Posted in Christology, Uncategorized

The Jesus question

768px-Circle-question-blue.svgThere are many intriguing questions in Christian theology, but one matters most. It’s the question Jesus asked his disciples:

Who do you say I am? (Matthew 16:15, NIV).

Simon Peter replied that Jesus is the “Messiah,” the “Son of the living God” (v. 15, NLT). This simple fisherman saw in Jesus of Nazareth the One anointed by God, the Christ. This confession of faith – Jesus as the Son of God – is the rock upon which Christ builds his church (v. 18).

It’s the Jesus question.

In math class, our teacher taught us to simplify fractions. Instead of 4/8 – she patiently explained – find the largest whole number that divides into both the numerator and the denominator. The anwer is 4, and when divided by that number, 4/8 becomes 1/2. It’s easier to work with simplified fractions.

What is true for fractions is true for theology. The Jesus question keeps us from getting lost in a maze of valid but ultimately less important questions; it simplifies things.

The Jesus question is helpful both corporately and individually:

Corporately — It’s a church, but is it a Christian church? Look past more complicated issues and determine what they think about Jesus. If a given church teaches that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, if they believe that he is the Savior of the world and is himself God, that he died for our sins and rose again to reconcile us to God, then they clear the minimum bar. But if Jesus is in some way demoted or held to be a great teacher or prophet but not himself God, that church may be many things, but it is not Christian.

Individually — The Jesus question confronts each of us. Jesus wasn’t content to just know what the crowds were saying about him. He turned to his disciples and to us:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” (v. 15, NIV)

We must decide who exactly this Jesus is, not only for others, but for us. Peter concluded: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then he moved beyond words to action. He continued to follow Christ. For many of us, to respond positively won’t be a continuation of a journey but the beginning of a new one. To us and to all, Jesus says: “Follow me.”

Christian theology asks many questions. Theologians offer a wide variety of answers, but on the question of Jesus, voices unite. Only he is God’s eternal Son, God’s anointed, our hope for this life and the life to come. How have you answered the Jesus question?


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Posted in Christology

The counterintuitive God

clockCounterintuitive: different from what you would expect (Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary). Like a clock that runs backwards, there’s little doubt: God is counterintuitive.

Take the incarnation, the eternal Christ clothing himself in human flesh. If the choice had been up to us, we might have chosen huge and flashy. Instead, to bear Emmanuel – “God with us” – the LORD chose someone humble and unknown.

Luke 1:28 (NIV) tells the story:

Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.

Who was this “highly favored” person? Mary was a young Jewish girl. There was nothing noteworthy about her. She had no powerful connections, no high birth to commend her. Yet God – who has a habit of doing the unexpected – chose her to bear the Christ child.

Besides using the unknown Mary as Christotokos – the mother of Christ –  another counterintuitive element of Christmas is tactics. Christ’s coming to earth was hardly the Powell Doctrine. The former American Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that – as a last resort – if the military must be used, then go big. Amass huge quantities of soldiers and equipment, then overwhelm the enemy. But on Christmas, God didn’t get the memo. He didn’t dispatch an army of angels (though an angel choir did sing for a handful of shepherds). Instead, God parachuted an infant Jesus quietly behind enemy lines, like a single SEAL in camouflage. In a world under the destructive thumb of the devil and his sinister band of brothers (1 John 5:19, Ephesians 6:12 ), this underwhelming response seemed counterintuitive.

Besides choice of people and tactics, a final counterintuitive aspect of the incarnation is love. For a creation that had hatefully snubbed its Creator, one might expect in return well-derserved wrath, God paying back hate with greater hate. Yet to our utter amazement, this “SEAL” sent by God came armed with only one “weapon.” Hate could never overcome hate; only love could do that:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…

Paul in the cross discerned heaven’s jujitsu, writing to the Romans: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, NIV). The cross is a counterintuitive demonstration of God’s love for us sinners who despised him (Romans 5:8). While God’s self-denying modus operandi makes little sense to human calculus, love is the powerful magnet that for twenty centuries has drawn people to their knees at manger, cross, and empty tomb.

Humble Mary, baby Jesus, love – These are three indications that we worship a counterintuitive God. The LORD acts differently than what you would expect. For the sake of our world, may we as Christ’s followers recommit ourselves to doing likewise.

Posted in reflections

Supernatural Jesus…and why it matters

stormDoes it matter whether Jesus is “supernatural”?

I ask because of the following anonymous words, reportedly taken from a social media conversation between a member of the clergy and an unidentified correspondent:

You are having difficulty accepting that I don’t see Scripture as a bunch of threats, rules and facts. I find the truth in the book, but not necessarily factual accounts. It’s hard for me to embrace a ‘magical’ God or even a supernatural Jesus.

See for the fuller context.

But back to the question:

Does it matter whether Jesus is supernatural?

Absolutely. It matters. If Jesus is not supernatural – but more than that, if Jesus is not fully God and fully human, as orthodox Christology teaches — then Christians are nothing more than idolaters, worshiping the creature rather than the Creator, a breaking of the First of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3).

Yet there is ample evidence that Jesus is God. On one occasion, Jesus is portrayed as calming a storm, stretching out his hand over the troubled waters. “Peace, be still,” he said. “Who is this man?” his disciples asked in amazement. “Even the wind and the sea obey him” (Mark 4:41, NASB). A storm was a natural enough phenomenon, but what Jesus did wasn’t. What he did was supernatural, a word defined by the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature.”

