Easter: The Mission is the Message

Theology / Biblical Studies

Does it even make sense to try to separate what Jesus did from what he taught?

At some point in your life you’ve probably heard a sentiment like this expressed by people who don’t regard themselves as Christians at all: “Well I’m not really into the whole religion thing, but you’ve got to respect the teaching of Jesus. What a good man!” This nasty business of dying for sins, holiness, judgement, eternity – forget all that, but the message of Jesus is just peachy. “Liberal” or “progressive” spin-offs of Christianity are in on the game as well. Usually in these circles, however, the attitude is coupled with a fictional account of what Jesus actually taught. Usually his message of forgiveness, impartiality, personal purity, God’s openness to all sinners who repent, humility, becomes transformed into an alternative Gospel of left leaning policy, denunciation of traditional morality and the tolerance of all lifestyles. But setting that aside, the idea is still one that elevates the moral and social teaching of Jesus over the theological and eschatological importance of his mission in dying for sin and rising from the dead (the latter is often denied altogether in such circles).

The most recent example of this is in New Zealand is the ever-struggling-for-but-not-quite-achieving-relevance Saint Matthew in the city Anglican parish, with this wee gem, erected right on time for Easter:

The (apparent) message is that we shouldn’t let the events of Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus, distract us from the actual message of the Gospel. This is a terrible garbling of New Testament Theology in general, and the teaching of Jesus in particular. You cannot understand Jesus’ teaching and also separate it from his mission in his death and resurrection, because so much of his teaching depends crucially on that very mission being accomplished.

The Gospels record Jesus telling his disciples on more than one occasion that he was going to be killed and then rise again (e.g. Matt 12:40, Mark 8:31, Mark 10:34, John 2:19-22). It was hardly an unlucky twist that would leave Jesus thinking that maybe people might forget the actual reason that he came. But more importantly, it was in his death and resurrection that Jesus made the accomplishment of his mission possible. In making the resurrection of the dead a possibility for those who trust in him a reality, Jesus was doing the very thing he came to do: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:38-40).

In calling people to live a new way – in forgiveness, impartiality, in liberation from bondage to sin, Jesus is calling people to live in light of the kingdom of God having come into the world in himself. We should live in light of eternity – an eternity that is made possible because Jesus has fulfilled his mission of redemption, that very mission now belittled on a billboard. If you take that away – take away Jesus’ self-declared reason for coming into this world at all, then you end up with a charlatan. You end up with someone who tells us how to live, who promises much, and ultimately fails.

For the early Christians (you know, the ones who weren’t “progressive” enough), the Gospel message was the message of the cross. The Apostle Paul told the church in Corinth: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” And: “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It was through the cross that God has made possible the redemption of all creation (Romans 3:21-8:39).

The billboard has it backwards. The cross cannot distract you from the message of Jesus. That message is not a bunch of ethical teaching followed by an awful tragedy upon which we wrongly fixate. That message is the message of the death and resurrection of the king, followed by principles of living in the new world that his death and resurrection makes possible. The so-called progressive take on the cross is anything but. It’s backwards.

Happy Easter – Christ is risen! 🙂

Glenn Peoples

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{ 20 comments… add one }
  • James F. McGrath April 5, 2010, 7:53 am

    The one objection that comes to mind is that, if you are wrong and what is fictional are the later authors attributing to Jesus knowledge in advance about how he would die, and the later attempts to make sense of his death as atoning, then the progressive approach might be preferable. And so I don’t feel like your point stands on its own, without some attempt to address the issue of what comes from Jesus and what represents later interpretation by Christians in light of what happened. It is noteworthy that you depend heavily on John and Romans. Many progressive Christians would say that they are trying to take the historical Jesus more seriously.

    I’m curious how you might elaborate your point/case in response to such a view…

  • Ozy Mandias April 5, 2010, 7:57 am

    Excellent point Glenn. Happy Easter.

