People, as fallible creatures, cannot completely understand what God had in mind when we read His words within the Bible, when we learn of His actions throughout history, and so on. However, through the Holy Spirit we are empowered to understand at least a little of His intent, and with that understanding we can attempt to lead our lives with virtue and faith.
Chapter five encompasses the idea that we, as mere mortals, cannot possibly comprehend the grandeur that is God. It is foolish, indeed, to even try. However, I feel that, as a Christian, it is our duty to strive toward God (as hopeless a venture as that sometimes may seem) and part of that is to at least try to understand a little more of God’s nature. Yes, it is impossible for us to reach that goal, but God put us on Earth to spread His gospel and Good News, and it is important for us to have at least semi-logical reasons for His existence in order to make Him more clear to unbelievers.
As he continues in this chapter, the author makes clear the truth that God does intervene in humanity at many points in history, continuing even until this day. From the Old Testament to the New Testament, how many instances are there of God’s direct, traceable intervention on Earth? But if that was the case, that it is foolish for us to try to comprehend God, why would He have done this? He has meant for us to attempt this lofty goal, to strive toward Him, or why would He have sent His only son to die on the cross for us? His example has provided for us a model to live by, and Jesus, in his divinity, was always striving toward heaven. Now, of course we are meant to live a virtuous life, but shouldn’t there be more to striving toward heaven than that? I hold that it is a part of faith, of living the Christian life, to search for God’s divinity in any and all virtuous ways that we can.
This leads to a sense of this author in this chapter that I very much agree with; in that this world and Heaven overlap and coexist. If Heaven was an existence completely separate, future and disconnected from our own lives, God’s work would be far more difficult to see, if not obscured entirely, from our temporal existence? He knows that, with our limited intelligence and fallen nature, we can’t possibly understand Him, but He wants to work in our lives anyway. He clearly has accommodated our limited understanding throughout history in, as chapter five refers, His names. Page 67 states: “Like most ancient names, YHWH had a meaning. It seems to have meant ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I will be who will be.’ This God, the name suggests, can’t be defined in terms of anything or anyone else.” God’s nature can’t be fully understood by humans or put into words by man, but He helps us along the way to understand where we can. By putting His divine nature into words as fully and understandably as possible, God makes His desire for us more evident and the coexistence of Heaven and Earth apparent. I am also in full agreement that we must show proper respect for and awareness of God’s holy name, as the Jews did many centuries ago.
Chapter six discusses Israel and its importance in both historical and theological contexts. The author’s very valid point is culminated in these lines on page 71: “Trying to understand Jesus without understanding what the story was, how it worked, and what it meant is like trying to understand why someone is hitting a ball with a stick without knowing what baseball, or indeed cricket, is all about.” One must understand Judaism and the story of Abraham, Sarah, Israel…indeed, the whole Old Testament before one can fully understand God’s purpose in sending His son to Earth and the cross.
The author states that it was Hitler who brought centuries of latent anti-Judaic hostilities to the surface. I’d like to, before I continue, make the point that this was not the case. From the crusades to the Russian ‘programs’ and beyond, the Jewish people have been the victims of baseless and cruel hostilities throughout history.
The author’s words regarding the tone of ancient Biblical scriptures can be argued. I think that the large and lording God of the Old Testament would not have bothered with sarcastic or sardonic tone. The God of the Old Testament makes His will known very clearly without bothering with such human verbal patterns. His displeasure with their arrogance and assumption that they can become like (or equal to) God was manifested in his destruction of their very social structure.
It is true that, in the author’s words as the chapter continues, Abraham and almost everyone that God made a covenant with messed it up somehow. God always held His side of the deal, but humans invalidated the bargain. Yet it was God’s love that enabled us to still reap the benefits of His undeserved love for us. We have done nothing to be worthy of what He has given us, throughout history we have proven ourselves unworthy and unreliable, yet He still saves us. I don’t know about you, but that sort of makes me shiver. As the author says, rather than give up on us completely he uses us to justify ourselves and make right what was done wrong. What one man tore down, God used another to raise it back up. And when all seemed hopeless, God sent His son, human and divine, to mend the tears.
The author seems to urge us not to follow our own heart, but to follow God instead. The references to David following his heart with the following catastrophe that resulted from his actions makes this opinion clear, and in and of itself this is obviously what we, as Christians, should do. But what if we are already following God? If we have devoted ourselves to Him wholeheartedly, wouldn’t following our heart be the same as following him? I think that the fault lie more in David than in the entirely hopeless nature of humans. Without God we are hopeless, but with Him we are redeemed and with hope.
“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Isaiah puts it very eloquently. The author’s references to the Old Testament’s constant accounts of exile and restoration drive the point home, what God wanted to tell us. We may be exiled now, but through Him we shall be restored and brought home. What a deal! We just have to live our lives faithful to Him (which is the best and most fulfilling life anyway), and He will restore us to everlasting life. If we live our lives with Him, we will forever live with Him. As the author points out indirectly, He even gave us a very clear guide on how to do this in the Bible, in case it’s too hard on our own.
