Does it even make sense to try to separate what Jesus did from what he taught?
At some point in your life you’ve probably heard a sentiment like this expressed by people who don’t regard themselves as Christians at all: “Well I’m not really into the whole religion thing, but you’ve got to respect the teaching of Jesus. What a good man!” This nasty business of dying for sins, holiness, judgement, eternity – forget all that, but the message of Jesus is just peachy. “Liberal” or “progressive” spin-offs of Christianity are in on the game as well. Usually in these circles, however, the attitude is coupled with a fictional account of what Jesus actually taught. Usually his message of forgiveness, impartiality, personal purity, God’s openness to all sinners who repent, humility, becomes transformed into an alternative Gospel of left leaning policy, denunciation of traditional morality and the tolerance of all lifestyles. But setting that aside, the idea is still one that elevates the moral and social teaching of Jesus over the theological and eschatological importance of his mission in dying for sin and rising from the dead (the latter is often denied altogether in such circles).
The most recent example of this is in New Zealand is the ever-struggling-for-but-not-quite-achieving-relevance Saint Matthew in the city Anglican parish, with this wee gem, erected right on time for Easter:
The (apparent) message is that we shouldn’t let the events of Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus, distract us from the actual message of the Gospel. This is a terrible garbling of New Testament Theology in general, and the teaching of Jesus in particular. You cannot understand Jesus’ teaching and also separate it from his mission in his death and resurrection, because so much of his teaching depends crucially on that very mission being accomplished.
The Gospels record Jesus telling his disciples on more than one occasion that he was going to be killed and then rise again (e.g. Matt 12:40, Mark 8:31, Mark 10:34, John 2:19-22). It was hardly an unlucky twist that would leave Jesus thinking that maybe people might forget the actual reason that he came. But more importantly, it was in his death and resurrection that Jesus made the accomplishment of his mission possible. In making the resurrection of the dead a possibility for those who trust in him a reality, Jesus was doing the very thing he came to do: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:38-40).
In calling people to live a new way – in forgiveness, impartiality, in liberation from bondage to sin, Jesus is calling people to live in light of the kingdom of God having come into the world in himself. We should live in light of eternity – an eternity that is made possible because Jesus has fulfilled his mission of redemption, that very mission now belittled on a billboard. If you take that away – take away Jesus’ self-declared reason for coming into this world at all, then you end up with a charlatan. You end up with someone who tells us how to live, who promises much, and ultimately fails.
For the early Christians (you know, the ones who weren’t “progressive” enough), the Gospel message was the message of the cross. The Apostle Paul told the church in Corinth: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” And: “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It was through the cross that God has made possible the redemption of all creation (Romans 3:21-8:39).
The billboard has it backwards. The cross cannot distract you from the message of Jesus. That message is not a bunch of ethical teaching followed by an awful tragedy upon which we wrongly fixate. That message is the message of the death and resurrection of the king, followed by principles of living in the new world that his death and resurrection makes possible. The so-called progressive take on the cross is anything but. It’s backwards.
Happy Easter – Christ is risen! 🙂