This is the last week of our series Scandal: The Offensive Gospel of Jesus and the primary question we’ve been asking is “What makes the gospel so offensive?” Why did the religious leaders react so violently to the things Jesus has been teaching and the miracles he’s been doing.
The simple answer is he interrupted their way of life. The religious leaders had a vested interest in keeping things the way they were. The system of rules and religion did a great job of keeping the Pharisees and Sadducees wealthy and in power. The fear of death by crucifixion kept the people in line and kept the Roman authorities happy.
But Jesus came on the scene and started to challenge all of their assumptions about who’s in and out, what rules need to be followed in order to please God, how one became pure and clean and holy before God. And he essentially said, “God is already pleased with you.” Following the rules isn’t how we make God happy, they’re here for our benefit. We don’t need to clean ourselves up before coming to God, rather we become clean by allowing God to clean us.
The Kingdom of God is already here. All the people who have been told that they’re not good enough, not smart enough, not educated enough or rich enough… those are the people who will have a better time accepting the reality of this new Kingdom. Meanwhile, all the people who have continuously relied on their own merits and their own works, those people will actually struggle to accept this new reality.
You can’t say stuff like that, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is actually here among us already, without upsetting the people in power. You can’t challenge the system without the system getting upset at being challenged.
The short answer to this entire series is you can’t take power away from the power brokers without the power brokers getting angry. And when you challenge an entire religious-military-system, like the one they had in first-century Palestine, the entire system tends to strike back.
So that’s the short answer to the question. However, there’s something else we’ve been talking about in this series which you may or may not have picked up on.
Last week, we discussed John chapter 4 and the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman. In that conversation, she asked the question, “Are you greater than our forefather Jacob?” John, the writer of this gospel, wants us to know the answer is yes, Jesus is greater than Jacob. And in this sense, Jacob is a stand-in for all the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus is greater than the Patriarchs.
A few weeks ago we talked about the sign of Jonah and Jesus directly told the people that one who is greater than Jonah and King Solomon is here. Before that, we talked about how Jesus healed on the Sabbath and challenged the religious leaders on their understanding of the Sabbath. The implication underneath that story is that Jesus is greater than the Sabbath.
In the first couple weeks, we talked about how Jesus came and associated with sinners instead of judging them. Jesus levelled the playing field making everyone equal. And so in this sense, Jesus is greater than the Temple or the sacrificial system.
He’s greater than the Sabbath; he provides a better rest. He’s wiser than Solomon, a greater prophet than Jonah, and a better starting point for a new family than the Patriarchs. Jesus is better. At each step along the way, Jesus has been declaring that he’s greater than everything else they have previously relied on.
There’s just one last “better than” that we need to talk about this week. One last way to understand the scandalous nature of the gospel.
This is a replica of the Johannes Gutenberg printing press, which was invented, depending on who you ask, somewhere between 1436 and 1439. The Gutenberg printing press was the first printing press ever invented and it allowed the quick printing of multiple copies of a text by changing out the letters on the press.
Before this invention, if you wrote a book and you wanted lots of people to read it you had two options. Option one was to write a single copy by hand, give it to someone to read and after they’re done with it, have them pass it along to the next person. Option two would be to write a bunch of copies—still by hand—and give multiple copies out to a bunch of people. Either way, if you wrote a book and you wanted people to read it, you were forced to write all your copies by hand. But the printing press changed all of that. You could now quickly and somewhat easily produce multiple copies of the same text.
By 1480, we had what was known as the printing revolution. The printing press was a technological marvel that allowed for the transmission of information on a massive scale. More people were able to learn more things at a much quicker rate. The printing press did for the 15th century what the internet did for the 20th century. And thanks to the printing press and the dissemination of information, in 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus wrote his seminal work “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies”. This is the book that kicked off the Scientific Revolution. It’s also the book that famously challenged the geocentric model of the universe—the sun and all the planets revolve around the earth—and introduced the heliocentric model—the earth and other planets revolve around the sun. It also got Copernicus in trouble with the Catholic Church. So, Copernicus kicked off the scientific revolution around 1543 and this era lasted until Isaac Newton wrote his famous book “Principia” in 1687. The scientific revolution changed the world through new theories like gravitation, chemistry, and electricity. And right on the heels of the scientific revolution, we get the Enlightenment, which, depending on who you ask started between 1620 and 1715.
The Enlightenment, according to Wikipedia, “was a philosophical movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centred on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.”
And so, in the span of a few centuries, from the printing press to the printing revolution, to the scientific revolution and through the Age of Enlightenment, what we see is this massive change in the way people understand the world. And more than that, there is a fundamental change in the way people even think about things like knowledge, understanding, truth and belief. The very way people thought about thinking changed.
