The life of Christ, though only 30-some years long and only containing three years of public ministry, proclaimed to the whole world that God had come to live among us and to lead us all to pursue holy lives of love by following him, a claim that was vindicated through the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
While Jesus only lived into his mid-thirties and carried out only three years of public ministry, his claims to divinity and authority have spread around the world and shaped our culture more than any other figure. Although hesitant to speak publicly about his Messiahship for much of his ministry, Jesus made clear in multiple ways that he carried with him both the presence and authority of God, making himself equal to God and igniting the tempers of the Jewish leaders. Jesus came to form a people who loved God and reflected him to a needy world by a different kind of life and love that stands out in a needy world, establishing himself as the lord of that people. All of Jesus’s claims and teachings were vindicated by his resurrection from the dead. Because God raised him from the dead, we ought to believe all that he claimed and taught.
Summarizing the life of history’s most dominant and unique figure is a challenge. The importance of Jesus is shown by the fact that his life is the dividing point in our calendar between the era before Christ and that which followed the life of our Lord. We proceed in four steps. First, we look at the broad chronological and geographical outline of his ministry. Next we consider what he said about himself and his kingdom program. Then, we look at what that call means for people. Finally, we consider how God vindicated this life and its claims.
The Outline of Jesus’ Ministry
The dates of Jesus’s ministry are tied to the timing of his crucifixion and the ministry of John the Baptist. Two options for the date of his crucifixion are the years AD 30 or 33. Our uncertainty revolves around being able to pinpoint exactly when in the time of Pontius Pilate’s rule as procurator Jesus was executed. Evidence for Jesus’s existence and his death during Pilate’s reign extend even to non-Christian writings, prominent of which is the testimony of Josephus, who noted that Jewish leaders and Pilate were responsible for Jesus’ death (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.63-64)
The Synoptic Gospels tell us that Jesus’s birth just preceded the death of Herod the Great. He died around 4 BC according to details Josephus supplies for us about the circumstances of his death. (The idea that the Christ was born before the end of the BC era comes from a mathematical error made in figuring the calendar dating from medieval times and now properly adjusted.) All of this means Jesus likely lived into his mid 30’s.
The Synoptic Gospels do not give us enough chronological information to be able to determine the length of Jesus’ ministry as they only record one trip to Jerusalem. John’s Gospel gives us more help here as he mentions up to four trips to Jerusalem (Passover texts; John 2:13, 23; 5:1 [not called a Passover]; 6:4; 11:55) and also notes the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in Perea, a detail the Synoptics lack. The Synoptics focus on his ministry primarily in the Galilean region with a key final trip to Jerusalem as he sensed what his ultimate fate would be there. This means that Jesus’s ministry likely lasted just over three years. This is an extremely short time to have made the impact Jesus’s life had. That raises the question of what he did and taught that made such an impression.
What Jesus Said about Himself and His Kingdom Program
An important precursor to Jesus’s life that sets up his ministry and frames its importance is a remark made by John the Baptist that appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke about the one coming after him baptizing with the Spirit and fire (Matt. 3:11-12; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:15-17). Luke’s version tells us that this remark came in response to speculation that John might be the Christ. HIs answer is a denial of that possibility and explains how to know if the Messiah and new era has come. To bring the Spirit is to bring the new era the prophets proclaimed (Jer. 31–34; Ezek. 34–36). The point is that the one who brings the Spirt and the new era can be identified as the Christ. The sign of the new era is the arrival of the Spirit of God for God’s people. That Spirit cannot be placed in God’s people without a provision of forgiveness, something the New Covenant promised.
John and Jesus also both announced the kingdom coming and the need to repent (Matt. 3:2; Mark 1:3, 15). Repentance leads to forgiveness and the kingdom coming introduces the program Jesus will bring with him as God’s sent one.
Interestingly, Jesus was hesitant to speak about being the Messiah in public. He did not often do so openly until his final visit to Jerusalem. In fact, at several points in his ministry, he told people not to speak of this (most famously in Mark 8:30). This was because his role as the Christ was likely to be misunderstood as a challenge to Rome and as lacking any suffering. We see the latter issue in Peter’s initial hesitation when Jesus first announces he will suffer after Peter has confessed him as the Christ (Matt. 16:21–23). Only when it becomes important to press the matter to a decision does Jesus declare himself in public. Interestingly, he does so more by action than by a statement as he rode into Jerusalem the final time on the back of a donkey, a messianic act that also pointed to a humble Messiah (Matt. 21:1–11; Mark 11:1–10; Luke 19:28–40; John 12:12-19; cf. Zech. 9:9). This emphasis on action fits with Jesus’s response when John the Baptist sent messengers to confirm if Jesus was the one to come. Jesus did not answer with a direct affirmation but instead pointed to what he was doing as his reply (Matt. 11:2-6; Luke 7:18–23). The activity he engaged in pointed to the new era of restoration and to who he is. Just so, the bulk of Jesus’s activity was designed to reveal his role.
Jesus’s self-designation of choice was Son of Man. It only appears on his lips in the Gospels. It is an interesting choice. This title is both an idiom and has contact with the Old Testament in Daniel 7. The expression simply means a human being; just like one is a son of David or Sue, so the Son of Man is the son of a human. The idiom means “someone” or, more debatably, “I.” Jesus clearly used it as a self-reference, which would make it in effect, “this someone.” The connection to Daniel 7 means it refers to that unique figure who rides the clouds, something only divinity does in the OT. That figure receives authority from the Ancient of Days, who signifies God. So the title uniquely combines humanity and divinity, which is likely why it was Jesus’s title of choice.
