Atonement in the Synoptic Gospels

©David Peterson (2009)

The Narrative Theology of the Gospels

Each of the Gospels presents teaching about the saving significance of Jesus life and death. Matthew begins by interpreting Jesus’ name to mean that ‘he shall save his people from their sins’ (Mt. 1:21), Luke soon makes it plain that the promised messianic salvation involves the forgiveness of sins (Lk. 1:77), and John identifies Jesus from the beginning as ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ (Jn. 1:29). By various narrative means (sayings and actions of Jesus, editorial comments, scriptural quotations and allusions, sayings and actions of Jesus’ opponents), the significance of Jesus’ death is then progressively unfolded in each Gospel, climaxing in the carefully constructed passion narratives.

Atonement in Mark’s Gospel

Here I want to recommend the excellent work by Peter G. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance. Atonement in Mark’s Gospel (New Studies in Biblical Theology 18; Leicester: Apollos; Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2004). Bolt looks at why the cross is so prominent in Mark’s narrative and asks what contribution Mark’s teaching can make to our understanding of the atonement. He shows how this teaching can inform, correct and enrich our preaching of the gospel in the contemporary world.

The first overt reference to the cross in Mark is Jesus’ parable about the bridegroom who will be taken away (2:19-20). His death will bring ‘the abolition of religion’ and requires faith in the plan of God and the person of Jesus.

Mark’s central narrative section (8:27 – 10:52) is divided into three sub-sections, each introduced by a prediction of Jesus death and resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34). Although these sayings have important implications for discipleship, they essentially function to explain the necessity of the cross from a soteriological point of view. According to Scripture, this is the will of God for ‘the Son of Man’. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the kingdom of God is established and its benefits are secured for those who believe.

Jesus uses three significant images in Mark’s Gospel to describe his suffering: the ‘cup’ (10:38; 14:23-24, 36), the ‘baptism’ (10:38), and the ‘ransom for many’ (10:45). In the light of Old Testament usage, the first signifies his bearing the wrath of God (e.g. Ps. 75:8; Is. 51:17-23; Jer. 25:15-28), and the second his being overwhelmed by a flood of troubles (cf. Ps. 69:1-2, 14-15). Both images suggest that his death is the moment ‘when God turns his face away and when he is far from him, until he comes to redeem and to save’ (Bolt, 69).

The ‘ransom’ saying recalls Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt. Isaiah picks up this language to speak of a new exodus, ultimately to be brought about by the Servant of the Lord (35:9; 41:14; 43:1, 14; 44:22-24; 51:11; 52;3; 62:12; 63:9; cf. 45:13). Although the term λύτρον (‘ransom’, Mk. 10:45) is not actually used in the Greek version of Isaiah 53, this saying of Jesus provides ‘a perfect summary of the servant’s vicarious death on behalf of many others’ (Bolt, 72). Jesus’ death will be ‘the ransom paid to release the many from their slavery’ (Bolt, 73). Mark’s narrative as a whole shows that the ransom is from sin and its consequences, including death as an expression of the judgment of God.

Mark 15 moves from the legal decision about Jesus, through scenes of mockery, to the account of his death. Bolt observes many Old Testament allusions that suggest the theological significance of the events portrayed here. Although he takes the so-called ‘cry of dereliction’ in 15:34 is an indication of the judgment of God being visited upon Jesus (cf. Ps. 22:1), there is no ‘separation’ of the Father and the Son, as is commonly supposed. ‘In fact, it is the union between Father and Son that makes the cry of dereliction so terribly profound’ (Bolt, 135). In the end, the cross displays ‘God with us’:

In the cry of dereliction we hear Jesus crying out in solidarity with our own Godforsaken mortality. His death is an inclusive place-taking death, in that he shares the ‘flesh and blood’ of our mortality. But his death is also an exclusive place-taking death, in that he is the one who dies for the many. In the concrete circumstances of his death, he bore the wrath of God on our behalf, in our place. His death was the ransom that set us free. At the exact moment that he did all this, he was declared to be the Son of God; God the Son, suffering for the many sinners in this world under the shadow of death, in perfect harmony with Father and Spirit; God, experiencing the wrath of God on behalf of the many. If God himself has dealt with his wrath, then the liberation of the sinner will be freedom indeed (cf. Rom. 8:32)! (Bolt, 141)

