'We believe in Life before Death’ was a much loved Christian Aid strapline. Do you believe it?
Why ask the question?
Because many Christians will answer ‘No’. Many understand Christianity in terms of getting to heaven when we die and life being mostly about getting saved, and getting others saved, to populate heaven after death. That why it’s life after and not before death that is often the focus.
Christian Aid took this idea and subverted it to get people to think again. Doing so, however, brings implications for how we understand Jesus.
What is the meaning of Jesus’ life?
Most of us of know the meaning of Jesus’ death. Jesus died so our sins could be forgiven. But, why did Jesus’ live? How much importance do we give to Christ’s life?
Historic Creeds usually skip over Christ’s life – straight from birth to death.
We all know the symbols for Jesus’ death, his resurrection, even his birth. What symbol do we have for his life?
The Cross is the accepted Christian symbol but the fish, the ‘ichthus’, probably predates the cross and speaks more of Christ’s life.
Why did Jesus live?
To die for us? Yes, but why did Christ not go straight to the cross? Why did he have 3 years of ministry?
To fulfil OT prophecy? Yes, though most of the specific prophecies we’d think of are about his death, and some about his birth. Interestingly, at start of his ministry Jesus applies an OT passage to himself that was neither about his death nor his birth – Isaiah 61/Luke 4. It was a prophesy about his life.
To give Christians an example of how to live? Yes, as a Rabbi example was his mode of teaching. But we fall far short of this example – his disciples included. Christ’s highly ethical life has never been fully followed. So did he fail as a teacher?
What did Jesus do?
An answer becomes clearer when we consider what Jesus actually did.
Jesus spent majority of his time with the poor, marginalised, and unloved.
Jesus himself was poor. Philippians 2: ‘…he made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave…’. This is not just poetic, it’s real. Jesus was born into poverty. He was a refugee at an early age. At his circumcision ceremony, Mary and Joseph gave the least expensive offering of two pigeons, instead of a lamb, for purification. Nazareth, where he grew up, was a small and relatively poor village.
Jesus spent time with the poor and marginalised to put their world to rights and to give them new hope. The miracles of healing, deliverance, raising from the death, all gave new hope for the present. Those compassionate actions were saying, ‘God cares about your life right here, right now’.
When we only believe in life after death, we defer hope to the beyond – to the far future and leave the present in despair.
Jesus challenged unjust power structures
The powers structures in Jesus’ day were the religious elite – Pharisee and Sadducee priests and the Roman military government.
The Romans were brutal dictators who demanded taxes and tributes. The priests charged their own religious taxes and subjected the people to harsh interpretations of the law. And, those at the Jerusalem Temple collaborated with the Romans.
Much of Jesus’ time was spent challenging the injustices of these groups because they used their positions to gain wealth and retain power and in doing so, they brought poverty and oppression.
Jesus focussed energy on putting right these political injustices of his day.
Here’s one example – Jesus’ arrival at the Temple.
Jesus’ chose a highly symbolic act on his triumphant arrival. He entered the Temple, one of the key centres of power, and drove out the money changers, accusing the temple authority of turning it into a ‘den of thieves’ - a reference to Jeremiah’s condemnation of the Temple officials who stole Temple offerings.
Matthew’s gospel records that immediately after this the blind and lame came into the Temple and Jesus healed them. Previously, they were barred.
What Jesus did was a direct challenge to corrupt political powers of his day. This is why the high priests responded to this act by looking for a way to kill him.
However, it was the Romans who killed Jesus and they crucified him as one who threatened the political status quo, not for being a theological heretic. They had no interest in Jewish theology. The sign on the cross, ‘Jesus king of the Jews’ was the Romans way of saying, ‘This is what we do to your political leaders if they get in our way’.
It was Jesus’ life, as well as his death and resurrection, that re-launched God’s kingdom project for good news to go to all people everywhere.
Jesus’ message, the Gospel of the Kingdom, brought salvation both in the here and now for those in need healing, justice, compassion, food, drink, and liberation and for the there and then - salvation for sinners who need forgiveness to renew their relationship with God and secure their eternity.
The Gospel is both personal salvation and social justice - it’s for the future and for the present - it’s for life after death and for life before death.