The Pattern of Jesus’s Ministry

January 27, 2016

by Vern Poythress

Jesus’s miracles show a pattern in which they function like small pictures, foreshadowing the climactic redemption in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Are these connections with the crucifixion and resurrection something exceptional or strange? There are at least four main reasons why the connections are not exceptional, but belong to the very character of Jesus’s ministry.

The Goal of Jesus’s Ministry

First, Jesus’s ministry has a unified character and a unified goal. Jesus understood himself as the Son sent by the Father to accomplish the Father’s plan of redemption. He expressed his goal in a variety of ways:

Jesus’s whole life on earth was a life in which he served. But his service came to a climax when he gave his life as a ransom for many.

. . . even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matt. 20:28)

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)

For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. (John 5:19)

These descriptions show the inner unity between Jesus’s public ministry and his crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus’s whole life on earth was a life in which he “served.” But his service came to a climax when he gave “his life as a ransom for many.” The release of captives, as described in Luke 4:18–19 in Jesus’s quotation from Isaiah 61:1–2, took place all during his public ministry as he healed the sick and cast out demons. It came to a climax with the release from sin and death that he accomplished through his crucifixion and resurrection. In Jesus’s public ministry he invited people to repent, and he had fellowship with notorious “sinners” like the tax collectors. He came to save the lost (Luke 19:10; cf. Matt. 9:12–13). Salvation for the lost took climactic form in his death and resurrection.

The Unity of the Kingdom of God

Second, the inner unity in Jesus’s ministry and death is underscored with the expression “the kingdom of God.” Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15) and he embodied it in his ministry.

The expression “the kingdom of God” that Jesus used does not refer primarily to God’s providential rule over all history, but to the exercise of God’s saving power in climactic form. Jesus’s ministry fulfilled Old Testament prophecies that looked forward to a final day when God would come and save his people. Jesus as the messianic king and as God himself manifested the saving rule of God during his life, and then climactically in his resurrection. Both his earlier ministry and his crucifixion and resurrection are aspects of a unified work of God, accomplishing the salvation promised in the Old Testament.

The Narrative Form of the Gospels, Leading to Climax

Third, each Gospel—each of the Synoptic Gospels as well as John—gives us a narrative account that leads somewhere. Each builds toward the crucifixion and resurrection as the climax of its narrative. We see Jesus introduced by John the Baptist, and then engaging in public ministry. The ministry was going somewhere: going to the cross. This goal is particularly highlighted when Jesus explicitly predicts his coming death, as in Matthew 16:21–23; 17:22–23; 20:17–19; 21:39; 26:2, and parallels in the other Gospels. Luke highlights the coming of the crucifixion by indicating already in Luke 9:51 that Jesus was going to Jerusalem (building on 9:31). The Gospels also show us the gradual intensifying opposition from the Jewish leaders, which points toward a final confrontation.

Christ’s crucifixion and death involved Christ as our representative experiencing the deepest possible difficulty. The resurrection resolved the difficulty.

These ties between the middle of the story and its end invite us to see relationships between the individual episodes in Jesus’s life and the goal to which these episodes are heading. The connections are all the more important because all the Gospels presuppose that God rules history. The incidents they record are not merely random but are divinely designed to work out God’s purposes.

The Theological Unity of Redemption

Fourth, the Bible teaches that God’s work of redemption—throughout history—has an inner unity. There is only one way of redemption, and that is through Christ and his work:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Tim. 2:5–6)

All the smaller steps that bring blessing and deliverance and restoration and health to people proceed from the grace of God, which always comes in the final analysis on the basis of the work of Christ. We do not deserve any of it. Because of sin, we deserve only death (Rom. 6:23). It is Christ’s work of substitution and victory that has made it possible for God to “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). The giving of wine at the wedding in Cana, the healing of the official’s son, and the healing of the sick man at the Sheep Gate all manifested the grace of God to people who did not deserve it. In their temporal order, these miracles preceded the death and resurrection of Christ. But in substance, they depended on the grace made possible through Christ. Theologically, there is a deep unity in all acts of grace, because they all have the same basis in Christ.

We can see illustrations of this unity by thinking of redemptive plots. All the miracles in the Gospels involve a transition from a situation of trouble or suffering to a situation of restoration or peace or harmony, through an act of deliverance by Christ. This movement from trouble to resolution is a simple plot structure, common to all the miracles. It is one factor that makes all the miracles foreshadow the crucifixion and resurrection. Christ’s crucifixion and death involved Christ as our representative experiencing the deepest possible difficulty. The resurrection resolved the difficulty. Because Christ acted as our representative, this victory over difficulty also then gets applied to us in the present age. But it was also applied beforehand, as it were retroactively, to those to whom Christ ministered in his earthly ministry, and to Old Testament recipients of grace as well.

The plot of redemption moves from the spiritual sickness of sin to the spiritual health of righteousness, and from the Adamic body doomed to die to the new spiritual body free from death.

Often the miracles in the Gospels show vivid foreshadowings of the crucifixion and resurrection, at least with regard to some aspects of the meaning of Christ’s work. The vividness increases when the particular kind of trouble already has an obvious symbolic relationship to the deepest troubles of all—sin and death. For example, the raising of Lazarus is an answer to death, and so it has a vivid connection with the resurrection of Christ, which is the final answer to death. The healing of the man born blind has a vivid connection with healing of spiritual blindness and the giving of spiritual sight, because Christ has already announced that he is the light of the world (John 8:12). And this announcement has still further connections with the theme of spiritual light in the Gospel of John and in the Old Testament.

But in the broader sense, any healing from physical disease is pertinent. The plot of healing moves from sickness to health through Christ’s work. The plot of redemption moves from the spiritual sickness of sin to the spiritual health of righteousness, and from the Adamic body doomed to die to the new spiritual body free from death (1 Cor. 15:44–49). Righteousness and freedom from death come through Christ’s work.

The redemption that Christ accomplished is comprehensive in its implications. Christ was raised, as we observed, to imperishable life, the life characterizing the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21:4). In his experience he is the representative for the entirety of the new humanity. His resurrection results in the resurrection of the new humanity in due time (1 Cor. 15:22–26, 50–57). Not only so, but it is the basis for the comprehensive renewal of heaven and earth as well (Rom. 8:20–23; Rev. 21:1). So the movement from death to resurrection in the case of Christ’s personal history is organically related to the movement from a broken to a restored and harmonious endpoint in every sphere of life.



This piece is adapted from Vern S. Poythress, The Miracles of Jesus: How the Savior’s Mighty Acts Serve as Signs of Redemption (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 47—51. Used with permission from the publisher.


Read More On gospels, miracles

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

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