Saturday, July 09, 2005

The 'Big Picture' series - 7: Christ

It is with great trepidation that I dare try to summarise the relevance of Christ to our faith. Christ is, of course, the central figure around which “Christianity” finds ground, so please view these thoughts only as food for thought and discussion, not as definitive truth. In saying that, what I write here are the conclusions I currently have based on my incomplete knowledge, and I will present them as such. As always, my rule is this: I only accept ideas that help me to love God and love others more, and thus become more like Christ. I encourage others to adopt the same policy when it comes to what I write here. Take the good, leave what is unhelpful.

Who He was

As many will quickly say, Christ was both “fully God” and “fully human” - but how? Well, firstly, there is the virgin birth. One might say that this made Christ’s very DNA somehow far better than our own – perfect, even. Yet, I doubt Christ was different in any biological way to “normal” people, I think He was quite biologically normal. Christ was a person just as we are people. He saw through human eyes, felt through human skin, and heard through human ears. I am not sure He experienced the world or even spiritual things any differently to the way in which you and I are capable of, for I believe part of being human is how our humanity limits us. I think the virgin birth accomplished something different – in that it showed from the outset that Jesus was the Messiah – the Son of God.

So then we are faced with a dilemma; how can a “normal” human be “fully God”? I believe we as humans are created like God, with a mind. We think, and in this we become more than mere anatomy. I will call this part of us that is beyond our physical bodies our spirit, but do not think of ghosts and apparitions – think of your self – who you are besides your flesh and bones. Just as our physical bodies grow and have different appearances, our spirits also grow and differ in character. “God is spirit”, wrote the apostle John. So, I suggest that biologically, Christ was exactly like a normal human, but spiritually, He was exactly like God.

The word “like” I have used is very important. I do not think God Himself meta-physically come down from Heaven to reside in Christ. It seems absurd that Christ would pray to God if He was God in the most literal sense possible. Instead, I think Christ had the complete and perfect Spirit of God. The very thing that makes God the being that He is – His character, nature, or spirit – is the very thing that Christ also had. It is in this sense that Christ was God, in that He embodied the fullness of the Father’s spirit because Christ had a spirit exactly like God’s.

Christ and the Father are still ‘separate beings’, and their ‘spirits’ are still very separate and distinct entities – but because their spirits are exactly like each other they have the same spirit. In this sense they are “one”, and I believe it is in this sense that Christ says that “whoever has seen me has seen the Father”. It is like pouring water from a jug into both a mug and a champagne glass – the two vessels are very separate, as is the water they contain, but both contain the same water. “Same” means identical in every way.

Mountains of literature have been written on the subject of who Jesus was, but for me it is as simple as I have outlined above. One could spend a lifetime getting to know what the spirit of God is like, but that is a different and entirely more challenging matter.

What He achieved

I know I will fail to write here the full scope of what Christ did, or even how He achieved it. Nevertheless, I will try to describe some of what Christ achieved in the “big picture” I have tried to describe so far. There are three typical categories that this topic is often broken into, His life, death and resurrection. It helps me organise my thoughts again to follow these categories, although I believe such a distinction exists only for this purpose.

Life

Most of the time of Jesus’ ministry was before His crucifixion and resurrection, so I dare say His life is very important. The purpose of Christ’s coming was to free the unrighteous from their destructive ways, and save the poor and the oppressed from the unfairness inflicted on them by the unrighteous. He advocated not a new set of rules, but a condition of heart.

I think there were three main emphases that Jesus had,

1) Our motivation – that should be Godly ambition (forsaking selfishness, the desires for wealth, power, and glory, and instead living for God.)

2) The character such motivation brings – that should be personal righteousness (having Godly character of being morally virtuous)

3) The result of these two – that should be social fairness (caring and loving others as God would wish)

He revealed our motivations in life should not be selfish, but rather to please God. Christ demonstrated, described, taught, and led people in Godly ambition. Ultimately, living selflessly is far more rewarding, fulfilling and pleasing than living selfishly and desiring wealth, power and glory. Jesus taught people so that they would not only see His Godly actions, but they would understand the reasons for the actions – the heart behind the acts. Without this understanding, the Christian way of life becomes nothing more that a fa├žade, a legalistic act played by hypocrites. If Christ’s person was like our light, His teachings are like a map of path He travelled and destination He headed for. Indeed, His teachings are often held in higher regard than his life – but we must remember the teachings were so that we can follow in His footsteps in the way we live.

