I not only want, but need Jesus to be personal.
I see both internal and external reasons for this, as well as healthy and unhealthy reasons. Internally, I just need to be known. I need a Saviour who can enter into my difficulties and specifically and personally save me. But, externally, there is this pressure to make Jesus personal because we aren’t allowed to have an authoritative version of him. That would just be to intolerant of other peoples views. So, I personalize. And by personalize him I mean we craft our own versions of him. We then use phrases like, ‘I like to think of Jesus as…” and “I don’t agree or feel comfortable with that view of Jesus. My view of Jesus is…”
Motivated by our internal needs and these cultural influences we find ourselves treating Jesus as a thing. A thing that we can customize to our liking and subject to our own interpretations; a sort of Mr Potato Head Messiah. The problem with a Jesus that is subject to you- your comforts, wishes and preferences is that he is as subject to your struggles as you are. How can we expect a Jesus that is no greater than our own imaginations to be greater than the things that have bested us? When I have to face the things about myself that I struggle with most (my addictions, selfishness, and insecurities), things that I have been unable to change in my own strength, it makes me desperately in need of someone greater. When I am subjected to external circumstances and hardships far beyond my abilities and will, I need someone greater than me, not someone like me.
It is here, when we are losing on all fronts and we can’t see any hope that we wrongfully begin to feel like maybe our mistake was believing in Jesus at all when really, our problem is in the Jesus’ we create. This is the place of Christian discouragement, disillusionment, and despair. The place where we realize that the gospel of the personal Jesus isn’t working. We still feel unknown and alone. We are still stuck in our addictions and have become overwhelmed with shame and self-hatred. Our “I think Jesus is…” statements soon turn into “I’ve tried Jesus…”
The sad irony of all of this? In our pursuit of a Jesus that would interact with us personally, we have allowed ourselves to lose the personhood of Jesus. All we are left with is a Jesus in our own image. A Jesus that does not exist outside of our own minds. An impersonal fiction that has rendered us alone and an imaginary friend with no power to save us from our most desperate needs. But, it is now more than ever, that we need a proven Jesus. A version of Jesus that can actually accomplish what we hope, need and claim. A version of Jesus that is both proven and personal.
Somewhere along the way we took on the responsibility of defining who he is when our only responsibility was to receive who he is through the means of communication he has chosen. A path that will lead us to the true Jesus. What are those means? Does such a path even exist? If so, it has to be more than just a fad or a new idea. It needs to be ancient but also entirely applicable to this present life. It must be a path so well tread that it has the reputation of working. It has to be a way that we can be confident in, and strong enough for us to trust our most difficult areas with. Areas like our wounds from abuse, our slavery to addictions, our broken marriages, hurting children, desperate finances and our gifts and passions. It has to be The Way. It has to be His Way.
So, what is Jesus’ way of giving us the right version of himself?
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me…” -Jn13:20
This is Jesus’ Way.
I never gave much thought or weight to the importance of the Apostles. In some ways, I even saw the Scriptures as somehow separate from them. If anything, the Apostles acted as an example of how Jesus would treat me and were Christian peers that I could learn from.
To Jesus, they were far more important. To Jesus, they were the tablets on which he was going to write the Good News of his identity and accomplishments. Not only were they carefully chosen (Lk 6:12-16) but he intentionally made them privy to his grand story in a way that no one else would be. They would not only hear the teaching of Jesus, but live with and experience Jesus. Their hearts were written on in the quiet moments with Jesus. Their minds were seared with the images of his death and resurrection. Their bodies were fed by the miracle of the loaves and fish and rescued by his calming of the storms. Who he is and what he accomplished, he completely and authoritatively entrusted to them.
In the same way Jesus was sent by the Father, the Apostles were sent by Jesus.
In what ways do we then receive the Gospel of Jesus from the Apostles?
Firstly, we receive it from their testimony.
One of my favourite examples of this is Peter’s Pentecost message in Acts 2:22-33.
In this passage of Scripture, we hear the Apostle Peter address the crowds with a simple yet authoritative four part message which centres on Jesus’ Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. In preaching this message we are brought into what the Apostles were most personally impacted by and what they see as essential to understanding the true Jesus. By repeatedly saying, “This Jesus,” Peter is highlighting that it is according to these distinctive traits that we can truly identify the true Jesus and personally receive him.
Life. It is only through the Jesus that is fully man and fully God, that we can fully know God and be fully known ourselves.
Death. It is only through the Jesus that was crucified and killed that we can receive salvation from our failures, sins and broken stories.
Resurrection. It is only through the Jesus whom God raised up from the dead that we can see the broken places in life restored, the creation healed (both in the now and forever) and life everlasting.
Ascension. It is only through the exalted Jesus that we are filled with his Spirit, made citizens of his missional kingdom and united with his body and bride; the Church.
Acts tells us that those who responded to this testimony “devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching” (2:42). In devoting themselves to the Apostles teaching they received an authoritative version of Jesus that was personally impacting. Through the preaching and teaching of the Apostles an oratory portrait of Jesus was vividly painted and imparted to the community in such a way that they now knew “this Jesus” for themselves. It was so clear, transferable and transformative that the community who received it became known as The Way.
