Chronological Snobbery and the Question of Christ

Ever tempted to think we have little to learn from people who lived long ago? If so, C.S. Lewis would warn you against what he called “chronological snobbery.” For Lewis, that term referred to the widespread tendency among us modern folk to think we have reached a level of enlightenment and that the ancients have nothing to teach us. I bring this up because I came across a quote today that helpfully pushes back against that sort of arrogance. The quote comes in a little book I’m reading as part of my Christmas preaching preparation. It’s called For Us and for Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church by Stephen J. Nichols. The introduction takes on the problem of chronological snobbery head on:

In our contemporary struggle to present Christ as the Bible portrays him, we should not work in a vacuum. We owe it to ourselves to look to the past and to learn from the church’s struggles. Perhaps in no area of theology is this more necessary or beneficial than in the doctrine of Christ in the early church. The first four or five centuries of the church’s existence witnessed the launch of nearly every possible challenge. Further, one is hard-pressed to offer a better response to those challenges than that offered by the early church leaders. We may be able to devise fresh and contemporary ways to illustrate their teachings and expressions, or we may have to think of new ways to relate their teachings to particular challenges that we face in our day, but there is practically no room for improvement on those teachings. What these early church leaders said and did is tried and true (14). 

Despite our radically different contemporary contexts, the early Church has much to teach us. And when it comes to the question of Christ, their wisdom has stood the test of time. 

Christmas and Communion (or Incarnation and Eucharist)

Icon of the Nativity (15th cent.)
My Advent series of sermons this year focuses on the significance of the Eucharist. In preparing for this series, I’ve spent some time looking at the Eucharistic writings of the Church Fathers. One theme that emerges with regularity is the connection between the Incarnation and the Sacrament. I included this illustrative quote from Justin Martyr in yesterday’s sermon: 

We do not receive these gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink. But as Jesus Christ our Savior who was made flesh through the word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the word of prayer which we have from him – the food by which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation – is, we are taught, the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 62).

While Justin doesn’t go into detail about the nature of the sacramental transformation, he does draw an analogy between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Both are mysterious because both somehow convey the presence of God through physical means. The Incarnation is the basis for the meal. It is because Christ is a flesh and blood savior that he can offer his flesh and blood to us in the Eucharist. And because he continues presently embodied in heaven, he is able to continuously offer his body and blood to us at the Table. By offering his body and blood to us in the Communion meal, he surprisingly yet beautifully cultivates our communion with himself and our Father through the Spirit. So, without Christmas there is no Communion, neither with Christ nor the Father, and without Communion, we easily lose sight of the bodily nature of Christ’s ministry to us and for us, which we desperately need since we ourselves are embodied creatures.

3 Reasons for Reading Backwards with Richard Hays (@Baylor_Press)

After attending part of the review panel for Richard Hays’ new short book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor, 2014), I knew I had to get a copy and read it. So I did, and took the long plane ride from California as an opportunity to dig in to this treasure trove of accessible and robust biblical scholarship on the Gospels. Hays is currently the Dean of Duke Divinity School and is well known for his work on the interplay between Old and New Testaments. This book is the published version of Hays’ Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge in the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014, and it takes up that interplay as it relates to the canonical Gospels.
The central thesis of the book is that the Gospels teach us to read the Old Testament, and the Old Testament teaches us to read the Gospels. In particular, the Gospels are to be read figurally, that is with a view to the many ways Old Testament texts may signify or pre-figure the Gospel narratives about Jesus. Hays puts it this way: “we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and – at the same time – we learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT” (4, italics original). This is not simply to say we note the citation when a Gospel passage quotes or evokes an Old Testament passage. It means that the Gospel writers intend their readers to soak into the original context of Old Testament passage and to interpret what they say about Jesus in light of that context. So, when Jesus says things like, “I am with you,” or, “My words will not pass away,” he should be read with a view to the rich texture that those words have in the OT when they are predicated of God. Or when Jesus walks on water, it’s not just a neat miracle to illustrate his power over nature. It should be read with the understanding that in the Old Testament only the God of Israel “treads on the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). And the narrative implication is that Jesus embodies the presence of that very God. These examples don’t begin to capture the many and varied ways the Gospel writers see the Old Testament pre-figuring Jesus. You’ll have to read the book. In the mean time, here are three reasons to do just that. 
1. Refreshingly Orthodox
A significant number of New Testament scholars insist that stories about Jesus’ divinity were invented by the later Church and read back onto the life of Jesus. Hays cites one of the more popularly known proponents of that view, Bart Ehrman, who says, “The idea that Jesus was divine was a later Christian invention, one found, among our gospels, only in John” (Jesus Interrupted, 249). In contrast, Hays shows that each of the Gospels were written to narrate how Jesus of Nazareth embodies the God of Israel. To be sure, the different gospels tell the story to emphasize different aspects of what that embodiment looks like, and the diversity of their portrayals should not be minimized. Nevertheless, when the Gospels are read figurally in light of the Old Testament, they unanimously insist that Jesus bears in his body the unique presence of the creator God. Hays makes his case with elegance and beauty, which is the main reason it is so robust and persuasive. When you come to the creeds after you read this book, their words will carry far richer meaning than you ever might have imagined.
2. Great resource for preaching
This reason for reading is directed more toward the preachers out there. Use this book as a resource for preaching the Gospels. If you are working with a passage in the Gospels, look it up in the index to see what Hays says about it. It will add a multiple layers of depth to your comprehension and preaching of the text. It will point you to features of the text that you had not previously observed. And it will equip you to lead your congregation into a deeper understanding of the connection between the Old Testament and the Gospels. It will make you a better preacher. 
3. Perfect for Advent
I’ll finish by saying that this book is an excellent read for the season of Advent, which has just begun. As we draw near to Christmas and our celebration of the Incarnation of God in Christ, what better book to read than one focused on deep clarity with regard to the way the Gospel writers portray the Incarnation? I was very glad to read this book when I did since I was reflecting on scripture and sermons for the season. It has impacted my experience of Advent both in terms of formation and as a resource for preaching. For this I am grateful.
Seldom do I say that I cannot recommend a book highly enough, but that is exactly what I will say about Reading Backwards. 

