July 13, 2020

iMonk Classic: The Light of a Most Obvious Question

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From December, 2005

A few weeks ago, I listened to an extraordinary sermon, but not extraordinary in the way you might think. The absence of Jesus in the sermon shook me.

Jesus was never mentioned. Not once. Not anywhere. Not ever. Not in any way. Not in the introduction. Not in the illustrations. Not in the conclusion. Not in some trailing reference to “accepting Christ” stuck on to the last paragraph a la Joel Osteen.

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Change the word “Bible” to “Koran” and the sermon could have been a hit in any mosque in the world.

Frankly, this kind of thing has caused me to start rethinking a lot of things. How can we be approaching Christianity as if it is the Oxford English Dictionary, where Jesus is an entry, but you can read thousands of entries without any reference to Jesus? That’s not right.

In the hopes of deterring some from the road that ends in giving talks about reformers and doctrine and the Bible and why we’re so right, but never even speaking about Jesus, here’s a (hopefully) provocative post.

I am going to give you a flawed and errant post. I’ll say that right off the top. What I’m going to recommend in this post as a method for doing theology is almost certainly flawed enough to inspire pages and pages of response in the blogosphere. So, if anything that admits its imperfections immediately offends you, move on to the cat pictures.

In fact, I can be pretty fairly specific about the error I am going to promote: I’m going to suggest an imonkish version of “What Would Jesus Do?” I’m read up on all the problems with that particular approach to Christian ethics, and I while I think it has its merits, I don’t recommend it to unlicensed drivers.

I’ll go on and say I’m not going to recommend my version to just anyone, either. What I’m going to suggest might be useful, however, to those of you who have enough experience with the Gospels to have some idea of what Jesus was like in the day to day.

I have no trouble admitting, by the way, that the Gospels weren’t written to give us a transcript of the day-to-day with Jesus, or to answer the kinds of questions about “A Day With Jesus” that our curiousity might suggest. The Gospels were front-loaded with the message that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, while also being the resurrected Son of Israel’s God; “God with us”, in other words. Still, I believe we can use the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus as a guide to evaluation of much that we do and believe, and even with a “verse”, we can have a sense- an accurate sense- of how Jesus impacts certain questions.

My theological suggestion has now been substantially disarmed of any potential arrogance, so I’m going to get it out of the garage and take it for a spin:

“If you were to spend three years hanging around with Jesus as he is presented in the Gospels, do you believe you would come to the conclusion that [fill in this part with the theological issue being tested]?”

Let me repeat: this method has a lot of possible subjective mischief associated with it, and I would never recommend this in a discussion other than to describe why you have come to a conclusion about Jesus or the Christian life.

It is far from useless, however. It’s actually worked in my own thinking in ways that have been marvelously clarifying and helpful to me. (I’ll say it again: I’m not drawing these conclusions for you. You can just point at me and say I’m weird and wrong.) Despite the fact that every book I’ve read on Jesus has been full of statements that we really can’t know all that much about Jesus, I find myself constantly overwhelmed with what I have come to believe I can know about Jesus. While I don’t believe my version of Jesus is without subjective, cultural bias, I’m not living with a kind of hopeless cynicism about what Jesus would think about, for example, abortion.

Remember, the key to this exercise is the idea of seeing the integration of life, ministry, teaching, priorities, worship and relationships in the life of Jesus. It’s not “What conclusions can I draw from Jesus about predestination?” but “What would I be saying about predestination if I hung around Jesus for three years?”

The difference is essential: Not what conclusions would I draw, but HOW WOULD I BE DIFFERENT? What would I see differently? How would I conceive of life, priorities and the continuing Jesus movement?

So how about a few laps around the track?

If you were to spend three years hanging around with Jesus as he is presented in the Gospels…

  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the primary job of a pastor is to ensure a church gets as large as possible?
  • do you believe you would present the doctrine of predestination the same way as contemporary Calvinists present it?”
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that without the right kind of music, your church can’t grow?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that systematic theology is as precise and as important as we’ve made it?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that Jesus is best represented by western, American, middle-class white evangelicalism?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that a sincere and faithful homosexual should be a leader of the church?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that confessing Christians who disagree on the meaning of the Lord’s supper should disfellowship one another?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the best way to describe the Bible is inerrant?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that pastoral ministry is primarily about defending our theology from those who differ from us?
  • do you believe you would place as much value as we do on formal, school based, education?
  • do you believe you would promote “family values” and the “culture war” as important causes that represent Jesus?
  • do you believe you would identify with the Republican or the Democratic parties?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that it’s very important to read from one translation of the Bible only?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that Jesus would identify himself with the labels of your denomination or group?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the Christian life as explained by evangelical evangelists and church leaders today is true to Jesus?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the emerging church is unfaithful to Jesus and should be condemned?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that you are not one of the rich? Or one of the Pharisees-types?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that you are, now, a disciple and follower of Jesus? Not a fan, but a follower?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are really helpful?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the Reformation was the high point of Christian history?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that Jim Wallis, James Dobson, Joel Osteen or Rick Warren were acquainted with Jesus at all?
  • what kind of sermons would you preach?
  • do you believe you would come to the conclusion that your current approach to prayer is similar to Jesus?
  • do you believe your treatment of people would change?
  • do you believe you would spend money as you do today?

