The Myth that Became Reality

As a child, my favorite book was a collection of Greek myths. I checked it out of the library again and again and read it from cover to cover. To this day, when I stumble across a copy of it in the bookstore, I can’t help thumbing through it. I was captivated by the colorful pictures but even more by its stories of gods who acted like men. They loved and fought, were jealous and plotted against one another. The humanness of these ancient gods appealed to me, perhaps because I recognized myself in them.

Years later, when I began to study the Scriptures, I read of a God who was very different from these ancient deities. “God is not a man, that he should lie,” the Scriptures said. The Christian God–the God of the Bible–is also the God whose son’s birth was the death knell for the gods of the ancient world. Scholars have long recognized that the growth of Christianity made the all too human antics of the ancient gods such an embarrassment, worship of them eventually became untenable.

Perhaps that’s why I find the Christmas story so surprising. Because in the Bible’s account of Christ’s nativity it almost seems as if one of the ancient myths has come to life. The theme of the God who takes human form and comes to earth is a common one in these ancient stories. The unrecognized visitation of the gods is one of the most familiar story lines in Greek and Roman mythology.

But those visitations differ significantly from the biblical account of Christ’s birth. In those ancient tales the human form of the gods is really just a mask. Like a celebrity who wishes to remain incognito, they disguise themselves in order to pursue their own, usually selfish, ends. They disguise themselves to seduce a human lover or get their petty revenge on someone.

When Christ comes, however, he does not merely use human form to disguise himself, he becomes a man. The incarnation of Christ is no mask, it is essential to his being. What is more, Jesus does not take a human form and then discard it at the resurrection. He retains his human nature. This is one of the proofs Christ uses to show his followers that he has truly risen from the dead. Luke 24:39 the risen Christ urges his disciples, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

Moreover, when Jesus arrives on the scene, he doesn’t come to pursue his own ends. “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” he declares to his disciples in John 4:34. And that work, it turns out, is to offer his body as a sacrifice for sin. Indeed, that is why the nativity story is so central to the Christian faith and is why it was inevitable that Christ’s infant cry in the manger in Bethlehem would be the death knell of the ancient gods. Because their worship was dependent upon the paltry things that men and women can offer: a bull, a goat, a cup of wine. Things that might satisfy God if he had human appetites.

The appearance of the babe in Bethlehem showed that true worship is dependent something else. It rests upon Christ’s offering of himself. That’s why the author of the book Hebrews ultimately attributes the words of the Psalmist to Christ when he says, “…it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.”

 That is also why we ultimately show our misunderstanding when we romanticize the gritty details of the nativity. Our image of the night of Christ’s birth is one that is largely sanitized. In our romanticized image of Christ’s birth there is no sobbing pain from a pregnant girl who isn’t even out of her teens yet. No infant cry and flail of limbs as the umbilical cord is cut. No sudden chill as the rush of blood and placenta are poured out on straw at the moment of birth. Our image of the event is neat and tidy. Theatrically lit and comfortably warm, like the nativity plays we will watch tonight. But that is our myth. Not the reality that Christ experienced.

Thanks be to God.

Working for God: Part II

When Scripture declares that those who “direct the affairs of the church well” are worthy of “double” honor (1 Timothy 5:17), it implies a standard of recompense which is correlated with performance. Paul’s reasoning seems to be something like this: All those who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of “honor.” The “good ones” deserve double honor. Those who labor in preaching and teaching especially deserve this reward (the Greek term could be translated “most of all”).

 Such language not only implies a comparison of effort between those engaged in the same ministry context, it implies that the nature of the work and the degree of effort should be taken into account when the church considers how to reward its servants in a monetary way. All who labor deserve a “wage” or reward. Some are more deserving than others. In view of this, an equitable return for one’s labor does not mean that everyone who labors should get the same amount but that the return should be equal to the effort. Those who work harder deserve more.

 The fact that those Paul has in view are engaged in what might be described as “kingdom work” is significant. How should the perspective of grace affect one’s approach to evaluation and reward in the workplace? Two of Jesus’ parables may shed light on this question. The parable of the workers in the vineyard and the parable of the talents both have employment and evaluation as a backdrop. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard God is portrayed as one who generously rewards those who labor (Matthew 20:1–16). Certainly the parable is intended as a warning against the kind of bargaining spirit which approaches the labor of the kingdom with a hireling’s mentality. It describes a shocking grace by which those who have invested less labor (because they came to the field later) receive the same reward as those who have had to endure the heat of the entire day. To suggest that employers ought to pay every employee the same wage goes beyond the scope of this parable. Yet it would not be too much to say that a grace informed ethic in the workplace would be an ethic that has generosity and kindness as its dominant features.