This entire chapter is very difficult to argue with, as the author’s every point and paragraph is a retelling of Judaic history as God directed it. Indeed, it is sometimes glaringly obvious what God’s intent was for us by His actions and reactions to and of the ancient Hebrews in the Old Testament. One can hardly argue with such words!
The second paragraph of chapter seven finds us in disagreement once more. It states that, “In other words, Christianity is not about a new moral teaching – as though we were morally clueless and in need of some fresh or clearer guidelines.” If you read the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount is all about redefining the Judaic Law and setting up a new order. The Sermon on the Mount shifts the world from the Law-based experience of the Old Testament to the loving, benevolent world of the New Testament. We did need different guidelines, because with Jesus’ coming came a different world.
Jesus did come, among other reasons, to provide for us a moral guideline. Agreed, we can never meet or even come close to those guidelines, but the idea is to do our best to emulate Him. We can’t do it, just because of that fallen human nature that we struggle with at every moment of our existence, but just because we can’t do it doesn’t mean that we should not try! Jesus didn’t just come to fulfill some historical duty. He came to save us from our sins and lead us to everlasting life with Him in Heaven! His life on Earth did not just make that possible, He also made it easier by showing us exactly what to do in order to reach that newly-possible goal. His entire life was a series of lessons to that end. It is counting Jesus Christ short to say that this was not part of His plan on Earth.
Additionally, Jesus Christ is not open to reinterpretation. We do reinterpret Him throughout history, but that doesn’t change anything. What He did, thought, and was does not change because of a person saying “Hey, this is what I think, therefore, I’m obviously right and everyone from Jesus’ birth onward was definitely wrong.” People do, as the author points out, tend to try to reinterpret Jesus more than any other figure in history, just because of who He was. But God is God. Jesus is Jesus. Humans saying ‘He meant this or He said that or He did some other such thing and meant this by it’ doesn’t mean that they are correct. We cannot completely interpret Him at all, of course, because of our humanity. We should try to understand His intent, but not twist His words or take them out of context simply to suit our human desires or requirements. God made and defines us, not the other way around.
It was very interesting to read about how the Dead Sea Scrolls and other documents found from that era, despite the attempts of others around us, do not and cannot debunk the truth and authenticity of the Gospels. It was also very interesting that the author acknowledges the fact that it is impossible to understand the full meaning of the scriptures in the bits and pieces that are commonly taught today. Indeed, they must be taught from the viewpoint of the entire context around the passages. People can manipulate scripture passages out of context to mean whatever they want. Someone wanting to prove that men should be more emotionally sensitive might quote “Jesus wept” as ‘proof’ for their argument. A Christian more familiar with that passage, though, would look at that and realize that it has nothing at all to do with popular masculine social traits, and everything to do with Jesus’ faith.
The author’s argument about Jesus not simply healing for the sake of making people better but to drive home His mission and message was excellent, and continues with my previous point. If Jesus came just to fulfill the prophecies, then why would he have need of doing that? But in doing so, He spread His message of tending to the ill and that if you believe, you will be saved.
Chapter eight discusses Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament and His disciples’ reasons for believing in him. The author’s references to many of the previously hailed ‘messiahs’ was worthy of note, as it raises an interesting question. Why is it that all of these men who people claimed were saviors of mankind, messiahs, and so forth…why is it that we know of none of these but Jesus? The argument that He is, in fact, the Messiah and Son of God is probably the best reason. But one has to consider the movements of the Holy Spirit in these occurrences; in the perpetuating of the knowledge of Jesus’ death and resurrection throughout history.
When the author stated that it is a bit incredible that people believed that Jesus was the messiah, I had mixed feelings. Granted, his point was correct – everyone expected a great military leader, a ‘new Moses’ that would lead His people to a new Holy Land, and so on. How surprising it must have been, then to find a poor carpenter that let himself be tortured and killed! However, I think it might have been easier to believe in Jesus’ divinity for other reasons. His numerous miracles, for instance, would make many people look twice. His message, we now understand, was not one of death and conquering and military might, it was one of humbling oneself and love for others. This is the author’s implication in the middle of this chapter, and I completely agree. And He did conquer, although perhaps not in the sense that the people of the era were expecting, but He has the best and most complete victory of all; raising His people above death once and for all time.
The author’s line about Jesus’ bringing a “fresh meaning to Passover” made me think. Jesus was a devout Jew, as were all of his disciples. Yet during the course of Jesus’ ministry and especially in the Last Supper, He told them many things that were very different from what they grew up believing. It must have been difficult to accept that what you’ve done all your life may or may not be the right thing to do now. The author implies that this was fairly easy to accept, but we have to think about what this would be like for us as Christians. Imagine someone telling us what we have always believed was the only right and proper way of doing things was not, in fact, the way it should be? During the Last Supper, Jesus turned himself into the Passover lamb, sacrificed to save us all. As the author continues, He did this to win the fight, although it must have been horribly depressing for the disciples. Their savior dead, or so they believed, and their hopes for victory over the Romans are gone. What they didn’t realize, the author states in a very good passage, is that the messiah wasn’t coming to save them from the Romans, but from the forces of evil and darkness that lurked within their souls and those of the people around them. His victory was not over the Romans, but over evil and death itself.
