Tag Archives: gospels

Botticelli, Temptation of Christ

The Temptation of Jesus As Literature

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is one of those overly-familiar gospel episodes that reward a fresh reading with open eyes. In terms of history and theology, this is one of the more difficult passages to analyze. Questions abound: who is meant to have witnessed and recorded this event? Is this a pale description of a spiritual or psychological experience, or a literal throwdown between Jesus and an embodied “devil”? Was this some kind of legal gauntlet that Jesus had to pass to prove himself the son of God, or just a dramatic manifestation of his anxiety and doubt?

Those are all fascinating questions, but they lend themselves largely to speculation. Approached as a work of literature, on the other hand, the text has much more to offer. This is a carefully and creatively composed piece of storytelling with many observable features which provide structure and impart meaning. All three of the synoptic gospels offer a version of this episode, while John’s gospel omits it. I’m going to focus on Matthew’s version and its appreciable literary form.

Matthew 4:1-11: Jesus Wanders in the Desert

The opening chapters of Matthew present the birth and early life of Jesus as a series of fulfillments and echoes of the story of Israel. Each episode is ordered and detailed to invoke elements and themes from Genesis and Exodus (and from Talmudic expansions on those stories): Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, flees to Egypt with his family. There are dreams and intrigue with kings and diviners, and Jesus passes dramatically through a body of water at his baptism. Then here, in chapter 4, he wanders the desert in an ordeal that lasts “forty days and forty nights,” and next he will go up on a mountain and talk about law.

So what is Matthew’s agenda in casting Jesus in a remake of Exodus? In a general sense, of course, he wants to establish Jesus a true Jew and Israel’s true Messiah. But the significance of the temptation story in particular is best understood if we pay attention to the details. The short text can be broken down into five units; an introduction, three temptations, and a conclusion. Each of the temptations includes a specific allusion to a text from Exodus and a rebuttal from Jesus that quotes Deuteronomy 6. Here’s the broad outline, with more details below:

  1. Introduction (Matthew 4:1-2): Jesus fasting in the desert
  2. Temptation 1 (Matthew 4:3-4): Stones into bread
    1. Reference: Exodus 16:3 (“bread”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:3
  3. Temptation 2 (Matthew 4:5-7): Throw yourself down
    1. Reference: Exodus 17:2,7 (“to the test”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:16
  4. Temptation 3 (Matthew 4:8-10): Bow down
    1. Reference: Exodus 32:8 (“bow down”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:13
  5. Conclusion (Matthew 4:11):  The devil left him

Like the Israelites those millennia ago, Jesus is “led” into the desert where he faces three specific temptations that his ancestors also faced there. But where they failed, grumbling and rebelling, Jesus is faithful and true. And his source of inspiration is Deuteronomy 6, the defining expression of Jewish identity and belief. He essentially defeats the devil with Judaism.

Now let’s consider the actual temptations in a little more detail:

Temptation 1: Magic Bread (Matthew 4:3-4)

The identity of Jesus’ adversary in Matthew’s text is rather slippery. He is first called “the devil,” but usually just “the tempter,” and eventually Jesus calls him “you satan!” Whoever or whatever he is, the tempter begins by challenging the “famished” Jesus to turn some stones into bread to nourish himself. Jesus answers with his first quote from Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to keep you alive, you actually live on every word that comes out of God’s mouth.” (Deut 6:3)

This temptation involves the miraculous provision of dirty bread. For the Israelites (in Exodus 16 and following) God provided manna, and the temptation was to hoard or grumble or otherwise fail to appreciate the provision. For Jesus the circumstance is different but the temptation is the same. He is dared to exploit his privilege in order to instantly gratify himself rather than staying hungry and continuing to trust in divine providence.