Here’s why this is so significant: We are still living in a world dominated by the age of Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. The Enlightenment and with it the scientific method have had a profound effect on the ways we think and reason. That’s important because the way we generally understand the word “belief” as an idea or concept is drastically different from how Jesus talked about belief in the Bible.
Our understanding of what “belief” means is not the same Jesus meant when used the word “belief.” What happens is, without realizing it, we tend to read our understanding of belief back into the words of Jesus instead of hearing what he’s actually saying. So I want to look at a couple of different ideas from Scripture and try to get a better idea of what this is talking about.
The first thing I want us to look at is the relationship Jesus had with the Torah. So let’s start with John 14:6. In John, it says, Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
As far as famous passages in the Bible, this is pretty high up there. Jesus is making a big, bold claim to exclusivity. He is the only way to the Father. You can only get to heaven by believing in Jesus. That’s what most of us have been taught. But that’s not really what Jesus is claiming in this passage.
1,500 years before Jesus, the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt but God used a Hebrew named Moses to free them. After God rescued his people from Egypt, he brought them to Mount Sinai and gave them the Torah. The word Torah means law or regulation or instruction or teaching. It’s the first 5 books of the Bible. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number and Deuteronomy.
The Torah contains 613 rules or instructions on what it means to live the way God wants us to live. The Torah was seen as the very words of God written down by Moses at Sinai. So later on, as they continued to talk about the Torah, they had a very specific understanding of it.
The prophet Isaiah says this in Isaiah 30, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'”
David, in Psalm 25 says, “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”
Later, in Psalm 32, David writes (speaking of God), “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.”
The Jews of Jesus time would read these passages about God directing them and speaking to them and they would say, “Torah is the way to live.”
Or they would read things like Psalm 119, verse 142 that says, “Your righteousness is everlasting and your law is true.”
Or again in Psalm 25, verse 5 David says, “Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and my hope is in you all day long.”
Your law is true. Guide me in your truth and teach me. The Torah is not just the way to live, it’s the very truth of God.
Furthermore, they would read in Deuteronomy 32, where it says, “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”
In Proverbs 13, Solomon says, “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death.”
In Psalm 16, David again says, You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
A good, observant Jew in Jesus day would read these texts and understand that the Torah is life itself.
For the first-century Jews of Jesus day, the Torah was the way, the truth and the life. We come to God and are saved through strict observance of the Torah. When Jesus, speaking in John 14 says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is not just an isolated statement about how a person can get to heaven. This is a loaded statement comparing and contrasting the way the Jews of the time understood the role of the Torah in their lives and what Jesus is here to do. Jesus is not just better than Solomon or Jonah or the Sabbath. Jesus is better than the Torah itself.
For Jesus, life is not found in strictly following a set of rules or principles; it’s found in him. Which is not to say that they should have stopped reading the Torah. At one point in Matthew 5 Jesus even says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
What Jesus is saying is, “Keep reading the Torah. Keep living by the Torah. It’s great and wonderful. But the Torah will never in and of itself bring you to God.” To borrow the language of N.T. Wright, the Torah is simply a signpost pointing towards Jesus.
The problem the Jews had was they focused so much on the signpost itself, rather than what the signpost was pointing towards. That’s the first truth I want us to understand today. Jesus is greater than the Torah. Or we could say, Jesus is greater than the Bible. The Bible, as much as I love it, is merely a signpost pointing the way to Jesus himself. The danger for us, much like the Jews of Jesus day, is we can spend so much time focusing on the signpost we fail to recognize what it’s pointing at.
And this is where modernism and our involvement with the enlightenment come back in. Because we exist in a post-enlightenment era, we have this tendency to think of faith and belief as something static rather than dynamic. The idea of static means that it’s stationary, fixed, unchanging. Dynamic, on the other hand, means the opposite, changing or moving or active.
A great example of this distinction. For those of you that have an iPhone, go into your settings and go to wallpapers. When you click on “Choose a new wallpaper” you have two options, “dynamic” and “stills.” If you choose a dynamic wallpaper, it’s a wallpaper that will move and flow and change. If you choose a still or a static wallpaper, it will be the exact same image always.
In modernism, we have this tendency to understand beliefs as static, rigid things. In this sense, beliefs and facts are interchangeable, the only difference is how confident you are in your belief. In this system, belief is about being right or correct. We might be willing to admit that any of our beliefs are wrong, but the way we think about belief as a whole is in terms of right and wrong, true and false. This is especially prevalent with the idea of systematic theology. Systematic theology is the discipline of putting theology into an orderly, rational, coherent structure. And in systematic theology, each idea builds upon the last. They become pillars that we build on or bricks in a wall.
