When we turn to the Gospels, we find four distinct accounts of Jesus’ suffering—often called the Passion Narratives, from the Latin passio, meaning “suffering.” To explore the christological significance of each Passion Narrative, we invited four scholars to reflect on the identity of Jesus as portrayed in each Gospel.
The Gospel of Matthew narrates the story of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (1:1)—and indeed the Son of God—who will save his people from their sins (1:21). Certainly Jesus saves his people from their sins through his death and resurrection, but we must read these last events in light of the entire Gospel.
As obedient Son of God in the face of temptation (compare 4:3, 6), Jesus has already begun to save his people from their sins, overcoming the filial failures of both Israel (compare Deut 8:5) and Adam (compare Gen 5:1, 3). After this, Jesus announces the coming of the kingdom of heaven (Matt 4:17) and begins to realize the blessings of the latter days through his wide-ranging ministry. This leads to Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ (16:16), after which Jesus moves more deliberately toward Jerusalem.
When Jesus finally enters Jerusalem, he does so as a king (21:4–5; compare Zech 9:9). Indeed, the royal sonship of Christ is in view throughout the passion week: in Jesus’ three parables about sons (Matt 21:28–22:14); in the question about David’s son (22:41–46); in Gethsemane (26:39, 42, 53); before the high priest (26:63–64); and in the actions of the soldiers who mock his kingship (27:29, 37).
It is, then, as the royal Son of God that Jesus’ sonship is again tested three times on the cross.1 Jesus is reviled and insulted first by the passers-by who challenge him to come down from the cross (27:39–40). Next the chief priests, scribes, and elders taunt Jesus’ sonship, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God’ ” (27:42–43 ESV). Finally the thieves on either side of Jesus ridicule him in the same way (27:44). Yet despite this (second) threefold testing, Jesus remains obedient to the end, even in the face of suffering.
Ironically, those who revile Jesus think that he will be able to save others only if he is saved by God from the cross. However, it is by refusing to come down from the cross that Jesus ultimately saves his people from their sins. His obedience overcomes the disobedience of David, Israel, and—as the crown of thorns suggests (27:29)—even the disobedience of Adam, whose initial sin led to the curse of thorns.
This salvation from sin, however, is not only about the cross; it also necessarily entails the resurrection. The tomb is empty because Jesus has risen from the dead (28:1–10). Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of his victory over sin. As the resurrected Son of God, Jesus has all authority on heaven and earth and will be with his people always—for he has saved his people from their sins.
Mark L. Strauss
Each of the four Gospel writers has a unique story to tell. Mark’s portrait of Jesus emphasizes Jesus’ role as the suffering Servant-Messiah who dies as an atoning sacrifice for sins (Mark 10:45; see Isaiah 53).2 This Gospel was likely written to a suffering and persecuted church and contains a call for believers to take up their own cross and follow him—no matter what the cost (Mark 8:34–35). The model for disciples in Mark is not the Twelve, who are portrayed in a generally negative light, but Jesus himself, who follows God’s will and remains faithful to his calling.
Of the four Passion Narratives, Mark’s is probably the darkest and gloomiest (Mark 14–15). Two themes dominate. The first is rejection by all, as Jesus faces betrayal, abandonment, abuse, and rejection. The other is the faithfulness of Jesus. Despite being rejected, he remains faithful and so accomplishes the messianic task.
The Passion Narrative begins with the religious leaders plotting to kill Jesus (14:1–2). Israel’s religious leaders, who should be welcoming their Messiah, instead reject him. Rejection also permeates the Last Supper narrative (14:17–31). Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal and announces to his disciples, “You will all fall away” (14:27). When Peter vehemently rejects this possibility, Jesus predicts that Peter himself will deny Jesus three times.
In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus agonizes over his coming fate. Yet he remains faithful, praying to the Father, “Not what I will, but what you will” (14:36). In contrast to Jesus’ faithfulness, the disciples can’t even stay awake to watch and pray. When Judas arrives with an armed crowd to arrest Jesus, “everyone deserted him and fled” (14:50).
