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Jesus’ Death: A Way of Finding (Heb. 12:2)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 4, 1984, p. 327. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

. . . . looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross

[Heb. 12:2].

The teachings of Jesus confront us with painful tensions. For example, the Gospels report sayings that range from those breathtaking in their tenderness and compassion to others reflecting a violently vengeful apocalyptic fury. Sometimes these juxtapositions occur within a single chapter. Luke 12 contains both the reassuring words “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not . . .” and the fierce threat, “I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled.”

Of course, we prefer the gentle Jesus, but how can we ignore that side of Jesus that is white-hot with righteous rage and impatience over the sinfulness and unbelief of the world? Indeed, in the Gospels the harsh sayings outnumber the gentle ones.

Jesus stood in the tradition of late Jewish apocalyptic prophecy. Such prophecy was born of righteous outrage over the brokenness of the world, of brokenheartedness over the failure of God’s reign to be acknowledged on earth. So desperate was the apocalyptic sense of evil that it proclaimed an impending cataclysm. The old creation must be destroyed. Only in a new universe could the righteousness of God be manifest. Granted, Jesus interpreted the apocalypticism of his time in the light of his own unique vision. Nevertheless, his words could be as terrible as any Old Testament prophet’s. Jesus even threatened “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46).

Like a lash, certain of Jesus’ words strike out at the accommodations we make for ourselves in this world. At times he even seems to be attacking the natural order of things. “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division . . . they will be divided. father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother’’ (Luke 12:51,53). We recoil. If even family loyalty is under the judgment of sin, what is left to us? Are all our ethics but exercises in sinful compromise with the world?

“I come to cast fire upon the earth; would that it were already kindled.” Can this be God’s son speaking? Consider our reaction to a modern preacher’s saying. God is going to consume the world in fire and I can’t wait to see you fry!” We would reject out of hand anyone who denounced us as Jesus denounced his contemporaries. How can we blame Jesus’ first century audience for being outraged and mystified -- especially since Jesus can be quoted as expressing opposite sentiments? How could Jesus’ hearers be expected to reconcile his call for fire from heaven with his tolerant, loving command. “Judge not, and you will not be judged”?

I think we can get help in confronting these dilemma: from our Hebrews text, in its inspired description of Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The pioneer in going out into the unknown carries only the essentials. But under the rigors and difficulties of the wilderness trek, his or her conception of what is essential changes. The trails of explorers are strewn with excess baggage. As the weariness of the journey increases and the baggage gets heavier, the pioneer discovers how little is really needed.

Later travelers are aided in following the precursor’s trail, for he or she has left behind so many nonessentials to mark the path. Jettisoning this, discarding that, the pioneer leaves mementos of the first trek. Yet it would be stupid to assume that our reason for following the scout’s trail is to pick up these discards as relics. What Jesus discarded must be left for good.

The further Jesus went on the trek, the lighter was his load. Stripped of more and more encumbrances, he was able to bear the only burden that ultimately mattered, as Hebrews says: “. . . who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.”

Having finally trekked through wilderness and temptation, incomprehension and hostility, Jesus reached his goal, which was his total demise. It might have seemed, hanging naked on the cross, that he had finally jettisoned everything. His disciples had betrayed or denied him, or were merely left gaping in misunderstanding impotence. His ministry was in a shambles. Even his cloak had been gambled away. Yet he had one encumbrance yet to cast aside. Naked in body, he finally gave up even the covering of his soul; gone in the end was his very theology. He was left with a single concept, the concept of divine abandonment. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Limp, drained; bereft of his world view, his eschatology, in that moment he did not understand what had happened. He was no longer even a man of his time; he was a dead man. The judgment of God had fallen on him, on his teachings, on the first century Judaism that had nurtured and rejected him, the gentiles who in enslaving the Jews had driven them to apocalypticism. Everything that Jesus deemed essential had been rendered null and void. All comprehension, all ethics, all hopes and plans, all anger -- all was dead and gone. There was nothing left but obsolete tokens, strewn on the frontiersman’s trail to oblivion. The fire Jesus called for had fallen on himself and his ministry.

In his return from the grave, he stood vindicated by God. But that vindication did not absolutize his earthly life and sayings. Jesus’ death and resurrection free us to acknowledge just how culturally relative and historically conditioned his teachings were. The Son of God had become human: that is, the son of God thought, taught, struggled and died under the conditions of finitude: ignorance before God, ethnocentrism, psychological ambiguity. Jesus went before us, ‘the pioneer” of a new world, but even the preparer, the son of God, had to go through the refining fire of divine judgment before “the pioneer” became “the perfecter of our faith.”

Jesus did not return from the grave casting his threatened wrathful “fire upon the earth.” In the cross, the fire of divine wrath had already fallen. Transposed by the resurrection, the threat of Jesus became a blessing. Thus, in an astonishing way, he kept his word. Fire was sent -- the fiery tongues of Pentecost: the Holy Spirit.

Having received the Holy Spirit and thus “the mind of Christ,” we are as adequately prepared as human beings can be to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ life and teaching in the light of the resurrection. We have no more assurance of infallibility than did Jesus himself. In our finitude, we emulate his finitude. But he has not left us alone; we are guided in our following after Jesus by the Holy Spirit. It is a blessed paradox of Christian faith that though we wander and stumble through our various wildernesses toward God’s new world, our guide is infallible. The Spirit can make even our being lost a way of finding.

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