|JESUS, LIFE AND MINISTRY OF |
(jee' zuhss) The story of Jesus begins abruptly in the Gospel of Mark when He presented Himself at the Jordan River to the desert prophet John the Baptist as a candidate for baptism. All that is said about His origin is that He came to the river “from Nazareth” (Mark 1:9). “Jesus of Nazareth” was a designation that followed Him to the day of His death (John 19:19).
His Origins Matthew's Gospel demonstrates that although Nazareth was Jesus' home when He came to John for baptism, He was not born there. Rather, He was born (as the Jewish messiah must be) in Bethlehem, the “city of David,” as a descendant of David's royal line (Matthew 1:1-17;
Matthew 2:1-6). This Child born in Bethlehem ended up as an adult in Nazareth, described sarcastically by his enemies as a “Nazarene” (literally, “Nazarite”
Matthew 2:23). The play on words seems intended to poke fun simultaneously at Jesus' obscure origins and at the stark contrast (in the eyes of many) between His supposed holiness (like the Nazirites of the Old Testament) and His practice of keeping company with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors (Mark 2:17). The Gospel of Luke supplies background information on John the Baptist, showing how the families of John and Jesus were related both by kinship and by circumstances (Luke 1:5-80). Luke added that Nazareth was the family home of Jesus' parents all along (Luke 1:26-27). Yet he confirmed Matthew's testimony that the family was of the line of David. Luke introduced the Roman census as the reason for their return to the ancestral city of Bethelehem just before Jesus' birth (Luke 2:1-7). More the biographer than either Mark or Matthew, Luke provided glimpses of Jesus as an eight-day-old infant (Luke 2:21-39), a boy of twelve years (Luke 2:40-52), and a man of 30 beginning His ministry (Luke 3:21-23). Only when this brief biographical sketch was complete did Luke append His genealogy (Luke 3:23-38), which confirms in passing Jesus' Davidic ancestry (Luke 3:31; compare
Luke 1:32-33), while emphasizing above all His solidarity with the entire human race in its descent from “Adam, which was the son of God” (Luke 3:38). The reflection on Jesus' baptism in the Gospel of John centers on John the Baptist's acknowledgement that Jesus “is preferred before me: for he was before me” (John 1:30; compare
John 1:15). This pronouncement allowed the Gospel writer to turn the story of Jesus' origins into a theological confession by tracing Jesus' existence back to the creation of the world and before (John 1:1-5). Despite His royal ancestry and despite His heavenly preexistence as the eternal Word and Son of God, Jesus was of humble origins humanly speaking and was viewed as such by the people of His day. When He taught in Nazareth, the townspeople asked, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3; compare
Luke 4:22). When He taught in Capernaum, they asked, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, wose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?” (John 6:42). Though two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, tell of His mother Mary's miraculous conception and of Jesus' virgin birth, these matters were not public knowledge during His time on earth, for “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19; compare
Jesus and the God of Israel Even after the momentous events associated with Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River—the descent of God's Spirit on Him like a dove and the voice from heaven announcing “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11)—His identity as Son of God remained hidden from those around Him. We have no evidence that anyone except Jesus, and possibly John the Baptist, either heard the voice or saw the dove. Ironically, the first intimation after the baptism that He was more than simply “Jesus of Nazareth” came not from His family or friends nor from the religious leaders of Israel, but from the devil!
Twice the devil challenged him: “If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread” (Luke 4:3), and (on the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem), “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence” (Luke 4:9). Jesus made no attempt to defend or make use of His divine sonship but appealed instead to an authority to which any devout Jew of His day might have appealed—the holy Scriptures—and through them to the God of Israel. Citing three passages from Deuteronomy, Jesus called attention not to Himself, but to “the Lord thy God” (Luke 4:8; compare
Mark 12:29-30). Jesus apparently used this story out of His personal experience to teach His disciples that they too must “live... by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God,” (Matthew 4:4), must “not tempt the Lord your God” (Luke 4:12), and must “worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (Luke 4:8).
