Lesson 12: Salvation: Israel and Christ

The three classical theories of the atonement each express part of the mystery of the atonement. Each builds upon certain aspects of the New Testament message about Jesus Christ. Yet, none of them centers the atonement in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. The history of Israel, the covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David, the Temple and the exile all fall to the background. Thus there is also needed, not to supplant the classical theories, but to complement them, theories of the atonement that root Christ's salvation in the midst of God's providential history with Israel.

Already in the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons in his The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching places the atonement in the history of God's covenants. He begins with the covenant of creation, includes the covenant with Noah, Abraham, David, to show how the new covenant of Christ fulfills all of these covenants.

Israel in Exile

Although Jews were living in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, they largely considered themselves still to be living in exile. The exile refers to the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem in Judea to Babylon in 587 B.C. Roughly 70 years later, the exile ended when King Cyrus of Persia allowed his conquered peoples to return to their homeland. He sent the Jews back to Jerusalem and helped them rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587. This rebuilt temple is known as the Second Temple to distinguish it from Solomon's Temple built around 950 B.C. Yet even though the Jews had returned to the Jerusalem and rebuilt their temple, there was no Davidic King to rule on the throne as God has sworn to David that his sons would receive a perpetual throne. The exile thus could not end until a son of David, a King, also known as the anointed one (Christ in Greek, or Messiah in Hebrew) would return. The fact that the exile had not ended with the return to Jerusalem soil was all the more true in Jesus' time since Jerusalem was an occupied city, ruled by the Roman governor and the Roman soldiers under him.

Faithful Jews during Jesus' time awaited the time when God would come as he had promised. The prophets frequently spoke of "the Day of the Lord" when God would come in his Messiah to restore Israel and judge the Gentiles. Jews had many different views of how this would happen -- a military uprising, an eschatological end of the world, etc. -- but most of the faithful Jews were agreed that it would happen. Before Jesus appeared to Paul on the way to Damascus (Acts 9), Paul, then referred to as Saul, had been a zealous member of the Pharisees. The Pharisees eagerly awaited the Day of the Lord. They reasoned that since the exile was caused by Israel's infidelity to the Law of Moses, the end of the exile would only come when a faithful remnant observed the Law in complete fidelity. Through his conversion to the way of Christ, Paul did not set aside this view of Israel's history; he simply saw that it had already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ himself was the faithful remnant who completely observed the true Law. In his death and resurrection, God had judged the Gentiles and restored Israel. Christ personifies Israel. The resurrected Christ is the restored nation of Israel. Christ now brings Jews and Gentiles into his Body and thus manifests the restoration of Israel to the world. What Paul the Pharisee had expected to happen at the end of time through his own obedience of the Law, he came to see that it had happened in the middle of history through the obedience of Christ. The end of history had already begun with Christ's resurrection and the period of the Church was the time in between Christ's First and Second Coming. This whole period of history is a continual Day of the Lord in which the judgment of the unrighteous and the restoration of the righteous in continually occurring.

The Covenant Logic of the Cross

But why did Christ have to die on the cross? The resurrected Jesus answered this question when he spoke to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. "Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Lk 24:26-27). When Jesus uses the language of "all the scriptures" here it is not limited to a handful of proof-texts, but instead includes the whole of the scripture, the whole story to which his death and resurrection are the last act.

Back in Deuteronomy 28, blessings and curses are set before Israel. If they keep the covenant, as expressed in the book of Deuteronomy, then they will enjoy peace and security in the land. If they disobey the covenant, they will be crushed by Gentile nations, they will be naked and thirsty, until they are eventually destroyed. All covenants will either result in blessing or curse. There is no way back to where life was before. Consider a marriage covenant. If faithfully kept, blessings of joy result; if transgressed and broken, great suffering. Now Israel had suffered many of the curses from Deuteronomy, exile, etc. But they were not wholly destroyed. Thus Israel still lived under the curse. Jesus Christ suffers at the hands of the Gentiles. As was the curse for Israel, Jesus is exiled from Jerusalem to be stripped naked, to be thirsty, until eventually put to death at the hands of the Gentiles, in this case the Romans. He suffers the Deuteronomic curses standing in as the person of Israel and thus frees Israel from all the curses of disobedience. Colossians 2:13-14, "And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross." Even more explicitly, Galatians 3:13-14, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us -- for it is written, 'Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree' -- that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." Once the curses due to the disobedience of the law were borne by Christ, then the original promise of blessing for all nations (to Abraham) could be released in the gift of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost.

Those outside Israel did not suffer from the Deuteronomic curses having never been part of the covenant. Nonetheless all Gentiles suffered under the curse of death initiated by Adam's disobedience. Christ's obedience and death on the cross thus bears away the curse upon all human beings. Romans 5:18-19, "Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man's disobedience man were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous."

Christ and the Law of Moses

Yet, Christ's fulfillment of the Law of Moses does not end with the bearing of the curses. He also fulfills the positive aspects of the Law as well -- above all that Israel would be holy and that God would dwell with her. The short summary of the covenant: "you shall be my people and I shall be your God." Traditionally, we distinguish three parts of the Mosaic Law: the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the juridical law. The moral law expresses what is true to human nature and is succinctly summarized in the Decalogue (the 10 commandments). The moral law therefore is binding on all human beings. The ceremonial law concerns all the instructions concerning worship and purity that gave Israel unique access to God in the Temple above all. As such it was only for Israel. The juridical law concerns the governance of the people of Israel under the Davidic King. The King was to establish righteousness in the land. The land was to be holy because it was indwelt by God. The people were to be holy because they were righteous. St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of the connection between Christ's salvation and his fulfillment of the three parts of the Law of Moses in his Summa theologiae.

Christ comes as the priest, prophet and king. As priest, he fulfills the ceremonial laws because he is the perfect sacrifice to which all of the other sacrifices pointed. As prophet he fulfills the moral law since he is the just man who teaches the true law. As king, he fulfills the judicial law by establishing a people who were made righteous by him. Thus to speak of the Old Law being fulfilled does not mean that the Old Law is revoked. Instead, the Old Law is completed, because all of its aims are fulfilled in Christ who continues to reign as priest, prophet and king. The New Law with its new ceremonies, the sacraments, is the perfection of the Old Law. As Jesus himself says, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17). Also, when Paul says, "Christ is the telos of the law" (Rom 10:4), he is using the term telos here as the consummation and fulfillment, and not as the cessation.

Reading Assignment

CCC 599-618, 456-460
Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering, Knowing the Love of Christ, Chs. 6-7, pp. 91-118

Writing Assignment

Write a three-page essay in which you show how Jesus' sacrifice fulfills the Mosaic covenant and how this fulfillment is related to the sacraments of the New Covenant.

Suggested Reading

Timothy Gray, Mission of the Messiah: On the Gospel of Luke. Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, Inc., 1998. Available at www.emmausroad.org.
N. T. Wright, What Did St. Paul Really Say: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Eerdmans Publishing, Inc., 1997.
Matthew Levering, Christ's Fulfillment of Torah and Temple: Salvation According to St. Thomas Aquinas. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.


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