ƒ Christianity for Thinking People: April 2008

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Reality of His Humanity

'We can relate to God as human beings because God is truly Human.' (Walter Wink, The Human Being, 42)

I came across an interesting fact about Jesus a number of years ago that has stuck with me. I'm not certain about the meaning of its significance yet but it has become something of a fixed point in my thinking about Jesus. Jesus referred to himself using the phrase 'son of man' more than any other title. Interestingly, the original disciples rarely used that term for Jesus and the church has used it even less, both groups preferring the title 'son of God.' However, the fact stands that Jesus's favorite designation of himself was 'son of man' (the phrase is used 84 times in the gospels).

What does this mean? Was Jesus more comfortable with his true humanity than those that followed him? Do we tend to ignore Jesus's human nature because we are so preoccupied with his divinity? Does our concept of Jesus's divinity tend to obscure the reality that he was a finite human being subject to the same limitations as all other human beings? These are all good questions that deserve careful consideration. In fact, that is what the quest for the historical Jesus has been doing for over the past two hundred years. Since the Enlightenment scholars have been attempting to understand something of the human Jesus. Such a quest may lead into some scholarly dead ends but the quest itself is certainly important, especially if Jesus truly was the 'son of man.' His humanity cannot be simply absorbed and overshadowed by his divinity, because that would be to make of Jesus another false christ!

Consider these two important texts about the phrase 'son of man.' First, Psalm 8.3-6, 'When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, the son of man that you care for him? Pay attention to the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, 'human beings . . . son of man,' 'mindful of them . . . care for him.' The plural 'human beings' is equated with the singular 'son of man.' From this we begin to see that the 'son of man' is not strictly an individual but a symbol of a larger group. Second, carefully study the vision of Dan. 7.14 where the 'son of man' appears as an individual with the interpretation in vss. 21-22, 27 where the kingdom is given to the 'holy ones,' the 'people of the Most High.' 'His kingdom' in vs. 14 is 'their kingdom' in vs. 27. Again we see a collective dimension of the 'son of man' symbol. The 'son of man' is more than just a single individual.

What does all this mean for us? The 'son of man' is a liberating and empowering symbol. It is also the antidote for the imperial 'son of God' christology that has dominated the church since the time of Constantine. The church has often used its image of Jesus as 'son of God' to force believers into submission to the will of a dictatorial leadership. It has taught that human beings are ignorant and cannot be trusted to think for themselves. That human beings are faithless and must be coerced with rules and regulations to act responsibly. In short, the imperial 'son of God' of the Constantinian church has been used to beat people into submission to church traditions rather than to liberate them into the spiritual freedom of the children of God!

Jesus is the head of a true and new humanity. As 'son of man' he does not wish to subjugate us as other imperial leaders, both secular and religious, seek to do. Jesus wants to liberate us from all forms of imperial power and to empower us to resist such power by assisting in the work of his kingdom. Through the 'son of man' we are given 'glory,' 'honor,' and 'dominion' in an 'everlasting kingdom' that 'shall never be destroyed.'

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Dissecting God

A friend recently described his Bible discussion group as “Dissecting God like a frog staked out on the table.” It struck me as both a challenging analogy and potentially instructive of what our quest to know God should be, or perhaps should not be. This seems relevant as our group embarks on a study of Jesus. Get the gloves, pins and scalpels ready.

What do I learn from my friend’s dissection analogy? First, its not about the frog. Dissection’s purpose is the dissector’s learning. The frog, the subject of the dissection, is destined for the bin at the end of the study. There are plenty more in the pond. It follows, secondly, that the study can destroy the very thing we are studying. Our knowledge is advanced, but at a cost to the subject. Third, there is little or no relationship between the dissector and the dissectee. Sure, no doubt some dissectors develop an affinity for their Kermit, giving his all to facilitate their learning – flippers nailed in place. But the word picture conveys a distant, clinical detachment between the student and the subject of study.

Which brings us back to our study of God ...
  • Is it all about us, or about us and God?
  • Does our study increase our knowledge, while destroying ‘God’ in our lives?
  • Are we involved with the subject of our study?
In light of the analogy, perhaps it is best not to examine God in our study? Maybe we should limit Bible study and discussion to what it might say about our daily life? Yet, God appears to invoke our analysis of Him. He has staked Himself out on the dissecting table, so to speak, in the person of Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus suggests that seeking a knowledge of God through Him “is life eternal” John 17:3). Jesus asked His disciples to consider who He is (Matt 16:13-17; 22:41-45; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-20), and I think He meant more than name, rank and serial number. Understanding Jesus’ identity goes far beyond identifying Him as the “Christ of God” (Luke 9:20). That’s like studying a frog by saying, “Yep, it croaks, it jumps, so it must be a frog.”

“Yep, He raised the dead, walked on water, and fed the multitude, so it must be God.”

There is so much more to know about God. What is He like? So, how do we do that? Well, Jesus reinforced that the Scriptures testify of Him (John 5:39). But He does so while chiding the Pharisees for limiting their seeking after Him to just the Scriptures … “for in them ye think ye have eternal life. And ye will not come to me that ye might have life.” As Jesus says in His John 17 prayer for His disciples, experiencing God through Him is life eternal. The Scriptures cannot or should not limit our study of God. John 1 tells us that the Word of God is more than 39 or 66 books. The witness is everything throughout created time that bears witness to God, and that didn’t stop with John the Baptist.

Marriage is a valuable analogy in understanding that there is a relationship dimension to understanding character. How often have I sought to dissect Angela’s character on the basis of the facts alone. Like Sgt Joe Sunday, … “all we want are the facts, Ma’am.” “This is what you did, … this is what you said.” Therefore, as a social scientist analyzing my wife I (incorrectly) conclude that (a) she is selfish, and (b) she doesn’t love me. I call this the Sola Scriptura approach to spousal analysis – clinical, akin to dissection.

Then Angela reminds me that we have known each other for more than two decades, and experience must contradict those two conclusions. There must be another explanation for Angela’s incongruous words and actions. And I reflect on the fact that, yes, it makes sense that my analytical deductions from the recorded facts must also be consistent with my long-term experience of Angela. I look for other explanations.

As in all relationships, the key to knowing God is to move beyond clinical, detached analysis and dare to experience. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).

1 Peter 2:1-5
Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.