Around the Links: The Virgin Birth (@LarryWHurtado @triablogue @ScotMcKnight @DouglasWils)

The doctrine of the virgin birth (or, more properly, the virginal conception) has had a little extra attention around the web in recent weeks. There are at least two reasons for this. First, it’s nearly Christmas, which usually brings various posts defending or attacking the creedal claim that Jesus of Nazareth was “born of the Virgin Mary”. Second, New Testament scholar (and my doctoral supervisor) Andrew T. Lincoln has just published his newest book, Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Eerdmans, 2013). The book is already getting a lot of attention and, I suspect, will get even more in the weeks and months to come. Here are few interesting links to fill you in on what’s being said about the virginal conception of Jesus in these days leading up to Christmas.
  • Heath Bradley has a favorable review of Lincoln’s Born of a Virgin?, in which he summarizes the book’s argument that multiple documents in the New Testament (Acts and Paul in particular) claim that Jesus’ Davidic descent must have come through his father’s line. Or, more briefly, if Jesus is not Joseph’s son, neither is he descended from King David. The book further argues that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke were never intended by their authors to make historical claims and are, instead, examples of conventional literary devices in ancient Greco-Roman biographies intended to communicate theological truth about Jesus. The most interesting part of Bradley’s review was his discussion of the claim that, “one could arguably even be an ‘inerrantist’ and still embrace Lincoln’s proposal.” Also check out Bradley’s follow-up post titled, “Why I Believe in the Virgin Birth”.
  • As we expect, Larry Hurtado provides a thoughtful and judicious review.
  • Jason Engwer at Triablogue is unpersuaded. Here’s his six-part review of Lincoln’s book in which he explains why the evidence for the virgin birth outweighs the evidence against it.
  • Scot McKnight asks, “How Important is the Virginal Conception?”
  • Douglas Wilson raises the “Why?” question and argues that you need a virgin conception to have a sinless Savior.
If there’s a good post that I’ve left off the list, be sure to share the link in a comment. Happy reading.

If Jesus isn’t white, what does he look like?

