How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Starting with Jesus?

Generative AI summary:

In his book, Stuart Murray argues that the Anabaptist vision is uniquely focused on Jesus and his life, not just his birth and death. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the historical context of Jesus’ death and the link between his life and death. Murray also challenges the idea of a “flat” interpretation of the Bible and suggests starting with Jesus as the center of interpretation. However, the author points out that the apocalyptic outlook of Jesus and his followers is often overlooked in this approach.

Read time: 11 minutes

In his new book The New Anabaptists: Practices for Emerging Communities (2024), Stuart Murray says that the Anabaptist vision is “profoundly and resolutely Christocentric” to a degree not found in other traditions. Evangelicals, for example, make much of the birth and death of Jesus but have little to say about what happened in between. “We heard over and over again why Jesus had to die but nothing about the reasons why he was killed by those who felt threatened by his life and teaching” (36).

That’s an important observation. A standard soteriology has no interest in the historical reasons for Jesus’ death because the normative narrative is universal and transcendent. He died for the sins of the world, perhaps under the wrath of God, perhaps because Satan thought he saw an opportunity to thwart divine purpose, at most because Jesus opposed the condition of self-righteous religiosity encoded incidentally in Pharisaism. That he “suffered under Pontius Pilate” is little more than circumstantial detail. But as Murray says, “there is an organic link between the life that Jesus lived and the death he died.” The Gospels situate him in a story that is patently not universal and transcendent but contingent and mundane.

Murray rejects the common assumption that the Bible is “flat”—that “texts from any part of Scripture are regarded as authoritative without reference to their context or other biblical passages.” The story of Jesus lies at the centre of a much larger narrative that begins with creation and ends with new creation. Therefore, “Everything that comes before and after this needs to be interpreted in the light of what Jesus said and did”—so in chapter 1 of the book Murray makes a case for “starting with Jesus.”

Now for a Christian hermeneutic that is so obviously true that it must invite examination. In the first place, why jump from the centre to the extreme outer limits of the biblical storyline? How do we know that this is the centre when we have no idea how much more story remains to be told? Is it a claim that the Bible actually makes for itself?

Which big story?

If the “big story” being told in the Bible is one that arcs with majestic simplicity from creation to new creation, then we are bound to make the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the pivotal moment around which the rest of the biblical material—and indeed the blur of undifferentiated history—turns. Where else would we put it?

A Gospel Coalition article yesterday entitled “The New Heavens and Earth Fuel Global Missions” opens with a clear statement of this elegant but reductive narrative model. Scripture is “a coherent narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. The elements of its plot are creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.”

But if the big story in which Jesus is a key protagonist begins with Abraham’s journey out of the shadow of the proto-empire Babel (Gen. 11:27-12:3), runs through the trauma of the Babylonian captivity, and ends with the overthrow of “Babylon the great” (Rev. 18-19), which is pagan Rome, then we have a very different set of “plot elements,” and the pivotal moment arguably must be found somewhere else.

What is missing from Murray’s outline of what it means to start with Jesus, in chapter 1, is the pervasive apocalyptic outlook that is ascribed to Jesus and his followers.

If we ask what Jesus himself made central or of critical importance for his mission, it is not his own life, death and resurrection. It is a future event that he expected to take place within a generation, within the lifetime of some of his disciples—the coming of the kingdom of God, the decisive intervention of the God of Israel to put right a bad situation.

This, not his own life and death, would be the turning point of history, as it appeared to first century Jews, the end of one age and the beginning of another. This was the heart of the message to be proclaimed to Jews in Israel and the diaspora, and in some sense to the nations. It would consist in a package of future events: on the one hand, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple; on the other, the public vindication not only of Jesus but also of the suffering community of his disciples.

Murray says that “if Jesus is the supreme revelation of God, we will want to make sure he is at the very center of how we read the Bible” (37-38). This may make sense in Johannine terms—and our theologies are, by and large, Johannine. But for the rest of the New Testament what Jesus becomes, supremely, is a vice-regent to whom has devolved the authority to judge and rule over Israel, in the first place, and then the nations.

What Jesus revealed was not the person or character of God but the intention of God.

Paul would say that Jesus was sent to Israel at a critical moment in the history of his people—to save at least some of those who lived under the Jewish Law (Gal. 4:4) from the catastrophe that would befall them. But the witness of the apostles was consistently that the crucified Jesus had been raised to the right hand of God in advance of the day, in a foreseeable future, when he would inherit rule over the nations (Rom. 15:12). Within the apostolic perspective, this could only mean rule over the pagan nations which currently dominated Israel’s world.

