Friday, January 25, 2008

Who Is Jesus?

Listen (RealAudio)

At the heart of Christianity is a central question, "Just who is Jesus Christ?" It may be astounding to some that such a question is still relevant after nearly two millennia of Christian activity, but as strange as it may seem, even Christians do not agree about the nature of the founder of their religion. This fact says a great deal about those who profess to be "Christian," which at its most basic means "follower of Christ." If Christians display such profound disagreement about Jesus Christ Himself, can they all really be following the same Person?

This subject becomes all the more important since, in its most common form, Christianity is proclaimed as a message about Jesus. What a person believes about Jesus, then, informs his understanding of the religion itself. We can see the result of this process in the thousands of Christian denominations in all parts of the world. While they all proclaim to be Christian, the individual sects emphasize different aspects of Jesus in their teaching. For instance:

  • Baptists name themselves after Jesus' practice of baptizing converts, and they traditionally stress conformity to certain behavioral rules: no drinking, no card playing, no dancing. Jesus, to them, is a great moral Teacher.
  • Pentecostals, on the other hand, call themselves after Jesus' promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was fulfilled on the Feast of Pentecost after Jesus' death and resurrection. They are known for their great desire to express the gifts of the Spirit, particularly being able to speak in tongues. In other words, their Jesus is a Miracle Worker.
  • Seventh-day Adventists take their name from the seventh-day Sabbath, which Jesus is plainly shown to have kept, as well as from His promise to come again. They promote Jesus as the bringer of the soon-coming rest of God.
  • Methodists are so called because John Wesley emphasized a structured, methodical approach to Bible study and Christian living, teaching that believers must exercise their free will to come to Christ (as opposed to being absolutely predestined to salvation). Thus, they highlight Jesus' many commands for the individual to be actively involved in his own salvation and Christian growth.
  • The Reformed Churches, descendants of the teaching of John Calvin, underscore the necessity of grace through faith in Christ, a reaction to abuses of the medieval Catholic Church's doctrine of works. In this way, they see Jesus as a gracious Redeemer.

Most denominations can be characterized—some would say caricatured—by identifying their concepts of Jesus Himself. He is Christianity's central figure, so how one views Christ determines what one believes and the religion he follows.

This confusion about Him actually began during His own life—even among those who had known Him all His life:

When He had come to His own country, He taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, "Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is this not the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?" So they were offended at Him. (Matthew 13:54-57)

It seems that there was general disagreement in Judea over just who He was:

  • When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" So they said, "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." (Matthew 16:13-14)
  • And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, "Who is this?" So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee." (Matthew 21:10-11)
  • Now some of them from Jerusalem said, "Is this not He whom they seek to kill? But look! He speaks boldly, and they say nothing to Him. Do the rulers know indeed that this is truly the Christ? However, we know where this Man is from; but when the Christ comes, no one knows where He is from." (John 7:25-27)

Of course, His enemies had questions about Him to

  • And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, "Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Luke 5:21)
  • And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" (Luke 7:49)
  • Therefore some of the Pharisees said, "This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath." Others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" And there was a division among them. (John 9:16)

However, Matthew 16:15-17 provides us with the best starting point, confirmed by Christ Himself, in answering the question, "Who is Jesus?"

He said to [His disciples], "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven."

The God-revealed answer is that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the literal Son of the Supreme Being of all the universe. Of course, He is a great deal more than this, but these two facts are the most foundational to our spiritual understanding of this wonderful Being. They give us the basis of His relationship to us and our future, as well as His relationship to Deity, fixing Him as the bridge between man and God. From this foundation, we can begin a deeper consideration of the biblical Jesus.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Word of the Hour

And that word—or buzzword—ladies and gentlemen, is "change."

With the Presidential nomination campaign in full swing prior to "Super-Duper Tuesday," February 5, the candidates are making "change" their mantra. This is only to be expected in an election year following a two-term President like George W. Bush, and especially after a tenure that inspired so much unbridled vitriol and sheer hatred. It began with the 2000 election chad fiasco in Florida—in which Democrats claim Bush supporters all the way up to the Supreme Court "stole" the Presidency for him—and it never let up. Well, it did, but only for those few weeks of revenge and resolve after September 11, 2001.

