“The One Who Got It Right”
April 1, 2007 - Palm Sunday
The Atonement as Recapitulation
Reflecting on what Jesus has done for us is like diving deep into the ocean. There are new depths and discoveries the deeper you go. We’ve covered three basic categories of Atonement theology, Ransom, Satisfaction and Demonstration, but there is more.
One of the earliest Christian thinkers is Irenaeus (about 115-202 A.D.). He is thought to be a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John the Apostle. In an outlook adopted more by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Irenaeus suggests that the saving work of Jesus is His whole life, rather than just His death and resurrection. It is the complete Incarnation of the Son of God which atones for us, not just His actions at the end of His earthly life.
Irenaeus’ view is that Atonement is Recapitulation. “Recapitulation” means the repetition of the whole course of a series of events. We’re familiar with the “recap” of a sports event or some other news item, telling what happened over again. But “recapitulation” is literally beginning something again, not just telling past events but causing them to happen all over. Biology buffs may recall the word used in a phrase describing the now discredited notion that the stages of embryo development display the course of evolution: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”
The theological notion of recapitulation is based in Scripture, Romans 5:12-21, where Christ is compared to Adam, and is portrayed as a kind of “second Adam,” bringing life to the world where Adam brought death. In I Corinthians 15:22 we read, “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Jesus saves us by starting the human race over, as the new Adam, and He gets it right this time.
Irenaeus wrote, “God recapitulated in himself the ancient formation of man, that he might kill sin, deprive death of its power and vivify man.” One of the key points for Irenaeus is that, unlike Adam, Jesus was perfectly obedient to God. Jesus lived a full human life, from birth to death, but lived it perfectly, without sin. Romans 5:19 says, “just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Jesus began humanity over. In Himself, He created human beings again, this time as God meant them to be.
This can be a refreshing and exciting way to think about what Jesus has done for us. It explains why it so important that Jesus was perfectly sinless throughout his life. It was the only way to get our new creation right. And on the personal level, it’s not just that you or I are born again in Christ, but that in Him all humanity is born again and started over. And not just humanity, but since the man Jesus Christ is the “new creation” of God, the whole world is recapitulated in His life and brought to restoration. In keeping with the book of Revelation, we look forward not just to our own salvation in a heaven away from this earth, but to the restoration of all creation, a new earth created just as it was always meant to be.
“Run it again until you get it right!” shouts the coach. And weary basketball players line themselves up to work once more through the same play they’ve been drilling all afternoon. They haven’t yet managed the split-second timing needed to place the ball at just the right moment in the hands of a player driving for the basket. So the answer is to keep running that ball down the court until they get it right.
She sits and works her way down a column of figures once again. Somewhere in that column is an error, something throwing her tax return or her checkbook register out of balance. The only way to find it is to keep going over it. So she keeps checking those numbers until she can get it right.
He turns on the video projector, fires up Power Point, and starts talking through the presentation one more time. It’s got to be perfect if he wants to make the biggest deal of his career. So he clicks through the slides and reads through his notes yet again, trying to get his timing and delivery exactly right.
It’s a familiar experience. The old saw is “Practice makes perfect.” It often works. Practice over and over playing a scale on the piano, tossing a Frisbee, solving a quadratic equation, parallel parking a car, and eventually, eventually you get it right.
The big problem for you and me, however, is that for much of life we don’t get an opportunity to practice. In fact, the biggest and most important acts in our life are almost always one-time experiences. You can prepare all you like for graduating from high school and going on to college or moving out on your own, but nothing is quite like the real experience. You get a wedding rehearsal, but there aren’t any rehearsals for marriage. Some people think that having a dog is practice for having a child, but parents know pets are nothing like children. You can talk about growing old gracefully and not going off in a crazy mid-life crisis, but you’re still not really ready for those first gray hairs to appear in the mirror.
We don’t get to go over and over life again to get it right. We get just one chance at almost anything that really matters. Hebrews 9:27 says, “people are destined to die once, and after that the judgment.”
Those two thieves who hung on crosses on either side of Jesus each had their own single shot at living, and they had failed it. At crucial moments in their lives, they had gotten it wrong, and now they were paying for those mistakes.
It’s so easy to get it wrong. In fact, the witness of both the Bible and experience is that we all, at some point, get it wrong. The very beginning of Scripture is an account of how the first man and first woman, with no chance do it over, got things terribly wrong. Adam and Eve failed to obey God and the result was disaster. The judgment on them was to die. You and I and all our ancestors have been disobeying God and dying for it ever since.
We can’t really fix our acts of disobedience. We can’t repair our mistakes. The spring after Beth and I were married, I gave her a record album for her birthday. It was a fine recording of Wagner’s Parsifal, one of her favorite operas. We took it with us on a visit to her parent’s home, planning to use her brother’s excellent stereo system to record some of the best selections on cassette tapes that could be played in our car.
The first selection we chose to record was the one Beth loved most, the beautiful, redemptive, somber Grail music, where Parsifal takes the holy object in his hand. I placed the record on the turntable, punched the record button on the cassette deck, then gently set the needle down at the start of the track.
