73: The Wrong Kind of Mystery

In this episode John and Gregg discuss several Christmas events that John attended over the holidays. John reads sections from the printed material from these events and then John and Gregg discuss this content.

The first piece is a concert program with a welcome message. John is struck by the end of this message which reflected on “the distance that the Creator was willing to go to redeem his creation” by sending Jesus, and how by taking such steps, this represents “His [God’s] greatest mystery.” Gregg replies that if a given subject or element is both mysterious (i.e., unclear and unfathomable) and plays a key role in in either forming or developing a belief set, then clearly we have a big problem. For example, if a particular element is crucial to maintaining belief in God but is unclear or incomprehensible then how can one reasonably (or perhaps even safely) maintain such a belief?

John feels message has subtle undertones of the unworthiness of human beings to receive such a response and that if God loves his creation as deeply as Gregg advocates, why is it such a “mystery” the lengths God would go to save it? Gregg refocuses by maintaining that the Bible clearly depicts God as very positively disposed to humanity, such that humans might well marvel at the lengths God has taken but have no basis for seeing the reasons for taking such lengths as “mysterious!” Further, Gregg underscores that God’s action in Jesus are not simply an effort to redeem creation but represents that which is necessary for God in order to make good on God’s own promises to Abraham, before entering into covenant with Abraham (in Gen 12, 15).

John reads the second pamphlet titled the “The Manager and the Mystery” and notes it’s very clear and succinct presentation of “the gospel” as he has understood it. John observes how the presentation of this message differs in tone, focus and perspective in contrast to the views Gregg has offered over the past year in their conversations.

Gregg agrees on the clarity and comprehensiveness of the Christian message presented here while disagreeing with key parts of this message, particularly where its story deviates in key ways from the biblical story. For example, the pamphlet reads “When Jesus gave up his life, He was sacrificing himself for us by taking the punishment we should receive for defying God. This is why Jesus was born and why he had to die.” A little further the pamphlet reads, “God measures us by whether or not we follow His Law perfectly . . . and no one meets that standard.” Yet the biblical story does not corroborate this.

Instead, Gregg explains that the Bible offers a story of a nation (Israel) who made a contract (covenant) with God. This nation freely embraced the covenant and its standards, and that covenant itself included the means for repairing any “breaches of contract.” As such, it was quite possible for the Israelites to keep that covenant—Paul did, as he notes in Phil 3:4-6.

The problem then is not breaching the contract but its wholesale rejection (typically while claiming to be maintaining it), on the one hand, and “using” the covenant as object of national pride on the other hand (when Israelites claimed superiority over others because God has chosen them rather than seeing themselves as God’s chosen object of blessing to others, through the benefits that Israel would be able to offer to others by keeping the covenant).

And prior to all of this—prior to Israel existing, the covenant being made or rejected—was a promise that God made to Abraham. God called Abraham from a distant land with the promised that, if Abraham came, God would multiply him into a great nation through which all of the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). And then God made a series of covenants with Israel, starting with Abraham and then with Moses. This covenant included both benefits (blessings) if Israel kept it and consequences (curses) if they did not, and its chief benefit was the blessing of all the nations through Israel.

So by the time of Jesus’ birth the Israelites were in the woeful position of having repeatedly rejected this covenant and therefore suffering its chief curse: exile. So the Israelites were now estranged from God by their rejection of the covenant and so were unable to fulfill the covenant’s main purpose yet, thereby, God was also unable to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham! Note this: God’s promise to Abraham was not conditional on Israel keeping the covenant (which was made after the promise) yet Israel failing in her calling prevented God from keeping God’s promise!

What was God to do? How could God be faithful to the covenant (which God would not break) and yet fulfill God’s promise (which God must not break)?

The gospel of Matthew does record that Jesus would “save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21), yet it indicates that Jesus’ primary goal concerns the kingdom of heaven: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Mt 4:17, similarly in Mk 1:14). Further, the theme of God’s kingdom is prominent throughout the synoptic gospels.

From just this brief, high-level view a few things should be clear. First, Jesus came to fulfill the covenant and, thereby, to renew right relationship between the Israelites and God—not you and me. Jesus acted to excuse the Israelites’ of their rebellion and disobedience—not yours and mine. But by fulfilling the covenant Jesus not only righted matters with Israel but also made possible the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham: the possibility for all people, from all nations, to be in right relationship with God. Thus Jesus’ actions in dealing with sin—as actions and orientations, whether committed or omitted, that put up roadblocks to right relationship between ourselves and God—is important but it is not central.

Rather, Jesus’ life (in keeping the covenant and embodying God’s deep desire to be in right relationship with humanity) and death (in bearing the covenant curses upon himself, both in Israel’s place in place of any others who seek to be in relationship with God) have a) triumphed over the three main opponents and in so doing have opened the way for God’s kingdom to break into this world. The enemies, in ascending order, are sin, death, and the adversary (who is satan or the devil). God’s kingdom—a kingdom from, by God, and for God—is thus Jesus’ central focus, and the importance of this kingdom represents God’s actions in reclaiming all things as what they are: God’s own.

Finally, by engaging with the free and universally accessible gift of Jesus’ life and death human beings have the opportunity to explore and accept living in right relationship with God, a relationship whose knock-on effects include necessarily coming into right relationship with oneself, with others, and with the physical world around us.

However, John is unsure: many people seem to be fine with this perspective. Yet Gregg’s view is that perhaps the playing field is not even—perhaps we’re not comparing apples and apples. He raises two points.

First, what are the “test conditions” under which most people who are satisfied with this presentation of Christianity tend to ‘play out’ their beliefs? Gregg’s hunch is that tougher test conditions might show this presentation to be more fragile than it normally appears.

Second, Gregg wonders what relationship most people who are satisfied with this presentation of Christianity tend to adopt relative to those who present alternate presentations? Gregg’s experience is that many seem both unwilling to discuss the validity of their views and, consequently, appear quite willing to “throw those who disagree with them “under the bus.”

4 thoughts on “73: The Wrong Kind of Mystery

  1. Evan

    Hey John,

    I have to agree that he is a breath of fresh air for me as well. Simply Jesus was eye opening for me and would reinforce some of the things you guys have been taking about recently. I curious to read Simply Chriatian to see what his take is regarding the Christian Life. I am confident that most things you read by him and review on the podcast will be time well spent. Keep up the good work, I sure do appreciate it.

  2. Pingback: 74: The Gospel Doesn't Start at Christmas

  3. Evan

    Fantastic points! A lot of what was said in this podcast reflects what N.T. Wright wrote in Simply Jesus. He talks in the book about Jesus’s purpose is to show that God is becoming King again, fulfilling his promises to Israel and bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth through the person and work of Jesus. Since reading the book I have looked at the traditional “Jesus saved you from your sins message” with a, what I like to call, the “yes, but” feeling. Yes, in the sense that we do receive those things from Jesus, but, like with what was said today, that was not his sole purpose if you look back at scripture. So, thanks for putting the thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head into a more clear description. Keep up the good work.

    1. John Poelstra

      Thanks for the comment Evan! Yes, it’s kind of amazing how much convergence we are having with N.T. Wright. And thanks for mentioning and reminding me about him…. I went off and bought two of his books in the past week. 🙂 He is an amazing breath of fresh air after so much of the other stuff we’ve read and discussed on the podcast. We’re thinking maybe we should read one of his books next. Do you have a particular favorite or one you think we should read and discuss on the podcast?


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