Reflections on Jesus’ mission

We are asked how we would describe Jesus’ mission and message, and whether it has changed since His time.

Since Eusebius of Caesaria’s fourth-century Historia Ecclesiae, it has been commonplace to conceive of Jesus as fulfilling three roles or missions, those of high priest, prophet, and king. No less often, we see an approach focused on those activities which seem to occupy the most time in His Earthly ministry: Healing and teaching. But I have long been persuaded by the Scottish presbyterian Horatius Bonar that this risks seeing Jesus as little more than a special man who performed essentially the same functions as had previous prophets, teachers, and healers, rather than focusing on what is unique to the God-man. Bonar put it this way:

If Christ is not the substitute, he is nothing to the sinner. If he did not die as the sin-bearer, he has died in vain. Let us not be deceived on this point nor misled by those who, when they announce Christ as the deliverer, think they have preached the gospel. If I throw a rope to a drowning man, I am a deliverer. But is Christ no more than that? If I cast myself into the sea and risk myself to save another, I am a deliverer. But is Christ no more? Did He risk His life? The very essence of Christ’s deliverance is the substitution of himself for us—his life for ours! He did not come to risk his life; he came to die! He did not redeem us by a little loss, a little sacrifice, a little labor, a little suffering: ‘He redeemed us to God by His blood’ (I Pet 1:18,19). He gave all he had, even his life, for us. This is the kind of deliverance that awakens the happy song, ‘To Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood’ (Revelation 1:5).

“He came to die.” What a line! It grabs you by the lapels and commands that you flee from its repulsive affect or to bow to its inescapable truth. Jesus may be a great teacher, and a healer par excellence, but He is Christ first and foremost. Of course, this isn’t to take away from the importance of His teaching or healing. But it is to underscore that we must understand Him primarily in terms of that which is exclusive to Him: There had been prophets who taught before Jesus, so the Messiah could not be merely a prophet; and there had been healers before Jesus, so the Messiah could not be merely a healer; and Jesus left a Church to continue those ministries of teaching and healing. What is unique to Jesus Himself, and what must therefore be understood to lie at the core of his mission, is Calvary: By His sacrifice of atonement, by His passion, by His cross and resurrection, He has set us free, as Isaiah prophesied He would.

In our assigned reading [Editor’s note: N.T. Wright, The Mission and Message of Jesus in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (1999)], Wright underscores that while the Jews of Jesus’ day expected a Messiah, they had in mind a very different kind of Messiah. Mired in Earthly oppression, they were expecting an Earthly liberation. They expected to be set free from the yoke of Rome and its Herodian surrogates; they seemed not to see past the figurative fall of Israel’s babylonian exile to the very real fall of Man in Adam, and they lost sight of God’s real interest, which is not in national borders and whose blood soaks which sand, but rather in the hearts of His most precious creation, Mankind, forged in His own image and likeness, and the relationship that we ruptured in Eden. In the final analysis, humanity is broken at its root—this is the “T” in the popular Calvinist “TULIP” mnemonic, “total depravity,” or “original sin” in the vernaculars of most other Christian traditions—and before any good works in our lives can avail us anything, before any amount of orthopraxy will do us any good, we have to fix our relationship with God. And there’s nothing that we could have done about that before Jesus fulfilled the law on Calvary’s altar. That’s not to say that we don’t need the teaching of Jesus; we can lose our salvation by our conduct, and while it’s arguable that the law and prophets provide a sure guide to avoiding what the Catholic tradition calls “personal” sin (in contradistinction to the afore-mentioned “original” sin), the experience of Israel and the need for Jesus to explain how far afield it had strayed suggests that we must pay attention to his teaching, too. What is essential, however, is the need for Christ’s atoning sacrifice and our need to avail ourselves of it.            

How then should we describe Jesus’ mission? Wright says that “Jesus invited His hearers to repent and believe the gospel.” Yes, but let’s be precise: What was that Gospel, that good news? That through His blood, Jesus would make it possible for us to be reconciled to God, and through our repentance, we can inherit salvation. And that mission is as vital and urgent today as it was then.

[Editor’s note: In other words, I am proposing that Jesus’ mission is inseparable from the question of who He is, treated here.]