This may strike you as a strange question until you recall this was a question posed during Jesus’ lifetime. Here is the dialogue from the translation The Voice:
Jesus (to the crowds): 21 I am leaving this place, and you will look for Me and die in your sin. For where I am going, you are unable to come.
Jews: 22 Is He suicidal? He keeps saying, “Where I am going, you are unable to come.”
Given the strange things Jesus keeps saying, it is no doubt some of them wondered whether he intended to kill himself. Scholars think this kind of question persisted long after Jesus’ death. By the time of the Johannine community this may have been an ongoing charge against Jesus. If Jesus did kill himself, then he violated one of the ten commandments. Self-murder is still murder and is a grievous sin. How could Jesus then have been the Messiah?
If suicide means to take actions which will likely lead to one’s own death, then the charge may stick. In all four Gospels Jesus’ actions put him on a collision course with powerful people who had a vested interested in putting him to death. Jesus pushed them too far. Scholars think it was the temple incident—often mischaracterized as his cleansing of the temple—which put the nail in his proverbial coffin. Even at his defense or lack of defense, he handed his Jewish interrogators the charge that finally stuck: blasphemy. False witnesses were so inept they could not agree so Jesus came along and condemned himself with his own words.
Consider the modern example of suicide by cop. It happens dozens of times every year in this country. A person takes a handgun into a crowded mall and starts brandishing it about. He has no intention of hurting anyone other than himself. He wants to die and for whatever reason can’t bring himself to do it alone. Some terrorized person calls 911 and soon the police arrive. The man takes refuge in the back of a store. Perhaps he has taken a few faux hostages. It’s all part of the ruse. The man lowers the gun in the direction of the officers and a peace officer, fearing for his life, squeezes off three rounds in rapid succession. When they examine the dead man’s gun, they realize it was not loaded. Some poor policeman will have to live with it for the rest of his life. But he could not have known.
The man acted in a way which would likely lead to his death at the hand of another. Jesus did the same . . . or did he? One one level, the answer could be yes, until that is you factor in his motivation.
The suicide charge only works depending on one’s motive. In the case above of suicide by cop, the man wanted to die. He was hurting physically, mentally, emotionally and he wanted the hurting to stop. So he killed himself.
But there are those who sacrifice themselves for others. They act in such a way which will likely lead to their deaths, but they do so for noble reasons. Consider the soldier who falls on a grenade losing his life but saving the lives of his friends and others. Or consider the secret service agent who steps in front of a bullet meant for a presidential candidate. He loses his life to save another. Or consider the firemen who rush into a burning building to save a homeless man trapped in the building. The building collapses on them, and they all die. Factor in motive, then it changes everything. It is no longer suicide; it is now the greatest sacrifice of all.
I’ve always found it interesting when we talk about ultimate things we are driven to religious language. When firefighters give their lives in the line of duty we don’t turn to theater and say “they exited, stage left.” When soldiers give their lives in Afghanistan or any war for that matter, we don’t turn to sport and say, “they took one for the team.” No, we turn to religion because only religious language can carry the weight of ultimate things. This is why we say, the firefighters and soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice. Now, no one would say God was looking for human sacrifice because he wasn’t. He ruled that out a long time ago. Sacrifice is the only way we have to speaking of the sheer gravity of their selfless actions.
So Jesus did not kill himself, but he did act in such a way so as to bring about his death. In some extraordinary way he seemed to control those final hours and what ultimately happened to him. He could have avoided the cross altogether, gotten married and moved to the south of France. But Jesus had a different plan and a nobler motive grounded in love. Though he did not want to die, he did wish to lay down his life for others. When trying to make sense of the death of Jesus, early Christians turned where we do in order to talk about what happened. In some ways it was more natural for them because they lived in the shadow of the temple where real sacrifices went on daily. But again, no one was saying that God was looking for and demanding a human sacrifice. Still the language of sacrifice is the most satisfying way of thinking and pondering what happened to Jesus on the first Good Friday.