23 November 2010

What did Jesus (not) say about... God? (full post)

by Dan Phillips
"All that really matters is that you believe in God, however you conceive of Him/Her/It/Them."
I suppose you could say that the world can be divided into two kinds of people:
  1. Those who can imagine Jesus saying something like this
  2. Those who actually know something about Jesus
Is such a categorical statement warranted?  I think so. My reasons fall into three categories, of which the first two will continue to serve as the basis for the rest of the series as well. Those heads are Perspective, Context, and Content. Let's launch:

Perspective: there's only one actual Jesus. You don't get to make up a new one. The only Jesus who is worth discussing, who merits any weight or "pull," is the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. Given that the Gospels are richly-attested first-century material, have a wealth of historical material on this Jesus. Any reluctance to deal with the data of the Gospels, any preference for "Jesuses" fabricated from other (or no) materials, arises from something other than historical concern.

So if we're to talk about any Jesus worth talking about, we will be talking about the Jesus we know from the Gospels, and from the apostolic witness of the rest of the New Testament. Anything anyone says about "Jesus" needs to be checked against Jesus. No matter how heart-warming, no matter how encouraging, no matter how soft and cuddy, no matter how popular — the command "keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21) works out to mean accept no other Jesus than the Jesus of the New Testament (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:1-4).

Context: the worldview of this Jesus is specific, knowable, and known. He was a man who affirmed the divine origin (Matthew 15:4), inerrant truthfulness (John 10:35; 17:17), and binding authority (Matthew 4:1-10) of the Old Testament. At no point did Jesus suggest that parts of the Old Testament were untrue, uninspired, inaccurate, or unhistorical. There was no winnowing of the truthful from the untruthful in Jesus' teaching.

Therefore, the first time Jesus says "God," we must plug in the backstory. By "God" Jesus means the same God revealed throughout the Old Testament. That "God." The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of Creation and Flood; the God of Exodus and Conquest; the God of captivity and return. The God of bloody sacrifices and pictorial Tabernacle. The God of Moses, Solomon, Isaiah, Malachi. That God.

The thought of proposing — much less accepting, much less advocating — another god, in Jesus' name, would have horrified the actual Jesus.

Content. All that being the case — what is the likelihood that this Jesus could have made the statement fabricated above?


Why "zero"? Remember and apply the first two headings.

First, the odds are zero because the Jesus we meet in the New Testament is the living Word of that God (John 1:1, 14), come to earth to expound Him (John 1:18). Because this Jesus claimed an unparalleled intimacy with that God (Matthew 11:27; John 5:17, 19-20; 7:29; 8:55). Jesus' concern was never about how sinners conceived of God, but about how God conceived of Himself — and that self-conception is what He came to declare (John 1:18).

This is why that Jesus never once called people to embrace their own notions of God. Instead, He called them to repent of their notions of God, and embrace God's revealed knowledge of Himself (Matthew 4:17; John 4:21-26).

Second, the chances are "zero" because the God of the Old Testament never called people to embrace their own conceptions of "God." Rather, from the start He spoke and showed Himself to man (Genesis 1), moving people to call on His very specific and non-inclusive name (Genesis 4:26b). This God was fiercely condemning of idolatry, which is the embrace of any God other than He (Exodus 20:3-6; 34:13-17; Deuteronomy 4:23-29).

It is inconceivable that that God would perpetuate such inclusive bibble-babble. Since that God is the God Jesus presupposed and proclaimed, it is again inconceivable that Jesus would say anything of the kind.

This truth has many implications, of course. Let's single out two.

The first is the challenging question that played heavily into my own conversion: are we worshiping a god of our own heart's fantasies, on our terms, or are we worshiping the true and living God as He knows and reveals Himself, on His terms?