Temptation 2: Go Jump Off a Cliff (Matthew 4:5-7)

Next the tempter takes Jesus up onto the temple mount and dares him to jump off, so that God might “command his angels” to come down and save him (a quote from Psalm 91). Jesus rebukes him with another Deuteronomic comeback: “You mustn’t put the Lord your God to the test!” (Deut 6:16)

This is another reference to Exodus, specifically Exodus 17 where the Israelites demand a miracle and Moses responds with a similar warning about putting God “to the test.” (Exo 17:2) But the Israelites intensify their protest and Moses capitulates in an incident with his staff and a rock that will see him banished from the promised land. The temptation here is not just ingratitude but a complete lack of faith manifested as a demand for religious signs and proofs, an exchange of reason and trust for insecurity and superstition. For Jesus the choice is between triumphant religious spectacle or quiet humanity, and he chooses the latter.

Temptation 3: Bow Down (Matthew 4:8-10)

Finally, Jesus’ devil takes him to a “very high mountain,” where they survey the “magnificent kingdoms of the world.” “I’ll give them all to you,” he says, “if you’ll bow down and worship me.” Jesus must have been listening to the audiobook of Deuteronomy on his phone that morning, because he is ready with one more quote: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone!” (Deut 6:13) The devil leaves him.

Here is an allusion to the famous incident in Exodus 32 when Moses ascends Mount Sinai and within five minutes the people below are “bowing down” to worship a fertility idol in the form of a golden calf. For the Israelites, this was simply the temptation to return to the glamorous and expedient type of local religion to which they had been accustomed. For Jesus, the temptation is to embrace the glamorous and expedient type of power and glory afforded by the empires and kingdoms of the world. To this day, political and military power are the only way most humans can imagine anything resembling justice to be accomplished. But Jesus knows there is a better way.

The Big Picture: Jesus the Good Jewish Human

Most readers of the New Testament, missing the literary clues and references, have imagined that these trials were unique to Jesus and his heavenly vocation as savior and messiah. But Matthew’s point seems to be that these three temptations – instant gratification, superstition, and power politics – are all common. They are common to Israel and common to humankind. What makes Jesus extraordinary is his transcendent response to these universal temptations, grounded in humility, faith, and an ongoing trust in divine goodness. Matthew is inviting his Jewish readers to place their trust in Jesus, the true Israelite and the true human. He portrays Jesus as “one of us,” which ought to make his goodness all the more relevant and inspiring.


Resurrection: Fact vs. Meaning

I used to be quite consumed by the question of the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. I read books, scoured websites, and listened to lectures from Christian apologists who assured me that the resurrection was an indisputable fact I could believe in with full confidence. This was helpful because I knew I had to believe in the resurrection to qualify for the rights and privileges of being a Christian.

Except, well, let’s just say that getting serious about scholarship and history doesn’t make it any easier to believe in the resurrection. One learns that the sciences don’t have much to say about miracles, except that they just don’t have very much to say about miracles. The selective “science” offered by Christian apologetics may be well-intended, but it does believers no favors by pretending to give them solid evidence for something that ultimately comes down to faith.

Today I’m far less concerned with proving the resurrection than I am with pondering it and feeling it. You can believe in something spectacular and impossible to your dying breath, never doubting or asking questions, but what’s the point if it doesn’t mean anything relevant or good?

So I leave the question of history and fact aside, except to say this: The best historical analysis can do (and has done, I think) is to demonstrate with some certainty that the earliest Christians really believed that Jesus had been miraculously raised from death. That’s as far as science can possibly go. To go any further and attempt to CSI the resurrection is to waste a lot of time and effort that could be redirected to more constructive questions, like “what does resurrection even mean?” The meaning of Easter as the climax of the Christian story has become far more important to me than a misguided attempt to prove it like a math problem.

