Last time I posted the first blog of my response to Greg Koukl’s conversation with Dr Sean McDowell about the mission of Jesus. I queried whether it was appropriate to attempt to pick out a ‘main’ purpose of Jesus, and whether the people who heralded Jesus’ work (the angel Gabriel, Mary, Zacharias, Simeon, Anna, John the Baptist and passages from Isaiah and Micah) fit with this narrative that Jesus’ ‘main’ purpose was to save people from their sins for an eternity with him. To be clear, I am not saying that this wasn’t a major purpose: it absolutely was, and I believe Jesus’ salvific death and resurrection is core to the Christian faith. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus in history is what makes Christianity true, and without it all of our faith is worthless. But I am worried that just focusing on our escape route to heaven risks an impoverished gospel.
In this post, I look at what Koukl says Jesus says about himself. According to Koukl, “Most of the references are absolutely crystal clear. However, there are a couple of passages that are ambiguous as to their meanings. And these are the passages where he [Jesus] makes reference to the poor and oppressed.”
In the podcast, Koukl cites the following verses:
- For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost, Luke 19:10;
- If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world, John 12:47;
- I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance, Luke 5:32 ;
- The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many, Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45 ;
- I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day, John 6:38-40.
Luke 19:10 is Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector – and likely therefore to be a corrupt man who cheated his fellow Jews out of their money – who had become very wealthy. Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus house, and in response Zacchaeus said, ““Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” It was in response to this that Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Who are the lost? They are sinners like Zacchaeus. How are they saved? Well, in this example, it was the action of Zacchaeus that saved him. Zacchaeus took that action in response to Jesus; his action was a demonstration of faith in Jesus; and it is faith in Jesus that saves us. But the verse in context, in which Jesus declares his purpose, implies that ‘finding’ the lost is more than just giving people a pass to heaven when they die. ‘Finding’ a lost person means changing their life now, in ways that are meaningful and blessed to others.
Luke 19:10 has echoes of Ezekiel 34:16. In Ezekiel 34, God declares that he will come himself search for his sheep and look after them. He will search for the lost. He will rescue them and bring them into their own land; he will tend them in good pasture; he will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak; and the sleek and the strong he will destroy. What was it that made Zacchaeus a sheep to be found, rather than a sleek and strong sheep to be destroyed? It was the fact that when he had an encounter with Jesus, he gave up his wealth for the sake of the poor and those whom he had oppressed. Jesus coming to seek and save the lost is about far more than a route to heaven. It is about justice; and that justice starts to come with the very first coming of Jesus. It does not wait solely for the end times.
John 12 starts with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus’ feet with oil in preparation for his burial. The next day, great crowds welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. But, says Jesus, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” He has not come at this time to rule fully, but to first die on the cross. “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” And yet, a little later, he says, “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.”
So, Jesus says, he has not come to judge, yet nevertheless this is the time of judgment. This is the time in which Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection determine that it is he, and not Satan, who rules the earth; and it is the time which means that anyone who puts their faith in him need not die but have eternal life. Jesus’ death on the cross is not just saving people for heaven; it is also about overcoming the forces of darkness in this world and triumphing over Satan. Christus Victor is as important a part of Jesus’ mission as substitutionary atonement; Jesus had to not just forgive our sins, but defeat Satan. And forgiveness of sins is not just about salvation to eternity with God; it is about freeing us from the consequences of sin as well: the damage to physical creation; the damage to our relationships; the slavery in which we have placed ourselves to sin; the rule of Satan which sin invited in.
We see this further in the timing that God chose for Jesus’ crucifixion: Passover. If Jesus’ ‘main’ mission, to the extent that it trumped all others, was substitutionary atonement then surely the most relevant day for Jesus’ death was Atonement Day. This would have been the clearest day for attaching significance to Jesus’ death if the intention was to create a clear focus on atonement far over and above any other actions or outcomes. Yet instead God chose Passover: a day when the firstborn son is redeemed; when Israel was rescued and liberated from an oppressive ruler; and when Israel started the journey into her promised land flowing with milk and honey. The day of Jesus’ death is a day for celebrating liberation from oppression and into full freedom in God's land.
Luke 5:32 comes in the context of Jesus joining a group of tax collectors and others for a great meal at a tax collector’s house. The Pharisees and teachers of the law query why Jesus eats ‘with tax collectors and sinners’. Jesus’ response is not just about salvation (sinners need to repent), but also a statement about the kind of people whom Jesus attracts and ministers to: people who know their need for God.
