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Jesus, the same ... yesterday, today and forever
Who is this man called Jesus?

The author of that anonymous New Testament “Letter to the Hebrews,” apparently writing at a time, like ours, when there was great disagreement, both within the church and the wider culture, about the character and identity of the man called Jesus, attempted to clear things up when he wrote: "Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and forever."

There has never been universal agreement about Jesus

Despite the best effort and intentions of that writer and many others, however, there never has been lasting agreement about who Jesus really was. As you look out across the span of history, you quickly realize that there are now, and always have been, countless differing conceptions of Jesus. Even in the first century, when those who had seen and known him personally were still alive, there was heated debate.

The apostle Paul poured out his life to present the Christian message. He traveled from country to country, braving storm and death, trying the keep divided churches together, but no sooner had he squelched one controversy than another sprang up in its place. New teachers and prophets appeared everywhere. There were factions and splinter groups everywhere. From the outset, church leaders saw the need for organization, for this new religion was literally bursting at the seams.

The church was created, largely, as an attempt to organize the Jesus movement into a coherent whole. It didn't work.

As a result there gradually developed an amazing system of doctrines and creeds, councils and committees, an ecclesiastical hierarchy, bishops, cardinals and popes. Yet no effort to organize could ever contain the dynamic force that had been unleashed in the person of Jesus Christ.

The history of the church is one of contradiction and conflict: from crusades and holy wars in which tens of thousands are murdered in the name of Jesus, to works of healing and compassion in Christian schools, hospitals and universities. From the inquisitor who tortured heretics with rack and chain, to gentle St. Francis who preached to the sparrows and walked among the lilies; Christians have come to the most contradictory conclusions all in the name of this one man.

“Jesus the same, yesterday, today and forever.” Yes, the same riddle the same enigma, the same unsettling power and presence.

Still his gospel touches off the most diverse reactions. There are business executives who believe their success can be attributed to a deep personal faith, while others believe Christ counsels a life of poverty and self-sacrifice. There are Christian tax collectors, and those who refuse to pay taxes in his name. There are Generals of the Army who follow Christ into battle, and there are pacifists who believe that the Christian can only be a soldier of peace. There are Christian Scientists who refuse medical treatment in his name and there are medical doctors who identify Christ as the great physician. There are ministers who preach on network television, so their words can be heard around the world; and there are Quakers who believe that the best worship is in silence.

So, how do we explain all this diversity?

One explanation for the diversity of opinion in the church is that our differences reflect our limited powers of perception. Remember the old fable about the blind men who were led to the circus to encounter an elephant for the very first time. They reach out to touch different parts of the elephant's body and come to radically difference conclusions about its shape and appearance. On touches its leg and compares the elephant to a tree; another touches its tail and concludes that an elephant is very much like a broom, but the man who reaches out toward the elephant's trunk suddenly finds himself being lifted high in the air. As he is poised there wondering whether he will ever get back down to earth, he shouts down to his companions, "I don't know what elephants look like, but it sure feels like this elephant can fly!"

There may be a deeper reason for the diversity of views about Jesus.

As it was for the blind men so it is for us. Many of our differences reflect our limited powers of perception. But there is another and I believe more important reason for our diversity. When we examine the variety of Christian experience, when we trace back the various threads of our Christian faith, we are led back inevitably to the root and source of all our diversity, back to Christ himself.

When you realize that this one man is the source of so many contrasting views, it is tempting to conclude that he was intentionally confusing. Perhaps he did not want a clear understanding of himself to be fixed in the minds of the people. Certainly Jesus did not pour out his soul or preen before the press like present day personalities. In fact, there were moments when he avoided public attention altogether. On several occasions he ordered his disciples to keep what he had said and done secret.

The secrecy of Jesus

He refused to stage spectacular miracles that would have guaranteed instant popularity. He did not stay in one place long enough to allow people to know him well. As you read the pages of the New Testament you realize how quickly he moved from place to place. One imagines him striding through a village, stopping to converse with a few individuals for a moment, but then moving on. As he walked through the streets most witnesses would have seen at most a glimpse of him; they would have heard, at most, a few words. They may have witnessed a single act of mercy. But as quickly as he had come, he would go, out across the lake, over the rise of the next hill, up to the high mountains to be alone.