Two things about this temptation story have a special bearing on the ministry of Jesus as a whole. First, the God-centered character of His message continued in the proclamation He began in Galilee when He returned home from the desert: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:1;Mark 15:1; compare
Matthew 4:17). Mark called this proclamation “the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14). John's Gospel presented Jesus as reminding His hearers again and again that He had come not to glorify or proclaim Himself, but solely to make known “the Father,” or “the One who sent me” (John 4:34;
John 7:16-18,John 7:28;
John 8:28,John 8:42,John 8:50;
John 14:10,John 14:28). Second, the issue of Jesus' own identity continued to be raised first by the powers of evil. Just as the devil challenged Jesus in the desert as “Son of God,” so in the course of His ministry the demons (or the demon-possessed) confronted Him with such words as “what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth?… I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24), or “What have I to do with thee Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?” (Mark 5:7).
The mystery of Jesus' person emerged in pronouncements of this kind, but Jesus seemed not to want the question of His identity raised prematurely. He silenced the demons (Mark 1:25,Mark 1:34;
Mark 3:12); and when He healed the sick, He frequently told the people who were cured not to speak of it to anyone (Mark 1:43-44;
Mark 7:36). The more He urged silence, however, the faster the word of His healing power spread (Mark 1:45;
Mark 7:36). The crowds appear to have concluded that He must be the Messiah, the anointed King of David's line expected to come and deliver the Jews from Roman rule. If Jesus was playing out the role of Messiah, the Gospels present Him as a strangely reluctant Messiah. At one point, when the crowds tried to “take Him by force to make Him a king, “he departed again into a mountain himself alone” (John 6:15). Seldom, if ever, did He apply to Himself the customary terms “Messiah” or “Son of God.” He had instead a way of using the emphatic “I” when it was not grammatically necessary and a habit sometimes of referring to Himself indirectly and mysteriously as “Son of man.” In the Aramaic language Jesus spoke, “Son of man” meant simply “a certain man,” or “someone.” Though He made no explicit messianic claims and avoided the ready-made titles of honor that the Jews customarily applied to the Messiah, Jesus spoke and acted with the authority of God Himself. He gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf; He enabled the lame to walk. When He touched the unclean, He made them clean. He even raised the dead to life. In teaching the crowds that gathered around Him, He did not hesitate to say boldly, “Ye have heard that it was said. . . but I say unto you” (Matthew 5:21-22,
Matthew 5:27-28,Matthew 5:31-32,Matthew 5:33-34,Matthew 5:38-39,Matthew 5:43-44). So radical was He toward the accepted traditions that He found it necessary to state at the outset: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
Such speech and behavior inevitably raised questions about Jesus' identity. The crowds who heard Him “were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). Despite His reluctance (or perhaps because of it), His following in the early days of His ministry was enormous. He had to get up before daylight to find time and a place for private prayer (Mark 1:35). So pressed was He by the crowds that He taught them on one occasion while standing in a boat offshore on the lake of Galilee (Mark 4:1). Once when a group of people desired healing for a paralyzed man, the huge mob around the house where Jesus was staying forced them to lower the man through a hole in the roof (Mark 2:4). Everyone needed what they knew Jesus had to give. There was no way He could meet all their needs at once.
Jesus' Mission Who were “the lost sheep” to whom Jesus was called to be the Shepherd? The apparent answer is that they were those who were not expected to benefit from the coming of the Messiah. Through their carelessness about the law, they had become the enemies of God; but God loved His enemies. Jesus' conviction was that both He and His disciples must love them, too (Matthew 5:38-48). Jesus was challenged on one occasion for enjoying table fellowship with social outcasts (known to the religious Jews as “sinners”) in the house of Levi, the tax collector in Capernaum. He replied to criticism: “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Another time, when the religious authorities murmured that “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (Luke 15:2), Jesus told three parables of God's inexhaustible love for those who are “lost” and of God's unbridled joy when the lost are found (the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son;
Luke 15:3-32). He claimed that God's joy at the recovery of all such sinners (tax collectors, prostitutes, shepherds, soldiers, and others despised by the pious in Israel) was greater than any joy “over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15:7; compare
Luke 15:25-32). Such an exuberant celebration of divine mercy, whether expressed in Jesus' actions or in the stories He told, must have seemed to religious leaders both in Galilee and Jerusalem a serious lowering of ancient ethical standards and a damaging compromise of the holiness of God.
