The Christian faith speaks into a world marked by suffering. It also speaks into a world marked with unmet desires. It speaks into a world marked by working harder—often for little solid gain. It speaks into both our dark moments and in the triumphant mountain top experience.
It speaks by confirming the words of Jeremiah by a person embodying the long hoped for longing of Jeremiah: “the LORD is our righteousness (Jer 33:16).”
However, it is not in my righteousness that I cling to, but the righteousness of Jesus. And he suffered in the darkness of unmet desires while thriving in righteousness.
In Luke 13, we read Jesus’ lament,
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Jesus cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane in Luke 22, ”Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
Jesus experienced unmet expectations and hope in the faithfulness of God. In fact, we’re told that he rejoices when we rejoice and weeps when we weep. Jesus offers us remarkable hope, a hope that is tangible. A hope that has meat on its bones.
As the Christmas hymn, A Virgin Unspotted, relays this hope:
A Virgin unspotted the Prophet foretold,
Should bring forth a Saviour which now we behold,
To be our Redeemer from Death, Hell and Sin,
Which Adam’s transgression involved us in.
Then let us be Merry, put Sorrow away,
Our Saviour, Christ Jesus, was born on this day.
As we journey through the remainder of this Advent season, sit through the hope, even if it is too dark to see. When sorrows hit, remember God experienced our pains. He experienced our sufferings. Even in seasons of unmet expectations, there is a glimpse of hope in the one who experienced unrealized expectations.
As I mentioned weeks back, I finished Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and came to many different conclusions from the book. Among those is that Aslan overcorrected his fundamentalist upbringing by tossing out the baby with the bathwater.
Aslan forcefully argued for the narrative of Jesus the historical figure transforming into a divine “Christ of faith” through the exploits of Paul and later century figures. He saw that after the many messianic claims of the early centuries, the belief that Jesus the Nazarene was God is purely wishful thinking from later followers of Jesus. However, I find his thesis lacking, and let me tell you why.*
Something Crazy Happened
Here’s what we know concerning the claims of the New Testament and First Century Palestine:
Here’s what we know from common sense:
As the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out in Surprised by Hope, something happened that turned Second Temple Judaism on its head. There was a historical Jesus who had a group of followers and he eventually was crucified for insurrection (claiming to be like God, claiming to be a king). Instead of disbanding, as so many followers of crucified messiahs did, the disciples started saying he rose from the dead. They claimed to have seen him as a physical person. Not only that—women were the first to encounter the empty tomb and connect the dots to a resurrection!
As alluded to above, if you are going to make something up in the First Century, don’t say women were there first. Because in the First Century, women were not legal witnesses. If you made something up, why not show Peter as the smart, faithful one? Why not tell the great exploits of the early leaders and simply remove the asinine stories that portray the disciples as faithless, prejudiced people?
The four gospel accounts recorded in the Bible provided differing accounts of the Jesus and are not four similar copies. Aslan is certainly correct in this. However, four witnesses will often times provide four different takes on a single event. The existence of narrative tension does not make the four different accounts false. It would be less believable and reliable if all four gospels were in unanimity in relaying the history (and theology) of Jesus the Messiah.
On another point, to be Jewish meant that you worshipped at the Synagogue or Temple on Saturdays. To move your worship day as a Jew to Sunday is a tremendous move. Moving days is not just a convenience factor, instead it is a reflection of the culture-shattering resurrection of Jesus. This is another element to hearing out the argument for a historical resurrection.
Concerning the resurrection, a lot of Jews at that time believed in the bodily resurrection of the just. Of course, this resurrection would occur at the end of time, when God intervenes in history. They did not expect for a resurrection to occur at that particular time. They certainly did not have a category to affirm a bodily resurrection in the Hellenistic Greek understanding either. Unless something out of the ordinary happened.
James vs Paul?
Surprisingly, Aslan created a narrative that pitted Paul against James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem church. He suggested that Paul took the teaching of Jesus and perverted them, turning the vast majority of the diaspora (Jews who did not live in Israel) and Gentiles against the traditional Jewish church in Jerusalem. However, this is grasping at straws, since Paul went throughout the Mediterranean collecting money to financial relieve a Jerusalem church. He also came under their authority several points in Acts (not to mention his writings are the earliest ones we have).
It is pretty well known that Martin Luther saw the Book of James as a sketchy book, propping up the false religion of works over faith in God. Aslan flips Luther’s idea over and suggests that Paul attacked James in his writings. However, the faith that Paul wrote about is not in opposition to the works that James wrote about. We are saved for good works, not saved by them or from them. This was his weakest point, because even a cursory look at how Reformational scholars interpret Paul and James shatter his hypothesis within a few pages.
