Who was Jesus? What is the essence of the Gospel? What was Jesus trying to accomplish by yielding to the sacrificial death on the cross? What is the significance of the relationship between the Son of Man and His heavenly Father as referenced in John 3:16? What did the cross symbolize, and what exactly does it mean for the Christian, (literally a “little Christ”), to be a follower of the cross? The answers to—or the wrestling with—these questions form the foundation of the Christian faith.
The regrettable tendency for the Anabaptist Christian who is born into Mennodom (the Mennonite world) is to pass off such issues of Christianity as the simple fundamentals of the faith. Often, because he has literally grown up in the principles of the Church, he fails to recognize his fatal mistake in bypassing the meticulous study and critical thinking associated with wrestling with the questions for himself. As a result, the implications of the mystery of the cross as the basis for salvation become condensed and devalued, and sometimes, even mistaught and misunderstood.
There are two viewpoints through which to understand God’s plan for Christ’s death. Did Jesus need to die as our substitute in order to appease an angry God, or did God allow Jesus to die in order to demonstrate victory over death and over a former way of life and world order? The dominant view in Western Christianity since the Reformation has been that “Jesus took the punishment from God that I deserve.” The emphasis is on God’s judgment and punishment of sin, and the atonement is misrepresented in that Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice his own life in order to appease the Father’s wrath is what allows us to be “saved,” or reconciled to God. This leaves one with the unsettling feeling that God had to vent his wrath on Jesus in order to be able to forgive the sin of mankind, which places God in a distant, removed position, away from the human race, and isolates Jesus as the (only) lover of the soul.
So if Jesus’ death was victory instead of punishment, over what was the victory gained? The quest for meaning within this concept inevitably leads to more in-depth research of the action itself. Studying both Roman and Jewish culture in the time during which Jesus lived as a rabbi on earth produces a wealth of new understanding regarding the symbolism of His crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection. For instance, the parallels between the crucifixion of Jesus and the inauguration of a Roman Caesar reveal the significance of His death as the ultimate revelation of the New World Order.
Prior to the inauguration of the new Caesar, soldiers gathered around the candidate, declared him triumphant, gave him a scepter, and girded him with a purple robe and a gold olive wreath for his head. When Jesus was brought to the Praetorium, Roman soldiers placed on him a wreath of thorns and a cheap purple robe, and handed him an old stick. They mocked him and sarcastically paid him homage. Caesar’s procession through the streets of Rome was followed by a bull (the sacrifice of which would render Caesar a god) and a servant carrying an axe. Their destination was the highest hill in Rome, the “head hill” known as Capitolene Hill. Jesus, followed by his cross, the instrument of death, was led through the streets as a sacrifice, and on to Golgotha, (literally “skull hill” or “head hill”). The candidate for Caesar stood before an altar. He would be offered wine mixed with myrrh, and when he refused it, it would be poured onto the altar as the bull was slain—at which moment Caesar was declared a god. Jesus too refused the wine that he was offered; right after, it is written, “And they crucified him.”
The picture of the two criminals who were rebels or terrorists, crucified on either side of Jesus, bears likeness to Caesar’s second in command and third in command whom he called to his side as he ascended the throne. As consummation of the inauguration, the gods would send signs such as a flock of doves or a solar eclipse. When Jesus died, divine signs confirmed God’s presence: the temple curtain tore, the sky darkened, and tombs opened.
The Jewish community, on the other hand, could see parallels from a religious, rather than political, standpoint. Five days before the traditional Passover Feast was the designated Lamb Selection Day. On the day set aside for families to select the unblemished lamb for the sacrifice, God presented his selection to the world—Jesus, His lamb, rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, serenaded by Hosannas and saluted with palm branches. When Passover began on Thursday evening, Jesus alluded to God’s announcement of Himself as the Lamb when He told his disciples to “take, eat; this is My body.”
He was arrested later that night, and after hours on trial, was nailed to the cross at 9 o’clock the next morning—the same time that the priests offered the first sacrifice. At 3 o’clock that afternoon, while the priests in the temple burnt the second sacrificial lamb, Jesus gave up the ghost. What Joseph likely did not realize that evening, as he arranged for Jesus’ burial before sunset and the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, was that the words of the priests in that hour were being fulfilled. As Jesus was put into the earth, they prayed, “Lord, give us bread out of the earth.”
On the dawn of Sunday, and the Feast of Firstfruits, Jesus appeared to His people alive. “Now is Christ risen from the dead and become the firstfruits of them that slept (1 Corinthians 15:20).” Jesus was the bread that died so that we could bear fruit. The forty days that followed the resurrection before His ascension allude to the forty days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai as God gave him the Law for His people. When Moses descended and discovered the Israelites’ sin, three thousand of them died. Moses then spent an additional ten days on the mountain.
The anointing of the Holy Spirit on the believers at Pentecost occurred ten days after the ascension. This happened during the Feast of Weeks, during which the scribes read from the scriptures accounts of God meeting His people in the Old Testament amidst wind and fire. When the sound of a rushing wind and the tongues of fire came, three thousand souls were saved that day.
To the Jews and Gentiles alike, this striking symbolism demanded an answer to the question, “Who is this Jesus?” The dramatic event that took place on that Good Friday, in coalition with the glorious resurrection three days later, proved Jesus’ kingship and lordship over death, the ultimate weapon of Satan.
Jesus preached the Gospel as the beginning of a new world order, the Old Testament ideal of shalom as an arriving reality. The Gospel represents a redeeming power of suffering as a higher power than the power of violence. This means believing that Jesus in the flesh is God saving the world. It is being set free from the bondage of death, claiming victory over death.
New Testament Christianity represents participation in shalom as a cross-carrying lifestyle, the opposite of self-preservation and self-defense. The doctrine of the resurrection exposes the false gospel of the flesh, “Take care of yourself.” Jesus recognized His option of righteous self-defense against wrongful death as the supreme demonic temptation. He submitted to God’s will and died. The Gospel-based faith enables us to see God at work in the suffering of Jesus and in our own lives as we choose to share in His sufferings. Faith in Jesus equals a cruciform (cross-shaped) lifestyle. This is what it means to, as a follower of the cross, follow Jesus.
The belief that Jesus died on the cross merely to save us from our sins, reduces the concept of salvation from the phenomenal miracle of the cross to a scientific and mathematical equation. In contrast, when we view Jesus’ death as the ultimatum and consummation of the way of life that He both calls us to and desires for us, we are closer to a truer understanding of the Gospel.