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The Significance of Jesus’ Death as Interpreted by Luke and John

It is common within our churches during Bible study and around Easter to harmonize the gospel narratives, creating a synthesis that incorporates sometimes conflicting details into a single account.  However, if we view the gospels separately, each according to its own merit, very different interpretations emerge regarding the significance of Jesus’ death.  For example, by examining only the metaphors used within Luke and John, two distinct images appear, each with its own significance.  While both accounts proclaim the good news of salvation, the agency involved is quite different.

In Luke’s gospel Jesus is portrayed as a prophet.  From a birth narrative that echoes Samuel, to the reading of Isaiah’s scroll in the synagogue (Lk 4:14 21) and Jesus’ subsequent rejection by his own people (Lk 4:22 30), the motif of God’s spokesman, persecuted and reviled, is played out.  Luke’s Jesus is an innocent man (Lk 23:47), a righteous martyr who suffers as the victim of miscarried justice (Ehrman 135).  [Instructor’s comment: good examples]  Jesus’ message in Luke is simple:  repent and live.  Interestingly, Luke does not present Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin, but rather as an injustice that, when fully comprehended by the people, leads to mass repentance (Schaberg 378).  God forgives the people not because of any substitutionary sacrifice offered by Jesus, but rather in response to the repentance shown by those who witness Jesus’ unjust death and acknowledge their own complicity in sin.

The Johannine portrayal of Jesus’ death is arguably more complex, weaving together several motifs to create an intricate tapestry.  At its core, there is a message of love.  Jesus tells his disciples to love one another (Jn 13:34) and that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn 15:13).  In illustration of his words, Jesus gives his life as the ultimate expression of his love for the community of believers.  As his death unfolds on the cross, Jesus institutes the Church as a new spiritual family (O’Day 388), giving Mary and the beloved disciple to one another as mother and son (Jn 19:26 27).  Moving out from this central core of love and family, a second Johannine theme around the double entendre of being raised up (exalted/crucified) is woven into the design as Jesus predicts that he will be lifted up that all may believe (Jn 3:15; 8:28).  [Instructor’s comment: Cross as sign #8?]  The ruler of the world (Satan) will be driven out and Jesus, lifted up from the earth, will draw all humanity to himself (Jn 12:32).  These narrative references are accented with the promise of living water (Jn 4:10; 7:37 38) that is given literal form as water and blood pour from Jesus’ pierced side during the crucifixion (Jn 19:34) (Griffith-Jones 377).  [Instructor’s comment: yes]  Finally, these images are circumscribed by the narrative thread of the Lamb of God heralded by John the Baptist (Jn 1:29).  This theme reaches its climax as the Johannine author rewrites the synoptic gospel account of the crucifixion, portraying Jesus’ death as coinciding with the slaughter of the Passover lambs (Ehrman 65).  While the original lamb of Passover signaled the angel of death to pass over a household (Ex 12:13, 23), the high priest Caiaphas unwittingly prophesies that Jesus will die for the nation, averting destruction at the hands of the Romans while also drawing to himself all the children of God who are scattered abroad (Jn11:51 52).  Though Blount follows other scholars’ claims that there is no redemptive significance in Jesus’ death (102), the complex interweaving of the Passover Lamb motif cannot be so easily interpreted.  For while the theme of salvation from impending death found in the Passover theme is retained, John the Baptist also claims that this Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29).  It would appear that the Paschal Lamb has become a polyvalent symbol, protecting from destruction and death, but also removing sin in the manner of the lamb offered for the ordinary people who have unintentionally broken God’s law (Le 4:32-35).  [Instructor’s comment: Bingo]

Thus, while the Lukan account of Jesus’ death calls us all to repentance that leads to forgiveness, the Johannine account plays out on multiple levels as a perfect display of love, the source of a living stream, a covering that protects from death and finally a purgation from sin.


Works Cited

Blount, Brian K. Then the Whisper Put on Flesh: New Testament ethics in an African American context. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: a historical introduction to the early Christian writings. 4th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Griffith-Jones, Robin. The Four Witnesses: the rebel, the rabbi, the chronicler, and the mystic. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

O’Day, Gale R. "John." Women’s Bible Commentary. Ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe. Expanded Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998. 381-393.

Schaberg, Jane. "Luke." Women’s Bible Commentary. Ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe. Expanded Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998. 363-380.


Assignment Instructions

Critical Reflections.  In response to given questions throughout the course of the semester, students will contribute three brief critical reflections.  In a typed, double-spaced response of 400-750 words (i.e. 2-3 pages), students will offer a reasoned reply to one of the questions posed for the topic under consideration.  Critical reflections should demonstrate:

  • thorough consideration of relevant textual evidence,
  • explicit and substantial interaction with assigned readings and classroom discussion, and
  • rational argumentation in support of a focused thesis statement or claim.

These general topics do not suggest a particular thesis – you’ll have to find your own point of entry into the assignment.

Compare Luke and John with respect to how they interpret the significance of Jesus’ death.


Instructor’s Comments:

Pretty much a model for how to do it. Care to share an electronic copy?

– strong weaving of the general & the specific

– noteworthy for treating Luke and John differently

Luke 24:19

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