Clearly, Jesus was an example for people, and He clearly showed the Godly character that comes from Godly motivation. Into a world lost in moral darkness, which had forgotten much of true virtue, Jesus was the light that demonstrated how to live. Not merely the light, but the first flame which lit the hearts of those who followed Him to illuminate more people. Those who follow Jesus, I believe, discover its truth through more than mere teaching – they live it and experience it for themselves. If not for the life of Jesus, the world would have remained in moral darkness – blindly bringing its own destruction. Christ showed what being devoted to God looked like, to a generation that had largely forgotten. Furthermore, in Christ we see that it is entirely possible for a human to live a righteous life, for remember He was entirely human complete with our limitations. Christ suffered all the temptations we do because of his humanity, but He did not sin because He had only a Godly Spirit.

So, Christ freed people from their moral bankruptcy by these external exemplary and educational means, which that don’t directly affect people. Yet, He also freed people more directly by involving himself in their lives and them in his life, and coming inside their lives. Christ’s life was significant in His interpersonal relationships with others. Out of His motivation and Godly character, Jesus worked toward social fairness and healing the wounds of sin. Jesus loved others not simply to set an example, but because He actually cared for those people – if He didn’t, his actions would be hypocrisy. He loved the sick, the lowly, the broken, the oppressed, the hungry and the poor. Jesus stood up for those who didn’t have a voice, and demanded fairness instead of corruption. He went into the kingdom of darkness and walked people out of it.

Christ loved others even when He had nothing to gain by it; on the contrary, it brought him trouble. Not only His teachings but His actions prompted a considerable commotion throughout his life. If Christ had not lived in this way, what would have been so great about Jesus? He would have been just another philosopher, another man with his mind in the clouds of moral idealism but chained to selfish human vice. But this man loved others! And that loving heart was far weightier than His philosophy, wisdom, teaching, or example.

God is love, and Christ loved. In this way, Christ revealed God. In Christ, we see how God would be if He were one of us. This then is another aspect of Christ’s life, in that Christ was clear window into the heart of the Father. In Christ, we can see that the Father is a loving, kind, merciful and fair God – a God worthy of our devotion and love. But how can we be sure Christ did indeed reflect God’s heart, and that God wasn’t like something else entirely? The healings and miracles that accompanied Jesus’ life and work are clear signs that God and Christ were united in Spirit, and that the heart of Christ is the same as the heart of God.

During His life, Christ established the church. The organisation He demonstrated, one of discipleship of a few close people and teaching of many, has proven effective to this day.

Lastly, consider the state world would be in if Christ had not come and done all this, most of the foundational principles and values of our society and legal system would not exist. Modern society has been hugely influenced by Christianity, and I would hate to think what it would have been like without Christ’s life to remind the world of those values and principles of Godly living. In a very real sense, Christ has saved the modern world. As a follower of Christ, I would not know how to live in a Godly way if Christ had not lived 2000 years ago, and His legacy had not reached me. Because of His life, I have inherited His way of life.

Death

If Christ’s life showed His love, His death showed what that love cost Him.

Before I go further, let me state clearly that I do not believe in what is known as the “satisfactory” idea of atonement. In my opinion, no cosmic transaction occurred on the cross, and to suggest that the cross was the means by which God provided “salvation” and the “forgiveness of sins” is in my opinion to misunderstand the nature of both. For me, attaching some all-mystical atonement theology to His crucifixion detracts from the pure humanity of Jesus on the cross. It is His humanity that was exemplified on the cross, in stark definition with His divine character. I refer you to my post on the satisfactory atonement idea for more comprehensive discussion.

So if the cross did not achieve “satisfactory atonement for our sins”, what did it achieve?

The cross showed us the depth of Christ’s love, and therefore God’s love for us. He was deliberately put to death by sinful people of the day who didn’t like Him, and He willingly died. Jesus clearly knew his teaching and actions would lead them to kill him, but this did not stop him. He was a voice of the oppressed, knowing such voices are silenced. He spoke out against unfairness knowing that the corrupt people in power would eventually put an end to it. To avoid being executed, He would have had to stop loving people as He had. If He had stopped, his teaching would have been hollow and his life an act. Yet by dying, He proved his selfless love, that doing what is right was more important than His own life. The cross shows us the depth of Christ’s care for others by the price that He was willing to pay for it.

So, the Cross proved Jesus was not merely manipulating people for His own gain, but that He genuinely loved them. Christ truly gave his life for others to save them during his time on earth, at the cost of his own life. He showed the true value of living a righteous and holy life of love, kindness, and service knowing that it would cost Him His life, so that we might live. Christ gave his life for other people during his entire life, not just at the cross. Greater love has no one but to give one’s life for others – every day of it. Jesus didn’t merely die for us; He lived for us, and that cost Him his life. His death is therefore part of His life and not the all-important reason for His existence on earth, for His death would have meant nothing if it were not for his life.

