October 23, 2017

“Is Jesus Truly The Point?”

cake.jpg
Steve, a reader of the previous essay on this site, writes in the comment threads:

This is something I’ve thought alot about, and haven’t come to a conclusion. Maybe you guys have some thoughts.

-Is Jesus truly the point? Without wanting to blaspheme, I sometimes wonder if by sticking on Jesus we miss other attributes of God such as wrath and sovereignty seen in the OT.

-If all we need to know comes from the life and example of Jesus, why do we have 2/3 of the NT? For that matter, why do things like theology exist?

I don’t necessarily believe these things, but I do wonder what others feel about them. Or, maybe the Baltimore air has just gotten to me…

In my essay, “A Conversation in God’s Kitchen,” I wrote with folks like Steve in mind when I said

Ever think of the Bible as….a grocery store? I worked at grocery stores for a long time. People come into the store with their grocery lists, and they know what they are looking for. They need some bananas, ice cream, a case of root beer, a head of lettuce. They run up and down the aisles finding what they want, find everything on the list, check out and go home.

That’s how evangelicals increasingly approach the Bible. They have a list of what they need. Parenting principles. Verses for healing. Advice for marriage. Rules for children. Stories to inspire. Challenges to give. Information on Heaven. Predictions of the future. We run into the “Bible” looking for these things, and when we find them, we leave.

This “grocery store” view of the Bible is built on the idea that the Bible is an inspired “library” of true information. A “magic book” as some have called it, where passages contain unquestionable information and authoritative rules. This approach to the Bible is flattering to the human ability to catalog information, and it is used in many churches to build confidence that the use of scripture puts a person on a foundation of absolute certainty.

In this approach, interpretation is important, and good interpretation is common. But the problem is fundamental. Scripture is not a grocery store. It’s not a place to run in and find principles for parenting or prophecies about the future, even though the conversation contains discussions about these things.

No, the Bible is a cooking show. And if we are going to interpret any part of scripture correctly, we need to get out of the store- the encyclopedia of true things in a magic book- and get to the kitchen.

And, amazingly, here we are! If you look on the counter, you will see all the ingredients for a cake. This cake is really going to be magnificent, and we have all the ingredients to mix together and create this wonderful creation. Eggs. Flour. Salt. Sugar. Butter. Vanilla. And many other bowls of ingredients.

All these ingredients, of course, are the contents of the Bible. The eggs are Genesis 1-3. The flour is Leviticus. The salt is Proverbs. The sugar is Psalms. And so on. These are good ingredients. Crucial ingredients. Now…we need to ask an important question: What are we baking?

The cake the Bible is baking is Jesus Christ, the mediator of our salvation, and the Gospel that comes in him.

There are people who like eggs. There are, I suppose people who like to eat flour. There are other things you can make with these ingredients besides the cake. But if you follow the conversation/recipe, this cake will turn out to be Jesus, the Lamb of God, the bread of Life, the salvation of the world. The cake scripture is baking is Jesus. If you recognize that cake for what it is, and eat it believing, you will be saved.

Using this analogy, we must interpret the Bible backwards. Reading it forward is fine and necessary. Interpreting forward is legal, but far from adequate. We must get to the Gospels. We must get to John 1 and Revelation 4 and 5 and Romans 1:1-4. We must get to Jesus, and then we can read Genesis 1 rightly. We can read it without Jesus, and do a lot of good or make a huge mess. But we will be missing the point of every part of scripture if we don’t interpret with Jesus in mind.

When folks like Steve ask such honest questions, I see so very clearly where we’ve come in our churches, our preaching and out teaching.

The “attributes” of God are now considered to be, quite possibly, more important than the incarnation and the ministry of Jesus. It is now deemed of vital importance that we not lose track of the wrath of God, or get side-tracked in the grace of God, by putting too much emphasis on Jesus’ earthly words and ministry. Behind this is a remarkable possibility: that some Christians find Jesus more understandable if we focus solely on the cross, and put all the other aspects of the incarnation secondary to the death of Jesus.

A single sentence rings across my mind and heart: Steve, God chose to reveal himself to us in Jesus of Nazareth, and nothing about the revelation of God in the incarnation is unimportant.

Think about it. Get it. Don’t let go. The law came through Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one had ever seen God or revealed God in the way Jesus did, not even the prophets or the law. It was all true, but Jesus was the Truth. The scriptures report what God has revealed. Jesus reveals God.

If we have come to a point that we are uneasy with the incarnation, the works, the words and the teaching of Jesus as compared to the “wrath” of God and other attributes, something is wrong at the core.

