The Righteousness of God
Having been a missionary companion (Acts 16:10), and disciple of the Apostle Paul (2 Timothy 4:11), Luke reflects Pauline concerns, themes and emphases in his writing (Luke-Acts). One such theme is an emphasis on the Gospel of the Messiah of Israel reaching the Gentiles (Luke 2:14, 31-32, 4:26-27). The Lordship of Jesus over/for the Gentiles is not merely an addendum to God’s work for Israel. What God did for/in Israel was always what God was doing for/in the whole world (Luke 3:6)!
Another Pauline theme in Luke is the display of the righteousness of God, again, for the whole world through Israel (Acts 17:31). In displaying his righteousness to Israel by keeping his promise with Abraham, God displays his righteousness to the Gentiles by keeping his promise with Adam (Romans 4-5). This righteousness of God is his loving faithfulness to his promises and his executing justice (doing what is right [i.e. love, mercy, liberation, restoration, impartiality, etc.]) on behalf of all, especially for the weak and oppressed, by his gracious self-giving – ultimately in his Son and his Spirit.
It is not surprising then that these two themes of Adamic concern and God’s righteousness are found together in Luke’s Gospel account of the Cross; because it is precisely out of the Cross (and ensuing Resurrection & Ascension) that those themes find their Christian theological linchpin (Luke 24:46-47). Therefore, we’ll first engage the Adamic and juridical settings of the Cross. From there, we’ll engage God’s righteousness therein – namely how God is faithful as he moves in true justice for ‘Adam’, that is, the whole world.
Adamic Setting: At the Cross Jesus has been rejected and condemned by both Jews and Gentiles. This is common among all 4 Gospels. However, of the Gospels, Luke alone links Jesus genealogically to Adam. “Jesus…being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph…the son of Adam, the son of God.” (Luke 3:23-38) This is a purposeful move to ground the entire story of Jesus not only in Israel, but also in the common father of all men. Therefore, when we come to the Cross in Luke, we are to understand this rejection as a universal Adamic problem playing itself out, of which Jesus is the universal Adamic solution.
Juridical Setting: Encountering the Cross in Luke, we detect consistent concerns with justice vs. injustice, righteousness vs. unrighteousness, condemnation vs. release, guilt vs. innocence. That is to say, Luke’s setting is profoundly legal. With the context of a ‘trial’ already set in Luke 22:66-71 and a statement of Jesus about the impending events in Luke 22:37 (this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors), we turn to Luke 23 and hear straightaway, “Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, ‘I find no guilt in this man.’” (Luke 23:4). From there we are inundated with legality.
- Jurisdiction – 23:7 [W]hen [Pilate] learned that [Jesus] belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod
- Punishment & Release – 23:16 & 22 I will therefore punish and release him
- Barabbas is a criminal – 23:19 … a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and murder. 25 …the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder
- Jesus was crucified as a criminal – 23:5 But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people…”, 21 but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!”, 25 He released the…insurrection[ist] and murder[er] …but he delivered Jesus over to their will, 33 … they crucified him, and the criminals
- Jesus is crucified between criminals – 23:32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
- Forgiveness of Sin – 23:34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
- Condemnation – 23:40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
- Justice and Injustice – 23:41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Of particular legal concern to Luke though, is the innocence of Jesus. The Gentile ruler Pilate, The Jewish Ruler Herod, A Criminal and a Roman Centurion – all are shown to proclaim the innocence of this man Jesus. Jesus is witnessed to, on some level, as innocent by every faction involved!
- Jesus’ innocence – 23:14 [Pilate] said … I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither did Herod… Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. 22…I have found in him no guilt deserving death. 41 … this man has done nothing wrong. 47 … “Certainly this man was innocent!”
This innocence however, is not merely the absence of transgression of Roman law or even the Law of Moses (though it is that); it is not a mere negation of evil. Here, innocence is to be understood as encapsulated in Jesus’ overall positive righteousness – a righteousness consisting of perfect love, even unto death, for God and mankind. So while there overlapping concerns with Roman law and the Law of Moses, ultimately the innocent righteousness of Jesus encompasses and surpasses them both.
We can see that Jesus, in the midst of all the sin around him, still loves God and man even unto death in Luke 23:34, 43 & 46, respectively, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” , “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” Jesus did not only not commit the crimes for which is accused, sentenced and condemned but, he was altogether righteous! Yet, here he is, suffering and dying in the place of, and as, a cursed criminal (both of the civil and Mosaic Law [Galatians 3:13; Deuteronomy 21:23]) because of the unrighteous actions of others. This scenario is presented then, to leave the reader with a singular observation; a grave injustice has occurred. If ever the statement, “That’s not fair!” was valid, it is here.