I don’t have a with systematic theology. This kind of cerebral, rational approach to Christianity is really important and useful. Systematic theology has helped us explain theology in a way that makes sense to a lot of people. It’s been useful for thinking through what God is like and what he’s doing in the world. The problem comes when we start to read this systematized idea of belief back into the text and what Jesus is saying.
When I was in university, in one of the class discussions, a student raised their hand and asked our professor, “How much bad theology is too much bad theology?” What the student was asking was, at what point can my theology be so wrong God no longer lets me into heaven. At what point do I cross a line and I’m no longer viewed as acceptable to God because my theology is too messed up.
This question underscores a very specific idea about belief and salvation. Namely, when the bible talks about how we’re saved by faith, that what it means is we’re saved by our ability to have correct faith or accurate theology. What a question like this assumes is in some way or another, we need to pass a theology test in order to be saved.
When we have that view of faith and belief; that it’s about being right or correct and we’re saved by faith only insomuch as we have accurate faith, then suddenly “belief” becomes a kind of works-based salvation. And suddenly, Jesus isn’t the one saving me, I’m earning my salvation through accurate theology.
This understanding of belief as static, rigid pillars or bricks is toxic for a couple reasons. First of all, when we believe we have somehow earned our place before God through right belief a type of pride can creep into our lives. Second, when we understand belief to be synonymous with facts, it can be very tempting to hide behind those facts.
This is what I call a trophy case faith, where we try to have all the right beliefs and make sure we can intellectually explain everything we believe in, but then we sit on our belief and never put it into practice. A great example of this comes from Isaiah chapter 7.
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”
Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?
God sent Isaiah to King Ahaz and said, “I’m going to protect you. I’m going to make sure the people who are about to attack you don’t succeed. And I’ll prove it, ask me for any kind of sign you want and I’ll do it; no matter how difficult.” And Ahaz responds with, “Oh… I wouldn’t dare to test the Lord!”
On the surface, it sounds like a wonderfully pious response. “Who am I that God owes me a sign?” But just below the surface of Ahaz’s false piety is a lack of trust. A fear that God isn’t actually going to deliver on what he’s said he will. And I wonder, how often do we do something similar?
How often do we use all the right sounding language and all the religious talk we know, but deep down we have a fear that if we don’t watch out for ourselves no one will? How often to do we go through some painful or traumatic experience that doesn’t make any sense and say, “Everything happens for a reason.” And deep down we feel hurt or lost or betrayed. But because we have this idea that faith and belief mean being right, we think “Oh, who am I to question God?” Or more accurately, no matter how much we might wonder and struggle on the inside, we think we need to at least voice the right answer on the outside. So we use pious language to dress up our fear or lack of trust in God.
One of my favourite bands in the universe is MewithoutYou. They’re this post-rock, kind of spoken word group. Aaron Weiss, the lead singer is a Christian who grew up in an interesting home. His mother grew up Episcopalian, which is like the American version of Anglicanism, and his father grew up Jewish, so when they got married they decided to meet in the middle and both converted to Islam. Because I guess when one person thinks Jesus is God and the other person thinks Jesus is a heretic, the logically middle is saying Jesus was just a prophet? But Aaron is a Christian and in one of their songs he confesses these words, “We don’t know quite what else to do; we have all our beliefs, but we don’t want our beliefs… God of Peace, we want You.”
I love that line because it highlights such an important distinction. Just like the Jews of Jesus day with the Torah, we can have this tendency to focus more on our beliefs—our systematic, structured set of right and wrong, correct and incorrect facts—than on what those beliefs point to which Jesus himself. You are not called to right belief, you’re called to trust Jesus. Right belief is useful because it points to and allows us to experience Jesus. Correct belief is good, it’s something we should strive for. But right belief, good theology is only the signpost pointing us toward Jesus himself.
The question we all have to ask ourselves is this: What do we want more, God or our beliefs about God? This is the second truth that I want us to understand today. Jesus is greater than our beliefs. Our beliefs about Jesus help us experience him, but they are not him. Or, to bring back our quote from Ben Witherington from a few weeks ago, “God is not finished with our understanding or our belief system or our behaviour just yet. Recognizing this fact should produce a little more humility and a little less of that lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance.”
So, first of all, Jesus is greater than the Torah, greater than Scripture. Secondly, Jesus is greater than our beliefs about him. Our beliefs are good and useful, but they are not Jesus. Which leads us to our third truth this morning. Question and doubt and conflict and wrestling are all an integral, necessary part of having a vibrant faith in Jesus.
When we, in this post-enlightenment era, think of belief we tend to think of a set of facts we agree or disagree with. But for Jesus, what he called faith or belief could better be understood as trust. So when Jesus calls his disciples to believe in him, what he’s saying is “Trust me.” When he asks them to put their faith in him, he didn’t mean he wanted them to be able to intellectually explain the Trinity or what the five points of Calvinism are. He wanted them to actually trust him.
