Episode 11 Transcript

Episode 11: What Does God Look Like?


My friend, Gary Christy, said something in a sermon recently that jumped out and grabbed me. 

One moment I was sitting quietly in a Sunday morning service, and the next my mind was racing down a path through history and scripture, furiously connecting dots that I hadn’t seen before. 

And now, several weeks later, I can’t remember exactly how Gary phrased it. But he was talking about the brigands that were crucified with Jesus. At first, both of them were mocking Jesus, and the first one kept on mocking Jesus until the end. But the second criminal saw something in Jesus that led him to ask Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. 

What did the second criminal see?

It wasn’t that Jesus was unbreakable. The nails were there for all to see, along with his suffering. He was clearly dying.

It wasn’t power or authority. Jesus could have called 12 legions of angels—but he didn’t. 

It wasn’t an imminent rescue. Elijah wasn’t coming. God had left him there. 

It wasn’t popularity. There were no crowds supporting him, proclaiming the injustice of what was happening. Everyone except a few women had abandoned him.

No, the criminal saw something else. And what he saw is the key to unlocking the mystery of the crucifixion, to understanding the Way of Christ, and to seeing God for who he truly is.

Simeon: Matthew, I think I finally understand your point. The destruction of the temple, and the loss of Jerusalem, was God’s angry judgment against us for killing his son.

Matthew: No, Simeon, that’s not my point at all. The destruction of the temple was not God’s doing. It wasn’t his anger, or even his justice, that caused that.

Simeon: Then, how…? Who IS responsible?

Matthew: Have you ever seen a child taunt his neighbor in the hopes of luring him into his backyard so his dog would bite him? 

Simeon: I’m not following you…

Matthew: You— no really, we. We thought we had God on a leash. That he was on our side. That if we picked a fight with the Romans, He would have to protect us. That we could trigger the conflict that would put us on top again.

Simeon: Oh!

Matthew: Only, we forgot that we weren’t God’s only children. God loves the Romans, too. This fight we picked wasn’t his fight. He was for both sides, and neither. 

The loss of the temple wasn’t something He did. We caused that.

And Simeon?

Simeon: Yes?

Matthew: The crucifixion did not make God angry. 

Simeon: What?

Matthew: He planned it from the very beginning. It was His ultimate revelation of himself to his children. All of his children.

Opening Titles:

This is—

Jesus for Sex Workers, Church People, and Me

A podcast hosted by Todd Austin

Episode Eleven: What Does God Look Like?

The Teaching

Let me start off by saying, I don’t buy it. It’s one of the pillars of Protestant Christianity. It undergirds much of the theology of the modern church. Without it, the way we read many passages in the New Testament will have to be completely rethought. If it’s not true, many of the worship songs we sing every Sunday will have to be scrapped. It’s been supported by generations of biblical scholars.

But I don’t buy it.

We’ve purposefully steered away from two dollar words on this podcast, but we’ll make this one exception. The thing I’m not buying is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Maybe you’ve heard of it. But even if you haven’t, this theory has likely contributed more to your view of God than anything that actually comes from the Bible.

Let me give you a description from Wikipedia, so I don’t bias the jury any more than I already have. Here’s what it says about Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

[Human beings] are guilty before God’s judgment and the only appropriate punishment is eternal death. The Son of God has become [human] and has stood in [our] place to bear the immeasurable weight of wrath—the curse, and the condemnation of a righteous God. He was “made a substitute and a surety in the place of transgressors and even submitted as a criminal, to sustain and suffer all the punishment which would have been inflicted on [us].”

Sound familiar? I bet it does, and I don’t buy it. Here’s why.

First, Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a relatively recent innovation in how Christians think about the cross. For the first thousand years or so after the time of Christ, christians had a different view of atonement. It wasn’t until 1000 CE that St. Anselm of Canterbury came up with a new theory of atonement based in a context of feudalism. And then another 500 years would pass before John Calvin, trained as a lawyer, would transform St. Anselm’s ideas into the courtroom drama we associate with atonement today. A drama built on judgment, guilt, condemnation, wrath, and punishment. 

Many christians treat Calvin’s theory as if it came straight from the Bible, without even realizing that it is a relatively new theory, and that it is very different from how christians thought about atonement for the first thousand years of the church.

Second, if Calvin is right, and Jesus suffered all the punishment we deserved, what’s the point of forgiveness? Or mercy? Or grace? Forgiveness, mercy and grace are given in lieu of punishment, right? If the cross is about punishment to pay for our guilt, and the payment has been made, why do we need forgiveness?

