Jesus' Value to Us
The pertinent question is: What is the value of Jesus' life in relation to our own? What does he mean for us? What use to us is this Jew who lived 2000 years ago?
A traditional view has been that he paid the price for us, that in some magical way his death atoned for us all. Now we need only accept what he has done, believe in him, and try to live up to his teachings. But such thinking only caters to our own magical wishes, inviting us to irresponsibility, other-worldism, and a second-hand godhood of our own.
I do not find this view to be realistic. Certainly those who accept it may find temporary relief from the burdens of this world and enjoy the feeling of godliness inherent in following it. I did myself. However, the premise has not proven valid for me, or many others I have known.
I think the abiding value of Jesus for us lies in four areas: 1) His personal example in confronting the common human temptations and finally resisting each; 2) His teachings; 3) His life style; and 4) His encounters with other people. Observing him in each of these dimensions, we may discover invaluable guidance in working out our own salvation. The remainder of the book will explore these areas.
HIS PERSONAL EXAMPLE
Jesus dramatically faced our common temptations in their most exaggerated forms. Going before us, he showed what it is like to pursue godhood wholeheartedly. Whereas most men only wrestle with minor demons, he faced the ultimate encounter with Satan himself. He pales our paltry efforts towards godhood with his colossal obsession.
If we dare look honestly at his life we can learn from the experience of one who went all the way, facing our own human temptations in their most violent forms. We can see ourselves dramatically mirrored, catching both a reflection of where we now are and the predictable end of each major path. We can see what will happen if we continue.
If wisdom prevails, we can learn from his experience, seeing our own courses reflected, changing them as we will. Pitfalls can be avoided, errors corrected, and tragedies diverted. We can take courage from the knowledge that we are not alone in the pilgrimage. One has gone before, pioneering the way. We can take heart in his message, "Because I live, ye shall live also" (John 14:19). He says to us, through his life, "You can make it."
Each temptation may be considered on a scale from 0 to 100. Many of us have only experienced the lesser degrees. Jesus, on the other hand, went all the way. He encountered the temptations at the 100% mark.
For example, most of us are only tempted to lean on parents, be supported by our friends, or depend on a spouse. These are the lesser degrees of a temptation which ultimately becomes casting ourselves on God in an attempt to be held by Him. At the lower levels one only partially depends on other people. Further up the scale, a person may cast himself on his country, expecting to be wholly taken care of by the government through welfare. Finally, one may be tempted, as was Jesus, to jump off buildings or bridges, expecting God to bear him up.
Or consider the fame temptation. Most people are only tempted to maintain the approval of parents or family, be liked by friends, or admired by their community. The higher degrees of the temptation involve seeking national fame and recognition. The ultimate temptation would be to seek the glory of the whole world. Jesus met the temptation on this level. Fame is commonly sought through pleasing or serving. While most persons only try to please or help a few people, Jesus tried to save the whole world. He hoped, said he, "that the world through him might be saved" (John 3:17).
So it was with the latter two temptations. While we may only be egotistical enough to attempt to make our families think we are somebody, Jesus went straight to the top, trying to con God with his "only Son" routine. He pursued egotism to its ultimate. So he did with sacrifice. We may attempt to please the gods by repressing or denying various capacities, such as thoughts or desires, and thus offering good behavior. Jesus did not stop with mere self-denial. He was tempted to sacrifice his very life.
What can we learn from Jesus' example? First we may glimpse ourselves in perspective. We may recognize our own temptations to simulate godhood through dependency, fame, magic, or sacrifice. For example, in seeing Jesus resist the temptation to lean on his parents, we may see our own continued parental dependency. In observing his refusal to seek support from friends, we may recognize our own subtle temptations in that direction. Watching his struggle with the desire to cast himself on God, we may catch a glimpse of our own wishes to be supported by a heavenly father.