Here are some brief thoughts and observations about the meaning of the resurrection that might be helpful to anyone trying to wrap their heads around it:

  • Resurrection should represent a vindication of everything Jesus taught.
    This makes good sense though it is rarely articulated. A prophet comes along and tells us what the world is like, what God is like, and how we should treat each other in light of these things. We tell him to shut up and he won’t so we kill him. If God brings that prophet back to life, the things he said will surely take on a new significance. If Jesus lives, so do his ideas! Strange then how many Christians actually devalue and diminish the teachings of Jesus precisely because of their strong focus on the resurrection.
  • Resurrection would confirm what Jesus said about the character of God.
    Furthermore, the resurrection of Jesus ought to confirm and privilege his vision of an endlessly forgiving and merciful God against any competing visions of God, even those found in scripture. 
  • Resurrection constitutes a peaceful revelation rather than a violent takeover.
    In the ancient world, by all accounts, a vindicated prophet with God on his or her side would surely be an unstoppable agent of revenge and retribution. Instead, we have a story about a prophet who comes back quietly to announce “Peace!” to his friends.
  • Resurrection would put a crack in the otherwise impenetrable strongholds of suffering and death.
    I don’t want to take this one too far. There are Christians who “claim” the power of the resurrection to ward off and deny the ongoing realities of human suffering and death. That is an unhelpful delusion. But the story of the resurrection invites us to think and hope beyond the grim inevitabilities of life as we know it, and to imagine a world that has been infiltrated by divine life and healing.
  • Resurrection makes every innocent victim the hero of their own story.
    Oh, this one is good. As suggested above, the resurrection story is about the surprising revelation of the true and peaceful character of God. In terms of anthropology and religion, this means that God looks at human violence, ritual, and scapegoating and sides with the victim rather than the perpetrator. This is the one-two punch of Good Friday and Easter: first our sinful tendency to deal with our problems by blaming and killing innocents is forever exposed by the cross, and then God vindicates the innocent one in full view of the world which hated them. The “founding myth” of all human society, the sacrificing of the innocent to purge evil, is overturned and undone.
  • Resurrection hints at a brighter future.
    For most Christians today, the major ramification of the resurrection is the promise of a glorious afterlife in heaven. As pervasive as this belief is, it is actually not an explicit aspect of the gospel resurrection stories. Jesus doesn’t come back selling tickets to heaven, he’s concerned instead with the proliferation of his teachings on earth. Elsewhere, for the apostle Paul, Easter is seen as a vindication of the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15), but even this is not about “going to heaven” in the way we think. Not all Jews believed in resurrection, but those who did saw a future for humankind here on earth, not in some far away spiritual realm. Christians would do well to embrace Easter as a beacon of hope for humanity rather some escapist fantasy. 

This list could be labeled “finding meaning in the resurrection” or even “why I believe in the resurrection.” Because I do believe it. Not with a closed-fisted certainty or a delusional superiority, but as someone who really hopes with all of my heart and mind that this is what the universe is really like.

I want to believe in this story. Not in the twisted version where a cruel God rewards a small remnant of humanity for believing in certain impossible things, but the story of heaven answering human cruelty with pardon and miraculous new life. The story where the violence of sin and religion is met with divine pardon and peace.

“Proving” the resurrection is a sticky proposition and a waste of time. This is a job for hope and imagination.


Quest for a Violent Jesus, Part 1: So Many Swords!

From the earliest days of Christianity, mercy and nonviolence have been integral to the character and legacy of Jesus as understood by most of his followers. It’s unfortunately true that some of the most popular and influential Christian institutions have diminished or even contradicted this theme, but there have always been prophetic voices calling us back to the fundamentally peace-loving and forgiving ethos of Jesus. For a growing number of Christians today (your humble blogger included) this isn’t just a nice fact about Jesus, that he happened to be a pacifist, it is the very heart and essence of his message, his life, and his revelation of the divine.

Those who seek to challenge or to mitigate Christian nonviolence find plenty of cause to do so in the Bible’s own words. Violent visions of God and judgment aren’t just relegated to the “Old Testament,” they are common in many books of the New Testament, from the letters of Paul and Peter to the politically charged visions of Revelation. If you want a God and a universe which are ultimately and inescapably violent, the Bible’s got you covered. Those of us who espouse nonviolence as the true heart of Christianity – and the true heart of God – do so based almost entirely on the words and person of Jesus as described in the gospels.