And, if the punishment has been carried out once and for all, why can’t I keep on sinning? You might say I would be ungrateful if I did that, and you would be right, but that doesn’t answer the question. 

Third, if God is truly a just God, if atonement is about balancing the legal scales, shouldn’t the punishment fit the crime? Is it just for the punishment for any sin to be eternal death? even for the smallest of sins, like failing to notice the dead gnat in your coffee that makes you unclean? 

People will try to justify this by saying it is God’s holiness that demands this perfect purity. But remember, the word holy means that which is set apart. Holiness is what sets God apart from all the other gods. It’s what sets Him apart from us.

Is this requirement for eternal death as the punishment for every failing what really sets God apart from all the other gods? Is this the fundamental nature of God’s character? Or is his holiness, his set-apartness, based on some other trait? This question starts to get at the heart of what bothers me.

Fourth, if Calvin’s innovation is true, then it means that Jesus is very different from God. If God’s holiness demands punishment to cleanse away sin before sinners can be in his presence, why doesn’t Jesus share that same holiness? Because in the gospels Jesus seeks out sinners. He eats with them. His nature doesn’t require perfect purity before we can be in his presence. Is Jesus not holy like God is holy?

And what does it mean that Jesus can touch sinners? That he can show mercy? That he can forgive without requiring punishment, payment, or a rebalancing of the scales of cosmic justice? Does it mean that Jesus is capable of doing something that God cannot?

One of the problems of Calvin’s innovation is that it necessarily leads to a Jesus and a God who don’t look much alike. It gives us a Jesus who is the nice, loving, merciful one. And a God who is the stern, distant, angry, judging and condemning one.

But scripture says otherwise. The first two verses of the book of Hebrews tell us in no uncertain terms that, if you want to know what God looks like, look at Jesus. Jesus is the spitting image of God.

That’s why I say, I don’t buy it. Calvin’s innovation doesn’t ring true. But it’s one of the bedrock principles locked away in that black box that we talked about in the last episode. The black box that tells us what we have to do, and who we have to be. And for many of us, we don’t know any other way to think about the cross.

If I were trying to put my finger on the reasons why I think the church has gotten so far off track, it would be two things:

One, that we try to read scripture like a rule book, as if God’s will for us is a legal code we have to keep. And two, this wrong-headed understanding of atonement, which tries to look at the cross in legal terms, as if it were a courtroom plea deal.

This is why we struggle so much with legalism, even though we know intuitively that it’s the wrong path. If you view the books of the New Testament as a legal code, and if you think the cross is a legal transaction, then there’s no way around legalism.

But if that’s not what the cross is all about, if it’s not a legal transaction, then what IS it about?

Blood Sprinkled

One of my favorite experiences in a good story is the surprise twist. That moment when a storyteller gives you a bit of context you hadn’t picked up on before, and suddenly your understanding of a situation is flipped on its head. I love that moment, because everything you thought you knew is transformed, and you see the world in a shocking new way.

That’s what Matthew is trying to do for us in his retelling of the crucifixion, only we don’t know the Hebrew Scriptures nearly as well as his original audience, so we miss the twist he wants us to see.

I owe a big debt to Richard Hayes, who’s book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels opened my eyes more than any other resource to how Matthew reaches back into the Hebrew Scriptures to make his points in this gospel.

These echoes from the First Testament in Matthew are usually just short phrases, either quoting a snippet of Scripture, or touching on an image they would recognize. When the storyteller and the audience share culture and context, like Matthew did with his audience, these snippets are all it takes to make a much bigger story spring to life.

It’s like when someone quotes a line from a movie and those who have seen the movie start laughing, while everyone else is wondering what’s so funny. 

For example, based on the context and culture that you and I share, what happens when I say, “A long time ago…”

Did you immediately finish the line? “… in a galaxy far, far away?” Suddenly you are primed to hear what I say next from the story world of Star Wars. If I start talking about the emperor, you think of Palpatine, not Nero.

How about, “A date that will live in infamy.”

Or ”That’s one small step for man…”

Or, if you’re a bit younger than I am, how about “haters gonna hate…”

Our brains are wired to immediately leap into the context of these famous lines, and the extended images and themes associated with these phrases automatically unpack in our minds. Because of that one phrase, some of you who share that context are going to be singing Shake it Off for the rest of the day (and, you’re welcome. I could have rick-rolled you right there, and you never would have seen it coming)). 