We have little evidence that Jesus included non-Jews among the “sinners” to whom He was sent. Despite the reference in
Luke 4:25-27 to Elijah and Elisha and their ministry to foreigners, Jesus explicitly denied that He was sent to Gentiles or Samaritans (Matthew 15:24; see
Matthew 10:5-6). Yet the principle, “not to the righteous, but to sinners,” made the extension of the good news of the kingdom of God to the Gentiles after Jesus' resurrection a natural one. Even during Jesus' lifetime, He responded to the initiatives of Gentiles seeking His help (Matthew 8:5-13;
Matthew 15:21-28), sometimes in such a way as to put Israel to shame (Matthew 8:10). Twice He traveled through Samaria (Luke 9:51-56;
John 4:4); once He stayed in a Samaritan village for two days, calling a Samaritan woman and a number of other townspeople to faith (John 4:5-42), and once He made a Samaritan the hero of one of His parables (Luke 10:29-37).
None of this was calculated to win Him friends among the priests in Jerussalem or the Pharisees throughout Israel. He described visions that many would “come from east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness” (Matthew 8:11-12). He predicted that twelve uneducated Galileans would one day “sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28; compare
Luke 22:28-29). He warned the religious leaders sternly that they were in danger of “blasphemy against the Spirit” by attributing the Spirit's ministry through Him to the power of the devil (Matthew 12:31). The whole affair was complicated by the concern of Jesus' relatives over his safety and sanity (Mark 3:21) and by His consequent affirmation of His disciples as a new family based on obedience to the will of God (Mark 3:31-35).
The so-called “Beel-zebub controversy,” triggered by his healing and saving activity, set a grim precedent for Jesus' relationship with the Jerusalem authorities and made His eventual arrest, trial, and execution almost inevitable (Mark 3:20-35). From that time Jesus began to speak in parables to make the truth about God's kingdom clear to His followers while hiding it from those blind to its beauty and deaf to its call (Mark 4:10-12; notice that Jesus is first said to have spoken in parables in
Mark 3:23, in immediate response to the charge of demon possession). He also began to intimate, sometimes in analogy or parable (Mark 10:38;
John 12:24,John 12:32) and sometimes in explicit language (Mark 8:31;
Mark 10:33-34), that He would be arrested and tried by the religious leadership in Jerusalem, die on the cross, and rise from the dead after three days. From the start He had defined His mission, at least in part, as that of the “Servant of the Lord” described in
Isaiah 40-46 (see, for example the citation of
Isaiah 61:1-2 in
Luke 4:18-19). As His ministry moved toward its completion, the vicarious suffering of the Servant (see
Isaiah 52:13-53:12) came into sharper and sharper focus for Jesus (see
Mark 12:24). He also saw Himself as the stricken Shepherd of
Zechariah 13:7 (Mark 14:27) and, at the very end, in the role of the righteous Sufferer of the biblical Psalms (for example
John 19:28). Before His arrest He dramatized for the disciples His impending death by sharing with them in the bread and the cup of the Passover with the explanation that the bread was His body to be broken for them and that the cup of wine was His blood to be shed for their salvation. Only His death could guarantee the coming of the kingdom He had proclaimed (Matthew 26:26-29;
Luke 22:14-20; compare
1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
His Death and Resurrection The Gospel accounts of Jesus' last days in Jerusalem correspond in broad outline to the predictions attributed to Him earlier. He seems to have come to Jerusalem for the last time in he knowledge that He would die there. Though He received a royal welcome from crowds who looked to Him as the long-expected Messiah (see
John 12:13), no evidence points to this as the reason for His arrest. Rather His action in driving the money changers out of the Jerusalem Temple (Matthew 21:12-16;
Mark 11:15-17; compare
John 2:13-22), as well as certain of His pronouncements about the Temple aroused the authorities to act decisively against Him.
During His last week in Jerusalem, Jesus had predicted the Temple's destruction (Matthew 24:1-2;
Luke 21:5-6) and claimed that “I will destroy this Temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands” (Mark 14:58; compare
Matthew 26:61). Jesus' intention to establish a new community as a “temple,” or dwelling place of God (see
1 Corinthians 3:16-17) was perceived as a very real threat to the old community of Judaism and to the Temple that stood as its embodiment. On this basis He was arrested and charged as a deceiver of the people.
