Minor Mysteries

Why does Christianity say there is only one way to God?

At first blush, it sounds unfair, but if you think about it, it makes sense. It’s the logical consequence of Christianity’s claim that God invites people into fellowship with Him. Here is a little parable:

If you are storming the castle of pantheism, any successful method of entry is valid. All paths lead to the goal. However, the situation implies that the owner of the castle has made no effort on your behalf to facilitate your entry. He may congratulate you on your cleverness, or he may ignore you. He may expel you or he may treat you kindly. He may be a charitable fellow, a misanthropic recluse, or a mad scientist in need of spare parts! Or it may be that the castle is abandoned and no one is inside. Party crashers can choose their means of entry, but they can’t know in advance what sort of party they’re crashing or how they will be treated once they are inside.

If you are invited to a party at the castle of Christianity, then there is only one way in. You must present your invitation at the front gate, and you must be properly dressed. The owner won’t be pleased if you sneak in over the parapets or disguise yourself as kitchen staff and enter the back way—but there is no need. By inviting you, the owner has tipped his hand. You know he is kind and thinks highly of you. He has anticipated your arrival and you are welcome. He made a place for you at the banquet table. He set aside a room for you; the sheets are turned down and the towels are set out. He has instructed his staff to treat you deferentially and to see to your needs. Invited guests can only enter one way, but they know in advance that they will be treated well.

While it might seem nice to have a choice about how to enter the castle, I don’t like what it implies. I’d rather have the constraints of an invited guest.

Why did Saul change his name to Paul?

He didn’t change his name at all, he just changed the people he associated with and the language that he used. Suppose a minister named Richard becomes a missionary in Latin America. Once he enters the mission field, he refers to himself as ‘Ricardo’ so that he won’t be so much of a gringo to his potential converts. It’s not a name change, just a language change. ‘Paul’ is just the Greek name the corresponds to ‘Saul.’ By calling himself ‘Paul,’ he wasn’t changing his name, he was just following his strategy of meeting people where they were—he was being a Greek to the Greeks.

In the New Testament, why did people walk up to Jesus out of the blue and ask Him to heal them, to cast out demons, or to settle disputes?

The Greek New Testament repeatedly refers to Jesus as a rabbi, which is the Hebrew word for teacher. Many modern translations obscure this fact by translating ‘rabbi’ as ‘teacher.’ While this is a valid translation, we should note that the writers of the Greek New Testament used the word ‘rabbi’ without translating it into Greek. I think it is significant that they would use an untranslated Hebrew word in the middle of a Greek text. Perhaps they wanted to emphasize Jesus’ credentials as a rabbi so that no one would think he was some other sort of teacher.

It was (and still is) the normal function of rabbis to heal the sick, to perform exorcisms, and to settle disputes. In fact, the medieval rabbi Maimonides wrote a letter to a friend explaining how he held office hours to do such things, and the letter exists to this day. Since Jesus was a celebrity rabbi, he attracted quite a lot of requests.

Wasn’t Jesus a carpenter?

Many people assume that Jesus was a carpenter because his stepfather Joseph is mentioned in scripture as being a carpenter. While it is true that in the ancient world most people tended to have the same occupations as their parents, it wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule.

There is no passage in the New Testament that describes Jesus as a carpenter, and there is no prophecy in the Old Testament about the Messiah being handy with a hammer. (There is a passage in which Jesus visited His home town and people wonder if Jesus isn’t a carpenter—some Greek texts say they asked each other if He wasn’t the son of a carpenter.) The only occupation ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament is rabbi. Pharisees were very fussy about who they ate with, who came into their homes, and who had which credentials, so it is not very likely that they would invite a carpenter to dinner to discuss religious matters, a scene that recurs often in the New Testament. It is much more likely that they would invite a qualified rabbi.

If you would like an analogy, we could say that Jesus was a Pharisaic rabbi in much the same sense that Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic priest, or that Cardinal Newman was an Anglican priest.

Wasn’t Jesus on the road all the time?

Not necessarily. The holy land is quite compact, and it is not necessary for Jesus to spend all his time on the road to have accomplished what is recorded in the gospels. In fact, the New Testament refers to Peter’s house and to Jesus’ house, which implies that He had a fixed base of operations. At one time Jesus complained that He couldn’t find a place to stay, but that referred to difficulties on one particular journey and not to His life in general.

Isn’t it true that Jesus never claimed to be God?

Yes, it is true that Jesus is never recorded as saying “I am God.” However, that’s not where it stops. In those days, the Jews were surrounded by polytheistic, idolatrous religions, so by claiming to be a god, Jesus wouldn’t have been claiming much. However, He did claim to be God in Jewish terms. Here are a few examples:

  • Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. By Jewish and Roman law, this would give Him His Father’s automatic power of attorney, making Him the legal equivalent of God.
  • Jesus forgave sins against God, which implies that He was God. Let me explain: suppose Sally spills soup on a stranger’s lap. Sally is contrite, but she doesn’t know who to apologize to. Then a stranger comes up and forgives her. Wouldn’t Sally assume that it was her unintended victim? Of course, because only the offended party can forgive an offense! Therefore, only God can forgive sins against God, and by forgiving sins against God, Jesus was implying very strongly that He was God.
  • Jesus exorcised demons on His own authority. Exorcism must always involve the invocation of a god, but Jesus never audibly invoked God in His exorcisms. Either He possessed divine power Himself, which is what the theologically na?e bystanders thought, or it meant that He mumbled the invocation so no one could hear it, which is what the Pharisees thought. The only reason He could possibly want to obscure the invocation would be if He were invoking Satan. Jesus refuted the idea that He was invoking Satan, but He never rebuked the crowds for thinking He possessed divine power. In addition, Jesus never taught that the invocation could be safely omitted and He never taught that everybody has the power to exorcise. Instead, He explicitly taught His disciples to invoke Him. The exorcism stories in the New Testament are not about demons, they are about Jesus. They show us that He claimed divine power and authority, and demonstrate that He was right.
  • Jesus instructed His disciples to pray to Him, and to pray in His name, something which is quite out of order unless Jesus is God.
  • Jesus claimed to be the Judge of all Humanity at the end of time, which is a privilege reserved to God.

Well, if Jesus claimed to be God, why didn’t He just come out and say it?

Under the Jewish Law, claiming to be God is blasphemy, and blasphemy is a capital offense. If Jesus had declared Himself plainly right away, He would have had a very short trip to Calvary. Then there would have been no time to select and train disciples, to teach the gospel, or found the church, and we would all still be dead in our sins. Jesus had things to do, and He couldn’t rush to the cross right away. (See John 17:1-4)

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