  • Glenn April 5, 2010, 1:40 pm

    I don’t often moderate comments, but someone called “Anon” posted a comment that consisted of nothing but a weblink, so I have removed it.

    James, I accept that if someone essentially rejects as fictional or unreliable the Gospel accounts of Jesus – and also various New Testament Epistles, then one would be “freed up” to see the relationship between the cross of Christ and his overall missions and his teaching rather differently.

    Of course this raises another issue: If this is the approach we’re going to take to the New Testament, then we’re in no position to insist on a corpus of Jesus’ teaching, since we’ve already swallowed the camel of regarding the recorded teaching of Jesus as dubious or fictional. The question, “I wonder if they’ll remember anything I said” becomes pointless, since, on this view, we don’y even know what Jesus said.

    People can say that they want to be seen as taking the historical Jesus more seriously, but they aren’t doing so just by being more sceptical.

    Another issue is the fact that whether or not Jesus really made the predictions recorded in the Gospels about his approaching death and resurrection isn’t an isolated question. If we pull those sayings out of the Gospel, their attachments to other things that he said cause us to drag other things out as well. For example, Jesus connects his being lifted up from the earth with his drawing all people to himself. he connects the very purpose of his mission with the resurrection of the dead.

    A third issue, one that I think is very telling, is that the early church, those who lived and worshipped before the Gospels were even written, did not separate the Gospel of Jesus from his cross. As I noted in this blog entry, the early Christian community (or at any rate its teachers, if Paul is anything to go by), presented the cross as absolutely central to the Christian message. I see it as breathtaking arrogance for anyone, under the banner of “progressivism” or anything else, to come along and tell us all that from its very beginning, the Christian community has entirely misconstrued the point of the Gospel, but now the progressives are here to help us untangle the mess.

  • Max April 5, 2010, 2:14 pm

    I agree – but would add to this that people who get fixated on right-wing moral values and right-wing social issues are just as guilt as their lefty counterparts of ignoring the most important issue.

  • Glenn April 5, 2010, 3:11 pm

    Max, those who affirm right wing moral values – fanatically so at times (things like first generation rights) – might be guilty of wrong emphasis too, yes. I agree with you if that’s all you mean. However, I’m not quite talking here about people placing their emphasis int he wrong place. I’m talking about people who actually say that they don’t want all that stuff about crucifixion, they only want the message of Jesus. Right wing oriented folks are only guilty of the sin that this blog is about if they do that (and no doubt some of them do. The unbelievers that I referred to right at the start of this blog entry come in various left and right varieties).

  • Max April 5, 2010, 4:45 pm

    Have you been out with your sprey paint Glenn!??

  • Glenn April 5, 2010, 5:35 pm

    No, but I know people in the right places. 🙂

  • James F. McGrath April 6, 2010, 1:52 am

    Glenn, thank you for your response. I wonder whether you regard historical criticism as of no value in such instances, as perhaps allowing people to distinguish between things that almost certainly go back to Jesus, things that may or may not, and things that most likely do not. The idea that one must either trust the Gospels in their entirety or dismiss them in their entirety is a popular claim but it simply isn’t true.

  • Steven Hovater April 6, 2010, 5:50 am

    I wouldn’t say the discussion on critical readings and distinguishing between valid narratives or not has a place, but I wouldn’t want the original point to be lost, that the cross provides a lens through which we can interpret the ethical teachings of Jesus, and if nothing else, we can assume that reading those ethics through that lens was a dominant lens in the early communities of disciples.

  • Glenn April 6, 2010, 10:16 am

    James, you certainly did not get the “all or nothing” idea from my post, I will assume. But if anyone honestly thinks that they can be so historically “criticial” (I’m frequently amused by the way that people think they’re being criticial just because they are sceptical) as to know that Jesus’ predictions of his own death are fictional, while having any sort of certainty that the accounts of some specifics of Jesus’ teaching are reliable, then I’d be more than a little bit critical of their method. A rather large suspicion that the tail is wagging the dog would be in order.

