The Sanctuary C.1 Who is Jesus? Taking Him on His Own Terms

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   We now turn to the New Testament, a dense and profound literature which can be approached in many ways.  A good place to start is with what all the writings share, and what their shape tells us.  They all center, obviously on Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Word of God, the Lord, etc.  While the terms differ, and deserve analysis, they all make a serious claim about Him.  They all would have us start and finish our account with Him, as Revelation’s ‘Alpha and Omega.’ 

    Jesus was a powerful, impressive, difficult, mysterious figure. Even Pilate wants to speak with him. Bystanders are impressed, though some think he has a demon. Being amazed with him doesn’t mean that some don’t write him off as another wonder worker.  He can argue like a rabbi, but has ‘authority’ unlike any of them. He seems to claim and yet doesn’t, the title of ‘Messiah.’  The rabbinic Jesus of a movie like Zeffirelli, or the revolutionary Jesus of Pasolini, the agonized Jesus of Gibson, (and one could add more examples), are all true enough but not exhaustive.

   The picture is further blurred by the project in modern time to strip away so-called myth and rediscover the true historical Jesus behind the Gospel stories.  The great scholar (and missionary doctor) Albert Schweitzer delivered the coup de grâce for this effort when he said that all such reconstructors were as people looking down a well so as finally to see His face across the centuries, only to realize they were seeing their own. Of course, Jesus was an historical figure, and there are things we can say about Him as such, but we have to read the accounts ‘with the grain’ to hear what they want to tell us about who He was.

  So let us begin with several simple facts.

  Roughly at the mid-point of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) Jesus poses the key question to the disciples: ‘but who do you say that I am?’ And yet all the Gospels give their testimony to who He is on the far side of the resurrection.  He appears, even during His life, in its light.  ‘We seen Him from a solely human point of view no more.’ (II Corinthians 5:16)

    A disproportionate amount of the Gospels relative to the actual chronology was spent in the retelling of the story of his death.  The great German scholar Martin Kaehler called Mark a ‘passion narrative with a long introduction.’  This tells us where first to look to understand who He is.

    In all the Gospels the question provokes controversy, especially around its audacity: ‘He forgives sin’, something only God can do.  He casts out demons, something to be done when the great day of the Lord has come. But to see these things, and to follow, these require trust, courage, the willingness to hear- they are not self-evident. 

Discuss the following quotation from C.S. Lewis’ ‘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.”


A Final Window Cleaning

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   In the symbolic house of faith we are imagining, the windows through which the light enters are the Scriptures (though most of what we have to say about the New Testament will be conveyed in the coming sections).  However, in order for us to see clearly, we need to remove a possible misunderstanding. Is this kind of focus on the Bible fundamentalism? What about the claims of science? Of historical criticism? What about sitting on the ‘stool’ whose legs also include reason and tradition?  Shouldn’t we leave Biblicism to the Baptists?

    The main point to make is that we believe that the Bible conveys God’s Word, and that it does so through what it actually says. We should not suppose there is some truth behind the words, or to be reconstructed from the words, which is His Word. In that case, something else other than the Scripture would have the final word. Believing this about Scripture distinguishes Christianity understood as the inheritance from the apostles.  As a result, those other ‘sources,’ reason or tradition or perhaps experience, are those things by which we endeavor to hear and understand the Scriptures. What has been believed before and passed on to us must be honored in our endeavor to hear aright.  And historical criticism is simply learning about the culture and language of the time of writing so that we can hear better.  Finally, all of the above does not mean that the writing could not have a history of editing and passing on: The Holy Spirit can just as well work through these.

       We come to know things in different ways, according to their areas of life. We must in theology struggle to bring what we know about biology with what the Scripture says about the origin and purpose of the world and human from God. We need to recognize that a passage like Genesis 1-2 is not of a genre or type like that of a biology text book. Scientific theories are offered and sometimes change, but they are important as they describe the real world that is God’s. So does Genesis 1-2, but in the genre of origin story, and with the question of the source and purpose of all things in mind.  For these reasons a dialogue between ways of knowing is an important part of theology, but does not contradict the central claim of our faith that in the words of the Bible are found the Word of God, and that these books together measure whether any other kind of claim is from God or not.

Read Can the Bible be Authoritative? by author, N.T. Wright and discuss.

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