Why didn’t Jesus go down in history as a failure? In fact, why did he go down in history at all?
He lived on earth at a time when his people were expecting a Messiah to deliver them from the Roman occupation. It seems there were many zealots and fanatics eager to appoint themselves to that position. Some even gained a following, but their efforts came to nothing. Most died unknown, and even those we know about are just footnotes in history. However, Jesus is not a footnote in history. He is considered one of the most influential, if not the most influential, human being who has ever lived.
When he was crucified 2,000 years ago, his followers were left in confusion. Most were expecting the Messiah to be a royal military leader who would overthrow the enemies of Israel and be honored by the Jewish religious leaders as king. This would be the proof of his Messiahship, and this is what they expected Jesus would do.
Just a few days earlier, he had entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowds. At last, it seemed, he was going to make his move and lead them in a war of liberation against the Romans. Then he would establish his kingdom, restoring the fortunes of his people. Those who had followed him would be given key positions. But before the week was over he was dead – executed like the worst criminal, rejected by the religious leaders, and his followers went into hiding.
No one (except for Jesus) expected this to happen. Although there were different ideas among the Jews about what the Messiah would do, there were some common themes. Being crucified was not one of them. In fact, coming to such an end would have been high on the list of events proving someone was not the Messiah. So why did his followers continue to believe in a Messiah who, instead of leading them to victory, only seemed to have brought ignominy and suffering on himself?
Let’s look at it from the disciples’ point of view. Jesus did not fulfill any of those common expectations for the Jews of his day. Instead of routing the Romans, he came as the Prince of Peace, not even carrying a weapon. He was born in a rented stable and buried in a borrowed tomb. He was executed in mid-life by a method reserved for slaves and rebels. So, why would his followers maintain that he was the Messiah? Why would they not just cut their losses after his death and move on? Why would they even be willing to be killed themselves for this Messiah? New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains it well:
There were, to be sure, ways of coping with the death of a teacher, or even a leader. The picture of Socrates was available, in the wider world, as a model of unjust death nobly borne. The category of “martyr” was available, within Judaism, for someone who stood up to pagans… The category of failed but still revered Messiah, however, did not exist. A Messiah who died at the hands of the pagans, instead of winning [God’s] battle against them, was a deceiver…
Why then did people go on talking about Jesus of Nazareth, except as a remarkable but tragic memory? The obvious answer is that…Jesus was raised from the dead. (Jesus and the Victory of God, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996, page 658)
Suffering would not have been necessary for the kind of Messiah the people of his time were expecting. He could have lived to a ripe old age, and then have been enshrined in legend and history like David, Joshua, or Gideon. Even if he had lost his life in a struggle against the Romans, he could have had a place of honor. But to live in relative obscurity and then die in disgrace – what kind of a Messiah is that?
But Jesus was so much more than a military hero. He had come, not just to deliver Israel from the Romans, but to rescue all humanity from captivity to evil and death, and reconcile humanity to God. To do that, he had to suffer and die. On the very day that Jesus rose from the dead, he spoke of himself: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26 NASB).
The full glory of the Messiah is seen on the cross. This was an important point that Jesus’ disciples had missed until after his resurrection. Many still miss this point today. The glory of Jesus as our Savior was not shown only through his power and resurrection, though it could have been. His glory certainly was not shown through any status or position he had on earth. Rather, his glory was also shown in the incredible suffering he willingly endured as an expression of his immeasurable love for those he came to save.
As Paul wrote to the church at Philippi:
[Jesus] being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)
After his resurrection, the full realization of who Jesus was, and what he had come to do, began to sink in. As his followers absorbed the wonder, grace and glory of his crucifixion and resurrection, they were transformed. Led by the Holy Spirit, only then did they begin to fulfill his “Great Commission,” taking his message of forgiveness of sin, victory over evil and death, and of salvation to the whole world.
Convinced of the truth and reality of who Jesus was and what he had accomplished, not even the suffering of hardships, persecution and, for some, execution could stop their proclamation reaching “to the uttermost parts of the earth.” We today are the beneficiaries of their mission and ministry that was handed on to others who were also faithful channels of God’s own reconciling and renewing work down through the generations.
As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15:
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
Let’s renew our own sense of wonder and commitment, as we each do our part in carrying on the Great Commission. It is a message this world needs. It has been well said, “He may not have been the Messiah all had hoped for, but he is indeed the Messiah of great hope for all.”