 The theme of expectation is further emphasized in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30; Luke 19:12–27). Here Jesus tells the story of a man who entrusts his property to four stewards before setting out on a journey. Upon returning from his trip, the man calls his servants to “settle accounts” with them. In Luke’s version the man is described as a “king” and those who are entrusted with talents as “servants.” Such details provide another reminder that these parables were not meant to provide detailed guidance to employers in how to handle their employees. The parable of the talents, like the parable of the laborers, is a parable of the “kingdom.” Yet it is just here that the parable provides important insight for “Christian work.” Evaluation and reward are consistent with kingdom values. When Christ returns He will assess the performance of those who have served Him. This evaluation of what has been done will be based on a standard of expectation. The master tells the “wicked, lazy servant” what he should have done.

All legitimate labor deserves its own reward. The worker deserves his wages. But the one for whom we labor is also owed something. God expects us to do our work well. We are not merely laborers. We are artisans and craftsmen for the Kingdom.

Working For God: Part I

Before I entered the ministry I worked for the General Motors Corporation trudging up and down the floors of the company’s world headquarters in downtown Detroit delivering telegrams. Every floor seemed to have its own culture. There were the computer technicians in their white lab coats in the basement who always seemed glad to see me. A few floors up the sales managers greeted one another in the hallway and talked about their golf game. I could feel the competitive tension between them when I stepped out of the elevator. 

High above us all, like the gods of Olympus, the president and vice–presidents were housed on the fourteenth floor. Visitors gained access to their wing by passing through a large glass door that served as a kind of veil into the holy of holies of the corporation. All who entered underwent the scrutiny of a stern looking security guard. This floor was a place of dark wood and dim light. The air was heavy with important decisions. Intimidated, I passed through those offices like a ghost, rarely speaking and barely noticed.

Although I liked my job, I spent much of my time wishing I could be doing something more “meaningful.” Eventually, I got my wish. I quit working for the automobile company and entered the realm of “vocational ministry.” I soon discovered that “full–time–ministry” had much in common with the world of work I thought I was leaving behind. It is tedious at times. It too has its share of mind numbing meetings that seem to go on forever and produce little result. I found that those in the Christian workplace could be driven by the same goals and beset by the same problems as their secular counterparts. I should not have been surprised. While I consider my chosen vocation to be more than a job, it is still work. This is not a bad thing. “Work,” Eugene Peterson has observed, “is the primary context for our spirituality.”

Ministry is my vocation. It is also my career. This is both a blessing and a curse. Its curse is that it means I am tempted to approach my vocation with the mentality of the hireling. One who is merely a hired hand will do the work but will not take responsibility for the outcome. The hireling does only what must be done and will do no more. When the task demands more than expected, one who is merely hireling does not possess the degree of commitment required to meet the challenge (cf. John 10:12–13).

Yet despite this threat, it should be noted that Jesus Himself introduced the metaphor of the “worker” into Christian ministry. It was Jesus who sent the disciples out and told them that “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). The apostle Paul used this standard as the basis for his guidelines to those who provide for the church’s elders (1 Tim. 5:17–18). Because my vocation and my career are the same, I enjoy the privileged of devoting myself without distraction to the calling that I love. I don’t have to try to fit it in around my regular job.

Those who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of “honor.” Those who labor in preaching and teaching are especially deserving.  Ministry is our work. It is good work, worthy of our time and energy. Hard as it sometimes is, it is work that is well worth the reward which is yet to come.

Preaching and the Authority of the Text

Preaching derives its authority from the text of Scripture. Our work of correcting, rebuking and encouraging all flow from a more fundamental command: “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 2:4). Without the authority of the biblical text there would be no authority for preaching.

There are some who prefer to point past the text and locate the preacher’s authority in the ideas of Scripture, generally in the gospel or more particularly in the person of Christ. In his book Homiletic, for example, David Buttrick writes: “Of course, when we claim that the Bible is our ‘authority,’ we are pointing past text, and past even the gospel in scripture, to God-for-us in Jesus Christ.” Buttrick admits that there are many who believe that God has conferred authority on the Scriptures themselves and are convinced that “the Bible has been designated ‘Word of God’ by divine fiat to rule the church.” But he clearly sees this as a problem.

Buttrick is right to say that the Scriptures point beyond themselves to Christ. Jesus asserted as much when he told the religious leaders: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). But Jesus also testified to the authority of the biblical text, down to the smallest letter and to the least stroke of the pen (Matt. 5:18). He said that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35). 

It is certainly possible to misunderstand the Scriptures. We can intentionally twist the Scriptures. But we cannot put Jesus at odds with the text of Scripture without putting Jesus at odds with himself. To attribute authority to Christ but to deny it to the Scriptures is a contradiction. The Scriptures bear witness to Christ and Christ bears witness to the Scriptures. They both speak of each other and they both speak with the same voice.

On Preachers and Preaching: Why Don’t We Preach Like Jesus?

We are not the first to preach. In view of this, it seems reasonable that we should take our cues from those who have preceded us. Yet it only takes a cursory reading of the gospels to sense that the preaching we engage in week by week sounds very different from the preaching of Christ. How do we explain this?

