Christianity 201

March 25, 2015

The Uniqueness of Jesus

Our regular Wednesday columnist Clarke Dixon continues in John 14. Clarke is a pastor in Ontario, Canada and, as I learned a week ago, each week hosts a “Hebrew Club” for people in the area who want to deepen their study of the Biblical language. To read more, click the title of today’s title below, which will link you to his blog.

Jesus: Ordinary or Extraordinary?

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NRSV)

Many people believe Jesus to have been an extraordinary person. However, the emphasis is often on the ordinary part of extraordinary. In other words, though a profound figure of history, he is just like you and me in most respects.

When Jesus says “I am the truth” he is pointing to his identity with a  focus on the extra part of extraordinary. This includes the following:

  • Jesus is the Messiah
  • Jesus is Lord
  • Jesus is the Saviour
  • Jesus is the Son of Man, described in Daniel 7
  • Jesus is the Son of God, but moreover is  God the Son

We are none of these things.

Each of these affirmations and more we learn from the life and teaching of Jesus himself in the Gospels. These are also affirmed in the letters and other writings of the New Testament. There are those who like to cast doubt on such a high view of Jesus. They do this in the following ways:

People cast doubt on the truth of Jesus by saying his divinity is a fabrication of the Church. Very few historians insist that Jesus never existed, but there are those who say Jesus existed, but the extra-extraordinary account of Jesus we find in the New Testament was made up by Jesus’ disciples. The biggest weakness of this view is that the disciples and other early Christians had no motivation to make Jesus more extraordinary that ordinary. They did not get rich by their teaching about Jesus, or even popular. If anything they got themselves persecuted and killed. There simply was no motivation to make Jesus up.

People cast doubt on Jesus by saying that Jesus was a legend that developed over time. They say there was a historical figure named Jesus, but over time his legend grew so that eventually he was thought of as being more extraordinary than ordinary. The weakness of this view is that there was not enough time between the life and teaching of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament documents. Legends require time, and the writers of the New Testament documents were writing so close to the events they could point to the existence of eye witnesses. In some cases they are the eyewitnesses. In all cases they are close companions to eyewitnesses.

People cast doubt on Jesus by saying that the events of Jesus’ life are to be understood metaphorically. On this view Jesus is more ordinary than extraordinary in that he did not really rise from the dead or do miracles, but the accounts of these things point in a poetic fashion to some religious truth. However this fails to take into proper account the various genres that scripture is written in. For example, there is poetry in the Bible that ought to be taken metaphorically, such as “The Lord is my rock” (Psalm 18:2 NRSV). But there are passages that clearly are meant to be taken as historically true. The accounts of the life and events of Jesus’ life including his death and resurrection are clearly in this category. The early Christians of the New Testament believed all this to be historically true rather than mere metaphor.

There are also those who have rejected Christianity without giving much thought at all as to what is true about Jesus. Though I cannot remember the who, where, or when, I can remember being shocked when reading a blog post about Christian music. I was not shocked by anything the author said about Christian music and even agreed on certain points. What shocked me was how the post ended with “that is why I no longer call myself a Christian.” I remember wondering to myself what Christian music really had to do with the acceptance or rejection of Christianity. And many people will give many reasons as to why they accept or reject Christianity. But there should really be only one reason to do either, and that is our response to Jesus as the truth. Do we believe him to be Messiah, Lord, Saviour, Son of God and God the Son, or not? Is he extraordinary, with the emphasis on the “extra” part and so not at all like us because we are not Messiah, Lord, Saviour, Son of God and God the Son? Or is he extraordinary with the emphasis on the ordinary part, so just like you and me in all the important ways?

When we say “Jesus is the truth” we recognize certain things to be true about Jesus’ identity, but we also recognize certain things to be true about our own identities: If Jesus is the truth, then we are sinful people in need of salvation. 

8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:8-10 NRSV)

If we are not sinful and in need of God’s rescue, then there was no need for Jesus to come and do what he did. Believing Jesus is the Saviour goes hand in hand with believing we are sinners in need of a Saviour. There are many people who would say that Jesus was an extraordinary figure in history with the emphasis on the ordinary because it is just too hard for an intellectual person to believe otherwise. However, methinks often it is the corresponding belief about ourselves, that we are sinful, that is the less palatable belief. For if we are sinful, then we must be very ordinary indeed.

Jesus said “I am the truth.” An extraordinary claim by an extraordinary man.

April 20, 2014

The Divine One Became Human

God is not a man

Numbers 23:19 God is not human, that he should lie,
    not a human being, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
    Does he promise and not fulfill?

The “God is not a man that he should lie” text may seem out of place on Easter Sunday. I hope to show how it fits.

Two women were having coffee on the back deck of a home overlooking a ravine. The 7-yearold son of the hostess walked out from the woods covered in mud, holding a hammer and a piece of wood and sporting a small cut on his forehead. The woman who was a guest couldn’t help but laugh at the sight, prompting the hostess to remark, “What can I say, he’s all boy.”

