Last week I had a couple of confessional moments about theological interpretation and the biblical studies academy. My soul, lifted from the experience, now wants to explore a bit more who this Jesus is that I think is worth following–not the academy’s Jesus, but the church’s Jesus.
And it begins with the inseparability of Jesus from Israel’s God.
There are a few things that this could mean. And some of them are (or at least should be) acknowledged by the academy at all times as well. For instance, the connection between Jesus and Israel means that Jesus was a Jew and must be understood (and understandable) as a first century Jew who spoke and acted among other first century Jews. (Though both church and academy have lost sight of this from time to time.)
But the church’s Jesus is not merely a historical religious phenomenon.
The church’s Jesus is the one in whom and through whom Israel’s God is bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promises to that people. And so, when we go to study the church’s Jesus we find that each of the four Gospels demands of us that we interpret the Jesus story as the culmination of the Israel story.
Matthew invites us to consider what we are about to see in Jesus as the end of the era marked by Babylonian captivity, the fulfillment of the covenant promises to Abraham, and the realization of God’s promise to David. The whole story of Israel as such is telescoped into a genealogy marked by these three: Abraham, David, Exile… Christ.
The point of the generations is not merely that time has passed or that history is being observed. In Israel’s story these moments are marked by the dramatically intervening hand of God–for deliverance, yes, but even more so for promise of a better future. The claim of the genealogy is that the God of Israel is at work again, and that this Jesus can only be rightly understood as the one in whom this story culminates (or, perhaps, the one who embodies the story within himself).
Analogously, Mark begins his Gospel with a declaration that all we are about to see is in answer to Isaiah’s Second Exodus. The way of the Lord is being prepared by John the Baptist–and that means that when we see Jesus we see the work of the God of Israel, the deliverance and restoration promised through the prophets is coming about.
Do you see how the Gospels take us into an interpretive field that can never be entered by the academy?
We’re talking here about Jesus in relation to God. We’re not merely talking about how to read the books well–though here, perhaps, we could agree even as an academic guild. But we are talking about who Jesus was and what the proper framework is for interpreting his ministry correctly. While “religious studies” must, as an academic discipline, seek to understand Jesus as like unto other turn-of-the-era religious phenomena, the stories of Jesus themselves demand a different starting point.
Jesus, claim the Gospels, is the one thing that the scriptures had prepared us for; he is the one event we were told to expect. Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s story, the great and saving act of Israel’s God.
And so when Luke begins with a declaration that the things he writes are things that “have been fulfilled among us,” when his story begins with an old barren couple conceiving a child and moves on to songs of promises fulfilled–the point in all is that we only know this Jesus rightly when we recognize that in his advent the God of Israel is at work again.
And when John begins his Gospel with the words that start all of scripture (in the beginning), we are being told that to understand this theos who is on the scene, we must first understand the theos who created the world and all things in it, according to the biblical narrative.
So when the church whose stories these are begins its creed with an affirmation of the God who created heaven and earth, they are giving a necessary (if insufficient) indicator of the identity of the Jesus from whom we derive our unique identity as a people. The church’s Jesus is the messiah sent and empowered by Israel’s God, by the creator God.
What the academy can never say is what the church must say first and foremost and most clearly, as Peter does in Acts 2: This Jesus was a man attested to by God.
By the One God.
By the God of Israel.
“Israel” is not merely a context within which Jesus makes sense, but also a narrative within which God was at work prior to Jesus and consummately at work through Jesus. This is the church’s Jesus. In part…