Why did Jesus die? More pointedly, why does Jesus seem to court death in the last weeks of his life? There are of course a whole range of doctrinal answers to that question through Christian history, and I propose in this series of Passiontide blog posts to explore how each can shed some light on Jesus’ last days, based on various New Testament studies.
I. He Chose Be A Martyr
To start with the most obvious: Jesus continually rattled the cage of people in power, in the end courting martyrdom. He was both Witness to the nearness and necessity of God’s justice and love being realized in the human community and a Martyr to the cause of that Message. The Greek word martys, of course, carries both meanings, because bold witness can lead to martyrdom.
He was not killed because of his moral and spiritual teachings. They are very much in harmony with the rabbinical teachings of this day. His disputes about the Law fit into the pattern of rabbinical discussions about what true obedience to the Torah involves.
But he goes further than rabbinical dispute by ‘speaking with authority,’ clearly adopting the mantle of a prophet ("and more than a prophet"). That’s a dangerous move. Means you ‘go from preachin’ to meddlin‘(as we used to put it in the South) particularly in socio-economic matters. Meddlin' and rabble rousin'. He starts what looks like a grassroots movement to change how people relate personally, spiritually and economically. His followers form an extended communal fellowship of mutuality, compassion, justice.
This is a challenge to both the civil and religious authorities who are understandably afraid of Jesus and his movement and on high alert for the Passover Festival. His hinting around about being the expected Messiah, and the crowd's response create a real threat of civil disorder.
Let's be clear. There's no such thing as a “spiritual but not political” Messiah in first century Judea. To claim the mantle of Messiah in any way means challenges the current order of things. Jesus tells the authorities that their regime is corrupt and needs to go. His cleansing of the Temple and confrontation with the High Priesthood seals his fate, especially since there had just been a civil insurrection at the Sukkot festival the previous autumn.
So, finding himself outnumbered and outgunned, Jesus surrenders his fate to God in the faith that his sacrifice will be used for God’s saving purposes. I’m not at all sure he started out to do this. He was sent to gather “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” into a renewed community of love and obedience. But this is the way the ministry has gone, and he struggles to accept it. And understands that his death can have redemptive power? But how did he get the idea that martyrdom itself could be redemptive?
Next post: Martyrdom as "ransom for sin."
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