Atonement in Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew contains much of the same material as Mark, including four passion predictions (16:21; 17:12; 17:22-3; 20:18-19), the ‘ransom’ saying (20:28), the citation of Zechariah 13:7 in 26:31-2, the ‘cup-word’ at the Last Supper (26:28, τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν τὸ α͑ῖμα μου τῆς διαθήκης τὸ περὶ πολλῶν ἐκχυννόμενον εἰς ͗άφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν), which links his death more explicitly to Jereremiah 31:34 than Mark 14:24 does, and the cry of dereliction on the cross (27:46).  Additionally, Matthew has the mission statement of 1:21 (σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν), which is certified as fulfilled in 26:28. These two sayings function as ‘bookends’ in Matthew’s presentation, indicating the central purpose of God in sending Jesus.

Powell argues that there are actually three mission statements in Matthew (1:21; 9:13; 20:28), and concludes that this Gospel is fundamentally about how Jesus came to save his people from their sins: ‘the plot of Matthew’s Gospel describes how this purpose came to be fulfilled, to some extent in Jesus’ ministry, but, ultimately, only in his death.’[1] In that plot, there is conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, conflict between Jesus and his disciples when they have ‘little faith’ and, at the deepest level, conflict between Jesus and Satan.  These conflicts are resolved in Jesus’ favour when he dies on the cross: ‘he fulfils the will of God (cf. 26:39, 42) and defeats the will of Satan (cf. 16:21-3).’[2]

As in Mark’s Gospel, a number of Jesus’ sayings about his death reflect the language and expectations of Isaiah 53. Additionally, in Matthew 8:17; 12:17-21 there are two explicit formula-citations from Isaiah 53:4 and 42:1-4 respectively.[3] Jesus was declared to be the Servant of the Lord at his baptism, but in 8:17 Matthew links his exorcism/healing ministry with the death of the Servant on behalf of his people: ‘he took our infirmities and bore our diseases’ (αὐτὸς τὰς ἀσθενείας ἡμῶν ͗έλαβεν καὶ τὰς νόσους ἐβάστασεν).[4] Jesus’ healing ministry points to who he is (Servant/Messiah) and therefore to the fact that he has come to bring atonement.  Carson argues that ‘Jesus’ healing ministry is itself a function of his substitutionary death, by which he lays the foundation for destroying sickness.’[5]

In 12:17-21 the fulfilment of the Servant’s role is seen in the character and manner of Jesus’ ministry.  As one uniquely empowered by God’s Spirit (3:17), he establishes and proclaims God’s justice, proceeding with meekness and gentleness, rather than by attention-grabbing and confrontation.  This citation effectively covers Matthew’s presentation of Jesus and his ministry in chapters 4-12, with the last two clauses pointing forward to the cross and resurrection, and the proclamation of the Servant’s victory to the nations (Matthew 26-28).

The so-called eucharistic words of Jesus are a crucial key to understanding his person and work. There are differences of emphasis in the various Gospel accounts but each one points to the fact that it was in the context of a traditional Passover meal that Jesus enjoyed his last supper with his disciples. According to Jewish tradition, the blood of the lambs sacrificed at the time of the exodus had redemptive power and made God’s covenant with Abraham operative. When families or groups of friends gathered in Jerusalem to eat the Passover meal, they were reminded in a very personal way of the whole basis of their relationship with God and their existence as a people. Additionally, the Passover had become an occasion for Israelites to express their confidence in a future redemption by God, associated with the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus’ longing to celebrate this last Passover with his disciples is especially emphasized in Luke 22:15-16 (cf. 22:18), yet his hope of celebrating it anew, when it would be fulfilled ‘in the kingdom of God’, is expressed in each of the Gospels (cf. Mt. 26:29; Mk. 14:25). The Passover had a typological significance for Jesus: he endorsed the Jewish tradition that this rite pointed forward to an eschatological deliverance of God’s people and the subsequent possibility of enjoying the messianic banquet together in the End time (e.g. Is. 25:6-7; Lk. 14:15; 22:30). The context makes it clear that his approaching death would be the event to accomplish that deliverance.

We do not know whether Jesus identified himself explicitly with the Passover lamb, but that link was soon made by early Christian writers (1 Cor. 5:7-8; cf. 1 Pet. 1:18-19). Jesus himself took the unusual step of accompanying the distribution of the bread and at least one of the Passover cups with his own words of interpretation. In this way, the food was presented to the disciples as a symbol of his approaching death and of the salvation he would accomplish. Their eating and drinking appears to be an anticipation and symbolic reception of the benefits to be obtained by his death: ‘Jesus uses the grace before and after eating to give his disciples one after another the additional personal assurance that they share in the kingdom because they belong to the many for whom he is about to die’ (J. Jeremias, ‘This is My Body…’, Expository Times 83 [1972], 203).