As we see him court fame, we may recognize our own efforts to be approved by parents or liked by friends. We may realize the great expenditures of energy which go into currying the favor of other people. As we see his final resistance to the temptation to become the messiah of his people, we may take courage in our own resistance to live as the savior of our friends.
Watching him court death, we may realize the lesSer temptations we encounter in killing various of our own bodily capacities. Seeing him finally resist the wish to die, we may abandon our own suicidal tendencies.
Until this point we have considered Jesus' life in chronological fashion, as though his pilgrimage were an orderly progression from the set-up to his own commitment after the resurrection event. Although this seems to be a fair summary overall, in specific areas it is inaccurate. Obviously he had already worked out large segments of his own salvation prior to age thirty, as evidenced both in his life and teachings. Although he continued to struggle with the highest degrees of temptations for three more years, he had already surpassed the common degrees of being tempted; that is, he was obviously far ahead of most people in his spiritual pilgrimage.
Perhaps his intellectual awareness, as voiced in his teachings, proceeded his direct experience, as is the case for many. For example, he was teaching others about living the "abundant life," as he proceeded to the cross. Apparently he recognized the goal, even if he was not yet able to embrace it.
His teachings about the necessary death of self reflected a deep psychological awareness, even though they were delivered while he still struggled with the egotistical idea of being the greatest living self, God's "only begotten Son." Certainly he had already tasted the fruits of the kingdom of God because he was able to speak so clearly and definitely about its present existence. Nor could he have known so much about the "narrowness of the way," had he not already experienced the discipline required.
Weighing his teachings against the backdrop of his living, we may profit from a careful analysis of his words as well as his examples. Those of his teachings which have seemed most pertinent to me are these:
The kingdom of God is now
Primacy of Spirit over all else
Salvation through perfection (completion).
THE KINGDOM IS NOW
Traditionally man has only dared imagine or anticipate the kingdom of God at some distant time in the future. Most commonly it is thought to be possible only after physical death. Some have said that the time is close at hand, but even the boldest have generally held it for the future.
In contrast, Jesus plainly contradicted this tradition with his continual teaching that the kingdom is now. "Jesus came into Galilee . . . saying, the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:14-15). ". . . the kingdom of God is come upon you" (Luke 11:20). When the Pharisees pressed for an answer to the question of "when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said . . . behold the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21). To others he said, "I tell you of a truth, there be some of them that stand here, which shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:27). When he sent out his seventy disciples, he told them to "say unto them, the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you" (Luke 10:9).
When he spoke of those who are saved, his declaration was always present tense. They "have (present tense) eternal life" (John 3:16). Such a person "is passed (present tense) from death unto life" (5:24). He came that man might "have life (present tense), and . . . have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).
In like manner he taught that the spiritual events in the salvation process are also present tense--to be expected in the here and now. After describing the parousia (second coming), he said, "Verily I say, this generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled" (Matthew 24:34). On another occasion he spoke of the parousia, concluding with, "Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom" (Matthew 16:28). Contrary to the traditional view that the second coming is yet to occur, Jesus taught that it was to be anticipated in the current generation.
Likewise, he spoke of the judgment as present tense. "The evil of this world is (present tense) judged" (John 16:11). Not that evil will be judged at some later time--the traditional view--but rather that the judgment is already given. On another occasion he stated plainly, "Now is the judgment . . . " (John 12:31).
Jesus testified to the immediacy of the resurrection in these words, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live" (John 5:25). Traditional theology, even in Jesus' day, had projected the resurrection possibility to the end of time. After Martha confronted Jesus with the empty comfort of hope of a future "resurrection at the last day," he clearly declared: "I am (present tense) the resurrection. . . he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (11:25). Jesus shifted the time for the resurrection from the future to the present.
Paul caught the spirit of Jesus' messages. He echoed him plainly in writing, "Now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation: (II Corinthians 6:2).