I don’t think there is anything particularly special in the fact that Jesus died. If He was fully human, one would expect Him to die sometime. Indeed, His death proved His humanity. I also do not think the way in which He was executed was nearly as important as the fact that He was executed publicly. The publicity of the cross was to only add fuel to propel the Gospel far and wide. So Christ’s dead on the cross served to send message of love and hope to others for generations, and spread from Himself to others.

His death was very significant politically. Here was the Christ dying at the hands of the very empire the Jews thought He had come to conquer and set them free from. If there was any definitive answer regarding God’s views on political upheaval, this was it, and it was certainly not what the Jews were hoping for. Indeed, His death was his final strong statement against the political uprising that the Jews were hoping for. Instead of Jesus being victorious over the Roman Empire, the Empire was victorious in accomplishing the great injustice of killing an innocent man. His execution showed the wicked hearts of people for all to see. It says much about the wickedness of people that we would kill the very Spirit of the God who created us. His crucifixion made manifest the sinfulness of people.

There is something to be said for His death being analogous to the Hebrew sacrifices, though I am not sure what. The blood of sacrifices would be made to seal a covenant, or agreement, between parties. And this analogy seems to be used occasionally in the New Testament. It is into this covenant that we enter when we follow Christ and become like Him – also loving others at own cost. In those days, a king might go and give himself over to an attacking army to be killed so that the people of His kingdom would be spared their lives. Such a king would have been referred to in similar ways to how Jesus is referred to as “giving His life for us”, and being a “propriatory sacrifice”. So, if Christ had not died then we would die because of sin, thus He died for us. Indeed, if not for the events of the Cross, Christianity and its teachings may never have changed the lives of the disciples, let alone us in the 21st century.

I must also mention His crucifixion fulfilled prophesies in the Old Testament, and confirmed that He was indeed the Messiah.

On the cross, evil won. It showed that being righteous comes at a high price in a fallen world. Jesus was, indeed, cursed on the cross – but cursed by the people who put Him to death, not by God. If God had intervened, He would have quite falsely portrayed that there is no price to pay for righteousness and people needn’t stand for it because God can fix things. By intervening, God would have destroyed the very reality He was trying to teach people about through Jesus. I believe God mourned for Jesus’ on the cross, but knew it would be better not to intervene. Jesus died, and not surprisingly the hope and faith of the disciples died with Him, but fortunately it is not the end of the story…

Resurrection – to impact the disciples, and give hope for our faith

If all that people got for living righteously and being devoted to God was death, then Christianity would be a farce. Why would anyone follow such teaching, if it only leads to death for all who followed it? The resurrection of Jesus proves that the life He lived was worth infinitely more than what it cost Him. Likewise, for us, if we imitate Christ in how we live we know we will have God’s favour and He will give us life after death. Thus, Jesus’ resurrection offers us the great hope of this wonderful reward for living a Godly life. Note, however, that this should not be our motivation for righteousness, for our motivation should be one of love for God and others, rather than selfishness.

In raising Christ from the dead, God demonstrated that evil does not prevail over God, but rather that God’s goodness triumphs over sin. The resurrection is the ultimately victory of God and Godliness. Death was the worst the sinful world could throw at Jesus, but it was nothing compared to God’s power to resurrect Him. Christ gained a reward far greater than death in return for how He lived.

Of course, the apostles would never have started the church if not for the resurrected. They had lost hope and devotion, but these were restored when Jesus re-appeared to them. So powerful was the resurrection to the apostles that they gave their lives for the message Jesus had taught and the way of life He led, and thus each did a similar thing to what Jesus himself did. The same is true of Christians throughout the ages, for it is His resurrection that proves those who follow Him will also be resurrected to eternal life.

His resurrection was also strong proof that what He said was true and Godly, and indeed further evidenced his Messianic position. Of course, for resurrection to occur, Christ had to die – so this provides another reason for his death. Furthermore, because of the public nature of His death, news of His resurrection was quickly spread. Most of 500 or more people He appeared to after He came back to life would have seen or heard of His death, and therefore these people would have likely formed the early church relatively quickly.

His teachings always had in mind the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, but none could really understand it until His resurrection tangibly demonstrated it to them. Rather than an earthy reward, the reward for the righteous is everlasting.

Summary

Christ is the founder of the church, and the leader of our faith. He is the perfect example of a person like us who has Godly ambitions, righteous character like God’s, and who seeks to put right the wrongs in the world. He has indeed saved us from an empty life of pursuing wealth, power, and fame – that ultimately do not bring fulfilment. By following Him, we become like Him, and by being like Him we too can eagerly hope for resurrection to eternal life.

Jesus was devoted to God, and loved Him and others. He loved others, despite the cost – to bring liberation, restoration, healing and help to those who needed it. He led others to do the same by being an example and giving them motivation, revolutionary moral teaching and the organisation to continue to grow the Church. Finally, He showed the reward of Godliness, eternal life.