Last post I showed how the teachings of Jesus are every bit as salvific as his death. There really should not have been a separation between the two, but it’s understandable how in our theology we did it. The New Testament centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus. The four Gospels, for instance, all differ from one another in many ways: an event is recorded in one Gospel that is not in one or more of the others; the same event is recorded differently in different Gospels; one parable appears in one Gospel that is not in another; even the chronology of events is different.
But in the events surrounding the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—there is not just unanimity in their writing but uniformity. They are almost word-for-word the same. It is commonly agreed that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark before them when they wrote, but it is telling that they deviated from Mark in many ways, but concerning the Passion of Jesus, they stayed with him. That’s how important the events of Jesus’s death were to the early church’s understanding of the Good News of Salvation.
Paul likewise emphasizes the salvific nature of Jesus’ death. Particularly in Romans and 1 Corinthians he connects the dots from one to the other: Romans 5:6—For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly; 1 Corinthians 15:3—For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures. Peter does as well, for instance in 1 Peter 3:18—For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.
From the beginning of the church the cross has been the symbol of both our religion and our salvation, and Jesus’s death takes center stage in our doctrinal and theological statements regarding salvation, so it’s understandable that the salvific nature of Jesus’s teachings got lost in the shuffle of Holy Week and Easter. But the reality is that the entire life of Jesus is salvific—his birth, his growth into manhood, his miracles, his calling of the disciples, and, yes, his teachings. And his death is part of his life just like it is for any of us. It’s not proper, however, to take that one event of Jesus’s life, no matter how important it is, and focus the entire salvation event on it. We are saved by Jesus’s whole life, not just his death and resurrection.
I believe this becomes more clear once we understand that The Problem is not just sin in general but that Jesus came to address a particular root sin: the violence that humans do to each other. His teachings pointed to a different way to live, to interact with one another—and not just our friends, relatives, and neighbors, but also our enemies. In other words, Jesus came to show us a way to live without violence.
We can accept that this is true, and that violence is wrong, and it must be avoided at all costs—but we always reserve the right to use it as a last resort. We lack the imagination the see a future in which evil can be dealt with in any way other than violently. But what good is it to preach and live a lifestyle, not just of non-violence but of anti-violence, if in the end we resort to it?
That’s exactly what Jesus was faced with. When the violence of the Temple cult and the evil of the Roman Empire coalesced and focused their combined wrath on Jesus, if Jesus had decided that this non-violent thing was going to get him killed and then powered up, he would have negated everything he had said and taught for the previous 2 1/2 years. Then, instead of being the solution, Jesus would have just been one more piece of the problem.
Jesus had to die, not to fulfill some plan that God cooked up to satisfy his own wrathful need for justice; Jesus had to die because whenever anyone confronts the powers that be that gained and maintain their power through the threat and use of violence, it’s a virtual certainty that they are going to die. Jesus had to die to prove, however, that the most powerful force on earth is not violence, it’s love. A love that is willing to sacrifice itself for another.
And that’s why Jesus’s death is a sacrifice—not because God needs a sacrifice in order to get over his anger, but because one who willingly and sacrificially dies to break the cycle of violence has done something that leads to resurrection and eternal life. That’s the life Jesus led, and it’s the life he calls his followers to lead as well.