On January 24, 2012, the noted British theologian N.T. Wright spoke at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan as part of the “January Series”. The title of his lecture was “How God Became King: Why We’ve All Misunderstood the Gospels”. It was almost a year later that I finally heard a podcast of this talk, which captured my attention almost immediately with a simple question: “Why did Jesus live?”
The point that Wright was trying to make by asking his audience this question was that when most of us consider the purpose of Christ’s incarnation, we tend to focus on his death. Christmas songs are filled with lyrics declaring that the baby Jesus would one day become the savior of the world by dying for us all. Indeed, the final days of Christ’s life and his execution are the main focus of all four biblical Gospels, and Church teaching has mirrored this approach throughout history.
This raises the question, if the whole purpose of Jesus’ life was to die, then why did it take around thirty years to get to that point? (Scripture never gives an exact number, but estimates tend to be around this mark.) What was all of that in between time intended to accomplish? This question made me curious, and I proceeded to create the list you are about to read.
Why did Jesus live?
1) To show us how to live.
Without a doubt, one of the main reasons that Jesus lived was to provide an example of how a person ought to live. When Christ went to be baptized, John was initially hesitant. Jesus told him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15) As Christ was already perfectly righteous – he never sinned and always did God’s will – I think this was meant to be an example for all of us as to how we should obey God.
“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps,” the Apostle Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:21. “While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” (1 Peter 2:23)
2) To prove that the temporal is important.
There is a tendency for Christians (and adherents of other religions, for that matter) to get overly focused on the afterlife and essentially “check out” from this current one, either because they believe only heavenly things are important or they have utterly despaired of this sinful earth. However, Jesus’ life shows us that both the temporal and the eternal are significant.
The gospel of Christ is certainly meant to affect a person’s eternal destiny, but it is also meant to transform the believer during their earthly life. The Church is also intended to go about the business of transforming the world for the better. By living a righteous life of service, Jesus demonstrated this principle.
3) To show that the kingdom of God is already and not yet.
While the full realization of Christ’s kingdom will not occur until the end of time, Christ’s arrival in history marked the beginning of a process which would usher in that kingdom, and in which we are invited to take part. Jesus announced at the beginning of his ministry, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) This is the mission which Christ gave to his disciples in the Great Commission, and it is summarized by the Apostle Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians.
Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)
4) To fulfill prophecy.
In the Gospel of Matthew alone, I count twelve occasions where the author notes how something about Christ and his life fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, and that’s without counting the times when Matthew quotes Jesus Himself making a claim of prophetic fulfillment. Matthew points out that the flight of the holy family into Egypt (2:15), the coming of John the Baptist (3:3), and even the Messiah’s place of residence (4:14-15) were directly in line with what the biblical prophets had predicted. Numerous other connections are made in the rest of Matthew and the New Testament.
While it makes sense that Christ had to fulfill these prophecies, why did God have to make them in the first place? Answer: Because fulfilled prophecies are proof of God’s omniscience and the true claims of His Son. When Christ appears to the two men on the road to Emmaus, he corrects them for being confused about the Messiah’s death and apparent resurrection. “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:25-26)
Here’s an even better divine smack down, Old Testament style:
Who is like Me? Let him proclaim and declare it;
Yes, let him recount it to Me in order,
From the time that I established the ancient nation.
And let them declare to them the things that are coming
And the events that are going to take place.
Do not tremble and do not be afraid;
Have I not long since announced it to you and declared it?
And you are My witnesses.
Is there any God besides Me,
Or is there any other Rock?
I know of none. (Isaiah 44:7-8)
5) To show that God is about life, not death.
One of the oddest (or perhaps I should say “graphic”) passages in scripture is in Ezekiel 16, which provides a metaphorical retelling of God’s relationship with the nation of Israel. It described how the Lord came across a baby abandoned at birth, left to die from exposure. God says, “When I passed by you and saw you squirming in your blood, I said to you while you were in your blood, ‘Live!’ Yes, I said to you while you were in your blood, ‘Live!’” (Ezekiel 16:6) This single word – live – sums up God’s desire for all humanity: for us to be alive in every way possible, knowing that we are most alive when we are closest to Him.
To be with God is life, and to be separated from Him is death. It was for the sake of life that Christ came to earth. He told us, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) This new life that we have in Christ is not restricted to the realm of the eternal. The Apostle Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) We experience new life here and now. Thus, Christ’s life is a picture of what God intends for all of us.
6) To prove that God wanted to save us to dwell with us.
There is a formula running throughout scripture that reaches its grand finale near the end of the Bible in Revelation chapter 21. As the Apostle John narrates a vision of the New Jerusalem, he provides us with this great insight.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’ (Revelation 21:3-4)
It’s almost enough to make you want to get up in the morning: God loves us so much that He actually wants to live with us. Think about how hard it was to cohabitate with even the nicest person you have ever lived with, and perhaps you’ll begin to understand the ramifications of a perfectly holy God wishing to bring sinful (though now redeemed) people into His presence for all eternity. When Christ came to earth, He was Immanuel, or “God with us.” But even God’s presence in a physical body was just a prelude to what is going to come, when he will be “with us” in a greater sense than we can possibly imagine.
7) To feel all it is we feel.
In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul spoke eloquently about how Christ “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men”. (2:7) Part of the purpose of this incarnation was so that He would literally experience what it is to be human, with all the usual frailties and pains. Later in the book, Paul speaks of the “fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings” (3:10), which he takes great pride in, knowing that as he suffers for Christ he will gain a greater bond with his Redeemer. As the author of Hebrews wrote,
For it was fitting for [Christ], for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren. (Hebrews 2:10-11)
However, feeling what humans feel was not just about suffering in the usual sense. Scripture also makes clear that the temptation that Christ faced while on earth is what allows Him to be the perfect mediator between God and man. As it says in Hebrews, “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.” (2:18) Later on in the same book we read, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” (4:15-16)
A cleverer individual than myself could probably come up with even more reasons that Christ had to live, but for now I think this list should be sufficient to prove that it was not enough for the Son of God to be incarnated only to die. His years of ministry and the entirety of His life were all necessary parts of God’s plan. Easter may remind us that Christ died for us, but perhaps it should also remind us that He lived for us.
All biblical quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.