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Did Jesus die on the wrong day?

August 7, 2017


Forgiveness Season starts today and runs through September 30, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). If you would like to know why "Forgiveness Season" happens now instead of around the crucifixion, read on.


SYNC uses traditional Christian and Jewish holidays as milestones in the story of the world from creation to the return of Christ. Some years ago while developing this sequence, I realized my structure clashed with conventional wisdom about the cross since I had freedom rather than forgiveness as the dominant theme for the season of the cross and resurrection.


That is bound to rouse the theological suspicions of any of my fellow evangelicals. The liturgical churches will also take exception to my proposal. Penitence and forgiveness are, of course, the classic themes of Lent, leading up to “Holy Week” when Jesus died. Fasting is integral to the season.


It seems logical to be sober and repentant at this time, just like careful self-examination is commanded for us each time before we participate in the Supper that recalls Christ’s death. However, I came to the conclusion that if forgiveness and holiness are the dominant meanings God intended for the cross, then Jesus died on the wrong day.


The themes of forgiveness and holiness fit perfectly with a different holiday, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. That was the intensely “religious” and reflective holiday, and fasting was required.


If our evangelical theology of the dominant meaning of the cross is correct, then the two goats sacrificed on that day would seem to be perfect symbols for Christ. One was slaughtered so its blood could atone for our sin, and the other was led out into the desert to die unprotected, taking our sins far away.


But the Father did not orchestrate history so Jesus would die on that day. Instead, he arranged for him to die on Passover, when there is very little “religious” or “holy” activity and you would get excommunicated for fasting, missing the Passover meal. Jesus is not once referred to in the New Testament as our “scapegoat,” the second goat of Yom Kippur. He is, however, described as “our Passover” (1 Cor. 5.7).


Suppose God’s choice of Passover was intentional, and it seems unlikely that he would leave the timing of the most important event in history to chance. What meanings would Passover imply for the cross?


The two themes of Passover (Jewish “Independence Day”) are belonging to the people of God and being liberated from slavery. The blood on the doorposts was not atoning blood at all. It was there like a flag, identifying the occupants as those the death angel was to “pass over” without striking because they belonged to God. The death angel struck the unmarked homes of their Egyptian masters and led to liberation for God's people.


Does this mean forgiveness is not found in the cross, or that it is only a footnote to the real meaning of the cross? Never! It means we need to be in SYNC with all God’s intentions about the cross, and it takes four of SYNC’s seven seasons to do that.


Freedom Season, when the crucifixion and resurrection happen, is the third of the seven. Seasons four, five, and six each look back at the cross from a different angle as God moves the story of the world forward.


In Power Season, the SYNC story is about the Holy Spirit working through Jesus' followers after he left. This fits with the classic theological view of the cross as Jesus' victory over the powers, and it is of great interest in cultures where the themes of fear and power are dominant.


In Forgiveness Season, the SYNC story is about Jesus' followers taking the message of forgiveness to the world. This fits with the view of the cross as payment for sin, and it communicates well in cultures where guilt and forgiveness are central.


In Courage Season, the SYNC story is about enduring the backlash against the message of forgiveness. This fits with the view of the cross as an example to follow (we "take up our cross"). This works in honor-shame cultures because the cross was a shame tool, meant to destroy a person's reputation as much as to execute him.


Please do not imagine that SYNC is playing down the cross at all. It is lifting up the cross first in its original Passover context of belonging and liberation. That is “Freedom Season.” The next three SYNC seasons—power, forgiveness, and courage—show us that neither freedom nor any other single theme can exhaust the meaning of the cross.


We are just saying that freedom (along with belonging) is the place to start since that is where God started by choosing Passover Day for his Son’s sacrifice. It opens the way to the other three, and none of those three should be allowed to eclipse any of the others.


Western cultures have been guilt-forgiveness cultures for so long that we can hardly get ourselves to appreciate the rest of the meaning of the cross. For us, everything else pales in comparison to the importance of forgiveness. But are we letting cultural blinders limit our vision of the cross?


Are we under-appreciating its richness and even its core meaning? Are we under-telling the gospel when we reduce it to forgiveness of sins? Have we taken God’s timing for the cross into account as we developed our theology of the cross? That’s what the SYNC annual cycle is trying to do.

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