The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Luke’s Gospel

The following is a paper submitted to Dr. Joshua W. Jipp in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course NT 6211, Synoptic Gospels and Johannine Literature, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, October, 2014.


This paper seeks to investigate the significance, purpose, and/or meaning of Jesus’ death in the gospel of Luke. It will do so by examining Jesus’ death according to six topics: (1) Jesus’ death as the culmination of a theme of opposition to Jesus, (2) Jesus’ death as the fulfillment of God’s will and plan, (3) Jesus’ death as a pattern of discipleship, (4) Jesus’ death in the context of satanic conflict, (5) Jesus’ death in terms the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, and (6) Jesus’ death as explained in the Last Supper.

Culmination of a Theme of Opposition to Jesus

Conflict between Jesus and others, especially the leaders of the Jewish religious institution, is a significant theme in Luke’s gospel. From the opening chapters, Luke presents the infant Jesus as a child “appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (2:34). And from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, opposition to Jesus arises (4:22-29). In fact, Jesus sees His rejection as a defining feature of His ministry (7:31-35).

Early on, the reader receives indications that opposition to Jesus will ultimately culminate in His death. The religious leaders seek reasons to accuse Jesus (6:7; 11:53-54) and scheme “with one another what they might do to Jesus” (6:11). In 19:47, their malicious intent is finally made explicit: they “were seeking to destroy him” (cf. 20:19-20; 22:2). Finally, their plans become reality as the “chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him” (24:20). Jesus’s death is the culmination of this theme of opposition to Jesus.

But furthermore, as the culmination of opposition to Jesus, Jesus’ death serves as that which demarcates those who have rejected God’s redemptive purposes. In Luke, one’s response to Jesus is definitive of whether one will experience God’s blessing or judgment (2:34; 10:16). Thus, Jesus interprets His conclusive rejection, i.e., His death, as a decisive cause for judgment (20:15-18; cf. 11:50-51; 13:34-35; 21:5-24). In the passion narrative itself, both the three hours of darkness (23:44) and the tearing of the temple’s inner veil (23:45) communicate this divine displeasure.[1]

Finally, as the culmination of opposition, Jesus’ death, rather than proving Him not to be God’s messiah, is actually a demonstration of His messiahship. Paradoxically, Jesus’ rejection is the means by which He fulfills His role as messiah. Jesus presents Himself as a prophet. As such, His death affirms His status as a prophet within a long trajectory of rejected prophets of God (11:47-51; 13:33; 20:9-15). In his passion account, Luke ironically presents Jesus’ messianic identity through the mocking of others: although treated as a mock king, Jesus really is king (23:11, 37, 38); it is by not saving Himself that He saves others (23:35, 37, 39); His messianic identify is cross-driven not cross-evading (23:35, 39). Jesus’ death is placed within the paradigm of Davidic kingship (23:34; cf. Ps 22:18; 23:46; cf. Ps 31:5), revealing His identity as Davidic king.

Fulfillment of God’s Will and Plan

Repeatedly throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus foretells of His death to take place in Jerusalem (9:22, 44; 12:50; 17:25; 18:31-33; 22:15, 20, 22; cf. 24:7). He is self-conscious of His fate. He understands His death as the accomplishment of His mission, His commission given Him by the Father. Thus, from 9:51 onward, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus is portrayed as the obedient servant of God, fulfilling the Father’s will (22:42). He trusts God unto death as He utters the words of the psalmist, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:46; cf. Ps 31:5).

He fulfilled this commission, i.e., death, because it was this commission that was determined by God (22:22) and anticipated in His scriptures (18:31-33; 22:37; 24:25-27, 44-47). Interestingly, although frequent mention is made of scriptures foretelling of the Son of Man’s death, nowhere in the Old Testament is there a reference to the Son of Man’s death. Jesus’ redefines or develops this ‘Son of Man’ category to include necessary death (18:31-33). And further, with no specific reference view, He is seemingly interpreting His death as the realization of the Old Testament’s hopes in their entirety (24:25-27, 44-47).