The objections? Well, we already know that some will say that without the presuppositon of an inerrant Bible, I can’t even spell “Jesus” correctly. And I can hear one of the BHT fellows already: “Jesus doesn’t live now, so we have no idea what he would say about these things.” Of course, but that’s not my experiment. My premise is how would three years living with Jesus change the way you answer the questions, live your life and conceive of Christianity?

I contend that we ought to be able to become conversant with the Gospels and make these judgments.

This is substantially different from, “Let’s select verses and build an outline of what the Bible says on predestination.” It is admitting that Jesus was seeking to make disciples, not to teach a class. The New Testament can be sorted through to produce a chapter or predestination, but isn’t this appeal to the imagination AND our knowledge a way to find an authentic answer to the questions we face?

In my experiment, I can not only take into account, “What did Jesus say about predestination?” but I can include how Jesus treated everyone. How did his stories and exorcisms and miracles combine to present his beliefs about predestination? How do I see predestination in his relationships and actions toward others? How did predestination come out of and work into, the life, teaching and ministry of Jesus? How does the topic interact with the Christian life?

There is always this question of “What do we see of a topic in the complete picture/impression of Jesus’ life?” And if we ponder this subject in the “light” of Jesus, what can we see ourselves saying, doing and stressing as faithful to Jesus?

[I am not, by the way, attempting to cut off the Gospels from the rest of the Bible, but I am frustrated and exhausted with the idea that Paul so accurately conveys Jesus that no contemplation or consideration of the Gospels is even NECESSARY. Paul is the first one to raise the issue of his own faithfulness to everything about the Gospel that came in Jesus. If he can be aware of his own dependence on Jesus- and the possibility of various on how much he can claim Jesus as standing behind his teaching at points- then so can we. But let me be clear: I absolutely reject any notion that there are theologies that “trump” the Kingdom theology of Jesus. Jesus’ chosen paradigm MUST have preeminence, and his life, ministry and actions are part of that Kingdom message.]

I am asking how much contemplation of Jesus actually goes into our thinking about Christianity. It is the Jesus-movement. We are the followers of Jesus. We are worshiping in, and through, Jesus. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is God with us. Jesus is Emmanuel. Jesus is everything.

If you spent three years with him, what kind of person would you be? What kind of theologian? Husband? Father? Man?

So much for my experiment. It may be an abject failure, but it is helping me every day, and maybe it will help you, too.

I believe this is a fundamental question. One of the things that really helped me was recalling that Paul studied Jesus for years before he started church planting. His “zeal” for the new Messiah wasn’t knowledge of the Messiah. Paul needed to be deeply “Jesus-saturated” in his thinking. When I read Mark and Luke, I realize I am reading the things Paul was hearing, and his life was being shaped by those Markan-Lukan stories.

I invite you to the Gospels, and to books that take you “further in.” And as you journey, contemplate this helpful question, and let it guide you as you are formed by the Spirit of Jesus himself.

Comments

  1. Ummmmmm…….oveerwhelmingly “no”, with one “YES!” and a mumbled….”not really sure…”.

    I know myself well enough to be sure that I would have been hyperventilating and/or throwing up in until at least the Lord’s second appearance explaining what just happened. Before then, I would have been certain that I had followed a crazy guy and it was only a matter of WHO was going to kill me…the Roman’s or the Sanheidran!

  2. No matter how you feel about the late, great Michael Spencer, it certainly can’t be denied that the man was not afraid to ask and address the truly dangerous questions.
    And, please forgive my arrogance, I might add a couple of questions of my own to the list.
    Would Jesus feel welcome and at home in these sundry and various church environments that we have created — like He felt welcome and at home in Mary and Martha’s house — or would He start turning over tables shortly after coming in the door?
    How different would church history have turned out and how different would the current church landscape be if Christians at every point in Christian history looked to the Gospels more as means of getting to know the person of Jesus — what He is like, what He likes, what He dislikes, what He values most, what kinds of things He regards as important or unimportant, what He revealed about Himself and His kingdom — rather than just cutting slivers from His teachings as support for various theological and ecclesiological positions?

  3. Christianism is rampant these days. But there is scant biblical faith in the One whom we call our Savior.

    As Luther said, “When you start with freedom (a free will), then you’ll end up in bondage. And when you start in bondage (a bound will – bound to sin), then you can end up with freedom.”

  4. I agree that this is a great question, provided we aren’t tricked into thinking the answer is obvious. We are all liable to read our current perspectives backward into the texts, because we’ve been used to considering our personal or denominational orthodoxies “Biblical.” And even if we try not to do commit that error, we’re still moderns. We can never “hear” the texts in the same way as an inhabitant of the first-century near east. But this question is still a step in the right direction.

