Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet just released their new book Jesus Manifesto. In celebration of that release, I invited Frank to write a guest post for Jesus Needs New PR. Learn more about the book at TheJesusManifesto.com. (ALSO: Below the post, read how you can enter to win a copy of Jesus Manifesto!)
I’m honored to have Frank blogging at JNNPR. Hope you enjoy…
“A Vanishing God”
by Frank Viola
Recall the way Jesus came into the earth.
Consider the situation. For centuries, Israel had waited for a political Messiah. They expected Him to break the yoke of Roman bondage and liberate God’s people from Roman oppression.
But how did the Messiah make His entrance into the world? He came in a way that made it easy for His own people to reject Him. He entered the planet as a frail baby, born in a feeding room for animals. The King of the universe was born as a weak human being in the ill-starred town of Bethlehem, in the midst of the stain and stench of animal manure. And His parents? A poor Jewish couple.
There He was. The promised Messiah who was expected to overthrow the mighty Roman Empire and set Israel free from Gentile oppression. A needy Nazarene born in a manger.
Ironically, none of the Bible scholars who had the Old Testament memorized and knew the prophecies about the Messiah’s coming were present at Christ’s birth. The only people who were present were those who were led to Bethlehem by revelation. All of them happened to be shepherds and pagan astrologers, not Bible scholars.
When Jesus grew up, He ate and drank in their presence and taught in their streets (Luke 13:26). Yet they didn’t recognize who He was. He was unassumingly modest, of humble origin. A mere craftsman; the son of a craftman.
He grew up in the despised city of Nazareth, fraternizing with the despised and oppressed. But more startling, He befriended sinners (Luke 7:34). As such, the people of God didn’t recognize Him. Why? Because He came in a way that made it easy for them to reject Him.
And what about the disciples? Read the story again. Jesus continued to break out of their expectations. He couldn’t be pinned down, figured out, or boxed in. The Twelve were constantly confounded by Him. His teachings were offensive. His actions scandalous. His reactions baffling.
But the greatest offense of all was the cross. It offended everyone—both Jew and Gentile. The only crown the promised Messiah-King would accept was a crown of thorns. Look at Him again. A suffering Messiah, a defeated King. It’s easy to reject Him.
One of the Lord’s most faithful disciples teaches us this principle well. Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the resurrected Christ. Do you remember what she did as soon as she recognized Him? She grabbed Him, and she wouldn’t stop clinging to Him.
Jesus responded, “Stop clinging to me” (see John 20:17, Greek text). Why did Jesus tell Mary to stop clinging to Him? Because He had somewhere to go. He was on the move. Jesus was poised to go to Galilee to see the other disciples and then to ascend to His Father.
Note the principle: He was moving forward, but she was clinging to Him.
Jesus was in effect saying to her: “Mary, stop holding on to me. There’s a new way to know me that’s different from what you’ve experienced thus far. Let me go, for I must move on.”
Do you remember the disciples who walked on the road to Emmaus? Their hopes were shattered by the Lord’s horrible death. Suddenly, the resurrected Christ began walking beside them, yet their eyes were blinded from recognizing Him.
However, when He engaged in the very simple gesture of breaking bread (something He had done frequently before them), their eyes were opened.
He then quickly disappeared from their sight.
These stories hold a critical insight. You cannot cling to the Christ that you know today. He will vanish from your midst. Jesus Christ is an elusive Lover. Seeking Him is a progressive engagement that never ends. He doesn’t dance to our music. He doesn’t sing to our tune.
Perhaps He will in the beginning when He woos us to Himself; but that season will eventually end. And just when you think you’ve laid hold of Him, He will slip out of your grasp. He will appear to you as a stranger. But upon second glance, we’ll soon discover that He’s no stranger at all. Emmaus will be repeated.
We all wish to cling to the Lord that we know now. We all wish to hold on to the Christ that has been revealed to us today. But mark my words: He will come to us in a way that we do not expect—through people who we’re prone to ignore and inclined to write off.
Perhaps they don’t talk our religious language. Perhaps they aren’t theologically sophisticated. Perhaps they don’t use our vocabulary. Perhaps they don’t share our jargon nor parrot our religious idioms.
And so we cling fast to the Lord that we recognize—receiving only those who talk our language, use our jargon, and employ our catchphrases—and all along we end up turning the Lord Jesus Christ away.
I have watched this happen repeatedly. Both among Christians who gather in traditional churches as well as those who gather outside of them.
What, then, does our Lord do when we fail to receive Him when He comes to us in an unexpected way? He moves on. And the revelation that we have of Him ceases to grow.
I’ve seen churches and movements stop dead in the water, living off a revelation of Christ that was delivered to them twenty or thirty years ago. And they never moved beyond it.
In fact, this is the very root of denominationalism and Christian movements. It works like this: A group of Christians see an important aspect of Christ. That insight usually comes from a servant of the Lord whom God has raised up to restore a certain truth to His church. The group is captured by it. Even changed by it. And they stand on the earth to promote and express it.
But then, subtly, they build a circle around it. And then a castle and a wall. They then enshrine it. And when someone else comes in contact with them with another aspect of Christ to share, they blow it off with monumental disinterest.
Why? Because it’s different from the original sighting of the Lord that they received.
In effect, the group refuses to have complete fellowship with other Christians who are not like them.
Please don’t misunderstand. Fellowship is not having a meal with somebody. Fellowship is mutual participation and exchange. It’s a two-way street. If you and I have fellowship, that means that I receive what the Lord has given you and you receive what the Lord has given me. And we are both enriched. That’s fellowship.
(Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we embrace heretical ideas about Jesus Christ. I’m rather speaking about genuine Christian fellowship that is based on the New Testament revelation of Christ and echoed in the ancient creeds.)
Allow me to confess: If I only fellowshipped with those whose beliefs matched mine, then, right now, I couldn’t have fellowship with myself fifteen years ago! Furthermore, twenty years ago I would have had to excommunicate my current self from the kingdom of God!
Jesus Christ is richer, larger, and more glorious than any of us could ever imagine. And He comes to us in ways that make it tempting to reject Him.
When Peter, James, and John saw the transfigured Lord on the holy mountain, Peter wanted to build a tabernacle for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and remain on the mountain to enjoy the encounter. But God would not allow it (Matt. 17:1–13).
There is something in our fallen nature that, like Peter, wishes to build a monument around a spiritual encounter with God and remain there. But the Lord will not have it. He will always break free from our frail attempts to pin Him down, box Him up, and hold Him in place. And He does so by coming to us in new and unexpected ways.
Frank Viola is the co-author of the newly released Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ with Leonard Sweet (Thomas Nelson). You can learn more about the book at www.theJesusManifesto.com
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DISCLAIMER: Winners will be announced this Wednesday morning before noon! Matthew Paul Turner received no compensation for this post/giveaway. The prizes are provided by Thomas Nelson, Inc.