The Wonderful Witness and Necessity of the Virgin Birth

It may surprise many faithful Christians that the truth of Jesus’ Virgin Birth has been under assault for centuries – from the get-go, in fact. Many of these same people would also be surprised to know that there are now, as there have been for some time, university professors in America who teach New Testament courses, professors who themselves do not believe in the virgin birth. Even a teacher as generally solid as William Barclay, in his Daily Study Bible, devoted an unusual amount of ink to arguing that the Virgin Birth of Jesus was questionable and not that important anyhow. “What?!” we astoundingly ask … and rightly so. Barclay was wrong on both counts. Terribly wrong and most of all, scripturally wrong.

Unfortunately, Barclay was and is hardly alone in his position. By this time in the twenty-first century disbelievers of the virgin birth can be found in every Christian denomination. This is not good. By definition, however, and importantly, if you reject the Incarnation, that is, if you reject the virgin birth, you do not have faith in Jesus, at least faith according to the terms clearly and magnificently delineated in holy scripture. And, further, you may call yourself a Christian but you would be a “Christian-in-name-only” because biblically-speaking we are Christians only if we believe what scripture says, and what scripture clearly says is that Jesus of Nazareth was born of virgin named Mary. That’s how the salvation of the humanity and the whole of creation God created in love was to be worked out in God’s redemptive plan laid down all through scripture. Our Nicene Creed clearly tells us that God in the second person of the Trinity, the Son, had to be born a human being as he was of the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary.

So we ask the questions, “Was this so-called virgin birth nothing more than poetry or a pretty story or a Christian version of what the rabbis called Midrash as some people think?” “Does it matter that Jesus was born of a virgin?” The answer to the first question is, quite simply, “The virgin birth is established fact.” The answer to the second question is that “Yes. It most certainly matters! It makes all the difference in the world. According to scripture if you believe it, you are ‘in faith,’ and, if you don’t believe it, you are not.” It’s really that straightforward. It’s really that simple. And, it’s really that determinative come the time of each person’s judgment. Scripture tells us that also.

Of course, the Virgin Birth isn’t the only basic Christian doctrine that is being questioned. One pastor recently reported on Facebook that a church council member resigned in anger because the pastor shared his conviction that it is essential to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. It goes without saying that the pastor was, of course, correct in what he said. Just as Jesus was born incarnate of a virgin, Jesus died on the cross. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, Jesus ascended into heaven to the right hand of God. All of these go together. One does not happen without the other. They constitute a connected whole. For the naysayers among you I can only tell you, “That’s what scripture tells us. You can either believe it or not. It’s your call.” And to take this to the next level, believe it and be saved. Disbelieve it and you won’t be. It’s really that simple. Scripture tells us that also.

To be sure, however, certainly many religious practices, customs, and ideas are open for discussion. Our Lutheran forebears identified these things using the Greek word adiaphora. Such adiaphora are not unimportant issues; however, they can be important matters about which Christians disagree because Scripture neither commands nor forbids them. Adiaphora are the things we should be arguing about … if argument is what’s called for. For example, think about musical styles or various liturgical practices or other church business. Things like that. Conversations such as these concern matters that are important … but not essential.

On the other hand some things are just given. Some things are essential to our faith. Some things are settled. In fact, they were settled centuries ago. There really aren’t that many of them, and most of them are quite nicely and fully summarized in the Nicene Creed. In fact, at least for me, if somebody can say the Nicene Creed and truly understand the Creed’s words without crossing their fingers behind their backs, we have a basis for Christian fellowship, even when we disagree over the adiaphora – over other important matters.

But the truthfulness of the Virgin Birth is simply not on the table. That fact was settled many centuries ago at the first Council of Nicea in 325 and then again at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The purpose of the Creeds, in part, was to define those things that were and are nonnegotiable. The Virgin Birth was on that list. If a person chooses not to believe the Virgin Birth, they are free to do so. That’s a part of what free will is about. If a person chooses not to believe in the Creed, they, again, have the perfect right to do so, but scripture tells us that will only lead to their ultimate damnation. Therefore, if a person chooses not to believe in the virgin birth, they have no right then to claim to be a believer in Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus as the Son of God in the full sense of what our Creed tells us.

Our Christian faith once delivered to the saints is not a cafeteria faith from which one can pick and choose what pleases them and what does not. Faith in Jesus does not work that way. It’s either-or. You either believe what the Creed clearly states … Or you don’t. The choice is yours. And for the purposes of this discussion, you either believe in the virgin birth or you don’t. And if you don’t know what you believe about the virgin birth, that’s the same thing as not believing … at least in the biblical understanding of these matters.

If Jesus had been born in the usual way, what then would it mean that He was “the Word made flesh”? How could God be his Father in the way the Church has always proclaimed if Jesus had been born biologically the child of both Mary and Joseph (or even worse, as certain blasphemous legends suggest, of Mary and some other man)? Another side of this issue is seen in the example of some early Christians who argued for what was called “adoptionism,” which taught that Jesus wasn’t born incarnate – both as Messiah and as Son of God, but that Jesus was adopted into that role at his baptism by John. This adoptionism was quickly rejected as heresy because if Jesus were simply adopted, the good news of the Incarnation simply could not stand. In fact, there were many other heresies with which the early church had to deal in working through the fully divine and fully human character of Jesus of Nazareth. The formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity did not come easily but come it eventually did, thereby passing along to all of us this wonderful Christian heritage in which we all share.

The fact of the matter is that it does matter for our salvation that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” It does matter that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” If Jesus was just a good human being, even a perfect human being, He could not have saved us. That was not the way God’s redemptive plan for humanity was to work itself out. In fact, once one grasps the purpose of the Mosaic law, one will understand that it was Jesus who had to be born a human being of a virgin. Once one understands God’s redemptive plan through the lenses of our Old Testament, one will also understand that Jesus would have to die as a human being. Only in his death on the cross do we receive his gift, God’s loving grace – forgiveness of sins, a righteousness which itself comes from Jesus alone, the resurrection of the dead, the renewal of all creation and everlasting life in the full time presence of God for eternity.

But because Jesus was and is God among us, because Jesus was God incarnate, because Jesus lowered himself and took on our humanity into the life of the Holy Trinity, because Jesus was born a human and of a virgin mother, Mary, through the power of the Holy Spirit, because of all these things we have this marvelous promise and hope for this life and the next. God is with us now, albeit invisibly yet in Word and Sacrament; and we will be with God visibly in the consummated kingdom of God.

As such, by God’s grace we live now in the inaugurated kingdom of God doing God’s will, longing for the consummated kingdom of God when Christ will again be with us physically, bodily – both fully divine and fully human, fully glorified just as Christ stands on our altar here at Immanuel, reigning forever in his fully renewed and restored kingdom, his kingdom of which we will be a part – if we but be found in the faith of Jesus. And all of this comes to us through God’s grace in the cross. All of this comes to us through God’s grace in Jesus’ Incarnation, in Jesus’ death on the cross, in Christ’s resurrection and in Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God.

So in this Advent season we once again celebrate Jesus, Son of God and son of Mary, the mother of God. We celebrate Jesus as our Lord and our Savior, the fulfiller of both of the major streams of expectation that we know from our Old Testament – both that of the long-promised Davidic Messiah and that of the coming of God to Zion as the Son of God. The ineffable mystery of the Trinity.

May we all be blessed as we hear the familiar story about Jesus and sing our beloved hymns in this Advent season.

May we remember the best part of the Christmas message, God’s good news about this Jesus of Nazareth, about this baby born incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary who would be God with us – both now in Word and Sacrament and forever into eternity. Amen.

Who was Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Who was Jesus of Nazareth? 

 

Mt 1 23  “Behold, the virgin will be pregnant and will give birth to a son, and they will call his name Immanuel,” which is translated God with us.”

 

We’ve previously discussed the various OT promises Jesus was fulfilling as we’ve seen already in the opening verses of Mt.  In v 1 we saw Jesus fulfilling the promise of the Christ (the ultimate Davidic king), fulfilling the Davidic covenant, fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant, fulfilling his genesis (his birth), fulfilling the promise of the renewal and restoration of all Creation, and fulfilling the new covenant.

[Remember, Christ and Messiah are both titles meaning the same thing.  Christ comes from the Greek  Cristo,j Christos and Messiah comes from the Hebrew  tyvm   mashiah (also mashiach).  They both mean the anointed one.

In various places the OT foretells a coming deliverer “anointed” by God to initiate God’s coming kingdom and reign, God’s coming rule of righteousness and peace.  This “anointed one” would ultimately rule the world in its new divine order as we see, for instance, famously in Pp 2 5-11, the “Christ Hymn”.

Through the centuries the OT people of God continued in anticipation of this Messiah promised to come.  Then, in NT times when the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world was Greek, this long-expected Messiah figure was called “the Christ”.  Since Jesus of Nazareth had fulfilled that OT hope and expectation of a Messiah, he was called “Jesus, the Christ” (Jesus, the anointed One).  In the Greek they don’t use the article “the” as we do in the English, and so this comes to us straight from the Greek NT as “Jesus Christ”.  So when you see “Jesus Christ” in the text, in the Greek it’s actually “Jesus, the Christ” ( VIhsou/ Cristou/ ).

We see this all over the NT at such places as Mk 8 29; Jn 1 41, 4 25; Ac 2 31-36; Ac 5 42; Ac 18 5, 28; Ro 1 1, 7-8 and Ro 5 6, 8.]

 

In OT thought the Exile was understood to continue on until such time as the birth of this one who was called Christ fulfilled the promise of the new Exodus.  Jesus was fulfilling all of these promises, and yet there was one promise we’ve not yet talked about in connection with Christ fulfilling it, and it was another promise that Mt was stressing and fulfilling here.  Hence, we get the phrase identifying Jesus as “the child of promise.”  Mt really stressed it throughout the story but especially at the climax of the story that we just read and here in v 23.  In v 23 Jesus’ words echoed the prophet Isaiah himself who said in Is 7 14  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

 

Is 7 14:

Scholars call this text the Immanuel sign.  It’s one of the most famous prophecies in the Bible, the prophecy of Immanuel.

The sign of Immanuel within Isaiah’s prophecy will have two stages:  the near fulfillment and the ultimate fulfillment, with the near fulfillment coming first and the ultimate fulfillment coming later in Is.  The near fulfillment is in a child given birth to by the prophetess later in Is 8 3.  Before this child is old enough to tell the good from the bad, the Northern Kingdom will be destroyed and forsaken by the prophecy – but then also look at Is 8 8.

It’s not until the NT that the true meaning of this Immanuel sign prophecy of Is 7 14 will be more fully known.  That will happen at Mt 1 23, and there we’ll learn that the true, ontological Son of God would be born of the virgin Mary through the work of the Holy Spirit.

 

There is much discussion about the Hebrew and Greek words in v 23 for the English word virgin.  The Greek word definitely means virgin; she’s virginal, not having had a husband or had sexual relations with a man.  The Hebrew word is almah which, unlike the Greek word parthenos parqe,noj, can only be used of a virgin who has had no sexual relations with a man.  almah is a word just meaning young maiden.  However, within Jewish culture of the time, a young maiden would normally be virginal.  It’s really a point without a point when people say that almah in the Hebrew means young maiden or young girl because our Septuagint translators, who were Jewish and knew their culture best, when they chose a Greek word for the Hebrew in their translation, they chose the word in Greek that can only mean virgin parqe,noj.  Therefore, that’s our best clue as to what almah means there in the Hebrew Bible.  You can show that the evangelists normally used the Septuagint because that’s the one their hearers / readers would have been able to use.  We now know that there are actually many versions of the Hebrew text in antiquity.  They would have used one of those whereas someone like Paul might have been using one of the Greek translations or translating himself directly from the Hebrew Bible.

 

 

Mt specifically translates Immanuel for us right there in the Greek text with the phrase which is translated “God with us.”  So scripture says Jesus is God with us.  Jesus was actually born as a human being, as a little child, but he was God with us.  [See also Jn 1 1-3, 14-17.]  The name Immanuel comes from the Hebrew word  Immann meaning with us and from the Hebrew word El meaning God.  So this is Jesus’ other name.  [He was given the name Jesus in v 21.  Jesus (which means God saves) is the human name Jesus will always have but here in v 23 they will call his name “Immanuel” (which is not actually what Jesus will be called!).  That is, when Matthew here in v 23 said that they will call his name Immanuel, he was making a theological point about who Jesus was.  Mt was bringing out that Jesus was fulfilling this promise of Immanuel, God with us that we know from Is 7 14]

 

Thus, Matthew had already told us right up front in Mt 1 1 that Jesus was the Christ but here he was telling us that Jesus was the fulfillment of the hope of the coming of YHWH to Zion.  [Again, the two streams of expectation!]  Through the Incarnation Jesus was now God with us.

We know from Scripture and from the extrabiblical literature of the time that the people of Israel expected God to come to them in a wonderful way even though they didn’t know how that would happen.  How more wonderful could it have happened than this?  Jesus coming as God with us affirmed both Creation as well as our very humanity.  In other words, in the Incarnation the creator God of all Creation took on human flesh and human nature in order to redeem and restore and renew humanity!  

 

We, in fact, have this same message in all the gospels in all of their wonderful variety of ways in which they gave the message about who Jesus really was.  [for example, cf. Mk 1 1-2.]  So we have the same concept here in Mt as we have in Mk.  Jesus was the Christ as we saw in Mt 1 1 and in Mk 1 1  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  But not only did Jesus fulfill the expectation of the ultimate Davidic king, he also fulfilled the expectation of the coming of YHWH to Zion in our story behind the Story.  We see that also in Jn where Jesus was the Word made flesh, the Word who was God made flesh.  (Jn 1 14).  Again, here in Mt 1 23 God is with us makes explicit the fulfillment of the expectation of the coming of YHWH to Zion.  In Jesus the divine expectation had been fulfilled.

 

Therefore, Mk 1, Mt 1 and Jn 1, each in their very different ways have this central announcement, this good news message they want to make about the coming of YHWH to Zion, this surprising fulfillment of the scriptures.  And that core announcement was that this kingdom of God had come in this surprising way in which Jesus of Nazareth had come, not only as the messianic king (fulfilling the first – human – stream of expectation) but also as the coming of YHWH to Zion (fulfilling the second – divine – stream of expectation).  As such, the two streams of expectation found all through our OT were both fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, and, importantly, all of this occurred through the Incarnation.  Jesus was no ordinary human being; Jesus was this human being who was (and is) God.  Jesus was God in human flesh.  The Incarnation!  The real reason for our Advent season in the Church.

 

Remember how in our various discussions of the story behind the Story we always found these various promises of God cascading throughout the oracles. [Oracles are the various ways by which God speaks or is uniquely revealed to humanity such as in the Incarnation, in scripture, in redemptive history, in preaching and in the sacraments.]   There would be not just the one promise cascading throughout the text but several of them and sometimes even all of them – such as in Is or Ek – cascading together in Scripture.

Remember also that the promise that almost always climaxed all of these texts was the promise of the coming of YHWH to Zion because “the Fall” of Ge 3 was all about being disconnected from God.  “The Fall” had separated humanity from God.  As such, salvation, in turn, would be all about being reconnected with God.  Everything that flowed from that, the resurrection of the dead and so on, all of that was wonderful but it was sort of gravy because the most wonderful thing of all was being reconnected to your creator God and knowing God. [In fact, that’s at the core of what we pray for everyday, for example, in the Lord’s Prayer.]  So the coming of YHWH to Zion was and will always remain the greatest hope of the OT – even into the time of the NT and beyond, into the time of the Church.  And that’s what awaits the faithful when Jesus returns in his role as judge to consummate the kingdom of God that he inaugurated during his earthly ministry now almost 2,000 years ago.

 

Here, in v 23 notice these things.