So what was this authority Jesus bore? That points in part to two ideas: the kingdom itself and the kinds of things Jesus did to show who he is. The kingdom announced in the NT is the promised kingdom of restoration. With Jesus it comes in an already/not yet manner as its benefits, such as forgiveness and the Spirit, come now while the judgment that brings full kingdom authority comes later. This latter part of the kingdom is wrapped up in sayings Jesus gave about the returning Son of Man in passages like the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24–25; Mark 13; Luke 21). While some of what Jesus did here might mirror what a prophet might do, some of his actions mirror divine authority. Whether one thinks of Jesus being Lord of the Sabbath, his ruling on the law in general, the changed imagery of the Passover to his death, the temple purging, exorcisms, raising people from the dead, controlling the creation, or forgiving sin—Jesus is doing things that God does and/or exercising authority over things God has set up. These acts disclose who he is. They point to his central role in the kingdom. Thus, when John’s Gospel emphasized believing in the one God has sent, it is these characteristics that are being underscored (John 1:12; 3:16; 17:3). Jesus is the person who brings the unique time of kingdom promise and with it comes the salvation that permanently connects the one who responds to God. All of this raises the question, What does this response ask of us who come to him and receive this forgiveness?
What Does Jesus’ Life Call for from People and for God’s People?
The role of the Holy Spirit in God’s program was the subject of Jesus’s Upper Room discourse (John 14–16). Jesus said he had to depart so he might send the Paraclete. The consummate gift in salvation is eternal life and that life is driven by the presence of God’s Spirit within God’s people. The Spirit gives a teaching and enablement that people lack without his presence.
A second key discourse is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7). This teaching makes several points. First, Jesus’s role is to make sure that what the law sought is fulfilled and developed in God’s people. In his exposition, he shows the intent of the law was not merely to provide an external standard for righteousness but to develop and cause us to examine how people respond internally. In a series of antitheses, he makes clear the issue is not murder but anger, not adultery but lust, not divorce but keeping vows, not taking an oath but being truthful, not living eye for eye but turning the cheek, and not loving some and hating enemies but loving your enemy. Jesus also goes on to highlight the importance of caring for those in need through alms without drawing attention to oneself, the role of dependent prayer and fasting, storing up treasure in heaven not on earth, and trusting God for one’s care. Jesus stresses a mutual accountability that does not involves judging or failing to note one’s own flaws. Jesus urges followers to pray to God and trust he will give what is good to them. He reminds people the way is narrow and that they can tell the heart by its fruit, and that the way is seen by those who know him. Failure to heed his teaching is like building a house that will collapse. All this teaching reminds us that Jesus is not only presenting a call to live righteously before God but that knowing him and his teaching is central to such a life.
Jesus describes his own call in Luke 4:16–30: to call the poor to life and release the captives, to declare a time of forgiveness that he compared to the year of Jubilee. The restoration the kingdom brings changes people and how they relate to each other. When Paul wrote about the impact of Jesus’s life and death, he described it as a ministry of reconciliation, not only in one’s relationship to God but also of people to each other (2 Cor. 5:17–21; Eph. 2:11–22).
Jesus spent much time warning that excessive attachment to this world and the pursuit of things in it would be an obstacle to spiritual well-being. One cannot serve God and money (Matt. 6:24). The rich fool dealt with riches in ways that were selfish and left him with nothing (Luke 12:13–21).
The moral call is summed up in the Great Commandment: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:28–34). This ethical triangle of God, self and others fits with earlier biblical teaching as the Ten Commandments come in two parts: some dealing with how one relates to God and then how one treats others. That also coheres with what John the Baptist’s mission was in preparing a people for God’s coming: to turn the people back to God, fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just (Luke 1:16–17).
When Jesus gathered his disciples for the last time at the Lord’s Supper, he reconfigured what had been the celebration of Passover to describe the point of his coming death. His death was his body and blood given for those who recognized their need for what Jesus was offering. The death offered by substitution life with God through the forgiveness it provided. It frees the way to a full life. This connects to what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, where the call was to shine as light so people could see their good and be drawn to the Father. This community of people Jesus was forming became the church. Much of the rest of the New Testament seeks to instruct this community on what life with God and righteousness looks like, not just in individual terms but as a corporate entity dedicated to walking with God and reflecting his image as we live.
Finally, Jesus made it clear that all are accountable to him and that one day, when the Son of Man returns, he will judge all for their response to the call of the kingdom (Mark 13:24-27; Luke 10:13-16).
In sum, Jesus sought to form a people who loved God and reflected him to a needy world by a different kind of life and love that stands out in a needy world. This life honors God and reflects his character. It is rooted in a contrast to how the world lives and is nurtured in a community that encourages a faithful life of love and service to God and others.
God’s Vindication of the Life of Christ
When Jesus stood before the Jewish leadership and was asked if he was the Christ, he replied positively and then noted he would be seen as the Son of Man riding the clouds and seated at God’s right hand (Matt. 26:62–66; Mark 14:61–65; Luke 22:66–71). He was affirming that whatever they did to him, God would vindicate him and show him to be what he had claimed. The dispute was between the leader’s view of Jesus as a blasphemer and Jesus’ view that God would vindicate him as the one who sits with God and shares in the execution of the divine program. Who was right? The resurrection, so central to Christian teaching and Jesus’s life, was an act of God that vindicated Jesus’s claims, showing who he is (Rom. 1:4). The resurrection was God’s vote in this dispute. It underscores that what Jesus’s life was did reflect the way and will of God. It also underscored that the call of Jesus to people is what God desires of us.
In summarizing Jesus’s life, we also address the question of the historical Jesus. This portrait indicates that the so-called gap between the historical Jesus and Christ of faith does not exist. Although the early church’s treatment of Jesus develops the significance of his life, that portrait is aligned with the life and teaching of Jesus and what he called people to be.