Thursday, October 08, 2020

A Sign From God

“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”

Jesus Christ was a sign from God.

What is a sign? It is something that is not what it seems to be, but looked at correctly, points beyond the surface appearance to something else.

An example: the superficial truth is that a stop sign is a stick with a plate on it; only to a driver or another familiar with its signification is it an indicator of a required action. The thing-in-itself seems one way, but as a sign, it points to something beyond itself.

The sign that says “This way to New York City” is not itself New York City. A sign of rain is not itself rain, but perhaps gathering clouds or the distant sound of thunder. A sign to remain silent is the placing of the finger on the lips. A sign of human inhabitants might be a footprint in mud. These things are not what they represent, and do not look like what they represent.

They are signals of the reality of something beyond themselves.

In his earthly walk, Jesus Christ was also a sign to mankind. But with this difference: he didn’t merely point to the reality of God, but also was and is, himself, God. Other types of sign are not like that. They aren’t also what they represent.

But like other signs, the Lord hid, in his incarnation, all superficial indicators of this identity. And I say this reverently: he didn’t look like a god, a king, or even a movie star. The scriptures tell us that nothing about his outward appearance made him more attractive to other human beings than the ordinary.

Plain Truth

Now, generations worth of paintings, Sunday school picture books and clay figurines have sought to help us miss the point. They have created in our minds an image of Christ that is pleasantly and pallidly Anglo, an anemic man in shiny white garments, a trim little beard gracing his chin, with a look of mewling tenderness in his eyes and two hands extended at his sides, palms forward, as if to suggest both reception and impending crucifixion at the same time; or the same sort of figure kneeling gracefully in a green meadow, happy children thronging to his knee. Some such depicters have even felt it necessary to place a translucent circlet or a golden dish behind his head, just to prevent viewers from failing to note his marked deity.

Well-meaning, perhaps: but foolish, shallow and wrong. The real Christ Jesus had no such outward indicators. If our imaginations need fodder, they would be better to imagine a Jewish carpenter with hands accustomed to shaping wood, with dust on his feet, with clothes dulled with travel and wear, rumpled from sleeping outside, with a weary look in his eyes — for in his service, the demands from the multitudes were often relentless.

Of course, there was one aspect of his deity that simply could not be hidden. Ever. And that was his moral glory, the rightness, truth and purity of everything he said and did. Pay attention to those, and his secret identity is revealed instantly. But even they were “veiled in flesh”, the flesh of an apparently ordinary human being, unrecognizable in mere externals. J.G. Bellett has so wonderfully put it this way:
“His personal glory He veiled, save where faith discovered it, or an occasion demanded it. His official glory He veiled likewise; He did not walk through the land as either the Divine Son from the bosom of the Father, or as the authoritative Son of David. Such glories were commonly hid, as He passed on in the circumstances of life day by day. But His moral glory could not be hid. He could not be less than perfect in everything — it belonged to Him, it was Himself. From its intense excellency, it was too bright for the eye of man; and man was under constant exposure and rebuke from it. But there it shone, whether man could bear it or not.”
“His moral glory could not be hid.” That is so right. Nor could the excellence of his words be hidden. But as for his external appearance, that hid everything.

So one could choose to believe he was nothing at all, or one could choose to believe he was the signpost to God. But one was not forced to know, one did not need to know, one was not unavoidably dragged to the conclusion he was God by an overwhelming power of evidence. One could choose to continue to disbelieve. For only faith would reveal him for who he truly was, and even then, only gradually and as faith was increased.

Incognito

Be assured of this: if you and I had been alive back then and had seen him, we would not have simply recognized him for who he was. Nobody did. Not his followers, not his disciples, not his townspeople, certainly not the skeptical religious experts, and not even his own family. Not even his own parents. Who are we to imagine that we, having been there, would have seen through the veil of his flesh and discerned his deity, when nobody else did? What gives us reason to think ourselves so special, so perceptive, that even God himself could not hide that truth from us?

No, if we feel we must picture the Lord, we must see him as nondescript — or, to use Kierkegaard’s term, incognito. He was God in disguise; and we must not imagine, quite blasphemously, that we would have been smart enough to see through the divine strategy and recognize in Christ the divinity that he hid. We would have seen no such thing.

Why a Sign?

We might then ask, why did he not simply manifest himself as God from the start? Why this concealment? Why this human flesh? Why this roughness of appearance, this dust and grit, this weariness and grief that came with the Man of Sorrows? Where is the glory we might have expected?

He was a sign to divide. A sword would cleave the souls of everyone who met him, dividing truth from falsehood and faith from unbelief. There would be no middle ground anymore; one would heed the sign, or one would perish in rejection of the sign. But one would first have to see the sign.

