Carefully Approaching the Atonement

March 20, 2016 No Comments »
Carefully Approaching the Atonement

By Dr. David Downey

Easter is almost upon us. For Christians, this is more than just a season. 

All history points to Jesus’ work among us. It is appropriate that time dating goes according to BC and AD (Before Christ and anno Domini or “in the year of the Lord”). Though often panned by some, for us history still pivots on the appearance, life, and work of Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, if we were to list the events of his earthly life in significant order, the resurrection and ascension would have to be the pinnacle. The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of our hope in life. This hope is offered to all who would trust in him, even in ages to come, and to all who called him “friend” going back all the way to the first man and woman (James 2:23).

However, to interpret the resurrection faithfully we should never lose sight of the cross. As a minister, I try to include a Palm Sunday message the week before Easter, simply to remember that Jesus approached the joy of the resurrection riding humbly on a donkey, receiving the praises of folks who would soon abandon him to the cross.

I served in a church where one of my fellow staff members announced on Palm Sunday, inappropriately I believe, that we needed to prepare for all the “Bunny Christians” who would be attending on Easter. He defined them as “those who hop in for Easter, then hop out—not to be seen for another year.” It is inappropriate because we are glad to see anyone who could hear the message of the resurrection, but it may also be accurate for some. This raises the question, is it possible to be a Bunny Christian when we linger at the foot of the cross?

Two thoughts can help us this season:

You cannot have resurrection without first having loss
of life. 

It seems obvious that you would have to lose life to regain it, but in a spiritual context, we often miss this. 

I had an assignment in a preaching class years ago that I dreaded at first glance; then I came to appreciate it as I peered into it. The assignment was to take the “servant passage,” Isaiah 52:13–53:12, and exegete it. To exegete means to use language, background, and biblical resources carefully to interpret the meaning. (Or as we seminarians defined it: study until your eyes fall out!) Some of the words in this wonderful messianic prophecy in Isaiah are, to use an A. T. Robertson phrase, like clods of earth falling on a coffin: “His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being . . . like a root out of dry ground . . . he was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering . . . he took up our pain and bore our suffering . . . he was pierced for our transgressions . . . he was led like a lamb to the slaughter . . . he did not open his mouth . . . it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.”

The sadness of this Scripture is overwhelming—until we get deeper to the beauty of the message. We remember the great victory that this led to in Jesus’ life, but also that which he brings to us as the result of his sacrifice. In these words, we have a primer on how to approach Resurrection Sunday.

Remember that before the Jews celebrated the great Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) there were 10 days of repentance. This clearly revealed to the people that there was a need for lives of repentance before celebrating the atonement. The Day of Atonement itself was the most sacred of the feast days and the only one that required fasting. On that solemn day, it was necessary to shed blood and symbolically release the sins of the people through the scapegoat into the wilderness. Jesus was the fulfillment of this prophecy and showed us that the hard work of a sinless life culminating in a sacrificial death is what brings us the hope we celebrate today.

We truly display our victory by imitating the Master. Just like him, we have lost our life in order to gain it. We should not occasionally follow Jesus; through his sacrifice he showed us the great joy of atonement. Since we have received such a great gift we gladly give all of ourselves, all the time.

Alone, the cross would just be a sad human event, but before us is an empty tomb!

That the Lord of life would submit to death is a tremendous message; but his resurrection is foundational to our joy and worship at Easter. He is not still in the tomb. 

Many great leaders, spiritual and political, have a shrine where they rest in state. Why did no one preserve the place of Jesus’ burial and turn it into a shrine? Because he is not there. He was only visiting for a short while. In the tumult and victory of the resurrection, who could think of a tomb?

Easter is our most blessed of holidays. Although we generally do not consider one day greater than another day, this season of the year stands for the greatest day ever submitted to the clock. Years ago, Sandi Patty sang, “Was It a Morning Like This?” Do you remember the chorus, which spoke of the very creation responding to the presence of the Savior again? Jesus was back! He walked on the earth and the words of the song depict all of nature responding to the majesty of the resurrection with resounding “Alleluias!” 

Isaiah prophesied this victory in the servant passage: “See, my servant will act wisely . . . surely he took up our pain . . . by his wounds we are healed . . . he will justify many . . . Therefore I will give him a portion among the great” (Isaiah 52:13; 53: 4, 5, 11, 12).

This is no simple feel-good message that we share. We are not trying to pump ourselves up. We are responding to the historical event of the resurrection: Jesus ascended and sat at the right hand of the Father in Heaven, and he has promised to share his victory with those who will accept him. 

If we have asked Jesus to be the Lord of our life, then we need to consider an appropriate response today. Here are a few suggestions for action, each followed by a verse for meditation:

1. Understand that our new life includes the cross. “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38).

2. Look up! (After all, he ascended.) “Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). 

3. Realize what began in grace continues in grace. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1, 2).

4. Share your joy. “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

Dr. David R. Downey is a minister, a middle and high school Bible teacher, and a freelance writer in Fort Worth, Texas.

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