Then I looked at the spinning record and noticed a little ball of dust clinging to the needle. I thought to myself, “That might spoil the recording.” So I leaned over, and blew a little puff of air at the needle. Big mistake. The needle went screeching across the vinyl, carving a little chasm as it went. It couldn’t be cleaned away or repaired. Now in the midst of this quiet, gorgeous celebration of grace, there was a “pop” at every turn of the disk. It was ruined, because of a disastrous decision I couldn’t undo. Sin is like that.
There is no rewind on the turntable of life. You and I can’t go back and fix our mistakes. Sure, we can apologize or break a bad habit or pay alimony or try to amend for our sins in some other way. But what’s done is done. It can’t be undone. We never get to start over and try it again from the beginning. As the one thief on his cross said in verse 41, “we are getting what our deeds deserve.” They couldn’t go back and start over.
That is why Jesus came to start life over for us. In the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all, the whole human race, get the wonderful, impossible gift of a new start. You and I, and everyone else who has ever lived, has gotten it wrong. We may have tried to live well, live right, but we failed. We’ve lied and stolen and lusted and hurt one another. We’ve disobeyed God at every turn. And you and I have no way to run through the play of life one more time. So Jesus came to do it for us.
It is a key point of Christian doctrine that Jesus Christ was absolutely sinless. He is the one man who lived a perfect life. Unlike those two criminals at His sides, Jesus died on the Cross a completely innocent man. That’s what the so-called “good” thief recognized when He said, “this man has done nothing wrong.” The Roman centurion standing there commanding the whole crucifixion operation saw it. Seeing how Jesus died, he proclaimed in verse 47, “Surely this was a righteous man.”
We normally think that the sinlessness of Jesus had something to do with His death being a sacrifice to God. Like the Old Testament animal sacrifices, the offering needed to be pure, “without blemish.” And that’s true. Jesus is the unblemished and perfect Lamb of God, giving His life for our lives. Yet there is more to His perfection than just a perfect sacrifice. Jesus lived a perfect life not just so He could get our sins forgiven, but so He could get us a new start on our lives.
Jesus Christ was the one man in history who lived a human life and got it right. In Jesus, God was actually giving humanity the opportunity to run through it all again and this time to be obedient, to make the right choices, to reject the temptations and accept the perfect will of God. In the word used by the church Father Irenaeus, Jesus recapitulated human life and got it right. Like a new Adam, Jesus went back to the beginning and started the human race over, this time the way it was meant to be.
What it all means for you and me is that we are not quite doomed to just keep making those mistakes, to keep laying down those horrible scratches across the recordings of our lives. In Jesus Christ there is the hope and promise of a truly new beginning for us. Jesus got it right. And when we turn ourselves over to Him, He begins to get even us right. With the help of our perfect Lord, you and I can start to become what God meant us to be.
We occasionally get the chance to fix little mistakes. A few years ago, Beth and I were signed up to bring mashed potatoes to our church potluck the Sunday before Thanksgiving. On Saturday night, Beth washed and peeled what seemed like hundreds of potatoes. We boiled them in a couple big pots. We drained them and added butter and milk and a little salt and whipped them until they were beautiful. Then we placed them all in a huge crockpot to stay warm and went to bed.
When I woke the next morning and took a glance at the potatoes, it was horrible to behold. We had accidentally left the pot on high. There was an inch or two of brown around the outside of the potatoes. The inside had degenerated into a yellow mushy slime that just bubbled sort of nauseatingly. It was a disaster.
Fortunately, my sermon was ready and we had a little extra time. I ran out to Safeway and bought a bag of potatoes. I woke Beth and together we started all over, peeling, boiling, mashing, whipping up a fresh batch of lovely white spuds. A lot of activity for a pastor’s house on Sunday morning, but we did it. With each other’s help, this time we got it right.
You and I can only make that sort of chance for ourselves now and then, maybe in basketball practice or balancing our checkbook. But in Jesus Christ we have the blessed gift of a completely new start on everything. Jesus got it right. Even His death is part of that. He died in perfect obedience to God, knowing that to live life righteously and do God’s will takes suffering. But Jesus got it right. He turned away from His temptations both at the beginning and the end of His ministry. He refused power and popularity and He refused to turn away from the road that led to the Cross. He led the life that you and I are meant to live. And through Him we can have a new start on that life.
Even one of the thieves, minutes before death, got the gracious opportunity for a new start. He turned to Jesus and asked to be remembered. And Jesus answered in verse 43 with an astounding promise of a fresh start: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Completely back to the beginning. Back to the paradise we lost at the beginning of time. Jesus started life over for that man. He will start it over for you.
I don’t know what mistakes you’ve made. But I’m painfully aware of my own. Whatever we’ve done, whatever you’ve done, we have no power on our own to do it over. We can’t get ourselves back to the beginning again. But in Jesus we have the wonderful grace of a new beginning. I invite you into that new start either for the first time or once again this morning. Turn away from the grooves you’ve scratched and worn into your life, and turn toward the fresh, perfect new music playing in Jesus.
If you will only let Him, Christ Jesus can make your life what God always meant it to be. Because He did live life as God meant it to be. His gift of new life is not small potatoes. It’s a completely new start on everything that matters. He got it right. He got it all right. If you will accept Jesus and walk in His ways, He will get you right.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj