The New Testament as we know is not only varied in its literary and artistic style but also in its content. Nonetheless, the New Testament has a very strong unity when presents Christ as the savior of the world and his ministry as a predestined plan that God orchestrated before the foundation of the world. All of what is said in the New Testament points out to Christ directly or indirectly. For example, the Gospel of Luke, the Book of Romans, and the Book of Hebrews may differ on their understandings of the meaning of Jesus’ death, yet they paint together one coherent picture of Christ.
In the Gospel of Luke, the author “never directly connects salvation to the death of Jesus on the cross. In the Lukan narrative, Jesus does not refer to his death as a ‘ransom’ (Mark 10:45) or talk about his blood being shed for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:28). No one ever calls Jesus ‘the Lamb of God,’ likening his death to an atoning sacrifice (John 1:29, 35)” (Powell, Introducing the New Testament, 164). When Luke presents Jesus, he emphasizes Jesus’ humanity more than his divinity, so he connects the historical Jesus to the traditional Jewish notion of the earthly Messiah usually described in the Old Testament. That is, Jesus is for Luke, the Prophet (Acts 3:22), the Servant of the Lord (Acts 22:37), and the Messiah (Acts 9:20), among other roles. For him, Jesus’s death was in some sense a martyrdom. There is no an easy answer to the question of why Luke presented Christ in this way. Nonetheless, as probably a Hellenistic Jew or a very educated Gentile, his thinking was strongly influenced not only by the Jewish tradition of his time but also by the Greek culture. This situation might lead him to present Christ in a way the Gentiles could understand him and Jewish could be familiarized with at the same time. Although Luke’s perspective about Jesus is interesting, Powell points out that this partial understanding of who Jesus was could be ultimately inadequate (Powell, Introducing the New Testament, 161).
In Romans, the Apostle Paul does not give a lot of details about Jesus’ death. Besides this, he connects Jesus’ death and resurrection to salvation. For Paul, Jesus died as a sacrifice of atonement, who after being raised, is Lord of all (Cf. Rom 1:3-6, 3:25 and Colossians 1:20). Jesus’ death is fundamental to understand the Pauline thinking and the developing of his theology in the New Testament. In Romans 8:3, Paul makes clear that Jesus died because there was no other way to overcome sin: “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh.” In Galatians, Paul restates this thinking and adds that Christ’s sacrifice was according to God’s will (v. 1:4). Jesus’ sacrifice was done because of our sins and in order to bring us justification before God (cf. Rom. 4:25). Something important to notice in Romans is the fact that the death of Jesus played more than one role at the same time: it appeased the wrath of God, it removed sin, and it was the means to justify us before God (v. 3:35; 5:9). There is here a past and futuristic approach: God has provided a salvation plan through Christ, and although the plan has started, the process continues until future (v. 8:24). One may say that in general, for Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ is the key element of the gospel. Without this element, then there would not have gospel at all.
In the Book of Hebrews, the author considers Jesus’ death was a means of purification for sins (v. 1:3), and his death is linked to his atoning sacrifice (v. 7:27). The Letter to the Hebrews links Jesus’ death mainly with two images: Jesus as High Priest and Jesus as Sacrifice. The author tells us that the old covenant with its ritual sacrifices was imperfect and that God now has chosen a new High Priest, not according to the Levitical priesthood, but “the kind of Melchizedek” (v. 7:11). This is very surprising since the historical Jesus was not a priest at all. For example, the Gospels do not indicate that someone, during Jesus’ ministry on earth, recognized him as a priest or that he was ministering as one in the Temple. In summary, Jesus could not be a priest in the Levitical priesthood since he belonged to the tribe of Judah and not of Levi. It is for this reason that the author of Hebrews links Christ with the priesthood of Melchizedek (v. 5:6). Now the author of the Hebrews suggests his readers that Jesus also was the sacrificial animal (Cf. Heb. 10:12-14). This was a difficult idea to deal with for the Jewish. How could a human being be sinless in order to be offered as a sacrifice? This situation reminds us the response of the disciples when they heard Jesus saying that whoever ate his flesh and drank his blood had eternal life (Cf. John 6:54). One notices that this image was sort of shocking for the disciples who were Jewish since the Gospel of John registered their response to Jesus’ words, “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60, NIV). So it is not a surprise at all that Christians have a book like the Letter of Hebrews in the New Testament because the way in which Jesus’ death is presented and interpreted was really hard to comprehend.
Now as we have observed, the views found in the Book of Luke, Romans, and Hebrews not only differ in the way the meaning of Jesus’ death but apparently they also contradict themselves. There is a real tension between the writers: Is salvation connected to the death of Jesus or not? For the Apostle Paul and the author of Hebrews, it does. But for Luke, there is no connection between Jesus’ death and salvation as Jesus’ death seems to be a martyrdom instead. Similarly, one can ask how Jesus can be the priest and the sacrifice simultaneously? In the Book of Hebrews, both images are presented without further problem. But in Romans, Christ is presented only as a sacrificial animal: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” (Rom 3:25a, NIV) And in the Gospel of Luke, one does not observe at all that Jesus is presented as a sacrifice or a priest at all.
Despite the different point of views described above, Luke, Romans, and Hebrews agree and present a unified view of Christ as the central figure of God’s salvation plan. Jesus has fulfilled the different prophecies of the Old Testament regarding the suffering Messiah and God’s mystery about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has been revealed to the world. Although it is explained from different angles and for a diverse audience, the message is currently one. We should consider that these differences in expressions and emphases are present because the authors were probably interested in presenting a particular position on the topics and happenings they decided to tell. And even though these emphases vary, one thing is clear: All authors point out to Jesus Christ as the Servant of the Lord who has brought the Good News to the humanity.
In conclusion, the brief analysis above show us that there is not an easy way to unify all the diverse positions and perspectives found regarding the meaning of Jesus’ death in the books studied or in the New Testament in general, except if those perspectives are understood as a particular image to comprehend Christ’s nature and his mission. As Powell suggests, one should think of gospels —and I would add the New Testament too— as “literary artworks” where each book presents a portrait of Christ and his mission that is distinctive, and once one obtains a particular image, one should go on to the next book (Powell, 82). That is, every book in the New Testament points us to Jesus and his ministry; however, it draws a different aspect of Christ and does not necessary draws a complete figure as many people think. So that when theologians and biblical scholars hold that there is a ‘unity’ in the New Testament, they are referring to the fact that, besides form, context, and the way the message is presented, the New Testament is unified in the sense that it presents Jesus as the only executor of God’s salvation plan for humanity.
Notes & References
All quotes taken from Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).