I consider this the most revolutionary of all Jesus' teachings. Where before man had only hoped for a future kingdom, Jesus opened the door to its possibility in the here and now. He dismissed the other-world theology (which still prevails), by calling for salvation in this world, while man still lives. The great spiritual occurrences--parousia, judgment, and resurrection--commonly imagined to be cataclysmic, cosmic, historical events at some future date, were reinterpreted as individual spiritual happenings. Each was to be anticipated in one's own life time.
Even today this teaching is largely unaccepted in the traditional church. His idea of a present kingdom is commonly explained away as only meaning a promise of the later kingdom, after physical death. The prevailing idea is that on this earth one only gets a ticket to the heaven which is really to be entered after death (in the future). Although this-is-it has been accepted by many of the younger generation, traditional religionists largely reject the idea. Almost no established church views the spiritual events--parousia, judgment, and resurrection--as present possibilities in the lives of individual persons. The church calls for salvation, speaks of being (present tense) saved, but still places its major attention on the future. In spite of great progress toward now, the loudest message of the traditional church remains, prepare to die, rather than, prepare to live.
Jesus confronted a similar situation in his own day. Once a group of Sadducees, who did not believe in a final resurrection of the dead, came to test him. Assuming that he, like the Pharisees, believed in such a resurrection, they asked a trick question. Suppose, they said, a woman had seven husbands during her life time. Whose wife would she be in the resurrection? An excellent question! Jesus replied, in effect, You don't understand the resurrection. It is beyond such legal arrangements as marriage. But I realize, he said, that you are speaking of a future historical event. Then he quoted a familiar scripture passage: "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac (his son), and the God of Jacob (Isaac's son)." Cryptically he concluded, "God is not the God of the dead, but the living."
Matthew notes, "When the multitude heard this they were astonished at his doctrine" (22:23-33). And they still are.
PRIMACY OF SPIRIT
Man commonly places his greatest value on physical life, with only minor attention--if any at all-given to spiritual life. He is far more faithful and willing to pay his doctor than his minister. A second major message of Jesus is the reverse of this prevailing idea. He consistently taught that spirit is primary. The life which he called for, promised, taught about, and sought, was spiritual. He dealt with the quality, not the quantity of living. His theme was fulfilled life, not perpetual existence.
To understand his teachings we must first grasp a primary distinction between two Greek words, translated "life" in the English New Testament. The first is psuche, which means "breath; the principle of animal life," and the second, zoe, means "animated existence," "to be possessed of vitality," or "to pass existence in a special manner." Psuche refers to physical life or merely breathing, while zoe has to do with the quality of living. With psuche, one has animal life, but with zoe, one is possessed of vitality.
Since we must use the same English word for both meanings, some clarification is needed. Colloquialisms may help. With psuche life, one may be merely existing, but with zoe life, he is really living. To convey this distinction, theologians generalize with the descriptive phrases, physical life (psuche), and spiritual life (zoe).
Jesus' continual emphasis was on zoe, or spiritual life, rather than psuche, or physical life. He taught that spiritual life counts. What really matters is being possessed of vitality, or passing existence in a specific manner. He was concerned with really living, or existence at its fullest, rather than merely existing, or simply staying alive.
Life in the kingdom of God, which he referred to as "eternal life," was zoe, not psuche. He came "that men might have life"(zoe), not merely psuche. He called on his followers to "enter into life" (zoe) (Matthew 19:17). In other words, he was concerned with spiritual life, vital existence, rather than mere getting by. He cautioned his listeners about placing major attention on physical life--"Take no thought (don't be anxious) for your life (psuche)," and taught that the life which matters is beyond "meat and raiment" (Matthew 6:25). Seeing those whose primary concern was enhancing physical life through gathering possessions, he warned, "a man's life (zoo, or spiritual life) consisteth not in the . . . things which he possesseth" (Luke 12:15). In fact, he cryptically reminded them, "whosoever will save his life (psuche) shall lose it" (Mark 8:35), implying that excessive attention to physical living results in the loss of spiritual life.
