Playing With Jesus

By: Rob Looper
January 7, 2016 7:48 AM

Many people “play” spirituality.

Playing spirituality operates in pretty much the same way as does playing a game or engaging in a fun distraction or taking up a weekend activity: Your participation is voluntary, light-hearted, with minimal discomfort and enjoyable.  It’s fun while it lasts, there is no pressure for a long-term obligation and, when it’s time to clean up for supper, get ready for bed or head back to reality after the weekend you put it down until the next time you want a little harmless, positive fun.

You can’t play with Jesus.

A person, even a whole movement, can play Christianity, or at least what they have imagined Christianity to be.  But if anyone is determined truly to organize his or her entire interpretation of who Jesus Christ is, what he did (and continues do) and what it all means not only to his or her individual spiritual life but also to the very meaning of all of life for everyone, everywhere in all of history—then there will be no “playing” whatsoever.

To begin with, engaging in this activity means we cannot make up our own rules about dealing with Jesus.  We can only come to Jesus on his terms, which means we must use the only accurate source of information and interpretation of who he is and what he does: the Bible.  This further means that we are not free to reinterpret Jesus for our own purposes or to make him more comfortable to us.

This is essentially Paul’s warning to the church at Colossae in Colossians 2:8.

The church in that ancient city was besieged by false teachers who were reinterpreting Jesus either through their own particular philosophical grids, for selfish gain (“empty deceit”) or by plain, ordinary worldly thinking.  In every case Jesus came out serving the particular viewpoint of the reinterpreter.  Paul essentially said, “Don’t fall for any of it—no matter how plausible from a human perspective their argument may be.”

The main reason for his warning is because Jesus is God (“…in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily…”) and God cannot be “reshaped” to fit our personal interpretation.

It is this truth—that in Jesus Christ is the “whole fullness of deity dwells bodily”—that makes the cross so significant.  If Jesus had merely been a human prophet, then his death would have made him no more than a martyr.  But because he was and is God in the flesh, his death was and is a triumph.

Christ’s death on the cross is a triumphant death in several ways—but it is first a triumphant death because it dealt death its death-blow—a fact proven by what we celebrate not just on Easter but every Sunday morning, which verse 12 trumpets:  God “raised him from the dead.”

But it is also a triumphant death because, in his death Jesus led all those for whom he died in the same triumph over death, verse 12 also saying that “were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God.”  What a glorious triumph, that we are raised with Christ in triumph over death—that we have the hope that death will not end our lives in separation from God!

But the glory of the resurrection that is ours to share with Jesus comes largely by what Jesus did in his dying—and what happened to us in that dying.  Throughout these verses Paul repeatedly uses the phrases “in him” and “with him” to describe what theologians call the doctrine of union with Christ.  Simply put, God so identifies his people with Jesus, he so unites them with him, that everything he experienced on the cross the Scriptures say we have also experienced. 

Most critically, God’s wrath was poured out upon Christ in punishment—not of his sin, but ours.  As Paul puts it in verse 13, God has in Christ’s death

forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.  This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (2:13, 14)

The triumphant death of Christ is our triumph because in it our sins are forgiven—paid for in full, the debt we owe set aside.  This is triumph because we are always tempted to believe that sin is triumphing or will triumph over us.  We are weak and we seem to be losing the fight—but the cross shouts to us that the fight has been fought and Christ has made the triumph:  We are forgiven!

This is why we cannot reinterpret Jesus; his death loses all value if we do not embrace it as his triumph for us over our sin and the eternal death that our sin deserves.  

If we try to embrace Jesus’ moral teaching apart from the cross, we deny that Jesus died for sinners who have no natural moral ability to obey. 

If we try to embrace the resurrection without the cross, we deny that Jesus had to die; the new life Jesus gives he gives only to those who were united with him in his death.

Moreover, we have to ask what possible meaning can “resurrection” have apart from death?  We glory in the resurrection, yes, but before the resurrection is the cross, and the triumphant death of Jesus upon it.

The cross, then, is critical to all things truly Christian.  It reveals all those who try to have Jesus or Christianity without the cross as deceived deceivers; as Paul says in verse 15, it puts “to open shame” every crossless idea and every one of the advocates of those ideas.  Though Paul was initially addressing the pagan notion of spiritual “rulers and authorities”—essentially spirits of the spirit world—the triumph of the cross is still the same.  Whether one numbers Jesus as merely one of many spiritual authorities of pagan spiritism or whether one marshals him as mere social radical who promotes the rights of the poor, the cross obliterates the viability of both, exposing them as powerless, ultimately human, ideas.

There is no triumph in any view of Jesus except that of his offering himself as the sinless divine Messiah who defeated sin and death.  That is why one cannot “play” with Jesus; he cannot be the object of light-hearted, shallow spiritual enamorment.  We don’t “add” Jesus to our wellbeing resume or make him one of many voices on our RSS feed.

The point is that we ultimately insult Jesus and even blaspheme God if Jesus and his teaching becomes one among many avenues for which we seek the development of our personal well-being or beef up our knowledge.  Jesus can never be marshaled to any merely human perceived end without ultimately paying an eternal price—and there is no more powerful proof of this truth than the cross itself. 

From the human perspective, yes the cross was cruel—for hateful, wicked men abused and tortured Jesus—and they did it with evil joy.  Yes, the cross is also tragic—for Jesus was executed as a common criminal though he was innocent of all possible human crimes.  In fact, we are right to recognize the crucifixion as the ultimate of all human crimes, the murder of all murders.  But it is impossible to understand the cross—indeed, the entire ministry of Jesus—in non-spiritual way, as if he and his real moment in history have only historical value.  This is essentially the fatal flaw of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus; it attempts to explain Jesus and his power as a historical figure apart from spiritual reality.  The result is a pitiful, cardboard cutout that resembles the world’s collective idea of who Jesus was and what he did.  In other words, it isn’t the Jesus of the Bible, which means it isn’t the Jesus of history—who was, above all things, the One who triumphed by his death.