Leithart on why the disciples could not die with Jesus

I continue to make my way (very) slowly through Peter Leithart’s recent book, Delivered from the Elements of the World, in part because it is a book packed with so many thought-provoking things, that I often find myself reading a section and then stopping to ponder what I have just read for some considerable time.

One of the richest aspects of the book is Leithart’s efforts to draw the Old and New Testaments together, rewarding the reader with a beautiful portrayal of the unity of Scripture, and illuminating Jesus’ fulfilment of so much of the Old Testament in powerful ways. A case in point is what he says about the role of the disciples – or rather the significance of their absence – from Jesus’ death and resurrection:

As head of the body, Jesus went to the cross for the body. Jesus died and rose again for his disciples. “Given for you” certainly means “given for all the people of God throughout the ages,” but in the context of the Gospel it means, specifically and primarily, given for the disciples. When the Jewish leaders bore down on Jesus, the disciples were cowed by the pressure. Judas turned against Jesus, Peter denied him, and the rest of the disciples scattered… When the Romans and Jews struck the Shepherd, Jesus alone took the full fury of their fleshly vengeance. It was common for the Romans to suppress Jesus rebellions by executing not only the leader but also the disciples of the disruptive Jews. When Roman soldiers and Jewish guards came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, he did not flee or cower. He stood between the soldiers and his friends and demanded that the soldiers let the disciples flee. He offered himself in their place. He went to the cross stripped not only of this clothing but also of the protective house of his friends. Quite literally, he laid down his life for his friends. He was put to death alone the disciples were spectators, and distant ones at that.

This may seem a small gesture, but on this rests the salvation of the world (160).

How so? I suspect that often the reason given for the disciples escaping the same fate as Jesus was so that they could be witnesses to his death and resurrection. And certainly that is true. But there were more than twelve disciples, and others could have fulfilled that role – indeed, some of the women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. So why did the disciples have to be spared from death at this point? This is where Leithart’s deep reading of the two Testaments together brings out something profound:

This provides a historically plausible way of understanding the cross. Jesus was the incarnate Creator, come to bring the kingdom of justice by establishing a fulfilled-Torah Israel. That mature Israel, growing up out of stoicheic childhood, would be the instrument for bringing the justice of God’s reign to the Gentiles. If Jesus’ disciples died, that purpose would not be carried through. Yahweh’s war on flesh would grind to a halt. Israel would not be restored, and if Israel were not restored, then Jesus’ aims would fall to the ground and the Abrahamic promise would remain unfulfilled. If the disciples died along with Jesus, the redemption of the world would be stillborn. In laying down his life for these specific friends Jesus preserved the new Israel, saving the twelve foundation stones on whom the new Israel would be built (161).

Biblical theology is not my specialty, and although I knew the disciples were a sort of fulfilment of the twelve tribes of Israel, I would never have been able to put this together as richly and lucidly as Leithart does here. It is that rich portrayal of the fulfilment and rebirth of Israel in Jesus that is one of the real rewards of this book.

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