• How Does “Dying For Our Sins” Work?

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    How Does “Dying For Our Sins” Work?
    Brian Zahnd

    When we say “Jesus died for our sins,” what does that mean? It’s undeniably an essential confession of Christian faith, but how does it work? This much I’m sure of, it’s not reducible to just one thing. I’ve just finished preaching eight sermons on “The Crucified God” and I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the cross means. To try to reduce the death of Jesus to a single meaning is an impoverished approach to the mystery of the cross. I’m especially talking about those tidy explanations of the cross known as “atonement theories.” I find most of them inadequate; others I find repellent. Particularly abhorrent are those theories that portray the Father of Jesus as a pagan deity who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice. The god who is mollified by throwing a virgin into a volcano or by nailing his son to a tree is not the Abba of Jesus!

    Neither is the death of Jesus a kind of quid pro quo by which God gains the necessary capital to forgive sinners. No! Jesus does not save us from God; Jesus reveals God! Jesus does not provide God with the capacity to forgive; Jesus reveals God as forgiving love. An “economic model” of the cross just won’t work. It’s not as if God is saying, “Look, I’d love to forgive you, but I’ve got to pay off Justice first, and, you know how she is, she’s a tough goddess, she requires due payment.” This understanding of the cross begs the question of who exactly is in charge — the Father of Jesus or some abstract ideal called “Justice”?
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  • Sympathy for the Devil…or Pilate

    Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri c. 1880

    Sympathy for the Devil…or Pilate
    Brian Zahnd

    Please allow me to introduce myself
    I’m a man of wealth and taste
    I’ve been around for a long, long year
    Stole many a man’s soul and faith
    And I was ‘round when Jesus Christ
    Had his moment of doubt and pain
    Made damn sure that Pilate
    Washed his hands and sealed his fate
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guess my name
    But what’s puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game

    –The Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil

    In his fascinating novel, The Master and Margarita, Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov creates an imaginary conversation between the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the Galilean prophet Yeshua. When asked about his views on government, Bulgakov’s Yeshua says, “All power is a form of violence over people.” The peasant preacher of Bulgakov’s novel goes on to contrast the governments of power and violence with the peaceable kingdom of truth and justice. In response Pontius Pilate rages, “There never has been, nor yet shall be a greater or more perfect government in this world than the rule of the emperor Tiberius!” When Pilate asks Yeshua if he believes this kingdom of truth will come, Yeshua answers with conviction, “It will.” Pilate cannot stand for this. In a memorable passage Bulgakov’s Pilate rails against the possibility of the kingdom of God ever coming and supplanting Caesar’s empire.

    “It will never come!” Pilate suddenly shouted. Many years ago in the Valley of the Virgins Pilate had shouted in that same voice to his horsemen: “Cut them down! Cut them down!” And again he raised his parade-ground voice, “Criminal! Criminal! Criminal! Do you imagine, you miserable creature, that a Roman Procurator could release a man who has said what you have said to me? I don’t believe in your ideas!

    In The Master and Margarita, Pontius Pilate seems to have little personal animosity toward the wandering Galilean preacher, but Pilate hates his ideas. In the end what forces the Procurator to condemn Yeshua to crucifixion is the preacher’s revolutionary ideas about power, truth, and violence. Like Pilate we too wrestle with the conflict we have between Jesus and his unsettling ideas. We often want to separate Jesus from his ideas.

    This bifurcation between Jesus and his political ideas has a history — it can be traced back to the early fourth century when Christianity first attained favored status in the Roman Empire. In October of 312 the Roman general Constantine came to power after winning a decisive battle in which he used Christian symbols as a fetish, placing them as talismans upon the weapons of war. (The incongruence is absolutely stunning!) Having emerged victorious in a Roman civil war and securing his position as emperor, Constantine attributed his military victory to the Christian god. In short order the wheels were set in motion for Christianity to become the state religion of the Roman Empire. The kingdom of God had been eclipsed by Christian empire.