The witness of the New Testament as a whole, therefore, is that the turning point in the story they were living out was yet to come. It was anticipated in the resurrection of Jesus and in the emergence of the prophetic churches, but it would be concretely realised when the nations en masse abandoned their idols, worshipped the one true God, maker of the heavens and the earth, and confessed as Lord the one who had been humiliated and crucified on a Roman cross.

Jesus as dissident prophet and Lord of the nations

This whole dimension is missing from Murray’s Anabaptist vision, of course, certainly in the way that I have expressed it, because it would appear to validate Christendom as the proper realisation of the central New Testament hope. But it seems to me that once we start trying to understand the New Testament historically, as a story about Jesus and Israel, the high road of interpretation is bound to lead us straight through the very mixed, glorious and sordid experience of the church as a priestly-prophetic community for the nations of Europe.

The Christendom church was accountable not to the earthly “son” sent to Israel to do the work of a “servant” and demand the fruit of righteousness, but to the heavenly Lord who now, at last, could be said to rule over the nations. The earthly Jesus, to be sure, brought a fiercely anti-establishment message, but that in itself presupposed the existence of large political entities which sometimes disintegrate and are rebuilt. The dissident prophetic voice in scripture calls a people to righteousness, warns of judgment in the fulness of time, promises renewal, but it never questions the fact that at the end of the day peoples—nations, empires, civilisations—need both government (cf. Rom. 13:1-7) and priesthood.

So I think we need a theology that allows for both crisis and stasis, demolition and consolidation, exodus and settlement, exile and reconstruction. Murray argues that there is a “significant mismatch between the beliefs and practices of the early churches and those of churches in the Christendom era,” but that is precisely what we should expect. There was a “significant mismatch” between Israel as a vulnerable refugee community in the wilderness and Israel in possession of a prosperous land—a mismatch that has been re-enacted over the last century, we might add.

This mismatch, moreover, accounts for the disputes that Murray identifies as characteristic of the Anabaptist critique of the Christendom paradigm.

For the early church, baptism was a mark of transition, of repentance and renewal, of transfer from one kingdom to another. For the Christendom churches, it was inevitably a sign of belonging or citizenship.

Military service on behalf of a corrupt, idolatrous government was not the same as military service under a regime that in principle was learning from its new Spirit-filled priesthood the ways of a just God.

Tithing presupposed the institutional religious structures—temples, churches, hierarchies—that were bound to develop in a settled state.

I also rather suspect that women come to prominence in patriarchal cultures in times of instability and transition—as prophets, for example—when normal social patterns are disrupted.

Murray writes:

in the Christendom era, the radical teachings of Jesus were marginalized in favor of biblical texts that were more congenial to a nominally Christian empire. Christendom practices may have been biblical, but many of them were not Christian. (52)

That’s right. The teachings of Jesus were radical because they took into account the disruption and insecurity that would accompany the end of an old age and the birth of a new age. They were not a blueprint for the new society that would evolve after the tribulation, in the age to come.

We can say that Christendom was “nominally Christian” or that it was biblical but not Christian only if we confine “Christian” to the precarious, liminal experience of the early Jesus movement. But if a society confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and hands over the priesthood to the churches of Jesus Christ, I don’t see why that should be merely “nominal.” Unless, of course, we think that history doesn’t matter.

History keeps on turning

The “Christian” story for a long time pivoted, we might say, around this profoundly transformative moment, when the polytheistic political-religious systems that had for so long oppressed the covenant people, to the detriment of the name and glory of the living God, gave way to a new monotheistic political-religious order—and all because an obscure Jewish sect had proclaimed the resurrection of their crucified prophet-messiah across the Roman Empire.

But it’s apparent that history does not have a single turning point, a single centre. The biblical story line runs from Abraham to the triumph of the martyrs and of the Word of God over pagan Rome, and at that moment the civilisational narrative swings dramatically in a different direction. Now, however, the story of Western civilisation is clearly pivoting again, away from Christendom towards a complex future that will be both humanist and globalist.

Imitate Jesus at your peril

If Jesus, whom we must still confess as saviour and Lord, belongs to this big, lurching story, I wonder if we can so easily set him up as ideal teacher or object of imitation.

