worked against them in subsequent generations. The next Pharaoh, not having the same feelings of loyalty toward Joseph’s progeny, worried that their increasing numbers posed a threat and as a result imposed escalating levels of burden in an attempts to control and reduce their numbers and power.
This is the setup for Exodus, the pharaoh, the wicked dictator suppressing and enslaving the chosen people of Israel. God calls first Moses and then through Moses, Aaron to lead the people out of Egypt in a manner that there would be no question of God’s intervention. These attempts consisted of an increasingly virulent Godly interventions that culminate in a sacrifice. The Lord required each family in Israel to sacrifice a “lamb without blemish, a male of the first year” (Exodus 12:5) then they shall take the blood and “strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses.” (Exodus 12:7). The Lord would then “pass through the land of Egypt this night, and smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast” (verse 12). Those with blood on their door will be passed over. This event would then be memorialized in ritual as a way to keep this miracle in the memory of subsequent generations (verse 27).
And of course on the night of the passover, the people leave Egypt only to be held up on the borders of the red sea with Egyptians armies bearing down on them. God rescues them, famously, by the parting of the seas allowing Israel to escape.
In the book, Founding God’s Nation, Reading Exodus, Leon Kass makes the case that the oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh was decisive in turning Israel into a nation. Rather than allowing Jewish integration into the Egyptian economy, culture and eventual inter-marriage, similar to what happened with Joseph who married an Egyptian and had fully assimilated into the culture, the Pharaoh treated this people like the other, a group to be feared and oppressed, and ultimately enslaved with escalations that turned into multiple attempts to murder their children. It’s through this oppression that God intervened, turned this people, previously bound together simply through genealogical lineage into a covenant people chosen by God.
The Exodus is the founding story for the people of Israel. The passover is remembered through covenant and ritual. Through subsequent generations they managed to regain control of the land promised to Abraham only to lose it to later oppressive regimes, notably Babylon and ultimately Rome.
Through those years, different notable prophets record prophetic and aspirational predictions of an eventual King that will rescue, restore and ultimately reign.
I think it’s worth a pause to consider how important the Exodus story has been in US history, inspired from the this interview with Rabbi Meir Soloveichik that makes note that the US founding, the slave emancipation and the civil rights movement took inspiration from Exodus. The Mormon exodus from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City was also inspired by this Biblical story. It’s impossible to underestimate the influence and effect the Exodus story has had on the world.
- Thomas Paine compared the British monarch to the Pharoh
- The third most cited biblical text during the Revolutionary War was Exodus 15’s “Song of the Sea”.
- Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson suggested stories from Moses become the seal of the United States.
- Pastor Eli Forbes in his eulogy of Washington called Moses the “Washington of Israel”.
- Spirituals like Go Down Moses and Didn’t Old Pharaoh Get Lost were sung by slaves “yearning for liberation”.
- Harriet Tubman’s was called the Moses of Her People.
- Frederick Douglass invoked the Passover ritual in a call to end slavery.
- Abraham Lincoln was revered as a Moses-like figure.
- The inscription on the Liberty Bell comes from a quote from the Biblical instruction to liberate the slaves, inspiring the abolition movement.
Jesus – Atonement
A Bit of Roman Historical Context – Inspired by NT Wright’s book Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters
Jesus was born into the world during the Roman empire’s rule over Israel. Rome had a form of a Republic with various checks and balances. Julius Caesar a military leader of notable success made himself Roman dictator in 49 BC but was assassinated in 44 BC and later deified so that his successor, Caesar Augustus could claim the label, son of God. By the time Jesus came on the scene, Caesar Augustus was an absolute monarch of Rome with some claim to divinity. In that time Herod was appointed ruler over Jerusalem given the name “King of the Jews”. Rome by this time was also overpopulated, relying heavily on the import of resources from Northern Africa and other regions through which Jerusalem was situated. Rome really needed stability and cooperation within the region of Israel to sustain its empire.
The Jewish people knew in their bones the story of Exodus, God’s promises for Israel and the prophecies of a new Messiah. They felt like it was their destiny and their promise to overthrow Rome and re-establish Israel. Judas the Hammer was an early example of someone who attempted this with some success although it ultimately ended in failure. Simon bar Kokhba was another, later attempt of this that also had some early success followed by ultimate failure.
This is the context Jesus appears on the scene, with Rome in control feeling they have divine authority for their empire with every incentive and power to suppress uprisings that happen to arise. And a Jewish people who feel their history in their bones, recorded in scripture, bound by covenant, looking forward to a restoration of their nation. Within the Jewish people, there were some who cooperated and found favor with Roman rule, and others who sought opportunities to undermine the empire in hopes of being worthy to help usher in the fulfillment of prophecy.
Jesus knew the history, understood the prophecies and through the course of his three year ministry, offered a completely different interpretation of its fulfillment in ways that even his closes followers had trouble immediately understanding.
The events that lead up to Christ’s resurrection follow a well documented series of events, timed to correspond to passover, the ritualistic celebration of Israel’s redemption from Egypt.
- Palm Sunday – Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem, prophesied in Zechariah 9:9
- Monday – Jesus cleanses the temple.
- Tuesday – Jesus laments over Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives
- Wednesday – Rest
- Thursday – Passover and the Last Supper ((Zechariah 11:12-13)
- Friday – Trial, Crucifixion, Death and Burial
- Isaiah 53:4,7
- Psalm 22:16, 18
- Psalm 69:21
- Isaiah 53:9
- Saturday – Day in the tomb
- Sunday – Resurrection
- Daniel 12:2
First of all, aligning these events with the passover marks a transition. Just as Exodus transitioned God’s work from the familial to the national. Christ pushed this work out into the world. Christ’s work was most definitely both religious and political in ways that subverted both Roman and Jewish narratives. Romans needed this redemption just as much as the Jews. Their political systems needed redemption as well. Jesus work was radically non-violent and sacrificial. Jesus offered himself up as the sacrifice and it was through that sacrifice we find redemption, from both sin and death.
How Can We Make that Sacrifice Resonant In Our lives – Ideas Inspired by An Early Resurrection among other Sources
Christ’s sacrifice calls us into sacrifice. Christ’s death is an invitation for our death – the death of our old self and resurrection into a new life in Christ. This message of death and renewal is everywhere. The cold dark season of winter brings forth new life in the spring. The darkness of evening followed by the light of the morning. So, we are called daily to sacrifice our old self to a life in Christ, which means a life fully and completely connected and alive. In this sense death is a form of surrender. We give up realizing that on our own we are hopelessly not enough. Our best efforts will always come up short. We will eventually die. So we surrender in Christ and then become renewed in Christ. How is this done? In the way it’s always been done. We seal this intention through covenant and ordinance and then live into these promises through regular, daily efforts, through constant and consistent sacrifice and consecration.
I think we can look at what’s expected of us by looking at what was expected of Christ’s closest followers. The book of Acts provides a good example. In the lives of Peter, Paul, Stephen and others, we see to live in Christ means acting like Christ, becoming as Christ was, fully engaged in the world, attempted to redeem it through sacrifice, obedience and covenant.
That is the Easter message.