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.)

Jesus culture is multicultural

One of the criticisms of the evangelical, mission-minded Church is that people go into other countries with the intent to share the gospel and then change the culture and social structure of that community. It is a legitimate critique. But Paul reprimanded the Apostles, naming Peter specifically, saying that forcing cultural change on new believers is hypocritical.
Those are strong words, especially since Peter at that point was the go-to authority. But Paul backed up his criticism with facts.

Galatians 2.

When Peter wrote to the Galatians the Church was about 20 years old. Paul had been to visit Peter twice, mostly to make sure his teaching was in line with what was being taught in Jerusalem. However, Paul ended up setting Peter straight instead of the other way around.

Peter had a vision of God’s impartiality long before Paul’s second visit, and he had been teaching that “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:35). Peter was the first to see the Holy Spirit active in the Gentiles, but he was still acting one way with the Gentiles and another way with the Jews. Peter, while teaching that the gospel was for everyone still allowed fear of the Jewish leaders to prevail, and forced the new Gentile believers around him to live like Jews. Paul confronted Peter on that and reminded him that no one is justified by adherence to tradition, but only by faith in Jesus.

God never made surrendering a home culture a prerequisite for salvation. The gospel is not defined by nor limited to a particular cultural point of view. Titus, a Greek, was not required to be circumcised and convert to the Jewish religion. He was Paul’s partner in planting churches and sharing the gospel while maintaining his cultural identity as a Greek man. The Ethiopian whom Philip taught, returned to Ethiopia, taking the gospel to Africa without any mention of conversion to a Jewish form of Christianity. Philip also taught the Samaritans–without demanding they become Jews first. Acts is full of examples of how people in multiple cultures were welcomed into the Church as the gospel spread beyond Jerusalem into African, Asia, and Europe.

“I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
    that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”

Somehow, in the years between the beginning of the church and when Paul went to Jerusalem, Peter started to acquiesce to the “circumcision party” and force the Gentiles to live like Jews. Paul called Peter out in public, calling his actions hypocrisy and not in line with the truth of the gospel.

In some current Christian evangelical and missionary circles, the same thing happens. The gospel is preached to all (while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us), and then there is an expectation that those who believe begin to act like Western Christians. This idea is misguided (at best) and is one of the sources for resentment of the Church.

Culture is a social contract between people. It defines acceptable behavior for a particular group. Being part of a particular culture binds people together with a common point of view and approach to making meaning of the world. Our particular culture does not justify us, nor make us uniquely qualified to be saved or sanctified. God does not privilege one culture over another, which is the point of Galatians 2. The grace of God is for everyone, wherever they are.

God is more than any one particular culture. He cannot be expressed by Western or Eastern or African or Asian or whatever culture. In fact, it is only through a multicultural lens that we can begin to understand the whole of God’s nature. Each culture adds a dimension to how we see God, how we might worship Him, and how we can serve Him. The gospel is simple: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). That love is not specific to any one culture, but is for everyone, without any other demands or expectations. No one is saved by going to a particular church, wearing Western clothing, or not eating certain things. These are cultural preferences, not laws of justification. When we are crucified with Christ, we live in faith in Him who loved us–so loved all of us.

Why grace as default?

There can be no question that Western culture stands on the precipice of an anti-Christian era. Many people, particularly in academia, have already dismissed Christianity as a nonsense philosophy that is dangerous to democracy. Incorrect assumptions abound, particularly regarding Jesus and the gospel. The assumptions are sometimes based in how people in the Church act toward each other. If the gospel is truly the foundation upon which we as believers build our lives, we must live according to the will of God, rather than the dictates of popular preachers, influencers, and policy. In short, we must treat each other the way Jesus taught us.

That begins with understanding the great love of God for us. Without that love, nothing we do matters. We must know it, understand is, receive it, and practice it. Jesus was clear, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, ESV).

If we begin with love, we are able to see each other. Really see. We see the stories that make up the human condition and we are compelled to share burdens, rejoice together, grieve together, and come alongside each other (John 13:14; John 15: 17; Romans 12:10, 16; Romans 15: 5; 1 Corinthians 12:25-26; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Galatians 5:13; Galatians 6:2; Ephesians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; Hebrews 10:24; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 4:7-11).

The goal of this blog and anything that may come from it, is to remind the church that we must love one another. Loving one another no matter what will continue to become more and more challenging as the culture wars progress, but love is the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), and if we are in fellowship with the Father, if we are walking in the light of Jesus, then our fellowship with each other will stand as testimony to the power of the gospel.

Too often, however, we are quick to judge each other based on our own biases, fears, insecurities, and misapplications of scripture. God has put on my heart a burden for the hurting families in the church, families who feel judged, alone, and without the support of their brothers and sisters in Christ. The families for whom I write are those whose children have wandered far from the faith they were taught as children. There is a blemish on the church in how its members treat those whose loved ones follow the world instead of the Lord. Those who leave choose many paths: agnosticism, atheism, sexual impurity, , secularism, humanism, activism, and other forms of goodness according to the standards of Western culture. Other family members do not choose to leave the faith, but suffer debilitating mental illnesses, including depression, addiction, self-harm eating disorders, and suicide. Often the parents of these sufferers are judged because they are perceived in playing a part in how mental illness develops. Science has demonstrated over and over that much mental illness is genetic or idiopathic, not environmental, but for some reason, the church writ large has not taken up the challenge of supporting the mentally ill or their families.

The purpose of my work here is to share the stories of believing parents (and siblings) who have been largely overlooked, misunderstood, or judged by fellow Christians. Some stories may be based on true stories. Others will be compilations blended into a narrative that affords the storytellers a level of anonymity. In sharing the stories, I hope to bring to light specific scriptures to guide Christians in how to be the loving and grace-filled people Jesus calls us to be. When we choose grace over judgement or ambivalence, we begin to reflect the love of Christ as we live out the will of the Father.