Together with the Adamic setting, this stress on the legality & injustice of the Cross is the ‘what’; and that ‘what’ sets the context for the ‘why’ of said context. Paradoxically, in the midst of the worst injustice we see the righteousness of God on display. He is loving and faithful to execute justice for ‘Adam’ (all mankind) by triumphing in and over the unjust actions set forth. Please note, the justice of God in the Cross of Jesus is for Adam, not against Adam. True justice is ultimately restorative, not merely retributive. Let us turn our attention to the justice God works for Adam in the Cross.
Justice for Adam I: Condemnation of Sin & Death
God as Judge
Luke records, “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’” (Luke 23:46) When Jesus commits his spirit to his Father it is also as to the Righteous Judge. The Apostle Peter confirms this when he comments on the Cross saying, “[Jesus] committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:22-23)
God as Judge Provides a (Representative) Substitute
Luke intentionally quotes Jesus casting the Isaiah 53 text over the entire Cross event. “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’” (Luke 22:37, cf. Isaiah 53:12) In summary, the whole of Isaiah 53 proclaims what the suffering “Servant of God” must endure for the salvation of his people. For our part, Isaiah 53:5-6 sums it up saying, “[H]e was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Here we see the suffering of the Servant (Jesus) serves as a Representative (in place of, on behalf of) Substitute, not as a Replacement (instead of) Substitute.
Adam was under just condemnation, but out of his loving faithfulness, God wrought justice in substituting Jesus in place of and on behalf of Adam.
God as Judge Condemns Sin
God laid down the ancient pronouncement to Adam saying, “in the day that you eat of [the fruit of the tree] you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17b) God said that Adam will die in judgment, not that he will kill Adam in judgment. So when Jesus takes up our sins as “the fruit of the tree” of the Cross, he dies, fulfilling the curse and God’s legislation, thereby undoing the curse precisely because he is innocent.
Having said that Jesus committed his spirit into his Father’s hands (Luke 23:46) and in doing such he was “entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23b), we then break the horizon of divine purpose even in the injustice of in the Cross. As St. Peter goes on in next verse of saying, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree…” (1 Peter 2:24a)
On one hand, the innocent Jesus was treated unjustly. Yet, on the other hand, these sufferings were just, because he suffered and died for our sins, that those sins might be condemned as they ought. As it is written, God, in Christ, “condemn[ed] sin in the flesh.” (Romans 8:3)
This, however, is not the Father pouring out his wrath against the Son. It is the Father and the Son pouring out the wrath of God against Sin by condemning it in the flesh of the Son of God – by loving Adam out of condemnation. This is one justice purpose of God in the Cross – not that sinners are condemned, but that Sin is.
Further, Sin is not condemned in the flesh of Jesus to satisfy a need in God, honor, wrath, justice, or otherwise. There is no need in God that the atonement affects. The need is all ours for God has no needs at all. God condemns Sin precisely because of what it does to Adam, not to him; and Sin literally has Hell to pay. This is not satisfaction of God who needs to show wrath, but satisfaction in God who delights in loving Adam freely. The justice of God in this aspect removes Adam from the sphere of the curse.
God as Judge Condemns Death
Not only did God condemn Sin in Jesus, but he also condemned Death. This is how St. Athanasius expresses it:
For death, as I said above, gained from that time forth a legal hold over us, and it was impossible to evade the law, since it had been laid down by God because of the transgression…God should appear true to the law He had laid down concerning death…[since] all were under penalty of (liable to) the corruption of death [Jesus] gave [his body] over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father…by offering his own temple and his bodily instrument as a substitute for all, [he] fulfilled the death that which was required…For by the sacrifice of His own body, He both put an end to the law which was against us.
—On the Incarnation 6.2, 7.1, 8.4, 9.2, 10.5
In this way St. Athanasius echoes St. Paul when he says, Death is condemned by God when Jesus offers himself as a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2b)
St. Symeon the New Theologian comments:
Adam, when he ate from the tree which God had forbidden him to eat of, suffered the death of his soul as soon as he transgressed, but that of the body only many years later. Christ therefore first raised up, vivified and deified the soul which had suffered first the punishment of death, and then to the body condemned by the ancient judgment to return to the earth in death, he granted the reception of incorruptibility through the resurrection.
—On the Mystical Life, Ethical Discourses, 1.3
Jesus, in his death, took up the punishment of death, the condemnation of the ancient judgment, fulfilled it that Death itself may be condemned and that incorruptibility would come to Adam through the resurrection of Jesus. As one hymn concerning the Cross articulates:
Come, all you nations, let us fall down in worship before the blessed Tree, by which eternal justice has come to pass…The serpent’s venom is washed away by the Blood of God, and the curse of just condemnation is undone when the Just One is condemned by an unjust judgment.
