Why Jesus? – Part One

This month on Coffee with the King, we’re departing from our usual format of working through one book of the Bible, to ask this Jeopardy-style question of the whole Bible:

If Jesus is the answer, what was the question?

Or to put it even more simply, so that we can fit it into the title of these posts without squishing the font-size too much: Why Jesus?

Now the simple answer (that you might have learned in Sunday School) is: to save us from our sins. Or to expand it a bit: Jesus became one of us so he could die in our place (taking the punishment for our sins) and be raised to new life (so that we can experience a taste of that new life now, and one day live forever in the presence of God). And that’s perfectly true. As the Apostle Paul says:

Rom 4:25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

The problem with the simple answer is that there’s more to it than just that. Jesus’ death in our place – and his subsequent resurrection – are central to the story. Without them, we have no story. But they’re not the whole story.

Why did Jesus live?

Or to look at it another way: the simple answer tells us why Jesus died, but it doesn’t tell us why he lived. Now, sure, if we tease out the implications of the “save us from our sins” answer, we might say things like:

  • Jesus lived a sinless life, so that his death would count for our sins (and not his own). That’s certainly an important factor (see Heb 2:17, 5:1-3, 4:15).
  • Jesus lived a perfect life, so that his righteousness would be “credited” or “reckoned” to us (see Rom 4:24). Although nowhere is the Bible 100% clear that it’s Jesus’ righteousness that gets credited to us – but that’s a topic for another time.
  • Jesus lived a miracle-working life, to show he was the Son of God who could save us from our sins. Now there were other miracle workers throughout history – including Moses and Elijah – so it doesn’t really prove the point. But it does point toward the fact that Jesus was from God, and says a fair bit about the nature of Jesus’ ministry. More on that later in the series.
  • Jesus lived in order to tell us who he was and that he’d come to save us from our sins, so that after he was raised from the dead we’d know he was telling the truth. His resurrection does indeed vindicate what he said about himself and his ministry, and again, this forms part of the answer. But you’ll notice that the vast majority of Jesus’ recorded words weren’t about his impending death or the theological implications of it.

We could go on, but you get the idea. There’s more to the “Why Jesus?” question than simply “to save us from our sins.” Of course, that answer is still central – so don’t mishear me; we’re not throwing that out. Far from it! As Paul says:

1 Cor 15:3-5, 17 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve… (17) if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.

But this central truth is set within a bigger story. A story that doesn’t just explain why Jesus died, but also explains why he lived. And it’s that story that we’re going to trace throughout the coming month.

Why Jesus? A Jewish perspective.

To do this, we’re going to take a leaf out of Tom Wright’s book. (Or books. There a lots of them. With many, many leaves in them. But the main one we’re focusing on is the 700+ page volume, Jesus and the Victory of God, abbreviated here as JVG.) From an early age, Tom was fascinated by this question, “why did Jesus live?” – and was frustrated by the lack of answers available to him. This is how he perceived the traditional answer:

“The fact that the gospels reached their climax with the death of Jesus seemed to have little to do with any significance to be drawn from his life, except that the conflict he engendered by preaching about love and grace was the proximate reason for his death, which the redeemer god then ‘counted’ in a redemptive scheme which had nothing to do with that historical reason.  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?’  … 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…  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.” (JVG, pp.13-14)

Now many (including me) might take issue with how Tom ends up sidelining Jesus’ death in our place (called the “substitutionary atonement” by theologians). But I don’t think we can ignore the point he’s making here: that we need a better answer to the question, “why did Jesus live?” Particularly one that takes into account the fact that Jesus’ didn’t turn up in Athens or Rome – or in twenty-first century Western society – but in Israel. Proclaiming not a universal, abstract scheme of atonement, but the fulfilment of the hopes of a specific people group. We need to ask questions like:

  • How were God’s people in the first century expecting God to intervene in his world?
  • What did they expect God’s anointed one (“messiah”) to be like?
  • How did Jesus meet – or challenge – these expectations?

After all, the Jews weren’t sitting around with a copy of the first two pages of Two Ways To Live waiting for a crucified messiah to complete the next panel. Otherwise, more of them would have followed Jesus, rather than persecuting the early church! Much of what happened in Jesus’ life comes from how he challenged the popular expectation of what God’s anointed would do, yet at the same time fulfilled them in a very un-expected way.

So this month, we’re going to spend a couple of weeks or so building up the story – starting from Genesis 1 – to understand what God’s people were expecting to happen next. And then we’ll look at how Jesus’ life (and death, and resurrection) can be understood in light of those expectations.

Or in case the last few paragraphs have set your head spinning, just think of it this way: we can’t understand Jesus’ story – or our own story as “Gentile” believers – until we understand how Jesus fits into Israel’s story. As Paul says,

Rom 15:8-9 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.”

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