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The Intention of Jesus

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Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of the Ages, mysteriously united in a single historical person, present endless questions about Jesus’ perception of his own identity and mission. The Historical Jesus’ project has furthered these questions in both helpful and unhelpful directions. Helpfully, it pushed the Christian community to step gingerly into Jesus’ 1st century Palestine, and to ask, “How did Jesus perceive his own mission, words, and actions?” Did he align with the Mainline’s view of him as an ethical teacher, or did he have the robust Christology of Nicea? These two options are simplistic, but not far from today’s debate. Though summary requires dilution, the Gospels speak with sufficient breadth and depth to answer the question. In the most general sense, the Gospels present a Jesus who understood his identity and his intention toward the salvation the world (Jn 3:16, Lk 19:10). Within that broad mission, the Gospels draw out images that flesh out deeper meaning of Jesus’ salvation intent. Because Jesus’ mission is so cosmic, it defies reduction to a single image; yet it is still possible to know details of Jesus’ self-understanding. Significantly, all of the images culminate in his death, resurrection, and ascension.



A first and key image Jesus clearly understood himself to fit into, both chronologically and thematically, is the announcement of the Kingdom of God. All of the Synoptics show Jesus beginning his earthly ministry by announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God (Mt 4:17, Mk 1:15, Lk 4:43). The Kingdom itself has dozens of facets. First, the proclamation of the Kingdom strongly implies a King, a role Jesus seems to place himself in, especially in the Davidic line (Mk 14:62, Mt 21-22) (Though Jesus understands his kingship to be through service, not power (Mk 9:35)). The Kingdom brings with it a new era of radical justice, righteousness, purity, and holiness, the likes of which have not been seen in since Genesis 1-2. Living in the Kingdom means new levels of obedience and faithfulness. In the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Mt 5-7, Lk 6), Jesus places the Kingdom’s ethical rules in the Old Testament[1] tradition but then augments them in rigor and depth. The parables (especially throughout Matthew), the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-13, Lk 11:2), and his own moral example show that Jesus wanted to teach his followers that his arrival initiated something radical and novel. His miracles reveal that Jesus understood that earthly examples both reveal and imitate spiritual realities of his Kingdom. Matt 28 and Luke 24 both show that the resurrected Jesus understood that his Kingdom would continue on earth after his departure, that his followers would proclaim it to all the world’s peoples, and that entrance into it came through repentance.



A second major facet of Jesus’ self-understanding and intention was to identify himself with the predicted Messiah of the OT, along with equating himself with that OT God. In all the Synoptics, Jesus says that he is David’s King, quoting the messianic Psalm 110 (Mt 22:44, Mk 12:36, Lk 20:42). In John 8:48-59, he enrages his Jewish audience to murder him when he claims he existed before Abraham, provocatively invoking the OT divine name. When Peter declares Jesus the anticipated Messiah, Christ agrees and expounds on Peter’s confession (Mt 16:17). Most incriminating, at his trial, he identifies himself as the Danielic Son of Man beside God the Father (Mk 14:62, Lk 22:69), which seals his condemnation. Clearly, Jesus perceived himself to be co-equal with the OT Father. Finally, after his Resurrection, he tells the Emmaus disciples that he is the center around which the whole OT revolves (Lk 24:27).



Contrary to many claims by the Mainline Church and Historical Jesus movement, Jesus seems to have also understood himself as a priestly and propitiating figure. Early in his ministry, he alluded to his death and resurrection when he describes himself as the temple to be destroyed and rebuilt (Jn 2:19). All three gospels list Jesus as anticipating, predicting, and even orchestrating his whole paschal week. Throughout the gospels, he frequently claims the power to forgive sin, authority only God the Judge can have (Mk 2:5). Each of the Synoptics (Mt 16:21, 17:22, 20:18, Mk 8:31, 9:31, 10:33, Lk 9:22, 9:44, 18:31) contain three Passion predictions, which the disciples failed to fully understand. But Jesus himself understood that he would die, perhaps even by crucifixion (Jn 3:14, 12:32), and rise again. These cannot be overemphasized in Jesus’ self-understanding.  In Mark 10:45, Jesus links himself with the OT tradition, when he says he is the ransom for “many.” He seals this when at the Last Supper, he places himself as the paschal lamb of the OT Passover, the bearer of the sin of the people for forgiveness. His body and blood are the signs and seals of the New Covenant, something only God can initiate. On the cross, having borne God’s wrath, he understands his propitiatory role as complete, and dying, says his work is finished (Jn 19:30). If Jesus truly said all of this, it is impossible to deny that he did not grasp his identity and role as atoning for the sin of the world.



Space does not allow for a fuller treatment of these, but there are more images of Jesus’ understanding of his world-saving identity and mission. He understood himself as the final prophet (Mt 24, Mk 13). He saw himself as the founder of a new worldwide community of believers who follow his teachings, examples, and who trust in him for intimacy with God (Mt 28:18-20, Jn 17:20-26). He saw himself in spiritual battle against Satanic and worldly opposing forces (Mk 5, 9:14-29, Jn 16:33) He saw himself restoring the creation to peace with man, God, and itself in healings and natural miracles (Lk 4:40). Especially in his trial before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, he saw himself as a political authority superior to earthly powers (Mt 27:11, Mk 15:2, Lk 23:3, Jn 19:11). Highly important is his understanding that he, as united with the Godhead, will send the Holy Spirit to empower his followers (Jn 16:7, Acts 1:5).



In all of these, Jesus seems to have understood his death, resurrection, and ascension as the fullest possible manifestation of all of these: the fullest Kingdom come (and coming), the fullest atonement, the fullest prophet, the fullest model of brotherly love, the fullest completion of OT Messianic expectations and hopes, etc. His final earthly events are the climax and culmination of all of these, and Jesus knew that. Thus, they are the height of his understanding of his own mission to save the world. Jesus’ own words seem to clearly indicate that his understanding of himself aligns well with the church’s historical position. Thus, when the Jesus of history is presented as anything less than equal with the Christ of faith, sloppy injustice is done both to the unique thrust of each Gospel and the overall message of the Biblical Gospels.


[1] Hereafter, abbreviated “OT”

AUTHOR - Jonathan Clark

Jonathan is a campus pastor at New Mexico State University.