This is only one miraculous incident among dozens peppered throughout the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus of Nazareth is presented as one who taught, forgave sin, who healed the lame, the deaf and the blind, who cast demons out of people, and who bent the laws of how things work in the universe, changing water into wine and multiplying fishes and loaves of bread to feed hungry people.

For the sake of argument, we could concur with our aforementioned anonymous member of the clergy that it is “hard to embrace” a  “supernatural Jesus” or a “magical God.” But if we were to concur, let us be clear that we would be parting company with the first Christian eyewitnesses. In fact, miracles played a key role in persuading them that Jesus was the long-awaited Anointed One of God, the Messiah, the Christ.

On the Day of Pentecost, Peter – a fisherman who had traveled with Jesus for three years – gave the first Christian sermon ever recorded. Here’s what he concluded in Acts 2:22 (NIV):

Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.

Later, in v. 36, he adds: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (NIV).

For Peter and the early Christians, miracles were spiritual credentials, a solid proof of divinity. For more on this, see also Hebrews 1, esp. the “powerful word” by which the Son of God “sustains all things” (v.3).

As the one who desires only our good, Jesus loves us unconditionally. Yet this love is not a weak love, a mere sentimentality. It is a robust love backed up by the ability to fend off those who would do his beloved harm. The love of Jesus is not only a holy love but a powerful love, and so we pray in the strong name of Jesus.

Jesus does not have a corner on the market when it comes to power. There are many powerful individuals in our world. Likewise, angels, the devil and demons occupy – to use the term of missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert – an “excluded middle” or forgotten realm of beings created by God as part of the natural world, spiritual beings more powerful than humans but inferior to God. Though they are sometimes referred to as “supernatural,” it’s an unfortunate designation, dignifying them with a word that should be reserved only for God. (If the devil is called “supernatural,” then at least we must say that Jesus Christ is Supernatural, to designate his surpassing greatness). As the Second Person of the uncreated Triune God, there is no equivalence between his power and that of created beings. He is the ultimate authority before which all petty authorities must bow.

A memory from my youth illustrates the ultimate nature of this power. As a 13-year-old boy, I got caught up in the Citizen’s Band (CB) radio craze that swept the United States in the mid to late 70s. Saving up my money from the lawn mowing business my brothers and I ran, I finally had enough to buy the high powered “walkie talkie” I’d wanted. The problem was, the company that made it sold me a lemon. It was defective, so I took it back to the store and asked the salesman to trade it for a new one. He refused, but I didn’t give up. I asked to speak with the store manager, but he also refused. Frustrated, I talked with my dad about the problem. He suggested that I write to the President of the company, which I did. Two weeks letter, I received a typed letter from him, containing instructions for me to take the letter and to show it to the store manager. The letter – signed and sealed by the President – gave clear instructions for the store manager to replace my defective walkie talkie with a new, fully functioning unit. His power was ultimate, exceeding that of the store manager. An hour later, I had a new CB!

Imagine that the letter instead had said something like this: “Dear Mr Crofford, I’m very sorry for your problem, but there’s really nothing that I can do about it. I may be the President of this company, but each store manager can do what they want. My hands are tied.” How impressed would I have been with such a so-called “President” of that technology firm? Not at all! Instead, I would have probably called him a PINO – President-in-name-only, a fake President, a puny President, or something of the sort.

A Jesus who is only a natural Jesus and not a Supernatural Jesus wouldn’t be worthy of me addressing to him my prayers, any more than a powerless President of a company would be worthy of me addressing to him or her my letter of complaint. Why bother? This is the logic behind the observation from the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6, NIV).

Someone who “rewards” those who seek him is one who has the power to reward. When Jesus bade his disciples farewell before ascending to heaven, he made a sweeping claim:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, God and make disciples of all nations… (Matthew 28:18-19, NIV).

Living as a missionary in Africa is a huge privilege. The faith of the church in Africa by-and-large is not philosophical or speculative. The hardscrabble nature of life in many parts of the continent makes Christian faith here very  practical. With that in mind, here’s what I responded on a forum to the paragraph from the anonymous member of the clergy quoted above, with his (apparently) non-supernatural Jesus:

His comment would be largely incomprehensible to 95% of our African Nazarenes. If Christianity is not supernatural, then what’s the point? Jesus is Christus Victor, the One who – in power unmatched by any other Being – has overcome sin, death, and the devil. Hebrews 2:14-15 is amazing, and strangely neglected:

“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who has the power over death – the devil – by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.” – Common English Bible

Philip Jenkins has written about the “New Christendom” that has emerged in the Global South. While I definitely see some theological inaccuracy as well as excesses in the neo-Pentecostalism that is growing quickly in Africa and elsewhere – esp. the nature of tongues and the so-called prosperity gospel – the reason neo-Pentecostalism is so attractive is because it approximates the very nature of Christ’s powerful ministry on earth as displayed in the Gospels, addressing the full gamut of human need, including both physical and spiritual deliverance.

Any denomination that overtly or even quietly adopts an anti-supernatural way of thinking is a denomination that has written its own obituary. It has relegated itself to irrelevancy. As the French proverb puts it: “Le chien aboie, la caravane passe” – “The dog barks while the parade passes it by.”

Say what you might about our doctrine of entire sanctification, it reflects a supernaturalist worldview, for we believe that only an all-powerful, Triune God -as revealed in the Old and New Testaments – is capable of the greatest miracle of all, namely, transforming the human heart. Give me that kind of faith, and – as John Wesley said when he wished for 100 godly and fully-committed Methodists – we’ll storm the gates of Hell.

May God spare us from an anemic strain of faith. Give me a muscular, robust, Supernatural Jesus and not the watered-down soup being dished out in too many quarters these days.


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