Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    linocut illustration of wheat

    The PloughCast 53: How to Read the Four Passion Stories

    Pain and Passion, Part 4

    By Alastair Roberts, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    April 5, 2023

    About This Episode

    It’s the most famous story in history. Alastair Roberts helps us read the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ death with fresh eyes. 

    First, he looks at the parallels to the Exodus, and examines what it means for Christ to be the Passover Lamb. Then, he looks at the Passion as apocalypse, as nativity, as romance, as enthronement, and as rebirth.

    Then, he examines the truly scandalous nature of the Crucifixion, and, in light of Paul’s teaching on it, asks what it means that the lives of Christians should be fundamentally marked out by that scandal.

    Finally, he gives advice on practices of reading attentively as a way of observing Holy Week.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section I: Christ in the Exodus

    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! This is the fourth episode in our new series, covering our Pain and Passion issue. I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, Editor in Chief of Plough. In this episode, we’ll be talking about the event that, for Christians, is the holiest and most central of all time: Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. And we’ll be doing that with Alastair Roberts. Alastair Roberts received his PhD from Durham University, and teaches for both the Theopolis Institute and the Davenant Institute. He participates in the Mere Fidelity and Theopolis podcasts, and he is married to my co-host, Susannah.

    The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the 10th day of this month, each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household, take care of them until the 14th day of the month when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door, frames of the houses where they eat. The lambs do not leave any of it till morning. If some is left till morning, you must burn it. This is how you are to eat it with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff and your hand eat it and haste it is the Lord’s Passover. On that same day, I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.”

    That is of course, from Exodus telling of the institution of the Passover, and today we’re going to be talking about the Old Testament, the New and as specifically the four Gospel accounts of the crucifixion with Alastair Roberts. So welcome, Alastair.

    Alastair Roberts: Thank you for having me again.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So I feel like I should mention that Alastair is my husband in case anyone doesn’t know that, but that does feel a bit crucial.

    Peter Mommsen: This is the flagrant conflict of interest that we’re going to be confronting throughout the course of this podcast.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. So the first question that I’d like to get into to start us off with: what are some of the things that we should notice but don’t in the four biblical accounts of the Passion, in each of the four Gospels?

    Alastair Roberts: Perhaps one of the first things to note is that there are four accounts. When we’re reading the Gospels, it’s very easy for us to get into a sort of harmonization mindset, and that’s very helpful and important in its place. These stories can be reconciled in their details, but each one of the Gospels tell the story in a different way. Each one of them is trying to draw our attention to certain analogies, parallels, patterns or ways of seeing what takes place. And so I think first of all, pay attention to the way that the story is told. Some of the events that are recorded, some that aren’t, the ways that things are framed, the verses that are quoted from the Old Testament scriptures. And pay attention also to certain turns of phrases, to expressions that are used for instance in or details that are picked out in the narrative.

    So for instance, “not one of his bones shall be broken” is a reference back to the sacrifice of the lamb at the Passover. Or we might think of slight details like the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ in John’s Gospel. It’s something that’s very important to John. And when he tells his account of the crucifixion, it’s something that he picks out in that context. Think also of, for instance, in Matthew’s account, the way that he juxtaposes the suicide of Judas, with the betrayal and the death of Christ. Christ hangs on the tree and the cross and Judas hangs on a tree, presumably, that’s where he hangs himself. And so those sorts of details and the ways that the stories are told will give us routes into thinking about the meaning of what’s taking place and how each Gospel writer is helping us to see some facet of a fully rounded picture, which we get from reading them all together of what’s taking place in the death of Christ.

    Peter Mommsen: Could we talk about specifically this theme of Passover, how does that vary in its function across the four Gospels? So I think most Christians know that Christ is the Paschal Lamb, that’s a phrase that’s used in a lot of hymns and Christian theology afterwards, but it’s not immediately clear what is the meaning of the fact that the Passion is happening somewhere near or on the Passover. It’s not quite clear, at least to me, reading the text of John versus the other gospels. Could you just, since we just read that Passover story, how are we meant to be holding that in our heads as we read these four different accounts?

    Alastair Roberts: Reading the Old Testament narrative of the Exodus, we can see the way that the institution of the Passover is designed in part to serve as a culmination of the events of the Exodus itself, the original deliverance from Egypt, but also as an institution of something that will continue that memory that will condense the meaning of what took place in that deliverance. And every year as they celebrated that it would be a statement of what had happened in the past and also a statement of divine intent for their deliverance in the future. And when we get to the New Testament, we see the way that Jesus celebrates the last Supper with his disciples as a sort of Passover meal, as a taking up of the meaning of the Old Testament event of the Passover and the broader Exodus, and then also reinvention of that. He takes details from the celebration and gives those a new meaning.