But the only way we can trust Jesus is to go through experiences, some that make sense, others that don’t make sense. Because what happens is that when we first start following Jesus we start with this extremely skewed understanding of God. Then we have some kind of experience and our understanding of God doesn’t mesh with that experience. Unless we ask questions about that experience and the kind of God who would allow it, our understanding of who God is will never grow beyond that initial understanding. So as we go through those experiences, we have to ask questions and wrestle with the ramifications. We see examples of this all throughout Scripture.
In Genesis 18, God tells Abraham that he’s going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham responds with,
Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?
Abraham has a very specific idea of who God is. When God tells him something that doesn’t seem to fit with his worldview, he doesn’t just shrug, he asks questions! “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Moses, in Exodus 33, wrestles with something similar. God tells him that he will send them to the land of Canaan, but will not go with them personally. Moses responses with,
If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?
In Job 23 we see the same thing,
Then Job replied: “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me.”
Job went through an excruciating experience and his friends insisted he clearly did something wrong. God was punishing him. But instead of simply accepting that answer, Job insisted he did nothing wrong and all he wanted was to plead his case before God.
In the Psalms, just about all of them, you read David crying out to God and asking questions. Even the prophets wrestle and ask questions.
Isaiah 63, “Why, Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance.”
Jeremiah 4, “Then I said, ‘Alas, Sovereign Lord! How completely you have deceived this people and Jerusalem by saying, “You will have peace,” when the sword is at our throats!'”
These are not accusations against God, these are questions. Genuine doubts and fears and confusion about what God is doing. Even the name Israel means, “Struggles with God.”
We see this continuing in the New Testament. Two weeks ago we talked about John the Baptist and his struggles; how he sent his disciples to question Jesus because he had doubts. Remember, John the Baptist is the one who baptized Jesus. He’s the one who initially pointed out Jesus was the Messiah. And yet, by Matthew 11, things aren’t going well for John. His expectations of what the Messiah was here to do were different than what Jesus was doing. So rather than giving up and turning away or continuing on with a faith that merely paid lip service to Jesus, he asked the hard questions.
Even Jesus asks questions of God. In Matthew 27, About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)
Questions. Conflict. Wrestling. Doubt. These are necessary elements to faith, to real genuine trust in the person of Jesus Christ. We are called to trust Jesus, to put faith in the person of Jesus.
Our beliefs help us do that. But the Bible is not Jesus. Our beliefs about Jesus are not Jesus. The Bible is a signpost pointing us to Jesus. Our beliefs about Jesus help us experience Jesus more fully. The Gospels are the historical, reliable account of the life and words of Jesus. But our hope is not in the Gospels, our hope is in the Jesus to which the Gospels point.
A while ago I was part of an online conversation with a friend and I love how she summarized this stuff:
I just think the answer to all these questions is Jesus. No really! Hear me out. Any authority of scripture comes from Jesus. Guidance in our growth comes from Jesus. Even the learning we draw from non-biblical places is from… you guessed it… Jesus. So. Jesus. This a complicated answer, not a simple one, I hope you understand. This is an answer that creates more questions for our limited brains as well.
This is Jesus. Jesus causes us to grow. Jesus teaches us and heals us and moulds us and shapes us. He calls us to trust him in that process and this idea of trust versus right belief will have ramifications in every corner of our lives.
Think about money. If you simply hold to the belief that you should tithe, then you’ll probably do just that. You’ll give 10% of your money to the church, but that will be it. But if you have a genuine trust in Jesus to provide everything we need, you’ll probably be more willing to be generous with all of your money.
When it comes to community, if the goal is right belief, then you will always love other people as a means to conversion. You’ll develop a system of in and out, us versus them, and you’ll use your right belief to determine who exactly is in or out, only surrounding yourself with people that already agree with you. But if you trust Jesus to be the one that grows and shapes and changes people, then you can simply love people, trusting Jesus will do what only he can do.
When right belief is the goal, we tend to think we get credit from God for being right or doing the right things; we think we get bonus points for obedience. But when we trust Jesus, we’ll be obedient to him because we know he has our best interest at heart.
Jesus is bigger and better than the Torah or Scripture. He’s even bigger than our beliefs about him. Scripture points to him. Our beliefs help us experience him. But they are not him. We’re called to trust in the person of Jesus and in order to do that, we must ask questions. We must wrestle and struggle with our faith. Only then can we come out the other side with a stronger trust in Jesus Christ.
So may you continue to ask questions. May you see Scripture and your beliefs as signposts. And may you continue to experience the person of Jesus in fresh, new ways.