Pattern of Discipleship

Luke places a unique emphasis on the costliness of following Christ (discipleship) in his narrative. Jesus’ disciples are those who must detach themselves from all other allegiances and preoccupation in order to follow Christ wholeheartedly (14:26, 33). Jesus tells a rich young ruler to “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor” (18:22; see vv.18-23). His disciples are like those who must be estranged from recently purchased fields, recently purchased oxen, and new wives in order to attend a great banquet (14:16-24), a symbol of the eschatological banquet. Consequently, those who seek to become His disciples must consider the high cost of doing so (14:28-32). This discipleship is entrance into the narrow gate that is salvation (13:22-30; cf. 9:24-25; 17:33).

But of particular interest for this paper is the fact that Jesus expresses the costliness of discipleship in terms of His own death by crucifixion—the severest imagery. In fact, as Jesus says, one who does not conform to this cross-shaped pattern of life cannot be His disciple (14:27). Directly after foretelling of His own impending crucifixion (9:22), Jesus declares that all who would follow Him must follow in Jesus’ footsteps on His path leading to death (9:23-26). A disciple must “take up his cross,” meaning, he must “deny himself” (9:23) and “save his life” by losing it (9:24; cf. 17:33). And just as Jesus must accomplish His exodus (ἔξοδος) before entering into His glory, which is previewed in His transfiguration which immediately follows (9:28-36), so too must those who wish to share in Jesus’ glory share in Christ’s sufferings. As a concrete example of this reality, Jesus’ disciples will be seized, persecuted, delivered over to the rulers, imprisoned, and hated for Jesus’ sake (21:12, 17). In short, they will be treated like Jesus—a cross-shaped discipleship.

Satanic Conflict

Luke depicts his account of Jesus’ death in terms of conflict with and conquering over Satan and demonic forces. In the early stages of Luke’s gospel, Satan appears tempting Jesus for forty days in the wilderness (4:1-13). But after Jesus successfully withstands this temptation, Satan recedes “until an opportune time (καιρός)” (4:13). A possible linguistic connection between the devil’s καιρός (“opportune time”) in 4:13 and Judas’ seeking for an εὐκαιρία (“opportunity”) to betray Jesus (22:6), supported by the fact that “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot” (22:3), may indicate that Luke intends the reader to understand the passion account and surrounding narrative as Satan’s “opportune time” (4:13).[2] The Satan-possessed Judas then conspires “with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him [Jesus] to them” (22:4). And Satan would sift Peter save the prayer of Jesus (22:31-23). However, the reality of satanic conflict in the passion narrative is most clearly seen in Jesus’ statement in 22:53 that “this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”[3]

The existence of this satanic conflict motif in the passion narrative is supported by the prevalent satanic conflict motif expressed in Jesus’ many exorcisms (4:31-37; 6:18; 8:26-39; 9:37-43; 11:14) and His disciples’ exorcisms by extension of Jesus’ authority (10:17). His casting out of demons is a sign of His reign over the demonic powers (11:20). Upon His disciple’s report of having cast out demons, Jesus states, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (10:18). This defeat of Satan is evident in these demon-conquering miracles, which proleptically anticipate Jesus decisive defeat of Satan in His death (cf. Col 1:14-15; Heb 2:14).

Suffering Servant

Luke presents Jesus as the Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah, with His death primarily fulfilling this role. Throughout his gospel, particularly in his passion account, Luke inserts a number of allusions and references to Isa 52:13-53:12.

