What Jesus?

John 6:66-71

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

John 6:66-71

The gospel is both simple and hard. Simple because it is easily defined: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 1:18:32; Romans 3:20-26), the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), God loved us enough to offer His Son as the only worthy sacrifice for sin (Romans 5:8), in Jesus people have eternal life instead of eternal death (Romans 6:23), and that the only requirement for salvation is belief in Jesus and public confession of that belief (Romans 10: 9 & 13). These verses, commonly called in some evangelical circles “the Roman road,” summarize the gospel that is fully explicated throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

Simple by definition, but living the words is hard. The context of John chapter 6 illustrates just how self-centered we humans are in our natural state. Jesus had just fed more than 5,000 men (and their families) with five barley cakes and two tiny fish (for an idea of what that might have looked like, check out this “Gospel Grains” video from 2012). The people were eager for more – bread. The conversation went something like this:

  • Crowd: Hey Jesus, you disappeared yesterday after we ate. It took us forever to find you. How did you get to the other side of the lake?
  • Jesus: You want more free food. Sure, your bellies were filled for a day, but I have something better for you so that you can live forever.
  • Crowd: Forever? We’re in! What must we do to work the works of God?
  • Jesus: Believe. The work of God is that you believe in the One He sent to you.
  • Crowd: Well, we need proof that you were actually sent by God. What signs and miracles will you provide? What work will you perform? Moses gave us manna to eat. What will you give us?
  • Jesus: Moses did not give you manna; that was God the Father. He has now sent Me to you, and I am the bread of life. You saw the miracle yesterday. You ate the bread and the fish, but you still don’t believe? I have come to you from heaven not to feed you bread and fish, but because the Father wants you to see His love, grace, and mercy in a form you can understand-Me. The living bread that I will give you and all who believe is my flesh.

The people who made up the large group of followers, complained that the very idea of bread equaling flesh was abhorrent. They said, “This is a hard saying.” Jesus explained that the flesh is temporary and really of no value; it is the Spirit that gives life. Still, He knew many would not believe, and many of the followers turned away and went looking for an easier way to righteousness and a leader who would take pragmatic steps to overthrow Roman rule.

Tabgha, Israel: Church mosaic of fish and bread.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is at this point when Jesus asked his inner circle of twelve whether they planned to stay with Him. Peter, as usual, spoke for everyone when he asked, rhetorically, “Where else would we go? We’re convinced you have the words of eternal life.”

You have the words of eternal life…you are the Holy One of God.

John 6:68-69

This declaration, among others (see Matthew 16:13-20) set the disciples apart from most of the crowd, but even with that heartfelt understanding, Peter still denied knowing Jesus (John 18:16-18; 25-27). Living out belief is hard, especially in a world that mocks and persecutes faith in the unseen. It should be no surprise that, the more secular culture becomes and the more the secular culture influences churches, the more frequently people will turn from faith and look elsewhere for something satisfying.

There is a trend in the modern church toward deconstructing faith. It comes with the current obsession with a Critical Theory that seeks to upend authority of any kind and dispel any notion of hegemony: religious, political, or social. While it is vital to hold authorities accountable to the laws (of a State in secular terms) and of precepts (in Biblical terms), the upending of all authority only creates a vacuum of leadership that will be filled with something, usually chaos, if history repeats itself. Great ancient civilizations (Mesopotamia, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Britain) fell when the leaders of those worlds became enthralled with their own power and, instead of ruling with a mind to the betterment of all citizens, began to do whatever was required to stay in power. There are signs that the US is following that same historical pattern.

The culture has infiltrated the Church in the US, and part of the evidence is the number of evangelicals who leave the faith, calling themselves “exvangeicals” and walking away from Jesus altogether in a “de-conversion.” Their stories are often sad, based in trauma or abuse by church leaders. But leaving Jesus because of what people do means there is a misunderstanding of the gospel itself. Jesus is not the pastor, preacher, or priest of any church, convention, denomination, or system. These things are human constructs designed to point people to Jesus. These things fail ALL THE TIME because they are run by finite, self-centered human beings. Like the loaves and fish, things of this world are perishable. Basing faith on the actions and words of a person is idolatry, even if the person says all the “right” things.

“What must we do to be doing the work of God?” the people asked. Jesus told them, plainly, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” Jesus alone is the Holy One of God. “What must we do” puts salvation and faith in our own hands.

It has always been important to focus on the Word, but when the culture infiltrates congregations and clerics, it becomes more critical to pay close attention. There are influential wolves on church stages seeking their own power. They point to what people can DO to work the work of God: give money, read books, follow social media, do good deeds–anything but study the Bible independently. There are powerful preachers in pulpits who enjoy the attention and adoration of the attendees in the pews. They point to themselves as beacons of righteousness and encourage other to follow them and their works for salvation. Of course people who engage in critical philosophical movements become cynical.