In a dramatic encounter with self-righteous religionists who placed great emphasis on external cleanliness, Jesus pointedly called attention to their inward defilement. "He called to him the multitude again, and said unto them, 'Hear me all of you, and understand: there is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him: but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man"' (Mark 7:1-23). Clearly, his focus was on the inward man.
Of course traditional religion has never placed its major attention on physical life as opposed to spiritual life. However, it has essentially missed his emphasis on vitality by imagining a soul within the body. Although intangible, the soul has been perceived objectively (as an entity, or "it"), just as is the body. Common thought has been that the soul (a ghost-like entity) enters the body at birth and leaves at death.
Whereas traditional Christianity has shifted its attention from the body, or physical life, to an imagined soul, still it has missed Jesus' principal focus on the manner of living. Since the imagined soul is also conceived as an entity (an "it"), attention has continued on the objective rather than subjective! on the intangible rather than the tangible. The intangible soul falls in the same categories as the tangible body. Both are essentially objective entities. They are quantities rather than qualities. Jesus placed his attention on the quality of living, not the quantity of either body or soul.
The idea of perpetual existence of an intangible soul (either disembodied or reunited with a body) in some place following death, is, I think, entirely contrary to Jesus' teachings. He taught about fullness of life (zoe), not the extension of breathing (psuche).
Perhaps the strongest of Jesus' messages regarding the primacy of Spirit are evidenced in his practice and teachings in relation to the law. By law I refer to all rules about living--civil laws, religious commandments, social practices, and community mores. Man commonly has elevated the law over spirit in his value system. Being legal or right has taken precedence over being spirited. One is first supposed to behave (keep the rules), then to feel good if he can. If one or the other must be sacrificed, spirit must go first. Children must first learn to behave, then they can have a good time, so long as they do so without misbehaving. Adults must first keep the laws, then follow spirit if they can do so within the bounds of the established rules.
Courts of law are primarily concerned with upholding the law. If they can make allowances for a well-meaning lawbreaker, they may do so, but, primarily, breaking the law takes precedence over any good intentions of the offender.
In many churches the good members are those who keep the commandments. If they also happen to be spirited, well and good, but being righteous (understand as legal) takes precedence over being spirited. The best children are also the well-behaved ones. Abundant spirit is more often condemned than encouraged.
Of course societies (civilizations, countries, cities, churches, clubs, and families) are best served immediately by legalism. Things work better when everyone keeps all the laws. Regrettably, structures which originally emerge to serve individuals> tend to become inherently sacred. Instead of the servant, the law often becomes the master. Then persons exist to maintain the law, rather than rules existing to serve the individuals. The tail begins to wag the dog.
Into this kind of situation Jesus came with an old but relevant message. The Jewish people had perfected legalism to a high degree. The Romans were less devoted to law, but were not far behind. To them both, Jesus came preaching and practicing the primacy of spirit over law. Said he, with his life and words, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."
He constantly broke the religious laws of the Jews--in their eyes not keeping the Sabbath holy, neglecting ceremonial washings, associating with the wrong people, and healing on holy days. In the famous Sermon on the Mount he dared contradict the most sacred of all the commandments, those given by Moses himself. Six times he said, "The law says . . . , but I say . . . " He explained that he was dealing with the "fulfillment of the law"--that is, the elevation of spirit over law.
His ministry was a continual expression of this reversal. Examples abound: The woman at the well in Samaria (good Jews did not associate with Samaritans, certainly not with prostitutes); he even told her that sacred Jerusalem was not the only place to worship. When the Pharisees brought a woman taken in the act of adultery, an offense calling for stoning, he refused to condemn her; his most scathing criticisms were directed at the scribes and Pharisees, the real sticklers for the law.
At the conclusion of his ministry he comforted his disciples, not with the promise of a guide book, a set of rules on what to do after I'm gone, but rather with "the Spirit of truth" (John 16:13). "He will guide you," he said. In other words, he thought the spirit of truth is more important than the letter of the law.
(From: JESUS: A Man For All Time)