You’ve probably heard by now that Fox News host Megyn Kelly has gotten herself into a bit of a racial controversy for claiming that Santa Claus and Jesus were both white. The comment came in an interview in which she was responding to this post by Aisha Harris at Slate. Check out the video above. You can hear Kelly’s regrettable comment about Jesus shortly after the 1:45 mark.
Santa Must…?
Let’s begin by getting the Santa nonsense out of the way. Who cares how Santa Claus is portrayed? He’s imaginary, not real. So imagine him however you want – black, white, penguin, puppy – it doesn’t matter. Sure he’s loosely based on the 4th century figure of St. Nicholas, but let’s not pretend that the the jolly ol’ fellow doing photo sessions down at the local mall bears much resemblance to the heretic punching Nicholas of Nicaea. 
More Importantly
Much, much, much more importantly is the question of Jesus’ ethnicity. Let me say emphatically that if there is one thing of which we can be absolutely certain, it is that Jesus of Nazareth – who ministered by the waters of the Sea of Galilee and traveled around Judea proclaiming the inauguration of the reign of God – was not white. He was a Semite, a Jew, a native of the Middle East. Like others in that region he would have had a dark or olive complexion. 
Back in 2002, Popular Mechanics ran a piece called “The Real Face of Jesus”, in which they reported how they fed a lot of data on the physical characteristics of first century Jewish men (based on some well-preserved remains) into a computer in order to produce the image of what Jesus may have looked like. The result is the picture to the left. We do not, of course, know for sure what Jesus looked like, but this guy would have probably fit in nicely in Jerusalem in the first century. And I guarantee you that Jesus looked more like this than the weird illustrations in my kids’ Bible story books. 
Jesus Then and Now
Now you may have noticed that the title of this post doesn’t put the question of Jesus’ skin color in the past tense, and this is what I’m really interested to get to. The question is not what did Jesus look like, but what does Jesus look like. The question of Jesus ethnicity is important not only because Jesus lived in Palestine in the first century, but also because Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God and is alive even now. The Semitic Jesus who was born of Mary during the reign of Caesar Augustus is the same Jesus who now reigns over all creation. The question of Jesus’ ethnicity matters not only for the sake of historical accuracy, but more importantly for the sake of knowing the one who loved us and gave himself for us, the one who even now makes intercession for us, the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead and whose kingdom will have no end. Jesus is a real person, and we need to do the best we can to think of him rightly. We don’t get to remake him in whatever image suits our preferences. We need to reckon with the reality that right now, at this very moment, the one who is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and who reigns over heaven and earth has Jewish skin, a Jewish body, and a Jewish face. 
It’s almost Christmas, and the point of Christmas is not so much that Jesus is another year older. The point is the Incarnation, the reality that the eternal God who made all things has come down from heaven and taken on human flesh for us and for our salvation. The Jesus we worship and who reigns over all is the King of the Jews, the Son of David, the seed of Abraham. To borrow language that Paul picked up from Isaiah, he is the Root of Jesse sprung up, who has risen to rule over all the nations. In him the Gentiles will hope, and we do. 

The Promise of Peace: Christmas in the Wake of Tragedy

When I began preparing my sermon for last Sunday on the topic of Christmas and the promise of peace, I didn’t know I would deliver it only days after what was undoubtedly one of the most wicked and satanic acts of evil to occur in my lifetime. Like many pastors, I felt the weighty responsibility to step into the pulpit and lead the people of God in reflecting biblically on the tragedy that took place on December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut. Little sense can be made of such events that bring us face to face with the gross reality and horror of such grievous sin. But the scriptures do speak to these heartbreaking circumstances, and they speak of sympathy, faith, and hope. They speak of a day when the promise of peace will be fully realized. 

The team at Seedbed.com was kind enough to publish the sermon in its entirety, which can be found at this link. Perhaps this sermon will be a comfort to some of you.

Hope Is with Us

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on November 30, 2011.
I love Christmas! I love it for so many different reasons. I love singing my favorite Christmas carols in church every Sunday. I love all the special gatherings and events, the decorations, the meals, the giving, and everything else that goes with Christmas. I look forward to Christmas months before it ever arrives, and I’ll bet some of you do, too.
I especially love Christmas because it marks a special season in the church year. That season is Advent, which is observed in churches around the world during the four weeks preceding Christmas. The word “advent” comes from a Latin word that means “to come.” The time of preparation during the weeks preceding Christmas is about getting ready for the coming of Christ, not only as the babe born in Bethlehem but also as the king who will one day come to fulfill his kingdom of love, justice, and hope. One of the ways the Church observes advent is by lighting special candles, which are placed together in an Advent wreath. Each candle represents an Advent theme; the first candle represents hope. We lit the candle of hope this past Sunday, because hope is at the heart of everything Advent is about.
We learn about the extraordinary events surrounding the birth of Jesus in the opening chapters of Matthew’s gospel, and one key element comes when we are told that Jesus shall be called Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.” What a stunning statement: God is with us! The almighty creator who reigns in holiness and majesty is with us, and he comes to be with us through Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary. Matthew doesn’t say it outright, but the entire narrative of Jesus’ birth carries tones of hope. Hope has come because God has not abandoned us; indeed, he has come looking for us, not for what we can do for him, but because he simply wants to be with us. It’s almost too good to be true.
The idea of God with us doesn’t show up a lot in Matthew’s gospel, but it does show up in two very important places. We’ve already looked at one of them in the first chapter of the gospel; the other comes at the very end. After being raised from the dead, and commissioning his followers to disciple the nations, Jesus declares, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Did you catch that? This idea of someone being “with us” bookends the whole gospel, except there is one significant change. God with us at the beginning of the gospel has become Jesus with us by the end. That is the good news of Christmas. In the person of Jesus Christ, the only God is personally and uniquely present with us. And because Jesus is with us, hope is with us.
My prayer for you this Advent season is that you will experience the presence of God in Christ in a unique and surprising way. I pray that your hope is renewed as you come to a deeper knowledge of the Christ child who is also the resurrected Lord of the cosmos and Savior of all who have faith in him. He is our hope, and he is with us. Thanks be to God.
_____