If Christ Was Not Raised…
With all that said, Zealot is a well-researched book that is a very captivating read. However, this book is done with a motive. My guess is that Aslan’s work was written as a type of antidote to kids caught up in the subjective fervor of contemporary evangelicalism. Yet, reading the New Testament with modern eyes is just as pervasive in secular heads as it is in orthodox Christian heads. I simply do not think you have to separate the Christ of faith from the Christ of history. Because something happened in the First Century that changed everything. Something happened that has mystery to it. Something happened that is not found on a recorded video.
The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith are the same person. Jesus the Messiah changed the cultural script for a conquering messiah and he meant to die a brutal death on the cross. It was not an accident that he died in his thirties. This was his mission: to give his life as a ransom so that we can enjoy a life with God both now and forever.
Maybe the reason why people argued with Jesus and rejected him at that time was because he claimed to be God and claimed to be a messiah who would not overthrow the Romans in a glorious coup d’etat. Maybe the reason why people rejected him then is the same reason people reject him now: he interrupts our lives and our own preconceived notions of what it means to truly live.
*I am indebted to the works of the brilliant scholar NT Wright for these arguments, and I commend you to read his material on the Early Church
Photo: Christ Cleansing the Temple by Bernardino Mei (Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum)
The Christian religion places a huge emphasis on blood. Specifically, this faith is centered on the blood of One Man (and his sacrificial death) and the temple rituals found in the Old Testament point to this Man.
What happened on the cross has remarkable implications for us today. As Ted Olson wrote in an older piece in Christianity Today, Jesus’ blood “justifies, redeems, reconcile, sanctifies, justifies, cleans, frees, ransoms, brings peace, and unites us.” The New Testament writers connect so many pieces of Christ’s salvific work with his blood.
For those in Christ, we have joy beyond all measure because what Jesus has done.
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you.
The gospel of Jesus the Messiah is what he has done for humanity. The gospel is not what we should try to do or what we ought to do. That, my dear reader, is simply not Christianity. It might be good morals and good law and good government, but it is not the good news of God.
As Luther would say, “at its briefest, the gospel is a discourse about Christ, that he is the Son of God and became man for us, that he died and was raised, that he has been established as a Lord over all things.”
I get asked sometimes about why I’m Reformed, and often it is a correction of the false narrative around it. In short, the heart of the Reformed understanding of Scripture is this: We are more sinful than we could ever imagine, and at the same time we are more loved than we could ever hope for (h/t Tim Keller). We are simultaneously justified in Jesus and a sinner. We are flawed, yet redeemed.
You are saved in Jesus, not in your works. So stop doing and trying, and receive Jesus as a gift.
Christianity Today ran a piece that noted 3 heresies* Evangelical Christians were most likely to believe. They were:
Jesus was not truly human
Our behavior does not matter
Racism is gone
The first point was eye opening to me, because it shows how we tend to overreact to certain questions. In defense of Jesus divinity, we imply that Jesus borrowed his humanity for a period of time, like how I borrowed a tux for my wedding. Contrary to this false notion, Jesus became fully man and if we place our trust in him, we are assured that we will be coheirs with Jesus.
The second point is denying that character matters, that we can be saved without any sanctification. In my younger days (perhaps 10 years ago or so), I used to think Jesus could be your Savior (mere fire insurance) but not necessarily your Lord (behavior does not matter). I’ve since backtracked on that idea and find that statement completely idiotic (sorry, 20 year old Jeremy!) because sanctification matters. My character will never be perfect, but it needs to be changed because of my present standing with Christ.
The final point is the belief that we are in a post-racial society. I believe that we have not fully arrived at the peaceful place of racial and ethnic harmony. There is still deep-seated racial animosity, even within the Christian Church, and while Christ reconciled us to God, the reconciliation with each other is not yet complete.
This article made me think, what is our favorite heresy as evangelicals?
For me, I think we are prone to enter into Pelagianism— that we can pull ourselves up with our own bootstraps and make our way into God’s favor. Our national heritage sets us up for this false theology, especially given our immigrant, free-market culture. But the narrative of Scripture is forceful in articulating that we are reconciled to God in Christ out of his abundant mercy. As Paul would say, we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive. We cannot earn or work our way into God’s favor, instead it is an unmerited gift from God.
What heresies do you find evangelicals are prone to fall into?
*Heresy can be defined this way: Ideas achieve status of heresy in Christian tradition because they are thought by the Church to be wrong rather than right teaching (doctrine). A heretic is a baptized person who obstinately denies or doubts a truth which the Church teaches mut be believed because it is part of the one, divinely revealed, and catholic (universally valid) Christian faith. (From Heresies and How to Avoid Them)
Have you ever had an expectation that did not take shape in reality? You know, the type that was all too real in your mind, but it simply was never birthed into your life.