The rejection of Jesus continues at his trials (14:53–15:20). False witnesses testify against him; the high priest accuses him of blasphemy; the council calls for his execution, mocking and abusing him; the guards beat him. At the trial before Pilate, the crowds that once delighted in his teaching now cry out for his crucifixion. Pilate turns a blind eye to justice and orders his crucifixion.
During the crucifixion, it seems that everyone takes up the chant against Jesus (15:21–32). Passers-by ridicule his claims; the chief priests and scribes mock him; even the crucified criminals heap abuse on him. The disciples are nowhere to be found; only the women watch from afar. Jesus’ only words from the cross are the depressing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; see Ps 22:1). Jesus dies alone, apparently abandoned even by his Father in heaven.
Yet those who have read the story from the beginning know this cannot be the end; it is all part of God’s plan. Jesus has repeatedly predicted his death, moving inevitably toward this goal. His death is not a tragedy. It is the “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the world. Jesus’ blood, “poured out for many,” establishes the new covenant (14:24). The reader must see with eyes of faith.
Two events at Jesus’ death confirm this significance. First, the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom (15:38), indicating that the way to God’s presence has been revealed. Second, the Roman centurion cries out, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (15:39). While the disciples, the Jewish crowds, and the religious leaders are oblivious to the meaning of Jesus’ death, a Gentile outsider recognizes it!
The centurion’s cry confirms what the reader knows: Jesus’s death is no tragedy, but is God’s victory over Satan, sin, and death. This victory will be confirmed on the third day when Jesus’ resurrection is announced.
For Mark’s suffering and persecuted readers, this message would have brought great hope. Though evil seems to be winning and life at times seems hopeless, this Gospel reminds us that God is sovereignly in control, and he will save and vindicate his faithful followers.
Mikeal C. Parsons
Luke presents a distinctive portrait of Jesus’ suffering and death. In the midst of an otherwise stark story of ridicule and mockery, this Passion Narrative includes important elements of relief. Drawing out themes of forgiveness, prayer, and hope, Luke portrays Jesus as the righteous king who dies to save his people.
Jesus offers a prayer for his persecutors in 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Though many ancient manuscripts do not contain this prayer, the theme of forgiveness is consistent with comments by Jesus elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel.3 So here Jesus, who forgave the sins of a paralyzed man and a sinful woman, now asks God to forgive his oppressors.
That the request for forgiveness should take the form of prayer is also consistent with Luke's portrayal of Jesus as one constantly seeking union with God through prayer. Jesus prays throughout his public ministry (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; 11:1; 22:40). Jesus offers his disciples the following instructions, which he himself will observe: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (6:27–28 NRSV).
This theme of forgiveness continues in 23:40–43, which presents material unique to Luke's Gospel. Jesus assures the penitent criminal of a place with him in paradise (23:43). The criminal pronounces Jesus innocent of all charges (23:41), reflecting a major theme in Luke’s Passion Narrative. Three times Pilate declares the innocence of Jesus (23:4, 14, 22). Likewise, Herod pronounces Jesus innocent and returns him to Pilate (23:15; compare 23:6–12). Finally, the centurion in Luke, when he has seen what has taken place, praises God and exclaims, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (23:47 NRSV). Luke emphasizes that the death of Jesus is the death of a martyr, the unjust murder of an innocent man by the religious and political establishment.
Some have viewed the plea of the penitent thief to be remembered (23:42) as a request for a kind of royal clemency, but Jesus’ response goes far beyond that: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43 NRSV). As in some pagan (Plato, Apology, 39) and Jewish (b. Abodah Zarah, 18a) sources, a martyr’s death produces a convert. In the thief’s conversion, Luke depicts salvation in terms of immediacy and solidarity. Jesus’ use of the word “today” echoes especially the words he spoke earlier to Zacchaeus: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (19:9 NRSV; compare 2:11 and 4:21). Salvation is expressed here as a kind of “with-ness,” a solidarity with Jesus.
