Jesus: the Doubting Deity

There came the impossible moment: when the promises of the devil may have actually held some appeal.

Jesus had separated himself from the rest of his disciples, who were charged with prayer but in reality were struggling to stay awake (thanks to the glasses of wine consumed during their Passover meal earlier that evening). The Son of Man walked farther into the garden. The first drops of blood shed for us weren’t on the cross. They drizzled down Jesus’ forehead as he looked for another way.

Thomas is known as the doubting disciple, which is rather fitting because there was a time when Jesus was the doubting deity.

Too many popular Christian songs today forget this moment. In our recognitions of Calvary and the sacrifice of God, we don’t dwell much on the fact that hours before his gruesome execution, Jesus was hoping for a way out of his having to die for our sins. It was there, in the garden, that the promise of Satan from years before came back as an invitation.

“All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.”

There could be another way to be the Messiah. Jesus could have the kingdoms of the world–something he was destined to have, anyway. But here, Jesus wrestled with the option of ruling the world without first being killed by it. He could be the King without first being condemned as a criminal. It was a lie, of course; a devilish not dissimilar to the lie told to Adam and Eve: “eat, and you will become gods”.

The fore-parents of humanity believed it and were expelled from Eden.

Jesus chose not to believe it and left the garden as a prisoner.

There’s something beautiful about the words of G.K. Chesterton here. In Orthodoxy, he wrote:

“When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

We tend to think that Jesus showed Thomas his scars to give his doubts the final knockout. That’s not necessarily wrong; it’s just incomplete. Jesus showed Thomas his scars, not just to prove that he was alive again, but to show the doubter that the author of faith understood, because He, too, had doubted.

Jesus had had his own faith tested, even as he had known before anyone that the hour was coming for him. The scars of Christ are reminders to us that the Lord of all there is once shared our deepest, darkest questions. In our worst moments, when we find ourselves questioning everything, that’s where we find Him, sweating blood and repeating our questions.

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More on How the New Testament Weirdly Interprets the Bible

I really should try to turn this into a series, but homework and other obligations have prevented me from sitting down too long to write about all the weird ways in which the New Testament uses the Old. So, you’re getting my posts when you get them, and I hope for now they’re at least interesting.

I’ve had this recurring theme in my head: the way that Scripture is used by Jesus and the early church is pretty creative … and very weird, by modern evangelical standards. If Matthew had been alive today and used Isaiah 7:14 to “prove” Jesus was virgin-born, we’d say he didn’t really understand how to interpret the text. But, he made this argument two thousand years ago, the church considers it authoritative (and, for the record, so do I), and that’s why we’ve come to see Isaiah’s verse as being a messianic prophecy.

Tonight, another example occurred to me, and this one is attributed to Jesus himself (by, again, Matthew). Our Lord is confronted by the Sadducees on the matter of the Resurrection, a doctrine of which they don’t believe, unlike their counterparts, the Pharisees.

(Tangent: of all of Jesus’ enemies, he appears to have had the most in common with the Pharisees. Many Christians view the world as an “us” and “them” divide, while rarely paying attention to the fact that sometimes, the most dangerous threats of all are the teachers who confess your creed. End of tangent.)

The Sadducees pose a problem for Jesus, one that’s designed to make the prospect of a resurrection sound silly. Jesus, in turn, tells them that they don’t understand the Bible or the power of God. At this juncture, you’d expect him to point to verses in the Old Testament that sound like they’re talking about people being raised from the dead. And Jesus does appeal to a passage, but it’s not the one you’d think:

Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. … And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:23-33)

Now, the likely reason Jesus appealed to Exodus and not, say, Daniel or Ezekiel–two pretty strong contenders for having resurrection passages–is that the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Bible as Scripture. They don’t see the other books as “biblical”. For a modern-day comparison, imagine a Catholic trying to convince a Protestant that praying to the saints is biblical on the basis of what they read in 2 Maccabees. Protestants don’t consider that book “biblical” and so they won’t consider the doctrine to be Scripturally based.

So Jesus is playing on the Sadducees’ turf here, but he seems to bend a lot of interpretive rules to make the case. In what world do you read Exodus 3 and come away thinking that this is an argument in favor of resurrection or life after death? There’s nothing in the context to suggest that. God is only affirming His commitment to the agreement he made with Moses’ forefathers. Reading resurrection into this text seems, quite frankly, to be a matter of eisegesis and just bad interpretation.

But Jesus did it, so we accept it.

That’s the thing about studying the early church and the New Testament: you pretty quickly realize that the church, and even the Lord himself, are playing by a different set of rules than we do. So what now?

If anything, I think that should make us shut our mouths from time to time and realize that we are not the first ones to have this book figured out.

We also should be wary of thumbing our noses at church fathers whose interpretations of the Scriptures ranged from creative to nutty. For instance, I think that the “two swords” argument, in which the church and state are said to be two different swords for the world, is kind of ridiculous. But then, by my standards, so is appealing to that passage in Exodus to make a case for the resurrection.

I honestly don’t know where these posts and thoughts are leading me; I’m just writing as I go. But if you have anything to add or corrections to be made, the comments section is yours. In the meantime, I’m going to practice that “shutting my mouth” thing.

A Quick Follow Up to My Post on the Virgin Birth

Not long ago, I wrote about Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 to justify the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin, noting that the gospel writer uses this passage in such a way that many evangelicals would consider ridiculous today.

Well, I think scholar Peter Enns has a much better understanding of what Matthew may have been doing. Enns didn’t write my post (as far as I know), and he’s far too smart to need to borrow anything from me. But I think what he writes about here is related to my question regarding Matthew and Isaiah:

The very declaration “We need to read the Old Testament story in light of Christ” is an implicit acknowledgement that the Gospel-lens through which we read the Old Testament changes what we see; changes what is “there” on the plain-sense level. The Gospel drives Old Testament interpretation beyond what it means when understood in terms of its ancient tribal parameters.

 

[…]

 

Here is the irony: respect for the texts of the past was expressed in terms of transforming them to speak to present realities.

Read his post when you get the chance. It’s worth your time.