By Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis
Jesus ended His earthly life on the cross. He “uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last” (Mk. 15:37). With these words, the earliest Gospel gives us a relatively bare statement of Jesus’ death. He was executed as a political rebel as the inscription on the cross indicates: “The King of the Jews” (Mk.15: 26).
Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution mainly used for slaves. It was forbidden to crucify Roman citizens. Cicero says: “The idea of the cross should never come near the bodies of Roman citizens; it should never pass their thoughts, eyes or ears.”
It is clear that by the time of Jesus’ arrest no major religious group of His society was willing to intervene and save Him. The Gospels provide a minimal reconstruction of his Crucifixion.
For reasons that are unclear, Judas, a disciple of Jesus, betrayed his teacher and led a party of Temple police to his arrest. After a hasty hearing before members of the Sanhedrin, Jesus was condemned and then handed over to the Roman authorities. In the trial before the Council (Mk. 14:53-65), two elements seem to have been important: the Messiah issue, which was important in the accusation before Pilate, and Jesus’ remark about the destruction of the Temple. The second was designed to secure the conviction of Jesus as a false prophet and blasphemer, for which the penalty was death (cf. Lev. 24:16; Deut. 13:5-6; 18:20; Jer. 14:14-15; 28:15-17).
Pilate found Jesus to be a sufficient threat to the public order to have Him executed by crucifixion under the charge of being a messianic pretender. Those who joined forces to kill Jesus acted as representative sinners. Only one Roman soldier drove a spear into Jesus’ corpse, but the words John quotes from Zechariah aim at everyone: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (19:37). For the Christian church, Jesus’ death is not just the doing of Jews and Romans, but the saving act of God in Jesus’ voluntary self-sacrifice.
The disciples of Jesus and the early Church interpreted the Crucifixion of Jesus by remembering that in the Old Testament experience prophets were rejected and killed; Therefore, Jesus’ Crucifixion does not disprove the fact that He is the incarnate Logos of God. The death of Jesus was understood to be redemptive by remembering the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 52: 13 – 53:12): “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (52:5). Here salvific effects are attributed to suffering, which benefits others and atones sin. New Testament references to Jesus’ death as ransom (Mk. 10:45) and expiation (Rom. 3: 25), as death for our sin (I Cor. 15:3), and as death “for many” (Mt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24) reflect this strand of thought.
Did Jesus expect that He would suffer and lose His life? It must be assumed that Jesus had considered a violent death as a consequence of His ministry, for anyone acting as He did had to be prepared for extreme conse¬quences. From the beginning of His ministry, He faced the charge of blasphemy (Mk. 2:7) and was accused of alliance with the devil or magic (Mt. 12:24), and infringing the law of Sabbath (Mk. 2:23-24; Lk. 13:14-15). His enemies watched Him to find grounds for arraigning Him (Mk. 3:2), and it is clear that they tried to trap Him with trick questions (Mk. 12:13ff. 18ff; 28ff.). Opting for Jesus does not mean peace but a break with the status quo (Mt. 10:34; Lk. 12:51). His message called for a total break with the present age. Thus, Jesus’ death flowed naturally from His public activity. It was the inevitable result of fidelity to His own preaching, given the failure of His message to win general acceptance. Jesus freely accepted His death, as the most radical consequence of the message He had proclaimed and embodied in His deeds.
How does Jesus’ mission relate with His death on the Cross? How could the kingdom of God come when the forces of this world put its harbinger to death? The preaching and praxis of Jesus are called into question. In the midst of this dark and desolate experience of being crucified, Jesus trustingly surrenders Himself in faith, hope, and love to God the Father. The negativity of death is transformed by Jesus resurrection into something positive associated with the coming of God’s kingdom.
As St. Maximus the Confessor states: “He who penetrates beyond the Cross and the tomb and finds himself initiated into the mystery of the Resurrection, learns the end for which God has created all things.” The disciples of Jesus soon after His death, proclaimed that God had raised him from the dead; that He who had been crucified had proven to be living; and that He sent them, His disciples, to proclaim this message to the world. On this matter, all the New Testament writings speak with a single voice; “Whether then it was I or them, so we preach and so you believe” (I Cor. 5:11); “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witness” (Acts 2:32). The Christian gospel is disclosed in Christ’s resurrection. This is best expressed by St Paul who stated that “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain.” (I Cor. 15:14; cf. 17:9). His rising from the dead does not mean a return into the old life. He does not return to decay or corruption (Acts 13:34): “For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him…. The life that He lives, He lives to God” (Rom 6:9ff.). The Resurrection is not a resumption of the old life, but the beginning of new creation (cf. I Cor 15:42ff.).
