“One thinks of the prophets of Israel, of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, all of them. They were par excellence the putters of words to things, and the words they put are so thunderous with rage and exultation, with terrible denunciations and terrible promises, that if you are not careful, they drown out everything else there is in the Old Testament and in the prophets themselves. At the level of their words, it is not truth they are telling but particular truths. They are telling about the nations and naming names, telling about Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and, above all, about Israel as a nation, and the truth they are telling until the veins stand out on their necks and their voices grow hoarse is the truth that by playing power politics Israel is not only bringing about her own destruction as a nation but is acting against her holy destiny, which is to be not a nation among nations but a nation of priests, whose calling it is to be a light to the world. -Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, 17-18
“It is important to read Jesus’s parable of the lost son in the context of the whole of Luke, chapter 15, but the story has an even larger context. If we read the narrative in light of the Bible’s sweeping theme of exile and homecoming we will understand that Jesus has given us more than a moving account of individual redemption. He has retold the story of the whole human race, and promised nothing less than for the world.”-Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, 90
In my estimation, this is the best chapter in the book. I mean that sincerely. The authors bring us into the story in the earlier chapters, but in this chapter they focus our attention on a single point within that history. All eyes are turned towards the powerful, the Solomon son of David, the power-brokers like Rome and her Caesars. The prophets kept pointing and looking and searching–and they were not pointing to the powerful, the wealthy or the influential except to say ‘look at what won’t work.’ No, they pointed to God and said, ‘Behold God!’ Then one night, there in the midst of a dark and frightful place, all the light in the universe converged on a single human being: Jesus, the son of David.
And this chapter sets about the problem of understanding what it really means to be a, the, son of David. They also point us in only one direction for it seems to me that the authors have taken this approach: there is only one true son of David. So over the course of 16 choppily written pages, the authors of the book scatter that Name 61 times. You may think I am merely making a rather pedantic observation that proves absolutely nothing. What can mere word counting prove or accomplish? Maybe you are right. My point is, however, that usually when an artist wants you to see something in a painting, something rather particular, she draws her picture in such a way that the perspective is drawn towards only one point. For example, the Last Supper by Da Vinci. All the perspective is focused on Jesus. Or a musician who writes a symphony will add in a refrain and come back to the refrain at various times throughout the piece.
That’s what Bell and Golden did in chapter 3: they brought our attention back to Jesus over and over again. As I read through the chapter, I kept seeing the name Jesus, over and over and over again. These men want me thinking about something…someone…in particular. They are drawing the perspective in such a way that I can neither see nor think of anyone else but Jesus. In other words, David’s other son can only be one person: Jesus. And they did so masterfully. For people who are routinely accused of being un-orthodox or anti-christian, or heretics, or whatever other label you may have heard–they sure do spend an awful large amount of energy to work their narrative and understanding of Scripture and history around Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s almost, dare I say, as if they were constrained to do so. It’s almost as if these god-haters read the Bible and see that there is only one possible outcome to the story. It’s almost as if they can could do nothing but write the name of Jesus over and over and over again in this chapter. Almost? These are men who have read the Scripture and they know where Scripture leads and the story it tells. Of course they were constrained! Of course there was nothing else they could write! Of course the only possible outcome of this story is Jesus. Of course.
Now I’d like to make a couple of pointed observations about the chapter that I found either heartening or troubling. I’ll keep these brief so as not to give away too much or overwhelm you with minutia.
First, one reason why this book resonates with me is due to the authors’, in my estimation, proper understanding of Israel as a kingdom of priests. I know there are all sorts of ways to understand and misunderstand the role of Israel in redemptive history. I doubt seriously any of us will ever fully exhaust the literature or debate. But in my judgment, I think many theologians have overplayed the ‘Israel’ card much to the detriment of Israel. Jesus, yes, was ‘sent to the Jews’ first, but I don’t this was ever meant to mean that he was sent to the Jews only. In fact, when Matthew tells us of Jesus’ beginnings, he quotes from Isaiah’s prophecy and said that Jesus fulfilled it. What does he quote? A passage about Gentiles! (Matthew 4:12-16). So Bell and Golden note, “Jesus hears everyone’s cry, even the cry of the Canaanites” (79). Or, another way, “Not just Jewish exile but human exile [...] So if all creation is in a sort of exile, east of Eden, estranged from its maker, far from home, what’s the penalty for that?’” (88, 89). This also comports with the quote from Kellar above.
I guess I sort of grow weary of the typical John Hagee approaches to Israel. Bell and Golden rightly view Israel as priests, a son of God (‘out of Egypt I called my son’), who were meant to fulfill an important, redemptive role, but failed. “The prophets had declared that someone would come who would be willing to pay that price, the price for all of creation breaking covenant with God. And if that price was paid, that would change everything” (89). Indeed. And they say that it was Jesus who was Israel, the son of David, the Adam who didn’t fail, the Suffering Servant, the new Moses. Jesus and only Jesus. That’s a rather important and exclusive thing to say because if it was Jesus it cannot be anyone else; there can be no other way.