A strategy of evasion

Because he chose this approach, we know all too little about him. The gospels themselves give surprisingly little information. They are short, incredibly short. They give us a rough outline of his last three years, but the rest of his life is largely ignored. We learn more about a contemporary personality in the twenty minutes of a television talk show then we know about Jesus from the entire New Testament.

Seen in this light it would seem that Christ chose to be a man of mystery. Even those few direct quotations we do have are difficult to understand. He nearly always spoke in parables, parables or sayings which are open to a wide variety of interpretation.

We can appreciate how ambiguous he was when we consider that his closest disciples often could not agree on what he said. The thirteen men who knew him best constantly misinterpreted his teachings. At the time of his death, not one of them really understood what he had been saying all along.

He came not to answer questions, but to frame them.

When we consider all this: the conflict within the contemporary church, the confusion and contradictions of church history, the controversy even among his closest disciples, we must conclude that he was intentionally bewildering. He came not to solve life's problems, but to stir up even more difficult questions. He takes all of our comfortable clichés and he explodes them before our very eyes.

Bottom line: he came to reveal a God who defies human understanding.

Christ came to reveal a God who defies human understanding. He spoke about a God who is greater than any definition, beyond any doctrine, more profound than any philosophy, more beautiful than all nature, more loving than any saint. His purpose was to expose the limits of human knowledge, to prick our human pride and to point beyond himself to the height and breadth and depth of God.

The prayer of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians shows the direction he would have us take. "Out of his infinite glory, wrote Paul, "may he give you power to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth, until knowing the love of Christ which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.”

The tragedy is that when we talk about Jesus Christ, we pull him back down into our conventional frame of reference. We try to define him by using the very clichés he came to explode. We make him into a man so pure, so loving, so strong that even the most hard of heart must admire him.

I once heard a famous preacher describe Christ's physical appearance, his impressive physique, his handsome face. "Jesus," said the preacher, "was the strongest man in the world." I don't know what your view of Jesus is, but you'll find none of this in the New Testament. After all, the size of his biceps is of very little consequence to the salvation of the world.

He did not want to be an icon, a statue, a clear image fixed in the human imagination and transformed into an idol.

Nevertheless it is a powerful temptation to project our favorite virtues on him. We cast him in the image of the super hero, and so miss the point entirely. He did not want to be admired as a superman. This is precisely why he was so brief and even blunt. He wanted to direct the attention away from himself, to turn your attention inward, to reveal the thoughts and intentions of your heart, to open your mind to the final religious experience, that state beyond all knowledge, when you are filled with the utter fullness of God.

“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever.” Yes, Jesus, the same fascinating, yet bewildering presence, the same mystery, the same enigma. Because Christ is really divine, he will always be beyond any human definition.

What would it be like were Jesus to return, as many believe he will?

Many Christians believe, of course, that one day we will have all our questions about Jesus answered, for he will return to this world in an event referred to as the Second Coming. But did you ever wonder what it would be like if Christ did re-enter our world and stood before you in person? The images from the Bible that describe this event are ones of hope, to be sure, and involve the fulfillment of the deepest human desires, but they also are images of a terrible power set loose upon the world, overturning everything we hold familiar.

In fact, no one knows what awesome events, what momentous turnings await us in the months and years to come. The events that are now taking place in our world, portend great possibilities for good, but also for evil. Who knows what the final consequences will be of the changes that we now see sweeping across so many nations. Have these events something to do with the end of history as some believe?

Clearly, no one knows the answer to such questions.

Still, whatever the consequences of world events may be, each and every one of us must ask what difference it would make if Christ did return and present himself before us? What difference would it make in your plans for this day, tomorrow or next week if you knew that this were the hour when you would personally confront the living Christ?

What would be your response if you knew that this were, in fact, the hour that people have been waiting for since the beginning of time? Could it be that the words of that anonymous writer would, in fact, prove to be precisely true, "Jesus, the same, yesterday, today and forever." And that the Jesus we encounter at the end of time, might be the same one who asks not that we bow before him in worship and devotion, but rather that we open our eyes to see the God who is beyond all human knowing?

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.