Jesus, a total radical
Two aspects that are foundational to the Christian faith are that Jesus was human and Jesus was God. Although he was fully human, he was also in a unique way God living among us at a given time in history. This latter aspect describes Jesus as being ‘fully God’. This event that brought us ‘God in human form’ is known as the ‘Incarnation’. Many of the Christian creeds state these two above foundational aspects, and when we consider these two beliefs we can think it very strange, or maybe we resort to some religious language and call it ‘a mystery’. And a mystery it certainly is! If we have the belief that God and humanity are so totally different it would indeed be very strange.
Okay, here comes a crazy example. If a person was fully human and fully a spider, what would that look like? Spider man? Well that super-hero is fully human and has some incredible spider qualities but we can’t really say he is fully human and fully spider!
Jesus is fully God and fully human but not in the spider man sense! Two ways we resolve this conundrum. The first is that humans and God have a whole load in common. Of course there is much that is not in common, but there is something so at the core of each human that is incredibly ‘God-like’. The Bible seems to affirm that, stating that that humanity is somehow ‘the image of God’ and made in the likeness of God. Humanity is not a replica of God, neither is God a very big human being, as one theologian put it, ‘one cannot say ‘God’ by saying ‘Man!’ with a loud voice’, (Karl Barth, the masculine language of ‘man’ represents the era when he wrote, apologies.) So, we do not assume that God and humanity are the same with the only difference being that of scale; but we are asked to assume that in some way humanity reflects God, showing us something of a picture of who s/he is. If there is a deep resemblance we can go a little way to resolving the challenge of thinking how God and human can live somehow in juxtaposition in the person of Jesus.
The second way we try to resolve the mystery is to suggest that while Jesus (God as human) lived on earth he lived it as a human, never pulling on ‘super-powers’ that were his because he was God. (The question of ‘but what about those claims of healing?’ is never used to suggest he was divine, but simply to affirm that God was with him. Nowhere is it claimed he did miracles because he was God.) This ‘living as a human, living as we do’ is what theologians call ‘kenosis’ which comes from a Greek word that means to empty oneself, or to pour oneself out. The classic biblical verses for this, that refer to Jesus, are:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8, in the New Testament part of the Bible).
This is considered to be a hymn that Paul (the writer of Philippians) quoted, so reflects a very early understanding of the Incarnation. (The ‘kenosis’ verb, to empty oneself, to pour out one’s life is translated in the above quote as ‘he made himself nothing’.) The core meaning being communicated is that Jesus, although fully God, laid aside all his innate divine power and prerogatives in order to live as a human. There remains mystery in all this but it seems to go a long way to help us understand how Jesus could be described as ‘fully God’ and ‘fully human’.
That way of understanding Jesus might be considered foundational, and is something I accept by faith, but let’s move on to something I think is even more exciting, and perhaps even more challenging. Imagine, for a moment, growing up in a specific culture that does not share some of our values, the values that have developed over centuries. How would we think? How would we behave? I am suggesting that you think of a culture and a context far away from here, and at a different time of history. Or to bring it into the content of this book, I am asking you to think about the cultural and historical setting that Jesus was born into and lived within for approximately 33 years.
He grew up in a somewhat backward neighbourhood in an occupied land. The land was controlled by the Roman empire, and his native geography was not even that important as he did not grow up in the capital (Jerusalem), but in the peasant area of Galilee, with whole areas described as ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’. The Gentiles being those who were not belonging to his race (Jews) who were the chosen people. The Gentiles were the outsiders.
In other words Jesus was a first Century Jew. Or maybe to put it a little stronger. He was a first Century biased Jew, growing up with some crazy perspectives. He had a holy book (or a set of scrolls rather than a book, scrolls that approximate to what we call the ‘Old Testament’). The culture of the day, re-enforced by how the holy book was interpreted, embraced a kind of a class system, at least as far as the religious world was concerned. Two big things stand out. Women were not equal to men; and Gentiles (basically all non-Jews) were not accepted by God.
Unless we think Jesus somehow floated above his culture and drew his values directly from God it seems pretty clear that if he was ‘fully human’ that his values were deeply shaped by his culture. If we could have asked a young Jesus about his view of women or Gentiles we would probably have been shocked by his answers. This makes Jesus all the more remarkable, for he continually broke out beyond his culture, and one could certainly never accuse him of fitting in with the religious way of life that was expected of him! (There’s a story of him at age 12 where he shocks all the adults in a temple because he goes way beyond their understanding and teaches them new things.) This way of approaching his life suggests that he was not simply ‘fully human’ but for the first time we see someone who was ‘truly human’. Someone who modelled at each stage of life what it is to live how humans are intended to live. Jesus, whenever confronted by his own culturally conditioned bias, jumped over the specific religious and historical boundary and his response provoked a new and radical way of living. We read later that Jesus claimed that if someone had ‘seen’ him then they had seen God. This was an understanding that I think developed as Jesus grew in his understanding of his own identity.
Jesus develops and grows to maturity.
There are so many examples in the Bible of Jesus developing and breaking out of many cultural and religious norms. (Those stories about Jesus are in the first four books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.) Here I pick just a few stories to illustrate.
Jesus had some very key interaction with women that seems to have changed aspects of his world views. Perhaps his own mother (who probably became pregnant with him as an unmarried mother at around the age of fourteen) was a major influence on him. Early on in John’s Gospel we read of his mother, Mary, pushing him to embrace a shift in his understanding of what he should be doing in the light of it being the right time to step up into his destiny. We read in John 2:1-7:
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
If we simply read the text it seems that Mary catalysed action. And I don’t think it is going too far to suggest that his reply to his mother with the word ‘Woman’ was something of an initial put down. His culture would have provoked that, but the provocation of his mother’s sense of destiny, meant he stepped over the cultural barrier and acted, changing his view that ‘his hour had not yet come’.
