By Ed Rybarczyk
Why did Jesus of Nazareth go public? Millions take for granted the impetus for Jesus’ ministry. Common 21st century assumptions include that He came to: bring peace on earth, end human hunger, establish the brotherhood of man, overthrow all systemic oppression, teach a new ethical code, or even offer a pathway to heaven. Amid such a surplus of supposed reasons for Jesus’ public appearance, we do well to think a bit more carefully.
First, Jesus did not chose His own vocation. No, His mission was given to Him by God the Father. At age 12 He told His parents, “Don’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Lk. 2:49). In Nazareth, at the start of his ministry, Jesus stood in the synagogue and declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (Lk. 4:18).When the Capernaum crowds wanted Him to remain and continue healing people, He said to them, “I must proclaim the Kingdom to other cities, too; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Lk. 4:44). In John’s Gospel, Jesus was adamant that He had come to accomplish not His own will, but that of the Father, “Look, I’m not here on my own. The one who sent me is true.” (7:28). Or again, “the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father.” (7:57).
Just as astounding as Jesus’ claims to a divine mission was His claim that God the Father intended to share His heavenly glory with Jesus Himself. “The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.” (Jn. 5:22-23). Anticipating His murder Jesus said, “Father, the hour has come, glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” (Jn. 17:2). Given that the Old Testament repeats the theme that God shares His glory with no one, Jesus was thereby obliquely claiming divinity for Himself. His mission was from the Father, He was one with the Father, and He would enjoy the holy glory of the Father.
But those are not the only insights concerning the purpose of Jesus’ ministry. Across His ministry, He did some things that – to a 1st century Jewish mind – only God could do. He calmed a sea storm when the Jews knew only God was Lord over the terrifying seas. He healed unclean lepers, but Jews knew that lepers were ceremonially unclean, so said healings indicated He had the very power of God to restore. He healed people who were born blind; who had such power but God Himself? He raised the dead! Are you kidding? In the old covenant it was God Himself alone who held authority over death.
And then, of all preposterous things – again, preposterous to a 1st century Jewish mentality – He forgave people’s sins! To a paralytic He said, “Son, you sins are forgiven.” When the roomful of scornful scribes protested, “Stop blaspheming! Only God can forgive sins!” Jesus said to them, “So that you know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” and, turning to the paralytic, He said, “rise, take up your pallet, and walk!” Dramatically? He proved He had the authority to forgive sins. The room was appropriately stunned! (Mark 2:3-12). To a 1st century Jewish worldview? Jesus did many things that only God Himself could do. This blew their minds. What was Jesus indicating at every turn? He did indeed have the very power of God because He was Himself God, the Son.
It is astonishing, but a careful reading of both the Gospels and the New Testament Epistles makes it clear: Jesus was His own mission. What had Jesus come to do? Establish a new covenant between God and mankind, through His own self, via His own body. What had Jesus come to do? Present Himself as God’s own means of salvation: He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (Jn. 1:29; Rev. 5:6). In fact, so emphatic was Jesus about His own identity that He told His disciples, “Truly I say to you that it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment, than for that city who rejects your Gospel about me.” (Mt. 10:15).
Sixty years ago C.S. Lewis pointed out that no other religious leader in history claimed to be either God’s Son or God Himself: not Gautama Buddha, or Confucius, or Mohammed, or Krishna. Lewis noted, Jesus also did not claim to be a moral teacher, like those other religious figures. Instead? Jesus made outlandish claims: “Before Abraham was, I am.” (Jn. 8:58); and, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn. 14:6). If those claims are false then Jesus was either a pathological liar or insane. But if they are true – as His resurrection and miraculous signs attest – then of course nothing could surpass the identity of Christ, right? What is greater than God? What category surpasses eternal God? All of that to echo the refrain: Jesus was His own mission.
Think of it this way: for 2,000 years it has been called Christianity. Not “social justice.” Not “love of brother.” Not “the ethic of love.” For 2,000 years its practitioners have called it Christianity because the central element in the Christian faith is Christ. We worship Jesus because He was His own mission. He came to offer Himself to us. He came to transform the creation through His very identity. He came to make Himself known to you, and to a sinner like me. Oh, beautiful Jesus!
Ed Rybarczyk, Ph.D., is both an ordained minister and a retired History of Theology professor. He now produces and hosts the Uncensored Unprofessor podcast @uncensoredunprofessor.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.