Cross Cultural, Part 2: Thinking Christianly
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
In yesterday’s post, we drew a parallel between the confused spirituality of 21st century America and first century Colosse. We concluded that as Christ’s followers, our task is to be Cross Cultural missionaries to our culture. The next few posts will follow the exposition of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
Paul wrote Colossians while under house arrest in Rome in roughly A.D. 60. Though never having been there, he was well acquainted with the city and her people, and his letter was intended to demonstrate Christ’s sufficiency in a world of spiritual confusion.
Therefore, the first component of a Cross Cultural lifestyle is that we learn to think Christianly. Most specifically this refers to our perception of Jesus. It was Blaise Pascal who described Christ as “the object of all, the center to which everything tends. Whoever knows Him understands all things.” Understanding Jesus means asking two questions: (1) what is His nature and character? And (2) what did He accomplish?
As an FYI: this is the heaviest post of the series. Consider yourself warned.
RECOVERING THE LOST ART OF CHRISTOLOGY
When we speak of Christ we are speaking on the subject known as Christology. Whenever people make claims about Jesus, they reveal something of their own Christology. But much like the Colossian church, the Christology(-ies) of our present world are often derived from “deceitful philosophy” originating from “human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world” rather than Christ (Col 2:8). In today’s world, Jesus is praised for His moral character and teachings, and revered for a social philosophy and ethical system worthy of our emulation.
For the unbeliever, Christ is seen as role model rather than Savior.
Despite its ostensible spirituality, our culture struggles beneath the crushing weight of loneliness. Douglas Coupland, in his novel Generation X, writes: “All looks with strangers became the unspoken question, ‘Are you the stranger who will rescue me? Starved for attention, terrified of abandonment, I began to wonder if sex was just an excuse to look deeply into another human being’s eyes.”
Man is strained in his quest for higher understanding and for comfort, a loneliness etched into his mind by the red digits of a clock that stares him in the face as he whiles away the hours in sleepless beds.
The question weighing so heavily on our hearts and minds is this: Who will save us? Only a redeemed understanding of God and ourselves can alleviate the pain of our present world.
Earlier we quoted Campolo in classifying “spirituality” as “looking for transcendence in the midst of the mundane.” For centuries man’s quest has been to find God and the divine. In the Greco-Roman world, they commonly understood that “like is known by like” (cf. Plato, Protagoras 337C-338A). Plato believed that only God could reveal God. Philo, a later Jewish philosopher, would later state that “To see God man must first become God” (Philo, Questions on Exodus). The centrality of nearly every religious system throughout history has been on man’s quest to arise to the status of deity.
But here is one area where Christianity is fundamentally different. Christianity is the only system where – in contrast to man achieving God’s status – God humbles Himself to human status. This is what is known as the incarnation – that God took on flesh in the sending of the Son.
In John 1:18 the writer says, “No one has ever seen God, but the One who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Here the phrase “made him known” comes from the Greek word exegesato. My nerdier readers will recognize this as the root word for “exegesis,” the process of interpreting Biblical texts. Ancient scribes and writers pored over the text for centuries, trying to understand God’s truth. But God’s truth is most fully revealed – nay, embodied – in the person of Christ. D.A. Carson rightly calls Jesus “God’s narrative.” Everything about God’s story is wrapped up in the person of Jesus.
The confusion of the Colossian church was in viewing Christ as other than wholly God (though strangely, they did not seem to view Him as fully human either – cf. Col 2:9). Into that context Paul speaks these words:
Colossians 1:15-20 15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, 16for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him– all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers– all things were created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him. 18He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son 20and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross– through him, whether things on earth or things in heaven.
Paul portrait of Christ is rich in elevated descriptors. Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” The term “firstborn,” prototokos, refers not to birth order, but to preeminence or supremacy over all creation. Christ’s supremacy is driven home in chapter 2 verse 9: “…in Christ all the fullness [pleroma] of the Deity [theotes] lives in bodily form.” The word theotes refers not merely to being “God-like,” but actually possessing divine qualities – that is, Christ was God in human form.
