When we speak of the gospel, do we sometimes focus so much on the death that Jesus died that we forget about the life that Jesus lived?
Salvation narratives come in all shapes and sizes. They’re a staple of the hard-sell approach to advertising: you have a problem, and need to buy what we have to sell. A memorable example from my childhood would be a popular series of television commercials for Wisk laundry detergent. A frustrated and harried housewife gets a disapproving look from her husband because his shirts have “ring around the collar.” But no fear; apply a little Wisk to the stain, launder as usual, and voila! Problem solved, husband happy.
These days, I think she would feel a bit freer to suggest that he do a better job of washing his neck. And advertisers in general have gone to a more subtle approach, based on image management: hey, don’t you want to be like these people? The hard-sell still shows up, though, sometimes as a joke, as in the ad campaign for Axe dandruff shampoo for men: “Lose the flakes, get the girls.”
The point is that we’re used to stories that have a problem-solution arc to them, and the way we tell the gospel story is no exception. What’s the problem? What’s the solution?
The problem: sin. We are under the curse that can be traced all the way back to Adam. We were created to be in relationship with God, but we are sinful and God is holy. There’s an unbridgeable gap between us and him. We deserve his holy wrath against our unrighteousness, his punishment of our sin. And we can do nothing about it. As much as we might desire heaven, that door is forever closed to us.
The solution: the grace of God as demonstrated through the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus, God’s own Son, takes our sin upon himself, and suffers God’s holy wrath in our place. God then raises Jesus from the grave in a resounding triumph over death; Jesus is the firstborn among all those who through him have the promise of resurrection and an eternity in heaven.
Right. But that’s not the whole story.
Yes, our sin deserves God’s holy wrath. Yes, we are barred from heaven and from fellowship with God because of it. And yes, the cross is the one and only solution to that problem. Amen, amen, and amen.
But does that mean, therefore, that Jesus was born merely to die?
The gospel is not merely that we have a way to heaven. We’re not the only ones who suffer for our sin: all of creation suffers with us and awaits its liberation (Rom 8:18-21). Jesus came to bring the good news of the dawning of God’s kingdom, of his sovereign rule over a world stained and broken by sin. And it is in his life, not just his death, that he repeatedly demonstrated the nature of that kingdom through his ministry of compassion.
I’m reminded of a poignant interchange between Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist. John had been imprisoned by Herod. The man who had served as the herald of the Messiah, who had baptized Jesus personally and pointed his own disciples in Jesus’ direction, seemed to be having doubts:
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matt 1:2-6, NIV)
Jesus could simply have said, “Yes. I’m the Messiah.” Instead, Jesus points to the evidence, to his compassion for the downtrodden. In so doing, he seems to invite the prophet John to remember the words of the prophet Isaiah. You already know the answer to your own question, cousin. Don’t stumble now.
I’m also reminded of a passage that was addressed in an earlier post, where Jesus describes what will happen on the day of his return as king. The entire mass of humanity will be separated into two groups. Each group will receive its eternal destiny: the blessed group on the right receives the kingdom, while the cursed group on the left goes “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41, NIV).
And what makes for the difference? The righteous who inherit the kingdom are the ones who have done the work of the kingdom, the work of compassion and hospitality:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matt 25:35-36, NIV)
In short: the death of Jesus was not solely for the purpose of getting us into heaven when we die. It was to make possible a people who would live the life of Jesus, by manifesting the kingdom of heaven now.
And we do that every time we show the compassion of our Lord.