This is the focus of William Brosend’s interesting book The Preaching of Jesus: Gospel Proclamation Then and Now (Westminster John Knox). According to Brosend, “this study is not as interested in what Jesus said as it is interested in how Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as having said it.”  

 The rhetoric of Jesus is marked by four characteristics. The first feature Brosend observes is that it is conversational. This is not a feature of its volume or pitch but its responsive nature. According to Brosend:  “almost everything Jesus says comes either in response to and/or in conversation with someone else.” Jesus’ conversation is not only with inquirers and disciples, “it is also explicitly with the tradition, and implicitly with the culture.”

 At the same time, Jesus’ preaching is proclamatory. The intent is declarative and the tone is authoritative. Brosend explains, “Jesus is not asking, even in the middle of dialogue; Jesus makes claims, theological and soteriological.” In view of this, one wonders how Brosend can separate Jesus’ rhetorical technique from the content of his message. In this case the content of the message shapes the delivery.

 It is the third mark which most clearly differentiates Jesus’ preaching and our own. This is Jesus’ apparent reticence to speak about himself. As Brosend puts it, the preaching of Jesus was occasionally self-referential: “The frequent use of self-reference in the Fourth Gospel is one of the main differences between the rhetoric of Jesus in John and in the Synoptic Gospels. But regardless of that comparison, it is striking how infrequently Jesus is depicted as speaking about himself directly in Matthew, Mark and Luke.”

 This leads Brosend to characterize Jesus as “a Galilean Jew who proclaimed a kingdom and resisted a crown.”  According to Brosend, “Jesus is consistently and persistently depicted as focusing the attention on God and God’s kingdom, not on himself.” The fourth mark of Jesus’ preaching is linked to this: “Jesus never misses an opportunity to elaborate, illustrate, or sharpen his message through metaphor (Matt. 15:24-26), hyperbole (Mark 9:42-50), allegory (Luke 20:9-19), and other rhetorical figures.” Jesus’ preaching is persistently figurative.

 Jesus’ reserve in speaking directly about himself in the Gospels was noted by Thomas Dehany Bernard in his 1864 series of Bampton Lectures on the Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament. According to Bernard this reserve was shared by the apostles during the early stages of their ministry, when they were sent out to announce the kingdom but forbidden to tell anyone that Jesus was the Christ.  A marked change takes place in apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. The essential difference is captured in the summary statement of Acts 5:42: “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”

Brosend argues that we can learn much from the rhetorical strategy of Jesus. Our preaching can be like the preaching of Jesus in some measure. But Bernard helps us to see why our preaching must also differ from that of Jesus. Jesus came not only to preach the gospel but to accomplish it. He did not preach a different gospel than ours but his place in those redemptive events put constraints on him that we do not share. There was an element of secrecy in Jesus’ preaching, an intentional obscurity which simultaneously revealed and concealed both his identity and his mission.

This is not true of us. Our task in preaching is to make Christ known.

Here is a link to the full text version of Bernard’s lectures on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=X-JkEaFMprMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22progress+of+doctrine+in+the+new+testament%22&lr=&as_drrb_is=q&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=&as_brr=0&cd=1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to include the Bampton Lecutures as part of his recreational reading when he went on vacation.

Out of My Mind: What Kind of Personality Does Jesus Have?

In the April issue of Christianity Today Scott McKnight writes of an exercise he does in his course on Jesus of Nazareth. On the opening day of class he gives students a standardized psychological test divided into two parts. On the first part the students describe Jesus’ personality. On the second they compare their own.

“The test is not about right or wrong answers, nor is it designed to help students understand Jesus” McKnight explains. “Instead, if given to enough people, the test will reveal that we all think Jesus is like us. Introverts think Jesus is introverted, for example, and, on the basis of the same questions, extroverts think Jesus is extroverted.” According to McKnight, this is something we all do. “If the test were given to a random sample of adults, the results would be measurably similar. To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image.”

 After reading McKnight’s article, I was reminded again of how little we know from Scripture about Jesus’ personality.  The Gospel writers emphasize the person of Christ but not his personality. I do not mean that they portray him as someone without a personality. They tell us that Jesus wept, was grieved and grew angry (Mark 3:5; 14:33; Luke 12:50; John 11:35).  They also give evidence of Jesus’ interest in the marginal people of his day–women, children, the poor, the despised and sinners (Matt. 9:20-22; 19:13-14; Luke 5:30; 21:2-3). But the picture we find of Jesus in the Gospels lacks the kind of chatty detail and color commentary that are a stock feature of modern biography and talk show confessions.

 What does this mean for us? Certainly, as Scott McKnight points out, this creates the possibility that we will try to conform Jesus to our own image. But it also provides God the opportunity to display the reality of Christ through a variety of personalities. Maybe this is what Gerard Manley Hopkins meant when he wrote:

 I say more, the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Here is a link to Scott McKnight’s article: http://www.ctlibrary.com/ct/2010/april/15.22.html

Here is a link to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem entitled “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”: http://www.bartleby.com/122/34.html