Jesus’ Understanding of His Death and Resurrection for the Salvation of Humanity

One of the more perplexing questions for Christianity, “Who did Jesus think he was?” The fact that, explicitly and for the most part, Jesus did not proclaim himself but the kingdom of God, as well as the fact that he left no letters or other personal papers, makes access to his interior life difficult. How helpful it would have been if the New Testament gave us a series of “I am…” passages where Jesus stated a self-evaluation, e.g., I am only a prophet, or I am the Son of God, or I am God. It is within this understanding that we must rely on the New Testament and scholarly writings (e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas) to unlock Jesus’ understanding of his Death and Resurrection.

The Scriptures had foretold this divine plan of salvation through the putting to death of “the righteous one, my Servant” as a mystery of universal redemption, that is, as the ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin (Isa 53:11). Citing a confession of faith that he himself had “received,” St. Paul professes: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3; Acts 3:18; 7:52; 13:29; 26:22-23). In particular Jesus’ redemptive death fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering Servant (Isa 53:7-8; Acts 8:32-35). Jesus himself explained the meaning of his life and death in the light of God’s suffering Servant: “Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mt 20:28).

The verb ransom utilized by Jesus is used frequently in the Old Testament with respect towards God’s liberating Israel from Egypt or from Babylonia after the Exile. The liberation brought by Jesus’ death will be for many; many does not mean that some are excluded, but is a Semitism designating the collectivity who benefit from the service of the one, and is equivalent to “all.”

The shutting of the heavenly gate is the obstacle, which hinders men from entering. It is on account of sin that men were prevented from entering into the heavenly kingdom, since according to Isaiah 35:8: “It shall be called the holy way, and the unclean shall not pass over it.” Now there is a twofold sin in which prevents men from entering into the kingdom of heaven. The first is common sin, and by that sin heaven’s entrance is closed to man. Hence we read in Gen 3:24 that after our first parents’ sin God “placed…cherubim and a flaming sword, turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” The other is the personal sin of each one of us, committed by our person act (St. Aquinas).

With the above passage by St. Thomas Aquinas and utilizing Matthew’s Gospel to demonstrate the significance of Jesus’ mission within Jerusalem. Specifically; that it is now that we may understand Matthew when he writes about how Jesus enters Jerusalem, the capital city, where Jesus will experience his triumph over death by his resurrection for all humanity.

The great Temple of Herod dominated this city in the time of Jesus. Jesus the Messiah enters his city in triumph, but he is seated on a donkey’s colt, which Matthew interprets as a sign of Jesus’ humility. As a fearless prophet, Jesus cleanses the house of God, another sign of his God-given mission to call Israel to repentance. The next day Jesus returns to the Temple compound and begins to teach the crowds. Two important clusters of sayings and parables are found here. In the first, Mat 23:1-39, Jesus excoriates the scribes and the Pharisees, portraying them in purely negative tones for their hypocrisy and lack of fidelity. The second collection of sayings and parables forms the final discourse of the Gospel, the so-called “Eschatological Discourse” or discourse on the end of the world. While gazing at the stunning Temple from the Mount of Olives, Jesus reflects on the fate of the Temple and the end of human history.

The significance of “the end of human history” is to say, by his death and resurrection he shall “clean” us as he had “cleaned” the temple. By this we are born anew within Christ to God through the Spirit. We now will have a “second” chance at eternal life with the aid of the “second” perfect creation; that he does not disobey God.

With this understanding of the second Adam and Jesus’ understanding of his anticipated death for all humanity, Paul contrasts Christ’s saving actions (that is, his death and resurrection) with the devastating consequences of the sin of the first Adam. Paul does not concentrate long on the first Adam, but reviews only what is generally accepted about his role in introducing an unbroken chain of sin and death. More importantly, and far more powerfully, Paul insists Christ’s death and resurrection has affected all of human history. Paul’s message is basically this—if Adam was so far-reaching, how much more encompassing is the gift of God in Christ for all.

Salvation is a reality that Paul describes here and elsewhere using multiple terms like reconciliation, redemption, justification, and sanctification. The verb “to save” refers to God’s intervening action when human beings are in need. It connotes actual, sometimes physical, rescue, as well as deliverance in spiritual distress. The Old Testament often refers to God as “Savior.” Reference to God’s saving action is one of the Bible’s most frequent ways of referring to God, appearing literally hundreds of times. In the New Testament this term is often used in connection with Jesus. Paul in relating God’s action to the death and resurrection of Christ gives a new emphasis in the theology of salvation or “Soteriology.”

Consequently, St. Peter can formulate the apostolic faith in the divine plan of salvation in this way: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers…with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake” (1 Pet 1:18-20). Man’s sins, following on original sin, are punishable by death (Rom 5:12; 1Cor 15:56). By sending his one Son in the form of a slave, in the form of a fallen humanity, on account of sin, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21; Rom 8:3; Phil 2:7).

Jesus did not experience reprobation as he himself had not sinned (Jn 8:46). But in the redeeming love that always united him to the Father, he assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point that he could say in our name from the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34; Ps 22:2; Jn 8:29). Having thus established him in solidarity with us sinners, God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all,” so that we might be “reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom 8:32, 5:10).

In Genesis 22 we see similarities with Abraham offering Isaac, his only beloved son to God as he was instructed to do so. Although Abraham did not have to sacrifice his only son, God’s messenger did tell Abraham that: “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust” (Gn. 22:8). The sheep that God had promised to Abraham for his offering in lieu of Isaac would come in the form of Jesus the Christ, several hundred years later.

It is within the latter perceptive that while studying Luke’s narrative of the Last Supper, we can appreciate that Jesus is fully conscious of the suffering he is to undergo. He provides a symbolic interpretation of the cups before and after the meal, as well as the bread. The new covenant is made in the death of Jesus, not with the blood of animal sacrifices. As the Jews had been told to remember the Exodus during Passover, Jesus tells his disciples to remember this new focal point of salvation history.

The second part in the Supper scene is the farewell speech. Such speeches were delivered by dying patriarchs to their children, encouraging them to remember the ancestor’s example, to remain faithful to the Law and predicting their failures to do so. Beyond the ominous events of Jesus’ death, Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial, the discourse presents images of fulfillment. The Twelve who stand by Jesus will occupy the twelve thrones of the tribes of Israel. The meal anticipates a future celebration with Jesus in glory—a communal celebration with Jesus, not the ranked banquets of those whose idea of greatness Jesus rejects. Before this banquet can occur, Jesus must suffer to enter glory, and Satan exhibits his presence in Judas (Lk 22:3) and in testing Peter. Jesus’ prayer prevents the sifting of the disciples from being more sever. This perception that the coming time will be more difficult than the immediate past appears in the saying about the swords.

Senior, D. Getty, M. A., Stuhlmueller, C. & Collins, J. J. (1990). The Catholic Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press.

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