In Christianity we have a lot to say about God. We also talk a good bit about Jesus. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christianity has something to do with God but we speak most of the time about Jesus, a Jew born roughly between the years 6-4 B.C. in the backwaters of the Roman Empire, in little Judea. We aren’t sure when he was born because of a mistake in the calendar many centuries ago. He was born in Bethlehem, a tiny town outside of Jerusalem. He was born into poverty. His crib was a feed trough for animals. His working class family settled in what was known back then as Galilee. He was called a Galilean. He was also known as Jesus of Nazareth because his family lived in that town during in his early years. But what does this Jesus have to do with God?
It is not such an easy question to answer. Now and then people say to me, “I believe in God, it is Jesus that I have trouble with.” Many people find the relationship between Jesus and God confusing. People get confused especially when we speak of God and then turn around and say that Jesus is God. I was teaching some elementary school children and one of them said to me “Jennifer asked me if Jesus was God and so I told her ‘no’.” If you think it is easy to explain just tell a child that Jesus is God and have them say, “Well, I thought Jesus is God’s son.”
John opens his Gospel with these sentences: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” What does John mean by calling someone or something the Word?
Word in John’s Gospel
This Word was with God and also was God. Word in John’s Gospel = revelation (That is, God communicates, God speaks and discloses himself to us). Word doesn’t mean one or more syllables that, when once spoken, communicate concepts like “Cat or “Ball” or “choo choo train”. Word means the Divine Self-Expression. This Word which we read about in John 1:1-2 is obviously referring to Jesus as we see clearly in John 1:14 The Word Became flesh and dwelt among us. John means that this Word is the expression of God’s person and purpose. This Word entered human history, became a human being. God’s purpose and person is expressed in a personal life (not just words spoken from heaven in booming voice, or words written on paper and ink).
The fallacy of those who say they believe in God but stumble at Jesus is this: What they think that they know of God assumes many of the Christian notions about God but they have cut off the roots. They assumed that the God they believe in is loving and good. That God forgives sin and is gracious. However, those ideas while true came into the world through the story of the God of Israel and the Church. It did not derive from the worshippers of Moloch, Baal, or Ashtoreth. What about the other ancient and great faiths?
Buddha did not teach his disciples about a personal and forgiving God. Pure Buddhism is more of a psychology that shows not a pathway to know and love God, but a way toward attaining personal and inward tranquility. The Buddha himself had little to say about God. God remains an unknown quantity in Buddhism. Buddha did not claim to relate people to their Creator and Heavenly Father. Buddha taught freedom from suffering through renunciation and detachment. He also taught compassion.
Someone said to me that they like Buddhism because it is so tolerant. I have to agree that tolerance does mark some Buddhists. Buddhism is able to embrace a wide variety of other religious viewpoints because it believes them all equally wrong, or at least equally misinformed or uninformed about God. Buddhism doesn’t seek to relate its devotees to an infinite and personal God. Buddhism preaches personal tranquility and freedom from suffering by the practice of resignation and the extinguishing of desire.
Hinduism is multifaceted, but the idea of a personal God acting in history, in time and space is not what it teaches. As far as Hinduism goes, there are millions of gods and goddesses, because each is simply the conceptions of the devotees and not truly a God who is self revealed and self revealing.
Islam is a take-off of the Jewish and Christian understanding of God. Islam emerged from the understanding of God derived from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Muslims believe in a personal God who punishes sins and can also forgive sin. The Quran asserts that Allah is merciful and kind. Since, to the Muslim, Jesus is no more than a great prophet, like Mohammed, Islam struggles to have a human face of God, to have God who has entered human history. They believe in a transcendent God. But what is missing is the immanence of God. Islam lacks the aspect of God that is personal, one that relates to human frailty and has sympathy for human suffering, in fact, one who suffers with us and for us.
Christianity and Other religions
As far as all of these great faiths go, I must say that we should respect their devotion. Many who practice those religions do so in sincerity of heart. Many noble thoughts have come from sincere devotees. Each religion has produced exemplary characters that have lives good lives, loved their families, loved their neighbors and practiced self-sacrificing kindnesses. They have been generous and assisted in humanitarian causes worldwide. These faiths have taught compassion on the poor. They urge children to honor their parents and parents to love and care for their children. These values are good. We do not reject everything that these religions claim. Much in them is admirable and worthy of emulation.
However, the Christian Faith claims that we do not know God properly or completely apart from God’s own self-disclosure. That disclosure, that revelation we find in Jesus, according to the Christian claim.
Several years ago one of Stephanie’s co-workers named Harry, wanted to become a Christian. He was reared in a nominally Jewish family. Christianity attracted him, but he had trouble with Jesus. “How does Jesus, a Jewish prophet from Galilee who met death through Roman style crucifixion, fit in with God”? He wanted to know. It was a good question.
I shared with Harry what has become to me a key insight into understanding the relationship of Jesus to God. To the Christian, Jesus is the lens through which we view God. We see God through the lens which God himself provides for us: Jesus, the poor man of Nazareth.
In Jesus we find the clue to what God is like and what God does in the world. We see who God is: God’s character: God loves, God is just, and God forgives. We also see what God does; God’s purpose: God chooses to reconcile us sinners by forgiving us and establishing a relationship with us in spite of our sin.