    Almost overnight the church found itself in a chaplaincy role to the empire and on a trajectory that would lead to the catastrophe of a deeply compromised Christianity. The catastrophe of church as vassal to the state would find its most grotesque expression in the medieval crusades when under the banner of the cross Christians killed in the name of Christ. The crusades are perhaps the most egregious example of how distorted Christianity can become when we separate Christ from his ideas. Read more

  • Bread, Circuses, and Violence

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    Bread, Circuses, and Violence
    Brian Zahnd

    On Sunday the Gospel reading was the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1–11). After church someone asked me if I thought the temptation of Jesus was literal. The questioner was struggling with what seemed to be a cartoonish contest between Jesus and the devil. This person was particularly perplexed by the idea that Jesus would actually be tempted to worship Satan.

    So when asked if I thought the temptation account was “literal,” what did I say? I said, yes and no. I certainly believe Jesus encountered Satan in the wilderness and was tempted. But I don’t think the devil showed up in a red suit sporting a tail and a pitchfork saying, “Hello, I’m Lucifer, and I’m here to put you through your paces. Alright, shall we get started? First off, how about turning that rock into lunch? No? Okay. What about showing off with a leap from the temple? No again? Well, how about you just fall down and worship me and I make you king of the world and we’ll call it a day?”

    No, I don’t think it was quite like that. It wasn’t cartoonish. It was far more subtle and insidious than that. I suspect the satan came to Jesus the same way he comes to you and me: disguised as our own thoughts. Just like the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. I’ve never met a talking snake, but I’ve sure had some serpentine thoughts crawl through my head! So let’s treat the temptation of Jesus seriously.

    What was Jesus doing in the wilderness? Fasting, praying, preparing to begin his ministry. What was on his mind? We might assume he was contemplating how to go about his work. That’s when subtle and satanic thoughts entered the mind of the Son of God.
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  • The Crucified God

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    The Crucified God
    Brian Zahnd

    “When the crucified Jesus is called ‘the image of the invisible God,’
    the meaning is that this is God and God is like this.”
    –Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

    “Being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death,
    the Christform is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is.”
    –John R. Cihak, Love Alone Is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apologetics

    “Jesus is the only perfect theology.”
    –Brad Jersak

    God is like Jesus.
    God has always been like Jesus.
    There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
    We haven’t always known this.
    But now we do.
    –Brian Zahnd

    I want to know who God is. I want to know what God is like. So what should I do? Read the Bible? Yes…but. The Bible is a big and complicated book and subject to what Christian Smith wryly calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Smith is referring to the embarrassing plethora of contradictory interpretations from equally qualified and well-intentioned interpreters.

    So what do we do? Where do we stand within Scripture in order to interpret the rest of the text? Genesis? Leviticus? Joshua? Revelation? What we need is a way to center our reading of Scripture – a vantage point from which to interpret the whole of Scripture. My humble suggestion is that this place is the cross. Not only do I advocate a Christocentric reading of the Bible, I contend that the cross is the most Christ-revealing moment in the Bible.

    If we want to know what God is like, the best thing we can do is look at Jesus upon the cross. God is like that!
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  • My Problem With the Bible

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    My Problem With the Bible
    Brian Zahnd

    I have a problem with the Bible. Here’s my problem…

    I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa.

    That’s my problem. See, I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.

    I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.

    One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that in it we find the narrative told from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, the defeated. This is what makes it prophetic. We know that history is written by the winners. This is true — except in the case of the Bible it’s the opposite! This is the subversive genius of the Hebrew prophets. They wrote from a bottom-up perspective.
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  • Scot McKnight’s Foreword to “A Farewell To Mars”

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    I have a new book coming out in June. A Farewell To Mars (David C. Cook). I’m pretty excited about it. I plunged my pen into my heart and wrote from deep within. It will probably stir a bit of controversy. So be it. What matters is that I’ve told my own story honestly.

    Scot McKnight, New Testament scholar, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, and author of several important books such as The Jesus Creed, The Blue Parakeet, and The King Jesus Gospel has written the foreword to A Farewell To Mars. Perhaps you would not think too uncharitably of me if I shared it with you.

    BZ
    _______________________________________________________________

    Though some may contest the point, and I’ve heard them for years, there is something profoundly unsettling to watch those who follow Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace, use weapons of warfare to kill others and think they are somehow following Jesus. At the simplest level of evangelicalism, and by that I mean anyone who affirms salvation in Christ alone, it impossible for me to comprehend how a Christian can kill a non-Christian who is thereby prevented from turning to Christ just as it is also beyond me how any Christian can kill another Christian at the orders of State military leaders. In both instance the Christian renders to Caesar what is due only to Christ.