Those who claim to be enlightened by deconstructing their faith often followed a Jesus of their own imagining. Jesus the friend, but not Lord. Jesus the good teacher, but not redeemer. Jesus the compassionate, but not righteous and holy. Or the reverse. But Jesus, as revealed in Scripture is ALL of these: Lord, shepherd, redeemer, teacher, compassionate, holy, righteous, Son of God AND son of man. Wholly God. Wholly Human. No human can fully grasp His Nature–not even the apostles who walked with Him for three years. That is why an active pursuit of Jesus through the WORD is so important. Being a disciple is an ongoing process that will be incomplete until glory.

You have the words of eternal life…you are the Holy One of God.

John 6:68-69

Following a form of “jesus” made in the image of what culture promotes may be easy, but will always disappoint. Eating the loaves and fish may satisfy for a moment. It may seem like the solution to the real trauma too many people experience in churches, but it ultimately cannot heal. It may feel good to be seen as someone who does good things, but reputation is nothing compared to an inherent corrupt nature (see the disciples handing out the miraculous loaves or the rich young ruler of Mark 10). Putting leaders, however charismatic, in the place of Jesus will always lead to disillusionment. Inventing a faith that revolves around good feelings cannot save. A concocted “jesus” and a vision of a church focused on the social issues of culture alone will always disenchant and those who embrace a god of their own design will ultimately reject that god when it is inevitably revealed as false.

Only Jesus. Only an active, personal, individual relationship with the God of both Old and New Covenants through Jesus offers wholeness. But His words are hard, even though His gospel is simple. And that has to be okay. We need to become accustomed to discomfort. We need to become able to function in the not-knowing. Faith is believing, even without miracles and proof. Knowing is learning to discern what is True from what is cultural. Authentic Christianity is consistently studying the Word, acting on what we know to be True, and believing even the hard words that we do not yet understand.

You have the words of eternal life…you are the Holy One of God.

John 6:68-69

References

  • Beaumont, Hunter. (2021, April 26). Deconstruct your culture, not your faith.
  • Holmes, Charles. (2021, March 19). Reconstructing faith in a deconstructing culture.
  • Relevant staff. (2021, December 1). Deconstruction doesn’t mean you’re losing your faith. (Note: the title is misleading
  • Stonestreet, John & Baer, Maria. (2021, May 5). Leave loud, blaming churches.
  • Stonestreet, John & Padgett, Timothy D. (2021, October 26). The problem of deconstructing faith.
  • Siedel, Andrew L. (2021, September 20). A love letter to #exvangelicals and those deconstructing their toxic faith. (Note: this article and site are pro-atheist.)

Book Review

Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe

Baucham, V.T. (2021) Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe. [Kindle] Salem Books.

Those of us who grew up in California understand earthquakes better than most people in the US. We are aware that the State is riddled with fault plane boundaries, commonly called fault lines, where tectonic plates move against others, creating friction that eventually releases energy. That inevitable release comes in the form of seismic waves, shaking the earth, and devastating whatever lies above it. Californians understand the risk of living near fault lines, and take the necessary precautions to avoid damage. There is no stopping an earthquake, but the harm can be mitigated by awareness and preparation.

Dr. Voddie Baucham’s aptly named book uses the metaphor of increasing friction along fault plates to illustrate the impending and inevitable release of worldview tensions and the destruction that will come when (not if) the seismic waves of anger, fear, and frustration reach the surface of the culture. Baucham is clear that he did not write the book to stop the divide between sacred and secular cultures, but rather to “clearly identify the two sides of the fault line and to urge the reader to choose wisely” (p. 6).

Well-researched, with pages of citations following each chapter, Baucham defines the dominant worldviews that make up US culture. As a Black man, he knows the issues well, and from both sides of the argument. His lived experience testifies to his deep understanding of the issues now facing the US, but research informs his conviction that, while advocacy may have a place in the culture, it cannot overcome the divide. For Baucham, Truth, in all its capitalized glory, is necessary for justice, and Truth (or the denial of it) is the source of current cultural seismic waves. In earthquake country, there are often small temblors that precede a major quake; using Baucham’s metaphor, it is fair to say that the US is currently reacting to small cultural temblors that should make people prepare for the big quake that will come.

Baucham sets up a clear binary of secular and sacred. As a reader, I do not always agree with his conclusions; he skips over some of the important nuances of the complex issues, choosing to lay out his argument in purely black and white terms (wordplay intentional.) The strength of this book is in his definitions of a secular religion that puts humans at the center. He uses publications by those who hold to the views of secularism as the sources for the definitions, citing them not only by words, but also by hyperlinks (in the Kindle edition) to the source documents. He also exposes the faulty logic of secularism as he defines the new Gnosticism that prevails in the not-so-new religion (chapter 5.)

The book takes a decidedly sacred position, calling on people of faith to reconnect to the sufficiency of scripture as the source of Truth and as the model of how people ought to treat one another: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength…love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40) and “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). He calls on the Church to have hard conversations about the issues at hand, conversations that both address the cultural divide and prepare people of faith to speak the truth in love, knowing that the difference between human-centered religion and Jesus-focused faith is the underlying source of conflict, not just now, but throughout all of history.