God’s Final Envoy: Early Christology and Jesus’ View of His Mission

Written by Marinus De Jonge Reviewed By Ed Meadors

The burden of this short Christology by Marinus De Jonge, author of the well received book Christology in Context (1988) is to identify Jesus as ‘God’s final envoy’ and to define the Christology of both Jesus and the early church as ‘theocentric’. As God’s final envoy, de Jonge argues that Jesus perceived his mission as that of the inaugurator of God’s saving rule in human history. Jesus performed this work in anticipation of the kingdom’s future consummation, which would take place in God’s final transformation of the world. Jesus’ understanding of these unfolding events was distinctively ‘theocentric’ in the sense that his salvation hope focused on the sovereignty and fatherhood of God, rather than on his own identity as ‘Messiah’ or ‘Son of God,’ tough de Jonge considers it highly possible that Jesus did have these self-perceptions. Jesus’ ‘theocentric’ Christology therefore did not jeopardise Jewish monotheism. And in this respect the author argues that NT Christology displays continuity with the thought of Jesus himself.

Surprisingly, de Jonge begins rather than ends his study with a chapter that surveys major interpretations of Jesus’ death. He unearths three complementary interpretations: (1) Jesus’ death was that of an envoy of God rejected by Israel; (2) Jesus was a suffering, righteous servant of God; (3) Jesus died the death of a martyr for others. Cautiously, he concludes on the basis of ‘implicit’ evidence in Paul, Mark, and the hypothetical source ‘Q’ that ‘Jesus may have interpreted rejection and possible death as that of God’s final envoy to Israel. It is also possible that he saw himself as an obedient suffering servant who would be vindicated by God’ (33). As to whether or not Jesus foresaw his death as that of a martyr dying for others, de Jonge judges ‘it is impossible to say … but it is certainly possible that he did so’ (33). Regardless, Paul, Mark, and Q agree in identifying Jesus as God’s final agent who, by both heralding and inaugurating God’s reign on earth, spearheaded the decisive turning point in human history. This conviction, De Jonge argues, was present both before Easter in the thought of Jesus and the disciples, and after Easter in the Christologies constructed by the authors of the NT.

There follows a short chapter addressing Jesus’ perception of the kingdom of God (ch. 3) and another surveying extrabiblical conceptions of the kingdom contemporary with Jesus (ch. 4). de Jonge’s conclusions display parallels with Jesus’ expectation for ‘an immanent definitive intervention of God that determines the behaviour of the faithful in the present’ but no parallels to Jesus’ concept of the dynamic presence of God’s rule in his own words and acts. He downplays the significance of this distinction, however, by appealing to the possibility that non-extant extra-biblical contemporary Jewish writings may have shared Jesus’ concept of the kingdom.

De Jonge then turns his focus to Mark 14:25 and other sayings of Jesus which describe aspects of the future coming of the kingdom. He finds noteworthy the silence of Mark 14:25—that it does not mention Jesus’ role in the final breakthrough of the kingdom, nor does it speak of Jesus’ parousia (second coming). This observation in turn is corroborated by his study of the parousia and its associated epithet ‘Son of Man’ as witnessed in Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Q. This broad survey leads to the Christological judgement:

Jesus himself did not expect to return as Son of Man after a period of time, however short. Inspired by Daniel 7, he expected his vindication as messenger of the kingdom to take place, during his suffering in life or at his death, in the form of his appearance as the Son of Man at the moment when God would intervene to establish his sovereign rule on earth once and for all. After his death his followers realised that Jesus’ personal vindication, now viewed as resurrection, and the complete breakthrough of the kingdom of God, accompanied by Jesus’ return from heaven, were two separate events—one now in the past, the other awaited in the future. (144)

Hence, with Albert Schweitzer et. al., de Jonge concludes that Jesus had either a flawed or an ambiguous eschatology that later was set right or clarified by the inspired reflections of his followers. In so concluding, de Jonge presumes the secondary origin of Jesus’ sayings which explicitly anticipate his resurrection (e.g. Mark 9:31), which implicitly equate Jesus with a future coming Son of Man (e.g. Mark 13:26). Furthermore, the reader is called upon to interpret all the ‘coming’ Son of Man sayings in a purely ‘this worldly’ sense, despite the partly future ‘otherworldly’ orientation of important sayings such as Mark 14:61–62. As it stands this reconstruction as quoted lacks substantiation by references which clearly equate suffering/death with vindication/parousia. Until such support is added, de Jonge’s perception of early Christological development will lack force and cause confusion.

In the final analysis, this work commends itself as an introduction to the major questions addressed by the discipline of Christology. The author’s conclusions, however, are not entirely persuasive, because they are based on a surface level treatment of a select body of sayings, with very little attention given to the often-explicit significance of Jesus’ symbolic acts. The accuracy of the title might also be questioned: Did not Jesus and his followers view the apostles as ‘envoys’ in the special sense that they were commissioned by Jesus to transmit the saving message of the kingdom of God (Luke. 6:22–23; 10:16; Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 1:7–8)? And in the Johannine writings at least, might not the same be said of the Holy Spirit? Hence, though his Son has come and gone, God continues to speak through his church and the Holy Spirit.

Ed Meadors

Taylor University, Upland, Indiana