I have been thinking a lot about what was and what could have been, what is and could become in my own life. In my train of thought, something new came into mind. I wondered if Jesus suffered and experienced a whole host of human emotions, did he ever experience my emotions?
After giving it some thought, I think he did.
The passage that came to mind is found in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus was at the end of his life. He lamented over Jerusalem and you can read between the lines to see the turmoil he was in over the city. He said,
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
If you are new to the Bible, it’s important to see that throughout the story of Israel, there were triumphs and failures. There were moments of rejoicing and rejecting the same God who delivered his people. And here in the story of Jesus, we have the all too real desire of God in the flesh who wanted to protect his people as a hen protects her chicks, but they are not willing. These people turn and reject the one who preserves and protects, often times violently rejecting people who spoke on God’s behalf.
I wonder what Jesus thought of the possible outcome of Israel if they simply followed after God. Later on in Jesus’ life, we see him in deep turmoil and prayer over what was to come—his violent, atoning death. Nevertheless, he followed after God’s will. Let’s never forget this final point though, because in the face of unmet expectations, he followed something greater.
When expectations come and go, it’s natural to find yourself mourning over what could have been. I would urge you to come and bring those expectations to Jesus, for he knows what you are going through. He knows what it feels like to not have those expectations met.
Come to Jesus, and find life in the middle of unmet expectations.
I received the incredible privilege of speaking on Church History to a group of college students at Berkeley. While I was preparing for the lecture, I stumbled upon several great ideas that I had forgotten about and will share them over the coming weeks. One of those ideas came from one of the earliest gatherings of Christians at Nicaea.
In 325, the Council of Nicaea was called to settle a dispute over the nature of Jesus. At that time there was a man named Arius who made the audacious claim that Jesus was of similar substance to God, instead of being the exact same substance as God. In essence, his argument boiled down to Jesus was like God, but Jesus was not completely God.
This view, found in the Jehovah’s Witness group today, asserts that there was a time when Jesus did not exist. And that view, simply cannot stand within the Christian faith.
Athanasius, a young church leader, confronted this head-on in his defense of the divinity of Jesus. His (condensed) argument came down to this: God alone forgives sins. Jesus forgives sins. Therefore, Jesus is God.
What we believe matters. If we view Jesus just as some great teacher, then he has no authority to forgive sins. If he is God though, then that is a different situation all together. If he is God, then we ought to listen up to what he has to say.
Friends, know what you believe, and why you believe it.
O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
O sacred Head, what glory, what bliss till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.
What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
-Bernard of Clairvaux
One of the beautiful elements of Christian theology is that injustice and evil do not have a final word. Justice needs to be satisfied and something needs to be done about the genocides, the murders in major cities, and the young girl who died of cancer this morning. These things should not get the final word.
Richard John Neuhaus points out in his breathtakingly poignant devotional work Death on a Friday Afternoon that somebody has to be blamed for the pain and hurt in the world (theodicy). If somebody has to be blamed, then the finger of humanity is pointed directly at God (if there is a God).
God is guilty.
God is to be blamed.
“The word ‘theodicy’ means the judgment of God—not God judging us but our judging God. The philosophical problem of theodicy is that of trying to square God’s ways with our sense of justice. The assumes that we know what justice is, but the entire story the Bible tells begins with the error of the presumption. It is the original error of our wanting to name good and evil. Right from the start Adam tried to put God in the dock, making God responsible for the fall because, after all, God gave him the woman who tempted him to sin. From the beginning we see the argument building up to humanity’s cry, ‘God is guilty!’—building up to the derelict nailed to the cross.”
God accepted the verdict we passed on him. He accepted what had to be done about what we had done.
When we look at the bloody, mess of a man on the cross, we see how far God went for you and me—he abided by a sham of a trial and subsequently gets the final word about injustice.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.”
Jesus gets the final word. He gets the final word and ensures the final word is rooted in both justice and mercy. He said, “It is finished” on the cross and in his last words of the Bible (Revelation 22), he said, “Surely I am coming soon.”
“In the beginning was the Word…”
In the first words from the Gospel of John, we read that Jesus existed before the foundations of the world and that Jesus created the universe billions of years ago through a word. Through an act of creation, setting in motion the cosmos through an incomprehensibly big bang. The Word spoke and creation followed.
Then we read in John that this Word decided to become flesh, he came down to the ground in order to bring God’s Kingdom and His will to the neighborhood. He healed people, turned water into wine, and challenged the religious leaders of the day. Then we find out he did something.
Jesus cried over the death of his good friend. He cried when he saw the tears of people he loved. Jesus’ heart ached.
Jesus the Messiah is not a Stoic or some distant philosopher. He weeps for his people who choose to walk in darkness and reject the light that is given to all. He mourns for those who remain in darkness.
Jesus comes to us in truth and in tears. Yes, he is truth.
He is also life in all of its implications.