    These already are freighted with significance and he gives those details, those aspects of the celebration, a new degree of symbolism. So it’s important to recognize what Jesus is working with when he institutes the Lord’s Supper, which is a sort of interpretive framework within, particularly, Matthew and Luke for what he’s going to do in the cross, as he’s going towards the cross. He gives not so much a theory of what’s taking place as a meal to interpret what he’s going to do, and that meal is a Passover-like meal. What he’s going to do is similar to the event of the Exodus. Earlier in the story of Luke, for instance, Jesus talks with Elijah and Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration about the Exodus or in many translations the departure, but it’s literally the exodus that he’s about to accomplish in Jerusalem. So Moses led the people out of Egypt and Jesus is going to do something similar.

    We can think about the way that Jesus walks in the footsteps of Moses. He’s going to open up the abyss of death so that his people can walk through on dry land. He’s going to go before them through the grave and come out the other side. Now when we think about the events of the final week of Christ’s ministry leading up to the event of his death and resurrection, we can see this context of Passover looming largely over what’s taking place. First of all, there’s a gathering of the whole assembly of Israel for this celebration. It’s a national feast. And so it’s not just the people who live in Jerusalem who are witnessing these events, but all of the people who are coming for the feast will be privy to this information about what’s taking place in the death and resurrection of Christ. And so it’s not something that’s done in a secret corner. So for that purpose, the fact that it occurs at a festival occasion I think is significant.

    But beyond that, we see each of the Gospels drawing different aspects of the Passover background to the foreground. So in the Gospel of Matthew for instance, we’ll see the emphasis upon the celebration of the Passover like meal in the last supper. In John, we don’t have that institution of the Lord’s Supper. What we do have is Christ presented as the Lamb of God from the very beginning of the story of the Gospel, we have in chapter 1, verse 29, John the Baptist pointing out Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Later on as we go through the story, we’ll see Christ’s death and the sacrifice of the lamb or the preparation of the Passover lamb juxtaposed that there’s something about what Christ represents that is similar to the Passover lamb. So as the Passover lamb was offered as a sort of substitute for the firstborn of each household, so Christ is the firstborn of the people who’s going to lay down his life for the protection of those within his house.

    And so the different ways that the Gospels tell the story, picking up on the historic background of the events of the crucifixion and the events that lead up to it, give us a frame for understanding what’s taking place in the crucifixion. Christ is the lamb. Christ is also like Moses. Christ is like the Lord who leads his people through and delivers them through this great event of judging and redeeming. We can think about the way that the events of the crucifixion are presented as judgment upon the ruler of this world in the Gospel of John. Casting out the ruler of this world, Christ is going to in his death, lead his people through the abyss of the deep, the deep of death itself like Israel was led through the Red Sea, bring them out the other side while drowning their enemies in the deep, the enemies who thought that they had them in a position where they could not escape.

    And so there are all these similarities to be drawn out that I think we see in various parts of the New Testament even beyond the events recording the gospel. So Paul for instance, can talk about “Christ our Passover sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast” and the way that we celebrate the feast with the unleavened bread of our purity of heart and abstaining from sin. So this is a way of thinking about what the church is. The church is the people that has been formed through this event of deliverance that has an Exodus shape to it. And so that key event of the Passover within that larger story provides a frame for everything that Christ is doing and each of the Gospel writers in their own way are using that frame to help their readers to understand what Christ is accomplishing through his death and resurrection.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I had never noticed when you were describing the institution of the Eucharist, I had never noticed that with, it’s sort of by implication an institution of baptism as well. Because if Christ is presenting himself as essentially as both the Lamb and as the new Moses who’s going to lead his people on this Exodus, baptism is likened to the crossing of the Red Sea. I could remember the first time I read I think in C. S. Lewis, the idea that when you’re baptized you’re basically, it’s pre-dying. You’re dying so that you don’t die later. And that idea of passing through death in baptism seems to be baked in there as well.