The question is this: to what extent are the current historical circumstances of the church analogous to the historical circumstances of the first century Jewish movement that was birthed by the encounter with Jesus? People only ever act in history, and that is as true for Jesus as for any of us.

For the most part, Jesus’ teaching was directed either to Israel under the Law or to a group of followers whom he called to continue his mission, in the same vein, under the same conditions, with more or less the same horizons, and quite possibly with the same outcome.

They would imitate him in very precise ways: they would proclaim the same eschatological message about the coming kingdom of God; they would heal the sick and cast out demons; and, most importantly, they would suffer as he suffered: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34).

So I wonder how helpful it is for Anabaptists—or anyone else—to look to Jesus for lessons about baptism, war, oaths, tithing, women in leadership, or homosexuality. Even if there are good lessons to be learned with a little clever adaptation, such an approach always obscures the narrative-historical contingency of the Jesus story and makes it harder for us to recognise the narrative-historical contingency—and enormity—of our own moment of crisis.

Start with the God of history

The rest of Murray’s book gives an excellent account of the values and practices that set the neo-Anabaptist movement apart from other traditions, with some UK-based case studies. But the narrow focus on Jesus principally as an exemplary ethical-religious figure, even as a model for post-Christendom ecclesiology and mission, seems to me to exclude precisely that aspect of his proclamation and teaching which makes him so significant in narrative terms: in his life, death, and resurrection was anticipated a transformative moment in the history of God’s people as seen from the perspective of the early Jewish-Christian movement.

The church in the West is now having to deal with a deeply unsettling post-Christendom recalibration, and the Anabaptists may be uniquely placed to instruct the wider church on the formation of emerging, marginalised communities. But any narrative theology, I think, must first develop the sort of coherent prophetic vision—as exhibited by Jeremiah, Jesus, and John the divine, for example—by which God’s priestly people may make sense of the great pivotal moments in history.

Church and mission begin not with Jesus, I cautiously suggest, but with the God of history who brought into being a priestly-prophetic people to serve him, come what may.

It seems to me that unless a miracle-working prophet shows up and says, “Repent or be destroyed,” focusing on Jesus as moral exemplar (and the hope of going to heaven) is the best the Church can do.

I would say, myself, that the best the church can do is bear consistent and honest witness to the reality of the living God who made the heavens and the earth. The vocation is to be a “priestly” people, not imitators of Jesus except under extreme and extraordinary circumstances, in which case going to heaven might be an option. At the moment, we have to negotiate, as a priestly people, a particularly difficult and lengthy transition, and we do so in principle under the lordship of the exalted Lord Jesus. Biblically, that is the relationship that matters.

It seems we have different ideas about what it means to imitate Jesus.

If we focus on serving rather than being served, if we show compassion to the downtrodden, if we love our neighbors as ourselves and forgive our enemies, and if we bravely and faithfully do what is right even if it brings ridicule and suffering upon us, we are following the example set by Christ.

I think Christianity’s main problem is figuring out how to get the living stones to form a spiritual house in an age of rampant individualism. But in the meantime, on a personal level, I still think imitating Jesus and holding on to the hope of eternal reward offers great benefits for Christians and for those they come into contact with.

I think that the apostles and the modern church have different ideas about what it means to imitate Jesus. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do what you urge—serve, be compassionate, love neighbours, etc. But the risk is that we reduce Jesus to an exemplar of a certain type of radical goodness. We lose sight of the large scale narrative for which his shocking behaviour was pivotal. What distinguishes Jesus are not his moral attributes but the decisive and dangerous engagement with the leadership of the Jews at a critical moment in history.

The radical imitation of the apocalyptic Jesus by his followers—Paul foremost among them—was likewise determined by the historical narrative in which they were participating.

So I would question the wisdom of imitating Jesus if we cannot similarly define the pivotal moment that demands such extraordinary goodness and a lot more.

I agree with your point about “rampant individualism.”

It used to bother me that modern Christianity was oblivious to the culture, expectations, and motivations of Jesus and his early disciples, but I’m just not sure the large-scale narrative matters much anymore. 

Christianity has certainly seen better days, but even in its present form, it seems to me like it has more to offer than any other religion.  

And I do think we might see a greater fusion between political conservatives and a new (at least new in the US) cultural Christianity of the type promoted by national conservatives (natural rights and moral responsibilities). It should create a bigger tent than what we had in the 80s with Republicans and the Religious Right. (Trump is proof that conservative Christians are willing to set the bar quite low when it comes to supporting a “Christian” leader.)