I have a wonderful set of messages by Reformed Baptist pastor Al Martin that are all from the text of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. In the introduction to the sermons, Martin says that he had been asked many times in his career to preach on the attributes of God. Martin said he had never done so, because he truly feared that he would preach the attributes of God as somehow disconnected from the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. He was so earnest in those words. He did not want to think of God apart from the revelation of God that is Jesus.

I freely admit that I am not interested in the Bible apart from its revelation of Jesus, because Jesus IS THE REVEALED GOD. He doesn’t teach like other teachers; he reveals God. He doesn’t give good examples. What he does, God is doing. He is not a character in the Biblical drama. He is the Biblical message itself.

If we are God’s people, we only see the wrath of God in Jesus. We only know the justice of God in Jesus. We only know the love of God in Jesus. Everything else is a shadow, a pointer, a sign, a reminder. Jesus is the reality. All that scripture spoke about God was leading us to understand, embrace, trust and believe in Jesus.

I hope Steve will consider what a wonderful thing it is to know that the God of all of scripture has come to us in the incarnate one, Jesus Christ, the one sure and certain Word from God.

Comments

  1. Excellent post again 🙂

    Of course Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15) and so he must be the one that informs all our concepts of God. I’m convinced that people sometimes think that there is another, perhaps more sinister, God hiding behind Jesus. Jesus is kind and compassionate while the Father is angry and wrathful, as though Father and Son were playing ‘good cop, bad cop’ with humanity, but if this were true then Jesus does not reveal the Father – yet Jesus says that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father.

    This means that God’s attitude to sin, justice, forgiveness and enemies etc must be understood and interpreted through Christ himself.

    As Martin Luther once said ‘I know of know other God other than Jesus Christ’. Amen to that.

  2. There’s a quote ringing round my head that I can’t quite remember and I can’t think who said it or where I read it. Part from that it’s great! 🙂

    “The amazing thing about the incarnation is not that it teaches us that Jesus is like God. But that God is like Jesus.”

    Or summint like that!

  3. Awesome stuff, Michael. I plan to send you a trackback on this one very soon, it’s a must read for everyone. Thank you.

    Brad

  4. I was challenged some years ago to read through the bible in a year. It was recommended not to go front to back, but to skip around some NT some OT. At the time, I considered myself saved, but had a difficult time truly understanding the character of God. It was a wonderful year, as reading the words of Christ drew echoes from the voices of the past. I would read about the wrath of God and feel stricken, only to find resolve in the teachings of Christ. It was if each author was at the same table in dialogue. I learned much in that year about my faith, my perspectives and most importantly, my Lord. It was a result of my study that lead my to truly understand grace, and understand that I had been missing out on the salvation that Jesus had for me. I thank Him for pursuing me in this way. Although I no longer give myself a timeframe, I still work through the entire bible in my daily study.

  5. Hahah… I was thinking to myself that every sermon I’ve ever listened to said the exact same thing.

    Maybe it’s better this way, as opposed to your “On Christless Preaching” examples.

    When I mention exact same thing, I don’t mean verbatim, but the subject has to come back to one thing.

    Pretty awesome!

  6. Oh, and another thing is that all the other points of God’s wrath is pointless without Christ. (Haha, pointless without Christ. Is Christ truly the point? Worthless puns.)

    Afterall, what’s the use of learning about God? It doesn’t change a thing about our fate if Christ is not known.

    It seems clear that to understand wrath and sovereignty, we must understand Christ.

  7. Dinah Clarke says:

    Michael

    I came to post my appreciation of your article on “Christless Preaching” – yes I too, have printed it out and plan on sharing it. It is very good, very true …. and it so needed to be said! Thank you!

    And then you totally blew me away with this article! You are right (and I must now print out the “Conversation in God’s Kitchen”) …. what I have observed is that either people don’t read their Bible, or the other extreme, they read their Bible to find ammunition.

    But the Bible is given to teach us about God …. and with Jesus as our focus, then all the Bible does teach us about God … about His character and what He is like.

    But it is a little like walking a tightrope, take your eyes of the goal (Jesus) and we lose our balance.

    In my opinion, it is this focus that John Piper speaks of.

    joy – Dinah

  8. Amen, brother– great post.

  9. I love baking. Ever noticed though how it tends to mess the kitchen up while in process? Flour scattered on the bench, egg dripped on the floor [my man tells me I’m a messy cook!]and a pile of dishes to be washed, dried and put away.

    But when you’ve made a fresh pot of coffee and sliced off some warm cake – that’s all that matters. Yep, in my mind, it’s all about the cake!

