I’ve been writing for the past few weeks on Eastern vs. Western thinking and how we think will shape how we approach the Bible. Two weeks ago, I shared the differences between Eastern and Western thinking. Catch up here. Last week, I shared some examples that the Gospel writers purposefully infused in their text that we Western thinkers probably have missed. Catch that one here. This week, I want to go to the recorded words of Jesus himself and examine how a more Eastern thinking approach may help us better understand our Lord, Savior, and Messiah.
Let me start off by saying that Jesus declares his deity over and over and over again in the Gospels. Don’t kid yourself. This is why the killed him. They were obeying the Law of Moses. They believed he was a blasphemer and a false prophet who claimed to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This was an offense punishable by death. It wasn’t because he was nice to people. It wasn’t because he was a good teacher. It wasn’t even because he posed a threat to the status quo inverting the social order. Those are all things we either read into the text or are possible secondary, tertiary issues. The primary reason Jesus was arrested, tried, and executed was because he, a man, claimed to be God.
Now if that’s the case, then why all these early heresies in the church questioning Jesus’ divinity and while these church-wide ecumenical councils to set the record straight about Jesus’ divinity? Because, in those contexts, we are talking about a bunch of Western thinkers reading accounts written by Easterners.
Jesus declared his deity over and over and over again in the Gospels. However, majority of the time he does it “metaphorically” (not in a surreal sense, but within a metaphor or in an Eastern way) and not propositionally (or in a Western way). As I said in my last post, most modern Orthodox Jews don’t understand the arguments we get into as Christians about the divinity or claims of Jesus. They know the story and they understand that Jesus is making explicit claims. Don’t believe me? Looking for an example? Outside the book of John? Just one for today.
Matthew 11:29 – 30
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This passage is so rich, but I will only get to Jesus’ divinity claims within it.
Most Westerners miss the depth because this seems to be a pretty straightforward, propositional claim (albeit a little conceited if we would hear someone besides Jesus say it). Jesus is claiming to be gentle and humble and able to give rest because his “yoke” (whatever that is…[something else I’ll have to get to later]) is light. And we Westerners are done. We examine the statement, determine whether it is true or false, and move on. But there is more going on here.
Remember Jesus is an Easterner talking to Easterners. What is the context in which Easterners communicate? Not proposition, but story and metaphor. And in this Jewish community, what is the most important story? The story of God’s people. God’s story. So any time we see Jesus talking, we should always be asking ourselves, “Where have I seen this before?” because 9 1/2 times out of 10, Jesus is referencing an earlier part of the story. So what is he referencing here? Let’s pull out each claim and then rack our Old Testament brains.
First claim: Jesus is “gentle and lowly in heart” (ESV) “meek” (KJV) “humble” (NASB)
“the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (ESV)
“the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” (KJV)
“the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.” (NASB)
You may think this is a coincidence, but I believe Jesus is being purposeful in using these particular adjectives for himself. No one else in all Scripture is described this way except for these two men. And keep Deuteronomy 18:15 in mind.
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” – Moses
Second claim: Jesus’ yoke will give us/our souls rest
Exodus 33:14; Jeremiah 16:6
“And [the LORD] said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
“Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’ “
According to Exodus (Moses) and Jeremiah, only the LORD (the very name of God) gives us and our souls rest.
In Matthew 11:29-30, Jesus isn’t just saying he’s a nice guy who does nice things for tired and hurting people. It’s deeper than that. Jesus is saying, “I am the one like Moses to whom you should listen and I have the power to give your soul rest because I am the LORD.” Divinity claim. And we missed it. Because we don’t know the story.
Jesus also declares his deity periodically not in a “metaphorical” Eastern way, but in a propositional Western way. These are the passages that Western Christians are most familiar with (The “I Am”s in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ claim that he and the Father are one…in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ claim that he is the only way to the Father…in John’s Gospel). What Western Christians struggle with is how few verses there and, even still, they aren’t as straightforward as we would like them to be. We can’t point to a chapter and verse and where Jesus says, “I am God.” We get flustered with liberal “Christians” or non-Christians who like Jesus, but don’t like him as “god” they twist his meaning in these verses to something else. We don’t know where else to turn. We just pull the faith card and hope they leave us alone.
What I hope this series of blog posts does is strengthen your faith in the text of Scripture and cause you to look more carefully and dig more deeply so that you can understand not just head-knowledge, fact-based, Western thinking Christianity, which is great and has it’s place, but also understand the personal, story-bound, experiential, Eastern thinking Christianity as well.