Second, a complaint. On pages 83-84, the authors bring up an important point: “The writers [prophets] want to make it very clear that this new son of David isn’t just leading a new exodus for a specific group of people; he’s bringing liberation for everybody everywhere and ultimately for everything everywhere for all time” (83). The problem here is that this language is a wee bit fuzzy. I’m fully on board with the former statement (‘…not just a specific group of people…’), but that latter part of the statement is a bit fuzzy and unclear and unrefined (and to an extent, undefined). Jesus did, indeed, promise that he will ‘draw all people’ to himself (83) and I think Bell and Golden are right to emphasize the ‘all’ of this, but here I think they can easily be accused of espousing a non-exclusive version of redemption (not a Calvinistic sort of limited atonement, but an atonement that makes no demands on those who are saved). “The ‘whole world,’ ‘all nations,’ ‘all people,’ ‘all things’ are the biggest, widest, deepest, most inclusive terms the human mind can fathom. And they were on the lips of Jesus, who is describing himself” (84). I think this statement is far too vague and indeed I didn’t think they spent enough time or space unpacking what they mean by this. They step to the edge, but never walk over it. Maybe it was intentional.
I really don’t want this to relapse into a discussion concerning universalism. They are clear, I think, that Jesus is the way (81). They are unclear on who will follow that way and exactly what ‘Jesus is the way’ means. I’m not saying they don’t clear it up later, but I am saying that this is an easy place for someone who is nit-picking to do just that: nit-pick. Here I think the language should be clarified or they are open to the very charge they probably don’t want to be labeled with. I’m not saying they are universalists. I am saying that they open themselves up to the possibility of being accused as such. (In my judgment.)
Third, the authors are wholly dependent upon Scripture to make their case. They rely on the prophets. They rely on Moses. They rely on the Gospels. In fact, the last 8 pages are an exposition of sorts on Luke 24. The best sentence in the chapter highlights the importance they place on Scripture: “In a couple of hours, using nothing but the Hebrew Scriptures, this man converted all of their despair to hope and a vision of the new future” (90). They are pointing out what Jesus saw as the real problem: “In Jesus’ day, people could read, study, and discuss the Scriptures their entire lives and still miss its central message” (90). This is their point: By taking those two disciples on the road to Emmaus back through the Scripture (Law, Psalms and Prophets) Jesus was saying, ‘Look, I was there all along. God had already told you what to look for and you missed it.’
The authors are warning us, as preachers should, not to miss Jesus. It is far too easy and far too often that people miss the greater point. We get so consumed by systems and ideas and proof and (being) right (thinking we know when really we do not) that we miss the point of Scripture which is, surely, Jesus. We want to carry around Scripture like a sword in our hand instead of as sword in our mouth which it really is. In doing so, we miss the point; we don’t hear the refrain; we get caught up in a detail and miss the perspective, the focal-point. This, it seems to me, is their warning: We cannot afford to miss Jesus. And if those who walked with him did, how much more easily will we if we are not cautious? “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; see also, Luke 24:44). 16 pages. 61 times. And if you have read the book and noticed the style of writing and sentence structure then you know that this is a much greater ratio of words to words than it is words to pages. Don’t miss Jesus. (See page 91.)
There are some other things that are important about the chapter, but these sort of stood out to me. Other points that could be discussed are: their use of exclusive terminology (81), the importance of the suffering servant (87), their discussion of exile (89), the importance of non-violence (88), and the crusher of serpent’s heads (90).
The Scripture presents to us the history of humanity. A pretty picture it is not. It is a tragedy. According the Buechner, “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy” (Telling the Truth, 7). But it doesn’t end there: “But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy” (Telling the Truth, 7)
But if we miss Jesus, the world will never know that. Bell and Golden’s point is that if we miss Jesus how in the world will anyone else get him? David’s other son is, and can only be, Jesus. This is the Jesus who crushes the head of the serpent, this is the Jesus who suffers, this is the Jesus who leads us out of exile, this is the Jesus who instead of resisting violence absorbs it, this is the Jesus whom Scripture speaks of in exclusive terms. This is the Jesus of bad news and good news. “In Jesus’ day, people could read, study, and discuss the Scriptures their entire lives and still miss its central message. In Jesus’ day, people could follow him, learn from him, drop everything to be his disciples, and yet find themselves returning home, thinking Jesus had failed” (90)
Jesus wants to save Christians from thinking that he failed. Jesus wants to save Christians from missing the point of Scripture. Jesus wants to save Christians from missing Jesus. And if there wasn’t a real danger that we might, or a dangerous reality that we have, there wouldn’t be a need for a warning, would there?
Soli Deo Gloria!