The mistreatment Jesus predicts in Lk 18:32-33 resembles that of the Servant in Isa 50:6. In Lk 22:37 Jesus explicitly cites Isa 53:12, identifying Himself as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (“what is written of me”) and His mission in terms of the Servant’s. In Luke’s passion account, Jesus resembles the Servant as He remains silent during His examination (Lk 23:9; cf. Isa 53:7). Luke repeatedly stresses Jesus’ Servant-like innocence (Isa 53:9). Pilate and Herod find no fault in Jesus (Lk 23:4, 13-16, 20, 22). One of the criminals crucified with Him declares, “this man has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:41). Crucified with these two criminals (Lk 23:32-33), Jesus is “numbered with the transgressors” (Isa 53:12). The soldiers cast lots for His garments (Lk 23:34; cf. Isa 53:12). Jesus fits the pattern of the Servant as He is buried (Isa 53:9) and vindicated in His resurrection (Isa 53:10). Redacting Mark’s version of the centurion’s statement to ὄντως ὁ ἄνθρωπος οὗτος δίκαιος ἦν (“Surely, this man was righteous”; Lk 23:47; cf. Mk 15:39), Luke is likely deliberating presenting Jesus in the language of Isa 53:11: “the righteous one, my servant” (cf. Acts 3:14; 7:52). Jesus is not merely an “innocent (δίκαιος) man” but the particular “righteous (δίκαιος) man” of whom Isaiah spoke.

In short, Isa 52:13-53:12 serves as a template for Jesus’ mission. As such, implicit in the significance of Jesus’ death in Luke’s gospel are atoning (Isa 52:15), substitutionary (Isa 53:4-6, 8, 11-12), propitiating (Isa 53:4-5, 8, 10), sacrificial (Isa 53:10), justifying (Isa 53:11), and intercessory (Isa 53:12) motifs.[4]

The Last Supper (22:14-20)

In Jesus’ Last Supper with His disciples, He interprets the meaning of His death through word and symbolic action. Jesus reinterprets the Passover meal (22:15), which celebrated God’s original Exodus, as a celebration of the Second Exodus He would soon accomplish through His death (Lk 9:31; cf. Jer 16:14-15; 23:7-8; Isa 51:9-11; Hos 11:10-11; Mic 7:15-16). Interpreting the bread and wine as symbols of His death (body and blood = metonym for death), Jesus understands His death as substitutionary, sacrificial, on behalf of others (ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν; 22:19-20). By eating the bread and wine, His disciples declare their participation in the benefits achieved by Jesus’ death. Finally, Jesus views His death (= blood [metonym] = cup = New Covenant; cf. Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24) as that which inaugurates the New Covenant, and with it the forgiveness of sins and the pouring out of the Spirit (22:20; cf. Jer 31:31-34; Ex 24:8).

Conclusion

This paper has investigated the meaning of Jesus’ death in the gospel of Luke. It has demonstrated that the significance of Jesus’ death is rather multi-faceted. Jesus’ death is the climax of and decisive point in a theme of opposition to Jesus. Jesus resolutely heads to the cross with an understanding of His death as the fulfillment of scripture and His Father’s will. Jesus’ death serves as the pattern for those who would follow Him. Jesus’ death is the pinnacle of a conflict with satanic powers. Jesus’ death is that of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. And finally, Jesus’ death is explained in the symbolism of the Last Supper.


Notes

[1] In light of the references to both prolonged darkness (which is not meant to be understood as coincidental but as expressing divine displeasure and judgment) and the crowds “beating their breasts” in the immediate context—both involving the negative theme of rejecting God’s messiah—the tearing of the veil most likely indicates judgment upon the Jewish religious institution, which the temple represents. However, the idea of Jesus’ death accomplishing unhindered access to God’s presence is not necessarily excluded.

[2] J. Dennis, “Death of Jesus,” ed. Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic, 2013), 185.

[3] See Acts 26:18 where “darkness” (σκότος; cf. Lk 22:53) is equated with “the power of Satan.” See also Eph 6:12.

[4] Luke’s use of Isa 53:7–8 in Acts 8:32–33 further supports the idea that Luke conceived of Jesus as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.

Bibliography

Dennis, J. “Death of Jesus” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition. Edited by Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin. Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic, 2013.

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