By a perversion of justice he was taken away — Isaiah 53. 8
It is hard, as a reader or listener, to control narration. It just moves, like a train. Hit the “pause” button, quit the movie, the story remains as is. You and I cannot control it. To ignore anything uncomfortable, well, just leave the story and do not return to it (until you’re ready).
Along these lines, narration is like a moving stream. So is narrative character development.
So we would not just jump to a certain point, in say, The Grapes of Wrath, and expect to have the clearest picture of a certain character. We start from the beginning, and can discuss character traits, likes and dislikes only at the end.
In large stories, even those that take place over several books, we speak of a character’s arc, meaning how their life story or purpose develops, or doesn’t. The character begins here, but ends up there. As we have seen, David begins as a beloved shepherd but ends up as a proprietor king. That is his arc.
Others in the Bible have an arc. Abraham, Noah, Moses, Elijah — to name a few. They encounter struggles, have to make decisions, and come out “the other side” in a different way, though I would not say necessarily as “better.” There is no “better” in Scripture.
The question I have been trying to answer is this, though: does Jesus have an arc?
This is not some theoretical question. All characters go through a change, but it seems that Jesus does not. We have presented to us, from the beginning, someone so perfect, there is no room for growth. And this is not an inconsequential question. If he has an arc, what is it? What would this then mean? If he does not, then how can this be possible?
Classical theology addresses this issue with the expression that, being fully God and fully human, Jesus possesses perfect knowledge as God. He lacks nothing. So, in this sense, He does not have a development, at least (as one could argue) after his baptism. He may even “grow” and mature, but only in the sense that, as a human, he learns to follow his divine will.
In storytelling, a character, especially the hero of the story or protagonist, undergoes change and growth (usually for the better) by experiencing and overcoming an adversary or a struggle. Sometimes, these struggles are internal — for example, consequences of one’s upbringing, social and class status, doubts, psychological weaknesses, etc., and other times they are external — for example, a nemesis, a monster, or a natural event.
These lines are not absolutes, as different types of struggles can be “won” by the protagonist. Sometimes an inner struggle allows for an outer struggle to be conquered. For example, Moses “comes to terms” with his mission from God in Exodus 3, and so he has no doubts leading the Hebrew people into the wilderness, where the natural environment becomes unbearable for them but not him.
Does anything like this happen to Jesus?
In the Gospel of Luke, two events stand out: the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4. 1 – 15), and the agony at the Mount of Olives (Luke 22. 39 – 54)). One is an external struggle, imposed by the three questions Jesus is asked; the other is his internal agony in those final moments before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
Jesus “passes” both of these tests. The consequence of passing his temptations is that he begins proclaiming the Gospel; in passing the test of his agony, he endures the trials and the cross.
But does he change, or become better by any of this? Well, Jesus is no more wiser after the first test than before. In fact, it was his knowledge of God’s wisdom (i.e., the Scriptures) prior to the temptations that allowed him to pass the test. With the agony at the Mount of Olives, however, Jesus passes a major test of trust in his Father’s will (see v. 42).
So Jesus does appear to have an arc in the Gospel of Luke. His agony at the Mount of Olives, which we are told led to him sweating as if with great drops of blood (22. 44), is a “crucible” moment for him, as this is a test imposed on him by the Father.
But here’s the thing: Jesus’ arc in the Gospel of Luke does not make sense as it is presented along these terms. Why not? Consider the following: Jesus is conceived and born according to divine purpose and is born near a shepherd field (Luke 1 and 2); he lives among the poor in Galilee of the nations, and dies outside of Jerusalem, the capital of Roman Judea; he teaches in parables along the way, and enters the homes of the poor and the oppressors (Bethany and Jericho); he dies at the hands of a collusion between local religious authority and the Roman power on the cross.
Throughout Luke, Jesus encounters an obstacle that needs to be overcome. There is not one defining obstacle that defines him, but many trials throughout his life. He says as much to the disciples at the last supper: “You are those who have stood by me in my trials” (22. 28).
So, then, does Jesus have an arc? Yes, it is the arc of Scripture.
In the Gospel of Luke, the evangelist highlights the oppression and the injustice that Isaiah proclaims, “by a perversion of justice he was taken away” (53.8). Notice the cruelty in Luke 23. 16. Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent, yet he is still ready to have him flogged. And, upon his death, the Roman centurion proclaims the innocence of Jesus (23.47; an ironic statement, as the Romans were proud of their legal system, which Luke shows to be corrupt and which the Gentile centurion recognizes).
The crucifixion of Jesus was not just simply the death of one man in a stand-alone life story. The Gospel of Luke is not a biography of Jesus. The crucifixion was an attempt to bury into oblivion not only Jesus but also the entire Good News, which Jesus proclaimed starting from Galilee and carried on his shoulders to the cross outside of Jerusalem.
The life and death of Jesus can only be understood in light of what came and was promised before (Isaiah 52.13 – 53.12; Luke 25.27; 25. 25.44 – 45).
The true arc here is the arc of the Scriptures, expressed as God’s covenant and promise, which Jesus carries “against all odds” leading him to the cross. No one else in Scripture does that. While the forefathers and mothers, prophets and poets each have their own individual arcs, only Jesus carries the entire arc of Scripture as part of his own life story.
This is why for John, writing after Luke, Jesus is the Word.