By Harris Franklin Rall
What was Jesus' mission upon earth? What did he regard as the great task of his life? There is danger of one-sided answers to this question. We may take three prominent examples to illustrate this. There is the ecclesiastical answer: Jesus came to establish a church, to found an institution to which he could turn over his work for men, or the salvation which he came to bring. Then there is the answer given by a certain type of theology: Jesus came to die, to satisfy the justice of God by suffering the penalty for the sins of men. The tendency of this view is to give very little meaning to the life and teaching of Jesus. Finally, there is the view that Jesus came as a great teacher of truth and a great example of life. No one of these views is adequate, each brings some of the truth.
Why Did Jesus Come?
What Jesus Said of His Coming.—There are not a few passages in which Jesus speaks of the purpose of his coming. Very early in his ministry, after some notable healings at Capernaum which had stirred the people and brought the crowds in search of him the next morning, Jesus himself was found by his disciples out in the fields praying. To their urgent request to return he said: "Let us go elsewhere into the next towns, that I may preach there also; for to this end came I forth" (Mark 1. 38). Again we seem to have in Luke 4. 17-21 a confession of his life purpose. He reads from the prophets the words:
According to these two passages, Jesus came to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, and to serve men. In two other notable passages Jesus declares that he is come to save sinners. "The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost," he declares to those who criticized him for going in to Zacchaeus (Luke 19. 10). And when they criticized him at another time for a similar reason, he says, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9. 13). Finally, there are the solemn words in which he looks forward to his death. The first was spoken not long after Peter's confession: "The Son of man also came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10. 45). The second is from the time of the Last Supper, and speaks again of the purpose of his death: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14. 24).
The Supreme Purpose: The Kingdom.—Back of these varied forms of statement there lies one great purpose. Jesus came to bring in the kingdom of God. That Kingdom, as we have seen, was the life of God ruling the lives of men. He came in order that men might have this life as sons of God, that men might be joined together in a new family of God, a fellowship of loving service, of righteous living and mutual good will. He came that there might be a new world, in which the life of God should make men rich, in which the will of God should be done in all the life of men. Nothing less than this was the purpose of Jesus. It was to save the world, not to save a few men. It was to make a new world, not to save a few souls out of the world. If he emphasized the saving of sinners and the calling of men to repentance, it was because he knew that impenitent sin was the one great obstacle that stood in the way of that new life from God and that new world of God's rule.
What Did He Have To Do?
He Came to Preach.—What did Jesus need to do in order to the establishment of this Kingdom? His first task was to preach. "To this end came I forth," he declared. So the evangelists describe his work at its beginning (Mark 1. 14, 15). Such it remained to the very end. It was as a teacher that his disciples first regarded him, and he never lost that place. It was a title that he chose also for himself (Mark 14. 14). He had a message to bring, a revelation to make: "Neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him" (Matthew 11. 27). It was through the truth that Jesus expected to bring life to men. He did .not give men rites and forms, and tell them that they were to gain life in this way. He did not give them rules to follow. He wanted men to see, to know. "The truth shall make you free." He must make men see God, see his nearness, his love, his power, his gracious purpose to save them and to establish his rule. Then he could call men to repent, then he could summon them to cast aside their enslaving fears and worries and their selfishness and sin, and receive this life of God. Such teaching as his was no mere work of intellect, no cold setting forth of ideas. It meant loving and living, and in the end suffering and death. The cross itself was the last great parable of that Teacher who spoke so often to men in pictures. In this sense, the whole work of Jesus may be considered as a work of teaching.
He Came to Live a Life.—Jesus' second task was the living of a life. That, indeed, was a part of his teaching. It was his life that gave power and meaning and beauty to his words. He could say, "I have given you an example, that ye also should do as I have done to you" (John 13. 15). He bade men learn not only through his words but by his spirit and life: "Come unto me, . . . learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart" (Matthew 11. 28, 29). Here was a teaching that every man could read and that no man could forget. He did not in so many words say, "I am come to lead such a life before you," but looking back we can see here the good purpose of God. More than any precept that he gave was the illuminating guidance of his own life, showing men what they should be. Better than his best parable about God was his own gracious and holy spirit as a revelation of God's heart. So the early church, with Paul, saw "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4. 6).
He Came to Serve Men.—Jesus came to be a servant. This was not an incident in his life, it was his vocation. "The Son of man came to minister," he said (Mark 10. 45). "I am in the midst of you as he that serveth" (Luke 22. 27). He had recognized this to be his calling at the beginning. The temptation story is eloquent proof how he faced the alternative, whether he should take the expected way of power and rule, or that of humble and loving ministry to men. It was by service .that he showed men the spirit of God as a spirit of mercy and good will. It was by service that he sought to create a new people of God, ministering to their needs, winning them from their sins. And by his service he showed men what the life was to be in the new Kingdom, whose rule was to be not self-seeking and mastery, but good will and helpfulness (Mark 10. 42-45). We must not think of this service as the casual giving of bread here or of healing there, as a lesser form of work before his great work of giving his life. His service of deed, like the service of teaching, is one with his final and greatest deed, and the meaning of it all is the giving of life. All true service of men is the giving of life. The highest service is that in which we give most of ourselves and most to others.