During a hearing before the Sanhedrin, or Jewish ruling council, Jesus spoke of Himself as “Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62; compare
Luke 22:69). Though the high priest called this blasphemy and the Sanhedrin agreed that such behavior deserved death, the results of the hearing seem to have been inconclusive. If Jesus had been formally tried and convicted by the Sanhedrin, he would have been stoned to death like Stephen in
Acts 7:1, or like the attempted stoning of the woman caught in adultery in a story reported in some manuscripts of
John 8:1-11. For whatever reason, the high priest and his cohorts apparently found no formal charges they could make stick. If Jesus were stoned to death without a formal conviction, it would be murder, a sin the Ten Commandments forbid. (John 18:31 refers to what was forbidden to the Jews by their own law, not to what was forbidden by the Romans.) The Sanhedrin decided, therefore, to send Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, with charges against Him that the Romans would take seriously: “We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King” (Luke 23:2). Jesus' execution is therefore attributable neither to the Jewish people as a whole nor to the Sanhedrin, but rather to a small group of priests who manipulated the Romans into doing what they were not able to accomplish within the framework of their law. Though Pilate pronounced Jesus innocent three times (Luke 23:4,Luke 23:14,Luke 23:22; compare
John 19:4,John 19:6), he was maneuvered into sentencing Jesus with the thinly veiled threat, “If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar” (John 19:12). Consequently, Jesus was crucified between two thieves, fulfilling His own prediction that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14). Most of His disciples fled at His arrest; only a group of women and one disciple, called the disciple whom He loved, were present at the cross when He died (John 19:25-27; compare
The story did not end with the death of Jesus. His body was placed in a new tomb that belonged to a secret disciple named Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-56;
John 19:38-42). The Gospels agree that two days later, the morning after the sabbath, some of the women who had remained faithful to Jesus came to the tomb. They discovered the stone over the entrance to the tomb rolled away and the body of Jesus gone. According to Mark, a young man was there (John 16:5; tradition calls him an angel) and told the women to send word to the rest of the disciples to go and meet Jesus in Galilee, just as He had promised them (Mark 16:7; see
Mark 14:28). The most reliable manuscripts of Mark's Gospel end the story there, leaving the rest to the reader's imagination. According to Matthew, the young man's word was confirmed to the women by the risen Jesus Himself. When they brought word to the eleven disciples (the twelve minus Judas, the betrayer), the disciples went to a mountain in Galilee, where the risen Jesus appeared to them as a group. He commanded them to make more disciples, teaching and baptizing among the Gentiles (Matthew 28:16-20). According to Luke, the risen Jesus appeared to the gathered disciples already in Jerusalem on the same day He was raised and before that to two disciples walking to the neighboring town of Emmaus. According to John, there was an appearance in Jerusalem on Easter day to one of the women, Mary Magdalene, another on the same day to the gathered disciples, another week later (still in Jerusalem) to the same group plus Thomas, and a fourth appearance, at an unstated time, by the lake of Galilee, in which Jesus reenacted the initial call of the disciples by providing them miraculously with an enormous catch of fish. Luke adds in the Book of Acts that the appearances of the risen Jesus went on over a period of forty days in which He continued to instruct them about the kingdom of God. Whatever the precise order of the facts, the disciples' experience of the living Jesus transformed them from a scattered an cowardly band of disillusioned visionaries into the nucleus of a coherent movement able to challenge and change forever the Roman Empire within a few short decades.
Though the physical resurrection of Jesus cannot be proven, alternate “naturalistic” explanations of the disciples' experience and of the empty tomb require without exception more credulity than the traditional confession of the Christian church that on the third day He rose from the dead. The unanimous witness of the Gospels is that the story goes on. Mark does it with the promise that Jesus will bring together His scattered flock and lead them into Galilee (Mark 16:7). Matthew does it more explicitly with Jesus' concluding words, “And, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). Luke does it with the entire Book of Acts, which traces the spread of the message of the kingdom of God and the risen Jesus from Jerusalem all the way to Rome. John does it with his vivid picture of the Holy Spirit being given to the disciples directly from the mouth of Jesus Himself (John 20:21-22). Each Gospel makes the point differently, but the point is always the same. The story of Jesus is not over; He continues to fulfill His mission wherever His name is confessed and His teaching is obeyed, and the faith of Christians is that He will do so until He comes again.
J. Ramsey Michaels