  10. Jesus is very much the point.

    I think confusion arises in this kind of discussion because we tend to think, “Okay, if Jesus is the focus, then that means the Gospels represent a canon within the canon. Furthermore, the red letters within the Gospels represent a canon within the canon within the canon.” A lot of people find a way to distort Christian teaching by using this kind of reasoning. (And it’s kind of funny, too, that the distortions are always built upon what the red letters DON’T say, while ignoring quite a bit of what they do say).

    But I believe that the Gospels, like the other books of the New Testament, are divinely-inspired interpretations of Jesus (in fact, the books of the Old Testament are too–see Luke 24:44). We should avoid the idea that the Gospels represent the “real” Jesus while the epistles are merely the Pauline tradition, the Petrine tradition, or whatever. Every book of the Bible was written by someone inspired by God to be an authoritative testimony to Jesus Christ. Apart from Scripture, we do not know Christ. I think if these things are kept in mind, then questions like the one that Steve posed are more likely to be unnecessary.

  11. Big Fat John says:

    I keep reading the following from this essay:

    “I freely admit that I am not interested in the Bible apart from its revelation of Jesus, because Jesus IS THE REVEALED GOD. He doesn’t teach like other teachers; he reveals God. He doesn’t give good examples. What he does, God is doing. He is not a character in the Biblical drama. He is the Biblical message itself.

    If we are God’s people, we only see the wrath of God in Jesus. We only know the justice of God in Jesus. We only know the love of God in Jesus. Everything else is a shadow, a pointer, a sign, a reminder. Jesus is the reality. All that scripture spoke about God was leading us to understand, embrace, trust and believe in Jesus.”

    These words belong with the great qoutes in history we’ve got from the likes of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and of course Benny Hinn. Holy crap I can’t stop reading them, they are seriously blowing my mind. This needs to be the footnote in every study bible for John 1:1. I have to go outside and turn cartwheels or something because I’m about to explode with some charismatic holy laughter. Perhaps do a little Holy Ghost hop on the devil’s head. Okay I should stop, but man those words were freakin’ awesome and something this fat guy needed to hear.

  12. thefiercefriesian says:

    If we were to rephrase Steve’s questions along the lines of ontology I believe he has a legitimate point. If the question was not so much what are the attributes but instead what is the relationship between the members of the Trinity I would agree with Steve’s concerns.

    I know of Bible cults that emphasize Jesus’ moral life, and his redemption and atonement yet deny his godhood. Do these cultists really “know” Jesus apart from His attributes and proper relationship?

    Jesus is the Good News, our imputed righteousness, the incarnated Word, but we also have the written Word, by which we can know why we need Good News. Can we really know the Good News without understanding the relationship between Yaweh, the Christ, and the Spirit?

  13. I’m curious to see how Trinitarianism factors into this understanding of Jesus. I wholeheartedly agree with your point that to get bogged down in theological minutiae, thereby losing focus on Jesus, is a big mistake. The Christian life is, well, centered around Christ. But then I am not so sure of referring to this “God” character in the abstract. What I mean is that people mean many things by “God,” and if we simply say that Jesus reveals God, many people will impose their own meaning on this; hence, we get all this historical Jesus stuff where people try to get Jesus to fit their agenda for God. I guess what needs to be made clear is that Jesus reveals the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Triune God.

    But may I suggest an alternative formulation? Jesus of Nazareth is the fullest revelation of the Triune God in the fullness of love that permeates His being.

  14. Eric in New Haven says:

    Yes, another good post. I have encountered this theology that is so focused on the redeeming blood of Christ, that nothing that happens before that really matters. Even Jesus’ words can be pretty much dismissed, since he was speaking to people prior to the cross. (e.g. Jesus was just pointing out that you can’t be good enough, not really saying that you have to do things like forgive people repeatedly.)

    Yesterday, I was speaking with some preachers who said they had been to evangelical churches that never had preached from the gospels, and if a minister were to preach from the gospels, the church members would consider the preacher to be a ‘liberal’. Hmmm. So a preacher who simply preached the text of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ would be a ‘liberal’?

    I have always preferred churches that give some emphasis to the gospels, and get irked by those that diminish their value (although I think none would SAY that is what they are doing). This makes me think that if I must have a label, perhaps it would be appropriate to call myself a ‘Gospel Christian’.

  15. Eric,

    Conservatives typically preach from the Pauline Epistles and the Gospel of John. Liberals typically preach from the Synoptic Gospels. It has more to do with the messages each group is trying to preach than the actual content of the books.