This Jedi mind trick is exactly what Matthew is doing with his audience. He provides the snippet, and he wants the larger echo to go off in our heads. Only, we didn’t see the movie he’s quoting, so we don’t get the reference and we don’t hear the echo. When he wants us to think “Moon Landing,” all we see is what’s in the six or seven words he gives us, something about a small step, and we miss his point.

The first echo Matthew wants us to pick up comes in chapter 26, in the story of The Last Supper:

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Have you ever thought about how odd it is that Jesus tells the disciples to eat his body and drink his blood. When we hear drinking blood, we think vampires. But that’s not the image that would have jumped into their heads.

They, along with Matthew’s original readers, would have immediately found themselves back in Leviticus 17, where the people are forbidden from consuming blood. This isn’t an arbitrary-seeming food law, like the prohibition on eating pork. God gives an explanation for why they can’t drink blood that Matthew wants us to remember:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.

Blood is the stuff of life. It was reserved for atonement, for the covering of sin to cleanse it away.

This command about blood isn’t in the middle of a long list of general prohibitions. It’s embedded in a section that describes the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. 

For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the LORD

The Day of Atonement was the one day a year when the high priest would purify himself so he could enter the holy of holies and experience the presence of God on behalf of the people. It was on this day that the sins of the people were washed away, covered, atoned for.

These are powerful images from the Hebrew Scriptures echoing in Jesus’s words, but Matthew is just getting started. 

He tells us this is the Passover meal. The meal commemorating how those under a covering of blood—in this case a bit of blood smeared over a door frame— were passed over by Death; set free from bondage.

And, as if these two weren’t enough, Matthew gives us one more echo. Notice the words he gives us about the cup: “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” 

The phrase “blood of the covenant” is a heavily loaded echo. It reaches back to Exodus 24, and the establishment of the covenant between God and Israel.

…Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Here again we have blood used as part of a defining event. In this case, blood was used to purify the people and set them apart as the chosen nation of God. Jesus is making a direct connection between the blood that was sprinkled on the people by Moses, and his own blood—”For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Matthew is packing a lot of context into this small passage about the Last Supper. He’s connecting it with three huge storylines: The Day of Atonement, the Passover, and the Establishment of the Covenant. Three stories where blood is a key component for the setting apart and purification of a people. It’s context his original readers would have understood implicitly, but which we, unfortunately, often miss entirely. But now that we hear it too, let’s move forward in Matthew’s text.

The next few paragraphs are a litany of failure, abandonment, rejection, and betrayal. 

Jesus tells his closest friends that they’re all going to desert him. Then he goes to Gethsemane to pray, and none of his friends can stay awake with him. Judas shows up with a crowd to arrest Jesus. And, just as Jesus said, his friends run away in fear.

The High Priest, the person whose job it is to purify himself once a year so he can enter the Holy of Holies to be in the presence of God, along with the experts in scripture and the leaders of the people, interview false witnesses until they find a legal justification for condemning Jesus to death. A justification based on the sanctity of the temple.

Peter denies that he knows Jesus—not just once, but three times. 

Judas, in a moment of shame and regret, tries to undo what he has done. He says, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” When the chief priests refuse to take back the bribe they paid him, he hangs himself in despair. The chief priests can’t figure out what to do with the money, because it is blood money. They buy a field to bury foreigners, and Matthew tells us it is named The Field of Blood.

Pilate interviews Jesus, but can’t find a justification for the charge against him. He offers the crowds a choice. He will free either Jesus or Barabbas, a notorious criminal. They choose Barabbas, and demand the crucifixion of Jesus.

Pilate washes his hands, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” This is another echo, but we’ll come back to it in a bit. For now, I just want you to notice all these references to blood, and to hold in your mind the echoes from the Day of Atonement, the Passover, and the Day of the Covenant. 

Because now we’re at the moment of Matthew’s twist. He tells us that the people as a whole answered Pilate, “His blood be on us and on our children.”

Do you see it? We’ve always read this as the taking on of responsibility, of guilt. And that is exactly what the crowd meant by their words. 

But Matthew, with his elaborate setup of echoes from the Hebrew scriptures, wants us to see a larger purpose at work in their words.

The crowd says, “may his blood be on us and our children.” But now we hear the echo of the blood over the doorpost on Passover, and the echo of the blood sprinkled on the day of Atonement, and the echo of the blood sprinkled at the establishment of the covenant. And we hear God say, “Yes, that’s exactly right. This blood be on you and your children—but not as bloodguilt. As purification.”