Matt 20:28 and Mark 10:45 use the same phrase as each other: that Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The latter part of this phrase is clearly about salvation to an eternal future with God, but it need not just be about that. The New Testament says that we have been bought out of slavery to sin and therefore are to stop sinning. The ransom that Jesus pays on the cross is not just about getting to heaven; it is also about how we live on earth, and we cannot understand Jesus’ mission and his work on the cross if we ignore what his death and resurrection means for our lives on earth now. This is corroborated by the first part of the sentence, which stresses the role of service, in the context of the disciples James and John asking for positions of authority in Jesus’ kingdom.
In John 6, Jesus declares that God’s will is that he should lose none of those whom God has given to him, but that he should raise them up at the last day. Jesus has come to do the will of God, which is that “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day”. But salvation is not merely about belief, for the demons believe that God exists yet are not saved. Salvation is about placing your faith, loyalty and allegiance in God. It is Jesus’ death and resurrection which saves us; nevertheless, Jesus also truthfully says that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21) and “truly, truly, I tell you, if anyone keeps My word, he will never see death” (John 8:51). Faith is allegiance seen in action; it is not merely waiting for death in order to enter eternity with God.
Koukl says of the above bible verses, “Notice that all of these references have to do with something that is spiritually substantial and they all dovetail perfectly with what the forebears announced about Jesus himself.” They all, Koubl says, refer to Jesus’ main mission as bringing humans to a future eternity with God through the forgiveness of sins made possible by Jesus’ death on a cross.
I disagree. I think that the passages Koukl quotes convey a richer mission, and in particular that this includes a mission of service and of caring for God’s people that means a changed – improved – physical reality in the present, not just after death. Anyone who has read Tom Holland’s book Dominion may appreciate just how radical Christianity has been in improving the material reality of many because of the changed morality that Christianity brought.
There is another important passage which Koukl didn’t cite in this part of the podcast: the scripture reading that Jesus used to announce the start of his ministry. There are a great many passages that God could have chosen here, and in particular if God wished to emphasise the salvation to heaven then he could have used Isaiah 53, the suffering servant: “he took up our pain and bore our suffering… he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed…for the transgression of my people he was punished… He bore the sin of many.” Or he could have used Isaiah 9, referring to Jesus as our Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Or he could have used Psalm 22, the crucifixion psalm, foretelling the death of Jesus – the key event on which all of Christianity hangs.
God could have picked any reading from the Old Testament for the start of Jesus’ ministry. He chose a passage that explicitly says that Jesus was anointed “to preach good news to the poor… to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour” (Isaiah 61). He explicitly chose a passage which is about ending oppression, helping the poor and distressed, and redistributing property from the wealthy to the poor (the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’ is the year of Jubilee, supposed to happen every 50 years, in which all agricultural properties are returned to their ancestral owners). This makes even more sense when we remember that God chose to time Jesus’ death with the Passover – liberation from oppression and into freedom – and not with Atonement Day. God chose this passage, and we should think carefully about why he chose this and not a more ‘spiritually’ focused text before we declare that Jesus had a ‘main’ mission which was merely to save people for eternity, and that his reading of the Isaiah passage is about ‘spiritual’ not physical needs.
God could have had Jesus proceed to the cross after only a handful of months preaching about the worthlessness of all animal sacrifices and cleanliness laws, and the need for an ultimate sacrifice. That would have upset the Pharisees and teachers of the law, whose lives centred on the importance of these rituals laid down by God. Jesus could have focused on talking about doctrine and expounding the Old Testament, but instead he spent three years dealing with physical, material issues: storms; hunger; illness; injury; death; demon possession. And he taught his followers explicitly to give to whoever asks, and to love one’s enemy, and to love as he has loved us.
God chose to read from a passage that was well understood to refer to physical reality and to declare physical release and healing. That Jesus’ approach to government is to lead by serving does not mean that this passage suddenly becomes about spiritual rather than physical or material reality.
Jesus didn’t just provide us with a route to eternity with him when he died on the cross. He did far more.
For further reading on the centrality of Jesus’ atoning death, see e.g.
Please note that I am not a scholar of the cross and resurrection. I am writing a blog post, not a book; and I am basing it not on a deep study of soteriology and eschatology but upon my reading of the texts used by Koukl to justify his position, which in my opinion do not justify his position.