    Alastair Roberts: I think it’s striking the way that Christ uses that analogy of baptism in Mark 10 to describe the death that’s awaiting him. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? The baptism is the baptism of his death and that’s immediately what we are told that it means. I think we can also see something of this in Paul’s theology of baptism in Romans 6. He talks about the way that we are baptized into Christ’s death. And so there’s a way in which his destiny becomes our destiny. We are included in the event of his death. And that inclusion is one that also has baked into it this anticipation that he was will be raised in newness of life. And so our bodies are buried with his in baptism are also marked out with a sign of resurrection that we will, we await the resurrection of the bodies that have been identified with Christ’s death.

    Peter Mommsen: What do we make of the fact that it’s a little unclear, at least to the lay reader of the gospels, what the relationship of the Last Supper is to Passover, and I guess this is a kind of well-known gotcha verse for some of the early historical critics of the Gospels, right? That John says one thing and the synoptics say another. Can we talk a little bit about that? How do these relate to the Passover proper? Was Jesus celebrating a Passover?

    Alastair Roberts: So whatever opinion we arrive at on this, I think it’s important to notice that the event of the Last Supper is presented as a Passover related and associated feast. And so Jesus talks about wanting to celebrate the Passover with his disciples and there are various explanations that have been put forward, some suggesting that different calendars were being followed, others have tried to understand the chronology in different ways that tries to reconcile this with saying maybe this occurs on a different day than typically expected. It seems to me that we are supposed to see this as a celebration of the Passover. Christ describes it that way, I think, in the Gospel of Luke and elsewhere and within John, he’s trying to focus upon a different set of associations, not so much on the meal. It’s noteworthy that John does not actually record the Last Supper.

    He has the Upper Room discourse and the symbol of Christ’s death there, it’s not so much the meal and the symbols that are picked out within the meal, the bread and the wine, but it’s the symbol of his washing his disciples’ feet. And so I think what you have are accounts that can be reconciled, but I think it’s primarily we get a fuller sense of what’s taking place, I think in the synoptic gospels that is a Passover meal and then within John that Jesus is the Passover lamb. And so those connections are the ones that John particularly wants us to see. I don’t think that we need to put him at odds with the synoptics though. Rather John wants us to see a different set of connections, a different aspect of what’s taking place. And that’s very much related to the way that he’s presented Christ as the Lamb from the very beginning of his Gospel. And I think we’ll see those themes of Christ as the Lamb carrying through into the book of Revelation, which I think is also Johannine.

    Section II: The Passion as Apocalypse, Nativity, Romance, Enthronement, and Rebirth

    Peter Mommsen: You mentioned the gospel of Luke. Could we talk a little about Luke and Mark because I think Matthew and John are the ones that probably most people read, especially now in Holy Week when this podcast will be published. Mark and Luke, maybe not so much.

    Alastair Roberts: Yes, I find reading through each of the Gospels, there are unusual details that are mentioned in each one and each one of the gospels I think are helping us to see things that maybe the others don’t. So there are strange details mentioned in Mark for instance relating to the man who in the garden of Gethsemane, in the tumult surrounding the capture of Christ, he leaves his garment behind and he flees away naked. And that’s a very strange detail, but I think within the wider context, it’s giving us some connection that we might not otherwise have drawn. Because a few chapters earlier, Jesus has been talking about the future judgment that’s going to fall upon the nation and he warns his disciples about this. He warns them about a number of different aspects of what’s going to take place. There’s going to be tribulation, there’ll be trials before rulers, there will be the destruction of the temple, the darkening of the heavens, earthquakes, they will have to flee.

    And he in that context talks about the person who is in the field to leave his cloak behind. And it seems to me that there is something of that detail picked up in the story of the arrest in Gethsemane. Now what’s going on there? I think we see similar things where Jesus warns his disciples to watch and pray and remain watchful that it’s going to be like a thief in the night. They need to be watchful and awake. And then in the garden of Gethsemane, we have that scene with Jesus charging his disciples to watch and pray lest they enter into the tribulation. There is something about the death of Christ that is a prefiguration, that is an anticipation and a playing out in advance of what’s going to happen in the wider judgment upon Jerusalem and then also upon the wider world.

    And Jesus, I think, in Mark’s telling those little details that draw our attention to those sorts of connections help us to see what’s taking place in the death of Christ, that Christ is taking the wider, greater judgment upon himself. And so things like the darkening of the heavens at the time of the crucifixion or the earthquake that is recorded in Matthew or the way that the disciples flee or the way that the curtain of the temple is torn, the way that he is tried before rulers and there is this tribulation. All of these things help us to recognize that Christ is dying for the wider people and he is taking the judgment that awaits the wider nation and then the wider world upon his own shoulders. And as people come under his protection, he talks about a hen gathering its chicks the way that he would treat Jerusalem as they come under his protection, he takes that judgment upon himself. And so those sorts of details in Mark for instance, give us a way of reading the story of the crucifixion and seeing some aspect of it that we might not see otherwise.

