The Pre-Resurrection Significance of Jesus

A response to Christians who downplay the life and teaching of Jesus!

This seems to be one of the more complicated notes …

Originally this was intended as an argumentative paper that would prove a point. However, I now feel that argument is not ‘the way’, nor is proving a point consistent with a fairly postmodernist outlook. I am therefore planning to present both sides (or two possible sides). It seems to me that the best way to get a handle on this particular subject is to focus on the Gospel where Resurrection is not particularly evident, in fact almost an afterthought — Mark; and the Gospel that is so permeated with the Resurrection that it presents Jesus in an entirely new way — John. In doing so we can readily appreciate the pre-resurrection significance of Jesus in Mark. John however invests a great deal of what could be seen as post-Resurrection outlook into the presentation of Jesus. The pre-Resurrection account is very impressive but might be seen as deconstructing itself if its content is regarded as being dependent on the Resurrection, and therefore does not ‘truly’ tell the story of the pre-Resurrection Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel begins with the kingdom of God, this is the new departure of this Gospel (see ch. 1). Jesus has a key role in exemplifying this kingdom, though he does not create it or ‘bring’ it, it is already here. John the Baptist didn’t bring the kingdom either, he was equally aware that it had already come. As a forerunner of Jesus, John is an interesting character, but he is actually a footnote to Jesus’ mission, he had no purpose independent of Jesus (Mary’s role too is connected with Jesus, her role is more developed than that of other Biblical women, in the Qur’an her character, piety and experiences are developed even further, and there is no mention of Joseph). Both John and Mary figure prominently in the Qur’an and the traditions (ahadith). So, although Jesus’ initial preaching is identical to John’s, through his ministry we have a deeper conveying of the transforming message of the Gospel (of the kingdom, not of Jesus — he is protected from sectarianism because anyone can preach the Gospel, the Qur’an also makes this point, though more polemically). This is a firmly pre-Resurrection grounding which challenges the primacy, or exclusivity, of the ‘post-Resurrection’ Gospel (the Gospel is not about the Resurrection) — ‘Jesus died for your sins on the cross …’ How might this pre-Resurrection proposition be challenged? The ‘best’ answer might be that this is a distortion of the Gospel which fails to appreciate the centrality of crucifixion and Resurrection within the post-Resurrection (i.e. most authentic) Gospel message. It also narrows the gap (which surely cannot be correct) between Christianity and Islam, which also talks about, and does not reject, ‘the Gospel’ (Injil), hence, not surprisingly, Muslims will say that they ‘believe in the Gospel’, they mean the pre-Resurrection Gospel.

Turning to John’s Gospel, this begins not with the preaching of the Gospel, not even in the account of John the Baptist’s preaching (‘Behold the Lamb of God’); it is strongly focused on the ‘person’ of Jesus though. Here, there is nothing about the kingdom of God, or the Gospel of repentance, but ‘Jesus is everything’, as one might say. Jesus is the deepest conveying of God, and therefore God is the deepest core of the (Gospel) message, as in fact Jesus says in the Synoptics when asked to sum up ‘Hear O Israel, the LORD your God is one God’ (and Muhammad had no other message). So as a pre-Resurrection figure Jesus is tremendously important. John’s Gospel doesn’t actually need the Resurrection — is his death so tragically anticipated (no Transfiguration in John, there is no point, Jesus is recognised as Messiah in ch. 1)? Does Jesus’ trajectory move so climactically towards it as, especially, in Mark? Nor is anything causally connected to it — no forgiveness of sins — other than his going away. Is Jesus’ death just a blip in his life/ministry? Focusing on his life, what really strikes us is the intimacy of Jesus with God and his invitation to those who will ‘see’ to share in that (Ch. 8). This is truly amazing, do we really experience what Jesus talks about, and just in case we are tempted to be restrictive/exclusive about this, it is not the sole preserve of any single theological, spiritual or denominational tradition, or even faith.

