I recently picked up N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began. Admittedly, I loved it as soon as I read the title. I loved it even more after being pulled into the biblical storyline and enjoying Wright’s ability to pull me into the narrative. Here is an excerpt from the first page; “Another young leader had been brutally liquidated. This was the sort of thing that Rome did best. Caesar was on his throne. Death, as usual, had the last word. Except that in this case it didn’t…” He goes on “Something had happened that afternoon that had changed the world. That by six o’clock on that dark Friday evening the world was a different place.”
Crucifixion was intended to demonstrate who holds the power. And that the powerful were willing to use extreme pain, brutality and shame to make that message clear. Crucifixion was designed to stop a revolution in its tracks. Wright tells us that when Jesus told followers to carry their cross, they would not have heard this as a metaphor. In opposition to the worlds displays of power, the shame and horror became part of the meaning. The biblical storyline became clearer for the followers of Jesus.
The biblical storyline is not the only thing that helped shape the meaning of the crucifixion. There were already existing meanings of the cross as a death instrument that were influential. Wright gives three meanings for crucifixion in the first century. 1) The cross carries social meaning. Simply, we are superior and you are inferior. 2) The cross had political meaning. We are in charge here and you are not. 3) The cross had theological meaning. The gods of Rome and Caesar (son of a god) are more powerful than your gods. As Jesus hung on the cross, these meanings were heard loud and clear and appeared to be true.
Wright spends significant time talking about the themes and narratives that early Christians would have already had in their heads that allowed them to make sense of the crucifixion the way they did. We might ask, alongside Wright, “Why did they not see this as an end of a potential Jesus based revolution?” Instead they saw crucifixion as the beginning. The New Testament insists that when Jesus of Nazareth died, something happened that changed the world.
Early Christians started talking as if this shocking, scandalous execution launched a revolution. They began to see this as the pivotal event in the story of God. In fact, this was the vital moment in all of human history. God had put his plan in operation – his plan to rescue the world. They saw the crucifixion as the inauguration of God’s plan. The early Christians insisted that followers of King Jesus became part of the difference. The New Testament, with the cross at its center, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. According to Wright, the first sign the revolution was underway was the resurrection.
Wright wants us to recognize the cross as more than allowing for personal salvation, more than a ticket to heaven. He does not deny personal meaning for individuals, but wants to be clear that the cross carries significant meaning for the wider world. Wright wants us to know that Jesus died so that we could become part of God’s plan to put the world right. Welcome to the revolution.