“Tell me the story of Jesus,” I recently asked an adult Sunday School class. Someone chimed in, “We have all sinned and are separated from God. God sent his son Jesus who died for us on the cross to pay the price for our sin. If we believe in Jesus, we will have eternal life with him in heaven.” Not too bad. Sounds pretty familiar. Is that all? Is there more to it than that? Have we gotten so comfortable with our Four Spiritual Laws tracts and John 3:16 signs that there is a whole in our understanding of the gospel.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that this was not a good explanation. The person who articulated this was echoing what would be known in theological terms as the penal substitutionary theory of atonement (try throwing that around at parties with your friends). Basically it goes something like this: We all have sinned. God is angry at sin. There is a punishment for our sin, which is death. Jesus came to earth. On the cross, God took out the anger and punishment that should have been directed to us on Jesus. As we believe in Jesus, we are forgiven (i.e. our sins are covered).
The thing is that, while you can find this understanding clearly articulated in scripture, this is only one understanding of the cross and the issue of atonement. This is not what we find here in today’s passage from John’s Gospel. From the very beginning, we get the idea that John is telling a different story. The other three gospels start with stories about Jesus’ life on earth - Matthew and Luke begin with his birth, while Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism. John, on the other hand, has a much bigger agenda in mind. John starts with “in the beginning. . .” (John 1:1). John is not starting with Jesus’ life on earth. No, John is writing a new Genesis here. John is going all the way back to the beginning. John wants to frame the conversation about a bigger, more powerful, Jesus, who was with God at the creation and who is one with God.
Therefore, when John turns his eyes to the cross, he has much more in mind than the forgiveness of individual sins. He has in view something much deeper than a substitutionary atonement through which Jesus takes on divine punishment to relieve us from our guilt. Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). For John, the cross is about divine judgement - not on individuals because of their sin but on “the world” (we should not understand world as all of God’s creation, but as “the fallen realm that exists in estrangement to God and is organized in opposition to God’s purposes” (Charles L. Campbell). Campbell goes on to describe this “world” as a reality outside of humanity. It comprises the institutions that shape human life and seek to hold them captive in destructive, life-taking ways.
Therefore, when John says that Jesus has come to bring judgment and cast out the ruler of this world, we are to understand that Jesus has come to perform an exorcism. There is a demon set loose in this world (we know him as the master deceiver, the chief demon, Satan himself). We see the results of Satan, not just in the individual temptations and sin that confront humanity, but in the larger structures that threaten our society - violence, poverty, consumerism, racism, sexism, and any other device that one group uses to dominate another. This run counter to the very heart of God - the desire to bring shalom on the earth - to put everything in its rightful place to exist for the purpose that God created it, not for the way it can be exploited. Jesus has come to call the whole structure into question, to challenge the status quo, to “unmask the powers” (to use Walter Wink’s phrase).
But Jesus doesn’t stop at unmasking those powers. Through the cross, Jesus exorcises those powers. Jesus completely defeats those powers once and for all. Jesus begins a new era in the world. A new day has dawned. There is a rightful king . . . and Satan is not it. And the scope of this king’s kingdom is not limited to those who will go to heaven after we all die. No, this whole world has been influenced by a pseudo-king that has done his best to imitate God, but could muster no more than a vague shadow. Jesus’ kingdom includes setting all of creation back on track - to fulfill the purposes for which God has created them.
Therefore, as we draw closer to the cross in our Lenten journey and as we meditate today on this text, let us remember that the battle is much larger than our own personal struggle with sin. Let us remember that Jesus’ death accomplished more than my forgiveness. It began the process of setting the entire world straight. It was (and is) the final victory over the ruler of this world. It was (and is) the source of new life and resurrection. He truly was lifted up, so let us trust that we are now in the process of being drawn, along with all creation, to his side where we will worship forever and ever. Amen.
Prayer: God, this is about so much more than my personal sin. I confess to you the many ways we have the ruler of this world to distract us and lead us away from your plan for our lives and this world. I confess that I am complicit in this. Forgive me. Open my eyes and let me see the deeper structural sins at work. Give me courage to speak out and address them with boldness and courage. You are the only rightful king. Amen.