  • Glenn April 6, 2010, 10:18 am

    And yes, Steven, you’re quite right. The issue isn’t resolved on whether or not Jesus really predicted his death. The issue is that the cross was so central tot he message of early Christianity that to now say that it can be separated from the Christian message is to re-write history.

    What’s more, I think we attribute far too much insight to those behind that billboard if we think that they are motivated by higher criticism!

  • James F. McGrath April 8, 2010, 1:54 am

    Without some measure of skepticism, some standard of evidence, there is a real danger that we will end up being uncritical. Trying to find middle ground between extremes of skepticism and credulity seems advisable.

    I did not suggest that somehow historical criticism can prove that Jesus’ predictions of his death are fictional. I did suggest that one might, on historical critical grounds, conclude that that is a very real possibility. And even if the probabilities of the predictions being authentic vs. a later creation of the church were evenly matched, would historical precedent alone be enough to decide the matter for you?

    If you’re a Protestant, then you are quite willing to be part of a church tradition that jettisons historical practices that predominated down the centuries. And if so, then there is no obvious reason to stop just with post-Biblical tradition.

  • Glenn April 8, 2010, 8:50 am

    James, it’s all very well to make the modest sounding suggestion that we take a stand somewhere between radical scepticism and wide eyed credulity, but the issue of specifics still remains. If we take a stance (I’m not saying that you do) that the multiple accounts Jesus’ prediction of his execution are fictional, then the question still looms large of whether or not we can affirm that the accounts of much of his social teaching are historically sound – without employing any double standard at all. I guess we’d have to see the rationale for making the sceptical claim about Jesus’ predictions, and then very closely check all the teaching passages to see if they are vulnerable to the same (or a similar) critique.

    As for there existing absolutely no reason for a Protestant to reject parts of Scripture, that was surely typed in a moment of madness.

  • Glenn April 8, 2010, 11:51 am

    OK OK, I’ll elaborate on my “madness” comment in reply to James’s comment about Protestants. The suggestion is that since Protestants reject aspects of tradition that Catholicism accepts (e.g. the relatively recent doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, or the much older belief that the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Jesus), there would be nothing surprising about them rejecting parts of the Bible as well. After all, they reject stuff.

    It’s not the case that Protestants are in the rejecting business, and that their approach to things in general is rejection. Protestants reject about as many beliefs as Catholics do. It’s like saying “Catholics reject most religions, so why stop at Christianity?” Like Catholics, Protestants actually have principles that they apply when deciding what they reject and what they don’t. The primary principle for Protestants is the authority of Scripture. It makes little sense, therefore, to imply that Protestants, due to their tendency to reject stuff, may well reject Scripture. I understand that Catholics don’t make as strong a distinction between Scripture and tradition that Protestants do, treating Scripture as an especially important part of tradition.

    What’s more, I know that anti-Protestants aren’t a monolith, but if they were then I would ask them to get together and make up their collective mind. Typically Protestants are lampooned for just the opposite of the reason suggested here. They are said to lay too much stress on Scripture over and above tradition. Because they draw the distinction between Scripture and tradition that they do, Catholics have (in some case) said that they elevate the Bible more than they ought to, relative to tradition. And now it seems that others are prepared to suggest that since they just chuck stuff out (any and all stuff, apparently!), the Scripture is at risk of being thrown away by Protestants. Which is it? Do they elevate Scripture too much or not enough?

    Finally, debates about higher criticism are debates about whether or not certain purported parts of a body of writing are genuine parts of the historical record or not. It would be like debating about whether or not Augustine really gave his account of the pear tree, or whether that was added by a later group of Augustinians who thought that pears were a pernicious temptation to mankind. It’s not a debate about whether the body of tradition in question really has the authority attributed to it. It’s a question of what we should and should not consider to belong to that body.

    Cheap shots may have a certain degree of rhetorical pleasure (I know this all too well!), but it is a fleeting pleasure.

