In a comment on my “Could you please help me understand the practical consequences…?” post Donald asks for ‘some explanation of what our “personal” relationship with Jesus should look like and if possible how it relates to our “personal” relationship to God.’ I’m afraid it won’t be possible to answer the second part of that question here. Maybe another day.
I had noted that people sometimes find my emphasis on the historical and “political” dimension of the New Testament narrative soulless and impersonal. Evangelicals, in particular, have got used to the idea that we relate to Jesus as our personal Lord and saviour, that there is a profoundly emotional aspect to this relationship, expressed especially in worship, and that it sustains us, gives us comfort and security, and generally makes us feel good—or, at least, is supposed to.
I then suggested that the narrative-historical approach ought to make the church’s current engagement with the risen Lord Jesus more rather than less important. Why? Because it highlights the relevance of eschatological crisis for understanding what was entailed in the profession of Jesus as Lord. A complacent, short-sighted church can afford to keep soothing its members with the assurance that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives. A church that knows that it is facing obsolescence cannot.
Lord of history
In the first place, Jews who believed that their God had raised his Son from the dead understood this to mean that the Galilean prophet Jesus had been made Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). This Spirit-given insight made sense only in the context of the story about Israel. To name Jesus as “Lord” meant to identify him as YHWH’s solution to the national crisis that Israel faced: only an “Israel” that confessed Jesus as Lord would escape or survive the coming catastrophe of the war against Rome. No Jew believed that Jesus was his or her Lord and saviour apart from this prophetic narrative, and to make this profession meant direct practical involvement in this particular narrative. You had to act accordingly.
After a few years this perspective was superseded by the prospect of an even more extraordinary historical transformation. Across the Greek-Roman world, across the empire, Jews and Gentiles were coming to understand that to confess Jesus as Lord and saviour was to affirm that he would also, in a foreseeable future, act as judge and ruler of the nations.
That is to say, the prayer uttered at the end of Psalm 82, which is far more significant than all the fun stuff about the divine council, would be fulfilled in the name of Jesus, who had declined to take the conventional path to rule over the nations, but had been raised to a place of supreme authority and power (Phil. 2:6-11). The God of ancient Israel would inherit the nations of the Greek-Roman world because Jesus had been faithful unto death, which is about as extraordinary a turn of events as anything that has happened in history, I’d say.
Belief in this Jesus was profoundly personal, but not because it made people feel good. The personal dimension kicked in for a very simple reason: the followers of Jesus would face severe opposition. So they were not baptised into a wonderful charismatic experience, or into a life of prosperity and happiness, or even into warm friendly community. They were baptised into his death, they identified with the martyred Jesus, knowing that they were likely to share in his sufferings, hoping that they would eventually share in his vindication and glory—if not before then after their own deaths.
That is what it meant for the early church to be “in Christ”. Jesus was the pioneer of eschatological transformation. The apostles and churches were agents of eschatological transformation, the means by which the pagan order would be overthrown and Christ acknowledged as the Son of God. They took up their own crosses and followed him. It was a very personal business.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp describes the patient suffering of the brothers and sisters who died in the outbreak of persecution that ended with the death of Polycarp:
they themselves reached such a level of bravery that not one of them uttered a cry or a groan, thus showing to us all that at the very hour when they were being tortured the martyrs of Christ were absent from the flesh, or rather that the Lord was standing by and conversing with them. (2:2)
Of course, there was more to a believer’s relation to Christ than this—we could talk about the ecstatic encounter with the risen Lord in worship, for example. But the martyr’s imitation of Christ’s suffering (cf. Mart. Pol. 1:1) anchored the whole personal experience in a narrative that would climax in the overthrow of the gods, including the god Caesar. To confess Jesus as Lord was to profess a story and to act accordingly.
Get with the programme
So if we are going to use the language of a “personal relationship with Jesus” today, we first have to identify the context, the narrative, the agenda, the task. It’s as true now as it was then. If I confess that Jesus is my Lord and saviour, I commit myself not just to Jesus but to a programme.
The programme, I think, comes in two parts.
First, the church needs to operate faithfully and obediently, at all times, as a priestly-prophetic people, serving the interests of the living creator God in the midst of a rebellious world. This, fundamentally, is what we’re here for.
Secondly, the church as a priestly-prophetic community in the Western secular context now needs to engage with the God of history as he leads his people through the massively difficult period of transition after the collapse of Christendom.
For the Jews of the exodus generation the precarious liminal experience that threatened their existence was flight from Egypt and wandering in the wilderness. For Jews in the sixth century BC it was exile. For Jews in the second temple period it was oppression by successive pagan invaders.
For the church today the difficult liminal experience is not exodus or exile or pagan-imperial oppression but marginalisation, and we need to reconfigure our understanding of what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus in light of that.
Just as Paul, or the saints in Philippi (eg., Phil. 1:29-30), or the martyrs in Smyrna were deeply conscious of the fact that to confess Jesus as Lord was to participate in his sufferings for the sake of the defeat of classical paganism, so the church in the West today needs to align the “personal relationship with Jesus” with the task at hand. To confess Jesus as my personal Lord and saviour today is to tell a compelling prophetic story about crisis and reformation and to act accordingly.
Can we be more specific about what this would entail? We can make a start.
If I am going to get involved in this personally and confess Jesus as my Lord and saviour, I need a sense of history—some grasp of the story that has brought us to this point, much like Stephen’s provocative recapitulation of Jewish history in Acts 7 or Paul’s in Acts 13:16-41.
By telling this story to myself and to the church, perhaps even to “outsiders”, I open up the question of the future. Where is this taking us? Where is God taking his people? For all the difficulties involved in this sort of undertaking, I think we need to generate a plausible vision for the future. What sort of people does God’s future require us to be?
I can then begin to reformulate my personal “faith” in terms of this narrative. It becomes less about me, more about the God who has chosen a people to serve him and has provided everything necessary for his people to fulfil that service under difficult, changing historical circumstances. Fundamentally today, I think that I will be justified for believing in the programme and acting accordingly even though the secular West has almost entirely abandoned its Christian heritage in any meaningful sense.
The next step, I guess, would be for me as a church leader—this is not entirely hypothetical—to set about the task of aligning church communities with this narrative of faith. I don’t hold out much hope of turning the monstrous container ship of modern evangelicalism in a narrative-historical direction, but there is already a flotilla of small experimental missional communities at sea (in more than one sense of the expression), in need of a compelling biblical-prophetic sense of direction.