What did Jesus’s
death life do: Part 2
In my last blog post, I argued that we would understand salvation better if we stopped constructing our theology predominantly (much less exclusively!) on Paul’s letters. I explained that Paul’s letters are inadequate for understanding salvation because they are occasional literature meant to address specific situations rather than expound complete theological systems. The Pauline epistles also fail to illuminate Jesus’s life and ministry and they depart significantly from the salvation vocabulary of the gospel traditions.
All of this means that if we want a more complete picture of salvation, we must abandon the over-Paulinated atonement theology of evangelicalism (hat tip to NT scholar Dr. Alicia Myers who coined the word “over-Paulinated” during a recent lunch conversation we had). Instead, we need to round out our ideas about salvation by turning to the Gospels, biographies whose main purpose was to spread the good news about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
What did Jesus’s life do, according to the canonical Gospels?
Salvation language in Paul’s letters (as well as his often inscrutable imagery) tends to focus on the cross, centers on the question, “What did Jesus’s death do?” The Gospel writers, however, use the events and teaching of Jesus’s life to convey the good news of God’s salvation. Their stories certainly climax with Jesus’s crucifixion but they are not as concerned with explaining what his death accomplished as they are with describing the circumstances of Jesus’s death, how his message and ministry led to the cross, and what his life can teach us about God, about ourselves, and about salvation.
So, let’s look at how the Gospels answer the question, “What did Jesus’s life do?” I know this blog post is for normal people, not bible scholars, but I want to normalize something that is a common practice in New Testament studies—treating each Gospel on its own. Below, I give four separate treatments of the Gospels’ teachings about Jesus’s ministry and message. That is the best way to do justice to the distinct contributions of each Gospel writer and work toward a more nuanced and comprehensive picture of salvation.
The Gospel according to Mark
It is best to begin with Mark because it was the first Gospel written but also because it lays out the apocalyptic background of first-century Judaism, something vital to understanding salvation imagery in the Bible. The preaching of John the Baptist in Mark 1 announces that the Jesus who comes after him stands in the Jewish apocalyptic-prophetic tradition. John the Baptist invites people to look forward to the in-breaking of God’s new age by calling them to repentance. The repentance, or metanoia, signals a dynamic turning away from participation in the current, evil age (characterized by idolatry, injustice, inequity, sickness, and death) and a turning toward God’s new age (characterized by forgiveness, justice, abundance, health, and shalom).
In Mark, then, the message of salvation is the message that the kingdom of God had come near (Mark 1:15). Mark portrays Jesus as the one who is leading people into God’s new age; he is the agent of salvation, the Messiah, and the Son of God.
As we read on in the Gospel of Mark, we witness the numerous healings that Jesus performs, each one a sign that the new, eschatological age had begun. In Jesus’s ministry, the sick are healed, the hungry fed, those in the grip of spiritual powers are freed, and Jesus displays power over nature and death. All of these miracles provide glimpses of what life under God’s reign looks like, how Jesus had come not only to save people, but to renew all aspects of decay in creation. Also in Mark, we see how Jesus’s life is one of suffering servanthood (it is this life that is called a ransom in Mark 10:42-25). Jesus’s servant life leads to his suffering death and shows us what true power is.
The Gospel according to Matthew
Matthew uses Mark’s basic storyline to tell the salvation story but emphasizes the larger story of God and Israel. Matthew begins with a genealogy that shows how Jesus is the Davidic Messiah who comes from the family chosen by God to be a blessing to all the nations. In Matthew, Jesus teaches people about the values of the kingdom of God (Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5-7), and we come to understand how Jesus’s ministry fulfills Scripture and continues God’s plan for a new covenant. Jesus’s life and death in Matthew model the upside-down realities of the kingdom he announces—that the meek and rejected are important to God (Matt 5:5), that we should love our enemies (Matt 5:44), and that the last will be first of all (Matt 20:16).
As in Mark, the salvation Matthew describes is neither individualistic nor punctiliar (not merely one moment on the cross in which God acts), it is the culmination of God’s work among the people of Israel, through the ministry of Jesus, and on behalf of the whole world.
The Gospel according to Luke
Luke may use Mark’s Gospel as a source (and perhaps even Matthew), but his vision of salvation has its own unique flavor. From the very beginning, he highlights the social transformation that salvation brings. Mary’s prophetic song in chapter 1 defines divine salvific action in economic terms: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). This emphasis continues when Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah at his home synagogue in Nazareth and announces that he is bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the captives (Luke 4:18-19).
These words set the stage for Jesus’s ministry among the undesirables—the women, the “sinners”, and the poor—who had been shunted to the margins of society. While the term “salvation” is not prominent in Matthew and Mark, Luke uses various forms of the word throughout his narrative and in unexpected ways. In Luke 19, we meet the despised tax collector, Zacchaeus. The man who was considered a traitor to his people was accepted by Jesus and in response to this counter-cultural love, Zacchaeus repents of his dishonest and economically predatory ways. When he vows to give his wealth away to those he had wronged, Jesus announces, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10).
Here, we get a surprising picture of salvation—someone who represents the greed of empire repents and gives their wealth to the poor. There is no mention of Jesus’s death in this passage or of sacrifice or substitution. Salvation, rather, entails a change of life for someone who has been trapped within the exploitative powers of empire and greed. Luke’s Gospel is also full of parables that reveal the seeking and forgiving love of God (the Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost—or Prodigal—Son) and underline the important role that love of neighbor and love of enemy play in salvation (the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but read the whole passage—Luke 10:25-37). Before Jesus dies in Luke, he offers paradise to the thief next to him and forgiveness to those who were crucifying him. Salvation, Luke seems to say, comes not from a cosmic exchange achieved on the cross but from the merciful character of God displayed in the words and works of Jesus.
The Gospel according to John
John’s message about salvation is even more surprising than Luke’s. We love to pluck John 3:16 out of its context and use it as a prooftext— “See! God loved us and sacrificed Jesus for us and if we just believe, we can go to heaven”—but this reading defies the logic of John’s symbolic language. Certainly, the love of God saturates the narrative but the realm of eternal life that Jesus speaks about is not merely a future one that we enter after we die. Instead, eternal life is a quality of life, a participation in the divine love in the here and now. The emphasis John places on belief is also more experiential than intellectual: belief in Jesus manifests in love and results in following Jesus and experiencing the love of God through him and the Spirit.
We misread the cross in John as well. Jesus’s crucifixion is not portrayed as the Father sacrificing the Son; instead, Jesus lays down his life as the Passover lamb, not as an atoning sacrifice. For John, Jesus’s life, ministry, and death all serve to reveal the truth about who Jesus is—who God is—and to heal humanity like the serpent lifted up in the wilderness (John 3:14). Jesus’s cross is his glorification, a victory that is the ultimate expression of his love for God and for “his own” as well as a beacon showing God’s love for the world.
Salvation according to the Gospels
If we don’t consider the Gospels when we construct a theology of salvation, we risk reducing the good news to abstract propositions about judgment and justification. The Gospels offer us rich narratives and deep theological truths that help us better understand salvation and remind us that the redemption story we are a part of is much larger, much more complex, and much more beautiful than we could have ever imagined.
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