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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.
Recently someone asked me this question: Did Jesus offer sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple? I thought it was a great question so I thought I’d attempt to address it. Now to answer it properly would take more time and space than I have, but let me at least point toward an answer. The question is a historical question not one based on any particular theological agenda. How likely is it that Jesus of Nazareth would have made pilgrimage to the temple and offered a sacrifice or sacrifices there?
Now the Gospels make it clear that Jesus did go the temple on occasion as a child and as an adult, but there is no account of Jesus himself actually offering a sacrifice at the temple. That may not mean that Jesus did not offer a sacrifice while there.
Now the main activity of the temple was sacrifice. That is why there were 24 courses of priests. Technically, only priests offered sacrifices but the sacrifices were provided by worshipers, usually male head of households. The worshipers brought the sacrifices (animals, wine, grain, etc) to the prescribed place and handed them over to the priests.
The temple was a busy place. According to the law, the sacrificial system had been established by God; it was therefore good (Psalm 119). Even if some of the prophets had railed against empty ritual and ethical lapses, they did not condemn the temple itself and sacrifices wholesale (e.g., Amos 5:21-27). Almost universally, it was the temple leadership who got an earful from the Jerusalem prophets. But we must remember that not all sacrifices were “sin” or “guilt” offerings. Many sacrifices were for peace offerings, fellowship offerings, votive offerings, offerings of consecration.
Let’s consider a few episodes from the New Testament and see if they shed any light on our question.
After Jesus is born and the time of Mary’s menstrual impurity had run its course, Luke reports that Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord at the temple. This was in keeping with Mosaic law (Leviticus 12.6-8). We’re told they offered a sacrifice in accordance with the law, a pair of two young pigeons (Lev 5.11).
When Jesus healed the leper (Mark 1:40-45), he instructed him to go to the priest and offer for his cleansing what Moses commanded (Leviticus 14:1-32). The declaration that a leper was cleansed involved sacrifices in the temple. Would Jesus have directed the man to go to the temple and sacrifice if he was teaching his disciples to neglect the temple worship completely?
And there is the matter of the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27). The tax collectors seek out Jesus and his disciples in Capernaum. They appear to frame the question as if they expected Jesus to somehow object. Perhaps Jesus’ teachings and actions had aroused their suspicions. But Peter lets them know in no uncertain terms that did pay the temple tax. The tax is described in Exodus 30:11-16 as a half a shekel “a contribution to the LORD.” When Peter approached Jesus at home, Jesus appears to claim exemption; but in order not to make waves Jesus instructs Peter to go fishing. And when he does he catches a fish that had swallowed a coin worth enough to pay the annual temple tax for both of them. The temple tax was used for the upkeep of the temple which included the sacrifices.
Then, there is the Last Supper which many consider a Passover meal (though there are debates about it). John, for example, has Jesus crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover (19:31). But there may have been calendrical debates going on at the time because Mark (14:12-25) and the Synoptics present it as a Passover meal. Jesus sends two of his disciples into the city to make preparations which likely included securing a place for the meal and securing the food itself which would have included the lamb from the temple. Even if Jesus himself did not sacrifice in the temple, he had others do it for him. This suggests he had no argument in principle with the sacrifices.
But what about the temple incident (Mark 11:15-19 and par.)? I’ve written about that elsewhere. As a prophet, Jesus is enacting (God’s) judgment upon the temple and predicting its destruction. An event which happens in AD 70. Essentially, the operation of the temple had become robbery under the temple authorities, and the place where the Gentiles were allowed to gather and worship was overrun by animals and merchants. The sanctity of the temple and its purpose had been lost. The problem was not the sacrifices themselves—they had been set up and ordained by God—the problem was with those who superintended the temple.
So what are we to make of this? In the end I see no reason to deny that Jesus like any good Jew of his day would have made pilgrimages to the temple and offered sacrifices there. Based on Hebrews some may wish to conclude that Jesus did not offered sin sacrifices, but there were other ranks of offerings and sacrifices which the righteous Jew could and should make at the temple.
Finally, when opponents accused Jesus of trying to abolish the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17), he claims boldly he comes to fulfill them not to neglect or abolish them. Nothing could be more central to the law than the sacrifices.