In the process of writing this series of posts I found myself getting preachy at times. So I thought automatically to exclude that material because I promised in the first post to refrain from such.
But then it occurred to me that certain readers might appreciate a more passionate voice from a quiet guy like me (others may not. Feel free to skip this post and go to the next. But this is one of my favorites). So here goes.
In talking last post about the embarrassing sections of the Gospels, I wish to add that behind Jesus’ humble earthly status and the often clumsy behavior of his disciples recorded (by them or their close associates) in the Gospels, we find a principle of revelation that is common in Christianity: God is understated.
Understated. I don’t know how else to put it. The past decade I’ve spoken to thousands of students on college campuses, often in “Stump the Chump” sessions where they ask me, the Chump, any question they wish about Christianity. What I find repeatedly is that students have many expectations of God that are different than what the Bible teaches. They expect God to be a model of philosophical perfection as the Greeks thought and/or a personal genie who answers every prayer and makes our lives comfortable.
But if you examine the line of Jesus going back through his ancestry, it’s anything but perfect. It features incest, rape, a prominent prostitute, and several foreigners outside Jewish ethnicity. That’s where Jesus came from. He’s hardly a pure-bred king. His entrance into the world was heralded by angels, not to the kings of the nations but to lowly shepherds on a hillside. His entrance into Jerusalem, the city of God and scene of the climactic last scene of his life, was heralded by the people with palm branches and shouts of “Hosannah!”, yet he rode into the city on a donkey with no accompanying flags or escort or color guard.
So when you think of the normal protocol of a king presented to his people, festooned with colorful fanfare and trumpets, Jesus is the opposite. He is understated. His death was agonizing and humiliating but not a glorious martyrdom. His resurrection on the third day is paradoxically the greatest event in human history but announced to the world by women whose testimony was generally ignored in patriarchal culture. God defies expectations. He does the opposite. Relating to the God of the Bible is the ultimate intercultural experience and is possible only because God opened a main communication channel in the person of Jesus.
Nor do the Gospel accounts even agree on the number of angels at the empty tomb of the risen Lord. The Lord then appears, alive, to some 500 people but there is no magic carpet tour of the nations or lunar billboards announcing the resurrection of the Son of God. News of the resurrection is to be spread word-of-mouth like a good infection and also shown existentially in the transformed lives of Jesus’ followers.
Think of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics held every four years in modern times — a spectacular showcase of each country’s national pride presented to the peoples of the world. The resurrection is nothing like this. Jesus is more reserved. If he were announcing resurrection at the Olympiad, he would walk discreetly into the ceremony and whisper the astonishing news of death-defeated to a few open hearts, then disappear into the masses. Perhaps there would be a sign or two along the way – a healing, a lost friend returned to family, a presumed dead relative revived, a prophetic insight into a single mother’s future. He would choose individuals who understood their need for God. Perhaps a dozen or so of his closest followers would accompany him on this mission to “tell others.”
Now, this sort of quiet selectivity is inequitable, the world of higher education, where I work, would protest. God could make an appearance to every single person on the planet but chooses instead to reveal himself in person to just a few. The young generation is adamant, vehement, about fairness. This method of God’s revelation is flagrantly unfair. There will be those who are excluded from his direct activity. How are such decisions made? Who misses out?
But God is often indirect with humanity. He accommodates himself to us. If he were direct you’d have to believe. If he came to you and me in person, his glory and magnitude would be lethal to finite existence. So he goes around back. Comes in the side door. Enters the Olympics with his disciples and whispers ultimate information to a few select persons of peace, then melts into the crowd.
God’s communication to humankind is mediated through the Son becoming an approachable man – what theologians call the God-man, fully God and fully man. That was the ancient formula of who Christ really was. God “stooped” to creatureliness for our sakes. We expect a loudspeaker of thorough information from God, and he merely whispers. We expect – demand, actually – stadium lights that reveal the divine plan, and he offers only candles. We want proof but he drops only clues into our lives, little more.
And when God, thought of as a genie in the sky, fails us by allowing hard times into our lives, including violence and sickness and death, we say quite easily, “I’ll never believe in a God who doesn’t relieve my suffering. What has he ever done for me?”, then dismiss him.
So when it comes to reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus, I think the Lord asks us to get involved in the process by listening to an inner voice that perhaps has been muted by busy lives. The voice calls for an open mind and heart. And beyond that, to consider the accumulation of historical arguments for the life of Jesus: that Jewish monotheists of the first century would not invent him; that multiple sources agree on and confirm his teaching, death and resurrection; that minor differences and embarrassing material in the accounts add historical fiber and thus believability; that non-Christian sources confirm the testimony of the church (see the next post) and that the myriad of ancient manuscripts and the discipline of cross-comparing them provide us with accurate orginals (also in the next post).
This process of piecing together several smallish arguments is similar to that found in a civil court of law, where attorneys on both sides, plaintiff and defense, attempt to reach the “preponderance of evidence” threshold by making a cumulative (additive) case against each other’s clients. So let’s say Smith is accused of a crime against Gonzalez, whose representative brings evidence of Smith’s guilt – of motive, weapon, opportunity, witnesses-against, phone records and the like. Any single piece of evidence is dismissible. But it’s the accumulation of evidence, the “additive” effect, that produces a judgment. A judge or jury might shrug at a weapon or motive in isolation. But when you put them together along with other pieces of evidence, a conviction is likely.
And in the case of the NT overall and the Gospels in particular, the cumulative case for Jesus is strong, historically speaking. Yet, there’s an understated quality about the whole narrative that defies our expectations of who God is and how he should act.
But where did we get those prior notions of God if not from the very culture and family context in which we live? God is not what we think. He’s chosen certain methods to disclose himself and his ways to us. If we’re open to those ways we’ll find salvation. If we’re not, we’ll continue in a state of separation from God into eternity. We’ll finally get our way of not believing in him and not loving him and not bowing our knee to him, and this statement of independence will last forever.
I invite you to test the gospel by reading and obeying it. I think you’ll find, as I have, it’s as true in experience as it is in history.
Okay folks, there’s my little sermon. Not exactly hellfire and brimstone, I admit. But spoken from the heart.
Next post: Has the Bible been corrupted over the centuries? Translated and re-translated into error?