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Saturday, April 04, 2015

Which Jesus Do You Worship?

The world is full of frustrated people. Some of them are even Christians. Specifically, some dissatisfied searchers are looking to understand Jesus Christ.

Now on the surface that sounds like a very good thing, doesn’t it? Pursuing understanding of the Lord Jesus is about the finest activity in which a human being can be engaged, at least in my experience.

But there are ways of pursuing the knowledge of Christ that may be quite a let-down; roads of spiritual inquiry which we may travel only to find a dead end or a bridge out.

At least, this is the experience chronicled by Wayne Meeks:
“… we want to know what was Jesus really like. And that quest to understand what he was really like has turned out to be very disappointing.”
What can hinder us in such a crucial inquiry? Let me suggest three things just for starters:

1) Reading Into the Text

Making assumptions based on our experience and preferences is perfectly natural, but it is a huge barrier in the search for truth. Judah Smith, for instance, thinks Jesus “would have enjoyed a good time” and has been wrongly portrayed as “serious … to a fault”. It will be almost instantly clear to any reader that Judah is a cheery, amiable fellow who cherishes a good laugh. Because he sees humor as God-given and valuable, he has made an assumption about the Lord Jesus. And who knows, he may well be correct. But since he has not provided a shred of scriptural evidence for his opinion, we would be unwise to base much on it.

In the Psalms, God accuses his people of starting from the wrong place in their search for him. “You thought that I was one like yourself,” he says. Much to their chagrin, he is not.

Asking the question “What does Jesus mean to you?” may seem profound, but it grasps the wrong end of the stick.

In addition to being the Eternal God, Jesus Christ was a complex and fully rounded human being about whom scripture says a great deal. If we want to talk about his gentle nature, we can find verses to support that. If we want to contemplate the intensity of his righteousness, we can find evidence to prove our point. If we care to discuss how he dealt with the poor, that subject is also extensively covered.

In fact, if we start from our own preferences and inclinations, with a little bit of stretching here and there and a some studious inattention to anything that contradicts our thesis, we can easily transform him into almost anything that suits us.

But it won’t be him. It’ll be a divine Marty Stu.

We build a much more faithful and accurate composite picture of the Lord Jesus when we work outward from the gospels and epistles than when we work backward from our presuppositions.

2) Occupation with the Lesser Qualities

Human beings put a premium on the qualities that makes us distinctive. As teenagers, many of us are obsessed with standing out and being able to draw attention. The things that are most obvious about a person become, to such folks, their defining features. When you ask your teenage son what his new girlfriend is like, unless he is remarkably mature for his age he will probably give you a list of things something like: “cute, quirky, funny, passionate, good sense of humor, likes cats”. He is less likely to tell you the love of his life is loyal, courageous or honest. Though these things may be true, they also take time and attentive observation to establish.

But of course those are the things that really matter, aren’t they? “Man looks on the outward appearance”. Nothing matters less than what the Lord actually looked like, the Shroud of Turin notwithstanding. The Lord Jesus had “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him”. His glories were moral and character-related, not the sort of thing that would turn heads or draw attention. What compelled the crowds were his words, not his appearance, charismatic personality or polished delivery.

I sometimes wonder if people who feel compelled to invest Jesus with a sense of humor or a preoccupation with politics haven’t missed the point entirely.

3) An Inaccurate View of Scripture

There is nothing deadlier to spiritual discovery than misapprehensions about the nature of the word of God, and this is what has led Wayne Meeks and his friends to disappointment in understanding what Jesus was really like. He asks, “Who was Jesus, really?” and it seems he would genuinely like to know.

Here is the source of his disappointment:
“All we have from this period about Jesus is text, finally.”
Oh dear. No streaming video. Okay, that’s probably not his biggest concern. This is his major complaint:
“… in history facts always lie under interpretations and we never get to the facts. They’re only interpretations. There is only an interpreted Jesus, there are many interpreted Jesuses. So where do we begin? We begin not with Jesus, we have no access to him. We begin with the responses to Jesus, by his followers, by outsiders who heard about him ... We begin with those reactions as they're enshrined in the text we have.”
You see the problem. Wayne and his friends have a low view of scripture. They’re under the mistaken impression that what the writers of the Bible recorded about the Lord was merely their “interpretation”. Wayne has not internalized the truth that “All Scripture is breathed out by God”. If Matthew’s, Mark’s, Luke’s and John’s gospels have been breathed out by God, they may well include the personality quirks of the individual writers, but they are equally armor plated against error in what they declare about the Son of God. Mark’s “interpretation” of the motives or actions of the Lord is more reliable than the total of 2+2 in mathematics or the fact that when I let go of a glass, it will fall rather than rise.

We can know Jesus because what is said about him in scripture is ultimate truth.

The Text is the Only Way

Now it’s true that Christians who take scripture literally are sometimes accused of bibliolatry: of worshipping the Bible rather than its Author.

And it is certainly possible to become obsessed with the knowledge of scripture while failing to put it into practice. James warns that is the road to self-deception. We definitely want to avoid over-occupation with acquiring understanding upon which we are unprepared to take action. But the problem with the Bible student who doesn’t witness or love his neighbour is not the Bible: it’s his failure to practice what it teaches.

Forgive me if what follows sounds tedious, hyper-conservative and numbingly obvious: There is only one way to know Jesus Christ in this life, and that is through obedience to the text of scripture, walking in his footsteps. It is in being an imitator of God — specifically as he is revealed in the sacrificial love of the Son — that I come to understand him. To do this, I need to know precisely what he did, and for that I require the text of scripture. There is nothing else; no easy way, no short route, no experience I can pay for or search out.

That will not satisfy would-be mystics, I realize. But dreams, neat ideas and ecstatic experiences are not the substance of faith. Subjective impressions about Jesus are not necessarily invalid or false, but they are absolutely unverifiable and therefore worthless in the church and of a very secondary value in my own spiritual life. How may I “test everything” and “hold fast what is good” if there exists no objective standard to which my experience may be subjected?

So which Jesus do you worship? Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? The great teacher? The passionate advocate for his Father who cleansed the temple?

They are all the same Jesus. You just need to read about him a little more.

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