Secondly, we receive Jesus through the Scriptures
The New Testament Scriptures are a compilation of texts either written by the Apostles (Gospel of John), on behalf of Apostles (Gospel of Mark) or carry Apostolic authority (Heb). In them we see more thoroughly the Apostolic witness and the implications and applications of Jesus. It is within these writings that Jesus, by his Spirit, inspired the Apostles to create a sufficient, inherent, and authoritative witness of himself. But it is not in the New Testament writings alone that the Apostles showed Christ since Jesus himself walked them through the whole of the Old Testament writings showing how they were all about him. It is in the Old and New Testaments that we most fully see Christ.
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” -Luke 24:26
And so if we are to receive the only authoritative version of Jesus, we must accept as our standard “the apostles who preached the gospel to us and the prophets who announced our Lord’s coming in advance.” -Polycarp (discipled and ordained bishop of Smyrna by the Apostle John in his letter to the Philipian church) All too often the Christian neglects the immeasurable grace given through the Scriptures. Why come up with your own version when one far greater than our measly imaginations has been played out before us in his written Word?
Thirdly, the Apostles entrusted their Message to the Church
In receiving Jesus through the Scriptures we must also receive the Church in which the Scriptures were given. These writings were not born in a vacuum, they were written to and for the needs of the Church. A Church that the Apostles had planted, shepherded and trained. Churches that were placed into the hands of faithful leaders. Leaders who would not only shepherd the flock, but ensure that they didn’t neglect or lose the Message.
In the same way Jesus entrusted himself to the Apostles the Apostles entrusted the authoritative version of Jesus to men in Christ’s Church.
You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” -2Tim2:1&2
It is in this letter that we see the Apostle Paul set into motion four generations of The Way. What Paul (1st generation) has taught Timothy (2nd gen.), he now wants Timothy to pass on to faithful men (3rd gen.) who will be able to hand it down to the next (4th) generation. It was these individuals, trained by the Apostles and installed as their successors, that kept the Message of Jesus as an inheritance for future generations. But it is the fundamental nature of an inheritance that it must be received. It is not acquired, achieved or created anew. It is a gift.
Paul refers to this gift as “the tradition that you received from us.” (2 Thess 3:6) The early church had several ways of referring to this gift; the Great Tradition, The Rule of Faith, The Canon of Truth and The Apostolic Tradition.
“The actual original tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church, which the Lord bestowed, the apostles proclaimed and the fathers safeguarded.” -Athanasius
Appointed to continue the apostolic ministry, the early church bishops served the Church with the Good News of Jesus which they had received from the Apostles themselves or the Church they had built. They were given the authority to teach, spread and protect the Apostolic Message and ensure that it was not forgotten, changed or added to. A great way to get acquainted which these figures is through their writings, which is easily available for the modern Christian. It is truly an incredible thing to be able to read the writings of a Christian father, like Clement; a man discipled under Paul in the church of Rome and seeing how he understands and applies the writings of Paul. It is a window not only into the mind of Paul but the church context that he was serving.
In addition to the leadership and the writings of the church fathers, we have been blessed with the Creeds (confessions) of the ancient church. The early church, under the leadership of the fathers, created creeds for baptismal confessions and as authoritative defences against heresy. The most notable of which are the Apostles Creed (second century) and the Nicene Creed (325AD). These confessions not only summarize the Apostolic Message for us, but they also welcome us into unity with the early and ancient church. By saying, “We believe” we join with two thousand years of a tested and proven faith in Jesus. The ancient Way is then owned in the present and the inherited tradition of the Way continues into another generation.
(I believe the Creeds so important to our modern faith that I would like to take some time to speak of them individually in a series of future posts.)
I know that many modern Christians struggle with the idea of trusting the church fathers. We have become inherently suspicious of any Church history before the Reformation. But, I think we fail to realize that it was the church fathers who safeguarded the Scriptures we love so much. It was them who canonized the New Testament (chose the books and letters that would be included and we trust today). It was the church fathers that fought for orthodoxy and gave their lives for the health of the Church and our inheritance. Is it not the Message, Scriptures, and practices of the original Church that the Reformation was seeking to reclaim and restore? It is because of this that I do not see a return to Ancient Christianity as counter-reformation but the goal of reformation.
The Way is The Apostolic Tradition
The Via Apostolica
You would think that if God is going to go to all the trouble of Revealing himself progressively throughout history and then fully and personally in Jesus that he would have a plan for making that clear to us. If he is going to purchase our salvation at such a high price through Jesus’ death and resurrection you would hope that he would take care to ensure that it does not get lost in transit. So, did God choose the wrong shipping company or are we looking in the wrong place? Worse yet, have we simply overlooked the Way that he has so obviously chosen?
In order to receive this ancient Way we must be willing to submit our versions of Jesus to be challenged, changed and even trumped. But, lets be honest, we are sick of competing and conflicting versions of Jesus. We want THE Jesus. The same Jesus that the Apostles knew, preached, and passed on. We want the Jesus of the Apostolic Tradition. It is in the security of the Tradition that we will find the most important parts of Jesus for the most important parts of us. It is in the Tradition that we will have the real Jesus, the potential for real unity, real church and an inheritance worth leaving for our children.
God has Revealed Himself once and for all time in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who has rightly chosen to entrust that Revelation to His twelve Apostles, who have left it as an inheritance for us in their Message, the Scriptures, and their Successors.