 

 

  1. Jesus fulfilled that hope that we read of in v 22 this all[Jesus’ incarnate birth] came to pass so that the things spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled saying:  23 “Behold, the virgin will be pregnant and will give birth to a son, and they will call his name Immanuel,” which is translated “God with us.”  That is, Jesus is God with us.  It was not just that Jesus was God but that he was God with us which very well expressed that he was the coming of YHWH to Zion; he had come to be with us.  The first Christians would have understood God with us with an exclamation point!  The Jewish people had only been waiting for the fulfillment of this promise for over a thousand years already.

 

  1. Just as in the OT prophecies we find that the promise of the coming of YHWH to Zion was at the climax of it all.  We have all these promises cascading but the truth that Jesus was YHWH come to Zion was at the climax of it.

 

  1. Further, this coming of YHWH to Zion that we see all through the OT happened in this shocking way that no one could have predicted or known:  God himself became a human being; God himself became a little child.  The Incarnation. No one saw that one coming.  No where in Scripture nor in the extrabiblical literature did anyone ever offer that up as either a prophecy or as even a possibility.  NO WHERE!!!  God had come in a way entirely unexpected and mysterious but nevertheless still wonderful.  Know that this was not expected by the people of Israel; it was not explicit anywhere in the OT.  Therefore, it was a surprise that God himself had become human like one of us.  And it was only in the resurrection that they finally started to “get it”.

 

Again, we have the two streams of expectation in the OT.  The NT authors would tell you that the surprise of the fulfillment was that they were awaiting a Messiah and that they were awaiting the coming of YHWH to Zion.  They would tell you they were awaiting these two different figures:  one human and one divine.  They were not awaiting a figure Jesus of Nazareth who would fulfill both streams of expectation!  That was not on their radar.  But that’s what happened.  In Jesus and his Incarnation God was truly God with us.  The Incarnation!!! 

 

  1. Notice the way in which YHWH came to Zion corresponded with the whole story because he came to Zion not only to save Israel but to save all humanityas promised and foretold in the Abrahamic covenant.  YHWH came as Jesus, God in the flesh, in order to renew and restore humanity to be the image-bearing creatures of God we were created to be in Ge 1-2.  YHWH came to save us and to renew us.  And YHWH did this by becoming one of us, by becoming a child.  The wonder of the Incarnation.  

 

the Incarnation 

 

This introduces another central Christian theological term, the Incarnation, which means enfleshment.  God himself had become human.  The Incarnation itself was based on these and numerous other passages.  It referred to the fact that Jesus was YHWH come in the flesh.  Through this concept of the Incarnation Jesus of Nazareth was God come in the flesh.  He was truly human but he was truly God (the doctrine of the Trinity at work!).  God had come to his people in a way that was entirely unexpected.  No one saw that coming nor did they more fully understand it until when?  The Resurrection!

 

The Incarnation does two things.

 

  1. The Incarnation affirms the goodness of our humanity. We were loved by God so much that God gave his only Son, that he actually lowered himself (the state of humiliation) and became human for our sakes.  It was not evil to be human; it was not bad to have a body; it was not wrong to be male or female like many religions teach.  Our fallenness did not involve the fact that we were “physical” human beings.

For instance, Hinduism teaches that what is wrong with the world is that we are physical beings and we have to get beyond this facade of this physical world in order to transcend it.  Other religions such as the ancient Gnostics taught that our sexuality was wrong, that our genderness was wrong.  Therefore, as being born as one of us in the person of Jesus, God was affirming our humanness which fits with the story because we were created as the creatures of God; God created our humanness, our physical bodies and our genderness.  This was all affirmed as good when God became a little child in the Incarnation.  The Incarnation affirmed the goodness of our humanity.

 

 

  1. Through “the Fall” we had lost our humanity; we had become dehumanized.  That’s the language theologians use to talk about “the Fall”.  In other words, our humanity came out of our relationship with God.  In the biblical understanding God gave us life and made us who we are.  Therefore, without God in our life we didn’t have “life” in the biblical sense.  In the Incarnation God had come to restore our humanity, not to make us something different than human beings but to make us God’s image-bearing humans as we were meant to be in God’s original good Creation.

 

Therefore, the Incarnation both affirmed the goodness of the created order and the goodness our humanity.  But the Incarnation also renewed and restored our humanity and the created order which had fallen away from God and into sin and evil.  In fact, God himself became a little child.  Mark tells us in Mk 10 15  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  Therefore, we must become a little child to enter the kingdom of God.  Most would point out that v 15 focuses on that we enter this kingdom of God through trust in God and believing in Christ like a child, with a child-like faith.  It’s interesting that God himself became a child.  The one who said that was Jesus himself who was once a child.

 

Notice how this all ties together with the story behind the Story.  When this little baby Jesus is born, he will one day do Messianic things to show he’s the Davidic Messiah.  However, Jesus will do things the Davidic Messiah could never do.  That is, Jesus was a human which would limit what he would do but Jesus was also divine, the Son of God, which would put him in the position of doing whatever he wanted and willed to do.  Again, the two streams of OT expectation.

 

For instance, most centrally of all, he was going to rise from the dead and conquer death.  He would do things that in Israel’s scriptures YHWH promised he YHWH would do, things that YHWH said only he could do.  So both here in the scriptures and in the things that Jesus did, he did the things that only YHWH could do.  He did things that YHWH promised that he (YHWH) and only he would do.  We see that both in his name and his actions (his praxis).

 

Therefore, Jesus truly was not only the  [Symbol] Messiah but he was also  [Symbol] YHWH come in the flesh.  (Remember the two streams of expectation here.)  At the center of the church’s life and faith has always been the Incarnation, the climax of the story.  Therefore, we see that Jesus in one person fulfilled both of the two great streams of expectation in the OT:  that of the (human) Davidic Messiah and that of the (divine) coming of YHWH to Zion.  That was the great surprise.

 

For more information regarding the Incarnation see notes in Jn 1 14  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15  (John testified to him and cried out, “This  was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”)  16  From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  17  The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  18  No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.  With these words we see the latest of the gospel writers, John, is the most explicit of them all.  See notes there.

 

Ro 1

The salutation of vv 1-7 reveals the key themes of the letter.  All of these themes will be fleshed out as we move along in Ro.  A thematic summary would include:

Theme 1.  V 1.  Paul states the theme of the letter – the good news of God – which he will fully develop as the letter moves along.  [The good news goes back to the story behind the Story in Is 40 9 where the phrase good news was used for the first time in Scripture.]  When we get to the opening of the body we will see that this good news is the subject there as well.  Many scholars have pointed out that Paul deals with the gospel – the good news – most fully and systematically in Ro.  In no other letter does Paul say his subject is the good news of God.  One can see that is introduced right from the beginning – the good news of God is the subject.

Theme 2.  v 2.  The key theme we see here – that we saw in Lk-Ac and Mk  – is the good news of God is the fulfillment of the scriptures, ie, the story behind the Story.

Theme 3.  v 3.  Jesus is the ultimate Davidic king – the Davidic Messiah, the messianic Davidic king.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the human stream of expectation found all through the OT.

Theme 4.  v 4.  Jesus as the incarnate Lord is marked out as Son of God through the resurrection from the dead.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the divine stream of expectation found all through the OT.

The Passion of the Christ

Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is not a historical documentary but a presentation of Jesus’ suffering, as he sees it.
[The word passion stems from the Latin word passus or passio which means “having suffered” or “having undergone.” Hence, “the Passion” refers to the sufferings of Jesus after the Last Supper.]

Gibson begins with a version of Is 53 3-5 He bore our infirmities; he was crushed for our iniquities in which Isaiah prophesies the coming, suffering and death of Jesus.
3 He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. 4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

Gibson then quickly moves into his dramatization of the suffering of Jesus, a suffering that was an expression of God’s love and forgiveness for us. To Gibson, the more terrible the suffering of Jesus, the more he expressed his love. His movie presents the cosmic battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, being played out behind earthly scene of violence against the innocent Jesus.

I suspect Gibson was wanting to show us the profound price that Jesus paid to atone for our sins something which, arguably, is lost on many who call themselves Christian. But here, again, our posture should always be fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), to borrow a phrase from Augustine and Anselm, for we all have deficiencies in our belief systems and understandings.
Gibson designed the movie to bring to vivid life the nature and magnitude of Jesus’s sacrifice based on his very traditionalistic, pre-Vatican II, Roman Catholic background. He does this using scenes corresponding to the stations of the cross and the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. He also uses other extra-biblical sources – for example, the visions of Catholic mystics such as those of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a nineteenth century Augustinian nun from Westphalia, France who wrote the very mystical The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, published after her death in 1824. He also uses the mystical visions of a seventeenth century nun from Spain, Maria of Agreda, who wrote Mystical City of God, a Divine History of the Virgin Mother of God.
[Obviously, scripture doesn’t record every second of Jesus’ life and death which has allowed for artistic and mystical interpretation ever since the first Easter.] Notably, in using these other sources and in harmonizing aspects from all four of the gospels – instead of just using one of the four gospels – Gibson actually deflates his argument that his movie is a historically accurate version of the passion straight out of the Bible.

It is because of Gibson’s Traditionalist (as they like to call themselves) Catholic faith, for example, that the movie will also seem so Marian, especially to Protestants and others who don’t hold Mary at the level she has risen to over the centuries in the Roman Catholic Church.
The details of Roman crucifixions as discussed in JAMA’s 1986 clinical investigation of crucifixion, On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ, were also used in his movie.

Unfortunately, the symbolism of the cross has become so watered down over the centuries that many have grown up with a version of the passion that will make watching The Passion very difficult. Look at all who wear the cross and yet who have little, if any, clue as to what it represents to those who know its full meaning – an observation that applies to us Lutherans as well! Few modern day Christians fully comprehend the brutality of crucifixion but be assured, to the people of the early church, crucifixion evoked a horrifying image and one they never forgot.
The Romans crucified thousands of mostly Jewish people – not just Jesus and the two insurgents on his left and right. It would have been almost impossible to have grown up in the first century and not have witnessed a crucifixion.

So was it necessary to show so much of the detail regarding scourging and crucifixion? That’s for each of us to answer for ourselves.
Ultimately, Gibson took his Hollywood artistic license where his 25 million saw fit. He can hardly be expected to provide centuries of background in a two-hour movie or for that matter to provide all the scholarship that deals with it. Therefore, he puts things in, or leaves things out, that we, were we to be in a position to make our own movie, would have otherwise approached differently.

Most Lutherans would have, for instance, included much more of the triumph of the resurrection because of the centrality of that event in our faith lives. As Lutherans we do not see the resurrection as a brief flash of light at the end of the story but as the vantage point from which the whole story is told. Also, life is stronger than death and love is more powerful than hatred. These are biblical truths which Christianity owes to Judaism with its memory of the exodus and the return from exile and its longing for Shalom. For Christians this same profound conviction is embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and thereby becomes the pattern for authentic life in the world and the basis for hope beyond.

These same Lutherans are also necessarily concerned that much of what the movie depicts has no basis in scripture, something which goes back to the reformation of the 1500s and which is very central to our faith. Most of the movie covers the last approximately 15 hours of Jesus’ life – from Gethsemane to his death on the cross – with a snippet of the resurrection at the end. Interestingly, most of the authors, whose commentary on the movie I have read, say the movie covers the last 12 hours of Jesus’ earthly life, something which may indicate that they were all copying from whomever said “12 hours” first, or, that they just had not researched their topic sufficiently because – their math is definitely in error. Gethsemane to three in the afternoon of Good Friday is not 12 hours.

Further complicating matters for Gibson is the fact that the gospels were written in the latter third of the first century when there was growing tension between the emerging Christian church and the other Jewish community. The Christian church was beginning to move in a different direction from its exclusively Jewish-Christian origins, and the emerging post-70 Jewish community was also forced to redefine itself in the wake of the catastrophe of the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70. Therefore, the gospels that we have portray the Jewish leaders as viewed through a late first century lens which was formed out of the disputes among Jesus and some of his contemporaries but also, most certainly, out of the disputes and tensions between the communities at the time the gospels were being composed.

We know Mk was written down around the year 65, more than thirty years after Jesus’ crucifixion, and Mt and Lk around 85. Jn was written in the 90’s. At the end of Jn it says that a person who is referred to as the beloved disciple, the disciple Jesus loved, wrote down things that he saw and witnessed and that that has been put into this book. [So even though Jn is the last of the gospels written, it actually claims to have incorporated into it some material that was written by someone who was actually an eyewitness to Jesus.] That is to say, at least Mk, Mt and Lk, although rooted in historical tradition, are not eyewitness accounts. Rather, our gospels are, in part, interpretations of history fueled by, among other things, profound theological convictions and religious experience, that is, by the many things the early church experienced in the decades immediately following the crucifixion up through the time they were finally written down 30-60 years later.

Also, towards the end of the first century the Christian church more and more took on a gentile look. That, coupled with the danger of association with Jewish rebels of any kind in the aftermath of the insurrection (that was so massively squelched by the Romans in 66-74) brought a convergence of motivations for Christian authors to possibly torque the telling of the classic event of their faith. Blame shifted away from the Romans and onto Jews and Judaism who, in turn, became more and more viewed as the enemy, and, inevitably, with catastrophic consequences. However, scripture only supports the culpability of the Jewish leaders and not Jews as a whole.

We know the Gospel authors progressively rewrite in this direction. Our first extant Gospel, Mk, a customarily sparse account by comparison with the other gospels, more or less balanced Jewish and Roman trials of Jesus to demonstrate an equally ironic misunderstanding of Jesus’ identity from both Jewish and gentile perspectives. That is, neither the Jews or the gentiles fully understood who Jesus was during his ministry, and Mk in his Gospel bears this out. Mk was copied by the evangelists Mt and Lk who, in turn, added scenes, motifs and dialogue specifically for their respective communities. A small amount of this added Matthean and Lukan material accented Jewish culpability for the death of Jesus.
In this respect Mt added
Pilate’s wife’s dream and the begging to her husband not to harm Jesus in 27 19,
Pilate’s washing of his hands to show his own innocence of the blood of Jesus in 27 24, and
“the [Jewish] people’s” infamous reply, “his blood be on us and on our children” in 27 25.
Also, in this respect Lk added Pilate’s threefold pronouncement of his verdict of Jesus’ innocence in 23 4, 13-14, 22 and rather than having Jewish authorities hand Jesus over to Pilate, Pilate in effect hands Jesus over “to their will” in 23 25.

Two basic questions that many people ask about Gibson’s movie are:

1. “Is the movie accurate in terms of what we know from the Bible and from history?”

A. What is Accurate

The film offers a brutally accurate depiction of crucifixion and all that went with it (scourging, humiliation, etc.). You can refer to the JAMA’s 1986 article for a better understanding of just what crucifixion actually entailed. Jesus and the two thieves are not crucified naked in the film (as they would have been in real life) but that is about the only detail on which Gibson has flinched from showing us what the torture and crucifixion of condemned prisoners typically involved. “It is as it was,” the Pope is reported to have said. If you want to know what the Romans did to Jesus (and, of course, to thousands of other people) this film will show you that. These depictions go well beyond what is actually in the Bible but they do so in historically responsible ways, filling out what is mentioned in the Bible with details derived from reliable historical research.
For example, a crow lands on the cross of one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus and plucks out his eye. This is not in the Bible but, historically, it was the sort of thing that did happen to victims of crucifixion. Please refer to my definiti.ons\crucifix.ion.hen handout.
[The Gospel authors did not go into the details of crucifixion because that wasn’t the point of their Gospel and beside everyone in the first century who would have been the first to hear Mt’s Gospel would have known what crucifixion entailed.] In short, crucifixion paints a picture worth a million words to first century hearers and readers.

B. What is Inaccurate

There are numerous nonbiblical moments derived from Catholic tradition (Mary Magdalene as an adulteress/prostitute; Veronica blotting the face of Jesus with her veil) or from Gibson’s own imagination (Pilate’s wife bringing towels to Jesus’ mother for her to mop up the blood from Jesus’ scourging), but I did not think any of these distracted from the basically biblical line of the story. In my opinion they fall into the category of responsible artistic license. You may feel otherwise, and that is OK.

