Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Theology for beginners (6): Crucifixion

Summary: The mission of Jesus ended in death by crucifixion.

The young wandering prophet and rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was executed by state authorities around the year 30 CE. From one point of view, we might conclude that his mission had been a failure. He was put to death on a cross – a symbol of death and defeat, like a hangman’s noose or an electric chair. Yet the cross of Jesus, in all its offensive bleakness, forms the great climax of Jesus’ mission – and, indeed, the climax of the whole story of God’s journey with Israel.

At the decisive turning-point of Jesus’ life, he and his followers left Galilee for Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Jesus was welcomed jubilantly as the inaugurator of God’s new kingdom. But Jesus sharply provoked the religious authorities in Jerusalem. While the city’s Temple was at the very heart of Israel’s religious, economic and political life, Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple, and he performed a violent symbolic cleansing of the Temple court as a radical enactment of God’s coming judgment. It would have been impossible to have offered a more direct threat and challenge to the religious and political status quo. And so, as a result of such actions, Jesus was arrested.

As Jesus had travelled towards Jerusalem, it’s very likely that he had increasingly anticipated his own death. Throughout his ministry, he had been devoted wholly to his Father’s will. His message of God’s imminent kingdom was proclaimed out of obedience to the Father. The forgiveness he extended to social outcasts was an expression of the Father’s will for Israel. His prophecies of the judgment and vindication Israel were expressions of the Father’s nearness. But other prophets who had acted in such faithful obedience to God had been rejected and martyred by Israel; and Jesus probably realised that his own mission was similarly fated to end in rejection and death.

Jesus himself would not, however, have regarded such a fate as the failure of his mission. Rather, he would have viewed his own death as part of the fulfilment of God’s purpose for Israel: at the climactic moment of Israel’s history, God’s appointed messenger would take upon himself the tribulation of the end of the age, and in precisely this way the kingdom of God’s future would be ushered in. And like other Jewish martyrs of the time, Jesus would also have expected Israel’s God to vindicate him at the end of the age.

Thus Jesus’ arrest would not have come as a surprise. After the arrest, the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion – a typical fate for revolutionaries and political criminals. And so Jesus was crucified.

Even at the end, though, he did not struggle against his fate, but he continued to entrust his life to the one whom he called Father. Right to the end, Jesus submitted himself wholly to the God of Israel whose coming he had proclaimed. Right to the end, he put his hope in God, believing that God would vindicate him, and that the great climax of history would arrive. Right to the end, Jesus looked to the future of God’s kingdom.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ career ended in the death of a common criminal, a death of abandonment and humiliation. But shortly after his death, his followers came to believe that he was the world’s true Lord, and that history had in fact reached its climax – not in spite of his death, but precisely in the event of his death! The fulfilment of all God’s promises had arrived in Jesus; the goal of history had dawned in him. This was the conviction of Jesus’ pupils and followers, and their earliest confession was the simple but remarkable statement: “Jesus is Lord.”

But how is it that they came to call him – a dead man – Lord? How is it that they came to see his bloody execution as the climax of history? How is it they came to regard his death as the end of the world’s great narrative, as the fulfilment of all God’s promises?

Further reading

  • Bornkamm, Günther. Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), pp. 153-68.
  • Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1994).
  • Dunn, James D. G. Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 765-824.
  • de Jonge, Marinus. God’s Final Envoy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 12-33.
  • McKnight, Scot. Jesus and His Death (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005).
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God (London: SCM, 1974), pp. 112-53.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 245-69.

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