And that’s why critics love to throw certain verses from the gospels in our faces. Continue reading

John 14-6

Let’s Talk About John 14:6

The question of religious identity and exclusivity is the source of much unrest among Christians here in the twenty first century. While some are turned off by culture war posturing and struggle with Christian claims of superiority, others have doubled down on such claims, embracing exclusivity to a degree of militancy. At the heart of this question are apparent biblical proclamations of religious supremacy. Such passages seem to be numerous, but few are as succinct and popular as John 14:6 in which these words are attributed to Jesus:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

For a major segment of the Christian population, this verse represents a triumphal pronouncement of religious superiority; Jesus is the only way to get to heaven, therefore Christianity is the only true faith. The verse adorns t-shirts and stickers as a public challenge to members of other religions and traditions, and a sort of “high five” to other believers. Meanwhile, in light of Christian culture’s proud application of John 14:6, an increasing number of Christians are uneasy and secretly dubious. Several friends of similar age and upbringing have confided in me that this verse in particular has engendered doubt or even a crisis of faith. Continue reading


Why Two Christmas Stories Are Better Than One

As a citizen of America, I’m almost done with Christmas. We’re living in a century where the cultural defense and political exploitation of Christmas as an institution have become more obscene than the holiday’s ongoing commercialization. On the other hand, as a Christian and a big fan of Jesus and hope, I still admire and embrace the season of Advent and the holy day (that’s right, just a day!) of Christmas. There is much to love, from ancient traditions to recent memories.

Meanwhile, my falling out with Christian culture and my journey through biblical scholarship over the last several years has really complicated and ultimately transformed my relationship with Christmas, particularly with the nativity traditions found in the Bible. Our notion of a singular, harmonious, “biblical” Christmas story runs into all sorts of trouble when we read the texts attentively. Continue reading


Atone Deaf Part Three: The Gospels and Why Jesus Died

Latest in a series of posts exploring the Christian understanding of atonement and the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

In our last two posts we surveyed key sacrificial traditions of the Torah and the famous “servant song” of Isaiah 53, to see if they in any way predicted or anticipated the death of Jesus as a substitutionary punishment for sin. I concluded that, while there are elements of payment and vicarious suffering in those Hebrew Bible traditions, none of them constitutes the kind of wrath-satisfying punishment made necessary by Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theology. Instead of an angry God looking to spill the blood of an innocent surrogate, we found a God who ultimately rejects blood sacrifice in favor of mercy and love, and who turns the earthly suffering of his “servant” into hope and new life. If you want to “prove” PSA from the “Old Testament,” you’ll find a few scattered elements, but you’ll have to ignore everything else that’s really going on.

Of course, it’s in the New Testament that the events central to a Christian understanding of atonement are portrayed, and regardless of what the Hebrew Scriptures say, this is where we’d expect to find an explicit message about the meaning of Jesus’ death. If Jesus died as a substitutionary sacrifice to appease the wrath of God, the gospels will surely tell us so. Let’s see what they have to say, taking them in (roughly) chronological rather than canonical order.


The first thing we notice, reading the gospel texts on a mission like this, is that they very seldom spell out theological meaning with explicit commentary. They are rife with such meaning, to be sure, but it must be discovered by interpreting the dialogue and the style and drama of the narrative. Most Christians would prefer to read the gospels as simple, factual reports of eyewitness experiences, but comparing one gospel to another illuminates just how much personal creativity and agenda have figured into the shape of these presentations. This is not necessarily to question their reliability, but to simply acknowledge their diversity in detail, theme, and emphasis.

Mark’s gospel is the shortest and the most “action oriented.” Jesus casts out his first demon before the end of Chapter 1. There is no “narrator’s commentary” on the death of Jesus, and so our only references to the subject come in the form of words on the prophet’s own lips. Twice in Mark Jesus predicts his own death privately to his followers (8:31-33; 9:30-32). In both instances he emphasizes his inevitable rejection by the human authorities in Jerusalem, his eventual execution, and his ultimate vindication in resurrection. Other than the political machinations implied in these predictions, Jesus does not mention any cause or ramification for this death until we get to Chapter 10, when he says this:

“Don’t you see? The son of man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45, KNT)