Also, Jesus is far more brutalized than the other two men being crucified.
Jesus is scourged and tortured, and then you have the two thieves. Jesus is nailed to the cross while the two thieves are tied to the cross with ropes and they have not been beaten or whipped or anything. For some reason Gibson wants to make it out as if Jesus suffering far worse than anyone else. Historically, that is simply not true. Historically the crucifixion of Jesus was in no way exceptional, and, in fact, if anything, Jesus did not suffer as much as crucifixion victims normally did because he died early.

They were surprised that he died so soon. Typically they could be dying on a cross for as many as five days before they finally died but for Jesus it was a matter of hours. Still, in pious sermons you’ll hear that “Jesus suffered more than any human being ever before.” That’s just not true; don’t go there; that’s not the point that needs to be made. You don’t want to lessen the brutality of Christ’s suffering, but indeed Jesus suffered in a way that was typical for Jewish victims of injustice. Jesus was literally one of thousands. In dying by crucifixion Jesus had a certain solidarity with those who had experienced the worse the world has to offer.
When the movie came out there was this idea that the suffering of Jesus was something that was uniquely horrible. On a historical level the Bible does not portray Jesus’ suffering as being uniquely horrible. It portrays the suffering of Jesus as being typical of many people’s sufferings. Jesus became one of the tens of thousands of victims of injustice. We miss the point when we try to make Jesus’ suffering extraordinary . We can understand the piety that motivates that but it’s misplaced. The Bible doesn’t do that. There is nothing in the Bible that shows that when they crucified Jesus, they were somehow more brutal, more cruel, more terrible.

The most glaring and obvious inaccuracy comes in the portrayal of Pilate.
Gibson’s movie sanitizes the portrait of Pilate and “let’s him off the hook” by portraying him as a somewhat benign figure, a nice guy, when, in fact, Pilate was a sadistic, cruel and terrible person.
Worse still, at the same time the movie seems to emphasize the involvement of the Temple priesthood.
According to Roman historians – such as Josephus – who if anything would not want to make Pilate look bad, Pilate crucified thousands of Jews – including women and children.
Pilate is the only known Roman who crucified children!
Pilate went down in Roman history as a sadist and it took a lot to be a sadist for Rome.
Pilate was deposed by Caesar for unwarranted cruelty and too many unnecessary executions.
So Pilate was really over the top.
We know from Philo of Alexandria that Pilate was inflexible, stubborn and cruel and that he routinely ordered executions without trial.
He was a notoriously harsh prefect, quick to crucify even potential political rebels.
The Bible does not go into a detailed characterization regarding his personality or motivations, but it offers nothing to contradict the portrait that we gain from other historical sources.

Jews know this about Pilate because Jewish children learn in synagogue schools about Antiochus Epiphanes IV, Pontius Pilate and Adolf Hitler. Pilate was not a nice guy!
They learn about Pilate as one of the all-time worst Roman governors who tortured and crucified thousands of Jewish people, and then they go to see The Passion of the Christ and Pilate is portrayed as a nice guy!
So the movie totally misses it on that one because his movie portrays Pilate as a kind and just ruler whose hand is forced by bloodthirsty Jewish priests.
However, the facts are that Pilate was not a weakling nor a pawn of the high priest. Pilate, in fact, represented the brutal Roman occupation in a harsh way.
I suspect that Gibson would defend such a portrayal by saying that he wanted to stick to what is in the Bible, which does indeed say that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent yet Pilate sentenced him to death to appease the Jewish priests.
In response, however, I would want to note that this is not what Gibson does in the rest of the movie.
That is, if he “fills in” the depiction of the crucifixion with details known from history, why not also allow details known from history to provide some kind of context for presenting the character of Pilate?
At the very least, I would ask, why interpret the limited biblical information about Pilate in exactly the opposite manner that history requires?
Most people in our churches, I presume, will not care much about this because they will evaluate the film in terms of what they learn about the crucifixion and the suffering of Jesus – not for what they learn about Pilate.
But there are some people (including Jewish people) who will care very deeply about such matters.
In this regard it should speak volumes to realize that Pilate is the only person specifically mentioned regarding the death of Jesus in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried.”
For close to 2000 years Christians all over the world have believed in and have been reciting these creeds.
Very clearly in these creeds it never says Jesus suffered under the Jews.
Officially, these creeds affirm what Christians believe.
Also, Pilate was governor of Judea for ten years and is to our knowledge the only Roman governor who was deposed by Caesar for excessive cruelty.
In summary, Pilate was a monster who would crucify people on a whim – a very different man than Gibson depicts.

Next, normally those being crucified would carry only the horizontal beam (patibulum) and not the entire cross.
The Douay Bible (The Douay Bible – Douay Version or DV – an English translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible made by a group of Roman Catholic scholars. The NT was published at Reims in 1582 and the OT at Douay (now Douai), France in 1609. It’s used by English-speaking Roman Catholics.) used by Roman Catholics says that Judas hung himself with a halter but that word, or anything like it, is not in the any Greek New Testament.
Aramaic was the daily language of Jews in Palestine, not Latin as we know it and certainly not the “street Latin” which was used in the movie. Please refer to my handout, Languages of the NT.
The Jewish high priest and the Roman prefect Pilate would have conversed in koine Greek, not Latin.
Pilate’s troops were invariably not Romans but employees of Rome and, as such, were Greek-speaking local gentiles on the imperial payroll.
Those from Rome would probably have conversed amongst themselves in Latin – possibly in Greek.

Next, we need to look at the churches of our day and age for further context. We have a tremendous variety of “Christianities” in the world.
For example, some Christians read the Bible literally without any need for interpretation. What the Bible says, it says!
On the other hand, some Christians view the 4 gospels as 4 different narratives that are loosely based on historical events.
These Christians acknowledge that the gospels we have were not written by the immediate eyewitnesses to those events; they are written decades later and they are written in ways that address the needs of the people at the time when they were writing.
Also, the Jews of today have been raised in an understanding of their history and they tend to know and understand their faith better than the Christians know and understand Christianity.
So Christians and Jews are going to react differently to the movie and within Christianity, the different varieties of Christians will also react differently to the movie.

Another inaccuracy involves Gibson’s conflation the gospel accounts into one story, something I would hope a Lutheran movie maker would never do.
Our Bible comes to us with four Gospel accounts covering the life of Jesus, and, at least, I think that we have these four accounts for good reasons. I don’t think the Spirit intended for us to have just one account of the life of Jesus to read and study. (If you want to argue against this assertion, you’re fighting a losing battle.)
We have four accounts, four passion stories in the Christian NT.
We keep those four accounts separate from each other – so much so that we use only one Gospel account a year in our lectionary. Each of the four accounts gets read in its own lectionary year.
That way we focus on one version of the passion story each year.
Gibson kind of weaves the four stories into one story and then presents it as literal history. That approach to the Gospel message would be controversial in modern Christianity. That said, there are Christian sects in America that would think that is exactly the right thing to do. And there are many Christian sects, for example, the ELCA, who would say that’s the wrong way to do it.
So, with that background and explanation, if Gibson really wanted to make a movie that is faithful to the gospels, as he has repeatedly said he was doing, then he would have had to make four movies, for example, The Passion of the Christ According to Luke. And if that went over, he still had three he could make! Just imagine the amount of material available to you to make your own movie – that is, if you only had a loose 25 million to do so!

So Lutherans, in part, object to this movie because it confuses the Gospel accounts in trying to harmonize them.
Putting the four gospels in a blender produces a pureed version of the Gospel that none of the four authors of the gospels ever wanted to tell.
The fact is that the evangelists who wrote the gospels told the story they felt called to tell to their audience.
Each evangelist came with a different background, call and set of circumstances.
Most Lutheran scholars agree the blended story is unfaithful to scripture because the fact of the matter is that we don’t find that (blended) story anywhere in scripture.
We find the elements that went into that story in scripture but we don’t find that story in scripture.

There are many Christians – including Lutherans – who just won’t get this conflation thing that Gibson has done with the four gospels. They will wonder what is wrong with conflating the four gospels because that has been the accepted practice where they worship. Anyway, I see Gibson’s harmonizing of the Gospel accounts in the movie as one of its many inaccuracies.

2. “Does the movie exhibit or encourage antiSemitism?”
[Actually, anti-Judaistic would be a more precise term for this context since other “Semites” are not in view.]

When Christians and Jews see this movie, they see two different films. Some Christians very much like the movie and some don’t. There are Christians who ask the question, “What’s this anti-Semitism thing? I just don’t get it. I didn’t see anything that made Jews look bad in the movie.”
The Jews more often than not don’t like it although there are some important exceptions. So we hear words like hypersensitive, paranoid and the like.

I wonder if Christians, Jews and Egyptians see two or three different movies with the movie The Prince of Egypt. The Egyptians were portrayed as bungling and stupid so how would Egyptians view this movie? Does a movie like that incite Jewish violence against Egyptians? To many that is a ludicrous thought.
Many Christians ask how anyone seeing Gibson’s movie would think that it’s anti-Semitic. The Passion shows Jesus being tortured and killed by Roman soldiers with the involvement of a handful of high ranking Jewish priests. Why would anyone think that has anything to do with modern Jews today? At some level many people just don’t get what the issue is.

First of all we need to be aware of three factors that have contributed to Jewish discomfort with The Passion.
1. We live in a time of rising anti-Semitism in all parts of the world.
2. Gibson is an outspoken Catholic Traditionalist who rejects many of the reforms of Vatican II.
3. Many Jews have a visceral fear of intense Christian religiosity based on a long history of anti-Semitic depredations.

That said, whether or not this movie exhibits or encourages anti-Semitism is a matter of perception – not intention.
To me, Mel Gibson has not done anything in this film that implies he intended to exhibit or encourage antiSemitism.
To the contrary, he seems to have made deliberate moves that he hopes will quell such sentiments.

I don’t know Gibson’s heart and who am I to judge anyway? I don’t see any sound reason to doubt that however mixed one’s motives might be, Gibson has had genuine spiritual intent in making this movie, an intent that stems from Is 53 and his own personal faith journey.

Still, those who have been worried about anti-Semitism may conclude that the film is indeed insensitive in ways that they find objectionable. For example, there is no escaping the fact that the “bad guys” in this movie are the Jewish priests who orchestrate Jesus’ arrest, sentencing, and execution.

In biblical times the Middle East contained a Jewish community which was occupied against its will by the Roman Empire. Jesus’ message was equally threatening to both sides. To the Romans Jesus was a potential revolutionary who threatened the Pax Romana. To the establishment of Jewish priests Jesus threatened the status quo with his preaching of a new covenant.

Also, we must always remember that the roots of Christian anti-Semitism lie in overly literal readings, which are, in fact, misreadings, of may NT texts. The gospels can be read in many ways but if you read them literally – without knowledge of what they describe in terms of institutions and politics – then the Jews can become the enemies, the opposition. NT scholars have long understood that we must not take these passages at face value – as fully reliable reports of recent events. The passages must be situated, instead, in their historical context of when the events occurred and when the events were written about.

As such, the gospels cannot be used as a pretext for anti-Jewish sentiment. The NT polemical texts, even those expressed in general terms, have to do with concrete historical contexts and were never meant to be applied to Jews of all times and all places merely because they are Jews.
[Characteristics of polemical language throughout antiquity include the tendency to speak in general terms, to accentuate the adversaries’ negative side and to pass over the positive in silence, and failure to consider their motivations and their ultimate good faith.] These characteristics are no less evident in Judaism and primitive Christianity against all kinds of dissidents.

Notably, for example, when the Gospel writers implicated “the Jews” in Jesus’ passion story, they did not mean all Jewish people then alive, much less those then unborn.
These authors had a very specific group of Jews in mind – the Temple elite who believed Jesus might provoke Pilate.
For example, “the Jews” in Jn clearly refers to Jewish officials and not just any Jewish officials – just those connected with the Temple and not, for example, some official in a local synagogue in Galilee.
The Jews who desired Jesus’ death were in the priesthood and had political as well as theological reasons for acting.
Like today’s Catholic bishops who were slow to condemn abusive priests, protestant TV evangelists who confuse religion and politics and even Muslim clerics who are so silent on terrorism emanating from those within their faith, they all have an investment in their positions and authority.

Also, there is a pretty strong critique of the Caiaphas family in the NT but, frankly, the Jewish historian Josephus critiques the same family when he criticizes the action taken against Jesus’ brother James in the year 62, when James was martyred at the hands of the descendent of Caiaphas.
Historically, some Jewish officials played a role in handing Jesus over to Pilate, and although Pilate and his forces were responsible for the execution, this should not lead to anti-Italianism.

That said, Gibson seems to single out the high priest as the one who faces off against Jesus from beginning to end.
This figure has a part beyond the high priest in the gospels who presides over the night tribunal where he asks the definitive question of Jesus and pronounces the verdict of blasphemy.
See Mk 14 60-64, Mt 26 62-66 and Lk 22 66-71.

Given that, Gibson does make a number of moves that should not go unnoticed:

1. During the “Sanhedrin trial scene,” two priests (probably Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, though they are not named) protest the process and specifically want to know “why the entire council has not been called.”
Thus, Gibson encourages us to think that the “bad priests” represent a rogue minority, not Jewish priests as a whole.
The point is subtle and easily missed.

2. In the scene where the Jewish priests stir up the crowd to ask Pilate to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, the priests are the only persons in the mob who are obviously Jewish. Of course, viewers may just assume that all the people in the crowd are Jewish or they may not. When asked about this scene, all of the Christians who saw the movie and who did not have close knowledge of the biblical story thought it was “a crowd of people”, not a “a crowd of Jews,” that the people were representative of “humanity” (not “Jews”).

3. In the scene just mentioned, Gibson essentially omits the line from Mt 27 25 in which the (Jewish?) people cry out “Let his blood be upon us and our children” a verse that has often been interpreted by antiSemites as explaining why Jews are “under a curse.” Actually, a few people in the crowd do say this, but they say it in Aramaic without subtitles – so for anyone who does not speak Aramaic, the line is essentially omitted.

4. Gibson plays up the sadism of the Roman soldiers so that the audience’s greatest antipathy will probably be directed at them. The priests are corrupt, but the soldiers are much worst; they are demonic and inhuman. He also portrays these despicable soldiers specifically as antiSemites. For example, in one scene, a soldier pushes Simon of Cyrene an innocent passerby and spits on him, shouting, “Jew!”

Still, the question remains whether any of this will be enough. The bad priests, dressed conspicuously in their formal robes, are the most obviously Jewish people in the story and they are a fixture throughout the film. Regarding deicide, if someone comes to the film looking for a reason to regard Jews as “Christ killers,” well, there it is.

One scene displays the dilemma of interpretation (perception) well for me. In the Bible, when the Roman soldiers nail Jesus to the cross, he prays “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
This happens in the movie as well. The Romans are directly responsible for killing Jesus and he prays for them to be forgiven. But, then, Gibson adds something not in the Bible. In the scene where the high priest taunts Jesus on the cross (see Mt 27 4143), Jesus responds by praying a second time, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
In case we don’t get it, one of the thieves shouts down to Caiaphas, “This time, he is praying for you!” What is the point?

My guess is that Gibson thinks he has gone out of his way here (even departing from the biblical account) to show that Jesus wants the Jews (as well as the Romans) to be forgiven for what they did.
But I would also guess that some viewers will take this departure from the biblical story in another way, as emphasizing that the Jews (as well as the Romans) need such forgiveness because they are (at least) as responsible as the Romans for putting Jesus to death.