With mention of the fact that his blood is to be ‘poured out’ as a sacrificial offering ‘for many’ (Mt. 26:28=Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:20 has ‘for you’), there are allusions again to the role of the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, who ‘poured out his life unto death and . . . bore the sin of many.’ (Is. 53:12; cf. Mt. 20:28=Mk. 10:45; Lk. 22:37).

The cup-word speaks of the inauguration of a new covenant by Jesus’ blood. In the version of the saying in Matthew 26:28 and Mark 14:24, the strange expression ‘my blood of the covenant’ occurs. This recalls Exodus 24:8, where the covenant established by God at Mt Sinai is said to have been sealed by means of animal sacrifice. Only the version of the saying in Luke 22:20 and 1 Corinthians 11:25 mentions explicitly that Jesus had in view the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31-4.

Jeremiah said nothing about sacrifice or blood but pointed to a definitive and permanent solution to the problem of Israel’s sin as a basis for the renewal of God’s relationship with his people. Yet, it is obvious even from the words ‘my blood of the covenant’ that Jesus envisaged some renewal of the covenant with Israel, effected by his death. Since Matthew 26:28 indicates that Jesus’ death was specifically ‘for the forgiveness of sins’, the link with Jeremiah 31:34 is clear. Thus, the various forms of the cup-word in each of the Gospel narratives express materially the same meaning.

Jesus implies that his death would re-establish the underlying covenant with Israel on a new basis. A new or renewed covenant was effected by his shed blood, fulfilling the typology of Exodus 24:8 and the prediction of Jeremiah 31:31-4. Jesus’ allusion to Isaiah 53:12 implies also that his blood shed as the Servant of the Lord was the means of atonement ‘for many’. Indeed, the idea of a covenant established through the death of a human being, rather than through the shedding of animal blood, probably stems from the Servant passages in Isaiah. The Servant is made by God ‘a covenant to the people, a light to the nations’ (Is. 42:6; 49:8). These passages indicate that the restoration of a right relationship between Israel and the Lord will also mean the ultimate fulfilment of that ancient promise to Abraham to bring blessing to all peoples on earth (cf. Gen. 12:2-3). Through the death of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles together will experience atonement and consecration to God as his people.

Atonement in Luke’s Gospel

Many scholars see no atoning significance in Luke’s presentation of the death of Jesus and no connection with the forgiveness of sins.[6] There are three passion predictions (9:22; 9:44; 18:31-3), but nothing corresponding to the ‘ransom’ saying in Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28, and no ‘cry of dereliction’ from the cross in Luke 23.  Even the citations from Isaiah 53 in Luke 22:37 and Acts 8:32-3 are said to demonstrate that Luke is interested ‘not in the atoning death of Jesus but in the fulfilment of scripture in the obedient passion (silence), death (humiliation), and resurrection (taking up from the earth) of the Servant.’[7]

Nevertheless, in an overtly Passover context (22:15-18), Jesus speaks at the Last Supper of inaugurating ‘the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’ (22: 20).[8] Alluding to Jereremiah 31:34, he implies that his death will make possible a definitive forgiveness of sins (cf. Mt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25).  The words τὸ ὑπέρ ὑμῶν ἐκχυννόμένον (‘which is poured out for you’) recall the language of sacrificial atonement in Leviticus 4:7, 18, 25, 30, 34, and probably also reflect the Hebrew of Isaiah 53:12 (but not the LXX), implying a death that ‘bore the sin of many’.  The substitutionary nature of his death is also indicated by the bread-word (22:19), which describes his body as ‘given for you’ (τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν διδόμενον only in Luke, though 1 Cor. 11:24 has τὸ σῶμα τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν).

