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RON SIDER

An Easter Meditation on the Carpenter

tury Jews knew such polytheistic notions were false—indeed blasphemous. “The Lord our God is One” was the central creed of first-century Jews. For some reason, however, a large number of strictly monotheistic firstcentury Jews — including the highly trained orthodox rabbi Saul of Tarsus  — began telling the world that a particAccording to the gospel account,Thomas ular carpenter from Nazareth was God flatly refused to believe the other disci- in the flesh. “For God was pleased to ples’ report that the crucified Jesus was have all his fullness dwell in him” (Col. alive. Unless he personally probed the 1:9). “The Son is the radiance of God’s wounds in Jesus’ hands and side, he glory and the exact representation of his insisted, he would not believe such fan- being” (Heb. 1:3). “In the beginning tasy. But when the risen Christ stepped was the Word, and the Word was with into the room, he could only utter in God, and the Word was God … [and] the amazed awe: “My Lord and my God” Word became flesh” (John 1:1, 14). How can one explain such statements (John 20:28). In Philippians 2 (written roughly 30 from the mouths of rigid monotheists? years after the crucifixion), Paul declares It was certainly not that they doubted that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus What the early disciples Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11).Two things make this statement utterly astonishing. experienced forced them to First, Paul is quoting from Isaiah radically rethink their most 45:23 where Yahweh mocks the idols central theological belief. and declares in a thoroughly monotheistic vein that he alone is God:“Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue Jesus’ humanity. Some of them had spent will swear.” Paul takes these intensely three years eating, drinking, and walking monotheistic words from the mouth of the dusty roads of Palestine with this carthe one God and applies them to the penter-turned-preacher. The only plausible explanation is that carpenter from Nazareth. Furthermore, he calls Jesus “Lord” (kurios) — the word astonishing things happened to these used in the Greek translation of the Old monotheistic Jews that compelled them Testament to translate the word Yahweh. to believe that the One God of the Paul is clearly asserting that Jesus the car- universe had somehow become flesh in the carpenter they knew so well. Even penter is not just Messiah but God. The second reason this statement by during his public ministry, to be sure, Jesus Paul (and similar ones by Thomas and had made claims that perplexed them. He other Christians) is so astounding is that not only said he was the long-expected Paul — and the others — were all devout Messiah, but he also claimed divine Jews. The most important, the most authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10). distinctive characteristic of first-century He announced that he was Lord of the Jewish belief was its strict monotheism. Sabbath (Mark 2:28) and at his trial even Lots of people in the first century acknowledged that he was the Son of believed there were many gods and god- God (Mark 14:61-62). All through the New Testament it is desses — and they sometimes ran around doing very strange things. But first-cen- clear that it was the disciples’ experience PRISM 2 0 1 0

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of the risen Jesus — in spite of important parts of their prior belief system  — that convinced them that his claims were true. The resurrection compelled them to make seemingly blasphemous statements about the carpenter. In fact Saul, the highly educated rabbi, was so furious with this blasphemy that he worked fervently to execute Jesus’ early followers — until he, too, met the risen Jesus. What the early disciples experienced forced them to radically rethink their most central theological belief. To be sure, it took several centuries for the church to think carefully through how God who is truly One exists as three persons. They also wrestled for centuries about how to understand that the carpenter from Nazareth is both true God and true man. But when we ponder the utterly stunning things that Christians for 20 centuries have said about Jesus, it is crucial to remember that the reason the earliest Christians began to say these things was that events happened among them that simply compelled them to such affirmation. When they reflected both on what Jesus said and did and also on the astonishing events of Easter, strict monotheistic Jews could only bow and exclaim: “My Lord and my God.” But these early Christians did not just make awesome claims about Jesus.They started to live what he taught.They never supposed that embracing proper theological doctrine was enough to make one a good Christian.They also knew that they must obey the One they worshipped. As they traveled everywhere inviting all who would listen to embrace the Good News about Jesus, they sought to care for the poor, love their enemies, and keep their marriage vows just as Jesus had taught them. Precisely because they knew he was God Incarnate, they knew they must, in the power of the risen Lord, also live like Jesus. This Easter, let’s bow with Thomas and worship. But let’s also obey the One we adore. n

An Easter Meditation on the Carpenter  

Ron Sider March 2010