—Doxastikon for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross
Justice for Adam II: Cure for the Soul
God as Judge Substitutes the Innocent for the Guilty
As clear as Luke is that Jesus was innocent, he is clear that Barabbas was guilty. “[Barabbas was] a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.” (Luke 23:19) This makes it all the more an injustice when Jesus is substituted for Barabbas. Yet, this unjust scenario is the very tool that is used for true justice to poison injustice from the inside. God, through the death of Jesus, was able to execute justice against injustice in the righteous man, in a sinner’s place, while letting the sinner go free in the righteous man’s place. In this sense, Luke 23:25 becomes prophetic, replacing Pilate with God himself. “[God] released the [sinner] …, but he delivered Jesus over.” Barabbas serves as Adam in that the condemnation to death that was due to him is taken up by Jesus.
Commenting on how St. Paul lays this very scenario out, culminating pen-ultimately in 2 Corinthians 5:21, St. John Chrysostom says:
[God the] king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son, (who was himself no such character,) that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation.
—Homily 11 (on 2 Corinthians)
What God does in the Cross from our existential perspective is to, within himself, remove the just condemnation we introduced through sin, that we might be reconciled to him. This is what the NT calls, expiation or propitiation. Again, this is existential in that it’s how it works for us, not the final word on the ontological mechanism of how it works.
St. Peter in confirms the divine justice saying, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:17-18a) God willed that Christ suffer for sins, not because he needed someone to pay, but that unrighteous Adam may finally be free to come to God with Jesus. Unrighteousness is swallowed up by righteousness!
God as Judge Supplies the Innocent with the Guilty
While Barabbas represents Adam, he is not the only criminal at the crucifixion who does. Barabbas represents Adam in condemnation. The ‘Good Thief’ also represents Adam; but this time, in repentance. In Jesus taking Barabbas’ place in condemnation to the Cross, God supplies the ‘Good Thief’ with a companion in, and past, death. While being crucified alongside Jesus, the ‘Good Thief’ simply admits his guilt and cries out in mercy saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” to which our Lord replies “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43) As all Representative Substitution does, this substitution actually creates and solidifies the solidarity between God and Adam in Jesus. The justice for Adam in the juridical substitution of Jesus leads to therapeutic solidarity; it is not merely transactional, it is transformative. It is the curative righteousness of God for the soul.
Justice for Adam III: Confederation of Siblings
Jesus’ innocent righteousness proclaimed throughout Luke 23 is not derivative from to an external law – Mosaic or Roman. It is an expression of his inner love. Yes he was born under the Law of Moses, but this was to fulfill it (Luke 2:21-22, 27). That is, to fill it out with God’s meaning and purpose even from the Abrahamic covenant. As the Apostle Paul says, “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs…” (Romans 15:8) Furthermore, Jesus’ innocent righteousness certainly isn’t from keeping the civil law of Rome. Yet, St. Paul continues expounding why Jesus came even as one under the Law. “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness…in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. (Romans 15:8a, 9a) Jesus came for all men. Having grounded Jesus lineage in Adam, Luke shows Jesus’ innocent righteousness meant as a remedy to the lost innocent righteousness of Adam. And that innocent righteousness comes, again, not from law, but from love.
By transcending the unrighteous actions of those actually breaking Law of Moses and the Gentile law of the day, Jesus is working to unite the two “men” (Jew [Law of Moses] & Gentile [Roman law]) into one “man” in righteousness. In the Cross of Christ, God is working the justice of restoring the unity of Adam! “For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14-16)
God’s Righteousness Revealed
Jesus then, was condemned, suffered and died for the sins of others (immediately Barabbas but, ultimately all – Isaiah 53:5a, 6b, 1 Peter 2:24a, 1 Peter 3:18a), by God’s purpose (1 Peter 3:17, Is 53:6, 10). God’s purpose is to judge and condemn sin and death (1 Peter 2:24b, cf. Romans 8:3) so that sinners could be free to come to God (1 Peter 3:18). The legal condemnation of Sin in Christ not only serves for being ‘acquitted of crimes’ committed, but then also as a catalyst for actual righteous living – the loving, even unto death, of God and fellow men, just as Jesus did. As it is written, “[Jesus died] that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. ” (1 Peter 2:24, cf. Isaiah 53:5) Because the righteousness of God is his faithfulness and justice to restore, the righteousness of God is also medicinal. Again, as it is written, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
What then shall we say? By the Cross, God, in Christ, with true justice: performs what is required (perfect Love for God and Man, i.e. Righteousness), releases, restores, re-balances and purges the motives that caused unrighteousness. In this he establishes true justice and overturns, by fulfillment, the law of retribution. Therefore, this retributive substitution of Christ for sin serves ultimately a restorative purpose for mankind. The innocent and righteous Jesus is exchanged for the guilty and unrighteous, condemned and dies in their place, that they may go freely to God.
Thank you Jesus for being offered once for my sins, walking with me through death, so that I may come to God. Before Thy Cross Lord, we bow down in worship!