February 4, 2004

Why Did Jesus Live?

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been working my way through N. T. Wright‘s delicious Jesus and the Victory of God. This book really ought to be required reading for New Testament courses in seminary. I can’t imagine preaching the Gospels without at least interacting with Wright.

I was struck by this comment in the introduction:

In one sense, I have been working on this book on and off for most of my life. Serious thought began, however, when I was invited in 1978 to give a lecture in Cambridge on “The Gospel in the Gospels.” The topic was not just impossibly vast; I did not understand it. I had no real answer, then, to the question of how Jesus’ whole life, not just his death on the cross in isolation, was somehow ‘gospel’ (p. xiv).

That comment struck me because, though I’ve been reading the Gospels all my life and have even preached from them, I’m not sure I’ve ever really asked that question myself: How is Jesus’ whole life gospel? Our creeds pay little attention to Jesus’ life. The Apostles’ Creed, for instance, jumps straight from “born of the virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” The various Reformed confessions and catechisms do mention his teaching and his suffering, but say little about his life.

Later on in his book, Wright says:

The reformers had very thorough answers to the question “why did Jesus die?”; they did not have nearly such good answers to the question “why did Jesus live?” Their successors to this day have not often done any better. But the question will not go away. If the only available answer is “to give some shrewd moral teaching, to live an exemplary life, and to prepare for sacrificial death,” we may be forgiven for thinking it a little lame. It also seems, as we shall see, quite untrue to Jesus’ own understanding of his vocation and work.

It would not, then, be much of a caricature to say that orthodoxy, as represented by much popular preaching and writing, has had no clear idea of the purpose of Jesus’ ministry. For many conservative theologians it would have been sufficient if Jesus had been born of a virgin (at any time in human history, and perhaps from any race), lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and risen again three days later…. The fact that, in the midst of these events, Jesus actually said and did certain things, which included giving wonderful moral teaching and annoying some of his contemporaries, functions within this sort of orthodox scheme merely as a convenience. Jesus becomes a composite figure, a cross between Socrates defeating the Sophists and Luther standing up against the Papists. His ministry and his death are thus loosely connected (p. 14).

Whatever we may think about Wright’s own answers to the question “Why did Jesus live?” it seems to me that it is a question well worth asking. Certainly part of the answer is that he lived in order to die for our sins on the cross, but that cannot be the whole of the answer. By itself, that answer makes Jesus’ life little more than the necessary precursor to his death — but then his life itself isn’t good news.

We need to ask ourselves: Why did Jesus live that particular life? Why did he have to be a Jew in first century Palestine and not, say, a Japanese man in eighteenth century Tokyo or a twentieth century Canadian? What was his calling and how did he carry it out? Why did he teach the particular things he taught? Why did he perform the particular signs he performed (e.g., calming the sea and healing the sick)? What is the connection between his life and his death? And how is all of that — all of his words and deeds, and not just his death — good news?

The questions are probably easier to ask than to answer, but they must be answered. I find Wright’s answers very helpful indeed. But I’m grateful to him, not only for giving some answers, but also for raising the question: Why did Jesus live?

Posted by John Barach @ 4:18 pm | Discuss (0)

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