Jesus' Death – Clear Meaning Or Complete Mystery?
I only wish I was a bit clearer about Jesus' death – I mean, was it just a bizarre miscarriage of justice, or is there a deeper meaning that is not just the mystical and wishful thinking interpretation of guilt-ridden religious enthusiasts? Are you one of those people, who wistfully think there may be more, but it's like the elusive end of the rainbow, and you never quite find it? Here are a few clues that may help.
Jesus' death still has a fascination because it's so universal, and the one death that makes us feel as if we were somehow involved. I realise that is not now as strong as it used to be in a post Christian western culture. So how shall we find a clearer understanding of Jesus' death?
Here are some of the main ways of seeing Jesus' death:
As a misguided religious teacher. Jesus misjudged the outcome of his life and teaching, which troubled the religious authorities to an extent he had not foreseen. As a result of which he lost his life, and became a martyr.
The moral influence theory believes that thinking and meditating about Jesus' death will help to inspire a good life and devotion to a higher cause.
A sacramental view believes all mankind is mystically included in the eternal self-offering of Jesus to God and salvation is through sharing in Church sacraments.
This view sees that when Jesus died and rose again, he crushed the powers of evil and became the Victor over sin and death.
The substitutionary atonement view believes Jesus' death was a sacrifice for sin when he, the sinless God-man, accepted in full, once for all, the judgement due to sinners.
• FOUR & FIVE
As I have looked at these five interpretations I am persuaded that only the final two views come near a clear biblical understanding of Jesus' death. And more than that; only the fifth view is foundational and primary and embraces the belief of Jesus being Victor over Satan and his evil powers. Only the view of Jesus' death being a sacrifice made on behalf of others, agrees with Jesus' teaching and how the Old Testament Scriptures anticipated it. I shall need to explain this, because you may well be thinking that it is a belief based on wishful thinking or religious imagination reading back much later ideas.
Briefly, let's consider one main line of enquiry (there are others, but I must keep this brief). There are detailed, eye-witness accounts given in the four Gospels of the 'Last Supper' that Jesus shared with his disciples. This was the annual memorial of the Jewish festival of Passover; a special meal instituted about 1,450 years earlier, in Moses' time, when the Israelites were rescued from slavery in Egypt by God's great intervention.
The sharing in this meal bound the whole Jewish people together, as they looked back to that time when God had rescued them from unbearable hardship. Soon after this, they were called to enter into a solemn covenant with God, to be his own people, who would obey him, and he would be their faithful protector and mighty Lord and God.
All of this history was on the minds of Jewish people each year and on the minds of Jesus' disciples as they broke the unleavened bread and shared in the cup of wine, passed around. The meal also regularly included roast lamb and herbs, from lambs sacrificed by a priest at the Temple.
There has been much discussion about whether the meal that Jesus had with his disciples was the full Jewish Passover, including the roast lamb, or whether it was without the lamb, because from christian mysticism timing of these events it looks as if Jesus' death on the cross took place at the same time as the Passover lambs were sacrificed. • FINAL
What is very clear is that 'Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it” ' (Luke 22:8). What seems likely is that the Last Supper took place on the same day as Passover, although perhaps earlier in the day, before the lambs were sacrificed. We cannot answer every detail, but we do see how in effect, Jesus said, 'the old Passover memorial was about me, but veiled, and now, as the Lamb of God, I am clearly announcing its fulfilment in myself.'
Jesus confirms this when he takes the bread and says, 'This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me' and similarly with the cup of wine saying 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood' (Luke 22:19-20). He takes the old symbols and says 'they are about me – I am the Lord of the new Covenant, which is sealed in my blood – and from now on, you my people will be saved from the divine wrath by it passing over you as I the sacrificial Lamb, bear God's destroying wrath. So, it is my death for you that, in effect, Jesus says from now on you must remember!' This is not less that astonishing, as Jesus calmly places himself in the centre of the memorial thanksgiving of what God himself has done through Jesus' death. Jesus calmly connects his own death with God's saving purpose in a way that says, 'this is what Passover is all about and has always been about' – which might well have left his disciples amazed and perhaps even appalled.