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[Editor’s note: the following excerpt is taken from The Reckless Love of God by Alex Early, Bethany House, 2015, pages 151-156.]
The Reckless Love of God
Unfortunately, it is possible to read the Bible and miss Jesus. I know, because I have done it. The ancient rabbis did this in the first century, and many do it today in the twenty-first century. In his gospel, John depicts Jesus debating with a group of popular Jewish leaders and their followers on the Sabbath. After healing on the Sabbath (which was a big no-no for this crowd) and making himself “equal with God” (John 5:18), things became more heated. John records Jesus saying:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?
SEE ALSO: How Do I Find the Right Bible?
These men who doubted and accused Jesus had devoted their entire lives to mastering the Old Testament texts both in content and practice. They’d even invented rules to supplement the rules so as to make sure that the Bible’s commands were kept. Yet here we have Jesus saying that their study of the Scriptures is in vain, all for nothing, complete hogwash! He declares that the Scriptures point to him, and his listeners can’t stomach the thought of coming to him who appears to be mortal, a mere human being, for eternal life. Jesus elaborates by saying that Moses’ words will stand in judgment over them because even Moses was doing more than giving laws to observe. Rather, he intentionally directed his followers and readers to Christ, who would save his people by grace through faith. Knowing what texts Jesus had in mind here is difficult.
However, Matthew, who writes to a very Jewish audience that was quite concerned with Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament, probably had a few in mind. In fact, when it comes time for him to write his gospel, he helpfully provides many texts as he repeatedly emphasizes Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament’s promises and prophecies (see Matthew 1:22; 2:15; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 17:23; 21:4; 26:56; and 27:9). Furthermore, in Luke 24, after Jesus is resurrected, he has a conversation both on the Emmaus road with Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, and then again while having breakfast with his disciples. Jesus makes this revolutionary statement:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
Consider the implications of these statements. Jesus says the whole Bible is about him. He is not asking us to hijack the text and force him into the pages of the Old Testament. As a Jew, he would never think of such a thing. Rather, he simply, humbly, and truthfully says in effect, “Look and see me there! No pressure necessary. You don’t have to read me into the text. Merely read the text and I emerge.” But even after we meet Jesus in the Bible and are converted, we are not finished with his book. Instead, our conversion marks the beginning of a lifetime of going deeper and deeper into the Word of God.
This Christ-centered way of reading the Bible has massive implications on both our discipleship and our mission as Christians, because the reckless love of God is at the blazing center of our identity and all that we do. Each text is given that we may be further conformed to the image of Jesus (see 2 Timothy 3:16–17; Romans 8:29). If we fail to see a text in terms of its being planted at the feet of Jesus and his mission for the world, we have missed the point. Soon the Bible is reduced to a list of do’s and don’ts. Heroes and villains. Good guys and bad guys. Winners and losers. The good news of the gospel, when seen in this light, is reduced to good advice at best. And those who supposedly know Jesus will relate to him in such a manner that it’s as if they don’t know him. Like when Ned Flanders on The Simpsonstold his boys, “Okay boys, when you meet Jesus, make sure you call him Mr. Christ.”
Jesus didn’t come to give good advice. He came to tell of the wrath to come and to call people to repentance, to extend the incomprehensible love of God to the world, to summon us to follow him no matter the cost, and to enter into joy unspeakable. Jesus did not come to be our homeboy or our life coach. He assumed the role of God. Westminster theologian and author Michael Horton says, “One can lose weight, stop smoking, improve one’s marriage, and become a nicer person without Jesus.”6In other words, when we understand the Bible to be a list of good guys and bad guys, it can easily become a self-help book rather than the revolutionary good news that changes hearts and turns lives upside down. Therefore, the Bible’s purpose is most certainly not to divide us into teams of winners and losers, successes and failures. It plainly says that we are allbad guys, that Jesus is the only good guy, and that the Bible’s purpose is to get us to him.
Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba’s Child, asks,
How is it then that we’ve come to imagine that Christianity consists primarily in what we do for God? How has this come to be the good news of Jesus? Is the kingdom that he proclaimed to be nothing more than a community of men and women who go to church on Sunday, take an annual spiritual retreat, read their Bibles every now and then, vigorously oppose abortion, don’t watch X-rated movies, never use vulgar language, smile a lot, hold doors open for people, root for their favorite team, and get along with everybody? Is that why Jesus went through the bleak and bloody horror of Calvary? Is that why He emerged in shattering glory from the tomb? Is that why He poured out his Holy Spirit on the Church? To make nicer men and women with better morals?7
Of course not. Resuscitation and resurrection are two different things. Human beings are dead in sin and in need of more than moral improvement; we need to be overcome by the love of God and transformed by his resurrecting power. Yes, resurrection. As the late Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said,
Of course, it would be meaningless to speak of the Cross without considering the other side, the Resurrection of the Crucified. “If Christ has not risen, then our preaching is nothing and also your faith is nothing; you are still in your sins and also those who have fallen asleep . . . are lost. If we are merely people who have put their hope in Christ in this life, then we are the most pitiful of all men” (1 Cor. 15:14, 17–19). If one does away with the fact of the Resurrection, one also does away with the Cross, for both stand and fall together, and one would then have to find a new center for the whole message of the gospel. What would come to occupy this center is at best a mild father-god who is not affected by the terrible injustices in the world, or man in his immorality and hope who must take care of his own redemption: “atheism in Christianity.”8
6. Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008),102.
7. Brennan Manning, TheFurious Longing of God (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009), 125.
8. Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 87.
Alex Early(MDiv, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; MA, London School of Theology) is a pastor who has planted a church in a bar, served as a theology professor, created the Acts 29 West Academy—a missional-theological training center—and launched the Acts 29 podcast. Alex lives with his wife and chidlren in Atlanta, Georgia. He spends his downtime cooking with and for friends and family, and is pursuing a Doctor of Intercultural Studies degree at Western Seminary. Learn more at alxegesis.com.
Publication date: September 14, 2015