    I think one important tool must be temporarily “setting aside” our the elaborate theologies we now live with, which are often relying heavily on material outside the gospels and caught up with questions that seemed pressing centuries later. Rather than being lured off to answer an 11-century or a 16-century question, we have instead to ask what questions are being pushed forward most forthrightly within Jesus teaching about the Kingdom. Once we answer that, we might want to return to our other favorite questions, and see if our answers aren’t different or richer.

    • not to do commit = not to commit
      our the elaborate theologies = our elaborate theologies
      are often relying = often rely

      (sorry)

  5. Interesting that Michael placed Jim Wallis with James Dobson, or Joel Osteen with Rick Warren.

    As for the following question, it came up in Sunday School this morning: “?do you believe you would come to the conclusion that you are not one of the rich? Or one of the Pharisees-types?”

    In class we’re in Luke 15, the parable of the lost sheep and the other 99. Jesus is with “tax collectors and sinners” and the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling that he’s hanging out with them and eating with them. So Jesus tells the parable to straighten them out.

    The discussion, as it often does in our classes, turned into a speculation of what the Pharisees were like, and (by default) how could they be so stupid. They were legalistic, narrow-minded, focused on the law and not the spirit of it, yada-yada, didn’t recognize Jesus. “Who are most like the Pharisees today?” was one question the leader asked. Various responses, but nobody mentioned fundamentalists or evangelicals, until I did.

    We are the Pharisees. Jesus was talking to us. It’s a whole lot more useful for us to think of ourselves as Pharisees than to point fingers (like the Pharisee in another story) and say “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like that [Pharisee] over there.”

    A few people got it. We’ve been through this before in class, and I’ll keep at it (still got the rest of Luke 15 to go and we tend to linger). But as usual, people resume finger-pointing shortly after I open my mouth. Minutes later, someone brought up movies, saying that naturally Christians won’t go to X-rated movies, and some not to R-rated movies, but, he said, “Why do we allow ourselves to go to movies at all, knowing Hollywood’s attitude toward God?”

    It’s a good class, we’re all friends; but sometimes if it’s a nice day I go for a hike instead.

    • Ted, skip the hikes on Sunday, or wait until class is over.

      They need you there.

      • Thanks, Steve, you’ve made more sense than my wife (she goes to a different class and wonders why I continue with mine). But class will never be over. We’ve been on Luke for over a year, and no matter what book it’s the same old getting-off-the-subject every week. Fortunately (I guess) there’s less good weather this time of year anyway. So I’ll be “stuck inside on Sunday morning”. I do make it to the 10:30 service at any rate, so I’m not completely lost.

  6. There is definitely merit in questioning. Stopping and examining things in this manner (there are other manners as well, to be sure) can help illumine spots our constructions have cast shadows over. That’s why i keep coming back to this site. I appreciate the questions, even if I don’t always agree with the answers!

  7. Atheist Gladiator says

    This misses the point. “Jesus” is a literary creation of the gospels, who may never have existed as a historical person. And a literary work can mean whatever its readers want it to mean.

    • conanthepunctual says

      I suppose that depends entirely on what you believe the point to be. Certainly there are biblical apologists that could argue your position and I’m simply not one of them; but it only misses the point if you don’t believe the point to be what Michael clearly did.

  8. conanthepunctual says

    Wow. The question about the reformation from that perspective floored me. I’m so grateful for anyone and any thing that continues to legitimately challenge my preconceptions, assumptions, and blind spots.

  9. i would have been confused to be sure, since i neither speak nor understand ancient Aramaic or Hebrew or Greek or Latin…

    of course, i would be drawn to Him, but also uncomfortable that He would challenge me in all those questions & in every aspect of my not-so-holy sin proclivities…

    i would probably not get His sense of humor or know just when He was kidding me or being serious…

    i would wonder what He saw in people i absolutely felt uneasy around. would probably scratch my head in mild befuddlement at how He responded to specific people…

    i would probably pester Him a lot about making me some ‘stellar’ wine every-so-often…

    being a disciple of His would be the most challenging 3 years of my entire life & the most transforming.

    oh, and i would assuredly want to call fire down from heaven on just a few crazy uncle types that i felt misrepresenting Jesus & the kingdom! zip-zam-zow! PZZZZT! crispy critter stick figures with wisps of smoke curling up from their blackened remains…

    yeah…i would that kind of power to set things right. at least as i felt was the right way things should be… 😉

  10. Jesus.

    Really?

    Yeah, I hear a lot of sermons, a lot of articles about Christianity , a lot about “Christians”, a lot about “a Christian nation” nation.”

    Not a whole lot about Jesus.

    Which is why I am gonna chew on the meat of this entry of yours for quite a while, and tell my friends to read what you say too.

  11. CM, or whoever selected the illustrations,

    The icon at the top is not the usual depiction of the crucifixion; the figures around the cross are not Mary, John and the centurion. No, they are four modern Orthodox saints: Mother Maria of Paris, her son Yuri, Fr Dimitry Klepinin and another who worked with them, Ilya Fondaminsky. They were all killed by the Nazis at the end of WW II for helping Jews escape Paris. Mother Maria’s story is very interesting:

    http://www.incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door

    She went to the gas chamber at Ravensbruck, the same camp where Corrie ten Boom was interred.

    Dana