Mark’s Jesus gives us an explicit statement on the meaning of his impending death, and I have heard this verse cited innumerable times as if it were a definitive biblical reference to PSA theology. Two considerations: 1) The immediate context is not a question about sacrifice or the theological necessity of Jesus’ death, it is an argument among Jesus’ followers about who will hold the most power when he becomes king. Jesus rebukes them and explains that his vocation is not to seek and wield power like a typical earthly king, but to lay down his life for the sake of his people. 2) More significant to our discussion, a “ransom” is not at all the same thing as a “substitute.” A ransom is a payment for the liberation of captives, not the transfer of a punishment from a guilty party to a proxy.

The obvious referent here is the Passover sacrifice we discussed in an earlier post, an allusion that is even more pronounced in the “last supper” account in Mark 14. Jesus shares a Passover meal with his followers on the eve of his death, reappropriating the unleavened bread and the cup of blessing as signs of a “new covenant” in his blood for the arrival of God’s kingdom. Later in the place (not a garden) called Gethsemane, Jesus prays fervently to his “Father” that he might be spared the burden of betrayal and execution, but ultimately concedes to the divine will (the first and only explicit reference to God’s will in relation to Jesus’ death). At the moment of his death in the next chapter, Jesus quotes the refrain of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” After Jesus dies, Mark says the temple veil is torn in two, suggesting that Jesus’ death has fundamentally broken the old sacrificial system. The final chapter of the gospel emphasizes the Sabbath setting of Jesus’ resurrection, indicating that his death marked the end of one era, and his rising the dawn of a new one.


Matthew’s gospel spends a lot more time describing Jesus’ origin and demonstrating his credentials as a Jew and as the anointed one (messiah). The author presents Jesus’ life as a series of “fulfillments” of Hebrew Bible texts. More than half of the book goes by before the spectre of Jesus’ death is raised. We get two predictions from Jesus himself echoing those in Mark (Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23) and an additional one on his fateful trip toward Jerusalem with an added reference to being “handed over to the pagans” and “crucified” (20:17-19). Later in the same passage, Matthew presents the saying about “a ransom for many” (20:28), and in Chapter 26 Jesus emphasizes that his death will coincide with Passover. At the last supper, Jesus’ words are very similar to those in Mark, with an added reference to his blood being “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28), connecting his death to the Torah sacrifices as well.

Matthew’s presentation of the death of Jesus in Chapter 27 adds some curious details not found elsewhere. There is an earthquake at the moment of Jesus’ death, and “many bodies of sleeping ones” climb out of their tombs and shuffle off to Jerusalem. This bizarre episode is possibly a rare biblical reference to the “harrowing of Sheol,” an early Christian tradition in which Jesus descends into the underworld, binds the satan, and rescues the martyrs held captive there. This is the backstory to the brief line in the Apostle’s Creed that says “he descended into hell,” and it quite starkly dramatizes the “ransom” model of atonement theology. We’ll discuss this tradition a little more in an upcoming post.


Scholars suggest that the authors of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark’s gospel as one of their sources. Many of the sayings and traditions they share are found in simpler forms in Mark, and each contains their own unique material as well (there is also another hypothetical shared source called Q). Luke 9:22 records Jesus predicting his own death as he did in Mark and Matthew, but here it is followed by a warning that anyone who would follow Jesus must “deny yourself, and pick up your cross every day.” (That doesn’t sound very much like substitution!) In Chapter 13 Jesus responds to threats from King Herod by saying, “Only in Jerusalem could a prophet perish!” (13:33). Later, in Chapter 22, Luke emphasizes the Passover setting of the last supper, just as Mark and Matthew had done, but throughout Luke’s narration of the passion there is a special emphasis on both the suffering and innocence of Jesus. In Gethsemane, Jesus is in “agony” until an angel is sent to “strengthen” him (22:43), a detail found only in Luke. As he dies, Luke’s Jesus pronounces forgiveness upon his enemies and murderers (and presumably everyone; 23:34), and the soldier who proclaimed in Mark and Matthew that “this man is truly the son of God,” here proclaims that “this man truly was innocent!” (23:47)


John’s gospel is the “most different” of the canonical gospels. It was written as much as a generation later than the synoptics, and it presents a radically different take on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This Jesus does not cast out demons, does not tell parables, doesn’t proclaim the “kingdom of God”, never shares a last supper with his followers, and spends most of his time performing miracles so that people will “believe” in him. On the subject of Jesus’ death, John’s gospel is telling the same story, but in a different language.