It is a good thing that our Constitution now limits a President to two terms. Any more time in office would grant the President too much time to garner excessive power to himself. The office is already quite powerful, and Presidents have managed to make it even more authoritative through the Constitutionally vague use of executive orders, an unbalanced and unchecked mechanism designed to get things done quickly and without oversight. There are dark rumors of secret executive orders that would go into immediate effect during a real crisis, making the President a virtual dictator. However, this is nothing new: The revered Abraham Lincoln accrued similar powers to himself during the Civil War.

In times like today, candidates of the opposition party—the Democrats—yammer repetitively for change as if their voices were on the proverbial broken record:

  • The slogan of Barack Obama's website reads, "Change We Can Believe In." He is quoted prominently (at the top center of the page) saying, "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington . . . I'm asking you to believe in yours."
  • John Edwards' site asks one to "Join the Campaign to Change America." His 80-page policy paper, "Plan to Build One America," carries the subtitle, "Solutions for Real Change."
  • Hillary Clinton has a harder time stressing change, since her husband's administration was one of those two-term, establishment Presidencies. However, after her defeat in the Iowa Caucus, where Obama's message of change hit home, her first New Hampshire advertisement was titled, "Ready for Change." In it the narrator declaims, "We will change things in this country, because we want it. Because we have one candidate who spent her life fighting for it. Standing up for our families, our children, our veterans."

Republicans have latched on to the hour's buzzword too, doing their level best to distance themselves from Bush's unpopularity:

  • Mitt Romney insists he is the candidate who will bring "change to Washington." In one 15-minute news conference on January 4, he used the word "change" 21 times.
  • Mike Huckabee's supporters argue that "he is the one for honest change" and that "this is the year of change and Mike Huckabee is the best representative."
  • John McCain says that he, too, is an "agent for change," claiming that he has been the force behind the greatest changes in our Iraq strategy, campaign finance laws, and government spending.
  • On Fred Thompson's website, a supporter declares, "What I want and what this party and this country needs is a conservative leading the country for a change." Thompson himself, however, vows that he will not be jumping on the "change bandwagon," saying leadership and telling the truth are more important messages.
  • Ron Paul's message of change is perhaps the most radical: returning America to its Constitutional roots and the Gold Standard. In fact, his website encourages its visitors to "Join the Revolution."

Concerning change, one verse jumps out as a stern warning: "My son, fear the LORD and the king; do not associate with those given to change; for their calamity will rise suddenly, and who knows the ruin those two [the LORD and the king] can bring?" (Proverbs 24:21). Obviously, this is a caution against revolution, attempting to overthrow the government. Most rebellions are hugely unsuccessful, stamped out by the government with merciless violence. This is shown to great effect in Les Miserables. The hotheaded university students' revolution against the French state suffers brutal annihilation, their hasty barricades overrun, and all their hopes for just and glorious change dashed.

This warning takes on greater significance due to the mention of God's involvement. If we believe Romans 13:1-7 is true, we also believe that God is engaged in the governance of nations, working out His purpose through "the lowest of men" (Daniel 4:17; see verses 25, 32; 5:21). Moreover, in the modern nations of Israel, He is even more intimately involved. As Winston Churchill declared, ". . . he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below." From this vantage point, we can conclude that agitating for change could be fighting against God. He may very well have orchestrated the nation's intolerable conditions to instigate the next phase of His plan.

Among humans, change is inevitable because people are different. No two people can agree completely about anything, it seems, so their solutions to problems will often be diverse. And not all change is bad; things can be changed for the better. Certainly, when people sincerely repent and turn to God, what great changes occur (II Corinthians 7:11)! Yet, change for the sake of change is dangerous, for who can foresee the effects that change will bring?

The surest course we can take is to throw in our lot with God and cling to Him and His way with all our might. He says in Malachi 3:6, "For I am the LORD, I do not change." Why should He change when His way, His government, is perfect?

Friday, January 4, 2008

'By Any Other Name'

Listen (RealAudio)

President Barack Obama. Frown. President Mike Huckabee. Grimace.

These names just do not sound Presidential or even quite American. Despite their respective victories in the Democrat and Republican Caucuses in Iowa, putting them in the driver's seat for their parties' nominations for President of the United States, they have a long way to go. Winning Iowa does not make a candidate's nomination certain; in fact, over the past several decades, the Republican nomination went to the Iowa winner about half the time, and the Democrat nomination, about sixty percent of the time. Nothing is a foregone conclusion at this point.