Let’s go back to that moment where Pilate washed his hands, and talked about being innocent of this man’s blood. Deuteronomy 21 talks about what the people are to do when someone discovers a dead body, but no one knows who was guilty of the murder. The text says they are to kill a heifer, then…

All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer…, and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. Absolve, O LORD, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt.

Do you see it now? Maybe you’re skeptical. I can understand that. Since we didn’t see “the movie” of the Hebrew scriptures, it’s hard for us to really get Matthew’s twist. 

So now I’m going to play my trump card. When Jesus said from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” did he really mean it? Or did he intend for the bloodguilt to remain on their heads and their children’s heads? 

How do you think God responded to this request? Do you think he refused? —that if Jesus had asked for 10,000 angels God would have done it, but this was too much? That, in his wrath, forgiveness was something he would not do?

I think you know the answer. Because this was God’s purpose all along. And that’s Matthew’s point.

The Story of the Temple

Let’s talk about the temple. Remember that it’s a trumped up charge about a threat to the temple that the religious leaders use as the justification for killing Jesus. And, way back in episode one of this podcast, we talked about how the Gospel of Matthew was written, in part, to explain the work of God after the destruction of the temple.

The temple was sacred. It was the place where heaven intersected earth. The Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the temple, was the one place on earth where the presence of God could be experienced. 

But only on one day each year, the Day of Atonement. And then only by one man, the High Priest. He could enter only after elaborate purification of himself, the people, and the elements of the temple. They were cleansed with blood, the stuff of life. Purified and made holy, so that the things of earth could be in the presence of the things of heaven. So that one man, for a brief moment, could be in the presence of God.

When the first temple was destroyed, all of this was lost. There was no longer a place where heaven touched earth. Where the presence of God could be experienced in the midst of his people. 

Later they built a new temple, but the presence of God did not return to the Holy of Holies. 

As time passed, the religious leaders, especially the Pharisees, believed that the only way the presence would return to the temple was for the people to rededicate themselves to the covenant. To keep the law. To become, once again, the elect— the “set apart” people of God. The holy and righteous nation. 

When the Romans destroyed the second temple, you can imagine how devastating it was. What went wrong? Who was to blame? It had to be God’s judgment on the people yet again. The Pharisees blamed the Christians—this sect who led the people astray, who welcomed the impure, who broke down the boundaries that set apart the elect from the gentile nations.

It is against this accusation that Matthew gives us his gospel. The story of what God was really doing. Matthew says that…

One day, when it was time, God did the unimaginable. He came walking down out of the temple. He descended the steps and came out among the people, as one of us. He was Emmanuel, God with us. As he walked, he pulled the kingdom of heaven out of the Holy of Holies and brought it with him. Now the kingdom had “come near.”

As he walked he purified the profane. He chose the poor, the unclean, and the sinners to sit down to dinner with. He laughed with them, cried with them, touched them, healed them, forgave them.

He was misunderstood by everyone who should have recognized him, most especially by the Bible experts and the good church people. But in submitting to death at the hands of his own, he used the stuff of his own life, his blood, to purify even them. 

He broke once and for all the power that Sin, Death and Satan had to hold his children apart from him. He took the veil of the temple, the curtain separating the holy from the profane, heaven from earth, Him from us, and ripped it from top to bottom—eliminating all barriers between himself and his children forever.

The temple was just an empty shell now. Let the Romans do with it as they pleased. The presence of God was now among his children, within his children. Children he had made pure by the stuff of his own life. 

We see this reality in the book of Acts. The presence of God comes upon the 120 in the upper room. The presence of God is witnessed among ordinary, uneducated people. The Ethiopian eunuch—a man who, under the law, had no path for redemption—is purified and welcomed. Saul of Tarsus, the very definition of one who saw himself as an enemy of Christ, is reclaimed, purified, and set apart for a purpose. And maybe most astonishingly, we have the purification that God explained to Peter in a dream.

A dream where God said, “Don’t call anything unholy that I have made clean.” And then Peter discovered that God wasn’t just talking about food. He saw the presence of God come upon a Roman centurion and his entire household.

The mystery of the cross is that the profane has been purified. The outsider has been brought inside. Heaven has come near. The Holy of Holies, the place where heaven and earth intersect, the place of the presence of God, has moved from the temple in Jerusalem to inside each one of us.

