The chief problem with all of them is how incidental they make Jesus’ Jewishness.
Jesus is the incarnation of Yahweh not a generic concept of God. That should matter and govern how we understand his life, death and resurrection.
After all, the New Testament is replete with parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ life:
The Genesis Creation Story – Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus and Jesus’ Virgin Birth
Joseph Going Egypt – Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt
Death of the Firstborn in Exodus – Herod Killing Newborns in Matthew
Deliverance through Red Sea – Jesus’ baptism in Jordan
Wilderness Wandering – Jesus’ Temptation in Wilderness
Moses Giving the Law – Sermon on the Mount
Manna – Feeding of the Multitude
Passover – Last Supper
Garden of Eden – Garden of Gethsemane
Tree of Knowledge – Cross
NT Wright says that “Jesus is Israel in person.” Jesus doesn’t just re-enact, in a general way, our human story. Jesus re-enacts the particular story of Israel.
Jesus goes down to Egypt with Joseph like Israel did. He begins his vocation at the Jordan River like Israel did. He’s tested in the wilderness for forty days just as Israel was tested for forty years. Jesus calls twelve followers like Israel had twelve tribes. Jesus echoes the prophets by calling attention to those who’ve been forgotten and marginalized.
Jesus is the Second Adam. He’s the one righteous man like Noah. He forms a new people like Abraham. He’s the new Israel like Jacob. He despairs and nevertheless saves his people like Joseph. He leads his people to freedom like Moses. He’s God’s chosen King like David. Like David facing Goliath, he does for his people what they cannot do for themselves. He’s a healer and trouble-maker like Elijah.
And by following the way of the Cross, Jesus goes into Exile among his own people to bring them home and change the ending of their story. The rejection Jesus faces puts God to the ultimate test, but on Easter God turns that rejection into a display of his grace.
Jesus is the entire story of Israel in the flesh. Redone. Recapitulated. Repeated. Perfectly this time.
By living perfectly the life God originally intended for all of us, by doing what Israel could never do, Jesus unwinds the story of Sin. He shows Sin to be a false narrative, a corruption, devoid of power or ultimacy. He starts creation again. Resurrection is a reset. In him, is a new creation.
So salvation doesn’t just begin with Christmas or on the Cross. It begins when God calls Abraham to be a blessing to the world. And it’s embodied by the whole life of Jesus. It’s living this whole story that saves us and continues to heal the world.
In other words, there is something fundamentally askew with human existence- we’re imperfect, corruptible and prone to sin despite our best intentions.
So, in Christ, God takes flesh to set right what is wrong with our fleshly lives. Just as Adam disobeyed God by eating from a tree, Christ obeys God even if it leads him to be nailed to a tree. Christ thus perfects every part of our human lives.
We’re saved because, by becoming one of us, God joins our imperfect character to his perfect character. God became one of us so that we might be freed to become more like God.
In this perspective, the Cross is an image of Christ’s obedience (not God’s wrath). Christ doesn’t suffer for us, in our place. He suffers because of us. In other words, sinful humanity’s reaction to the life of someone who bears God’s image is to see him as a criminal and kill him. Think of Martin Luther King.
He didn’t come to die, but its easy to see how death was the likely outcome of a life lived as he lived it.
God’s wrath didn’t require his death; his vocation did.
The cross is a sign of Christ’s obedient life. Even when threatened with suffering and death, he doesn’t waver from the form of life God desires. Easter then is vindication. It’s God saying with an empty tomb: ‘this is the life I desire.’
The cross is a sign of obedience and Easter is vindication, but salvation begins happening with incarnation, in Mary’s womb.
Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, Moral Exemplar- these traditional atonement theories all have scriptural support. They’re all right, in a sense.
The problem, though, is that each of them focuses on only one part of the story: Good Friday or Easter or Christmas Day; Jesus’ suffering or the Sermon on the Mount or the Resurrection. None of them focuses on the whole of the story. They all see Jesus fulfilling a part of the Hebrew Bible but they fail to put Jesus in continuity with the entirety of the Hebrew Bible.
They really are theories in that they’re abstracted explanations.
They’re abstracted from the detail and the context of Jesus’ life.
They all forget that the context of Jesus’ life isn’t a courtroom or a battlefield or our hearts. Sin isn’t just a matter of guilt. Sin isn’t just a matter of metaphysical corruption. Sin isn’t just ignorance.
Sin is a corruption of Israel’s destiny.
And the context of Jesus’ life is Israel.
Because Jesus effects a re-inaugeration of the creation story, we are now free (through the Spirit’s work) to live Jesus’ life. Jesus’ earthly teaching is not extraneous nor is it simply something that can change our hearts. It’s the true story of creation. It’s, as John Howard Yoder says, ‘the grain of the universe.’
The recapitulation perspective sees Jesus’ work not only as living Israel’s life perfectly so that Sin can be defeated. It sees Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection as the first act of God’s New Creation.
In the Book of Revelation, for example, ‘heaven’ is not a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ otherworldly realm. Rather, heaven is a New Earth. Heaven comes down to earth. Our destiny is a New Jerusalem in which God dwells in peace and love with his creatures- just as things had begun in the Garden in Genesis.
The Gospels, however, emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ life because it’s that life that leads to New Creation.
The proper trajectory of salvation, then, is not that we go to be with God, but that, because of the reversal made possible by Christ, God will come down and be with us forever.