  16. Liberals find something of what they are looking for in the timeless ethical principles found in Jesus’ teachings in the Synoptic Gospels. So, if you throw out the rest of the New Testament and forget especially John’s Gospel, then twist a few things here and there, come up with some theories about the origins of the remaining elements of “high” Christology in the Synoptics, and just plain ignore the rest, you can come up with something that halfway resembles a modern, Western liberal. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly the Jesus they want to find!

    But if read on their own terms, the Synoptics present a Christology that is in complete harmony with the rest of the New Testament. One of the most staggering claims Jesus makes for himself can be found in Luke 10:21-22 (a text, which, incidentally, has a lot to do with election. So, in answer to Michael’s question on a previous post, I would say that my Calvinistic understanding of election is what Jesus believed, judging by his words in this passage and also by his statements in John’s Gospel).

  17. Eric in New Haven says:

    While it may well be that liberals misuse the synoptic gospels, it is the idea that some churches would find *any* preaching on the synoptic gospels to be suspect that I find disturbing (if true). As Michael writes, “nothing about the revelation of God in the incarnation is unimportant.”

    I do tend to start with the gospels rather than the epistles, since that is where Jesus Christ is found, and that is the point of everything else. I am worried about the notion that a focus on Christ’s incarnation might get us sidetracked.

    It is not my intention to promote a liberal approach to scripture, but if some elements of scripture are liberal (or conservative) so be it. While I have not been with Christians so extreme as to exclude the gospels from preaching and study, I have felt that some of the harder teachings of Jesus were dismissed too quickly.

  18. Regarding Steve’s initial question, I don’t think a proper focus on Jesus Christ diminishes our understanding of God; for example, nothing demonstrates the wrath and sovereignty of God like the crucifixion.

  19. In one of my children’s ministries lessons I use a puzzel to illustrate the scope of the Bible and it’s importance.
    I’ve sinced blogged about it and expanded it.
    The Picture on the cover is Christ on the Cross…
    but without seeing the picture, it is hard to assemble the puzzel.
    some people take out the all the black pieces and say, see the puzzel is black
    some take out the red pieces and say, no the puzzel is red.
    they count out their pieces and the one with the most pieces wins.
    then some people take out the pieces they don’t like, only chosing to work with the pretty or nice pieces.
    the picture will never be complete.
    what are the corner pieces?
    I was thinking Genesis 1:1, and John 1:1,14 and maybe John 3:16…
    I don’t know…
    the edge, the frame of the puzzel is the old testament, because without that Jesus means nothing.
    Is Jesus really the point?
    He is the focal point, the pivital point
    but even reading just the red words, we see, that although His command is to love, His message isn’t wishy washy love peace and being nice. We need the whole book, the whole picture, but we do not worship the book, we worship the one who is revealed in the book, Jesus is the Truth! YHWH – father, son, and holy spirit!
    the great I AM!

  20. OK, I think I know and agree with what you are saying… but I have a little uneasiness about it… Firstly yes Scripture leads us to Jesus, not only to his death, resurection and ascension, to his life and ministry as well… but there is a sniff of Marcionism about the some of the comments. I think that I would want to say something about the significance of Creation in it’s own right, I also believe we can learn much about the character of God in his ongoing relationship with the nation of Israel which does not diminish the incarnation one bit. one can get into a cycle saying that yes God is revealed in the incarnation… and the incarnation makes it possible for us to know God in a relational way (a bit of a chicken and egg situation).
    Secondly, I don’t think you are saying this but it feels like some of the essence of the Triune Godhead is getting lost in some of the responses, I suppose it is the “the” in “Jesus IS THE REVEALED GOD” – without wishig to get into modalism etc. I would rather say that Jesus is GOD REVEALED and Jesus enables and leads us to know God; Father, Son and Spirit.

  21. The fulcrum point for God’s priorities for the human family are clearly stated by Paul: “If Jesus be not raised from the dead your faith is vain.” selah

  22. In some resturants the menues actually have pictures of the food that is available.
    As most folks know, the pictures point to a greater reality than what one sees.
    There are some not wanting to order, simply enjoying licking the pictures.
    The starnge looks on the faces of the picture licker’s when they see me not only cutting my steak, but putting it into my mouth.
    Man shall not live by pictures alone.

    Richard

  23. I LOVE this post and will be linking to it shortly over at my place. I cant believe that you and I havent run into each other in the blogosphere as of yet- you even have my blogging partner jollyblogger on your blogroll! This is an awesome post, and I feel a spate of Imonk linkeage coming on! God bless you in all you do.

  24. I also loved this post, I have my cake and I am eating it!:)