Further in this chapter, the author refers to the “cognitive dissonance” theory, in that Jesus’ disciples insisted that He was the savior even after they were proven wrong. I know that this is not the author’s opinion, and I must disagree with it as well. Besides the theological and rational proof to the otherwise, one simply has to read the gospels to realize that the disciples were experiencing fear and doubt after Jesus’ death. They were not, as the author put, ‘shrilly’ shouting that everything was okay, they were scared. They were sure that He was dead and their hopes were shattered. His resurrection was something that was completely unexpected, thus it is entirely doubtful that it was simply a figment of their collective imaginations.
“Far and away, the best explanation for why Christianity began after Jesus’ violent death is that he really was bodily alive again three days later, in a transformed body.” This sentence on page 113 touched me in a deep way. It is so very true, at a level that shows why the church began so long ago and survived for so many centuries, still going strong. The author may say that this does not force someone to believe in Christ’s resurrection, and that is very true. However, it provides a very good and logical argument for those who struggle with believing simply by faith; for those who need tangible logic to back up that faith.
I also enjoyed the author’s references to science as an almost more unbelievable ‘religion’ than Christianity. People find it very difficult to believe that Jesus Christ, an all-powerful creator and savior of the world, in fact exists when our mere presence on this earth should be proof enough; yet society demands that we take unproven scientific theory as hard truth – and so many people do!
I find it interesting that the author says that the early Christians would not expect that the savior would be divine. I wonder what they would expect? If they supposed that the messiah would raise an army and defeat their enemies, that does not preclude the possibility of that person having a divine nature. In fact, wouldn’t it be more logical that a person sent by God to save the people would have a divine nature that a purely human one? I have no theological basis to back this up, it is merely thoughtful disagreement to his argument.
One last point in this chapter that I must address is our tendency to be as the disciple Thomas, doubting what we do not see; not believing in the truth because we cannot see it for ourselves. This is the sad truth of our world today, we claim we must see something to believe it, our faith has been dampened by our lack of faith. It is a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.
Chapter nine finds me in agreement with the author. Why did Jesus speak in parables? Simply because it enhances our understanding. Our limited human capabilities would reduce our understanding if He had just instructed us outright. We tend to resist what is handed to us at face-value, and prefer something that is told in terms of something else. We believe more what is easier to swallow, what we think we’ve figured out for ourselves. Even the disciples, as the author says, found it difficult to take. In their privileged position of being able to speak directly to the Son of God Himself, they could not understand what was going on. It simply comes down to the fact that humans are infinitely lesser beings than God.
The author’s words about the Holy Spirit are true as well, in my opinion. The Spirit gives the church its power, its faith, everything it needs to stay alive. It provides the church the ability to thrive, to reach people’s hearts and souls. Without the Holy Spirit, there would be drastically less faith. Indeed, there is ample reason to believe that the church would have crumbled early on in its existence were it not for the intervention of God’s Holy Spirit. It is the continuance of God’s gift to His people, as the author puts it, “That is why St. Paul, our earliest Christian writer, speaks of the Spirit as the guarantee or the down-payment of what is to come.” It is our assurance that our church will not die; God will not let it die, His Holy Spirit is infused into the church and gives it life; gives us hope.
Again drawing upon the author’s references to Paul’s writings: “You, he says, are the Temple of the Living God…If the Spirit is the one who brings God’s future into the present, the Spirit is also the one who joins Heaven and Earth together.” The ancient Hebrews believed that God’s presence on earth was seated in the Holy of Holies, the innermost room within their great Temple in Jerusalem. However, when Jesus came, he infused each and every one of us with His Holy Spirit, thus making all of us His holy Temples. This is why I agree with the author in that the idea that a pet rabbit, while cute and fuzzy, is not the vessel of Christ’s Spirit on earth. Only man, created in God’s image and likeness, can be a vessel for that. As unworthy as we may be, we are the most worthy creature in this world.
Chapter ten continues this discussion of the Spirit. The author refers to Paul again, “If you are guided and energized by the Spirit, you will no longer do those things which the Law forbids – murder, adultery, and so on.” This goes back to a point I made in a previous page, that if we live by God’s statutes then we can indeed trust our own hearts, as our hearts will desire to do the right thing. The author’s point that the Spirit must have been present in the early days of the church was a good one since, as stated previously, the Jewish community would not have normally been open to such an idea as the one they were presented with. God’s Spirit was in every word they used to proclaim Jesus’ Word, and therefore touched the hearts of the people and turned them to that truth, converting them into such staunch believers that hundreds were willing to die for their faith.
The author of this book has, as most writers do, many good points and some not-so-good points. Some of the issues that I had with these chapters were that in some places he just reiterated what we, as Christians, have been told since before we could walk, while in other places he said things that were outright disagreeable. Of course, as Christians we are called to convert others to the truth of God’s Word, and we are sometimes not entirely sure what His Word means. For the most part, though, I feel that the author did an excellent job of analyzing some little-addressed parts of Christianity, and that made the whole thing worthwhile.