    If we are reading the Gospel of Luke, there will be different things. So in Luke we see, for instance, lots of parallels between the death of Christ and the birth of Christ. And so we can see Christ is wrapped in linen garments and laid in the tomb. He’s wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in the manger early in his life. There’s a Mary and a Joseph in his birth, and then there’s two Marys and two Josephs involved in the events surrounding his death and resurrection. And those sorts of details I think help us to maybe recognize that there’s a symmetry between what’s taking place at the beginning of Christ’s life. And at the end there is a way in which, for instance, there is a parallel which we see from the very beginning of the scripture in Genesis chapter three between the womb and the earth. We see this in the poetry of scripture knit together in the lowest parts of the earth or naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I will return there. We came from our mother’s womb, we will return to the earth. But there’s an association between those two.

    And so what we see in Christ’s birth is the virgin womb opened. In his death, there’s the virgin tomb that’s opened. And there’s a parallel between these two things that can be filled out even further as we see for instance, forty days after Christ’s birth, he is presented in the temple in Jerusalem. forty days after his resurrection from the dead, the firstborn from the dead, that language matters, firstborn from the dead. He enters the heavenly temple in his ascension. And so each of the gospels tell these stories in ways that help us to see things that we might not otherwise see and parallels and associations, and that’s the case not just in Matthew and John, but also in the other two synoptics.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So Mark is almost the crucifixion as the apocalypse, as a mini apocalypse.

    Alastair Roberts: And then among other things. Yes, yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You’d also recently been talking about the portrayal of Christ in Luke as the bridegroom of the Song of Solomon. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

    Alastair Roberts: Well, particularly in the Gospel of John.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, that’s true.

    Alastair Roberts: We see at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, he is introduced as the bridegroom. John the Baptist is the friend of the bridegroom who announces the coming of this figure. Christ begins his ministry at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee and he provides the wine, which would be the task of the bridegroom. As we go through, we can see all these other scenes within the gospel that allude to marital and nuptial scenes. So we can think of chapter 4 where Jesus meets the woman at the well. If we read through the book of Genesis and even the very beginning of the book of Exodus, we see the patriarchs meeting their wives at wells. It was obviously the place where you connected in the ancient world. We see that happening in the story of Moses as well as he meets Zipporah and her sisters.

    Going through the story further, we can see Christ as the one who’s the figure from the Song of Songs paralleled with the scene, for instance, at the beginning of the Song of Songs where the woman talks about “while the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance.” In chapter 12 of the gospel of John, the woman who anoints Christ’s feet at Bethany, Mary of Bethany, it is nard that gives its fragrance to the whole house. And John picks out that detail it seems to me because he wants us to see that Christ is the bridegroom. Christ is the one who meets the woman at the well. Christ is the one who starts his ministry at a wedding feast. Christ’s ministry will be culminating in a wedding feast at the end of the book of Revelation. Christ comes as the bridegroom at the end of that book.

    Even going further in the book of John, we see that theme develop in chapters 20 and 21. Christ is in his burial. He’s buried in a garden chamber that is centered with these spices, myrrh and aloes, that’s a king’s portion of spices. And then the woman is struggling to find him. She can’t find him anywhere and then goes to the garden and finds him in the garden. This is very similar to what we see in the book of the Song of Songs where the woman searches for her bride groom can’t find him, and then eventually finds him in the garden as he has come down to his garden and he has opened up the doors of the spice chamber and those spices flow out into the world.

    This is an image that I think John wants us to see in the background of all that’s taking place. It’s a sort of accompanying melody as he’s telling the story of his gospel. He wants us to hear the melodies of the Song of Songs as whispers in the background so that we recognize that this figure who is this performer of great miracles and signs, this one who rises from the dead is also the beloved bridegroom of the people, the one that the people have longed for. He’s the true Messiah, the one who will be like the kingly husband of the nation. We see that continuing into the Book of Revelation.

