the same ... yesterday, today and forever Who is this man called Jesus?
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
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
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
There may be a deeper reason for the diversity of views
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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.