Somehow that image, Jesus as the lens made sense to Harry. Something clicked and he had an ‘Aha’ moment. A light went on in his head and he exclaimed, “Yeah, I see that.” Harry thought about that and pondered the implications. Later he committed his life to Jesus Christ and received Christian baptism in a Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania.
What we know naturally about God is unclear and hazy. We lack the eyes to see it. When I remove my eyeglasses, the world around me is blurry and unfocused. We know something about God through nature. Paul argues in Romans 1 that we can see something of God’s wisdom and power through beholding creation.
…since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)
But we cannot tell much about the purpose of God or what God is like by seeing nature alone. What our natural view of God lacks is focus, clarity, and transparency. We need God to help us get the focused picture. We need that lens of Jesus Christ to brink that which is blurry into crystal clear focus. We need God to speak a clear Word to us.
I just mentioned again the concept Word of God. What do Christians mean by Word? We use the idea in several ways. Jesus is the final and complete revelation of who God is and what God does. In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law… or in the words of John’s Gospel “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” When we use the expression Word of God as Christians we mean three things. In fact, the concept of the Word of God has three forms.
Jesus is that Word, that Divine message. It is God in a personal life, in a human life. What God wills to say is that I will dwell with you and be your God and you will be my people. Jesus is direct Word of God. Paul wrote to the Colossian Christians: “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15) The writer of Hebrews described the son of God as …the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:3-4) We see who God is when we look into the face of Jesus Christ. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” Jesus said in John 14:9. Paul put it this way. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself… (2 Corinthians 5:19) Jesus Christ is the first form of the Word of God.
The second form of the Word of God is the preaching of Jesus as done by the Apostles and prophets of the New Testament. After Jesus left them and sent the Holy Spirit down, the Apostles and prophets spread abroad over the then known world and preached about Jesus. Their witness was an indirect witness to Jesus Christ. Paul stated that the Christians in Thessalonica received his message.
And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
The preaching of the Gospel was the preaching of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. They witnessed to what they had seen and heard. The Churches that sprung up all over the Roman Empire did so because of their witness. But not was not theirs alone. The Holy Spirit also worked with them to back up their preaching and create the possibility that the hearers would believe and faith would be born in their hearts.
The Christian Preaching backed up by the Holy Spirit effectively spread the message of the Good News, so much so that Paul could write that the Church is built “…on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). People heard their witness to Jesus preached, human beings proclaiming the message and God through the Holy Spirit impressing in the hearts of the hearers that this was true and addressed each of them.
The third form of the word of God is the Bible. In the Old Testament portion of our Bibles we have the story of God’s preparation for the incarnate Word. God prepared a people (Israel) and made great and precious promise to them about a coming redeemer. In the Old Testament we read of the story of preparation, of the heroes of faith, but also the many weaknesses and frailties of God’s people. The New Testament portions of the Bible contains the preaching of the Apostles and Prophets who proclaimed that the promise is fulfilled, that the time has come, the “fullness of time”. The Coming One has arrived! In the New Testament we have the word of fulfillment of the promise. We have the testimony of those faithful disciples who witnessed the Divine-Human Encounter fulfilled in Jesus. The Bible preserves for us the story, God’s story of preparation and consummation, of promise and fulfillment. In the Bible we have the preaching of the Apostles and Prophets who witnessed to Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit.
The primary, original and direct Word of God then is Jesus Christ our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead, and buried. He rose again the third and day ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
The secondary, derivative, and indirect word of God comes from the preaching of the Apostles and prophets who, in the power of the Holy Spirit witnessed to this word. They preached Jesus, crucified, raised and coming again.
The third form, also indirect and derived from the preaching of the Apostles and Prophets is the Bible. In the Bible we have the ancient Church’s witness. When we preach from the bible and witness to that same Jesus, those written words of the Apostles and Prophets become the Living Word, again and again.
It does so because the same Holy Spirit which caused Mary to conceive is the same Holy Spirit that opened the eyes of the Apostles to who Jesus was. That same Holy Spirit guided the writing of the Holy Scriptures and that same Holy Spirit uses the words of the Holy Scriptures to make a witness to Jesus Christ in the here and now, wherever Christ is preached in truth.
So, when we Christian use the term Word of God we may mean one of the three forms of this word. The Living Word, Jesus Christ or The spoken Word, that is the witness of the Apostles and the Prophets or The written Word as witnessed in the Bible.
John wrote those wonderful words, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. He wrote that because it is true. God has given us the clue to who God is and what God us doing. To those who say, “I believe in God, but I am not so certain about Jesus,”
I can only say, when we look into the face of that poor man of Nazareth, the crucified Jew, Jesus Christ, we see God. We don’t see an ideal man nor and idea of God. We don’t behold a philosophy that appeals to human intelligence, nor one that commends itself because it tells us what we already knew about God. In Jesus we behold the actual message the Word that God chooses to communicate to the world. That is why John could also write:
“In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”
It is true that left to ourselves we message seems a bit absurd. But if you hear my sermon today, maybe something is speaking to your heart saying, this is the way, walk in it, this is the truth, embrace it with your whole being, this is the life, submit yourself to this life so that you will have life that is life indeed.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him would not perish, but would have eternal life. (John 3:16)