    In the Old Testament account of the Song of Songs, we have these descriptions of the bridegroom or the bride that go from head to toe. They’re called wasfs. And these descriptions describe each feature. They pick it out lovingly describing some aspect of the appearance of the loved party. And we have something like that at the very beginning of the Book of Revelation as Christ has described from head to toe and all these details of him are picked out, the ways that he is the two edged sword that comes out from his mouth and other details like that. Each one of them described in a way that befits the bridegroom.

    As we go into the letters to the churches, we see details from the Song of Songs picked out there as well. Christ stands at the door and knocks and asks for a reply, and if there is a reply, he will eat with them. Now we can see also the way that the emphasis upon clothing yourself and not being naked in that context might also call back to the Song of Songs. The bridegroom or the bride does not answer the door because she has not yet got her garment on. And so being prepared for the knock of the bridegroom is a theme within the eschatology of, we see it in Matthew, for instance, the foolish virgins who are not prepared for the knock at midnight. When the bridegroom comes, are you going to be prepared? And then the Book of Revelation culminates in this great glorious wedding feast, this description of the bride, and it ends on a note that’s very similar to the ending of the book of Song of Songs.

    Song of Songs ends with the bride calling for the bridegroom to come like the gazelle upon the mountains of spices. And so this summons to the bridegroom and this longing for the bride room has that same feel as the ending of the book of Revelation. “Come quickly, Lord Jesus, the Spirit and the Bride say, Come!” – This summoning of Christ to hurry, that he would come to be with his church. And so that sense of longing and desire and expectation that we have throughout the book of Songs is found within the New Testament accounts two surrounding death and the resurrection of Christ; Christ’s tomb is like the bridal chamber that is opened up and the living water flows out and the spices flow out and the world is transformed by what comes forth.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It was very striking when you sort of described this to me that the idea of this imagery being overlaid on the incredibly violent facts of the crucifixion, it’s just, it’s really, it’s disconcerting and kind of wonderful.

    Alastair Roberts: I think it is a very helpful thing to think about. The Gospels are working a lot with irony and particularly John’s Gospel where on the one level we’re seeing these events taking place that as you say, are incredibly graphic and violent and on another level we’re seeing something taking place here that is truly glorious. And so within John’s Gospel, distinct from the other Gospels, he presents the crucifixion of Christ as a sort of ascension, as a lifting up, as an exaltation, as a sort of coronation event. And so Christ, although he’s crowned with a crown of thorns and he has this statement put above him, king of the Jews, there’s a sort of parodic enthronement here, but John sees this is a real enthronement Christ in his act on the cross is performing his great kingly act. This is not just the act of humiliation, this is his act of glory. And although you may not see it from the human perspective, this is what’s really taking place. And so that use of irony and this overlaying of these details of the bride groom these details of the enthroned king upon these violent events is helping us to see what with human eyes we would not see.

    Peter Mommsen: Of course there’s that line from the Gospel of John “When I’m lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: And then there’s the imagery of the serpent being raised and everyone looking to it and being healed. Again, this very strange like overlay of something bizarre and something healing.

    Alastair Roberts: Yeah, so I think another detail that John picks out in addition to both of those which are really good examples of the way that he sees the cross itself as a sort of exaltation, we can see the detail of the pierce side and the blood and water that flows from it as something that’s very important to John. So much so that he picks out the detail and he says that the witness that is born to it is faithful and sure. This is not just some detail that he made up. This is something that he has eyewitness account of, but yet that detail is one that gives us a sense of what’s truly taking place. So we can think of for instance, the way that Eve was formed from the side of Adam. Christ is a new Adam and his church is going to be formed from the blood and water that comes from his side.

    We can see that in, we sing about this in hymns like Rock of Ages. “Let the water and the blood from the riven side which flowed, be of sin the double cure: cleanse me from its guilt and power.” There is a recognition that in that event we’re seeing the significance of the cross. The Christ is giving forth the living water that he promises throughout the Gospel. So in chapter four, he talks to the woman at the well and says that he will give living water that will become like a spring springing up to eternal life. In chapter 7, on the great day of the feast, he stands before them all and says that “out of the heart of the one who believes,” I think in this case it’s probably of the Messiah, “will flow rivers of living water.”

    Now as we go back to the Old Testament, we see this image taken and used in the context of the temple. There’s the opening up of a stream, a fountain that comes forth from the temple, and as that stream goes out, it’s going to bring healing wherever it goes. There’s this image in Ezekiel chapter 47 of this water just trickling out and then gradually becoming this larger stream and then this river and then this greater body of water that will flow to the Dead Sea and it will give life wherever it goes. And so those sorts of details picked out within the story help us to have a sense of what’s taking place as a healing death, and likewise the way that Christ describes his death and resurrection in terms of a woman whose hour has come and he’s used that expression throughout the gospel from the very beginning of his ministry. “My hour has not yet come,” he says in the marriage at Cana when his mother asks him to perform this miracle.

