There is a common statement Christians make, “Jesus died for my sins.”
I've gotten in the habit of responding to that statement by saying, “OK, what else did Jesus do?”
We are an Easter people! We believe in new life! So, my question should be an easy question. But too often, my question is met with stunned silence. People are sure they had the one “right” answer, the go-to formula for explaining Jesus Christ.
But, what if… what if, the Jesus story is actually much, MUCH bigger than just dying?
If the most important part of the story is that Jesus died, then why all the other stuff in the Gospel stories? Why the feeding and healing; the casting out evil and welcoming outcasts; why the teaching and parables; and ultimately, why the resurrection? Is all of that stuff just filler material? Was all of that added simply to make Jesus a more likeable, more awesome, more heroic figure before the big death scene?
Recently, I've been reading Lutheran writers who are interested in questions like these. In the book Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today, one of the contributing authors, Mary Streufert, suggests that the birth of Jesus as a human (His incarnation); the person of Jesus himself; the work he did; and the new life that comes in Christ are just as important as His death (maybe more important) for understanding what happened in Jesus Christ.
Here are some examples from the Gospels.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is light and life. Jesus says,
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life,” (John 8:12). Then later Jesus says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent,” (John 17:3).
The way Jesus speaks talks about it, eternal life means to “know” God and Jesus Christ. “Knowing,” the way Jesus uses the word, means living in a close and connected relationship with God and Jesus. And this eternal life that Jesus prays for begins now; and it continues into eternity. Eternal life does not happen because of dying; eternal life means we transcend dying.
Another example comes in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus does not say Zacchaeus will have salvation someday, after Jesus has died. Jesus says salvation is a present reality that comes because of the encounter with the living Jesus.
One final example, also from Luke’s Gospel. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph present the baby Jesus in the temple. They are greeted by Simeon, who is “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). When Simeon sees the baby Jesus, he takes Him into his arms and says, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (Luke 2:30-31). Salvation comes and can be seen in the birth of Jesus.
These examples show that the Gospels speak about Jesus in many ways. He is light and life. Jesus is our relationship with God, our way of “knowing” God. Jesus is restoration, healing, and salvation present for us today. His birth in the world means that salvation has already come.
According to Mary Streufert, salvation is “God-relational,” it is life this is filled through-and-through with the presence of God. God has loved us into salvation through Jesus Christ.
So, what do we say about the cross and Jesus’ dying? In John’s Gospel those who oppose Jesus are depicted as those who have chosen darkness. In other words, they have rejected the light and life that has come into the world (John 3:19, 8:12). Throughout John’s Gospel his opponents become increasingly hostile toward the light of Jesus. Caesar claims to be a god, but Caesar has no power to give life, only the power to take life. Pilate, Caesar’s local agent, says to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (John 19:10). In a surprise move, the chief priests among the Hebrew people proclaim their loyalty to Caesar, “We have no king but the emperor,” (John 19:15). The opponents of Jesus reject the light and life that God sends into the world and profess their loyalty to the power of death.
The cross then shows us how deep and dark human sin really is. When light and life (the goodness, grace, and love of God) come into the world as a person, darkness and sin choose death instead of life.
The resurrection is God’s bold and powerful response to the cross. Death cannot win. Darkness does not win. God is always God of life, healing, restoration, and new life.
Indeed, Jesus did die on the cross, but his death was because of human sin. So, what else did Jesus do? He was born; he lived as God with us; he fed, healed, welcomed, restored, and lifted-up; he loved and served; he died and was raised again. He did all of this to show us He is Lord of LIFE.
Pastor Erick Swanson