Hence the miracles. They were intended to draw attention to his status as sign, to the fact that the one who seemed so ordinary, so human, so normal was actually the God-man. The miracles made it reasonable for someone to have faith that beyond the appearance was an infinitely greater reality; but it did not make it unavoidable to do so. One could, and the Pharisees and other skeptics often did, refuse the implication of the sign, retrain attention on the mere human being present in front of one, and dismiss the whole matter as a sham, or worse, as a demonic fraud.

Now, here’s the crucial question: why was God so indirect? Why not reveal himself directly, in full glory, here, on Earth, so that no man could doubt his existence? Or, if he must send his Son, why not attest to him through such a display of perfection in his immediate appearance that there could no longer be any reasonable doubt that Christ was, and is, the Son of God? Why allow all to rely so heavily on the hidden tension between a person divine in nature and words, but totally human and unremarkable in outward appearance?

Why incognito?

The Point of Decision

Because, says Kierkegaard, a sign is a contradiction. It’s a contradiction that one who is to all appearances man should say, “I am God.” And a contradiction puts before all observers a choice, the choice to believe or reject, a choice to listen to see the character, listen to the words, and decide where one will, oneself, stand in respect to the God-man. And, he adds, “while [the chooser] is choosing, he himself is revealed”, meaning that the heart of the observer is exposed. Will he, as John says, “come into the light”, or will he reject the light?

He continues, “The single, direct utterance can only serve, like the miracle, to make people attentive, so that once a man is made attentive by being offended at the contradiction, he can choose whether he will believe or not.” That is, because Christ concealed all his external glory in his incarnation, leaving only the glory of his character and the purity of his words apparent, men are forced to choose to believe either their mere eyes, or the conviction of the Spirit of God speaking to their hearts.

And this makes manifest to us what is in the hearts of man, what is in our hearts. For the Lord needs no one to tell him that, but we so often do not know what we, or others, are really like. And once we have chosen, all is revealed: Are we willing to choose faith, or do we prefer to cling to denial? All have seen the sign, but not all will choose the same action in response to the sign. But what we choose, in relation to the God-man, will say everything about us, and set our destinies. Kierkegaard writes, “Faith itself has a dialectical quality — and the receiver is the one who is revealed, whether he will believe or be offended.”

To the Point

This has many applications for us.

Firstly, we must marvel at a God who “emptied himself” and “made himself of no reputation”. What unbelievable humility. He who would have rightfully been equal with God the Father did not “grasp” after the external glory that was rightfully his. He would come to those who were his own, and those who were his own would not receive him. But to all who did, he would give them the power to become the children of God through faith. They would freely believe, and he would freely give. He would not impose himself on those he loves with an overwhelming display of godly glory, the sort of show that no one could possibly deny; he would plead, invite, sacrifice all, and let whosoever will come, unforced. Thus, they would freely be his.

Secondly, perhaps we must rethink our view of the gospel. Really, we must stop trying to make the God-man less offensive to the modern mind. Offense is necessary, and must come, if decision is to ensue, and faith or rejection are to follow.

Moreover, we should be understanding if, at first, people have trouble hearing our message. We cannot presume that because we know Jesus Christ as God, that everyone should immediately see what we see. And we must not be dismayed if, at first, the people to whom we speak find it difficult to accept that a carpenter of Galilee could ever actually be Messiah God. His is still a veiled glory, one revealed only to faith. And he will not have it otherwise.

Thirdly, perhaps we must improve our imagination a bit. To see Christ rightly, we must stop seeing him in his earthly walk as if he were the figment of Sunday School illustration, a man too nicely assembled to be real, too sweet and sickly to live in the real world, floating blithely a few feet above terra firma. He was a man of flesh and bone like we are. If we forget this, we make him too distant, too sanitized, too unreal, too obviously God to be man. When he partook of the same flesh as men, he did it in actuality, not superficially.

Let the Offense Stand

But finally, in sum, we must not try to banish the paradox of one who was truly, fully God and truly, fully man, just because we struggle to understand it, and find it inconvenient to unpack to those to whom we may wish to explain our faith. Salvation comes through the offense, and pre-eminently, through the unspeakable mystery of the God-man on a cross. Lose the offensiveness of that, and we do away with faith. Do away with faith, and we do away with the very possibility of salvation.

So we need to remember, and boldly to tell people, that Jesus of Nazareth is God, to tell it plainly, bluntly and without apology. It is not our job to remove the offense that people feel in not being able to understand that. It is for us to bring them to the moment of choice, of decision, and nothing more. They must have their own encounter with the God-man; and softening that in any way risks taking away the very basic dynamic of salvation. This, we must not do. He is that “stumbling stone, and rock of offense”. Let the offense stand.

Finally, we read, “Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in flesh.” There’s the paradox: there is the sign: “God”, but “in flesh”. Both sides of that equation are absolute.

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