Thus, the film seems to suggest that
a) the Jews do bear responsibility for playing a critical role in the crucifixion of Jesus; but
b) they should not be held accountable for this, since Jesus died willingly for the forgiveness of their sins, and indeed for the sins of all humanity.
I leave it to you to decide whether such a stance exhibits or encourages antiSemitism.

Note:
To hate Jews because they are Jews, to hate anyone for that matter, is a sin in the Christian cosmos, for Jesus commands his followers to love their neighbor as themselves.
On another level, anti-Semitism is a form of illogical and self-defeating self-loathing.
Bluntly put, Jesus had to die for the Christian story to unfold, and the proper Christian posture toward the Jewish people should be one of respect, for the man Christians choose to see as their savior came from the ancient tribe of Judah, the very name from which “Jew” is derived.
As children of Abraham, Christians and Jews are branches of the same tree, linked in the mystery of God.

To me, Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is an audacious and artful cinematic achievement representing by far the most compelling motion picture adaptation of a biblical story ever attempted by Hollywood.
That is not to say that I agree with everything he has presented because I don’t.
I do not see The Passion of the Christ as an attempt to affix blame on any one group of people, particularly Jews, for Jesus’ death.
In some measure everyone is to blame for Jesus’ death including the disciples who deny, betray and desert.
Although the Romans are especially depicted as to blame for the sadistic treatment of Jesus, the essential Christian message is that it is human sin that killed Jesus.
It is better, to me, to talk about what, rather than who, killed Jesus from a theological point of view.

So what are some of the benefits of the movie?

stimulating thought, discussion, opportunity for evangelism, edification – a teachable moment, rethinking one’s faith life

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
A SURVEY IN CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION

History

While it is important to remember that the Romans crucified thousands of mostly Jewish people in Palestine, in terms of historical responsibility, what is the Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus?
Historians who have studied the crucifixion of Jesus debate the extent of Jewish involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus, but almost all of them are in unanimous agreement that the primary responsibility for the death of Jesus falls on the Roman government.
Jesus was condemned to death by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate; he was tortured and executed by Roman soldiers.
It’s a fact of history that the Romans killed Jesus.
Jesus was crucified as a Jewish victim of Roman violence; Jesus was not crucified as a Christian victim of Jewish violence.
Jesus was not a Christian; he was a Jew.

Granted that, were there Jews involved in Jesus’ crucifixion? Were there Jews who wanted Jesus dead, who were part of the plot to have Jesus killed?
Historians differ here but some say “not at all, that this is just a smear of anti-Semitism, that, in fact, Jesus was crucified as a Jewish victim of Roman violence and that it’s the ultimate irony that Jews would be blamed for his death when he was, in fact, a Jew who was a victim of Roman death.”
This is a minority view.

Most historians acknowledge that probably there was some limited involvement of some Jews who were opposed to Jesus.
Specifically, some of the priests in Jerusalem did not like things that Jesus was saying in that Jesus opposed aristocracy and pretty much anyone in power.
Basically, Jesus made most powerful people mad and some of those powerful people were Jewish.
So there is some historical accuracy in saying that there were priests in Jerusalem at the time who – in what way we do not know – but who did not go out of their way to stick up for him, to rescue him or to spare him and who, in fact, gave the Roman authorities the “thumbs up” when it came to the execution of Jesus.

Hence, all authorities agree that Jesus was crucified as a Jewish victim of Roman violence.
The Romans get most of the blame but there were some high-ranking Jewish people in on it.
A Gentile Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, condemned him to death and had him tortured and executed by Gentile Roman soldiers.
He was, indeed, just one of thousands of Jews crucified by the Romans during this period.

All four gospels depict Pilate as finding Jesus not guilty ( Mk 15 14; Mt 27 23; Lk 23 14; Jn 18 38 ).
All four gospels depict the Jews as calling for Jesus’ crucifixion ( Mk 15 11-13; Mt 27 20-22; Lk 23 18-23; Jn 18 6, 15 ) perhaps out of jealousy or envy ( Mk 15 10; Mt 27 18 ).
Lk’s Pilate tries to evade responsibility for the situation by sending Jesus off to Herod on the grounds that the Galilean subject should be tried by the Galilean ruler in 23 6-11.
Jn has the Jews explicitly declare their desire for Jesus’ death.
When Pilate instructs them to “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him,” the Jews insist “We have a law and by that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” Jn 19 6-7; 18 30-31.
This refers to the penalty for blasphemy in Le 24 16.
Perhaps the most damning and infamous passage is Mt 27 24-27: “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ Then he released for them Barabbas and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.”

Bible scholars recognize that the NT gospels tend to play up the involvement of the Jews and to play down the involvement of the Romans.
This is definitely more prevalent in Mt and Jn than in Mk and Lk.
When you read Mt and Jn the involvement level seems to be the reverse of what most historians think.
The Romans are in there but it’s the Jewish priests in Jerusalem who are the bad guys in this story and who have the major responsibility for wanting to get Jesus out of the way.
Scholars note that this is the reverse of what was historically the case.
It’s not necessarily true that the gospels are reporting something that is false but their focus is wrong.
Even if everything they report is completely accurate, which is debated, it’s what they don’t report that leaves the focus much more on the Jews than on the Romans.

So why do the Gospel authors do that? A variety of explanations exist.
Some years ago the prominent theory was that they wanted to make nice with the Romans because the Romans were by now the serious threat.
As the early Christian movement expanded into the Mediterranean world, Christians did not want to offend their Hellenistic audience so they pushed more of the responsibility onto the Jewish authorities and crowds.
By the time the NT gospels were written in 85 to 90, Christians didn’t have to fear being persecuted by Jews but they had to be fear being persecuted by Romans.
It was Caesar who was feeding people to the lions and killing the Christians so the Christians thought that it would be better to tell the story in a way that didn’t make the Romans look too bad.
Then you have to have a scapegoat which fell on that handful of Jews that might have had something to do with it.
That was a prominent theory still held by some today but it is no longer the majority view.

That explanation is no longer accepted because now it’s more realistic to understand this responsibility shift toward the Jews as due more to the changes occurring within the various Judaistic sects between 65 and 85 CE than anything else.
Still, at the time of the Jesus’ crucifixion, there was a definite convergence of interest between the Jewish leaders and the Roman rulers in arranging Jesus’ death.
Jesus’ message and action most likely were a threat to the religious as well as the political authorities.
Both had something to gain with Jesus out of the picture.

Other explanations include:
emphasizing the injustice done to Jesus
He was rejected by the very persons who should have supported him
personalizing the message of his atonement for Israel
He died for our sins (not just those of gentiles).
explaining the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE
a corrupt priesthood brought this upon us
For example, Jn was written two generations after Jesus’ crucifixion in a time, the 90s, when the Roman Empire controlled Palestine and in a period of unprecedented polemic and antagonism between the emerging Christian church and the religious establishment of the Jewish people.

The majority view has now shifted more to this being a matter of internal Jewish polemic, that is, a matter of inter-Jewish discussions rather than as polemic between opposing religions.
Mt and Jn did not think of themselves as being members of a different religion.
They were ethnically Jewish; they had been brought up Jewish; they were Torah-observant.
They were some first century version of “Jews for Jesus.”
They thought of themselves as Jews who believed in Jesus.
They didn’t think that believing in Jesus as Messiah made them not Jewish.
They did not think of Christianity as a separate religion.
They knew there were different parties of Jews and they saw themselves as just one more party of Jews.
So it was not a matter of Gentile-Christians trying to blame Jews for something in their mind but it was an internal matter of one group of Jews trying to engage in polemic against another group of Jews.

Specifically why the polemic?
The Gospel authors were writing around the years 85 to 90, and Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in 70. So a prominent question among Jews of any variety at that time was, “Why did God let this happen?”
Granted, everyone blamed the Romans because they destroyed Jerusalem but why did God let this happen?

A logical reason to Mt and his community was that the priests cooperated with the Romans in the execution of Jesus. The more mainstream, non-literalistic Christianity, allowed that in telling the story Mt was not simply recounting in some dispassionate way what somebody in the year 33 or 34 would have written.
You don’t have a reporter who had been on hand at the crucifixion and who was now simply recording the story.
Rather, you have the view of a Christian Jew in the year 85 who is dealing with questions like, “Why was the Temple destroyed by the Romans?”
That Jewish Christian is now reading that back into the telling of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus and playing some literary license in the telling of his story.
In many of the major Christian denominations this approach to the Bible is standard.
Seminaries teach to understand the Bible in this way – to not just take the Gospel stories as literalistic historical reports.
So among those churches, the movie that Mel Gibson made, The Passion of the Christ, is having a little bit more trouble and it is not receiving nearly an enthusiastic a reception.
Gibson seems to take the Gospel accounts as literalistic renderings of historical events without allowing for an interpretive overlay.

So you now have one group of Jews pointing the finger at another group of Jews and saying, “God is mad at us because of you.”
Since it was Jerusalem and the Temple that was destroyed, the likely fall guys were the priests in the Temple.
So a prominent theory now is that the authors of Mt and Jn are not blaming the Jewish people or the Jewish religion for the death of Jesus.
They are blaming the “bad Jews” in Jerusalem, specifically the priesthood, for doing something that made God mad and that’s why the Temple and the city got destroyed.
It was “our” Temple and “our” Jerusalem.
There is tremendous respect throughout Mt for the city of Jerusalem and for the Temple which now lay in ruins.

Mt is writing in Antioch, a Jewish community, and he’s saying the Jewish priests in Jerusalem had Jesus the Messiah put to death and that’s why our city and our Temple was destroyed.
Something like that seems to be going on from their perspective.
But the gospels were only read like that for a very short period of time because within a generation Christianity became a gentile religion.
When that happened, you now have Gentile-Christians reading Mt and Jn and they were not reading this as an intra-Jewish polemic.
They were now reading it as polemic against another foreign religion – that of the Jews.

So already by the second century we have Christians saying “the Jews killed Jesus and they have been cursed by God for doing this.”
After Christianity became a gentile religion, these Gospel accounts were often interpreted and read in ways that fostered anti-Semitism.
They have been read that way for centuries.

It’s a kind of “chicken and egg” thing. Which comes first?
Have Christian interpretations of the passion created anti-Semitism? Yes, they sometimes have.
Or, has anti-Semitism created some of the Christian interpretations of the passion of Jesus? That, too, has happened.
That is to say, do you think the Gospel stories, especially those of Mt and Jn, have caused people to become anti-Semitic or do you think Mt and Jn get read and interpreted the way they do because people are anti-Semitic?

Certainly there have been many who are not anti-Semitic who have read Mt and Jn and not read them in an anti-Semitic way.
But it’s a fact of life today that NT texts have been read in ways that have fostered anti-Semitism for centuries.
The Holocaust was a major wake-up call for Christianity with respect to the reality of anti-Semitism and the potential for Christian documents to indeed encourage and foster anti-Semitism.
While it’s true that not all of the victims of the Holocaust were Jews, all of the Jews were victims

So, the NT testifies to these basic facts, most scholars agree, allowing for Jewish involvement in Jesus’ crucifixion in two ways:
1. A few highranking Jewish authorities who owed their position and their power to the Romans conspired with the Gentile leaders to have Jesus put to death.
That is to say, there were some Jewish priests who wanted Jesus dead and who conspired with the Romans to have that brought about.
This in no way implies that this was all of the Jewish priests, Jewish religious aristocracy or hierarchy.
It was a small group of compromised Jewish priests who had sold out for their own religion, who were jealous and who wanted to cooperate with the Roman authorities because they perceived Jesus as a threat to the status quo.
2. There was an unruly, rowdy mob of people in Jerusalem who called for Jesus to be crucified similar to that of a lynch mob in the old west.
The NT doesn’t say they were Jewish people.
Although it’s usually assumed that they are Jews, the Bible itself doesn’t say they were Jews.
The number and, for that matter, ethnic identification, of persons in this “crowd” is not given, nor is any motive supplied for their action (except so say that they had been “stirred up” in Mk 15 11).

N. T. Wright says it fairly well with “I realize it’s not popular to say that historically Jewish leaders ought to be blamed for bringing about the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s currently popular to blame it on the Romans perhaps because there is no anti-defamation league operating on behalf of Romans these days.”
Most historians say that the facts seem to be that high ranking Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead and the Romans were happy to oblige them.

Politics

Rome alone had the sovereign authority to crucify therefore it is Rome who ultimately held the decision in their hands.
Their point in these public executions, as opposed to private murder, was to send a message.
That Jesus was crucified implies that Pilate was concerned about sedition for Pilate ultimately had to answer to Rome if things didn’t go well in Palestine.
Clear evidence of the political nature of the execution – that Pilate and the high priest were ridding themselves of a “Messiah” who might disrupt society and not offer salvation – is the sign that Pilate ordered affixed to Jesus’ cross.
Pilate’s message is not from the knowing Romans to the evil Jews.
Rather, it’s a scornful signal to the crowds that this death awaits any man the people proclaim to be “the king of the Jews.”
In crucifying Jesus and placing a sign on his cross, Pilate was in effect telling the many Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover to desist from any thought of rebellion – or this will happen to you too!

Theology

Central to Christianity is Jesus’ death and resurrection, and his passion, his trials, suffering, and crucifixion which leads up to that.
We have 4 different accounts of Jesus’ passion in which Jews play different roles.
All accounts culminate in the death and resurrection of Jesus as revealing God’s saving power available to humanity.
Much of the NT is written in polemical style which portrayed some, but not all, of the Jews and Jesus as adversaries.

The fact of the matter is that Christians were just one of the many Jewish sects in existence at that time.
We also had the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots (a radical political movement) and the Essenes – along with the followers of Jesus know as The Way.
[By the time we get to the second century there are only two groups left, the Pharisees and the Christians.
The Pharisees become rabbinic Jews.
We know when the two Judaistic parties were separated by:
when the Romans saw the members of the early Jesus movement no longer as Jews but as a separate group;
when Jews saw the Jesus movement as a separate group; and
when Christians saw themselves as no longer attached to Judaism.] That is, Jesus was a first century Jew who engaged in disputes with other Jews of the first century over issues important to first century Judaism such as their interpretation of the law.
Jesus was also criticized for not adhering to a strict interpretation of Sabbath-keeping; his claim that he had the power to forgive sins was considered blasphemous; his association with “sinners” without preconditions was offensive.

There existed in Jesus’ time much theological variety within Judaism.
All Jews worshiped only one God, and all believed in the divine election of Israel, the divine origin of the law and repentance and forgiveness.
Apart from that, there were many, many different beliefs within Judaism.

Following the crucifixion the followers of Jesus, known as The Way, were just one of many branches branch within Judaism.
So the disputes between the Jesus-followers within Judaism and the other Jews in the first century was more of a family dispute within Judaism.
So when the question is asked, “Are the passion stories found in the gospels antiSemitic?” I would say that they are not because in their original context the troubling verses are seen to reflect a vigorous intraJewish debate, not firstcentury antiSemitism.
To take sound bytes from the gospels is to misuse them and to foster anti-Semitism.
In their original historical, social, and literary contexts, the verses were part of a vigorous intraJewish debate which was certainly not antiSemitic at all.

That is, Christianity started within Judaism and for the longest time these Jesus-followers did not foresee their separation from the Temple or synagogue.
Ultimately they did, in fact, move away from Judaism.
In their minds, the coming of Jesus didn’t amount to supersession of Israel but was rather the fulfillment of what God had promised Israel.
Still, there was painful conflict which led to an eventual break between the synagogue and the emerging church.

Even so, it would be wrong to think that close ties between Christians and Jews were instantly or fully severed in the early church.
For centuries, many Christians from Asia Minor to Africa continued to attend synagogue services and observe Jewish high holidays.
Fourth century gentile Christians, despite the ideology of their own bishops, kept Saturdays as their day of rest, accepted gifts of matzo from Jewish friends at Passover and indeed still celebrated Easter according to when Jews kept Passover.

