Missional Hermeneutics – The Life of Jesus

In December 2008, I was teaching a seminar in Dumila, Tanzania for pastors from the Tanzania Assemblies of God. My subject was Ephesians 4 and Paul’s ministry paradigm of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, and Teacher. As I dug into biblical examples of apostolic ministry, a ministry that extends the grace of God to new frontiers, I asked the pastors for examples from the life of Jesus. The first pastor to speak up said, “When he came to earth.” It was a simple observation, but one that had escaped me. In the very incarnation, Jesus was missional. The young pastor in Dumila, who at most was educated at a high school level, pointed out the glory of God’s mission in Jesus. As N.T. Wright says, “What God intended to do to and through Israel, to make Israel his people for the world, God has now achieved and accomplished through Jesus Christ” (54).

As we speak about the life of Jesus, we draw our information from the gospel writers. It is important to note that the very act of writing the stories of the life of Jesus was in fact missional. These writers were telling a story so that particular communities would recognize the blessing of God’s reconciliation through Jesus Christ. Luke says that his purpose in writing was so that the community would “know the truth” (Luke 1:4). Like a good narrative preacher, John unfolds the story of Jesus, including resurrection, before explaining in a climactic way that, “these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). However, the gospel writers intended their work for use beyond the original community as well. It appears clear, for example, that Matthew’s gospel was written so that the communities could “proclaim and teach it to all nations,” equipping these new believers for furthering the mission of God (Ulrich 83).

While the missional focus of the life of Jesus is consistent among all of the gospel writers, we will pay particular attention to Luke’s gospel for three reasons. First, in the Gospel of Luke before Jesus begins his ministry, he tells how to frame his actions. Secondly, Luke gives us opportunity to study a consistent thread as our discussion moves toward the early church in the Book of Acts. Finally, focusing on the Gospel of Luke will pare down the examples and allow for a more precise discussion.

The first public words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel were harmless enough. He attended his home synagogue, pulled the scroll of Isaiah from its holder, and began to read from 61:1-2 saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The reading itself was not offensive. Indeed, the actions of Jesus were common on the Sabbath. He simply stood to read from the scriptures. The problems arose, however, when he began to teach.

The expectation was that Jesus would teach on the Scripture in accordance to the tradition of the synagogue. He did teach. However, the content was unexpected. Jesus tied the prophetic testimony of Isaiah to stories of Elijah and Elisha, where the prophets extended the justice and grace of God to outsiders. Elijah went to a widow in Sidon. Through the work of Elisha, a Syrian named Naaman was cleansed. As stated earlier, God desires that the entire world experience his justice and grace. However, in the history of Israel found in 1 Kings and 2 Kings, these stories of mercy for non-Israelites are surprising. One expects healing for Israel. Yet, it is a Syrian general who is cleansed, intruding “into that settled world with an unexpected counter-reality that explodes the settlement and offers news of a counter-reality” (2 Kings 5 263).

It appears that because Jesus has been teaching in synagogues, some had already begun to identify him as a prophet. With these teachings in Nazareth, he identifies himself as a prophet sent to a broader audience than Israel. His veiled inclusion of other nations infuriates the synagogue crowd. This prophet “is not acceptable in his own country because his mission extends beyond his own country” (Johnson 82).

The teaching of Jesus helps us to understand how he recognized his own ministry within Isaiah 61. However, there are a couple of key points that need further analysis. First, let us look at the place from which the ministry flows. In quoting Isaiah, Jesus says that the Spirit of the Lord has “anointed” (ἔχρισέν) him to preach good news to the poor. While the specific translation of ἔχρισέν points to a past action of placing oil on one’s head, the word also implies a consecration for a particular religious work. The understanding of Isaiah 61 in Hebrew would have carried this implication as well. The Servant is speaking and giving an account of his “investiture and mission” (Isaiah 56-66 221). Therefore, Jesus says that he has been given the Spirit of the Lord and that he has been sent.

To whom has Jesus been sent? It was in answering this question that Jesus got himself in trouble. Today’s understanding of the word “poor” lacks texture. When we speak of the poor, we are speaking of those who do not have resources, especially those who do not have money. The first century understanding of poor (πτωχοῖς) includes much more contour, according to Joel B. Green. The poor included those who had little social status as well. The Gerasene Demoniac (8:26-35) had no clothes, showing his illness and his lack of status in community. Zacchaeus (19:1-10) may have had money, but his status as a tax collector excluded him from the wider community. When Jesus healed the 10 lepers (17:11-19), he did more than take away their sickness. He told them to show the priests in order to be restored to the community. Jesus shows throughout Luke that his purpose was to redeem and restore those who had been left out (Jesus of Nazareth 69).
While the proclamation of his intention came early, the ministry of Jesus did not immediately embody the full extension of God’s justice and mercy. John Michael Penney argues that the work of Jesus in the early chapters of the third gospel is a consistent reference to the prophetic ministry. In the acts of raising the son of a widow in Nain (Luke 7:11-16), multiplying food (Luke 9:12ff.), controlling nature (Luke 8:22ff), and healing leprosy (Luke 5:21ff), Jesus was consistently aligning himself and allowing other to align him with a prophetic lineage, particularly Elijah and Elisha (44). According to Penney, these miraculous acts were first about demonstrating prophetic anointing. A secondary accomplishment of these miraculous signs was a foretaste, fulfilling “his servant ministry to inaugurate Israel’s redemption (Luke 24:19) and Gentile incorporation into Israel” (46).

Harold Dollar agrees that Luke presents a gradual movement from “particularism to universalism.” Luke was likely familiar with the Markan account of the gospel. Therefore, any narrative differences should clue us in to Luke’s intention. Dollar cites that Luke omits two of Mark’s references to the gospel being shared to all the nations (Mark 13:10; 14:9). Luke also omits a Markan passage that says that make Jewish food laws obsolete (Mark 7). Instead of the abruptness of Mark’s Jesus who breaks in and immediately reorients the world, Luke chooses to use both of his volumes (Luke and Acts) to unfold the blessing of Yahweh for all nations (22-23).

Perhaps, we do best to understand Luke’s account of Jesus with Green, Dollar, and Penney (pretty funny, huh?) in mind. The Father sent Jesus as a fulfillment of the greater goal. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus prophetically proclaimed a new world and shared good news that included the outcast. This inclusion was based on the promise of God to Abraham and was heralded by Isaiah. Further, Jesus directed his ministry toward any who were “poor,” whether Jew or Gentile. State of need, rather than state of ethnicity, determined the orientation of Jesus in the third gospel.

Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham birthed the dream of God’s people being a blessing to all nations. Prophets from Israel’s kingdom period, Elijah and Elisha, gave glimpses of the future hope. The story of Jonah tells of a God who will use all of his creation to bring blessing. No matter how you break down the authorship of Isaiah, the writer(s) makes universal hope apparent. While the fullness of the universal hope was not realized until after the resurrection of Jesus, his ministry embodied that vision. Through linking his actions to Elijah and Elisha, through reference to Isaiah, and through sending his disciples to a despised people, Jesus showed the values of his kingdom. After Jesus’ ascension, God uses an unlikely and crude group of followers to make universal hope a reality. That unlikely and crude group of followers will be the focus of our next discussion