Purity is not about what we do or don’t do. It’s not about how well we comply with the great cosmic rule book. It’s not about what we can do for ourselves so that we are somehow worthy to come into the presence of God. 

Purity comes from the blood that has been sprinkled over us, the stuff of the life of God himself. So yes, drink it in.

Penal substitutionary atonement is an ugly farce. God was motivated by love for us, not anger at us. The cross was about purification, reclamation, and freedom; not punishment. Be released from this nightmare of 16th century legal reasoning, and walk in the freedom of knowing that God— is— Love.

Matthew & Simeon

Matthew: Simeon, do you remember the story of when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers in Egypt? 

Simeon: Of course I do. They were scared that Joseph would punish them for faking his death and selling him as a slave.

Matthew: But Joseph was gracious to them. He said, “what you intended for harm, God intended for good.” Sound familiar?

Simeon: Oh my…

Matthew: I’ve told you a lot about Paul. He could really be full of himself. Sometimes it was hard to be in the same room with him. 

Simeon: I haven’t forgotten that you said I remind you of him.

Matthew: Ha! In the good things, Simeon. Only the good things. I find myself thinking about Paul’s words often. He had a phrase that went something like, ‘God works all things together for good…”

Like in the story of Joseph, He takes everything, even things we intend for harm, and He bends them back to good. I don’t fully understand all that yet, because there is a lot of harm floating around in the world that hasn’t yet been bent to the good. 

But if he can take the worst thing we could ever do, turning on him and torturing him to death, and bend that to our good, then I can believe that all of the harm that remains He will eventually turn to good as well.

That is what He does. That is who He is. 

Test This Teaching

As we wrap up, let’s come back to where we started. What was it that the second criminal saw? He saw God. On the cross right beside him. He was the first to recognize him. 

Many good church people still don’t see what the second criminal saw.

Because of Calvin’s theory, we become fixated on the cross itself, the symbol of the moment where the punishment meant for us is put on Jesus instead—at least, according to his theory. 

It’s as if the rest of the story of Jesus in the gospels is just background material—a prelude. Interesting, but not necessary.

But it’s not about the cross, it’s about the person on the cross. And it’s not just about the way he died. It’s also his scandalous birth; his repentance from the map when he was baptized; his refusal to play political games, or align himself with power; his way of life among the profane, the impure, and the outsiders—the least of these. All of this is essential, not just interesting. Because, it is in all of this, that we finally get to see what God looks like. It is in the life of Jesus—beginning, middle, and end—that God says, “this is who I am.”

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets…, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son….. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

God’s nature is not one whit different from Jesus’s nature. God does not demand some price be paid, some punishment be meted out, before he can stand to have us in his presence. His nature doesn’t require a penalty in payment for our lawbreaking—a legal rebalancing of the scales of justice.

But in the practical, everyday, rubber-meets-the-road of the here and now, that’s often exactly what we demand.

Good church people think that every time we sin, we participate in the crucifixion of Christ. But that’s not the way the equation works. 

Every time we demand justice, restitution, a rebalancing of the scales. Every time we fail to forgive, fail to show mercy, fail to love. Every time we hold up our hands to our neighbor, refusing them entry saying, “not you, not until you clean up your life,” we spit in the face of Jesus. It’s in these moments that we join the righteous mob, grab the hammer, and drive in the nails just a bit deeper.

Jesus says, “Is my blood, the stuff of my own life, not enough? I have purified them. And not just them… but you, too. Don’t call unworthy what I have made clean.”

When the people who claim the name of Christ learn to walk in his way, to die in his way, then we will understand how to fix what is broken with the world.

Maybe that path seems too dark, too heavy. But Matthew’s story doesn’t end with death. There’s also this thing called resurrection. Resurrection isn’t just about the afterlife. It’s also about New Life. Right here, right now. But we’ll save that for the next episode.

One last thing. If you want to dig deeper into better ways of thinking about atonement, my friend Davey Hibbett sent me a podcast episode where a couple of Greek Orthodox guys do a great job of explaining it. Instead of starting with modern legal theory, like Calvin, and trying to bolt it onto the New Testament, these guys reach back into the Hebrew scriptures for their context, and explain the New Testament scriptures from that perspective. I’ll put a link to it in the notes for this episode on the website.

Ok, that’s more than enough for today. Now remember, you need to test this teaching. Thank you for listening. 

Closing Credits

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