The first reference to Jesus’ death in John actually comes in the form of a prophecy from Caiaphas, the High Priest, who says “let one man die for the people, rather than the whole nation being wiped out” (11:50). This becomes the religious establishment’s justification for assassinating the prophet. Jesus doesn’t explicitly predict his death in John as he did in the earlier gospels, but he does cryptically prepare his followers for life in his absence. When the passion week arrives, John describes the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus in a profoundly symbolic pageant. John moves the day and time of Jesus’ death to coincide with the slaughter of the Passover lambs, and as he dies Jesus exclaims “It is finished!” (19:30). This is an artistic collision of two major Hebrew Bible themes: Jesus is killed as a ransom sacrifice like a Passover lamb, and his death marks the end of a work of “new creation.” This is emphasized further as Jesus resurrects on the first day of a new week and encounters Mary, who mistakes him for the “gardener” (20:15).

Analysis: Why Did Jesus Die?

The first thing to note about this brief tour of the gospels is that, despite the diversity of perspectives and agendas in the various tellings of this story, one thing is extremely clear in each of these texts: the primary cause of Jesus’ death was the treachery of corrupt religion in collusion with empire. He was killed by the machinations of human “justice,” and anything else is theological speculation after the fact. This is not to say that such speculation has no value, but some formulations of atonement put such emphasis on the theological necessity of Jesus’ death or on “God’s will” that the clear, historical circumstances of the passion – outlined explicitly in every gospel – become bothersome or irrelevant. This is the same mistake we make when we focus so obtusely on abstract legal ramifications of human sin that we forget about the toll it takes on real people here and now. Jesus died as an innocent victim of human oppression. That is not the cover story for some cosmic transaction, it is the bitter truth of what occurred. And it implicates us, not God.

On that note, returning to the question of atonement, we observed another surprising continuity across all four gospels: an understanding of Jesus’ death as a “ransom” sacrifice for the liberation of his people. Neither penal substitution nor the wrath of God seems to be a factor for any of these authors/communities, though arguments have been made. It has been suggested, for example, that the “cup” Jesus must drink is the wrath of God against human sin, but this is not what the text says at all. Jesus identifies his fate as the inevitable result of human betrayal and politics, and tells his power-hungry disciples that they will drink from the same cup if they choose to follow him. Like the “take up your cross” language in John, this sounds more like solidarity and shared suffering than substitution or punishment. It should also be noted that each of the gospels connects the death of Jesus indivisibly to the resurrection, so that it would not be sufficient to consider one apart from the other. This is another major error of many atonement theologies.

According to the gospel texts and the early communities of Christians that produced and read them, Jesus died to liberate his people from bondage to sin and death, to set them free to embrace and inhabit God’s kingdom of peace and reconciliation. These texts are not theological textbooks or doctrinal statements, they are artful responses to the Jesus event, told and retold by his followers and their descendants. These are not legal or technical explanations of why Jesus “had to die,” they are literary celebrations of an event so simultaneously shocking and beautiful that it changed everything, forever. Jesus died for us, and with us, and yet it was we who killed him. God didn’t “pour his wrath” on an innocent victim, we did. And yet the innocent one willingly suffered this fate for the sake of those who perpetrated it, and he did not curse them or retaliate, he only forgave. That is where we find God in atonement: not behind a curtain pulling the strings, but on the cross loving and forgiving His killers.

More On the Post-Resurrection Stories

Mveng Resurrection Chapel of Hekima College Nairobi

Engelbert Mveng: Resurrection, Hekima College, Nairobi, Kenya, 1962.

