Skip the Atonement Theories on Good Friday

Today is the day to tell the whole story of Jesus’ last hours in earthly flesh: his agony in the garden, his betrayal and abandonment by those closest to him, his arrest, his trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, his torture at the hands of soldiers, his crucifixion, his words and his conduct on the cross, the reaction of witnesses and bystanders, the heavenly events that accompanied his crucifixion, his death, anointing and burial. Telling the whole story is important.

This is not the day to reduce the gospel narrative to a bare fact – Jesus died – and then use that fact as a springboard for an exposition of the doctrine of atonement or the history of sacrifice in the Old Testament. It is not the day to reduce the meaning of his crucifixion to a single theory of salvation. The church’s observance of Good Friday focuses on retelling the story of Jesus’ last day, not on a theological system.

Within the story itself are multiple ways of seeing the powerful impact of Jesus’ death. Jesus’s death is the Passover sacrifice that gives God’s people the victory. It is the covenant sacrifice that constitutes the new people of God. It is the high priestly sacrifice to restore the right relationship between God and all Israel. It is the sacrifice of love that draws all humankind to God. It moves the center of God’s relationship with his people from the temple in Jerusalem to the person of Jesus. It opens the way into the Holy of Holies for all who believe.  For those who unite themselves to it, it is the offering that cleanses from sin. It is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

These are different and equally important ways of describing the effect of Jesus’ death, and the church’s liturgy touches on each of them. We celebrate what Jesus has done for us as we tell the story of what he did 2000 years ago. Today is a day for awe and adoration, not exposition and explanation.

The authors of our four gospels all thought the details of Jesus’ last day were important to remember. You have a whole year to unpack the meaning of Jesus’ death in your preaching. Today, just tell the story.

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