Christus Victor (Part 1)

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Over the last few weeks I have emphasized that the basic message of the gospel is that Jesus is King. The concept of kingship was well-known to the ancient world, but not as familiar to us. Just exactly what does it mean to proclaim that Jesus is King of Kings? What did kings in the period of biblical history actually do?

Ancient kings had many important responsibilities, but perhaps the most vital was to serve as the leader of the armies defending the nation. When the Israelites grew tired of Samuel and his family, they clamored for a king who would be a glamorous military leader like the kings of the nations. “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:19-20).

If kings in general were to be valiant warriors, then certainly that was to be true of the ultimate King, the Messiah. And indeed many passages in the OT speak of the Messiah putting His enemies under His feet (Psalm 110:1), breaking the nations with a rod of iron (Psalm 2:9), and triumphing over His enemies in majesty and righteousness (Psalm 45:4-5).

Yet when Jesus the King returned to the royal citadel in Mark 11 and its parallels, He did not arm the disciples and storm the Roman fortress by the temple. He didn’t even ride a warhorse, but instead chose a humble mule for His mount. And when the mob came to arrest Him, He did not defend Himself, and rebuked Peter for trying to do so. From all outward appearances Jesus suffered a brutal, humiliating defeat on the cross.

So how do we reconcile the messianic expectation of a mighty warrior king with what Jesus did on the cross? Why do we sing that Jesus won “a mighty triumph o’er his foes,” that He was Christ the Victorious, Christus Victor? I want to answer that question in the next few articles.  And to begin, I want to pose another question to you. Why did Jesus pick the Passover as the day on which to die? Jesus laid down his life, which means that He could choose the day of His death, and the day He chose was not the Day of Atonement (which would have made a lot of sense), but the Passover. So why that day? I think the answer to that question will help us understand the kind of victory Jesus came to win.

The Exodus as God’s Victory

Let’s go back and think about the very first Passover. The Passover was given as part of the series of plagues God inflicted upon the recalcitrant Egyptians. The tenth and last plague was severe, the death of the firstborn. Only by slaughtering the lamb and applying its blood could Israel avert the horrible vengeance of God upon the Egyptians.

As brutal as this punishment was, we must remember why God decreed this penalty. When the Lord called Moses at the burning bush, He gave him these instructions: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your son”” (Exodus 4:22-23). God loved Israel as His firstborn son, and Pharaoh had oppressed God’s “son” for many years, even slaughtering the baby boys of the Hebrews. If Pharaoh did not let God’s son go, justice demanded that Pharaoh’s firstborn would suffer retribution.

When the angel of death executed God’s judgment, the Egyptians allowed Israel to leave. But of course Pharaoh changed his mind, and sent his troops to pursue Israel, trapping the people at the Red Sea. But God intervened and saved His “firstborn son” through the miracle of the exodus. But this was far more than a rescue from natural disaster. It was a military confrontation, pitting God against Pharaoh and his armies.

 Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying,

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.

The Lord is my strength and my song,

and he has become my salvation;

this is my God, and I will praise him,

my father’s God, and I will exalt him.

The Lord is a man of war;

the Lord is his name

“Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea,

and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.

The floods covered them;

they went down into the depths like a stone.

Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,

your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.

In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;

you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble.

At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up;

the floods stood up in a heap;

the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.

The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,

I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.

I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’

You blew with your wind; the sea covered them;

they sank like lead in the mighty waters (Exodus 15:1-10).

As Moses sang, the exodus was the victory of God as a mighty warrior over the armies of Pharaoh. And why did God fight for His people? Here’s the key point – He fought because God is the true King, and kings are warriors. So the song of Moses concludes in Exodus15:18, “The LORD will reign forever and ever.” As King, God was the great liberator, defeating the oppressor of His people.

The exodus was so significant that in the rest of Israel’s history it is the pattern for all great events of liberation. Centuries later when the prophet Isaiah addressed the issue of the Babylonian exile, the way he cried out for the Lord to once again save His people was in terms of the exodus (Isa. 51:9-11). And as the people languished in exile and wondered if anyone would ever fight for them again, Isaiah comforted them with the news that God would once more be their liberator.

 Can the prey be taken from the mighty,

or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?

For thus says the Lord:

“Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken,

and the prey of the tyrant be rescued,

for I will contend with those who contend with you,

and I will save your children.

I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,

and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.

Then all flesh shall know

that I am the Lord your Savior,

and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob” (Isaiah 49:24-26).

By the end of the OT, Israel was allowed to return home, but only because pagan rulers permitted them to do so (Ezra 1:1-3). A century after they returned, Nehemiah described the people as slaves in their own land (Nehemiah 9:36). So the OT ends with this question unanswered – who will fight for us? Who will redeem us?

This brings us to the story of Jesus.