John, the writer, goes on to say that the miracle of changing the water into wine was the first sign in which his glory was revealed (and I will suggest as this writing continues that ‘glory’ is not something spooky but is an adequate description of humanity being truly humanity.)
(A little aside although the Bible is very clear in instructing us not ‘to get drunk’, yet the very same term ‘to be drunk’ in the instruction, ‘Do not get drunk on wine’ (Ephesians 5:18) is the term used here in John where we read that the wine that Jesus ‘made’ was brought out after the ‘guests had too much to drink’. Nothing very religious in Jesus’ action!)
There is another story told, in both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, concerning Jesus and his encounter with a non-Jewish woman (described as a Syro-Phoenician). Here is Matthew’s version:
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
She asks that Jesus heal her daughter who was sick. The disciples of Jesus want to move her away as her persistent request is too intrusive. Jesus initially responds to her with a reply that tells her that his mission was only to Jews. She does not take ‘no’ as an answer. The result was the amazement in Jesus who responded saying that it was her ‘faith’ that astounded him. We could read the story that Jesus was provoking her to a greater level of request, but a more natural reading was that he was initially responding as a male first century Jew would. Her persistence, her faith however is what challenged Jesus to move beyond his cultural world view. I think this is the more natural reading and is reflected in the painful language Jesus used of ‘dogs’ in reference to those who were not Jews, but makes the huge shift after the provocation to refer to her as ‘woman’ once she would not leave him alone. (Matthew 15: 21-28 and Mark 7:24-30 are where we can read the story.)
Another story told that illustrates faith by someone who was not a Jew is that of a centurion in the Roman army. (We read of this in Matthew 8:5-13 and in Luke 7:1-10.) Jesus responds to heal the centurion’s servant observing that he had never found such faith in anyone in Israel as he found in the centurion. The interaction with an ‘outsider’ must have been very instructive for Jesus, and could well have been helpful in showing him that faith always triumphed over race. (This question of ‘faith’ or ‘race’ was always a big debate for Jews. Certainly the later New Testament writings decided that no-one could claim to be ‘chosen’ because of ethnicity. Only the radicals at the time of Jesus thought of acceptance by God as extending beyond the Jewish people, and then they only saw it taking place by former non-Jews complying with the Jewish Law. We can legitimately ask if the interaction with the centurion and the ‘SyroPhoenician’ woman might have been instrumental in helping Jesus step beyond his cultural boundaries. There is one other possible element in the story of the centurion. The term ‘servant’ (Greek: pais) could also refer to a same-sex partner. Certainly not provable, but neither can it be ruled out, and given that the proportion of the Bible that seems to prohibit all same-sex activity (0.0001%) is so small, and can genuinely be interpreted in different ways, we probably have to leave this open as a possibility. Just because it is such a small percentage does not necessarily mean that is all it has to say on the subject. What we read concerning the body and sexual activity also has a bearing, nevertheless the small percentage I quote puts some of the controversy into perspective.)
The challenge of stories is we can read what is going on through different lenses. Only if we see no progression in Jesus’ understanding will we read the stories as if Jesus came to the situations with a fully-developed, already maturely formed, perspective. The wider testimony of Scripture seems to suggest otherwise. We read that Jesus was made ‘perfect’, implying a process:
[God] should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered (Hebrews 2:10).
The term ‘perfect’ is better translated as ‘mature’, indicating a progression and growth as he lived out his life in the everyday interactions with others.
Another story that can certainly be read as a challenge to Jesus’ worldview is termed ‘the woman caught in adultery’. We find this one in John’s Gospel chapter 8, and the opening verses. She was caught in the sexual act and was brought to Jesus by the religious leaders of the time who were called Pharisees:
They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him [my comment: accusing him of contradicting the law, and refusing to accept the authority of Moses].
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Why write in the ground? Probably to give him time to think, but how profound given that his understanding was that humanity was created from the ground (the ‘dust of the earth’). His finger was touching the very essence of humanity, and it was that contact with dust that I suggest gave him insight at that time. Dust… what we might term ‘fallen’ dust. Dust (humanity) that consistently failed to be ‘truly’ human. Even the religious people who were able to draw lines and therefore call certain people ‘sinners’ were silenced by Jesus’ reply. Jesus no longer defined ‘sin’ by a set of rules, as they did, but by how we live in relation to others. (This I will write about later – the Bible describes two ways of living, describing it as ‘life’ or ‘death’. Religion describes two ways of living, calling them ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.)
We think a good way to engage with the above examples would be to suggest that Jesus was the ‘great teacher’ because he was the ‘great learner’. The idea that he was born as a baby and never cried, or as a teenager who never pushed the boundaries with respect to his parents belong more to the fairy-tale Christmas hymns with lines such as:
The cattle are lowing,
the poor Baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus,
no crying He makes.
Fully human? Not, if as a baby there was no crying. Jesus followed a developmental path physically but also emotionally and what we might term spiritually. The key element to the spiritual development is that of a path toward maturity.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Hebrews 5: 8-9).
So putting a few things together from this opening chapter I suggest these are the key take away points
We have a knowledge of who God is when we consider what we read of Jesus, particularly in his interaction with others. We consider that he was ‘fully God’ and ‘fully human’ at one and the same time. Yet a very key part is that he also shows us what it is to be truly human… We can consider his teachings and be shaped by them and this will be of great value, and yet the Bible goes beyond simply advocating for what he taught, indicating that in some way he became a source of ‘salvation’. That is an aspect that we will need to think about, but or now I will make a switch to some thoughts about what I consider is the source for our understanding about God and our account of the life of Jesus, what we term the Bible (or the Scriptures), a book full of content but not always easy to understand and interpret.