With the passage of time some of these Jesus-followers, now known as Christians, tended to ignore or minimize Jesus’ Jewishness, some even denying that he was Jewish at all.
As the Roman Empire went Christian in the early third century under Constantine, Jesus was increasingly seen as the divine incarnation of the second person of the Trinity and less as a Jew from Nazareth.

In time, according to Professor Levine, when Jesus’ Judaism was noted, it was “only to say that he was ‘rejected by his own’ or that he came ‘to demolish the old system from within.’”

Over the centuries, a willful disregard of the Jewishness of Jesus and his teaching thereby tended to feed the flames of anti-Semitism.

The Christian scriptures were less interested in recording historical facts about Jesus’ death than in explaining the meaning of that death.
Rather, Christian theology has been interested in why this happened and has consistently explained the meaning of Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin.
That is, Christians claim that Jesus died as an atonement for sin which would quickly take us into a further discussion of substitution, punishment and propitiation, that is, of course, were we to have the time to explore this. But, we don’t right now. So …
His death is interpreted
as a “ransom” that frees people from the effects of sin (Mk 10 45),
as a sacrifice that removes the consequences of sin (Jn 1 29); and
as a loving act that reconciles humans with a forgiving God of love (Ro 5 610).

For Christians, historical responsibility for the death of Jesus is theologically irrelevant.
Who was responsible for the historical act of bringing Jesus to death is theologically irrelevant because Christians do not believe that Jesus was overpowered by hostile Romans or Jews or anyone else.
That’s not the point!
Christians believe that Jesus died because it was God’s will
That is, the passion narrative that lies at the heart of western Christianity is not about bad Jews or bad Romans.
The passion narrative is a story about sinful humanity whose religious and governmental institutions fail to bring about the justice that only God can bestow.
The passion narrative is about the depravity and injustice of human nature that is in need for God’s miraculous gift of salvation.

Christians believe that whatever the precise circumstances of his execution, Jesus died in obedience to the will of God.
Christian believe Jesus died because it was God’s will for him to give his life as an atonement for the sins of the world.
So Jesus was, in fact, obedient to this purpose (Pp 2 8).
It would be hard to find a more basic, confession of the Christian faith than “Christ died for our sins.”
In other words, Christian theology has never viewed Jesus as a murder victim.
Christians do not believe Jesus was crucified because the Romans or the Jews or anyone else somehow overpowered him and put him to death.
Christians believe that Jesus was crucified because God sent him to die, and Jesus in obedience to the will of God accepted this and gave his life willingly to die for our sins.
If Jesus came and in accord with scriptures and in accord with the will of God voluntarily and willingly gave his life as an atonement for our sin, it doesn’t any difference whether it was Jews or Romans involved.
It is surprising how few of the Jewish people know and understand this. Few of them get that.
So although there might be Christians who believe that historically there were high-ranking Jews involved in bringing about the death of Jesus, in terms of our religion, we don’t believe that’s significant.
So whatever the players might have been – Roman soldiers, Roman governor, Jewish priests, unruly mob – they were just pawns in the playing out of what was indeed the will of God, Jesus dying as an atonement for sin.

So Christian theologians have never claimed that Jesus was killed by the Jews or by the Romans but that God gave his son to die for our sins and that Jesus as the obedient Son of God went willingly to death, that the forces had no power over him but rather that he gave himself as a sacrifice to pay for our sins.

So who really killed Jesus?
As a matter of history, the Roman Empire did but as a matter of theology, the sins of the world – you and me – took Jesus to the cross.

Jesus underwent his passion and death freely because of sins of all men for all times and out of infinite love in order that all may reach salvation.

As to suffering, if Jesus had not suffered all the indignities he went through before the crucifixion, but had still died and rose for our sins, our sins would still have been atoned for.
It is in the death and resurrection of Christ, and not the degree or length of his suffering, that atones for sin.
It is the death and resurrection that matters.

Christians who liked the movie seem to do so because they think it is either educational or inspirational in its portrayal of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus.
To them the movie did not seem to be touting itself as educational or inspirational in its portrayal of the Jews or the Romans.
Others say of the movie that there is plenty of agony and graphic violence but not much ecstasy.
In this regard see note about Mel’s millions above.
Another viewpoint would be that of Martin Marty: “The humanistic and theological point: pain is pain, suffering is suffering, torture is torture, and horrible pain-suffering-torture is horrible … The point now is not to accept grace because we saw gore. The issue is not, were his the worst wounds ever, but, as the gospels show, the issue was, and is, who was suffering and to what end (my emphasis). Christians believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed, and they are to find meaning in his sacrificial love and death, not to crawl in close to be sure they get the sign of the worst physical suffering.”

After Christianity became a gentile religion, the Gospel accounts were often interpreted in anti-Semitic cultures as justifying persecution and oppression of Jewish people who were said to be cursed by God for killing the Christ.
The history of anti-Semitic interpretations of the passion story and of anti-Semitic presentations of passion plays (see below) continues to fuel the pronounced concern in modern Jewish communities over these presentations, including Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
One must understand that history in order to understand and appreciate the level of concern on the part of the Jewish community.
Christians have a hard time understanding the level of the concern in the Jewish community.
The difference between these anti-Semitic interpretations and other situations involving the Japanese at Pearl Harbor or the Mexicans at the Alamo is that, for instance, we have not had hundreds of years of Texans persecuting, marginalizing and oppressing Mexicans because of what they did at the Alamo. Don’t the Egyptians look pretty bad when they watch The Ten Commandments? Why aren’t the Jews accused of anti-Egyptianism?
Whatever happens there is on a different level. They just don’t get the level of concern.
If you had hundreds of years of Jews being in power and doing to the Egyptians what has been done to them, then you would attain that level of concern.
But there has been hundreds of years of persecution of Jewish people in officially Christian nations that was justified because the Jews killed Jesus and are therefore accursed of God – Christ killers.
However, that hardly gives either community free rein to say and do as they see fit without regard for the facts.

Preaching

So how does this work itself out in the pulpit of most Christian congregations of almost any denomination?
Whether you are talking with Roman Catholics or Lutherans or Baptists or almost any variety of Christianity, preaching has tried to drive home, to proclaim the relevance of Jesus’ atoning death to their immediate audience.
It is not something that happened long ago and far away but it is relevant to us today.
They do not just preach general theology (“Christ died for the sins of the whole world”) but specific application of that theology (“Christ died for our sins!”).

Christian preachers do not usually dwell on the literal historical responsibility for the death of Jesus such as “The Romans killed Jesus” or “The Jews killed Jesus”.
Rather, Christian preachers emphasize a nonliteral, personal responsibility for the death of Jesus: “We crucified Jesus you and I; his blood was shed on our account.”

That’s been my experience in growing up in the Lutheran church. You don’t hear “the Jews killed Jesus and therefore they are accursed of God” but what you hear is “Jesus died for our sins.”
Yet, why did Jesus die? It wasn’t because of the tricky Jews or the sadistic Romans. It was because you and I are such miserable sinners that our sins demanded a costly sacrifice. That’s what we hear in the church; that’s what they preach.

“We are responsible for the death of Christ.” Preachers find different ways of trying to drive home the message that we, as individual Christians, must take personal responsibility because Christ died for us, one way or the other.
Many, many Christian hymns bring this out as well.

Therefore, Christian theology is in no way anti-Semitic. It seems that probably the historical facts are that some Jews were involved in instigating and bringing about the death of Jesus, but it doesn’t make any difference if they were or not. So you could lay that aside. Look at the hymns we sing about this such as the second verse of Ahithophel, Holy Jesus:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.
We have never had to purge our hymn books of hymns about how the Jews are to be accursed for killing Jesus. We don’t have hymns like that; it’s not a part of Christian theology. There’s nothing like that in any of the confessions or creeds of the historic Christian church. There is nothing in the Augsburg Confession or the Westminster Confession or the Thirty-Nine Articles. There is nothing in Christian theology about that.
Another example would be Were You There? in which we hear Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble, …
This is where our piety and our preaching and our theology is.

Many NT scholars agree that the earliest NT writings were written by Jews who wanted to emphasize what our role was in Jesus’ death. For example, a Jewish writer such as Paul was saying that Jesus died for us, because of our sins. We can’t just blame his death on the Romans. We must take responsibility for it. So Jewish writers were blaming themselves for the death of Jesus. It’s no difference than the Baptist preacher pointing to his congregation and saying “It’s your fault that Jesus went to the cross. You were to blame.” That’s what Paul was doing except that he had a Jewish congregation. Paul was not saying those Jews killed Jesus; Paul was saying we Jews killed Jesus. We must take responsibility for our sins that brought him to the cross.

So when that stuff got written down and Christianity became a gentile religion, it didn’t read the same. And then when you have anti-Semitic people read these documents in which Jewish writers were saying that we Jews killed Jesus, they were reading them as those Jews killed Jesus which led to all sorts of things. Passion plays were some of the worst examples of this, plays which played up on all kinds of ethnic prejudices against Jews and still sometimes do today.

So in summary all agree that the gospels, especially Mt and Jn, tell us that Jesus was a Jesus victim of Roman violence, that Christian theology has always claimed that Jesus came and gave his life willingly and died for us, for our sins, and that Christian preachers have always tried to impress upon their congregation that we, that you individually, every Christian believer takes responsibility for Jesus’ death.

INTERPRETATION OF THE DEATH OF JESUS
IN AN ANTISEMITIC WORLD

Without a doubt anti-Semitism is real historically in many cultures.
In gentile parts of the world in which anti-Semitism has flourished, the NT gospels have been read and interpreted in anti-Semitic ways.
Church fathers – such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Chrysostom – popes, Luther, and many, many others have been responsible for anti-Semitic comments and writings.

A history of anti-Semitic interpretations of the passion story and of anti-Semitic presentations of passion plays fuels a pronounced concern in modern Jewish communities over Gibson’s movie.
There is much concern over this movie because the Christian gospels have been read and interpreted in ways that produce anti-Semitism and that has never been more true than with regard to the passion story.
There are other things in Mt and Jn but it really comes to a head when you get the story of the passion.
Then the elements of anti-Semitism and interpretation have often come to the fore and this has been especially played out in the passion plays.

Passion Plays – the interpretation of the death of Jesus in an anti-Semitic world

Presentations of the Passion of Jesus in Christian history have sometimes moved from preaching to polemics.
In cultures where antiSemitism runs high, Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus has been emphasized, and reinterpreted as conveying blame rather than conveying atonement.
Such interpretations of the passion have rarely (if ever) found official acceptance among Christian theologians, but they would flourish at a popular level and would serve to justify centuries of discrimination and persecution of Jewish people.

Thus, Matthew’s Gospel and similar texts would come to be read by Gentile Christians not as saying, “we crucified Jesus” but as saying “they crucified Jesus.”
The essential theological meaning of the story was lost, replaced by a political and social interpretation that explained why Jewish people ought to be despised by Gentiles.
Jews were routinely condemned in such cultures as “Christkillers” and the misfortunes of Jewish people were explained as a consequence of having been cursed by God for their involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah.

The most visible representations of these antiSemitic interpretations of the passion were the passion plays that date from the twelfth century and which have been performed in many European communities as well as in other Western Christian countries.
Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries more than 300 villages in Germany and Austria re-enacted the passion in plays – annually and for hundreds of years.
In an era before television and cinema, such plays were a principal form of entertainment and were performed annually, opening each year on Ash Wednesday and running throughout the Lenten season (that is, until Easter), literally for 40 days not counting Sundays.
They weren’t done on Sundays because they weren’t done in churches.
They were often produced and performed by secular troupes apart from any official sanction of the church.

Over the past several centuries lethal bloody reactions have occurred against Jews following passion play performances.
In 1338 Freiburg banned the performance of anti-Jewish scenes in that town’s play and similar protective measures had to be taken in other towns as well.
It was in these passion plays that Jesus became a Christian victim of Jewish violence rather than a Jewish victim of Roman violence.
Part of the entertainment value of the plays is that you had to have good guys and bad guys.
The plays were presented in such a way that Jesus and the rest of the good guys were not shown to be Jewish too, just as the bad guys were Jewish.
Only the bad people looked and sounded like Jews.

Features of the passion plays that exhibited and encouraged AntiSemitism include:
the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples was minimized or completely ignored;
the only characters who appeared Jewish were the “bad Jews” who conspired to kill Christ;
the characterization of these “bad Jews” tended to be melodramatic they were presented as sinister and demonic figures whose opposition to Jesus lacked any reasonable motive;

actors playing these supposedly firstcentury Jews would portray them in ways associated with contemporary Jewish figures dressing in garb worn by Jews of the current day, speaking with affected Jewish accents, and drawing for comic effect on negative stereotypes associated with Jewish people in the culture where the play was performed;
the role of the (Gentile) Roman government in Jesus’ execution was greatly minimized.
Pilate was presented as a sympathetic figure, forced to sentence Jesus by the hostile Jews.
In short, Jesus became a Christian victim of Jewish violence rather than a Jewish victim of Roman violence.

In recent years (especially since the Holocaust of the Nazi era), virtually all Christian churches have repudiated the production of such inaccurate and culturally insensitive passion plays.
In 1988 the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, issued guidelines for dramatic presentations of Christ’s passion, in hope that mistakes of the past could be avoided.
Those guidelines appear in National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 15 page document Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.
The play is to make absolutely clear that if the involvement of the Jewish priest is a part of the play, it is to be made abundantly clear to the audience that this is a small minority of corrupt priests rather than the Jewish priests as a whole.
Accountability for the death of Jesus is to be laid primarily on the Romans.
The Romans are not to be exonerated but the passion play is to make obvious the Roman involvement as being first and foremost in the death of Jesus.
Passion plays are to make clear to the audience that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate and that Jesus was crucified under the Romans as a Jewish victim of Roman violence.

The resurrection of Jesus

For all of us there have happened events in our lives that changed them forever, events that happened at various times along the way of living that had they not happened, things would have just remained as they were, nothing having changed, and life would have gone on just as before.
But for each of us, when these life-changing events did happen, by definition, they would have been life-altering. Some of them would have been good and some of them would have been bad. And, for some of them, the character of the event might not actually be known until later in time than when the event first occurred. That is, something which at first seemed very bad might, in time, quite unexpectedly turn out to be something incredibly good.

Events that most of us would agree were life-changing in our own lives would have included meeting and falling in love with our wife or husband, the birth of our children, and so on. The list is endless. On the other side of the coin some of us have experienced loss of that spouse and even the loss of a child. Events like those, when they occurred, also changed forever our lives that would follow. Nothing was ever going to be the same again. Whether the events were good or bad, we might not have known it at the time that it happened, but our future had changed forever.

All of us can look back over the span of time and see in our own lives example after example of things like these, something that happened that, once again, changed our lives forever. All of us have had people cross our paths or events that became a part of our lives – people and events that forever changed our lives that followed.

That all now said, there has been but one event that happened in history that was most central and most important – an event that happened to all people of all times and places, whether or not they know it. There has been this one, particular event that happened in history that forever changed the lives of all peoples everywhere, that forever changed history as it was and history as it would be from then on. There was this one event that changed the lives of everyone forever.

Theologians, of necessity, sometimes have to use “big words” when communicating their thoughts. Words like justification, sanctification, dehumanization, deterritorialization and so on. That’s just the tip of the iceberg! As I’ve talked about previously these words form “portable stories” that allow scholars and theologians to converse with one another using fewer words to teach and to get their points across. Here in the more real world we don’t do that, but when studying the Bible I sometimes wonder why it is that we don’t use these portable stories more because once you get to an understanding of these “big words,” things start to make far more sense than they ever did before.

Anyway, one of the smaller “big words” that these theologians and scholars use to describe what I’ve been so far talking about in these first five paragraphs is the word prolepsis. You’ve heard me use it before in some of the classes I’ve taught here. In fact, I vividly remember the first time I heard this word being used by Dr. Bouman in my Systematic Theology class at Seminary. And while I immediately knew it fell into that category of “big words” (which included any word which I, at first, did not understand – and there were many!), I was quick to acknowledge that it was by far one of the shorter ones I had already heard of for the first time in that very same class. Dr. Bouman seemed to be constantly introducing me into this world of “big words”. We had assigned readings from several textbooks for those two semesters of Systematic Theology but those that I used most often in his class were my several theological dictionaries.

