As one studies Jesus’ life, one main question comes up: what did Jesus intend to accomplish in his first century earthly ministry? This question is answered in three smaller questions: who did Jesus understand himself to be, what did Jesus intend to do, and how did Jesus intend to accomplish it? As I examine Jesus’ intention in his words and works, he intended as Messiah to inaugurate God’s kingdom through his death and resurrection.
Jesus understood himself to be the Messiah in his first century earthly ministry.
Messiah comes from the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ (mashiach) and Aramaic מְשִׁיחָא which mean “the Anointed One.” In the New Testament, the translators Hellenized the Hebrew and Aramaic as Χριστός (Christos) (John 1:41; 4:25), which is translated as “Christ” in English. Essentially, this person would fulfill Israel’s expectations of deliverance from their enemies.
The canonical Gospel writers understood Jesus as Messiah or Christ because they referred to him in their writings as such even before an official proclamation happened in the narrative (Matt. 1:1, 16; Mark 1:1; Luke 2:26; John 1:17). The disciples also affirmed Jesus as Christ. The synoptic Gospels include Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Christ (Matt. 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20), which is the most popular. Although John does not include this account, he includes Andrew’s—the brother of Simon Peter—confession (John 1:40). Not only that, but there is an account of demons affirming Jesus as the Messiah (Luke 4:41).
Often, people would connect “Christ” to “the Son of God” (Matt. 16:16; Mark 14:61; Luke 4:41; John 11:27). This connection meant that Jesus’ audience recognized that he was divine and from God. While the people in Jesus’ time would not be able to articulate Trinitarian doctrine like the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, they made two important recognitions: Jesus is God, but he is not God the Father.
Not only that, but Jesus’ audience also connected “Christ” to “the Son of David” (Matt. 22:42; Mark 12:35; Luke 20:41; John 7:42). This connection of Jesus’ audience meant that they recognized his humanity. While Jesus was God, he was also human and had an important genealogy. In 2 Samuel 7, the Lord addressed David who desired to build a house for God. Building this house meant that the people would dwell in their land permanently and God would reside with them. However, the Lord pointed to someone else who would do this—and that would be Jesus (John 1:14).
Kingdom of God/Heaven
The kingdom of God, or heaven, was the main point of Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus principally taught that the kingdom came near (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9). This inbreaking is most evident in his miracles and signs. In his miracles, he continually demonstrated that God’s kingdom is sufficient for everyone (John 2:1-11; 6:1-15), the fall does not have physical impact (John 4:46-54; 5:1-15; 9:1-41), life will reign (John 11:1-15), and God will be the ruler over all things (John 2:12-17).
Additionally, Jesus taught that the kingdom was for a specific people (Matt. 5:3, 10; 18:4). The kingdom of heaven is for those who are poor in spirit, meaning they have given up their pride to follow God (Matt. 5:3; 18:4). Not only that, but those who are committed to following Jesus even to the point of suffering and death are granted access into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:10).
Jesus taught about the kingdom of God and heaven in two ways. Jesus taught through challenge and invitation. While Jesus proclaimed the kingdom to all who heard, accepting them into the kingdom if they believed in him, he also warned his listeners what would happen if they rejected him. Either one was inside the kingdom or outside of it, and they had to ensure their life bore the fruits consistent with being in the kingdom (Matt. 13:24, 30, 47-50, 31-33, 44, 45; 22:1-14).
Jesus also taught through instruction. To get into the kingdom, one had to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. However, they also had to adhere to the theological and ethical teachings of Jesus (Matt. 13:51-52; 18:23-25; 19:16-30; 20:1-16).
Jesus intended to die in his first century earthly ministry.
Jesus’ intentions are first revealed in his passion predictions. The first passion prediction occurs in Matt. 16:21-23, Mark 8:31-9:1, and Luke 9:21-22. In Matthew, Jesus reveals to his disciples that he must suffer and die, but that he will be raised again from the dead. However, Peter denies this arc as a possibility and rebukes Jesus for uttering a blasphemous thing. As Jesus reveals, this path is God’s way of redeeming all things to himself. Mark adds the detail that Jesus teaches the crowd. He explains what they should expect if they continue to follow him. Although they will not suffer and die to redeem all creation, they can expect to suffer like Jesus did for his kingdom. Luke adds the interesting detail that the disciples had to keep this to themselves for the time.
The second passion prediction occurs in Matt. 17:22-23, Mark 9:30-32, and Luke 9:43-45. Matthew and Mark provide a brief summary of the passion prediction. However, in Matthew at least, rather than focusing on Peter solely, the whole company of the disciples became distressed, not understanding why their Rabbi had to suffer, die, and how he could be raised again. Mark highlights the unusual detail that he did not want others to know about this prediction. Interestingly, he also highlights their confusion. After two times, they still did not ask for clarity about his work. Luke offers an explanation to the disciple’s confusion in Mark. For some strange reason, the true meaning of the passion was not revealed to them. They would not fully understand until Acts 1:6-11.
The final passion prediction occurs Matt. 20:17-19, Mark 10:32-34, and Luke 18:31-34. These three accounts cover the same details as before. However, what’s significant in this passion prediction is the focus on Jerusalem as the place of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.
The passion predictions are explained in the Lord’s Supper. Matt. 26:26-29 and Mark 14:22-25 are similar accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. As Jesus takes the bread and wine, he signifies that his physical body is about to be marred and destroyed for the sake of redemption. Not only that, but his blood spilling out of his body will signify the start of the new covenant between God and his people. While Luke 22:14-23 covers many of the same details, he focuses on the act of betrayal that will kick-off this final part of the Gospel narratives. Paul explains the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11:17-34. He highlights the effect of this meal and its pedagogy. As the church partakes in this meal, their bonds of unity are reaffirmed as they remember Jesus’ work of redemption as predicted in the passion predictions and later fulfilled.
This leads to the final point: Jesus intended to be raised again in his first century earthly ministry.
He demonstrated in his ministry that he could raise from the dead. John 11:38-44 records Jesus traveling to Lazarus’ tomb after he has been dead for many days and commanding him to come out of the tomb. John uses this miracle to foreshadow what Jesus would do himself in John 20:1-10. In fact, Jesus assumed in each passion prediction that he would be raised from the dead; he would not leave his body to decay. He told his disciples this repeatedly, but because the true meaning was hidden from them, they did not fully realize what he meant until Luke 24:36-49 and John 20:19-23.
Finally, Jesus’ narrative arc does not end at this resurrection, for he ascended into heaven and will return again. The disciples’ final question to Jesus sought to determine when he would restore the kingdom (Acts 1:6-11). However, he does not leave them with a definitive answer, but he empowers them to preach the Gospel to all creation (Matt. 28:16-20). John does answer the disciples’ last question. People from all nations will be in God’s kingdom and that Jesus will reign with his Father and Spirit in the new creation (Rev. 7:9-17; 21:1-8). Thus, Jesus’ work of redemption—what he came to do—will finally be realized. Until then, God’s people are charged to preach the Gospel to all nations as they expectantly wait for his imminent return (Rev. 22:6-21).
This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Dr. David Bryan in Gospels at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.