The second applies to pastors, teachers, leaders, and anyone who would speak for Jesus. Are you as crystal-clear and dogmatic as Jesus is? In asking that, let me be crystal-clear:
  • I am not asking if you are being dogmatic that your ideas of God are absolute and unchallengeable; but...
  • I am asking if you proclaim Jesus' revelation of God as absolute and unchallengeable.
If we burble pluralistic nonsense, we are representing ourselves, not Jesus. If we pretend that issues Jesus made clear are unclear, we are representing ourselves, not Jesus.

The main thing about being (and speaking as) a Christian out loud is not saying that I know everything about God. I surely don't.

The main thing is saying that Jesus knows everything about God, and that I am learning from Him — and affirming and proclaiming what I learn from Him.

That is a sure foundation for life and proclamation.

Dan Phillips's signature


donsands said...

That was very encouraging. Thanks.

"..if we're to talk about any Jesus worth talking about, we will be talking about the Jesus we know from the Gospels, and from the apostolic witness of the rest of the New Testament."

I find that Peter's epistle are quite helpful when I'm sharing the Gospel with unbelievers. Also John's first epistle.

And it's amazing that there are those in the Church, who really don't seem to want to read, study, and meditate upon what the Word of truth teaches us about Christ. You would think Christians would love God's Word, and even crave it.

"But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen."-Peter

Robert said...

I couldn't agree more, Dan. We have to have the Bible as the authority, not ourselves. And we need to bring the truth of Jesus to the lost and let them know we are only following Him.

As I read the first part of this, I was thinking in my mind, "Yes! This is the opposite of what we've been seeing on TV with a call to people of all faiths to get back into their churches and pray to their god/God" (Some people who were listening might truly be Christians).

The sad thing is that I find it easier to share with the unchurched because they don't have a false sense of belief or knowledge of the Father, Jesus, and the Bible. Mainly because I get frustrated with people who take the name of Christ, but don't take the time to get to know Him by reading the Bible. Of course, I fear that this is a manifestation of pride and I need to humble myself before God so that I can also present the churchgoing lost with the truth in love.

DJP said...

Thanks, Robert.

If I may say so, I think one of the most important points is simply that Jesus had a context, and that that context is known and available to all.

It isn't as if He touched down in a saucer from some unknown planet (on the one hand), or as if he stood up at a Starbucks in Seattle and began philosophizing (on the other).

Jeff B said...

These are great words to start the morning. Thank you.

Don and Robert, dead nuts on your thoughts. I couldn't agree more.

You all have a blessed day.

Stuart Brogden said...

One edit I would suggest - don't restrict the biblical knowledge of Christ to the New Testament; He didn't. He revealed to people that the prophets and the Law were about Him.

DJP said...

I don't believe I ever used the word "Christ," did I? Didn't the title and post use "Jesus," referring to the Incarnate Word?

Thanks, but I don't see a need to edit. This is a pretty focused series.

Merlin said...

Is Jesus reinterpreting the Old Testament in light of Himself when He says that the Old Testament bears witness to Himself in John 5:39?

What about on the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24:27?

If Jesus instructed the Apostles to reread the Old Testament in light of His coming, and many scholars believe that Paul actually did this during his three year hiatus, is that not the proper heurmeneutic for the understanding of scripture?

DJP said...

No, He isn't reinterpreting the Old Testament.

Rachael Starke said...

"The main thing is saying that Jesus knows everything about God."

Wow - I'll be chewing on that for the rest of the day.

I know this is another potential rainbow trail, but we have a good friend we've been witnessing to sometime who truly is almost as intelligent as he believes himself to be. He's read the Tanach, he's read the Bible, and his questioning (aka rebellious, stubborn doubting) is always about the accuracy/historicity of the Gospels. IOW, Jesus was a real person who did impressive things, but his followers exaggerated and embellished to further their cause.

I'm never quite sure where to go from there. I'm pretty sure it's not "well, just ignore all that and pretend to believe until you do."

Strong Tower said...

Then you don't believe in the phrenary burble inspiration of Scripture?

Stefan Ewing said...

"The command 'keep yourselves from idols' works out to mean accept no other Jesus than the Jesus of the New Testament."

Jesus Christ, the Passover Lamb: Accept no other substitutes!

