Uncommon God, Common Good
4/3/14 at 04:32 PM 0 Comments

Jesus' Uniqueness and Various Shades of Napoleon Gray

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A friend of mine recently spoke of a meeting he was at where every Christian leader in the room was trying to convey how he or she was more unique than everyone else. Upon hearing this, my wife remarked how interesting it is that the more we compete with one another to promote our own uniqueness the more we look just like one another. How true. Indeed, the common fixation with promoting how unique we are clothes us in various shades of dull gray.

This reminded me of a story surrounding Beethoven’s Eroica. I understand that Beethoven initially dedicated the piece to Napoleon for creating the French Republic. However, Beethoven retracted the dedication after Napoleon declared himself to be emperor; the composer remarked that Napoleon was nothing but a man after all. Napoleon's compulsion for self-elevation lowered him to common status. For all his uniqueness, he clothed his being in a shade of dull gray.

John the Baptist was different. He pointed beyond himself. In fact, he always pointed to Jesus. Here are some sample texts:

They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:25-27; ESV).

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me’” (John 1:29-30; ESV).

Now a discussion arose between some of John's disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (12:25-30; ESV).

He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (John 1:31-36; ESV).

What are some of the unique qualities of Jesus in comparison with John (and the rest of us) in view of these texts?

•John baptizes with water. By contrast, Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit, as explicitly stated elsewhere (See Matthew 3:11).

• John calls people to repent of sin. Jesus goes further and forgives sins as the lamb who takes away the sins of the world.

•Jesus is before John and is from above; John and the rest of us are from below.

•The Father uniquely loves the Son and has given all things into his hands. Whoever believes in him has eternal life. Whoever does not obey the Son will not see life; God's wrath remains on him.

It's crazy that we who confess Christ would want to promote our own individual uniqueness in competition with others. Why would we waste our time doing so given how much time we should be investing in promoting Jesus' uniqueness in view of what John says? Besides, it never gets old given how unique Jesus is.

Moreover, there's no need for us to promote our individual uniqueness. We are unique in view of Jesus. According to the Lord, John is great, but we are greater still. Jesus is recorded as saying in Luke 7: 28, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (ESV). From the vantage point of salvation history, John is greater than anyone preceding Jesus. However, those who belong to Jesus, no matter how insignificant by the world’s standards, are greater than John. It's not because of our uniqueness, but because of Jesus’ uniqueness. Those who belong to the kingdom inaugurated in Jesus are greater than John. So, there is no need to try and promote our individual uniqueness. Given our union with Christ Jesus by faith, we are unique.

Now one has to admit that John the Baptist was very unique with his garment of camel’s hair, leather belt, and food of locusts and wild honey. How many of us can beat that? Still, even John realized that his most unique quality was his message of repentance in preparing the way for the Messiah. What is your most unique quality? What is mine? If we profess to following Jesus, what makes us truly unique in the midst of all our God-given qualities and characteristic traits is how we make use of them in bearing witness to Jesus in his uniqueness.

It's easy to find people who are trying to promote their own uniqueness. It's far more difficult to find those who are captivated by the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. What kind of persons do you and I hope to be?

Over Karl Barth's desk from which he wrote the Church Dogmatics hung Matthias Grünewald's painting, The Crucifixion, in which John the Baptist is found pointing to Jesus hanging on the cross. Barth desired that his Church Dogmatics serve as a finger pointing to Jesus. Barth had good reason, given how unique Jesus is. After all, far from exalting himself above common people, like Napoleon and so many others, Jesus became a commoner to the point of laying down his life for everyone. Far from elevating himself and dressing himself in a robe of Napoleon gray, Jesus showed himself to be majestic and glorious in humility. He still does:

God shows Himself to be the great and true God in the fact that He can and will let His grace bear this cost, that He is capable and willing and ready for this condescension, this act of extravagance, this far journey. What marks out God above all false gods is that they are not capable and ready for this. In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of the human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it. God is not proud. In His high majesty He is humble. It is in this high humility that He speaks and acts as the God who reconciles the world to Himself (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. IV/1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance {Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956}, p. 159).

In view of who Jesus is, why wouldn't we want to join John the Baptist and uniquely elevate only Jesus? He wears a lot better than Napoleon gray.

This piece is cross-posted at Patheos. Comments made here are not monitored. To join the conversation, please comment on this post at Patheos.

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths and Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church. These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold. More information at Dr. Metzger’s work is available at paullouismetzger.com.

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