“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” -Matthew 20:28
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. -Colossians 1:19-20
Salvation is the scarlet thread running through Scripture. It is the unifying theme of the entire biblical narrative. We read about our need for salvation beginning in Genesis 3, when our human ancestors sinned and the need for deliverance sounds throughout the rest of the story. Only in the last pages of the Bible, Revelation 21-22, do we get a glimpse of the work of salvation completed (i.e. a New Heaven and Earth, the New Jerusalem, Eden restored, etc). Salvation is what the whole story is about, and it is the heart’s cry of the penitent.
The two big salvation motifs in the Bible are Israel’s exodus from Egpyt, and the cross of Christ. This coming week, the Jewish Seder and Holy Week coincide ( just like the first time). We remember both. The children of Israel were saved from Egypt, walking through the Red Sea as on dry land. Jesus bled and died on a cross to save us from our sin and give us the gift of eternal life. Common to both stories is that God himself is the prime actor behind the people’s salvation. Salvation is not something we do. It is the thing God does and has done. Self-help books may be helpful for curbing bad habits and succeeding in business, but there are no self-salvation books. Salvation is God’s work.
Salvation is thought of in a couple of ways. Some people emphasize God’s salvation as being fundamentally about securing our eternal destiny. Because of our ‘sin problem,’ we are unable to have a personal relationship with God and are destined toward eternal separation from Him (hell); however, Jesus acted decisively to bring about our salvation through His death on the cross. When we personally respond by trusting in him as our Savior and Lord, we get to share in God’s life for all eternity. Other folks describe salvation in less ethereal and spiritual terms, choosing to focus on the here and now. Like the Jews rescued from the hand of Pharoah, these folks look for God’s saving action in the face of structural and systemic evils: poverty, racism, injustice.
When our understanding of salvation is just spiritual or just social, we miss out on the full-orbed flavor. I don’t want to minimize our real spiritual need, but putting the matter in purely spiritual (and private!) terms betrays the social dimension of the gospel of salvation. Salvation is both social and spiritual.
Israel left Egpyt to escape their economic, political and racial oppression at the hands of Pharoah, in the process they spent forty years in the wilderness learning how to walk in Covenant faithfulness with YHWH. Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many, but he died on a cross, the death sentence for revolutionaries, political subversives and any who threatened Empire. For Ancient Israel salvation meant coming up from slavery. For Christians, salvation means freedom from sin and union with God. But Israel’s salvation included a covenant and Christian salvation is tied up with the Kingdom of God and the reign of Christ on this earth. When we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we pray for God to save the world from sin, from sickness, war and violence, and oppression. The salvific work of the cross involves the reconciliation of all things to God. This means salvation is not just about our ‘spiritual needs’ but it is the redemption we long for in the realms of culture, politics, economics, ecology, and in our personal lives.
One day Jesus ate at the home of a tax collector named Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10). Everybody knew how great a sinner Zaccheus was (Luke 19:7). He extorted money from the people and he aligned himself with the occupying powers of Rome. They couldn’t believe Jesus would go and eat dinner with such a man. Zaccheus stood up at the supper table and promised to make restitution for the real wrong he had done, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (19:8). Jesus said, ““Today salvation has come to this house, because of this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:9) Salvation comes to our house too, as we extricate ourselves from our complicity with systemic injustice and invite the reign of Christ to show us a different way.