TWH said...

Excelente, hermano! Me gusta mucho!

donsands said...

"well, just ignore all that and pretend to believe until you do."-Rachael

I remember a Christian friend telling me about a mutual friend of ours, who didn't trust Christ, that he told him "to fake it, until you make it."
That's not a good way to be a witness for the truth methinks.

I have conversations with an atheist, and I encourage him to read 1st & 2nd Peter, and 1st John. He came away with the conclusion that Peter simply was hallucinating that his friend Jesus came back to life.

I pray for him, and still have chats. And we never really who God will have mercy on. We are immensely grateful that He saved us, and so we share our salvation, and the Gospel, knowing that the Gospel is the power God works into dead sinners to bring them to life.

Have a great Thanksgiving all!

Anonymous said...

Rob Bell once said, “The moment God is figured out with nice, neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. (Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, Zondervan, 2005)

,Paul said: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

The children of Israel chimed in: What is it?

Jesus said: I am the bread of life...

The Jews argued saying: Who are you?

I am beginning to sense a patter here. Jesus says clearly, and people hear smearly.

Jesus' answer to the Jews was an adianoeta, perhaps, referring also to Genesis: Just what I have been saying from the beginning.

Wut evah, it is interesting to note that what people are saying today, they have always said, and Jesus is still saying what he has always said.

Strong Tower said...

Calvinistic Cartoons: Say What?

Dave .... said...

A mushy gospel is no Gospel at all. Jesus was nothing if not crystal clear about who He was and what He was doing. There was a lot of commentary on side issues, but at its core, the Gospel confronts us with the God of the universe, in flesh, dying for our sin, and rising from the dead to prove what He said was truth. Anything else is anthro-centric goat chow.

Aaron said...


To further their cause? What caused 11 apostles who were in hiding, who in fact, denied Christ, suddenly and boldly proclaim Jesus rose despite the sure death it would bring. Why would Saul who tortured and killed Christians suddenly reverse his position suffering pain and death for it? What did the early Christians have to gain? If you were going to knowingly perpetuate a fraud, wouldn't you do so for earthly gain?

Either the apostles (1)saw Christ and believed it (2) thought they saw Christ but didn't or (3) made the whole thing up. All they got was death for believing. In fact, when have true Christians ever gotten anything but persecution for believing?

Stefan Ewing said...

Sir Aaron's right.

From a strictly materialistic, pragmatic point of view, what could the apostles have possibly gained by making up a religion based on the improbable claim that their leader had risen from the grave, especially if was going to guarantee persecution? And if Jesus didn't really rise from the dead, why propagate a lie, when refuting the lie would have been as easy as producing the body?

Two thousand years later, and...where's the body?

Anyhow, many people in the modern era have this nasty tendency of anachronistically conflating the post-Constantinian Roman church with the first-century persecuted church, and imputing motives to Peter or Paul as if they were members of a religious elite—forgetting that they were a persecuted minority, not only within the Roman Empire at large, but even within Judea and the Diaspora communities.

I can't say that there's a surefire formula for getting through to be people who are so stubborn in their unbelief. I was like that once, and it only took God's grace working away at me for years, to finally see the truth I'd so wilfully ignored.

You could try to get at your friend by zeroing in on what he accepts as "authentic" and what he rejects as "inauthentic" in the Gospels, and on what criteria he makes such a judgment. Find his inconsistencies, and press him on them. Of those things about Jesus which he's willing to believe are authentic (the Sermon on the Mount, let's say for example), show how some of the things Jesus said simply don't make any sense except as uttered by the Son of God, and/or against the backdrop of the Old Testament.

Pierre Saikaley said...

This is a superb post. Thanks.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

One of the most fundamental thing about Christianity and Judaism before it is their exclusivity, the idea that there is only one God and one Way to Him. If you throw that out you not only no longer have the same faith. You do not have anything that even looks like it.

Thomas Louw said...

Like the post.
I think that understanding who Jesus is en what He teaches is the easy part.
Applying it that’s the hard part