Prolepsis. What does that mean? What’s the importance of knowing what this word really means. In fact, as definitions go this is one of the easier “big words” to define. And it’s just as important, if not even more so, than many of the other “big words” scholars and theologians sometimes throw around like candy. Prolepsis comes from the Greek word prolpsis which means an anticipating. Prolepsis is the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or already accomplished. With prolepsis we experience the outcome of history in the middle of history. Therefore, the adjective proleptic describes a phenomenon occurring in history that previews the final outcome of history. As such, the resurrection of Jesus is thus thee proleptic event in history because in the midst of history Jesus’ resurrection previewed the final outcome of history. It’s that simple and yet that powerful and profound. In other words, Jesus’ resurrection anticipated the final consummation, that is, the renewal and restoration of all Creation itself, and Jesus’ resurrection previewed the concomitant future resurrection of all the dead. Jesus’ resurrection was, and is, that important. Jesus’ resurrection was all important. There was nothing more important in history than the resurrection of Jesus!

That singular, solitary event that changed history forever – for all peoples everywhere – was the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus of Nazareth. The one event in history that not only explained everything that had happened before that event – but that also explained the course of history to come – was the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the true Son of God. And all of that happened now centuries ago on that first Easter morning, April 5, 33. The one event that had been long foretold in Scripture that would forever change everything that would follow in history was the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection changed, and redefined, history itself forever. For all peoples everywhere. Believers and non-believers alike. Whether they know it or not. Whether they even agree with it or not. His resurrection gave new meaning to everything that had happened before and to everything that would happen subsequently. The resurrection of Jesus! He is risen! He is risen indeed!

So then, why and how did this happen? Why Jesus? Why did God have to become Jesus, this God-Man who fully retained his divinity while becoming fully human? Why was that necessary? Why did Jesus come the first time and why did he have to come again? What was Jesus all about during the time of his earthly ministry and what will he be all about when he comes again for a second and final time? In fact, why did Jesus have to die in the first place and why was he raised on the third day?

The answers to all these questions, and to every question ever asked, are found in our story behind the Story – and in the Story itself. The answers to all these questions are found in God’s inspired Word, in our Old and New Testaments – in Scripture. That is to say that the answers to all questions are found in Jesus and in his resurrection because Jesus and his resurrection are at the very heart and core of our Bibles. Again, as you’ve heard me say before: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. The resurrection, the resurrection, the resurrection.

This discussion is, of course, about Jesus’ resurrection, but as those of you who have heard me talk about resurrection before already know, it’s always about much more than that. Although we will be focusing most directly on the resurrection here in these next two classes – in the background, in the foreground or in whatever other way you want to put it – there are other things implicitly and explicitly tagging along, things that are part and parcel of resurrection itself, things like the Incarnation, things like Christ’s sacrificial atoning death on the cross and things like his eventual ascension that go along with and that are central to his resurrection. In fact, you can’t speak of one of these events without thinking of, including and understanding the others. They all go together. They’re a package deal. They are inextricably intertwined with one another. When you say one of them, you are saying all of them. They are all part of the “progressive revelation” of God’s salvific plan for humanity as found in Jesus and as we see being told throughout the whole of Scriptures. The Incarnation. The Cross. Jesus’ Death. His Resurrection. His Ascension. All of these were part of God’s plan from before time as we know it.

First, let us never underestimate the inspiration of God; the plan of salvation was complete in the mind of God from before time began. This concept that God’s salvific plan was laid out before Creation is implicit everywhere in Scripture (cf. Co 1 14-20). And it is explicit in a great number of passages, just a few of which are: Mt 13 35, 25 34; Ep 1 (practically the whole chapter), 1 Pe 1 18-21, and Ro 16 25-27. For those seeking additional relevant passages, see also the Synopsis of the Pauline Letters, Topics 36, The Mystery of God, Christ; and 69, The Chosen People of God.

All of these events – the Incarnation, the Cross, Jesus’ Death, his Resurrection and his Ascension – all of these events encompass the earthly ministry of our Lord and Savior Jesus of Nazareth. Another way of looking at this is that one of these events does not happen without the other. For instance, we may be speaking most specifically about the resurrection today – but the Incarnation, the cross, Jesus’ death and his ascension all go along with that discussion about his resurrection. So while some pastors and priests and theologians and scholars and professors will talk about the whole of Jesus’ ministry as “the Incarnation”, and while others may talk about the whole package as “the cross”, and while others will talk about it as “the resurrection”, and while still others may talk about it as “the ascension”, in the end they are all talking about the very same thing; they are talking about the Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. I, for instance, will here be talking about it as “the Resurrection”.

Let’s begin with the language we’ll use for this discussion. Resurrection. What does that word mean? Here we look first to the handout I previously provided for your review, “Resurrection vs. Resuscitation”. I’m including that handout here but now further augmented and revised.

resurrection vs. resuscitation

Those resuscitated are raised from the dead back to ordinary life, but they will die again another day. Those resurrected are raised from the dead to new life, transformed forever, never to die again. Those resuscitated to life will die again. However, those resurrected will be raised to new life never to die again. Further, resuscitations have already happened in history. However, there has been but one and only resurrection in history to date, that of Jesus of Nazareth. But, in the consummation all will be raised to new life, both the righteous and the wicked (Dn 12), some to mercy but some to judgment.

Jesus’ miraculous resuscitations, similar to those done by the OT prophets Elijah and Elisha in 1 Ki 17 1724; 2 Ki 4 3237, involved restoration to ordinary life. Those who Jesus restored to ordinary life would die again while those resurrected at Christ’s second coming will be transformed at the consummation of the kingdom of God into eternal life just as we say at the close of our wonderful Nicene Creed with the words: and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The only true resurrection that has happened in history to date is that of Jesus himself. The general resurrection of all awaits his second Advent.

Still, in Jesus’ ministry he raised people from the dead. So how was that functioning in the narrative? We’ve previously discussed how the kingdom of God was (and is) in the process of being inaugurated in the gospels. In fact, it’s being inaugurated as we speak. We see it inaugurated already in Mk 1 but then through Jesus’ mighty acts of power during his ministry and so on, Jesus was further inaugurating the kingdom of God. Remember the inaugurated kingdom of God is a process as we’ve discussed previously in Mk 16 7 and Mt 28 18. With these resuscitations Jesus was demonstrating his power over even death itself. However, these resuscitations were not ultimate – they were not final – because these people would die again. Within the theology of the gospels those resuscitation miracles were always pointing forward to the ultimate miracle: Jesus’ own resurrection. Typology! In other words, on the first Easter Jesus was not raised to die again. As an additional note, the power that Jesus used to resuscitate will be the power that will be shown fully in his own resurrection in which he was raised to live forever. With his own resurrection Jesus defeated death once and for all. Likewise, in the resurrection of all that comes at the consummation of the present evil age, as Paul puts it in Ga 1 4, the people of God will be raised forever in the power of Jesus’ own resurrection just as we daily acknowledge in the recitation of the doxology of the Lord’s Prayer with the words for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Forever and ever. Amen.

Those Jesus brought back from the dead in the NT were really resuscitated, not resurrected, because as far as we can know, and unless you have proof to the contrary, they died again. These people whom Jesus resuscitated were to have a future, human, mortal ending. For instance, Lazarus would die again. Jairus’s daughter would die again. And so on. When confronted with these kinds of situations Jesus himself said in Mk 5 39 When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” We don’t know exactly what he meant by that but he did not regard what he was doing as resurrection because these people whom he raised up presumably died again. So in their resuscitations they were raised up not to eternal life but instead they were raised up to live a time longer – and then die.

Therefore, when the widow’s son, Jairus’s daughter (Mk 5) and Lazarus (Jn 11) were raised from the dead, they were resuscitated – not resurrected. They were brought back to their physical life. They were not transformed into the kind of new life that would be eternal. They would face death again. Their raisings – at that point – were resuscitations, not resurrections. In fact, that’s the symbol that we are to see when Lazarus comes out of the tomb with the grave clothes wrapped all around him, grave clothes that he will need again for his temporal death down the road. Jesus instructed them to unbind him because the death which had been holding him had been taken away. So Lazarus was liberated from the binding of death itself. Lazarus’ life, just like our lives, was never again going to be dictated by death, by the fact that he was going to one day die, by the fact that his life, and all of ours, have an end point. Instead, his life – and ours – was now dictated by the fact that the end point, that is, temporal death, was not the end. In the end God was – and is – going to raise us from the dead just as the Father raised his own Son Jesus on April 5 in the year 33. That what Scripture tells us. That’s what God has promised. And God keeps God’s promises.

By way of important distinction from the story about Lazarus, on that particular day of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, his grave clothes were left in the tomb because Jesus was never going to need them again. One of the typological connections the author clearly wanted his readers to make here was to Jn 11 in which Lazarus exited the tomb still wearing his grave clothes. Lazarus would need them again was the biblical idea there in Jn 11. But far more importantly – theologically-speaking – in this text about Jesus’ resurrection was the fact that his face cloth was folded up in one spot (Jn 20 7).
7 and the face cloth (soudarion) which had been upon his head, not however lying there with the linen clothes but apart, rolled [or (folded)] [from evntuli,ssw] up into one spot.
While a discussion of the classic eyewitness detail found in this one verse would be wonderful at this point, our time considerations for this “resurrection” class does not permit it. Suffice it to say that the folding of his face cloth carries with it monumental theological significance having to do with not only who did it but why he did. In this short verse we see the whole story and the climax of the story all in a nutshell. The face cloth is the whole biblical story in miniature; it represented YHWH’s defeat of death. That teaser now said, we must move on.

In resurrection Jesus received eternal life, a life impervious to death which was symbolized by the gospel author in the leaving of his burial clothes behind. Jesus’ resurrection was not a resuscitation because he had been transformed and he was never going to die again. Therefore, his death clothes were left on the slab as a reminder to us that Jesus will never need them ever again! His resurrection was a true resurrection of the end time. His resurrection was the lifting up into new life in which he would never again face death, suffering, sorrow or any of the negative things that go along with human existence.

Therefore, Jesus’ own resurrection was of a higher order which also eschatologically anticipated God’s raising of all the dead in the last days. That is, Jesus’ resurrection was the first of the true end time resurrections. Again, typology. His resurrection, among many other things, always pointed forward to a future resurrection, that of all the dead (Dn 12). In fact, for a firstcentury Jew to believe that there had been a resurrection was to believe that the New Age was under way at last. That is, the theological significance of Jesus’ resurrection was that Jesus was the first fruits of the resurrection (1 Cor 15 20, 23) which opened the door to the new age.

Paul affirmed in 1 Cor that Jesus was really bodily raised from the dead. Therefore, the long promised and awaited resurrection of the dead, the great end time reversal of cosmic decay, sin and death had already actually begun. And, it had begun in a way not anticipated or expected. With Jesus’ resurrection. Paul further affirmed that we could look forward to the dawning of the new day when the victory would be complete, when all God’s people would be raised just as Jesus had been raised. Paul also affirmed that the new body would be both similar to the present one and yet different from it in significant ways. Hence, Jesus’ body was the same body, but now renewed it had properties that it did not have before. Therefore, the resurrection of the body meant neither the abandonment nor the resuscitation of the body, but its transformation.

Paul also talked about the resurrection at the end of days as a transformation and compared it to a seed planted in the ground. Just as the plant that arises from the seed is quite different than the seed that was planted, so also our fleshly bodies would be transformed into spiritual (and yet be fully physical) bodies and God would be all in all (1 Cor 15 28). The resurrection then would be different and more like the resurrection of Jesus Christ when he entered into God’s power.

So when we talk about Jesus’ resurrection, we are talking about more than just the raising or resuscitating a corpse. Matthew has a passage where the dead come out of the tombs as a kind of preconfiguration (Mt 27 53), a sort of foreshadowing of the resurrection of Jesus and also the general resurrection when all people will be raised up. The resurrection of Jesus was a transformation and an entry into the power of God. The resurrection of Jesus will be a resurrection that will be experienced by all believers one day.

Why resurrection?

In biblical thought, human bodies matter and are not merely “disposable prisons for the soul”, as most religions and philosophies contend. After all, God created man and woman in his image as both body and soul to live forever (Ge 1-2). But God knew that evil, sin, suffering and death would one day intrude into God’s good Creation. And God knew that with death the body would return to dust while the faithful soul went to be with God in “God’s space” (what theologians call heaven). Knowing these things, God before time set out his plan of salvation for humanity. Beginning with his covenant with Abraham in Ge 12 God’s plan of salvation would one day again include humanity restored both as body and soul reunited, but then transformed to complete God’s project of a perfect Creation. And the capstone of all of God’s salvific activity would culminate with the coming resurrection of the dead and the renewal and restoration of all Creation. And all of that would come through the glory and power of the resurrection of Jesus himself. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Amen.

This hope of Israel (that of resurrection and renewal) is core and crucial to the gospel narrative. Always has been; always will be. But unfortunately, even though these twin hopes of Israel are core to the story behind the Story, and even though they are discussed repeatedly throughout our Old and New Testaments, they are often regrettably missed, screened out or marginalized in our current culture. Still, the resurrection of the dead and the renewal and restoration of all Creation was God’s plan from before time. That’s what we see in Scripture as well as in all of the extrabiblical Christian literature of the early Church. That was the Jewish hope before Jesus, and now that Jesus had come, that was now our ultimate Christian hope, that of the resurrection of the body and the renewal and restoration of all Creation. That’s how we are to go about living our Christian lives in service of God as we await God’s glorious consummation at Christ’s second coming. We are to live our Christian lives in the hope and promise of the resurrection of the body and the renewal and restoration of all Creation.

As such, when the ancient Israelites wrestled with the goodness and justice of YHWH, the Creator God, they ultimately came to insist that YHWH must raise the dead a suggestion firmly resisted by classical pagan thought. We see this understanding of the Israelites, for example, in Is 25 and again in Is 26 19 (read this v and include notes about Is 26) and especially in Dn 12 23 (More on Dn 12 follows.). In fact, the hundreds of years leading up to the time of Isaiah and Daniel contain no references to resurrection – neither in the Bible nor in the extrabiblical literature. None! It was only from Is and Dn on that we started to get ideas about resurrection and immortality. This is clearly another good example of progressive revelation at work (See that discussion at Re 3.).

In addition to all this, the longedfor return from Exile was also spoken of in terms of YHWH raising dry bones to new life as we know from Ek 37 114. These ideas were developed in the secondTemple period, particularly during times of martyrdom as we see in such books as 2 Maccabees 7.

Further, resurrection was not understood as just ‘life after death’. Instead, resurrection was more rightly understood as a newly embodied ‘life after life after death’ in which those at present dead were either ‘asleep’, or seen as ‘souls’, ‘angels’ or ‘spirits’ awaiting new embodiment. That’s how the scriptures and the extrabiblical literature talked about the dead. We see that, for instance, all over the place in Paul’s letters. In other words, in death, souls (spirits) that had departed the now dead body would first experience being in an intermediate state (with Jesus), an intermediate state that we call heaven. Later, at Christ’s second Advent, the soul would then be fully embodied in the new Creation – with its resurrected and renewed body – just as Jesus had been resurrected and restored on the first Easter – and then glorified. That’s even how the authors of our Creed put it – in the world to come. (… And I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.).

