Friday, August 22, 2014

Jesus' Experience of God and his Vocation as God's Agent

In recent post I wrote about the importance of Jesus’ own faith in God. The question that might follow up this post concerns the origin of Jesus’ faith in God.

Did Jesus have an innate faith in God or did Jesus come to faith in God?

Of course, if we consider the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus as being God in human flesh, then the question might be easier to answer: Jesus was God, and thus any faith in God flowed from his own knowledge of his being God. Yet, this seems too easy of a step, and makes it more difficult to affirm Jesus’ own monotheism or his submission to God.

This is not to suggest that earliest Christians did not affirmed him as God, for, as my Ph.D. mentor, Larry Hurtado has argued, earliest Christian worship of Jesus was incorporated into their worship of God, which is evidence that they believed something about Jesus’ divine nature. (See Hurtado's How on Earth Did Jesus Become God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus.) 

But, we would be hard pressed to find clear evidence of Jesus directly referring to himself as God. Indeed, Jesus seems to affirm his humanity as the Son of Man who has the power to do what God can do.

So, the question might be how the human Jesus found his faith in God and not only where his faith came from, but how he knew the will of God for himself.

There are many things we could say about Jesus, but one significant point that is certain was that Jesus was a first century Jew. Most Christians, of course, might know that Jesus was Jewish, but they may see Jesus’ Jewish faith and identity only as a precursor to his founding of the Christian faith. Yet, Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and remained so throughout his life.

As a Jew, Jesus held in common with other Jews that the God of Israel was the supreme God who had chosen Israel and had redeemed them out of Egypt. Jesus, like many of the Jews of his day, was looking for God’s new redemption of Israel from the chains of their oppressors. He was looking for a New Exodus, not from the enemies in Egypt, but from the power of Rome.

He accepted the traditions passed down through Israel’s history that God had set Israel apart as God’s people and had made a covenant with them to be their God. He also believed that Israel had lost her way, as the prophets testified, and that Israel’s current plight would only be ended by an act of God.
So, at one level Jesus’ consciousness of God was influenced by his own religious tradition.

Yet, we also must consider that Jesus’ awareness of God, and thus his own faith in God, was also greatly informed by his own experience of God. Indeed, though he, like many Jews of his day, believed God would redeem Israel from Roman oppression, it seems that through his own personal experience of God, Jesus took on this vocation as his very own mission.

While we can point to various events in the life of Jesus that shaped his experience and understanding of God, as well as his own understanding of himself, including his upbringing under the weight of poverty and injustice and his constant encounter with the suffering of his own people, the Gospels suggest that one specific event seems to have played a particular role in forming his own vocation as God’s envoyThe baptism by John that is found in the Synoptic Gospels is that event.

In his own baptism, Jesus witnessed the opening of heaven and heard God’s affirmation that he was God’s beloved son. Perhaps in hearing this declaration from God, Jesus interpreted this as God’s commission for him to live out his identity as God’s chosen agent, the one sent to bring judgment on God’s enemies of unjust power and oppression, and restoration to God’s people.

It is hard to say exactly what happened at the baptism of Jesus, but it does seem that he had some sort of experience of God, whether we can corroborate this or not. This religious experience perhaps gave affirmation to Jesus about who he needed to be and what he needed to do.

But, in his experience of God, Jesus became cognizant of a God that could not be strictly defined by his Jewish tradition. While he accepted the traditional Jewish views of God (e.g. monotheism and covenant), he also gained through his own experience of God an alternative to the tradition.

So what did Jesus believe about God?  

Of course, there may be many things he believed about God, but foremost in Jesus’ mind was the belief that God was presently acting in the world to bring about something new that would radically shift the Judaism of his day.

Nothing clarifies this more than Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom of God had come near.Jesus believed that God was not simply the God of Israel’s historyRather, Jesus’ God was now present in 
the world, working outside the religious establishment of Judaism, overthrowing the powers of evil, and establishing God’s own rule.

Jesus believed that God was inaugurating a new order in the world, one that reversed the oppressive power of injustice and inaugurated a world of compassion, justice, and peace. Jesus acted on this understanding of God by taking on this vocation.

His miracles serve as vivid metaphors of God’s power to release the captives and to overthrow the powers of the world, and his teachings proclaimed a new ethic that he believed would continue to bring order and justice to creation through the living of his followers.

Thusfrom his own experience of God, which precipitated his own faith in God, Jesus worked outside the religious establishment of Jerusalem, and lived out his vocation as the envoy of God’s rule.

Perhaps viewing Jesus as taking on the vocation of God through his experience of God is a better way to talk about Jesus as God.

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