    And then at the end we have this use of that same language in the context of a woman giving birth. And it seems to me that we’re supposed to understand the death and resurrection of Christ as birth pangs followed by new birth. This is not pangs of death, the sort of fruitless pangs of one in death throes. These are the pangs of one who’s about to bring forth new life. And so those images of Adam having Eve taken from his side or living water flowing from the temple or the chamber of the nuptial chamber, not just the burial chamber, but the nuptial chamber about to open up and this garden to be filled with the sense of myrrh and aloes and this living water flowing out, to bring life wherever it goes. All of these images are ones that John wants us to hear in the background to recognize that Christ, he has a healing death, a death that brings life. He’s the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies in order that it might germinate within that ground and bring a great bountiful harvest.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping: don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts! We’ll be back with the rest of our conversation with Alastair after the break.

    Section III: The Scandal of the Cross

    Peter Mommsen: So it’s wonderful to hear about these figurative whispers, echoes, allusions in this story. I’m wondering how we put that together with something else. As you said, the description of the crucifixion in all four gospels is that of a brutal death. We were talking to the historian Tom Holland in an earlier episode in this series, and he made the interesting remark that Romans viewed crucifixion as so degrading, so contemptible, so disturbing that there’s very few descriptions of a crucifixion from ancient sources other than in the Gospels. Ironically, this is one of the main sources we have for what crucifixion actually involved, even though it was visited presumably on tens of thousands of people under the Roman Empire. How would the people for whom the gospels had been written have heard this story as far as we know, knowing how shocking it must have been to them to read about a crucifixion in a world where people didn’t describe crucifixions?

    Alastair Roberts: Yeah, so I think that sense of shock can often be lost upon us. For us, often the cross is just something at the top of a religious building or it’s something that’s worn as a piece of jewelry or it’s something on the front of your Bible and we don’t actually stop to think about it as an instrument of the cruelest sort of torture. And that’s what it was. It also helps us, I think when we consider it in that respect, to understand why it would be such a scandal for the early church that many of them would want to downplay it. And so when Paul talks about that he will just glory in the cross of Christ by which he has been crucified to the world and the world crucified to him, we need to have a sense of just how radical a claim that is.

    Peter Mommsen: He’s really rubbing it in, huh?

    Alastair Roberts: He really is. And he’s not allowing the Galatians to have a sort of respectable religion, the sort of religion that would allow them to just fit in and be part of the world in a way that would not emphasize that great disjunction between the world and Christ. Christ was expelled by the world. If we think about what the cross means, it’s a sort of – Christ is placed outside the city. He is stripped of his clothing. He’s placed between heaven and earth upon this cross. He’s lifted up from the earth. He’s ridiculed and mocked, he’s spat out of the body politic. It’s sort of disgorging of a person from the whole society. It’s a way of holding them up as a figure of shame and impotence. Someone who just can’t act, someone who is stripped of any dignity and they’re dying the most painful and excruciating and just horrific death, but as a spectacle so that everyone can see them and they’re put to an open shame.

    Now, as we read through the epistles of Paul, he leans into those details. He talks about the irony of this, that Christ nailed the Principalities and Powers to the cross, putting them to an open shame. If they thought that in putting him to the cross, they were expressing their victory and humiliating him, indeed, it was quite the opposite. And so the shock and the scandal of the cross is one that is absolutely essential, I think, to understanding the place that the early church gave to the symbol of the cross, the way that the cross served as something that placed them over against their society. This was something that the religious leaders of the Jews and the authority of the Romans were behind. And this was not an action that was just done at the behest of a mob. It was supported by these great authorities, these highest authorities.

    And so it was a challenge to their authority and their claims of justice that the very person that they had killed was vindicated by God in the most remarkable of ways, being raised from the dead. And so to proclaim again and again the cross of Christ as the central point is to lean into that thing that most puts you at odds with the authorities and the rulers of this present age that most stresses the incongruity between our human perception, the ways that we think about respectability, honor belonging to a society and the way that God perceives these things. This is what God sees as honorable. This is what God sees as glorious. And if we are going to be associated with Christ, we have to be marked out by his marks. And so this is something that Paul returns to on a number of occasions.