Jesus Came To Give His Life
A Conviction That Came Gradually.—Jesus came not only to live for men but to give his life in death. We do not know at just what point in his life Jesus realized that his death was to be a part of his obedience to God and his service of men. The study of his life shows how he depended upon his Father for guidance. His way was not one clearly seen in all its course from the beginning. Its great moments are marked by struggle. That is especially seen at three points: the temptation, the time of the confession and transfiguration, and the prayer in the garden. All three of these struggles bear upon this question of his death. The first more remotely; but when he decided in the wilderness to take the way of humble service, to trust his Father instead of seeking to save himself, there was probably even then in his mind the question as to what danger the future might bring.
How He Learned.—His ministry had not advanced far before the question became more definite. On the one hand appeared the dangers from his foes, on the other it became ever more clear that the way of duty led to Jerusalem with all its perils. "The days will come," said Jesus at this time, "when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then will they fast" (Matthew 9. 15). Driven from Galilee, wandering among the Gentiles, he faces the question in a night of struggle that ends in the transfiguration. From that time in clear and definite words he tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and that he must suffer death there at the hands of his foes (Mark 8. 31; 9. 31; 10. 33, 34). The end of John the Baptist and the fate of the prophets help to point the way (Matthew 17. 12; 23. 29-31). "It cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem" (Luke 13. 31-35). He suggests it even to his foes in the parable of the wicked husbandmen by his reference to the son (Mark 12. 6-8). He sets his face steadfastly toward this dark future, but the burden weighs heavily upon his soul. "I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!" (Luke 12. 50).
How Jesus Thought of His Death.—How, then, did Jesus conceive of his death as being a part of his work? Jesus does not, indeed, speak anywhere with fullness upon this matter. His words contain only intimations and suggestion, which it is not right for us to press too far. And yet certain things are quite clear. (1) Jesus did not think of his death as a tragedy or an accident, but as the will of the Father for his life. (2) He himself freely and willingly chooses that death. The choice is not made without a terrible struggle, to which other passages witness besides the memorable one that tells of Gethsemane. But it is freely made. He need not have gone to Jerusalem. Once there, he might easily have escaped. His enemies, who feared the people, would probably have been only too glad if he had quietly given up his public ministry and gone away. We may say that he was murdered, but we must also say that he lay down his life; and the latter is the deeper truth. (3) He saw that his death had a meaning. It was not only a part of his obedience to God, but it was a part of his service to men, a part of his work in bringing in the Kingdom.
Some Sayings Concerning His Death.—Two words of Jesus concerning his death demand a closer study. In Mark 10. 45 he speaks of giving his life as a ransom for many. In Mark's account of the Lord's Supper, the briefest and perhaps the most faithful, he says: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14. 24). Matthew adds to this account the words, "unto remission of sins." In so doing he only gives what was in the thought of the church from the beginning. According to these words, what meaning did Jesus give to his death? (1) His death means a service for men. His blood is poured out for many, his life is given for many. But just how does this serve men? We must say (2), by his death God establishes a covenant with men. Luke speaks of it as the new covenant. That is clearly implied, for the Jew would at once contrast it with the old covenant. All the way through here Jesus is using the language of picture and allusion. As the old covenant established a people of God, so will the new covenant. His death is to make manifest God's love and purpose, and thus a new people is to be gathered. (3) His death in some way is to mean the forgiveness of men, the saving of men from their sins.
Jesus' Death Has Saved Men.—It is in this last matter that men have disputed most as to the meaning of Jesus' words. We who have noted the Master's picture method of teaching should not be led astray here. He is using the picture of the captive or slave for whom a price must be paid. Men are in bondage, they are not free. By the word of truth and by his deeds of love he has been seeking to deliver men from this slavery of ignorance and fear and sin, and now it is to cost his life. His death is to save men whom this life could not win. How true his word has proven! It is his death that has won men. It is the cross that has drawn men. That cross has somehow gathered unto itself all the meaning of his teaching, all the glory of his life, all the purpose of his coming. Here men have seen what sin means, from which such a deed of darkness might come. Here men have seen God's holiness. Here has appeared the love of God, God's infinite affection set forth so simply that all might understand, so movingly that multitudes have felt and made answer. Leaving aside all theory for the time, the fact remains clear that the cross of Christ has ransomed the many, and has brought to many the remission of their sins.
Directions For Study
Scripture references: Mark 1. 38; Luke 4. 17-21; 19. 10; Matthew 9. 13; Mark 10. 42-45; 8. 29-31; 9. 31; 10. 33, 34; 14. 22-25.
Read through the Scripture references and recall any others that you can in which Jesus speaks of the purpose of his coming. State for yourself and in your own language what that purpose was.
He who plans to do a certain work must stand ready to do that which leads to his end. What was it that Jesus had to do as means to his great end, and how did these means serve that end?
Consider in turn these different tasks. He came to give men the truth, to lead a life in their midst, to serve them. Under each of these points, consider what Jesus said as bearing upon this work, and how this particular work helped him to accomplish his end.
In your own faith and in your own life, what has the death of Jesus meant?