The difficulty then, perhaps, is to take this seriously. Is it not obvious that such a Jesus or such a message can only belong to the post-Resurrection era, where the man Jesus becomes the exalted Christ and is absorbed into the Godhead? Although in stripped-down language and observations the same essential closeness to God is there in Mark also. There is also (as always) the objection from the ‘historical Jesus’ standpoint: how could the Prologue be historical, surely John’s Gospel as a whole (except the Passion narrative!) is far from an account of the actual events? Yet even if one were to, largely, accept this argument, where did the ideas come from, what was their source (was it the Holy Spirit, as Jesus may suggest later in the Gospel?), if not, even though less extravagant, the man Jesus of Nazareth himself? But, why worry about it, John doesn’t, he is uninterested in Jesus’ ‘origins’ (why pin him down?), whether in Bethlehem (on the doorstep of Jerusalem — and in which John is extremely, and unhistorically?, interested) or, more likely Nazareth.

Returning to Mark — moving away from the beginning of the Gospel we are faced with healings, parables and (deconstructive) teaching. In fact the deconstructivity is central to everything, it runs through the whole Gospel, from the recognition of an obscure man from a despised part of the country, not recognised by his contemporaries, through the ‘Messianic secret’ (contrast the brash Messianism of John), an (inconsistently) ambivalent showdown at various trials, an untimely and pointless death and a low-key Resurrection (see Jesus’ discussion of ‘David’s Son’ for one example). For me, it is the ‘first and last’ idea which is a great theme of Jesus’ great ministry, so humbling, so challenging and so transforming. In fact if Jesus were to preach his message into our context it would be a case of Muslims being in heaven ahead of us, unless …, but not just them — ‘sinners’, atheists, communists, capitalists. It is a simple idea consistent with the Hebrew prophets, and very human, yet also entirely appropriate when seen as God’s Word on the matter. Does God talk in riddles? Not usually, perhaps, but Jesus does. Too much clarity is not good for us, as Jesus challenged the religious leaders. This is Jesus speaking as a man, though from God’s perspective, yet in some ways reversing the values of the existing religion/revelation, where much was made of God’s choice, yet not necessarily to the exclusion of other choices. Jesus conveys, with human wisdom, the huge error of a doctrine of ‘firstness’. Pushing oneself forward is not the way, none should prosper (materially or spiritually) at the expense of others. In fact no one should be rich if, inevitably, others are poor, it is an inequitable sharing. Implicit in this slogan is a strong drive towards equality and against privilege, but especially religious complacency, a warning also found in the Qur’an where God reserves the right to raise up another people for himself, if the Muslims prove wanting. This is a message that is tied into pre-Resurrection human realities, yet it is also acted out in the Resurrection accounts, it is the women who first become aware of the Resurrection and those whose first encounter with him is more ambivalent (including Thomas) that have the most significant meetings.

An example from John’s Gospel, where Jesus perplexes his audience (ch. 6), although it is very common — Nicodemus, those involved in the ‘man born blind’ incident, those who argue with him about being children of Abraham — to the point of rejection (which was the point, see the parable of the sower in Mark), he talks about people eating his flesh and drinking his blood. There is much significance here, but all of it stemming from humanity, not the resurrected Christ. He presents his physicality, but is talking about the Spirit, which is exemplified in the Resurrection but nodded to here, deeper but not different. This is a prefiguring of the Last Supper and firmly on the pre-Resurrection side, in fact the Last Supper does not presuppose the Resurrection (the content of its expectation is not necessarily evident), it is a kingdom feast. So its significance stretches forward, rather than Resurrection emphasis flowing back into it, though Paul (a post-Resurrection believer) connects it to Jesus’ eschatological reappearance. Interestingly, the Qur’an briefly refers to the Last Supper (Surah 5), where Jesus calls to God for a table filled with food (a sharing in Paradise for his followers). So this memorial meal, a recognition of the significance of Jesus, is present in the Muslim tradition (I only noticed this the last time that I read it, I had another reason for reading more carefully after discussing the Passion (Mel Gibson’s) film with an ‘extremist’ Muslim friend) — some scope for inclusivity here? Meals and eating are a significant element of the Resurrection accounts, in fact it is when Jesus blesses the bread that the Emmaus disciples recognise him. Food in the Resurrection narratives ties the resurrected Jesus into his pre-Resurrection life and points back to the significance of who/what he was. The big pre-Resurrection question is: how could anyone, even those who ‘saw’, grasp the application of his words if they only made sense in the light of death and Resurrection, when that is not explicit in what he says? Or is it prophetic Resurrection mystery? But perhaps to really answer this one we need to read the story of Lazarus (ch. 11) — ‘I am the resurrection and the life’.