    The cross is that which marks out Christians from their neighbors, that marks out Christians from the world more generally. He has died with Christ. He’s been sort of cut off from the world and he’s still in the world, but he’s no longer of the world. He’s been spat out of the world with Christ and all of his values are changed as a result. He talks about the way that Christ made himself a servant, taking the form of a servant and the way that he went to the most undignified of deaths and that humiliation of the cross and that this mind is one that should be, mindset, is one that should be in every Christian too. And so he describes his own experience that he had all the honor of being a Hebrew of the Hebrews. And he’s counted all of those things that he once prided himself in as loss and as nothing has even done.

    What matters is that he now be found in Christ. And what matters is that he is distinguished by the cross of Christ. And so the ways that he describes this leave no room for us to just have a respectable religion that just blends in. It is the great cutting off of Christians from the world and the world from us. Paul can talk about this elsewhere as the circumcision of Christ. And it seems to me that’s a very important image. Circumcision was the symbolic cutting off of part of the flesh that represented the whole. And it was a recognition of the impurity and the corruption of the flesh, the fallenness of the flesh and the crucifixion is the consummate cutting off of the flesh. It’s the complete disgorging of Christ from the body politic. And if we are found with him, we become participants in that. We are cut off from that old order and we belong to a new one.

    And so the radicality of the cross, the fact that goes down to the very roots is absolutely essential. And that can be seen in just how shocking and brutal and violent an image the cross is.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That seems, I mean the inversion of that is striking, but the other way to look at it is that what it’s actually doing is turning things around right. Because the way that at least Paul often describes these things, the world as it is upside down. The world as it is under the control of the archons, the rulers of the age, and by suffering this death, the reality of creation as it was originally intended to be is restored. So everything that looks as though it is a despising of creation is in fact a loving of creation as it ought to have been. Does that make sense?

    And I wonder whether there’s something there that has to do with the notion of Christ’s death on the cross as basically a trick against the devil. This is a battle that he’s doing and this is the way that he’s winning a war, even to the surprise of the devil. In Corinthians, Paul says, “none of the rules of this age understood it for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” There’s this sense of a trap being sprung. And then there’s also this notion of the cross as the tree of life. So all of these things that seemed to Nietzsche, like the transvaluation of all that was good, of the values that Nietzsche recognized, this is actually getting back to the original source of good. This is a restoration rather than a pure inversion. Is that correct at all?

    Alastair Roberts: I think so. And I think this helps us to understand why throughout the New Testament and it within the gospels too, the cross is presented as the paradigm for Christians. It’s not just some radical event that occurs and deals with some problem in the world, and then we live according to some different pattern. The cross sets the pattern. It’s in the cross that we see the fullness of what God’s love means. It’s in the cross that we see what the fullness of God’s glory means. It’s in the cross that we see what true life in service means. And so Paul will return, particularly Paul will return to the theme of the cross again and again as the model for Christian behavior, as the measure of Christian love. And we see this in John as well, that we are called to love one another as Christ has loved us.

    Christ sets a pattern for his disciples in the cross. And so as we go through even the book of Acts, we can see the events that occur to the early church following that pattern of the cross. We can see for instance in chapter 12 of Acts, the way that Peter has an experience that’s very similar to that of the cross or at the very end where he’s delivered at the time of Passover from prison, the doors are opened, he’s brought out at night, he appears to a woman and the disciples don’t believe the woman’s report. It’s playing out the same pattern. The cross and the resurrection are the pattern of Christian life. It’s why we are baptized into Christ’s death. It’s why Paul has a similar experience in the shipwreck at the end of the book of Acts, which parallels the structure of the book of Luke. What happens to Christ also happens to his disciples where he goes, they will go also.

    And Paul gets into this transvaluation of values, I think, in the ways that he talks about power and weakness in places like the end of 2 Corinthians. Christ was crucified in weakness, but he lives by the power of God. And Paul talks about the ways that he will boast in his weaknesses, that the power of Christ might rest upon him. And so he identifies himself with Christ and all of his sufferings in the ways that he is rebuked. And as the early church in Jerusalem could do, he could praise God for the ways that he was imprisoned, the ways that he was beaten, mistreated in all of these ways he was being treated like Christ.