The Lukan Passion Narrative reflects the Gospel in miniature. It carries many of the themes so dear to Luke: the kingship of Jesus; his innocence; the importance of forgiveness, repentance, and prayer. Jesus does not seek a martyr’s death (23:1–25), but when it comes neither does he refuse it (compare Justin, Apology, II.12). Luke’s passion account legitimizes the mission of Jesus, the faithful and righteous martyr, whose life and death have the power to save.
Karen H. Jobes
When John wrote his Gospel as the testimony of the disciple whom Jesus loved, he most likely knew of the other Gospels and so did not repeat much of their material.4 The importance of John’s passion story is heightened if John himself was the beloved disciple or the disciple who (along with Peter) accompanied Jesus into the high priest’s house on that fateful night (John 18:15).
The judgment that led to Jesus’ death is the climax of this Gospel, whose stated purpose is: so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). The entire Gospel is testimony about Jesus, with the signs and discourses presented as evidence for the reader’s judgment. John’s account of the interrogations before Annas and Pilate leads the reader to a point of decision about who Jesus is and why he died.
All four Gospels present irregularities in the way Jesus was interrogated, suggesting that he did not receive the due process of either Jewish or Roman law. He was apprehended and examined late at night so his arrest wouldn’t draw the attention of the Passover crowds. He did not appear before the full Sanhedrin until daybreak, after being interrogated through the night by Annas and Caiaphas with a few officials and false witnesses. They were not investigating to fairly determine what Jesus had said and done (which John lays out for the reader in chapters 2–12) but to find justification for the death sentence they had already decided (11:45–53). Jesus’ appearance before the Sanhedrin was merely a hasty formality so that Jesus could be taken to Pilate for execution.
Jesus was aware that he was being denied justice and asked for a fair trial. When interrogated about his teaching, Jesus tells Annas to question witnesses who heard him teach openly. This request for a fair trial with honest witnesses is misunderstood and taken as insolence, and the physical abuse begins (18:19–22).
A short time later, the Roman governor Pilate rebuffs the Jewish leaders, instructing them to judge Jesus by their own laws (18:31). Given that they had failed to follow their own laws thus far, and that they should have recognized Jesus as their Messiah and king, Pilate’s rebuff is deeply ironic.
Jesus’ rightful claim to be the king of a kingdom not of this world is spun into a political issue that catches Pilate’s attention. Again and again Pilate tries to release Jesus, recognizing him as no threat to Rome’s rule. But the Jewish leaders renounce God as their king and claim they have no king but Caesar (19:15). Jesus’ fate is sealed with their suggestion that anything less than Jesus’ execution will raise questions about Pilate’s loyalty to Caesar (19:13–16).
At every turn, John’s passion account shows the universal rejection of Jesus by both Jewish and Gentile powers for political expediency—the way of the world that rejects the truth God has revealed.
Justice is based on determining truth. With Jesus standing before him, Pilate dismissively asks, “What is truth?” (18:38). That is the question John asks each reader of this Gospel. Based on the evidence John presents, do you accept the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, or do you stand with the powers of this world and reject him?
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV).
1 Drawing from Terence L. Donaldson, “The Mockers and the Son of God (Matthew 27:37–44): Two Characters in Matthew’s Story of Jesus,” JSNT 41 (1991): 3–18.
2 See Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 171–211.
3 Some early manuscripts of Luke do not include Jesus’ statement in 23:34. It is unclear when this material was introduced to the manuscript tradition. Its inclusion in later manuscripts corresponds with the emphases on prayer and forgiveness throughout Luke-Acts (Luke 4:18; 5:23–24; 7:47; 11:2; Acts 7:60).
4 Clement of Alexandria, quoted by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History, 6.14.7.