I wrote a piece a while back about a Barna Group report on evangelism in the UK, which took the goal of evangelism to be the transformation of individuals and communities “by Jesus’ love”. I made four broad points: 1) there is no simple universal “gospel”; any decisive proclamation of good news must be historically contextualised; 2) the emphasis on encountering Jesus is narratively misplaced; 3) there’s nothing in the New Testament to suggest that evangelism means the transformation of individuals and communities through the love of Jesus; and 4) the church should pay more attention to the historically interpreted narrative of the New Testament.
It has been pointed out to me in a couple of recent comments that the New Testament has rather more to say about the love of Jesus than I suggested in the post. That is true. I made too little of the theme. But I don’t think that affects the basic argument.
The story is a simple one…
The story is a simple one, though not as simple as the standard evangelical thesis about God sending the eternal Son into the world to save us from our sins.
Jesus is sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel with a stark message about the coming intervention of God. He gathers a small group of followers. He is rejected by the leadership of Israel, who hand him over to the Roman authorities for execution. His followers proclaim first to Israel, then to the nations of the Greek-Roman world, that he has been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God. Their firm expectation is that at some point in a foreseeable future the crucified Jesus will be vindicated, publicly acknowledged as judge and ruler first of Israel, then of the pagan nations. That was the good news: the public proclamation of an imminent political-religious upheaval.
This narrative determines a number of different categories of relationship with Jesus: he is compassionate towards the lost sheep of the house of Israel and, somewhat begrudgingly, towards one or two Gentiles; he calls and trains a close-knit group of disciples; he clashes furiously with the Jerusalem hierarchy; he sponsors and directs the mission of the apostles after his death; he is confessed as Lord and “worshipped” by the early churches; he exercises lordship on behalf of YHWH over Israel and the nations.
When we talk today about encountering Jesus, we are likely to have in mind the Jesus who wandered around Galilee consorting with tax collectors and sinners, touching the untouchable, healing the sick, restoring the mentally ill… and of course, rebuking the self-righteous, institutionalised, bigoted, self-serving religious hypocrites of his day.
Sadly, that Jesus does not exist anymore, and to talk about encountering him is simply anachronistic—and in any case, he was never the romantic, heroic, revolutionary, progressive, socialist Jesus that we sometimes imagine him to have been. The only Jesus anyone can “meet” today in any real sense—and in any biblical sense—is the exalted Lord, seated at the right hand of God, ruling in the midst of his enemies.
Significantly, however, all the passages cited which speak of the love of Jesus for his church (there is no love of Jesus for those who are not part of the church, to the best of my knowledge) have reference to the post-resurrection period.
So that’s us! What’s the problem? Jesus loves us. The Bible tells us so.
Well, I’m sure he does. But the general affirmation obscures the narrative-historical significance of the New Testament argument. If our aim is to understand the New Testament for what it is, we have to ask how the love of Jesus fits into a set of relational categories that are apocalyptically determined.
The love of Christ
1. Let’s begin with Paul’s question in Romans 8:35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” I argued last week that this whole passage must be read not as a general statement about salvation and the love of God but quite narrowly as an exhortation to the church in Rome to endure persecution. The deterministic “golden chain” beloved of Calvinists is not a piece of systematic soteriology but a rhetorically constructed assurance that persecution is not an accident: they have been chosen to suffer as Christ suffered, they are being conformed quite literally to the image of the suffering Christ, and they can expect to be vindicated and glorified as Christ is vindicated and glorified. Neither Jews nor Gentiles—in the synagogues, before the magistrates—can bring a valid charge against them because they are “God’s elect”; and nothing can separate them from the love of the exalted Jesus for those who are sharing in his sufferings.
2. Speaking of the ministry of the Jewish apostles in 2 Corinthians Paul says: “For the love of Christ controls us, judging this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and he died for all, so that the living may no longer live for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:14-15, my translation). It is hard to decide whether “love of Christ” is a subjective or objective genitive: the love of Christ for the apostles or the love of the apostles for Christ? Either way, this is a love expressed in the context of the intense and intimate relationship between the risen Lord and the apostles, who are being transformed into the image of the martyred Jesus, who are persecuted but not forsaken, etc., who are “always carrying in the body the dying of Jesus”, who would rather put on the resurrection body over the old battered body and be with the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:8-10; 5:1-9).
3. Again speaking explicitly as a Jewish apostle, Paul tells the Galatians that he has been crucified with Christ and that he now lives in the flesh “by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20; see also 2:15). I take it that he presents himself as a supreme representative of hostile Israel. He, more than anyone, epitomised weak, rebellious, ungodly Israel, for whom Christ died (cf. Rom. 5:6-11). Paul now finds righteousness not in zealous adherence to the Law, expressed in persecution of the church (cf. Gal. 1:13-16), but in concretely and practically identifying himself with the crucified Son of God.
4. In Ephesians reference is made to the love of Christ in more general terms. Paul prays that the believers in Ephesus may “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19); they are to walk in love “as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2); and he urges husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Perhaps more than any other New Testament text Ephesians develops the idea of an ongoing constructive relationship between Christ as head and the church as his body. But it is worth noting the past (aorist) tenses in Ephesians 5:25: the love of Christ was expressed in the fact that he gave himself up for the sake of the renewal of the community of Israel. We should also not lose sight of the eschatological narrative that still frames the effusive ecclesiology: on the one hand, the saints expect to receive an inheritance (Eph. 1:11-14, 18); on the other, they face the wrath of God and an “evil day” when they will need the whole armour of God (Eph. 5:6; 6:10-18).
5. Eschatology is manifestly the controlling theme in the book of Revelation. Writing to the seven churches, John describes Jesus as “him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Rev. 1:5). The apocalyptic frame is directly invoked: Jesus is the “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth”; he will soon be seen “coming with the clouds”; in the meantime the churches are “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father”; and either Jesus or the Father will have dominion for ever (Rev. 1:5-7). The love of Jesus for the churches under extreme eschatological conditions means that he must “reprove and discipline” them if they are to conquer opposition and persecution and sit with him on his throne (Rev. 3:19-21).
6. In John’s Gospel Jesus commands his disciples to love one another as he “loved” them (Jn. 13:34; 15:12). The aorist ēgapēsa (“I loved”) looks to me like a retrospective reference to his death—Jesus says in 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). If the disciples keep Jesus’ commands, they will abide in his love, so the continuing relationship is also in view. But it is again apparent that the close, intense, passionate relationship is necessary because after his death they will face severe opposition, they will be hated by the world, and in the end Jesus will come and take them to be with him in his Father’s house (Jn. 14:1-3; 15:18-21; 16:1-4, 33).
Jesus loves the eschatological community of the Son of Man
I doubt that this was an exhaustive list of texts, but I wouldn’t expect any further oversight to disrupt the basic contention. The New Testament speaks of the love of Jesus for the apostles and for the churches in the context of the dominant narrative about persecution and vindication. Jesus loves that community of Israel for which he died, as it makes the long and painful journey of eschatological renewal towards a day when the persecution will end and they will be vindicated and glorified for having believed that God has made the crucified Jesus Lord and Christ.
This is the central Jesus-relationship in the New Testament. It runs from the demand that the disciples take up their own crosses if they wish to follow the Son of Man (Matt. 16:21-28; Mk. 8:31-9:1; Lk. 9:21-27) all the way through to the resurrection of the martyrs following judgment on Rome (Rev. 20:4-6).