    We can see something all also of this in the way that Jesus teaches concerning the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, the way that he describes what it means to live faithfully, to go that second mile, the ways that he talks about turning the other cheek, these are the exact things that he does as he goes towards the cross, he goes that second mile, he bears the burden. He turns the other cheek. He could call down the legions of angels from heaven to act on his behalf, and yet he does not. And so that pattern of behavior is one that should be ours too.

    The cross is not just something that happens at a point in history in his event that passes by and we go on with our lives and according to a very different pattern, the cross is the model. The cross is the great fact in the center of history that we constantly return to the cross is the event that measures all other events. It’s the place where all things receive their judgment and all things either die and rise again or are crucified and pass away.

    And so the significance of the cross, I think must be seen in its centrality, in its paradigmatic character and in the fact that we never leave the cross behind. The cross is always that which marks the Christian. The cross is that which we are marked by in many ways we’re marked by the cross as we celebrate and memorialize the Lord’s death in the celebration of the Supper. The cross is that which we’re marked by in baptism. The cross is that which we are marked by in many other ways in our worship as we return to that foundational reality, the reality from which all other realities are oriented.

    Section IV: Observing Holy Week

    Peter Mommsen: So in that sense, we’re going into the time of Holy Week for Western Christians and then soon after for Eastern Christians, – of course this is a story that we should concern ourselves with throughout the year. But would you have any suggestions for how listeners who would like to read the Gospel stories of the Passion more deeply with fresh eyes, what would be some ways to go about that?

    Alastair Roberts: I think the first thing to do is just to read the stories attentively again and again. So maybe choose a particular one of the Gospels and read the whole cycle of Holy Week from the triumphal entry to the events of the resurrection. Read that through every single day and just reflect upon it. Just listen and try and take in the details. Ask questions, but don’t come to it with an agenda or with a certain set of expectations. Just listen to it. And as you listen to it, certainly has been my experience that details that maybe you had not noticed before will come to the foreground. And every year it’s something different. Sometimes it will be thinking about some parallels maybe between Joseph and Jesus. Joseph is betrayed by Judah. Like Jesus, betrayed by Judas. He’s betrayed for pieces of silver. He’s sent into the pit. He’s – all these details are picked out in the story of Christ – and then later appears to his eleven brethren. We have those details in the story of Christ. There’s the bread and the wine in the baker and the cup bearer.

    Now in the story of the gospels, that’s one thing that you might see, or you might read it alongside the story of 2 Samuel 15, David leaving Jerusalem, crossing the Brook Kidron going up the Mount of Olives and weeping the encounter with Zebron. And then with Shimei, who’s throwing stones at him and his right hand man, Abishai wants to go and attack Shimei. And David stops him just as Christ stops Peter as he tries to attack those who are trying to arrest him in the garden. And so those sorts of parallels are maybe something that you’ll notice. Other times, maybe it will be a particular aspect of our Lord’s actions, the ways in which his washing of feet provide a paradigm for thinking about all that’s taking place and just reflect upon that detail over a few days and allow that to come to the surface.

    Or maybe it will be thinking about the different ways that the Epistles reflect back upon this. And as you read the Gospels, read some passages from the Epistles alongside it, maybe some parts in Galatians 2 or Colossians 2, and just think about what is Paul seeing in this story.

    And then other times it might be reading the story alongside other parts of the gospel, maybe read the story of Christ’s crucifixion and the events leading up to it alongside the story of Christ’s temptations in the wilderness. Satan leaves Christ to come back to him another opportune time, maybe that opportune time is in the garden of Gethsemane and the events leading up to the cross when Christ is called to come down from the cross, we can maybe see that as similar as to Satan saying, cast yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple. And then as we go through that, I think we will begin to see each year different things that maybe we hadn’t seen before. The challenge is not to come to the text with a certain set of expectations, but with open ears, with willingness to hear things that might surprise us and maybe in company with others who are doing the same thing.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Alastair, thank you so much for taking the time to do this with us, especially since it means that dinner’s going to be a little bit late, and I hope to have you on the podcast again.

    Peter Mommsen: That is guaranteed.

    Alastair Roberts: A pleasure to join you guys again.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: On our next episode, we’ll be speaking to Eleanor Parker, @ClerkofOxford on Twitter, about the poem The Dream of the Rood, and Anglo-Saxon Christianity.

    Contributed By portrait of Alistair Roberts Alastair Roberts

    Alastair Roberts received his PhD from Durham University, and teaches for both the Theopolis Institute and the Davenant Institute.

    Learn More
    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

    Learn More
    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now