In my last blog I distinguished between Jesus and other good people by the constancy with which Jesus saw and responded to the persuasion of God in the events of the world. Am I saying that the difference between me and the Son of God is only a matter of degree? That Jesus is just a tad better than the average decent person? Because that would certainly run counter to the evidence of the Bible.
Well no, I don’t think that way, although it’s worth remembering that according to John’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples that they would do even greater things than he had done.
I think of Jesus as unique, in the way that every event in the universe, like the life of a person or the successful building of a starling’s nest in my neighbour’s eaves, is unique. Each event is unique in its apprehension of previous events, in its creative use of them. In the case of Jesus, firstly we have to allow ourselves to be led by the gospels of Matthew and Luke in their pointing to Jesus’ genetic inheritance on the one hand, and his faith inheritance on the other.
The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are different and cannot, in spite of the witness of Christmas cards and Sunday School narrative, be successfully aligned. Still they have some common elements:
1. Jesus was born, as human beings are, from a woman. Although his conception is said to be virginal, his life in the womb and his birth were normal.
2. Although Joseph is sidelined by the Holy Spirit, the genealogies of Jesus trace the male line from him, back to Abraham via King David, indeed back to Adam in the case of Luke. These are Messianic genealogies, although Luke especially wants to emphasise his inheritance as “son of God”
Jesus was unique because of his genetic inheritance from Mary – and Joseph, because the narratives want to have it both ways: Mary’s conception is virginal but Jesus is a son of David. The usual means of human evolution are not set aside, but with the addition of the Holy Spirit’s action, bring about the birth of Jesus. Any conception is an event which in my thinking involves the persuasive presence of God. As it happens, that was also the traditional Jewish view of conception, so we can understand Matthew and Luke as defining Jesus’ birth as Normal Plus. This aspect of Jesus uniqueness is his genetic inheritance from his forebears, via his parents, made new ( with God’s help!) in his body.
Another aspect of Jesus’ uniqueness is the story of faith which he inherited as a Jewish child, through his familial tradition of faith. Ancient prophecies were part of this. We are used to seeing how Matthew uses prophecy to characterise Jesus as Messiah, how Luke uses them in a slightly different way, but we should also reckon with Jesus own knowledge of the prophetic tradition, gained from his parents and his community, and how he may have applied these to himself and his mission. In fact we should broaden this out to include Jesus’ knowledge of the whole Jewish inheritance of faith, as he encountered it. The events of Jesus’ encounter with that tradition are also instances of the persuasive presence of God. Nobody ever interpreted that tradition as authoritatively and as creatively as Jesus. What astonishing intimacy with the tradition allowed him to say, “You have heard that they were told, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But now I tell you, Do not resist those who wrong you…”! We only have the result of Jesus’ study of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings of the Hebrew Bible, and the traditions of interpretation built up in the synagogues. His parables and replies to question and argument reveal how thoroughly he had made his people’s wisdom his own. Every new discovery he made is a creative event in which he responded to God and continued to develop as a child of God. We can also say that God also, in sharing Jesus’ life, learned more about what a human child could be. Can we say that God developed through Jesus? Yes we can and must.
I am saying that Jesus was unique as all human beings are unique by nature and by nurture. But I am also saying that God had been begetting Jesus his son over millions of years of genetic evolution, and through the hundreds of years of the Jewish heritage of faith. Jesus is especially a product of that process begun when God’s persuasion found a human response in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
So no, Jesus was not merely a tad better than me: he was full of God. I am going to pause here before I write about Jesus’ murder and resurrection.