Next, the singular resurrection of Jesus was not anything that had been anticipated in Judaism. There was nothing in Scripture or in the extrabiblical literature about the resurrection of just one person in the middle of time. By the time of Jesus much of Judaism – but notably not the Sadducees – believed that there would be a resurrection of the dead in the future but it was the dead – plural. It was to be a corporate resurrection – a resurrection of ALL. All of the Jewish people who expected and awaited a resurrection (which the Sadducees did not), all who awaited a resurrection were awaiting a resurrection of everyone at the same time. They were not awaiting or expecting a singular resurrection. The people of God expected not the resurrection of a single person but the resurrection of all the people, of both the righteous and the wicked – and this would happen all at once to everyone at the same time. Or so they expected. Therefore, when the resurrection of Jesus occurred, a singular resurrection, it was something totally unprecedented and unexpected in terms of expectations. True, a resurrection had happened, that of Jesus, but it had not happened in the manner long expected. It had not happened as a general resurrection of all the dead.

Now, for those of us who know the story behind the Story, who know how God goes about accomplishing matters but always in some unexpected manner, this singular resurrection, therefore, should not come as any surprise to us because we also see a two stage character in all of the other biblical themes of the Old and New Testaments. For instance, we are reminded here of the two stage kingdom of God that Jesus brought with his Incarnation: the inaugurated stage of the kingdom at his first coming and the consummated stage at his second. There was also the old Exodus and the new Exodus, the old covenant and the new covenant, and so on. Always be mindful that virtually everything happening in Scripture is a process in progress … and the resurrection is no different. Jesus came as the first fruits of the resurrection as we read in 1 Cor 15 20, 23, and everyone (all people, both the righteous and the wicked – Dn 12) will be raised in the general resurrection to come. And all of that will come through the power of Jesus’ own resurrection all those years ago. Thank you, Jesus!!!

Next, during his earthly ministry, for Jesus to talk about resurrection in relationship to himself was for him to say far more than people were prepared to comprehend as we know from various NT texts. They just didn’t “get it” at the time because, truth be told, God is just a little bit smarter than the rest of us. You think?! In fact, they did not fully begin to comprehend everything Jesus had been saying and doing until his resurrection – and afterwards during his remaining time with them before his ascension. By then it would have been hitting them upside the head in spades. It had to be a time filled with major goose bumps all over the place among the faithful! Try pausing for awhile as you imagine and ponder those forty days that Jesus was with them before his ascension. They had to have all been just bubbling up inside. Even then I imagine some were pinching themselves from time-to-time.

Importantly, the early Christian belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead was not only that he had gone to heaven (God’s space), or that he had been ‘exalted’, or was ‘divine’. Of course, they believed all those things as well as our various NT authors tell us. But each of those things could have been expressed about Jesus without mention of resurrection. As such, only the bodily resurrection of Jesus explains the rise of the early church, particularly its belief in Jesus’ messiahship and his Lordship. Of course, initially with his crucifixion, any thought of his Messiahship had been decimated – or, at the very least, it would have been called into question.

It’s a matter of fact that at first, with his death on the cross and subsequent burial, Jesus appeared to be nothing more than just another dead Messiah. The Jewish people had seen many Messiahs come and go in the few centuries coming up to the time of Jesus. Then, following the cross, Jesus seemed to be just one more of those messianic pretenders who had entered stage left but ultimately gone down for the full count forever. However, in the case of Jesus, three days later everything that had happened would have been turned on its head – just has Jesus had told them that it would during his time with them.

The early Christians – except for the Corinthians (and probably some others) as we see in 1 Cor 15 (the main “resurrection” chapter of the NT) … early Christians believed that they themselves would be raised to a new, transformed bodily life at the time of the Lord’s return or parousia as we see in various texts such as in Pp 3 20-21 and elsewhere.

the resurrection today

Jesus’ resurrection remains controversial today – oddly and regrettably – even among many people professing to be Christian. This is partly because at both the scholarly and the popular level many Christians today use the word “resurrection” very loosely to mean something that it did not mean in the first century. In other words, talk of “resurrection” is often used today simply as a somewhat exalted way of talking about “going to heaven” when you die. However, it clearly NEVER meant that in the early Church!

It also remains controversial today for another reason as well. Most Christians don’t know the theological implications of what the resurrection of Jesus really meant when it first happened and, as such, they know little, if anything, about what those theological implications hold for us today in the living of our lives as “card-carrying” Christians. The centrality of Christ’s resurrection to Christian belief is lost on most Christians, no matter what their denomination. Over the years I’ve found that some denominations are better about understanding the resurrection than are some others, but the fact still remains, most Christians just don’t get it. The very event that is core to a Christian understanding of how one is on the last day to merit mercy at Christ’s second coming is lost on them. Many have not the first clue of the theological implications of God’s demonstration of power over even death itself. For instance, at various times over the years in Bible classes that I’ve taught, I’ve asked specific questions about Jesus’ resurrection only to be sadly disappointed in what the “average” Christian knew about this core event to our Christian faith. You may think I’m sounding like Jeremiah or Isaiah, but I can assure you that there are many in the Church universal who whole-heartedly agree with this assessment. When people in the Church lose understanding of what is at the core of their very faith, they will soon find themselves on a slippery slope heading south. Unfortunately, many won’t even know they’re on it, and then, when it all comes to a screeching halt, it won’t be pretty for many of them.

And if that were not bad enough, most “popular” books on resurrection miss the whole point of the resurrection itself. These “best sellers” end up being all about the glorious future that awaits immediately beyond the grave, rather than the ultimate future and resurrection itself as a part of God’s renewed Creation. Additionally, I have heard all too many Easter sermons that have gone at once from the fact of Jesus’ resurrection to the fact of the Christian hope, seen not in terms of bodily resurrection but in terms of a glorious life after death in some disembodied heaven. Over the years I’ve attended more than my fair share of funerals in which, at point after point, all these confusions were on display. If there are three times when you really have a wonderful opportunity to really teach the Christian message to a lot of people who would not otherwise darken the door of a church, it would be at Easter, at Christmas and at a funeral. In fact, life and death are taught no where else so well and as succinctly as they are in the Christian church. It’s on those three occasions that the opportunity is there to really make a difference for some people – and perhaps even for the very first time in their lives. Instead, for some of the funerals I’ve attended over the years, and for a number of Easter and Christmas services as well, were someone there who had not known before what classical Christianity believed about the ultimate promised future, the service would have left them deeply confused.

All this ignores a rather obvious fact which is that the word resurrection never did mean disembodied bliss. Never! Furthermore, in the NT itself, the word resurrection does not mean life after death. It meant, and means, what many scholars and theologians are beginning to collectively call life after life after death. Although this may be a difficult idea for some people to understand, and although this proper understanding may even “upset people’s apple carts”, if you go back to the ancient world, whether pagan or Jewish or the early Church, the word resurrection, along with its various cognates in other languages, was clearly not a way of talking about the destiny of people immediately after death. It was, instead, a way of referring to a newly embodied life at some time beyond that point. One of the simplest way to see this is to remember Jesus’ words to the brigand on the cross: Today you will be with me in Paradise (Lk 23 43). That was said on the first Good Friday. But, as Luke makes clear, Jesus wasn’t raised until Sunday. Paradise must therefore refer to the place, or state, of blissful waiting before the bodily resurrection. And, in fact, it does. It refers to the intermediate state we call heaven. Again, heaven, while a very important intermediate state, is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is life after life after death. The ultimate goal is the renewed Creation. It’s the renewal and restoration of all Creation. Or, as our Creed puts it, the ultimate goal is the life of the world to come.

in summary

One cannot understand our NT without the beginning premise that Christianity revolves around what happened in the resurrection of Jesus. All worship begins with resurrection; all teaching and thinking begins with resurrection; and our promise begins with resurrection. This would be news to many church goers in our community because many Christians believe that Christianity begins with what have you done or what haven’t done. However, if we want to be Christians in the same mode as the original Christians, we need to reclaim the resurrection big time. We need to hear of the resurrection at every teaching, at every worship service.

The resurrection is not to be seen as a happy ending to Jesus’ death but as the beginning of something. It’s a known fact that many Christians see the resurrection as kind of a happy ending to Jesus’ ministry (which it most certainly was) rather than as the beginning of their ongoing faithful lives with God that it is. And that means right here and now in the lives of Christians in all times and places. The resurrection grounds everything that we believe as Christians. [And again, when I say “resurrection” always hear me also saying “Incarnation, the Cross, Death, Resurrection and Ascension” at the same time.] In fact, Jesus’ resurrection was that event on which everything that we believe, we think, and we trust is based.

If the resurrection were just some happy ending, it would have been and would be powerless. Instead, the resurrection is the ongoing beginning of all things Christian. The resurrection is incredibly powerful because when we see and understand everything through the lenses of resurrection, we look at life with a different set of risk factors. Overall, we need not – although we do – spend time worrying about issues of health or safety because we are standing on the promise of the resurrection. We may fear or we may have sadness in our lives but it need not overwhelm us because we have the promise of the resurrection.

All of this really boils down to who has the power in your life. The resurrection is the proof that God’s power is the power for living. Jesus’ resurrection provides the power, if you will, for everything in life, forever, just as we acknowledge each time we repeat the doxology of the Lord’s Prayer. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen. Even if the setting in which we find ourselves overwhelms us, we still have the sense that, and know that, it’s only temporary. All of those situations in which we find ourselves overwhelmed are but temporary because we know the promise of the resurrection.

For example, one of my greatest fears is that something bad would happen to my two sons. However, the resurrection proves God has more power than even that fear that I have. The loss of a child would be and is extremely difficult but we try to say that we would be thankful that God gave us our son or daughter for however long it was. No matter what life hands out, ultimately, we are safe in God’s hands. That is why it’s so important to have an ongoing worship life, education life and prayer life. Those are things God gives us that equip us when we come up against the hard stuff. When the hard stuff comes, we might feel overwhelmed for awhile, but, being a faithful Christian, we are armed already with the pre-knowledge that we are going to get through it. That’s what the promise of the resurrection means.

Looking back, we know that the resurrection of Jesus shattered the expectations of his followers. Jesus’ resurrection changed forever how they thought God was working in the world. Jesus’ resurrection should shatter our expectations as well. This is a very comprehensive plan that God has in order to redeem as many people as who will be redeemed. It’s not logical that God is going to redeem everything because you don’t send the divine son to die in order to accomplish that. That would make no sense. But some theologians contend that the door is going to be a lot more open than many think. That may end up being the case, but I don’t think so.

After the first Christians more fully understood the claim of the resurrection, they recognized that they then had to understand every word and deed and activity of Christ as something that was what God was doing. So they read scripture looking through a more clear pair of lenses, not so much for what were the rules that had to be kept but looking for the promise of salvation, the blessing of grace in literally every text. That is one of the reasons why modern Christians ought to look, for example, at the book of Re when looking for that very blessing of grace. Why do so many fundamentalist churches spend all of their time scaring people. Why would that be when the purpose of the original body of believers was then to take a new look at even the most ancient of scriptures and say, “This is about God’s love for us; this is about God’s grace; this is about the hope that God gives us as a promise and a blessing.’ And we see all of that come together in Jesus’ resurrection.

So some part of it is the very mindset with which you come to the reading of scripture that gets changed when you are grounded in scripture – and when you are grounded in the resurrection. When we gather as Church, we are supposed to gather with hope and anticipation because we know the resurrection. It’s that central to our faith as Christian believers. Without it we are not here.

Imagine

Imagine with me for a few minutes.  Imagine you are at this party, this “family” get-together that you and your “family” have each year.  Not only that but every 365 days your “family” gets together at the same time of year to celebrate your “family” situation.  Every evening of the fourteenth day of the first full moon your “family” comes together as no “family” had ever before come together.

Now imagine with me that it’s a little bit more than even that.  In fact, your “family” has been getting together not just in your lifetime or in the lifetime of your parents or, for that matter, in the lifetime of your grandparents and great-grandparents, but they’ve been doing this same celebration in your family for centuries, for many centuries.  In fact, they’ve been coming together for this celebration, every year with your “family”, for over a thousand years.  Imagine that when you “do the math” and look back over your heritage to when this “family” celebration first began, you find out that by the time you come together for this particular year’s celebration, your “family’s” ancestors have actually been coming together for as many as one thousand, three hundred years.  One thousand, three hundred years!  Wow!  That’s impressive!

Imagine for a moment that this celebration must be as special as it seems to be, given that your “family” has been coming together for as long as it has in order to celebrate this occasion.  Imagine what must be so important that you, your siblings, your parents, your aunts, uncles and cousins, your grandparents and great-grandparents and every distant cousin you can think of – family members going back centuries who you never knew in person – imagine your family coming together yet one more time again this year, at this time of year.  Imagine what it must be that could bring you together year after year after year like this.  Imagine what could be so important that your “family” members have been doing this for well-over a thousand years.  Imagine what it must be that would cause so many people over so many centuries to remain so faithful to the “family” tradition that they would continue coming together for this celebration, this party, so faithfully and for so long.

Imagine also for a moment how your “family” could have even pulled off such a feat in the first place.  Just think of the teaching, the education of the “family” that would have been required and dutifully accomplished over all those centuries so that all of your “family” would keep the celebration – so they could keep the party going.  Celebrations like this just don’t happen year after year after year by accident.  A celebration like this takes planning.  A celebration like this takes understanding.  A celebration like this takes teaching.  A celebration like this takes faith.  A celebration like this must have phenomenal meaning for your “family” to have so faithfully accomplished it for so many centuries.  For a celebration like this to have come off year after year after year would say to everybody that there was a very serious meaning to this celebration.  So we have to ask ourselves the question, “What could possibly be so important that your ‘family’ would have come together like this for so many years?  What on earth could that be?”

We’ve now come to the point in Luther’s Small Catechism that addresses the Lord’s Supper, the same Lord’s Supper that Jesus instituted on Maundy Thursday, that first Maundy Thursday of our Holy Week that happened one thousand nine hundred and seventy-nine years ago.  That’s almost two thousand years ago!  Of course, that was a long time ago.  In fact it’s even more time than the one thousand, three hundred year celebration we just discussed above.  One has to wonder if there just might be some connection between these two events, between that celebration that has been going on for one thousand, three hundred years and this Lord’s Supper that has now been going on for almost two thousand years.  Well, of course, there is a connection so let’s talk about that for a few minutes.

Remember first that we’ve previously discussed how our Lutheran Christianity grew out of our Roman Catholic heritage which itself grew out of gentile Christianity which, in turn, grew out of the early Jewish-Christian church, a Christianity itself whose heritage was the very Judaism that Jesus and his followers believed and lived during their earthly lives.

But first, imagine again for a moment, that at your “family” celebration you did the same things during the course of that celebration that your “family” had been doing for all those one thousand, three hundred years.  Imagine at that celebration that you performed the same rituals, you ate the same foods, you read the same scriptural texts, you asked the same questions and you told the same story – year after year after year.  What on earth could possess a “family” to so diligently keep the “family” tradition going.  What on earth could be so important?  And why on earth had there never been a time when this celebration never took place that same time every year?  What on earth could be so important that your “family” would never ever consider not coming together for this celebration?

Now, to be complete, from the beginning of time as we know it, all human societies and groups have developed ways of saying and doing things, ways which were, of course, shared with the others in their group.  For time immemorial people of any given group have found themselves “on the same page” as the others in their group.  That’s just what various “people groups” do.  They do and say certain things that tie them together with the others in their group.  Another way to look at this phenomenon is to say that all groups mean certain, specific things by what they say and do.  For example, a military salute honors our national flag, the uniform.  A handshake sealing a business deal carries with it a trust as well as a certain amount of integrity and honesty.  All these are symbolic actions that have a message.  All of these things mean what they mean within a particular world view.

In fact, some of the most meaningful things these people groups do are the special meals that they share together. For example, we think here of a wedding reception or the family supper when the soldier comes home after several months on the other side of the world.  We think of the surprise party to celebrate someone’s birthday.  In fact, the birthday party says two things in particular.  First, the party joins together the past event and the present moment.  Think, for example, of the many “remember when” moments that come up in the course of the party.  Second, the party also looks into the future.  For example, we sing happy birthday and many more.  In this one birthday party somehow past, present and future are held together.

