Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a seven-part series by the presidents of Mennonite Church USA colleges and seminaries. From March to June […]
Don Blosser asks, “If we let Jesus speak for himself, what would he say?” Blosser goes on to argue that Christians have listened less to Jesus and more to Paul, who preached a gospel at odds with the gospel of Jesus. The church has thus missed much of Jesus’ message.
Jesus understood his messianic mission as showing the people, by word and deed, how they are to live in God’s presence: service to the poor, mercy to the weak, justice to the oppressed, peace to enemies. Jesus commissioned his disciples to continue his ministry by teaching what he taught and doing what he did. Jesus, Blosser says, said “nothing” to his disciples about “proclaiming any theological significance of his death on the cross for our sins.” Paul, by contrast, preached a gospel of the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus, which Paul saw as a sacrifice for sins. Paul, Blosser says, got his gospel that Jesus died for our sins not from Jesus but from “Pharisaic theology.”
We should, I agree, let Jesus speak for himself. When we do that, I suggest, we will find that the gospel of Jesus is present in the gospel of Paul.
Blosser is correct that Jesus’ final commission in Matthew’s Gospel (28:18-20), which directs the disciples to “make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” does not state explicitly that they are to teach about Jesus’ death and the forgiveness of sins. Blosser does not mention, however, that, during the Last Supper according to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says his body and blood—which he will give up in death on the cross, which he symbolizes with the broken bread and outpoured cup—is “for many” and “for the forgiveness of sins” (26:26-28). Jesus says this to the disciples, whom he later commissions to teach the nations all that he had taught them.
Blosser is correct that Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke’s Gospel (4:16-30), which speaks of “good news to the poor” and “release to the captives,” does not proclaim explicitly that forgiveness of sins is part of “the year of the Lord’s favor.” He is also correct that Jesus’ summary of his activity in Luke’s Gospel (7:22-23) names healings for many but does not name forgiveness of sins. Blosser does not mention, however, that Jesus’ final commission in Luke’s Gospel (24:44-49) does, in effect, instruct the disciples that they are to proclaim to all nations repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah. Let’s unpack this text.
Appearing to the disciples in Jerusalem, the risen Jesus first reminds them of what he had already taught them “while I was still with you”—that everything written about him in the Scriptures “must be fulfilled” (24:44). On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus had told the disciples that “everything written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished”—and this “everything” included suffering, execution and resurrection “on the third day” (18:31-34).
The risen Jesus then instructs the disciples how to read the Scriptures—law, prophets and Psalms—in reference to him. Jesus teaches them that the Scriptures show two things: “that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day” (i.e., that the divine purpose is working in Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection) and “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (24:45-47).
The risen Jesus then says to the disciples, “You are witnesses of these things” (24:48). Of which things are they witnesses? They are witnesses to the “the things about Jesus of Nazareth” that have transpired before their eyes: Jesus’ deeds of power and words of wisdom, Jesus’ suffering and death, the empty tomb and the risen Lord (24:19-24, 34-35). They are witnesses also to what the risen Jesus has now taught them: how the Scriptures testify to Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection as taking place according to the divine purpose to bring about “repentance and forgiveness of sins.” And what are these witnesses to do? “Beginning from Jerusalem,” they are to testify to the things of which they are witnesses: repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations in the name of Jesus, who was crucified by human hands and has been raised by God (24:47-48).
If we read the risen Jesus’ instructions to the disciples in connection to the rest of Luke-Acts, we will recognize that repentance and forgiveness of sins is one dimension of the multidimensional salvation the Messiah brings (along with service, justice and peace). John prepares the way for the Messiah, calling God’s people to repentance, “to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:16-17, 76-77; 3:3, 8). Jesus forgives sins, calls sinners to repentance and rejoices when sinners repent (Luke 5:17-26; 7:36-50; 13:1-9; 15:1-32). Jesus’ disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit to be Jesus’ witnesses “to the ends of the earth,” proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of the crucified and risen Messiah, as Jesus had instructed them to do (Acts 1:8; 2:37-40; 3:17-19; 5:29-32; 10:42-43).
Let’s pull all this together: Jesus’ final commission directs his disciples to proclaim to all nations that God’s purpose of salvation is being fulfilled, as the Scriptures have testified, by repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah.
Now let’s hear Paul summarize the gospel in his own words: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
Paul’s gospel summary thus preserves the essence of the gospel that Jesus gave his disciples. That this is so should not surprise us. As Luke tells it, Paul first heard the gospel in Damascus after his personal encounter with the risen Jesus; Paul then went to Jerusalem, where he received the teaching of the apostles, who had been commissioned by Jesus (Acts 9:1-30). Paul later came to Antioch, where he continued learning under Barnabas, who had been sent there from Jerusalem, where he had received the teaching of the apostles, who had been commissioned by Jesus (Acts 2:42; 4:36-37; 11:19-26). In his first sermon on his first missionary journey, Paul thus preached “the message of this salvation,” that “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” in the name of Jesus, who had been crucified and was raised by God, as the prophets and Psalms had testified, in fulfillment of “what God promised” (Acts 13:16-41).
When we let Jesus speak for himself, what do we hear? The risen Jesus teaches his disciples to weave together three strands into a single gospel: the Scriptures’ testimony to God’s purpose of salvation; Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection; and repentance and forgiveness of sins. That is, Jesus teaches his disciples to testify to the theological significance of Jesus’ death concerning the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, the gospel proclaiming that Jesus died for our sins according to the Scriptures originates not with Paul but with Jesus himself.
Darrin W. Snyder Belousek is a member of Salem Mennonite Church in Elida, Ohio. He is the author of Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans, 2012) and Good News: The Advent of Salvation in the Gospel of Luke (Liturgical Press, 2014).
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