The holiday season is my favorite time of the year. It kicks off with Thanksgiving. On this Thanksgiving Day, there are many things for which Christians should be thankful. Perhaps the two most important are Jesus’ substitutionary death for our sins and his bodily resurrection from the dead, without which there is no salvation (1 Corinthians 15).
Old Testament Background
Jesus’ substitutionary death for sinners should not be interpreted apart from its Jewish and Greco-Roman background. The first place New Testament (NT) readers should look when trying to understand the nature of Jesus’ death is the Old Testament (OT) background. In the OT, God required numerous sacrifices, but only a few dealt with sin. The burnt-offering (Lev 4:1-7:2), the bloody sin-offering (Lev 4:1-7:2), the bloody guilt-offering (Lev 4:1-7:2), and the bloody Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) (Leviticus 16) were the most prominent sacrifices offered in order to atone Israel’s sin.
In addition to the animal sacrificial system, the concepts of noble, patriotic, and heroic deaths of humans provide a helpful backdrop behind Jesus’ death as well. Euripides Tragedies and the Roman histories of Tacitus and Livy provide examples of humans honorably dying as substitutionary sacrifices to appease the gods on behalf of someone (Euripides’ Tragedies) or on behalf of the honorable city (Livy and Tacitus).
Jewish Martyrdom Background
Before turning to an exposition of Jesus’ death in the NT, I mention one more important background behind Jesus’ death to consider: the death of righteous Jews for the saving benefits of sinful Jews. The bible gives Christians everything we need for faith and godliness. But we often forget that the bible was written in a particular cultural context. One way to understand that context better is to read texts that pre-dated the NT, or that were written contemporaneously with it. Some of those texts are called the Apocrypha.
The Apocrypha are not scripture from my Protestant perspective. But they shine a bright ray of light onto the cultural context of the NT. In apocryphal books called 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees, there are stories about seven Jewish brothers who died for Israel’s sins to reconcile God to Israel (2 Maccabees 7:32-38), about a Jewish priest named Eleazar who died to purify Israel because of her sins (4 Maccabees 6:28-29), and an author’s commentary about the blood of the Jewish Martyrs who died to function as a Day of Atonement for Israel’s sins (4 Maccabees 17:21-22). Of course, there are major differences between these Jewish deaths and the death of Jesus (the martyrs died for Israel and were human, but Jesus was the God-man and died for ungodly Jews and Gentiles). But these martyrdom stories are part of the cultural context, along with the OT and the Greco-Roman examples of noble death, into which the NT authors spoke about Jesus’ death for others.
Substitutionary Atonement in Romans 5:6-10
By substitutionary atonement, I mean Jesus functioned as a sinner, although he was without sin, in that he voluntarily took the punishment for the sins of others so that those for whom he died would receive the benefits of salvation when they become united to Jesus by faith. There are numerous texts we could consider to see this definition. However, I want to focus primarily on Rom. 5:6-10.
In Rom. 5:6, 8, Paul states that Christ died for the weak/ungodly/sinners (Rom 5:6, 8). The ungodly sinners are all people without ethnic distinction (Rom. 3:23; see also Rom. 1:16-3:30). Paul emphasizes the uniqueness of Jesus’ death for the ungodly sinners with the adverb “still” in 5:6. Jesus’ death for the ungodly happened while they were “still” sinners in a state of ungodliness, not when they were righteous. Paul emphasizes this point in 5:7 when he asserts that some die for the “good” or for the “righteous” (5:7)! But Jesus died for “weak/ungodly/sinners” (Rom. 5:6, 8; see also 3:23). And his death for sinners provides and accomplishes saving benefits by faith for the guilty sinners for whom he died (Rom. 5:9-10). Paul specifically mentions three of those benefits: (1) justification, (2) reconciliation), and (3) salvation.
First, justification refers to God’s verbal exoneration of the sinner in God’s law-court (Rom. 1:18-3:20). It means to declare to be in the right. Paul states justification comes to the sinner by means of Jesus’ blood. Justification is primarily a future verdict in Romans that has invaded this present evil age (Rom. 2:13; 3:20, 24; 4:25; 5:1, 9). God offers this positive verdict in favor of those who have faith in Christ, against whom God has counted their transgressions (Rom. 4:6-8). In 5:9, Paul continues his thoughts from 5:1 about the present reality of justification for those who have faith in Christ, and he uses the verb for salvation to state that justification by Jesus’ blood results in future deliverance from God’s wrath.
Second, reconciliation refers to the friendship that exists between God and sinners as a result of justification by faith in Christ. This friendship between God and the sinner is achieved by faith in Christ because of Jesus’ death for the ungodly. And this friendship will serve as a means by which the reconciled friend will be delivered from God’s future wrath in the day of God’s judgment (Rom. 5:9-10).
Third, in Rom. 5:9-10, salvation, like justification, is primarily a future hope that has invaded this present evil age in Romans (Rom. 5:9-10; see also Rom. 2:7-10). Although justification refers to one aspect of salvation, Paul’s reference to salvation with the words “will be saved” means future deliverance from God’s wrath. The phrase “from wrath” supports this very point in Rom. 5:9. The phrase “through him” in 5:9 asserts that sinners will be delivered from God’s wrath through Jesus who shed his blood to this end.
Jesus’ Bodily Resurrection from the Dead (1 Corinthians 15)
Jesus’ death for our sins and his bodily resurrection are foundational to the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-8). In fact, Paul asserts that the death and resurrection of Jesus are of the first importance (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Without the resurrection, his death was a tragedy, not a victory over the power of sin and death. Without Jesus’ resurrection, there is no atonement for our sins (1 Cor. 15:12-19). Paul makes this point abundantly clear as he endeavors to convince the Corinthians that there will be a future resurrection of the dead.
Paul argues if Jesus is dead, preaching the gospel is worthless (1 Cor. 15:14)! If Jesus is dead, faith in Jesus Christ is worthless (1 Cor. 15:14)! If Jesus is dead, Christians lie on God when we say that he raised Jesus from the dead (1 Cor. 15:15)! If Jesus is dead, faith in Christ is futile (1 Cor. 15:17)! If Jesus is dead, we all are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17)! If Jesus is dead, those who died trusting in Jesus are perishing in hell (1 Cor. 15:19)! If Jesus is dead, Christians only have hope in this life. And if we only have hope in this life only, Christians are to be pitied more than anybody (1 Cor. 15:19)! But Paul concludes by saying “but now,” Jesus Christ has been raised from the Dead (1 Cor. 15:20-58)!
Of course, Thanksgiving for many is about good food, family, and football. But for Christians, this holiday should move us beyond gratitude of temporal joys and pleasures (although important) to thankfulness for God’s great work of salvation for Jews and Gentiles by means of the cross and resurrection. On this national Thanksgiving holiday, may Christians show gratitude to God because of Jesus’ cross and resurrection by living lives of faithful obedience to the gospel on this day and forever.
If you want to study substitutionary atonement on a deeper level, see Jarvis J. Williams, “Violent Atonement in Romans: The Foundation of Paul’s Soteriology,” the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53 (December 2010): 579-599; Jarvis J. Williams One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2010); Jarvis J. Williams, For Whom Did Christ Die? The Extent of the Atonement in Paul. Paternoster Biblical Monographs (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2012); Jarvis J. Williams, Christ Died For Our Sins: Representation and Substitution in Romans and Their Jewish Martyrological Background (Eugene, Or.: Pickwick, 2015); Mike Ovey, Pierced for Our Transgressions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007); Simon J. Gathercole, Defending Substitution (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015).