So we make these events special and meaningful.  It’s the way we’re hard-wired; it’s what we learned to do from growing up in our particular “family” system.  This is just how we celebrate things with our “family.”  In fact, we see examples of celebration all throughout our Hebrew scriptures, as well as in our NT, but we see one celebration in particular in the OT that applies directly to when and where Jesus found himself during Holy Week of the year 33.  When we read through our OT we see that there was one, particularly unique celebration that the people of Israel did every year.

But first let’s step back into the time before Jesus came.  Imagine, if you will, that you’re living outside of Palestine in the time before Jesus.  You’re a Jew, a faithful Jew.  You love YHWH and you know your story as the chosen people of God.  You know your traditions as a Jew, and you know what it means to be a Jew.  You know what it means to be part of God’s chosen people, the people of Israel.  You know all about circumcision, purity laws and Sabbath-keeping.  You know all about the centrality of the Temple and the Torah in your faith life as a Jew.  You were born into that “family” and you’ve lived your whole life as a devout Jew, a lover of God, a lover of YHWH.  Imagine now that you’ve come to that most particular of days – Pesach (meaning passing over) – that you and your fellow Jews have been celebrating for as long as you can remember in your life.  You’ve celebrated Passover every year at the same time each year.  That is you as a Jew.

Imagine next that you have together there with “family” in this room of your house and that you and your “family” are now celebrating the Passover, just like you do every year.  You are reclining at the low table, laying on your left side (they called it reclining) and the older man at the head of the table starts to read in a slightly sing-song voice the story of the Jewish people.  He tells a very old story of your “family”.  He tells of the time when they were slaves in Egypt.  As the old man reads the story everyone listening seems to know the story.  They nod and smile as the tale unfolds.  The old man reads aloud these words, “We, the people of Abraham, the people called by God to be the light of the world … we went down into Egypt, and were slaves there.  And our God brought us up from Egypt with a mighty hand and stretchedout arm.  He condemned the Egyptians, but he passed over us, and brought us through the Red Sea and into the wilderness; and he gave us his law, and brought us into our promised land.”

The story the old man tells goes on, and on, and on, through all the plagues in Egypt, all the dramatic details.  At one point, right on cue, a little boy asks the old man a question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

“Because,” says the old man as he continues reading from his text, “this is the night when our God, the Holy One, blessed be he, came down to Egypt and rescued us from the Egyptians …”  As a devout Jew you know, of course, that all of this happened a long time before but still, it happened on this very night a long time ago.  You know this happened to your people – your Jewish ancestors – all those years ago.  You know that all of this happened to the people of Israel,  the people God loved and “chose as his people” and whom he promised to rescue.

As you continue listening to the old man you remember being taught about your heritage as a child of YHWH.  You remember being taught that you were part of the whole of God’s chosen people, God’s “family.”  You remember being taught that you were part of that same “family” that came out of Egypt.  You were taught that this same “family” was, this very evening, hearing this same story and sharing this same meal in every Jewish home everywhere in the world that night.  You remember learning that this meal made you all one “family” of God, God’s chosen people.

Imagine the old man continuing to retell the story, the same story you’ve heard at the same time each year since you were a child.  Sure, everything happened centuries before but your story still has meaning to you.  It was the story about how God loved your “family” and about how God rescued your “family” from Egypt.  Things had never been easy for the Jews.  In fact, it wasn’t just the Egyptians who had oppressed your Jewish ancestors.  Following the Egyptians it was the Assyrians and the Babylonians and then the Persians and the Greeks.  And now you are living in a time of extreme worry because there’s a new emperor in the next country where you have Jewish relatives, and this emperor wants to conquer everything and make everyone his slaves.  Everybody knows this emperor specially hates us Jews.  So when you celebrate Pesach  Passover  you remind yourself that you are God’s freedompeople.  God made you and your people free, and he wants you to be free.  As you listen to the old man you know that what really matters is that everyone is here, that we all belong, that we know God loves us, that we know God rescued us long ago [in the Exodus] and that God will rescue us again [in the new Exodus].

Imagine that as the old man continues, he raises his voice, chanting now with strange, haunting music.  He is singing in a language like the one you are talking, only older, stronger, sweeter.  You continue eating.  The odd, flat bread that is on the menu for this occasion has no leaven in it because the people of Israel had to make their bread without leaven on the night they fled Egypt.  The bitter herbs you were eating reminded you of the sorrow your “family” had in Egypt.  Reclining at the table was supposed to say that all of you were God’s free people.  Slaves stand; free people recline.  The whole meal seemed to say, in a hundred different ways:  this is who we are; this is who we were; and this is who we will be.  And, coming through all of the story the old man was retelling was like the strange music of the story:  this is who God was, and is, and will be.  It’s very telling that this meal did and said all of these things for your “family” around the table.  Of course, you needed to hear the old man’s words but once you began to understand it all, you better understood how this meal somehow said it all.  And the whole while you were listening to the old man tell the story, you were sharing in the story – your story, God’s story, Israel’s story.  It’s no wonder that Jewish “family” life was so special.  It’s no wonder their meals meant so much.

Imagine we now move forward in time, to the time of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus was a Jew.  This same celebration was a part of his life from his birth on.  Jesus was a Jew and he celebrated Passover every year with his “family” just like every other devout Jew did.  And this year it was no different.  Jesus had begun his ministry with his baptism in the Jordan, and it was now almost three and a half years later.   When Jesus’ public career reached its height, he had set his face to go to Jerusalem.  In fact, Jesus had planned a last great pilgrim journey so that he would arrive at the holy city at Passover time.  Lk 9 51  When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

So now we are now ready to look at a particular Passover meal which came to mean, for some Jews and then for lots of other people as well, more than any other meal in the whole world EVER!  Jesus had come into Jerusalem, and everyone had come along, thinking that this was The Time It Was Going To Happen.  Jesus seemed to think so too.  He seemed excited yet strangely troubled as well.  He had gone into the Temple and done something you would have never expected.  He had attacked the animalsellers and the moneychangers.  For a few minutes anyway, Jesus had shut down the whole system at work in the temple.  It was as if Jesus was saying this whole thing is out of line.  What had been happening in the temple was not what God intended and now God was going to get rid of it.  But how could Jesus have meant that and what on earth could he be thinking that God would put in the place of the temple?

Imagine now you have come to the time of the actual Passover meal itself, the same Passover meal you’d been celebrating for all of your life just as had all of your “family” for now one thousand, three hundred years.  Everyone knew the words.  Everyone knew what was said, how it was said, what it meant, and everyone knew what they ate at this Passover meal and what those foods represented.  Everyone knew these things.  You said certain things and only these certain things, and you ate certain things and only these certain things!  What you said and what you ate had not varied for one thousand, three hundred years.

No one at the meal knew what was going on except, of course, Jesus, the host of the meal, and, as we will see, Jesus was the host of the meal in more ways than just the one.  Because the authorities might have tried to stop him, or even arrest him, Jesus had arranged to celebrate this Passover meal in secret.  Still, Jesus would eventually be arrested that very evening but he still had things to do with his disciples.  In his person as the Messiah and as the now-having-finally-come YHWH in the flesh, Jesus yet had things to do for his “family” – and for us, for all believers of all times and places.  The evening was yet young.

Imagine you were there with Jesus.  After your arrival in Jerusalem you had been camping out in the cold spring air at Bethany.  Every day on awakening you had returned to Jerusalem where Jesus taught the people.  More and more people filled the city because it was Passover.  Your “family” was flocking to the holy city for Passover, for the feast.  Your “family” was the freedomparty, the kingdomparty – God’s chosen people.  God had set your “family” free from Egypt, and now was the time for God to set your “family” free from the oppression of Rome.  By this time Jesus’ followers thought Jesus was going to be the messianic king who would overthrow Rome.  They thought that Jesus would suddenly give the signal, and everyone – the thousands of people assembled there – would be ready to act.  Given all of your “family” who were going to be in the city at Passover, this would be the best of times to overthrow the oppressive Romans.  And now you even had this man of God, Jesus, to lead the way.  Or so they thought.

Still Passover was almost here, and yet nothing had happened.  You and the others were wondering what he would do.  There had been the secret preparations  a day early!  You could only imagine what Jesus had in mind.  You were worried this would lead to no good.  You’d always had a few doubts as to whether his plan would work out.  The authorities had eyes and ears everywhere.  But then, on that Thursday evening of Passover  … there you all were around the table, reclining in the timehonored fashion as God’s free people.  And the meal began.  The disciples talked amongst themselves, wondering what was going to happen this evening.  They knew what should happen backwards and forwards but in their bones they knew Jesus was acting differently this particular evening.  Something big, very big and different was going to happen that evening, but what?!  Was he going to bring the kingdom?  What was going to happen?

And then Jesus began speaking.  He was going to say the words which the head of the family always said at the Passover meal.  You knew them by heart; your father had said them year after year.  Everyone there knew them by heart.  The bread was the bread that our fathers ate when they came out of the land of Egypt.  The cup was the same cup to life, the cup to freedom.  But then Jesus said, “Take this bread and eat it  it is my body.  It’s given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  What had he said?!  What on earth was Jesus doing?!  Everybody was staring, stunned by Jesus’ words.  You were convinced that Jesus had gone over the top this time.  This was the Pesachmeal, the meal that told your “family’s” story.  It was about the Egypt stuff, the freedom stuff.   How could it now be about Jesus’ body as his words were clearly saying?  How?  And why should we do this in remembrance of him?  What could Jesus possibly mean by that?

You were still buzzing about this when the cup came round.  There are so many cups at a Pesach that none of you could remember afterwards which cup it was; but you never forgot what Jesus had said and done.  Again, the familiar words.  Again, Jesus had turned the normal words of the Passover meal inside out when he said, “Drink this, all of you:  this is my blood of the new covenant.  It is shed for you, and for many, so that sins may be forgiven.”  What on earth was Jesus saying now?!   This was too much.  His blood!?  Everybody knew that Jews didn’t drink blood and yet Jesus had said to do so.  And this new covenant talk.  What was this all about?  Sins forgiven?  What was going on?  Why was Jesus changing the Passover meal?

Of course, everybody knew that the prophets had promised that God would eventually make a new covenant with Israel, his people, just like God had done when he had brought them out of Egypt in the Exodus.  Everybody knew that with this new covenant, this final covenant yet to come, that would be when God finally forgave Israel’s sins once and for all, redeeming Israel from all their troubles, giving them their final, everlasting freedom.  Every Jew assembled there knew what their scriptures said in this regard.

In fact, that’s what Passover had always pointed forward to.  But somehow the future redemption of Israel seemed to have somehow arrived in the present with Jesus’ words.  That’s what Jesus seemed to be talking about, that the new covenant his “family” had been awaiting for centuries was now somehow here!

Imagine how caught off guard you had been with Jesus’ words, with Jesus’ proclamation.  How on earth could all this have anything to do with Jesus’ body and with his blood?  Imagine how stunning all of this had been, centuries of tradition suddenly voiced by Jesus so differently than you had ever heard it said before.  Imagine how all of this would have been so absolutely mind-boggling.  Heads would have been spinning.  What in the world was going on?

The Story, of course, goes on.  There is much more to this Story.  We’ve just been looking into something very important that happened in our Jewish religious heritage.  We’ve been looking into the background of our Lord’s Supper celebration.  This is how matters unfolded over the course of centuries for our Jewish ancestors, a long time in human terms but a mere blip in God’s “time.”

In this discussion we’ve seen how the Lord’s Supper came to us.  The Lord’s Supper came to us in and out of this long-established Passover meal (what the Church calls the Last Supper), a meal  the Jewish people had been celebrating as an expression of their understanding of the Exodus from Egypt for then one thousand, three hundred years.  The Lord’s Supper came to us as this meal, a meal which the Church would eventually call a sacrament (the Lord’s Supper), this meal which Jesus began with us on that first Maundy Thursday.  The Lord’s Supper came to us with this inextricable yet central connection to the long-awaited covenant which the people had known of and had been longingly awaiting for literally centuries.  This covenant, this new covenant that only God could make, this covenant long-promised by God, this covenant which was yet to come had now come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, YHWH come in the flesh.  At long last, God had again kept God’s promise just as scripture repeatedly has shown us that God always does  …  but it all had happened in God’s way and in God’s time.

So the Jews had this Passover meal.  On the evening when Jesus was about to be arrested and handed over to the Romans, he held a Passover meal with his followers.  But he changed the meal.  He changed not only the menu for that long-established meal – what was to be served, but also what the meal was to now mean.  With the changes Jesus instituted in that Passover meal the meal became all about God doing what God had been promising all along – but God was now going to be doing things in that new way.  Somehow Jesus was going to die  he seems to have known that.  Jesus told them to repeat this meal in memory of him.  He took the bread and said, ‘This is my body.’  And he took the wine and said, ‘This is my blood.’  It’s rather clear he knew he was going to die.

Still, Jesus told us to celebrate this meal regularly until he would again return at the time of his final judgment, at the time when he would resurrect all the dead and renew and restore all of creation.  On his return the Lord’s Supper would then be celebrated in the great wedding banquet of the kingdom of God that we have already seen foretold in Is 25 6-9.  That’s what Jesus would be about when he at long last came back to earth from his heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father where he now sits enthroned as king in his heavenly kingdom.  Marana tha!

Thus it is that here in the meantime, in this time of the inaugurated kingdom of God in which we all live, Jesus left us with this Meal, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Altar.  And at the core of this Lord’s Supper which Jesus instituted on Maundy Thursday was this new covenant – the same new covenant long-promised and foretold in our Hebrew scriptures.  The new covenant was at long last here.  This covenant promised in the whole of our Old Testament scriptures, and which all devout Jews awaited, had now been made by Jesus in this Passover meal, a meal he was using to institute what we now call the Sacrament of the Altar.  Jesus had thus inaugurated the new covenant in this meal.  Further, Jesus made the covenant, and everybody knew that it was only God who made covenants like this.  Jesus was, therefore, God in the flesh – YHWH come in the flesh.  Although, to be sure, it would take another three days and then some for the disciples to finally “get it,” for them to finally begin to understand what had really happened in this Passover meal there in the year 33.  In the end his disciples would finally understand as they had never understood before, and in short order the rest would be history, and the course of history for the world would have been changed forever.

Unfortunately, in the larger sense, most Christians have neither the first clue from where comes the Lord’s Supper nor do they know how it comes to them.  As such, most Christians fail to understand and truly appreciate the historical basis for the Supper.  Neither do they understand its connection to the Passover meal, or the new covenant, that’s been reenacted for so many of the faithful through the centuries.  Taking everything a step further, neither do most Christians really understand what is going on in the mystery of the Supper and what it was, and is, that Jesus intended for them to receive when taking the bread and the wine – when taking his body and his blood.  The Passover heritage of the Jews is our heritage as well.  And, in part because of these things, I dare say most Christians fail to understand and fully appreciate just what it is that comes to us in the Supper.  That’s what we’ll address next in this catechism study of the Eucharist.

In closing out this section of our Lord’s Supper study, I only ask that the next time your approach the Table that, among the many other things, you reflect on the continuity we share with the Passover meal from antiquity, on not only what that Passover meal represented then but how that Passover meal came to fruition in Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus, the Christ, the incarnate Son of God, and how Jesus then changed it for his purposes.  I ask that you be mindful of how this meal is to – among other things – cause us to reflect on the whole  of Hebrew scriptures and in particular on the Abrahamic covenant, this covenant that later resulted one day in the Exodus and from which later the new Exodus was initiated.  I ask that you remember your OT heritage, your “people of God” status and everything that means and includes as you kneel at the rail to receive the true body and the true blood of Jesus, the Christ, and thereby experience his real presence there – no only spiritually and supernaturally but in this way also sacramentally, along with all the community of saints, both now and always.