Here’s the next chapter of the evangelistic book you’re helping me write. It’s a bit longer than the earlier chapters—more like 3000 words than 2000—so I’m sending it out in two chunks (starting with the first half this week).
The chapter is based on Point 4 of Two ways to live, which in the latest revised version says:
Because of his love, God sent his Son into the world: the man Jesus Christ.
Jesus always lived under God’s rule.
But Jesus took our punishment by dying in our place.
Massive ideas, all of them.
You’ll see that this week’s instalment basically discusses the first two of the statements.
As I’m always I’m keen to hear from you, with critiques, suggestions and ideas. Don’t hold back! In particular, because there is just SO much to say about who Jesus is, about his coming into the world, his life, his atoning death—I’m especially keen to hear about anything vital you think I’ve missed out so far, and whether anything I have included could be sacrificed if necessary.
You can read the text below, or listen via the audio player above, or you can also download a PDF of the chapter, which is easier for printing and for referring to specific lines and paragraphs.
Chapter 4: The life and death of Jesus
The backdrop is in place. The supporting actors are in position. The lights go up, and now the main act begins. The central character of the Christian message steps onto the stage of history.
The background we’ve traced so far—of God as creator and ruler of all, of human rebellion against God, and God’s justice against us—all of this prepares us for Jesus’ arrival.
This is how the Bible itself is structured. The first half (the Old Testament) sets up the great problem of God and us and the world; the second half (the New Testament) tells us what God himself does to redeem the situation through Jesus.
However, it would be wrong to think that the Old Testament is only about the doom and gloom of the human problem. Also running through the Old Testament like a scarlet thread is the patience and kindness and love of God for flawed, rebellious humans like us. God chooses a particular nation—Israel, the descendants of Abraham—to be his own special people. Time and again in the Old Testament, God kindly and lovingly rescues his people from the consequences of their own actions. He delivers them from their enemies, and provides for them in multiple ways, even though they continue to be stubborn and rebellious towards him.
In fact, God repeatedly promises in the Old Testament that because of his love, he will one day step in personally to fix all the mess that has erupted and spread because of human rebellion against him. Sometimes God promises that he himself will come and bring mercy and salvation (for example in Isaiah 40). At other points, he promises that he will send his anointed king, or ‘Messiah’, to set people free and defeat evil and reign victorious over all.
(A little footnote here that will be important later on. In the Old Testament, the way someone was made king was by anointing them with oil. So the Hebrew word for ‘anointed one’ came to mean essentially ‘the king God had appointed’. That word was ‘Messiah’. The word ‘Christ’ in the New Testament is the Greek language version of that same word. So a ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ is a ‘king appointed by God’.)
Here’s what the prophet Isaiah predicted would happen when God sent his anointed Messiah to bring relief to his people:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me (i.e. made me a ‘Messiah-king’)
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God. (Isaiah 61:1-2)
At the time that Jesus was born, some 700 years after Isaiah’s prophecy, the Jewish people were still expecting this liberating Messiah-King to arrive.
But when Jesus did come, he didn’t fit their expectations at all. He still doesn’t meet our expectations today.
If God was going to send a ‘Messiah’ to fix everything up, to right all the wrongs, to bring restoration and liberty and salvation and all the rest, how would you write the script? What sort of person would he be? And what would he do to save the day and set everything straight?
You probably wouldn’t have him being born to a young unmarried girl in an out of the way place in the humblest of circumstances, with his first cradle being a ‘manger’ (which was either a stable for sheltering animals, or perhaps an animal food trough).
You probably wouldn’t have him live in obscurity as a tradesman until his 30th birthday, have a short three-year career as a teacher and wonder-worker, give him a support crew of nobodies and lowlifes, have the entire intellectual, religious and political establishment against him, and then cap it all off by having him executed in the most humiliating way possible.
In so many ways, Jesus wasn’t and isn’t what people expected. And there’s so much that could be said about him—who he was, what he taught, what he did, the impact he had on those around him, and so on. There are four accounts of Jesus’ life in the New Testament (the four ‘Gospels’, as they are called). It’s well worth reading one of them to fill out what I am going to summarize here only briefly. (Footnote here to The Essential Jesus).
There are four really significant things to know about Jesus. We’ll talk about the first three in this chapter and the fourth in the next: his arrival, his life, his death, his resurrection.
Most of the time, we talk about babies being born not arriving. To ‘arrive’ means that you’ve come from somewhere else.
That’s how the New Testament authors constantly talk about Jesus. He wasn’t simply born. He arrived. He ‘came’ into the world. He was God’s own Son, sent into the world by God to be born as a man; sent to fulfil God’s ancient promise that he would one day come to his people and rescue them.
One of the most striking and beautiful passages in the New Testament, the opening of John’s Gospel, puts it like this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it …
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
With the birth of Jesus, John is saying here, God himself stepped into his creation. His own ‘word’—the very expression of his mind and person—became flesh and lived among us.
As the Gospel accounts unfold, we constantly see people trying to come to terms with this. On the one hand, Jesus is clearly a real, flesh-and-blood man like anyone else. He eats, he sleeps, he weeps, he gets angry, he suffers.
And yet he keeps speaking and acting as he if he is more than a man. He tells people that their sins are forgiven (Mark 2:5). He speaks and acts with an extraordinary authority, even over the creation itself. He heals diseases and stills storms with a word (Mark 2:1-12; Mark 4:35-41). He claims to be God’s Son, sent from God the Father, the only one who truly knows the Father, and whom the Father has appointed to be the judge of the world (John 5:19-29). It’s no wonder that the people of Jesus’ time were astonished and confounded by him, and wondered whether he might be the long-awaited Messiah-king.
As CS Lewis once famously wrote, someone who says the kinds of things that Jesus said about himself is not simply a noble moral teacher. He is either seriously deluded about himself, or else a charlatan making outrageous claims about himself, or else he is who he claims to be—God’s own Son, sent into the world. But a nice, safe, admirable, moral teacher? This is not really an option that Jesus himself leaves open to us.
All the same, Jesus certainly lived an impeccably moral life, and was an extraordinary teacher.
For me personally, this is one of the reasons I find the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life so compelling. I’m a devoted reader of novels, and one of the hardest tasks in fiction is to create a genuinely good character. The more moral and good you try to make your character, the less believable they become. Perhaps this is because we know that humans are so flawed, and that even the best of us can’t escape the gravitational pull of our own weakness and self-interest.
In the Gospels, though, we constantly encounter someone who does what is right and good and loving and compassionate, and never seems to get it wrong. Jesus knows when to be indignantly angry at injustice and corruption, and when to weep over it. He knows when to rebuke religious hypocrites and when to offer them a path to forgiveness and change.
He is just … perfect on every occasion, and yet in a way that is utterly believable as you read it. I don’t see how you could make Jesus up.
The Bible’s own explanation for Jesus’ perfection of character is that he was the one human being in all of our history who didn’t reject God in any way, or rebel against his rule—as we all have done. Jesus always lived with God as king.
His teaching also constantly revolved around this theme. He spoke often of ‘the kingdom of God’—what it would mean to live under God’s rule instead of rebelling against him. He taught about living a ‘kingdom’ kind of life, a life of love, justice, mercy, kindness, and so on—that is, the kind of life we were created to live, but which we’ve all walked away from and messed up, by rebelling against God and his ways.
Jesus always lived under God’s kingship or rule, and taught others to do the same.
Of all the people who have ever lived, he was the only one not to come under the sentence of God’s judgement. He was the only human who didn’t deserve to die.
And yet he not only died; he died an agonising and humiliating death as a criminal.
You have to ask why.
(Stay tuned …)
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