Atonement in Scripture: Christ as Passover in 1 Corinthians


In my last post, I observed how the Pentateuch itself interprets the Passover by the motif of circumcision.  The theme of cleansing connects them.  To corroborate my analysis of the Pentateuch and my proposal that the Passover was God’s judgment on Israel for cleansing, I turn now to the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5.  My comments here are focused on whether Paul’s phrase “Christ our Passover” is better explained by the penal or medical substitution atonement theory.  For more on other details of this passage, please see my notes on 1 Corinthians 5.

The passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

5:1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.  2 You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.  3 For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.  4 In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.  6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?  7 Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.  8 Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.  11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler–not even to eat with such a one.  12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church?  13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.  (1 Cor.5:1 – 13)

If the atonement consisted of penal substitution, then Paul’s comments would be very difficult to understand indeed.  For what would be his purpose in making that point now?  Contrary to Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach, in this context where Paul is addressing a man who was having sexual relations with his stepmother, he does not suddenly talk about the wrath of God being diverted onto Jesus instead of the Christians.  They simply assume that this is what he means by his mention of ‘Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed,’ but that is the very thing I am questioning.  Not only does Paul avoid that kind of language, but what he says does not connect at all with any ideas associated with penal substitution or orbiting around it.  Paul does not, for example, develop the typical psychological framework for Christian motivation from penal substitution, that out of gratitude for Christ paying their debt or taking their punishment, they should do this or that.  That is not how Paul understands Jesus being the true paschal lamb.  Nor does the psychological ‘debt-forgiveness’ or ‘judicial forgiveness’ motivation that penal substitution advocates tend to use square up well with how Paul actually gives a framework for Christian motivation based on one’s own participation in Christ Jesus in other passages (e.g. Rom.6:1 – 11), as I explored in this post.  Nor does penal substitution offer a compelling explanation for why delivering this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh but, hopefully, later salvation fits with its theory of atonement.

To Paul, the cleansing of the Christian body at Corinth is similar to the cleansing of the Israelite community through the feast of Unleavened Bread.  This is clear from his references to ‘a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough’ (1 Cor.5:6) and his command to ‘clean out the old leaven’ (1 Cor.5:7).  In those two verses, he parallels the Corinthians to the bread itself.  This means, of course, that they should remove the unrepentant man from times of sacred worship where the unity of the church was expressed, such as at communion; view him as ineligible for leadership roles; and regard him as an unbeliever who needs to be reevangelized (e.g. Mt.18:15 – 17).  Paul’s short and puzzling statement, ‘For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed’ (1 Cor.5:7b), is sandwiched in between his references to the feast of Unleavened Bread on either side.  After this, Paul returns to the imagery of Israel celebrating the feast of Unleavened Bread, but this time the Corinthians are the celebrants, not the bread:  ‘Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven…but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth’ (5:8).  Why does he use the imagery of these two feasts?  And why does he happily jumble the analogy?

It makes far more sense within the ontological-medical substitution atonement model to use this imagery.  For if the atonement consisted of Jesus cleansing his own humanity of sin, as the true unleavened bread and as the true Passover lamb, putting it ultimately to death so he could raise up a cleansed human body and a God-fulfilled human nature in his resurrection, then it makes perfect, linear, logical sense that the body of Christ – that is, Christians – need to follow suit and live in that reality by removing the unrepentant man.  Jesus’ cleansing of his personal body necessitates the cleansing of his corporate body.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 does not use the Passover lamb as an image of Jesus being a penal substitute, but of a combination of the Passover lamb and the unleavened bread which must be internalized.  The two feasts were already seen in the Old Testament as virtually identical (Ezk.46:21), so this pairing should not be difficult to understand.   Actually, Paul conflates all three Passover feasts – Unleavened Bread, Passover, and Firstfruits – as he explains the work of Jesus.  Later he speaks of ‘Christ our firstfruits’ because of his bodily resurrection (1 Cor.15:20).  As with the unleavened bread and the firstfruits, Christ is also the lamb who has been internalized and must be internalized again – eaten and consumed, partaken of and shared.  The Corinthians had a corresponding action to take.  They had sin (leaven) in the midst of their community, their body.  Christ is our true unleavened bread because he cleansed himself from sin, died to eliminate the corruption (leaven) from within his own humanity, and rose to offer us a new and cleansed (unleavened) humanity.  Jesus treated his own divine-human union as a lump of dough out of which he removed the yeast of sin.  Jesus also treated his own body as a Passover lamb by dying to circumcise the corruption of sin out of himself, and mark a way through his blood for us to be cleansed also.  To eat of him – that is, to internalize his Spirit – is therefore to experience God’s deliverance from sin ourselves, personally.  And Jesus became our firstfruits in his resurrection, which we can enjoy and participate in by the Spirit.  Paul is therefore telling the Corinthians to be a clean community (an unleavened lump of dough) in 5:5 – 6, and then implicitly to celebrate again the achievement of Jesus through the image of feasting on him, as he is the cleansed, leaven-free bread and spotless lamb.

I therefore conclude that Paul’s logic and rhetoric behind breaking Christian fellowship with this man and treating him as an unbeliever does not involve penal substitution logic, but ontological substitution logic:  Jesus’ cleansing of his own body is to be matched by the church cleansing its own body.  For it is, in the Spirit, Jesus’ body.



3 Comments Add yours

  1. Outstanding. this is a terrific series.


    1. makonagasawa says:

      Thank you, David!


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