In covering elections, pundits talk about name-recognition all the time. If a candidate's name is well-known—even if he or she has done a shoddy job in office, or has never been in office but is publicly popular—he or she will likely garner a sizable number of votes just because his or her name is immediately recognizable. This is especially true when the well-known person's opponent is not known from Adam. People will pull the lever for someone they have some knowledge of rather than the one they would fail to pick out of a police lineup.

Yet, in this country and probably in many others, the name itself—its origin, its form, its sound—is important. The forebears of a majority of this nation's citizens emigrated from Europe, and European names feel familiar and comfortable to them. Beyond this, most citizens have some English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh blood in them, even if they are of German, Italian, Scandinavian, Polish, or some other European derivation. Frankly, many blacks also have British surnames, given to their ancestors when brought in slavery to these shores or taken after emancipation. Thus, to a large majority of Americans, even though we proclaim our acceptance of "your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," a British name has immediate value.

In this time of multiculturalism, such a statement sounds terribly discriminatory and provincial. No matter how it sounds, it is true nevertheless. Why do agents of talented artists insist that many of them change their names? Sometimes, it is because their real names simply clank when spoken. For instance, "Margaret Hyra" is a bit clumsy in the mouth, but "Meg Ryan" sounds great. At other times, a person's name is changed to project the right image: "Marion Morrison" sounds like a wimp, but one could never back down with a name like "John Wayne." The same is true for why the very normal Mark Vincent became tough guy "Vin Diesel."

However, in many cases, a potential star's name is changed because it just sounds too foreign, not American enough. This is why Jennifer Anastassakis became "Jennifer Anniston," instantly changing her immediate persona from Greek-American to simply American. From a talented Spanish-Irish family, actor Emilio Estévez, part of the 80s "Brat Pack," uses his real Spanish name on screen. Yet, his dad, Mondergard Ramón Gerardo Antonio Estévez, is best known as "Martin Sheen" (naming himself after Catholic Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen), and his youngest brother, Carlos Irwin Estévez, is of course, "Charlie Sheen." In like manner, Robert Allen Zimmerman could never have become America's premier modern folk singer, but "Bob Dylan" could. And who would want to see a magic show performed by David Kotkin? But people flock to see "David Copperfield's" illusions.

The importance of having the right name is especially true in Presidential politics. A cursory scan of America's forty-three Presidents finds only one obviously non-British name, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a name of German origin (however, Van Buren and Roosevelt are technically Dutch names). Eisenhower's two election wins are the exceptions that prove the rule. As a first-time candidate, he was the war hero who had overseen the defeat of the Third Reich, overshadowing his German name, and the second time he was a proven leader, having had a successful first term in office. Besides, in 1952 and 1956, he was contested by Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, a weak, intellectual candidate, who in each election failed to muster even 90 electoral votes.

Evidently, "Huckabee" is an English name, a variant of Huckaby and perhaps of Huxtable. In Devonshire, England, a place exists by the name of "Huccaby" (from Anglo-Saxon, meaning "crooked river bend"), while in North Yorkshire there is an "Uckerby" (from Old Norse, meaning "farmstead"). Yet, Huckabee is just strange enough not to sound common or normal to the average American. Hearing it, many immediately think of Mark Twain's character, Huck Finn, and relate it to a "hick," a hillbilly, a hayseed, a redneck. In this regard, it does not help Mr. Huckabee that he hails from Arkansas, not the most cosmopolitan of states.

"Obama" is even more foreign-sounding. It is of African origin, most likely Swahili, but what it means is anyone's guess at this point. Its similarity to "Osama," the first name of America's number one enemy, Osama bin Laden, is unsettling to some. Of even more controversy has been his first and middle names, Barack Hussein. "Barack," is an Anglicization of a Swahili name, Baraka, of Arabic origin (from bariki, meaning "blessing"). His middle name, "Hussein," is obviously Arabic, and means "handsome one." It was the name of one of Mohammed's grandsons. It is ironic that, while the fight against Muslim extremism continues, a leading candidate for President has two Arabic names.

However, as mentioned earlier, one caucus does not a nomination win. While these two head their fields at the moment, the situation will probably change over the next few weeks as more primaries are held. We will see if America is ready for a President with an untraditional name. Ancient Israel followed Moses for forty years, and his name was Egyptian (Exodus 2:10).