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Chapter 22: God’s Redemptive Work in Jesus’ Human Life

Question C: What is Jesus’ personal vocation?

1. Jesus’ basic commitment and our act of faith share the principle: “Your will be done.” But God’s will for each individual differs, for he gives each one different gifts and tasks. These God-given gifts and tasks constitute a personal vocation, a calling to accept the gifts and use them to complete the tasks. The appropriate response to this vocation is a commitment or group of commitments, by which one undertakes to carry out God’s will in one’s own life.

2. By any commitment one accepts a certain social role with its responsibilities. Thus commitments must be carried out by many particular choices over a long period of time. Because the commitments by which we undertake to do God’s will in our lives carry out his calling, these commitments themselves are called our “personal vocation” insofar as they fulfill our basic commitment to do his will.

3. Like us, Jesus had a personal vocation, unique gifts and tasks by which to do the Father’s will. John’s Gospel clearly expresses this personal vocation. “I did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (Jn 12.47). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10.10). “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (Jn 12.46). “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18.37). In short, Jesus’ personal vocation was to overcome sin and communicate divine life to fallen humankind by establishing a new and lasting covenant. In doing this he both gave the covenant and mediated it to us. In John’s formulation: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him” (Jn 14.6–7).

4. The Johannine expression of Jesus’ unique vocation belongs to a developed theology. Although caution is required, the Synoptics provide hints which suggest how Jesus himself might have conceived of his vocation. Unlike us, he could not discern his unique calling by considering someone he knew as a possible model. However, Scripture contained the promise of God’s kingdom, which it was Jesus’ task to fulfill.9 Meditating upon Scripture, Jesus found several sketches of the hoped for leader and savior, the one who would inaugurate the reign of God and free Israel from its misery and subjection. At least three of these sketches—those of Messiah, Son of Man, and Suffering Servant—seem to have helped Jesus discern his unique vocation.10

At the time of Jesus faithful Jews were looking forward to the coming of a great leader, a king anointed by God himself, who would gather together and completely liberate Israel. The anointed one (“Messiah” means anointed) would have the Spirit or power of God to set up God’s kingdom and overcome all his enemies. At times, too, it was expected that the Messiah would have the office of a priest, that is, of one who would mediate between God and his people, offer sacrifice on their behalf, and direct their religious life.11

“Son of Man” is sometimes used in the Old Testament simply to refer to any human being or to human beings collectively. In the book of Daniel, chapter seven, however, the expression becomes a kind of name or title of office. To some extent the reference seems to be to an individual and to some extent to the whole of God’s people. This Son of Man is an other-worldly figure, to whom the Father has given the power of kingship. The Son of Man judges the world, overcomes the wicked, and reigns in exaltation with the just.12

“Servant of God” is used broadly to refer to persons who have a special mission to God’s people. This general concept also serves as a basis for a prophetic development, especially in the “Suffering Servant” songs (see Is 42.1–4; 49.1–6; 50.4–9; 52.13–53.12). A prophet, a spokesperson for God, is to reassemble and teach Israel, with which he also is mysteriously identified. By patiently and humbly enduring suffering, this special Servant carries out God’s will, not only saving the Jews but justifying all of sinful humankind.

5. These three roles have certain common features. All have mysterious aspects, but they are generally concerned with the coming of God’s kingdom, the execution of his will, and the liberation of his people from the reign of Satan—that is, from sin and all its evil consequences. In particular, an individual who fulfilled any one of the three roles would be a leader identified with and acting on behalf of the nation. Still, as they emerge from the Old Testament and from certain extra-Scriptural writings in circulation in Jesus’ time, the roles of Messiah, Son of Man, and Suffering Servant of Yahweh hardly seem compatible with one another.

6. In reading the Scriptures, which he approached with sufficient knowledge of his own status in relation to God the Father, we may suppose that Jesus recognized his unique vocation: to fulfill the Scriptures by carrying out God’s saving will in a life melding all three of these apparently incompatible roles into one unique role greater than the sum of its parts.13

9. On Israel’s expectation, see James Muilenburg, The Way of Israel: Biblical Faith and Ethics (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), 128–50.

10. A detailed exegetical study taking into account recent scholarship: Eduardus Dhanis, S.I., De Testimonio Iesu circa Seipsum, 7th ed. (Rome: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, 1970), 24–124; an even more recent work by a Protestant scholar: John Gray, “The Messiah, the Servant of Yahweh and the Son of Man,” and “The Kingdom of God in the Mission of Jesus,” The Biblical Doctrine of the Reign of God (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1979), 274–357. The narrative of the profession of faith by Peter (see Mt 16.13–20; Mk 8.27–33; Lk 9.18–22) presents in one situation the relevance and distinction of the three roles, since Jesus, already identified as Son of Man, now is recognized through a gift of faith as Messiah, and proceeds to reveal himself as Servant—much to Peter’s dismay. On “Messiah,” “Son of Man,” and “Servant”: Louis Bouyer, The Eternal Son: A Theology of the Word and Christology (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1978), 168–82; Dodd, op. cit., 99–118.

11. On the precise conception of “Messiah” relevant to Jesus and the grounds for considering historically true his acceptance of the title in this relevant sense: H. P. Kingdon, “Messiahship and the Crucifixion,” in Studia Evangelica, 3 (1961), ed. F. L. Cross, Texte und Untersuchungen, 88 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1966), 67–86.

12. In Daniel, the figure of the Son of Man probably is symbolic. However, in later Jewish apocalyptic literature, the expression took on reference to a real, hoped-for redeemer. Thus, Jesus’ use of it cannot be limited by its more limited sense in Daniel. See Louis F. Hartman, C.Ss.R., and Alexander A. Di Lella, O.F.M., The Book of Daniel, Anchor Bible, 23 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978), 98 and 219. It also is important to bear in mind that the Old Testament sketches were transformed creatively in their fulfillment. Thus, the eschatological character of the “Son of Man” in Daniel cannot be assumed a priori as a limit on the sense of the role assumed by Jesus. See Elizabeth Kinniburgh, “The Johannine ‘Son of Man,’ ” in Studia Evangelica, 4 (1965), ed. F. L. Cross, Texte und Untersuchungen, 102 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1968), 64–71; O. Michel and Howard Marshall, “Son of man,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3:613–34.

13. For a brilliant reading of the Old Testament context of the significance of Jesus’ life and work, which shows (although that was not the author’s expressed purpose) how Jesus may have developed his self-understanding: Louis Bouyer, The Church of God: Body of Christ and Temple of the Spirit, trans. Charles Underhill Quinn (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1982), 175–234, esp. 225–26. See Jeremias, op. cit., 250–99, for a clarification of the interrelationship of the roles. Although not the expected earthly kind, Jesus truly is the anointed savior sent by God, who consummates his mission in the role of God’s Servant and is exalted as Son of Man. While many scholars would not grant the historicity of the Synoptics’ indications concerning Jesus’ titles, Gustaf Aulén, Jesus in Contemporary Historical Research, trans. Ingalil H. Hjelm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), after summing up much recent scholarship on this matter, concludes (118–19): “There is actually fairly wide agreement in regard to Jesus’ attitude—that is, to Jesus as the enigmatic representative of the kingdom of God. Whatever may be the case with the titles, it remains clear that Jesus acted with total sovereignty on behalf of God, enigmatically sovereign in both word and deed. And compared to this fact, the question of the titles seems secondary.” Aulén goes on to quote approvingly Jacob Jervell, who warns against supposing that Jesus represented himself as less than the Messiah, when “the fact is that Jesus claimed to be something more than the Messiah, something that could not be expressed by this title.”