I touched on this in my Easter post, but I want to say a little more about the details and ramifications of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the synoptic gospels. Here are three deeply significant aspects of these strange tales that might have been obscured by traditional readings of the Bible.

1. Jesus returns in peace, unexpectedly.

Clearly no one in the gospel stories expected Jesus to be resurrected. Even when Jesus made cryptic predictions about his death and vindication, his followers told him to stop talking crazy and asked when he was going to become king and kill all the bad guys. As I’ve explored at-length elsewhere, the designation “messiah” had little to do with dying and coming back to life and everything to do with winning wars. After Jesus was executed, no one was looking at their watch wondering what was taking him so long. They were defeated and dejected. Their candidate was gone. The end.

And so when Jesus is resurrected, according to the synoptic gospels, it’s a surprise that completely blindsides his friends and followers. The shock and terror of the disciples is dramatized in the gospel texts, and we sympathize. Running into someone you watched die would be unsettling, to say the least. But once again, a deeper consideration of the historical and political background amplifies the drama. No one had ever imagined that a messianic candidate would die and be resurrected, but if that WERE to ever happen, surely the vindicated one would start the holy war to end all holy wars. With God clearly on his side, nothing could stop him. The disciples aren’t just scared because they think they’ve seen the ghost of a beloved friend, they’re staring at the risen body of the prophet they betrayed and abandoned. They must be thinking that judgment day is upon them.

But it wasn’t. Jesus announces “peace!” and tells them not to fear. The disciples (and innumerable Christian interpreters since) still want to know when the war will start, and Jesus lovingly smiles and shakes his head.

2. Jesus returns as a stranger.

The resurrection narratives in the gospels are diverse and sparse in detail, and they leave us asking many questions. In light of their ambiguity, however, continuities become more significant. For example, in every appearance story not a single person recognizes the risen Jesus on sight. From the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel to Paul’s vision in Acts, the resurrected Jesus is always encountered first as a stranger. This detail is easily overlooked, but its implications are staggering.

Quite in line with his expectation-defying career as a most unlikely messiah, Jesus is not portrayed as returning from the grave in public spectacle and revenge. His appearances are quiet and private, and his own friends don’t recognize him until they talk and eat with him. This Jesus is not the Jesus of triumphalism or culture war. This Jesus does not take over the world from an earthly seat of power, nor does he publicly shame those who don’t know him. He comes quietly alongside his followers and reveals himself in intimacy and friendship. An encounter with this Jesus is unexpected, a run-in with a stranger, a stranger who challenges and forever changes the way we look at things.

3. Jesus returns to affirm life, not “afterlife”.

The synoptic post-resurrection tales are remarkably brief, given their centrality and theological weight. As a result, we have tended to fill them out with our own assumptions and infer our own meanings. For many, the whole point of Jesus’ resurrection is to prove that heaven is real, and that Jesus can take us there with him if we negotiate a ticket. A peek at the texts, however, reveals a different agenda.

In Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers to go and make “disciples” (students) of his teachings who will keep his “commandments”. In Mark, the risen Jesus instructs the twelve to spread his message and “baptize” new followers.* In Luke, the most extensive of the narratives, Jesus reads scripture and eats with his followers, charging them with the task of being “witnesses” to his life and legacy. There is not a word about life after death or of his followers “going to heaven” when they die, but there is a clear mandate to proliferate his teachings. This includes his commandments to love God and neighbor, and his message of repentance and empathy.

Other texts will speculate about the nature of Jesus’ “appearing” at the “end of the age,” and of the fate of humanity and creation, but the gospels’ resurrection stories are clearly more concerned with the present. Here, Jesus’ legacy is first and foremost for this life, the one we’re living, for the well-being of his followers and of the whole world that God loves. This is the Risen Jesus we meet in the pages of the Bible and, hopefully, the one we seek in our lives.


*In Mark’s gospel proper, the risen Jesus says nothing at all. There are two “extra” endings, from 16:9 onward, widely considered to be later additions. It’s fairly easy to see why, even on the surface.