In the New Testament one can find stories about Christ’s resurrection and appearances and proclamations of the faith of Church about the importance of his death and resurrection. The Easter kerygma is revealed in brief, kerygmatic, liturgical formulations of belief. The most important witness of his resurrection, however, is found in Cor. 15:3-8: “For I transmitted to you as of first importance what I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried; and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures; and He appeared: first to Cephas, then to the twelve; and then He appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time, of whom most remain alive until today, though some have fallen asleep. And He appeared: to James then to all the apostles; last of all, as to one irregularly born, He appeared also to me.”
Although St. Paul wrote I Corinthians about the year 56 A.D., he tells the Corinthians (15:3) that what he transmitted to them (presumably when he first came to Corinth about 50 A.D.) was information that he himself had received” at an earlier period (in the mid 30s).
It is the appearances of the risen Christ that establish the faith of the Church. It is essential to distinguish between the emergence of the Easter faith and the basis of that faith, the Resurrection of Jesus Himself. Resurrection is exclusively the act of God, for which there is no analogy that happens in space and time and consequently it cannot be idealized, symbolized, or allegorized. The effects of Jesus’ Resurrection such as the faith that arose in His disciples, the formation of the Church, the continuity of His ministry by His disciples and the descent of the spirit must not become substitutes for the Resurrection event.
The death of Jesus is considered for the early Christians to be a victory over the powers of darkness operative in this world. For St. Paul, the death of Christ frees us from sin (II Cor. 5:21), from the flesh (Rom. 8:3-8), from death (Rom. 6:1-10), and from the Law (Gal. 3:10-13; 4:4-5). The Cross reveals the unique power, wisdom and love of God (I Cor. 1:24). In virtue of the cross, God is revealed to be most active and present in those situations where He, at least externally, appears to be inactive and absent. In the Cross, God is found to be active and present in the midst of extraordinary evil, suffering and death – drawing good out of evil, salvation out of suffering, and new life out of death. There is no area of life that falls outside the presence and activity of God. The death of Christ puts an end once and for all to the suggestion that God is indifferent to the pain and suffering of humanity. God revealed in the Crucifixion of Jesus is the compassionate God Who is moved and touched by the suffering and death inflicted by humanity on Jesus. God the Father is not indifferent to the suffering and death of His Son.
The resurrection of Jesus has brought salvation to the world: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is the Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). It signifies that the new creation has already begun. Jesus is the first to be raised from the dead (Acts 26:23; I Cor. 15-20ff.; Col. 1:18). Jesus’ Resurrection is attributed directly to God (cf. I Cor. 6:14; Rom. 10:9; I Cor. 15:15; et al.): “[You] killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (3:15; cf. 2:23ff. 5:30). The raising of Jesus from the dead is an act of divine power, an act of “the working of His great might” (Eph. 1:19ff; cf. Col. 2:12), an act of His glory (Rom. 6:4) and His Spirit (Rom. 8:11; I Pet. 3:18). The Resurrection reveals Who God is: the One Whose power embraces life and death, existence and non-existence. It reveals the future of the world according to God’s love and will. Jesus is raised as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (I Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18; Acts 26:23; cf. 3:15; Rev 1:17ff).
The resurrection of Jesus Christ has universal consequences and significance for it is the prefiguration and fore glimpse of the new creation, the new world that God has desired and made possible through His love, the sending of His Son and the Holy Spirit. This new creation, the active presence of God’s kingdom in the world, is strongly determined by negation of the negative and openness to the development of the positive. The negation of the negative is described in Revelation 21:4, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore.” The openness and the development of the positive comes with the establishment of a new relation of God with the world and the total renewal of the world by God: “They shall be his people, and he himself, God with them, shall be their God…And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Rev. 21:3, 5). God has given to the world, through crucified and risen Christ a foretaste and a promise of all that is yet to come.
Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis is the Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA. He is also the Priest of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church of Woburn, MA.