Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? Distinguishing Christ from the Plethora of Putative Jesi
Gathering on a vast and open plain, thousands had left their crops and flocks. For many, the journey took days just to arrive and see this man whom they had heard so many rumors. It was said that he was some sort of wild prophet with authority over nature itself. Others said this man was actually some sort of zombie—an ancient prophet returned from the grave to seek vengeance on Israel’s oppressors. Though his identity was not certain, even to those closest to him, countless throngs of people wanted to be near him. They came to him to be healed of their sicknesses, to be cleansed from the evil spirits which tormented them, and to be fed by his words and miracles (Luke 6:17-19). They wanted to touch him desperately because “power was coming out from Him and healing them all.”
Though these people knew that this Jesus was a holy man sent by God, his exact identity was unclear to them. But this confusion did not stop them from gathering around him, sitting at his feet, and being healed.
Concerning his identity, Jesus asked those closest to him. On the road to Caesarea Philippi, he asked them “Who do people say that I am?” Their answers varied. “They answered Him, ‘John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ He asked them again, ‘who do you say that I am?’” (Mark 8:27-29).
I imagine a deep silence fell over the disciples.
Did they know? And if they did, were they too afraid to declare what they thought and be wrong? I mean, these were the guys who had been tromping around the region with him seeing all the incredible works done by his hand. Who better to answer this question?
And yet, there was silence.
“Peter answered Him, ‘You are the Messiah!’”
Though Peter was the correct, Christ none-the-less told him to remain silent.
What is perhaps most interesting is that nothing more is recorded. Perhaps Christ went on through a deep theological discussion of trinitarian theology—but I doubt it. This concept was correct and all that was necessary. He was the messiah, the promised and awaited king sent to them by God. It is this messiah who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by Me.” (John 14:6) But what more is needed? He told those around him that they could only come to the Father through him, but where is the deep theological discourse? Where are the sub-points?
“Now, guys. You must believe that I am light of light, of the same essence but not of the same substance as the Father, and that I am both wholly human and wholly divine, otherwise your confessions mean nothing. Sorry guys. You have to get it right for it to count.”
Though there is merit in deep theological discussion and clarification, Christ did not come teaching it—not about himself or any other speculative matter. He was far more concerned with his followers living and acting properly—loving one another, giving to and serving the poor, and healing the sick.
Today, however, a large swath of theologians, pastors, and studious Christians assert the contrary. One must have the correct understanding of Christ and his identity for prayers of forgiveness and service in his name to be counted valid.
I have heard countless times from such people that other “christians” and half-hearted “jesus-loving” hippies worship and serve another Christ—a false-christ. Mormons, Catholics, Jehovah’s witnesses, and “liberals” all imagine and follow deviant jesi (the plural of Jesus). “That’s not my Jesus” they declare with force and bile. Only my conception of Jesus is the right one!
There is something to be said about a “right” and “wrong” conception of Christ and his identity. There certainly is a right one. Christ is who he is. He is obviously not what he is not. And for a very long time people have fallen into the argument of whether one is on the “right” or “wrong” side of this identity of Christ.
I believe some can have very real misconceptions of who Christ is, but in comparison to thinking about Christ “rightly” in the fullness of who he is, we are all wrong. Christ, being God, is so much more beyond us than we will ever understand. He is beyond all human understanding. His very being is a mystery. And these doctrinal statements created over the last two-thousand years try to capture who he is—but they all fall desperately short of capturing his fullness. We all fall desperately short of understanding this man/god who we glibly call Christ and Messiah. But we don’t know what that really means. We don’t really know the fullness of who he is, even if we assent and verbally agree with traditional doctrinal creeds. We speak, but we don’t really understand. The images we have of Christ are gross distortions of who he is.
Understanding Christ is like a massive puzzle. We may get a few pieces in, portions of the image become apparent, but the whole image will never be put together and understood. The pieces which are put together and the image that is created may be considered “true” and “right”, but falls desperately short of the “full truth.”
We all experience and know Christ through approximation to his identity, never through fully understanding or knowing.
And while many may feel depressed or discouraged that Christ cannot be fully known or understood, it is in reality quite beautiful. Our savior is one who is infinitely beyond us. He transcends our understanding. And this infinite Christ died for us. What’s more, he cannot be contained in our boxes. He cannot be contained within our nice and neat theologies. And this is okay! This is a wonderful mystery.
Salvation cannot rest on understanding and believing the right theologies and the “right” Jesus—otherwise millions of children’s confessions of Christ are meaningless. A child can’t understand Christ (as if anyone can).
Does the child of seven who confesses that Christ is God died for their sins become meaningless when they know nothing of christology or that he was the Christ-man—100% God, 100% Man?
Is my daughter’s confession of Christ pointless because she clearly misunderstands trinitarian theology?
God honors and loves these confessions. And although children, both you and I, and countless others get it wrong constantly—all having very different conceptions of Christ, minute though they may be at times—Christ honors and loves the way we respond to him according to our understanding. He loves the little child that loves Christ, though they clearly hold infantile and “heretical” views. He loves that they give and serve and pray, though in child-like ways.
Is their position all that much lower or different from yours or mine in relation to the fullness of Christ? I assert that it is not. Christ is who he is—no question. But just as countless people flocked to Christ, misunderstanding him as they did and even as the disciples were not exactly clear on his complete identity, Christ loved them and gave them authority in his church.
And while there are clear distortions, gross misconceptions, and heretical errors concerning the identity of Christ, room must be left for those ignorant of who he really is. Room must be left for those whose understanding of Christ is evolving, shifting, and changing.
The beauty is that Christ responds when we call to him, even when we misunderstand. Martin Luther, the great reformer of the protestant reformation, cites a peculiar moment when God answered his prayers. The new, bright-eyed lawyer was nearly killed in a violent lightning storm. He cried out to St. Anne, the virgin mother of Mary, to save him. “I will become a monk!” he cried out. Through this moment weakness and the desperate cry for help, God answered his prayer and used his life to reform the church. And though Luther had some very serious misconceptions, Christ none-the-less responded and used his life.
May he do the same for us all.
With this Article, a new series is launched on the identity of Christ. Each Tuesday a cultural and religious misconception of who Christ is will be explored—from the Mormon conception of a brother-of-Satan, created Christ to the super-buff, body-building, UFC-fighting Jesus. We all have baggage. Here we will explore it.
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