What does the Bible say about the cross? Quite a bit, actually.
But it doesn’t all agree. And while that may trouble those looking for absolute consistency among the four gospels, it also sheds light on the richness and variety of the ways the earliest Christians understood God’s work in and through the cross.
Imagine, for a moment, four artists who decide to paint a city. Because each wants to communicate something distinct, their paintings vary. One decides to offer a grand view of the city, and stands on a nearby hill to capture the sweep of its skyline. Another wants to give a glimpse of the city as seen by its inhabitants, and so paints the people and traffic filling its busy streets. Yet another wants to give viewers a sense of the historical significance of the city, and so focuses on a famous landmark. Each painting is of the same city, and yet each offers its own view, perspective, and interpretation. To appreciate the message of the individual artists, we need to look closely at the details of each work of art. Yet to understand the city most fully, we will also look at all four paintings.
There is something quite similar going on when it comes to the four gospels. Each is offering a distinct picture of Jesus. Each one is looking at his life and ministry from a specific vantage point and noticing different things. In addition, each writes for a particular community with its own interests, questions, and challenges. And so while the gospels may for this reason vary, ultimately we can discover in each a vivid portrait of our Lord that communicates the distinct confession of faith of its author. At the same time, after reading all four, we gain a richer vision and understanding of the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
This means that while reading each passionPassion is the theological term used to describe Jesus' suffering prior to and including his crucifixion. The Passion Narrative (the portions of the Gospels that tell of the Last Supper, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus) are often read in church during Holy Week. More narrative it’s important, first, to focus on the distinct details of the story and, second, to pay attention to your reactions. As when looking at a painting or watching a film, trust that the artist –- in this case the author of one of the gospels -– has crafted the story to evoke a particular reaction in you and in this way to offer a distinct confession of faith.
It’s particularly rewarding to read the passion narratives with such attention, as they are the dramatic climax of the story and yield tremendous insight into the portrait “painted” by each evangelist. While there is certainly no way to do justice to any of these rich and detailed stories in such a brief space, offering just a sentence or two about each may help you read the passion narratives with greater understanding and enjoyment.
Mark, probably the first gospel to be written, is in many ways the most stark. JesusJesus is the Messiah whose life, death, and resurrection are God's saving act for humanity More is abandoned by disciples who never really understand what was happening, is mocked by the crowds, cries out in agony and despair, and dies as a Roman centurionA centurion was a Roman officer who commanded a military unit made up of one hundred men. Jesus healed a centurion's servant, and a centurion, at Jesus' crucifixion, acclaimed him to be God's Son. More confesses that Jesus is God’s Son. All of which may be Mark’s point. That God does not come where we expect God to be, appearing not as a triumphant king but instead as a crucified outcast, and that Jesus really understands what human suffering is like.
Luke, written a decade or so after Mark, offers a more sympathetic view of both the disciples and the crowds and focuses on Jesus’ ability to heal and forgive all the way to the end. The Jesus in Luke’s gospel comes to those who are struggling and offers them strength, comfort, forgiveness, and healing.
Matthew, who follows Mark’s story closely, repeatedly points out the way in which the various details of Jesus’ death fulfill prophecy from the Old Testament. Jesus is indeed the promised MessiahThe Messiah was the one who, it was believed, would come to free the people of Israel from bondage and exile. In Jewish thought the Messiah is the anticipated one who will come, as prophesied by Isaiah. In Christian thought Jesus of Nazareth is identified... More, the one who enters into our humanity and our suffering to the point of death, emerging triumphant on Easter morning.
John, who offers the most distinct portrait of Jesus and his cross, emphasizes Jesus’ strength and his control over the situation. He is not afraid to encounter the cross and indeed sees it as the place of his glory. John’s Jesus sees the cross as the fulfillment of his destiny and cries out not in despair but in triumph.
When reading these distinct stories, I find the following questions most helpful:
- First, what is this story trying to tell us about Jesus? That is, what insight into Jesus’ character and significance does a careful reading of this gospel yield?
- Second, when might we find each story most helpful? Perhaps Mark’s story of a very human Jesus is helpful to remember when we feel deserted, alone, or close to despair. Perhaps John’s strong Jesus is helpful to hear when we feel out of control. Perhaps Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ healing and compassion can console us when we are discouraged or ill.
No single gospel tells the whole story of Jesus. But each is worth our careful attention, as each one confesses something deeply true about the Lord who suffered, died, and was raised again for us.