    As Brian Zahnd says in this aesthetic and courageous book, too often the church – and individual Christians are therefore complicit – has become chaplain to the State. It’s divinely-ordained and Christ-shaped role is thereby denied, it has become idolatrous and has betrayed the Prince of Peace. Our responsibility is not to chaplain the State but to call the State to repentance and to surrender to the King who is Lord. Our responsibility is to be an alternative to the State. Christians would do far more good for our country by learning not to look to DC for solutions but to the glorious Son of God, who loved us and who gave himself for us and in so giving himself gave us a whole new way of life, one not shaped by the power of force but the force of the gospel.

    Leaders like Brian Zahnd are quietly becoming more numerous, not because they’ve turned Euro on us but because they’ve turned once again to the Gospels and to the New Testament to find an alternative political vision for our world. They’ve eschewed pragmatics and compromise for a full-throated commitment to the kingdom vision of Jesus, which by the way is necessarily political, but an alternative politic. This alternative political world, what Stanley Hauerwas calls a “peaceable kingdom,” refuses to flash the sword of Caesar or Constantine, Germany or the USA, and it instead flashes the cross as the way to live. The cross is the symbol of the politics of Jesus, and it is beginning to burn its way into the heart of so many in the church in the USA. We need it.
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  • Peri and Her Books

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    Peri is a reader. I am too. Our house is adorned and littered with books. They’re everywhere. On shelves, tables, desks, the floor. Everywhere you look…books. This is a good thing. Last year Peri read 52 books and…well, I’ll let her tell you about it. Here’s Peri:

    At the beginning of 2013, I got out a brand new journal and began to record the books I finished throughout the year. I didn’t intend to read a book a week, but at 11:30 pm on New Year’s Eve, through bleary eyes, I finished and recorded the last one. And it wasn’t a “book a week” — some took a LONG time to read, and some were quick, but over the course of a year, I finished 52.

    I enjoyed keeping the list, and it helped me to be more disciplined in my reading. I always start a lot more books than I finish, but I finished more this year because of the list.

    I’ve had numerous people tell me that I inspired them to get back to reading. Reading books does take some inspiration, some desire, some motivation. Spending an hour skimming the internet is easier than concentrating on a book. There are important and worthwhile things to read on the internet, but I am a richer person for reading books.

    Many people have asked me to share my list. I personally love hearing what other people are reading and a good deal of what I do read online is book reviews! I won’t list all 52, but I went through and picked ten — not necessarily the “best”, but ones I did very much enjoy and would recommend widely, some of which are pretty obscure and not likely to be discovered or read without a recommendation.
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  • Scripture as Witness to the Word of God

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    Scripture as Witness to the Word of God
    Brian Zahnd

    To begin with a few axiomatic thoughts on Christ and the Bible…

    The Bible is the word of God that bears witness to the Word of God — Jesus Christ.

    The Logos-Word became flesh — not a book.

    Jesus is God. The Bible is not.

    The Bible did not create the Heavens and Earth — the Word (Christ) did.

    We worship Jesus; we do not worship the Bible.

    The Bible is not a member of the Trinity.

    The Bible is not God. Jesus is God.

    The Bible is not perfect. (There are parts of it we now regard as obsolete; e.g. Levitical codes.)

    Christ is the perfection of God as a human being.

    What the Bible does infallibly is point us to Jesus Christ.

    There is one mediator between God and man…and it’s not the Bible.

    The Bible is the inspired witness to the true Word of God who is Jesus Christ.

    Now consider this…

    The first Sunday after Christmas the Gospel reading was John 1:1-18. As I heard the Gospel read it occurred to me that the role John the Baptist played as the divinely sent witness to the Light is precisely how we should view Scripture in relation to Christ. Allow me to reproduce the reading, but I will substitute John the Baptist with Holy Scripture.
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  • BZ’s Top Five Albums of 2013

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    BZ’s Top Five Albums of 2013

    Without music, life would be a mistake.
    -Nietzsche

    I love music. Neurotically so. I don’t love what I’m “supposed” to love, I love what I love.
    Since I was thirteen people have been telling me to turn it down. Mostly I don’t.

    I’m listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound
    Someone’s always yelling, turn it down

    -Bob Dylan, Highlands

    So with little explanation and no apology here are my top five albums of 2013…

    BZ

    (The artwork is 2500 albums.)

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