These eucharistic words ‘root human salvation in the death of Jesus’.[9] In narrative terms, they introduce a telling sequence of sayings and events in Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus goes on to cite Isaiah 53:12, preceded by an emphatic insistence that this Scripture must be fulfilled in him, and followed by the affirmation, ‘what is written about me is reaching its fulfilment’ (22:37).  Although there is debate about whether the specific reference (καὶ μετὰ ἀνόμων ἐλογἰσθη [‘and he was numbered with the transgressors’]) means that the whole passage from Isaiah 53 is in view, this seems most likely from the unfolding of Luke’s passion narrative.[10] In essence, the text quoted shows that ‘he was occupied with the fact that he, who least deserved it, was to be punished as a wrongdoer’,[11] and this is central to the portrayal of the Servant’s death in Isaiah 53.

The crucifixion scene suggests the fulfilment of Isaiah 53 as a whole, with the penitent thief acknowledging the injustice of the sentence against Jesus (cf. Is. 53:7-9) and asking to be remembered when he comes into his kingdom (23:32-43; Cf. Is. 52:13-15).

The scriptural necessity of Messiah’s death and resurrection is then reaffirmed in Luke 24:26, 44-6, and made the basis for the challenge to preach ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ in Jesus’ name ‘to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (24:47).

Salvation is a dominant theme in Luke’s Gospel, where it is clearly linked to the forgiveness of sins.[12] At the end of this Gospel, it is shown that the shedding of Christ’s blood and his subsequent resurrection make this salvation possible.

[1] Powell, M. A., ‘The Plot and Subplots of Matthew’s Gospel’, New Testament Studies 38 (1992), 196.


[2] Powell, ‘Plot’, 198.  The main plot of Matthew’s Gospel concerns the conflict between the divine plan and Satan’s challenge to it.

[3] Wright, N. T., Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996), 602-3, argues persuasively that Jesus took on the kingdom-programme of Isaiah 40-55 as a whole and, in particular, its focus on the redemptive suffering of the Servant.

[4] The Greek version of the OT has ὁυτος τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν φέρει καὶ περὶ ἡμῶν ὀδυνᾶται.  The Hebrew makes it clear that the Servant is ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with sickness’, and so Matthew is being faithful to the sense of the original when he translates it to fit his context.

[5] Carson, D. A., ‘Matthew’, Expositor’s Bible Commentary 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984, 205. Cf. Bolt, P. G., ‘“With a View to the Forgiveness of Sins”: Jesus and Forgiveness in Mark’s Gospel’, Reformed Theological Review 57 (1998), 53–69.

[6] Conzelmann, H., The Theology of St. Luke, (trans. G. Buswell; New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 200-1, was very influential in promoting this view.  Sylva, D. D. (ed.), Reimaging the Death of the Lukan Jesus (Frankfurt: Anton Hain, 1990), records a variety of ways in which the death of Jesus in Luke-Acts has been understood.

[7] Sylva, Reimaging, 146.  In ‘Atonement Theology in Luke-Acts: Some Methodological Reflections’, in P. J. Williams, A. D. Clarke, P. M. Head, D. Instone-Brewer (ed.), The New Testament in its First Century Setting (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans),56-71, I review and critique a number of these views.

[8] Metzger, B. M., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Fourth Revised Edition) (2nd ed.; Stuttgart/New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 148-50, discusses the textual difficulties associated with Lk. 22:19-20.

[9] Green, J. B., ‘The Death of Jesus, God’s Servant’, in Sylva, Reimaging, 3-4.  However, Green inadequately concludes that ‘Luke has neither exploited the redemptive themes of the Last Supper nor made this material his own by integrating it more fully into his narrative.’

[10] Green, ‘The Death of Jesus’, 22-3, actually makes this point, but he does not satisfactorily incorporate this insight into his overall argument.  Cf. Larkin, W. J., ‘Luke’s use of the OT as a Key to his Soteriology’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 20 (1977), 325-35.

[11] France, R. T., Jesus and the Old Testament (London: Tyndale, 1971), 115. The quotations from Isaiah 53 in Lk. 22:37; Acts 8:32-3 do not make explicit reference to vicarious atonement.  However, they draw attention to the key aspects of Jesus’ suffering (the innocent one suffering the death of a transgressor, led like a sheep to the slaughter), suggesting that these events should be understood in terms of Isaiah’s redemptive theology.

[12] Cf. Marshall, I. H., Luke: Historian and Theologian (Exeter: Paternoster, 1970), 94-102. The achievement of salvation is associated from the beginning of Luke’s work with the rejection and suffering of the Messiah (cf. 2:26, 33-5; 9:22, 44-5; 12:49-53; 13:32-3; 18:31-4; 22:20-3, 35-7; 24:26, 46).


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