What should we call the period between Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion? His career? His ministry? I think those words are too closely associated with modern concepts of professionalism and church life.
I think I prefer the word “mission.”
Jesus set out to accomplish something; he described himself as being sent by the Father to carry out a task. Drawing on my military background, I might talk about those years as an operation (as in Operation Enduring Freedom) or a campaign (as in the Pacific Campaign in World War II). The words “operation” and “campaign” are foreign to the church, though, while the word “mission” has strong ecclesiastical roots.
Still, when I speak about Jesus’ “mission,” I am using the word largely in its military sense: an assigned task to achieve a defined purpose. “Mission” and “missional” have become buzz-words in some segments of the church, and I am not ready to accept all of the assumptions or conclusions of the “missional church” movement.
I still need to qualify the word “mission” if I am using it to describe the period between Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion. Jesus’ mission continues now in and through the church, and it will continue eternally in the age yet to come. In military language, we call these “phases of the operation.” How shall I describe the three-year long phase that began with Jesus’ baptism and culminated in his death and resurrection?
I could talk about this period as the “Galilean-Judean mission,” based on where it took place. Or I could call it the “Jewish Mission.” During this phase, Jesus was sent “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Or, I could call it the “Itinerant Mission.” The activities that take place during this phase of the campaign – peripatetic teaching, mendicant lifestyle, miraculous healing and casting out demons – are different than the activities that take place in the later phases.
None of these modifiers, however, capture the stark qualitative difference between Jesus’ mode of existence before the resurrection and after. Prior to the resurrection, Jesus lived what we might call an ordinary existence. He shared the flesh-and-blood common to all humanity. He lived in a particular place and a particular time. His body was visible and tangible. All of this changed after the resurrection. Exalted to the right hand of God, Jesus’ glorified body is no longer visible to human eyes or touchable by human hands. Space and time no longer confine him. Just describing the mission in terms of the area of operations, target populations or mission activities misses something this very basic distinction.
Maybe we could just talk about Jesus “pre-resurrection mission.” That is specific in time and place, but it also captures some of the qualitative difference in this phase.
We could use the word “earthly” to describe the pre-resurrection phase of Jesus’ mission, but we would need to be careful to explain what we did and did not mean by that word. All the phases of Jesus’ mission are “earthly” in some sense. The church exists on earth, and the kingdom’s final consummation will transform the earth. Still, Jesus’ resurrection exalted him to the right hand of God, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. During the “church” phase, Jesus’ mission is both earthly and heavenly.
Similarly, we could use the word “fleshly” to qualify Jesus’ mission, but again we need to be careful. It is true that the New Testament authors ordinarily used the word “flesh” to describe common bodily existence within this present age. The authors were not dualists, however, who believed that physical substance was bad and spiritual substance was good.
Ordinarily, bodily existence in this age consists of flesh. In First Corinthians 15, though, Paul notes that there are different kinds of flesh.
Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh; animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. 1 Corinthians 15:39-44
Christians don’t hope for a body-less existence in the spiritual realms; we hope for the resurrection of the dead, for the changing of our mortal flesh into immortal flesh, for the transformation of our natural bodies into spiritual bodies. We do so, because we believe that’s what has already happened to Jesus. He has been glorified, as we shall be glorified. Human life is lived in a body; Jesus’ body has simply been transformed by the power of the resurrection.
And in a sacramental sense, Jesus’ flesh remains in this world.
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. John 6:53-56
With those reservations, though, it still is appropriate to speak of the time between Jesus’ birth and crucifixion as his mission “in the flesh.” The author of Hebrews speaks of Jesus that way.
In the days of his flesh, he offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death. Hebrews 5:7
And Paul, probably quoting an older formula, described the gospel, “concerning God’s son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh.” (Romans 1:3)