January 16, 2021

Jim Carroll, of the Boston

Jim Carroll, of the Boston Globe, raises the question of whether Christians place too much emphasis on the crucifixion and death of Jesus, and whether this is a distortion of Jesus himself.

All of this is to say that death was not the purpose of Jesus’ life but only one part of a story that stretches from incarnation at Bethlehem to life as a Jew in Nazareth to preaching in Galilee to a courageous challenge to Roman imperialism in Jerusalem to permanent faith in the God of Israel whose promise is fulfilled in resurrection. In this full context, the death of Jesus can be seen as a full signal of his humanity — and more.

In being crucified, Jesus was not uniquely singled out for the most extreme suffering ever inflicted but was joined to thousands of his fellow Jews who said no to Rome — and who suffered similarly for it.

One of the things I suspect I won’t like about “The Passion” will be an over-emphasis on physical suffering, especially the “gory” details. The “hamburger Christ” as I’ve heard some revivalistic preachers describe him. I agree with Carroll that the Resurrection is the stronger note. (See Romans 1:1-4, or Hebrews 1:1-5 for example.) I don’t see the New Testament zeroing in on the details of the autopsy. Crucifixion was widely known and understood in the first century, and you didn’t have to describe the wounds or the blood loss.

Jesus is the redeemer in all of his person and all of his life. The early church saw that clearer than we do today. Everything about Christ “bridges the gap,” so to speak, between God and man.

But Carroll does miss the fundamental stress on the cross in the Christian message. The NT writers talk about the cross as the center of the work of redemption. Not the incarnation or the resurrection, but the cross itself. It is the message of the cross that is the power of God unto salvation. It is the cross where John’s Gospel locates the glory of God revealed in Jesus. It is the cross that Jesus wants his disciples to see in order to understand what kind of messiah he is….”….who gives his life as a ransom for many.”

There are modern theories of the development of Christianity- like J.D. Crossan- that say the “Q” document and the evidence of non-canonical Gospels indicate there was a period where the “wisdom” of Jesus, and not the cross was the focus of Christianity. One can construct such theories, but they fall apart on one hard issue: the forgiveness of sins. The cross is about the forgiveness of sins, and the message is about the forgiveness of God for sinners. If Mark makes anything clear, it is that everything Jesus taught and did in his early ministry was setting the stage for his death to bring forgiveness. And when the Gospel is preached by the Apostles, the bottom line is that forgiveness of sins is offered in Jesus. And that doesn’t come by way of wisdom, incarnation or even resurrection. It comes when the righteous dies for the unrighteous.

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