  • James F. McGrath April 9, 2010, 1:24 pm

    Just a quick response. First, there are carefully-elaborated criteria in the historical study of Jesus, which aim to be methodologically more precise than is the norm in historical study, since discussing Jesus tends to be more controversial. My historian colleagues say that evaluating historicity is an “art”. To suggest that, if some things are of uncertain or even dubious authenticity, then everything is, sounds like the sorts of statements I usually hear from people who are not particularly familiar with the historical study of Jesus or historical study in general. It isn’t an all-or-nothing discipline. Some things are well attested, and some aren’t. Some are a priori suspicious since they seem to reflect the viewpoint of a later time, and some are a priori likely to be authentic because they are not something anyone in a later time is likely to have invented.

    As for my statement about criticism of authority eventually leading to criticism of the Bible, that’s historically what happened as Protestants eventually realized that it is arbitrary to stop questioning just because you’ve arrived at the New Testament. And of course, the Bible doesn’t come to us pre-packaged or with a table of contents, and so unless one accepts the authority of the church, they have no “Bible” to appeal to, right? As a friend put it recently, “The Bible alone doesn’t tell you what is in the Bible.”

    Is there any way to subscribe to comments? It would be useful to know when a reply has been added. Thanks for the dialogue, and I’ll be interested to know what you have to say in response to my latest moment of madness. 🙂

  • geoff April 9, 2010, 2:58 pm

    Hi James,

    There is a comments rss feed for the whole site top left:

    http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/?feed=comments-rss2 is the feed

  • Glenn April 9, 2010, 5:13 pm

    James, in my last comment I explained that I do not think that “if some things are of uncertain or even dubious authenticity, then everything is,” so it’s not clear to me why you seem to think that’s my view (or perhaps you were referring to the view of others). What I in fact said was: “I guess we’d have to see the rationale for making the sceptical claim about Jesus’ predictions, and then very closely check all the teaching passages to see if they are vulnerable to the same (or a similar) critique.” This seems like a fair enough call, and it clearly doesn’t commit to the “all or nothing” approach that you’ve referred to.

    As for whether or not “it is arbitrary to stop questioning just because you’ve arrived at the New Testament,” this would need at least some sort of defense. It’s just as easy to maintain that since a Catholic questions things outside of church teaching, “it is arbitrary to stop questioning just because you’ve arrived at the teaching of the church.”

    It doesn’t seem arbitrary in either case.

  • James F. McGrath April 11, 2010, 8:50 am

    Sorry, I must have misunderstood what you meant in your earlier comment, when you said “If this is the approach we’re going to take to the New Testament, then we’re in no position to insist on a corpus of Jesus’ teaching, since we’ve already swallowed the camel of regarding the recorded teaching of Jesus as dubious or fictional.”

    So there’s no way to subscribe specifically to comments on THIS post?

  • Glenn April 11, 2010, 11:35 am

    James, I said that because of my scepticism that there’s a standard by which one can specifically rule out the predictions of Jesus, and yet include the specific moral teachings that “progressives” want to maintain. Again, I did not say that no matter what standard one uses, it will either resulting in acceting everything int he NT about Jesus or else rejecting it all. That is not a fair portrayal that only serves to play to the stereotype of “conservatives” as simplistic fundamentalists, but it is just not accurate.

    I think those who would maintain that there is a standard that would include as authentic Jesus’ moral teaching (sans some of what he said about sin) but exclude his predictive sayings must bear a very heavy burden of proof to show that such a standard is defensible and that it involves no double standard – a burden that, as far as I know, hasn’t been met.

    I think there is a way to subscribe to comments on an individual post, I just don’t know what it is, sorry.

  • geoff April 11, 2010, 3:08 pm

    Glenn, you would need to find a plugin that allows a comment thread to be subscribed too, either be email, or rss or some such..
    Something like this might work:
    http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/separate-feed-comments-and-trackbacks/

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