So was the incarnate Christ all human or all divine?  I believe that scripture teaches us that the second person of the triune God was all human in that he entered fully into the human experience, but that he was supremely divine.

What does it mean to be human?

Gen 1:26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…

We are somehow a reflection of God, but let’s not confuse that by thinking that God is not a whole lot different than us.  He is wholly different from us.  (See last month’s article on Transcendence.)

Next down the list of “beings” are the angels. And then we’re third on the list:

Psalm 8:4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?You have made thema little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.

This verse is reiterated in the New Testament:

Hebrews 2:7 You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor

So the hierarchy looks something like this:

  1. God
  2. Angels
  3. Mankind
  4. Horses
  5. Ants
  6. Cats

…well to some of you anyway. (I’m a cat-lover, but I know some of you feel the list is accurate!)

So the second part of God, who is three-in-one, doesn’t decide to enter our world as an angel — though some teach that this happens in what are called theophanies — but instead appears as a man.

And so we find this verse in Hebrews,

Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—

which many might quote to show the humanity of Christ, but the verse in full reads:

Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

That’s what it means to be divine.

Which is why I believe I can state with authority that Jesus was fully human, but was (and is) supremely divine.

It’s in that context that I was struck by the passage in Numbers we started with today. It’s the nature of humankind to lie. So Jesus enters in the the human condition, which is a condition filled with the vulnerabilities that led Eve and Adam to disobey.  The text in Numbers, “God is not a man that he should lie;” which is a prophetic word from God given through Balaam, reminds me of two things:

  1. Though co-creator and sustainer with God the Father and God the Spirit of all that we see on this planet, it is contrary to the very nature of God to enter into the human condition.  It would be like one of us incarnating into the form of one of the beings lower on the above list.
  2. Despite this, it was in the nature of humanity, the nature of us, that when one such as Jesus appeared, we killed him. If you met someone who never told a lie, would your first reaction be to kill them? I guess that depends on what they were being honest with you about!

The reason that Jesus was the perfect sacrifice is that he was “yet without sin.”  Despite his humanity, despite a 40-day fast in wilderness conditions, Christ showed himself triumphant over the worst temptations his greatest enemy had to offer.

Christ became human, but God is not a man. “What if God were one of us?” is the wrong question. “How can we become like God?” is also the wrong question.  The question is, and always has been,

Matthew 22:42 “What do you think about the Christ?

You can go to church when the pastor is preaching from I Corinthians 13, and totally get the whole thing about love. You can go to church when the minister is speaking from Ephesians 5 and grab on to the idea of mutual submission in marriage.

But if you only go on Christmas and Easter, you’re picking the two most obvious markers on the Jesus timeline, but also the two most difficult topics. I will never grasp the intricacies of incarnation and atonement. The more I look at these, the more I am lost in the absolute otherness of God’s ways and plans.

I stand in total awe and wonder at Amazing Love.

January 23, 2013

God on the Mountain

This was posted last week by Daniel Jepsen at the blog Sliced Soup and all I can say is, “Wow!” There is so much depth to scripture that allows for so many fresh insights.  Check it out for yourself by clicking on the title below.

Meeting God on His Holy Mountain

I saw something new as I was reading scripture this morning.

In Exodus 19, you have perhaps the most dramatic scene in the whole Old Testament.  Moses, after being used by God to lead Israel out of slavery, is instructed to climb to the top of Mount Horeb (also known as Mount Sinai).  It was on this occasion that God then revealed the Ten Commandments, the covenant stipulations between God and Israel, by which He would be their God and they would be His people. God told Moses he would meet with him in a thick cloud, and indeed the whole mountain, we are told, was covered in smoke and thick darkness. Apparently the presence of God was marked by a tremendous storm (some think Horeb was an active volcano) both to reveal His power and to conceal where His voice came from. And there, the invisible God met with the representative of His people. There in the dark mist and cloud, Moses could not see anything of God, but could only hear his voice.  Such is the way the Holy God appears to unholy men. His presence is ever veiled. God spoke to Moses in a more intimate way than anyone before Christ, yet it was still in a thick cloud of darkness and storm.

Several centuries later another prophet of God was instructed to make the trek to Horeb. Elijah had been used by God greatly to call Israel back to repentance and faith (and away from idolatry).  Again, God called his prophet onto the mountain, and again God spoke to him.  I Kings records:

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Again, though the prophet is called to the mountain to meet with God, it is in the midst of a storm. And again, the prophet veils his face, and sees not from whence the voice came.

In the New Testament, we also find a prophet (though more than a prophet) who ascends a mountain.  You will find the story in Matthew 17:

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.

Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Here Jesus (like Moses and Elijah) goes up to the mountain for holy conversation.  But we note some differences in what happens.