The people we met yesterday suggested Christ possessed some secret, spiritual connection with God. But the truth is that Christ was God, in the flesh. Philip Melancthon (Martin Luther’s successor) makes this point in his commentary on Colossians:
“It is as if Paul were making this distinction: God indeed dwells in other holy people, but dwells spiritually. That is, he inspires and motivates and governs them…But in Christ he dwells bodily. That is, He is in Him, not only inspiring Him, but so that He is bodily in the same person…the very divine nature has poured itself into the flesh, with all its power. And it has poured itself in such a way, that it dwells here bodily.”
Jesus is not merely a “spiritual” man. He is God in human form. But this fact alone is of little comfort – for all this really does is throw into deeper contrast man’s imperfection. We must now turn to the subject of Christ’s mission.
The primary cause of man’s isolation and loneliness is what the Bible calls “sin.” Paul writes to the Corinthians:
Colossians 1:21-23 21And you were at one time alienated and hostile in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, 22but now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before him– 23if indeed you remain in the faith, established and firm, without shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. This gospel has also been preached in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become its servant.
Here Paul uses the language of being “alienated” and “hostile” in our relationship to God. We all understand the idea of separation, and of broken relationships. Song lyrics are full of such imagery: “How did we get so far apart?” asks Robert Smith of The Cure. Staind’s hit song “It’s Been A While” speaks of the broken relationship caused by the singer having “[messed] things up just like I always do.” I remember speaking to a group of young adults and asking about the impact of divorce: nearly every hand was raised to indicate some impact of divorce – even if not their own parents.
This is why Paul speaks of Christ’s mission as one of reconciliation. The Greek word katallage speaks of two estranged parties restoring their relationship to one another. It is a word that speaks of healing. Jesus, though himself perfect, took on our ugliness, so that a Holy God could accept us as clean and pure (cf. 2 Cor 5:21). It was Luther who said that crux sola est nostra theologica – “the cross alone is our theology.” That is, the cross is the meausuring stick of our spirituality: at the foot of the cross we find a message of healing, and the cross itself represents Christ’s humble sacrifice on our behalf (cf. Phil 2:5-12). All of man’s empty spirituality is an attempt to heal this relationship on his own, a task impossible apart from the sacrifice of Christ (for more, please click here for another article detailing why I argue that “reconciliation” is one of the best ways for communicating the gospel to our culture).
THE GOSPEL: PUTTING IT ALL (BACK) TOGETHER
This has been a heavy discussion. Yet it has been a wholly necessary one. To think Christianly, the first task of a Cross Cultural lifestyle, we have to align our hearts and minds with the truth of Christ as revealed in His word.
But in the end the message that is revealed is deeply beautiful. It was Athanasius, writing in the fourth century, said:
“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself…” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, III.14)
Christ came to offer new life and hope for each of us. To think Christianly does not mean isolating ourselves to ivory tower intellectualism, but to revel in the saving knowledge and grace of a God who came to earth to redeem our broken images and bring us back into relationship to the Father.
But what of our culture? Our task is to think Christianly, yet it is easy to imagine the many things that could (and do) get in the way of this. Tomorrow we shall look at what was going on in the Colossian church and discuss the second aspect of Cross Cultural living.
This post argued that “spirituality” is man’s attempt to reach God or the “divine.” In what ways do you see your friends (or even yourself) trying to please God?
This post suggested that man’s problems are rooted in isolation and alienation as a result of “sin.” In what ways do our actions create distance between one another and strain our relationships?
Tony Campolo, who we met yesterday, says: “You can know all about God…but the question is, do you know God? You can have solid theology and be orthodox to the core, but have you experienced God in your own life?” Do you agree? What relationship does this post emphasize between theology (specifically Christology) and experience?
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.