Scot McKnight and Robert Paterson on the Saving Significance of Christ’s Death in Acts (an Artificial Conversation)

king-jesus-gospelI like to maintain the habit of reading multiple books simultaneous. An interesting thing that happens occasionally is when two or more books happen to ‘interact’ over an idea as I read these books in conjunction. Something like this happened as I just finished Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel and am near the front end of Robert A. Paterson’s Salvation Accomplished by the Son.

In The King Jesus Gospel (which, by the way, is a good book, although many conservative evangelicals like myself will quibble over emphases and the way he frames/words things), McKnight makes the point that too often evangelicals have reduced the Gospel to the cross of Christ to the exclusion of “the full Story of Jesus, including his life, his death, his resurrection, his exaltation, the gift of the Holy Spirit, his second coming, and the wrapping up of history so that God would be all in all” (119). However, this was

Not so in the early gospeling [i.e., evangelism], for in those early apostolic sermons [he is referring to those in the book of Acts primarily here], we see the whole life of Jesus. In fact, if they gave an emphasis to one dimension of the life of Jesus, it was the resurrection. The apostolic gospel could not have been signified or painted or sketched with a crucifix. That gospel wanted expression as an empty cross because of the empty tomb (120).

That’s true. McKnight is right.

But, without necessarily pitting McKnight’s argument against Peterson’s (to follow), one might get the impression from McKnight that the apostle’s gospeling in the book of Act’s didn’t provide much comment (if any) on the theological, redemptive significance of Jesus’ death. … And that’s where Robertson’s observations serve as a helpful conversation partner.

Robertson begins by noting that although “the death of Christ is mentioned frequently in Acts,” “the emphasis of Acts is not on Jesus’ death but on his resurrection and exaltation” (79). He agrees with McKnight. And he notes,

Although Acts contains many references to the Messiah Jesus’s suffering, it does not explain the saving significance of his death as clearly as the writings of John, Paul, the author of to the Hebrews, or Peter [in his epistles that is] do. Instead, Luke [the author of Acts] accents the saving significance of Jesus’s resurrection…. (emphasis added) (80)

Again, all of that is very true.

But then Robertson goes on and, in some ways, recalls this statement by showing how the book of Acts does speak to the saving significance of Jesus’ death… at least by way of ‘hints.’ Beyond the more explicit statements explaining the saving implications of Jesus’ death (e.g., Acts 20:28), Robertson notes two type of ‘hints.’

Peterson, Salvation Accomplished1. Acts identified Jesus with the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isaiah 53.

In Acts 8, in conversation with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Philip interpreted the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isaiah 53 as Jesus (vv.26-35).

In light of this, Robertson observes,

Since the subject of Isaiah 53 is the suffering Servant of the Lord, and since Acts 8:34-35 identifies the sufferer of Isaiah 53 as Jesus, this sheds light on the passages in Acts that speak of Christ as God’s “servant” [see Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 29-30] (80).

Likewise he notes, “Luke’s references in Acts to Jesus as ‘the Righteous One’ [see Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14-15] are also reminiscent of Isaiah 53″ which uses this title as well to refer to the ‘Suffering Servant'” (81).

He concludes,

None of these seven passages [in Acts], which identify Jesus with the Servant of the Lord and righteous one of Isaiah 53, explains the saving significance of Jesus’s death. But their pointing to the most powerful Old Testament passage to treat that theme is suggestive of the redemptive significance of his death (81).

2. Acts describes Christ’s death as “hanging on a tree.”

That might seem to be an odd and unimportant thing to point out. But the background to this observation, and the language used by the apostles in describing Christ’s death this way, is Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which states that anyone executed and hung on a tree was cursed by God.

Robertson quotes G. B. Caird (82):

Surely no Christian preacher would have chosen to describe the death of Jesus in terms which drew attention to the curse of God resting on the executed criminal, unless he had first faced the scandal of the Cross and had come to believe that Jesus had borne the curse on behalf of others.

In other words, as Paul says in Galatians 3:13 citing Deuteronomy 21:23,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written,“Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”

Conclusion

Thus, although in Acts the apostles focus is on the resurrection and exaltation of Christ (though certainly not to the exclusion of His death), and although they do not often explicitly tease out the saving significance of Christ’s death, they do seem to frame that death in terms of the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isaiah 53 and Christ’s role as the curse-bearer in light of Deuteronomy 21.

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One thought on “Scot McKnight and Robert Paterson on the Saving Significance of Christ’s Death in Acts (an Artificial Conversation)

  1. Was Christ’s death the saving act? Or was his life?

    Ultimately, everything about Him served as a redemptive act. I’m not sure our views on soteriology in the Western church are exactly right. Honestly, from the ghostly libraries of the Catholic church, straight up through the reformation and modern church movements – “western” Christians have placed a huge amount of focus on the death as being the saving act. To deny this historical truth would be foolish. Why else would we have crosses hanging all over the place, paintings of Jesus, films, hymns, etc

    Take – for example – the Eucharist. Why do most “Western Christians” partake in the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper as it’s called in less Catholic circles?

    To Remember the life and ministry of Christ. In remembrance of Him. Of the past. Of His death.

    In contrast, the actual passage points to something more. Take it, until He eats it new with us in the Kingdom. Remember that he will come again. Remember that the death was not the end. Remember that His life, and continued life, are the saving act of His good news.

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