First, Jesus apparently does not go to Mount Horeb, but (most likely) Mount Hermon, far to the north of Israel instead of far to the south.  This is not to sanctify north as more spiritual than south of course, but to point out that it is not the mountain that makes the divine conversation possible, but Jesus Himself.  He does not come to holy ground. He makes every ground holy.

Secondly, Jesus, unlike Moses and Elijah, does not come to the mountain alone for the divine conversation.  He brings Peter, James and John, those who represented all his followers, to the mountain with him, and they hear and see what he hears and sees.  This fits in well with the promise of Jesus that He is not only the one sent from the Father, but is the one by whom we also can be brought into close fellowship with the father (see John 14).

Thirdly, when Jesus ascends the mountain, there is no great and forbidding storm, no thick darkness and trembling mountain. Yes, a cloud of God’s presence does enter into the scene, but it is a “bright cloud”.  Jesus (by his later work on the cross) takes the terror of God upon Himself, so that he can say to us as he does to his followers on the mountain, “Get up. Don’t be afraid”.

Let us love and sing and wonder,
Let us praise the Savior’s name!
He has hushed the Law’s loud thunder,
He has quenched mount Sinai’s flame

John Newton

Finally, we see this great contrast. Though Jesus, like the Moses and Elijah, goes up to the mountain for a divine conversation, the motif is flipped on its head when we see what happens on the mountain: Moses and Elijah appear, conversing with Jesus.  They come to the mountain again, not to see God veiled in thick darkness and surrounded by storm, but to speak with God in the person of Jesus.  And Jesus himself is transfigured (or, perhaps better, revealed) as a person of light and majesty. He is not simply another prophet of God, nor even the greatest prophet of God. He is simultaneously the great prophet of God and the great God of the prophets

Oh, Holy Father, thank you for revealing yourself to flesh and blood, sinful and stupid as we are.  Thank you that you have always had your prophets by which you revealed your ways and laws, and you have called us to listen to those prophets. But thank you so much more for Jesus, the Son sent from your right hand, to be not only your last and great prophet, but You yourself in human form.  Help us all the more to heed your call, and listen to him.  Amen.

December 8, 2012

I Am “Again-Rising”

I Am The Resurrection

NIV John 11: 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

Carley Evans has a very focused blog, and although she has been featured here twice already, her writing very much suits the kind of thing we were speaking of here yesterday.

Here she notes that in the ministry of Jesus, miracle-working time is not a time for parables. In those moments Jesus is very forthright and makes one of the signature statements about his ministry.

Before we jump in to this, I also want to note Carley’s choice of the Wycliffe Bible for this, as it gets us closer to a literal rendering of what Jesus actually said.  Young’s literal translation echoes this:

25 Jesus said to her, `I am the rising again, and the life; he who is believing in me, even if he may die, shall live;

26 and every one who is living and believing in me shall not die — to the age…

Years ago a pastor shared with me, “Let the translators do the work for you.” I have greatly valued this advice, and if you read today’s thoughts at their source, and then browse older posts, you’ll see that Carley does this. (This one is making me considering getting a print copy of the Wycliffe translation.)

Jesus speaks in analogy or parable quite often, but before asking Lazarus to wake up from death and come out of the tomb, He tells Martha, Lazarus’ sister: “I am again rising and life; he that believeth in me, yea, though he be dead, he shall live.” Jesus does not tell Martha a story meant to represent something else; rather, He tells her the truth – that He is eternal; that, despite death, He lives forever; that, belief in Him results in this same eternal life.

Don’t you wonder how Jesus stays out of the pits where the lepers live? How is it no one throws Him in with those society hates? Well, yes, His neighbors do attempt toss Him over a cliff; but in general, especially today, Jesus is called “a great teacher.” A great teacher? Jesus is not a great teacher if He is not God. He claims to be God, the One and Only God. Jesus either tells us the truth – that He is God – or He’s crazy. Why does anyone listen to an insane man?

Jesus gains the ears of modern theologians – who may or may not believe in His divinity –  because He demonstrates God’s glory and displays God’s power of “again-rising and life.”

I also appreciate the notation here that to refer to Jesus as “a good moral teacher” is dangerous because of what it is not saying about him. When interacting with people in the broader culture about Jesus, those types of statements should set off all types of warning lights. He is not simply that. He is the resurrection and the life.

January 5, 2011

C. S. Lewis on Life, Atheism and God

This is from the website, All About Philosophy.   I chose this today because we just finished reading (out loud) all of Mere Christianity.

C.S. Lewis Quotes – Life

“You will never know how much you believe something until it is a matter of life and death.” “If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.” – God in the Dock, page 52.

“One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human.” – God in the Dock, page 108.

Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself. – The Problem of Pain

C.S. Lewis Quotes – Atheism

“Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning. . .” – Mere Christianity

“Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.” – Mere Christianity

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.” – Surprised by Joy

C.S. Lewis Quotes – God

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? – Mere Christianity

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. – Mere Christianity, pages 40-41.

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” – Surprised by Joy

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. – Is Theology Poetry?

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