By the time Martin Luther came on the scene in the 16th century, Christian theology in the Western church had been heavily influenced by the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristotle and Plato. Even great theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas used Greek philosophy as the framework for their thinking about God and human beings.
The late medieval theology Luther was schooled in was largely speculative. Aristotle in ancient Greece wanted to explain everything he encountered in the natural world. He used his powers of observation to figure it all out. By the 13th century, Catholic theologians had rediscovered Aristotle. Thomas Aquinas wanted to do with God what Aristotle had done with the natural world. He tried to use his rational mind to answer every possible question about God. The problem with that approach is something you’ve already discovered: How can we human beings, who can’t observe a hidden God, really know what God is like or whether God looks kindly on us?
Luther argued that we can’t really know if a rainbow or a good golf score or kids who turn out are evidence that God is good, because the very same God also sends droughts, forest fires, cancer, enlarged prostates, and every other thing that makes life feel like utter chaos. For Luther, the answer was not to speculate about God but instead to go looking for him where he actually reveals himself—that the place to start in any conversation about God was always Christ himself.
In the Old Testament, God provided the Israelites with the commandments. And he spoke through the prophets. And when the Israelites were faithless, God remained faithful. Even so, those were only the briefest of glimpses behind the divine veil. For Luther, if you want to know who God is, what God is like, and how God regards you, the only place to look is the place where God chose to show himself: in the person of Jesus. If you know Jesus, you know God. And the place you get to know Jesus is in the gospels. If we think of the articles of the Augsburg Confession as tools like a screwdriver, crescent wrench, hammer, and vise grip, then Jesus is the box that all our tools come in. All the other things the Augsburg Confession tackles come because Jesus gave them to us or because they’re inferences drawn out from who Jesus is.
The Greek word christos is a translation of the ancient Hebrew word meshiach. In English, we translate them as “Christ” and “Messiah.” They both mean “the anointed king.”
The Gospel of Mark begins with a big claim about Jesus. He starts with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God” (1:1). At first glance, that’s a pretty sweet announcement. But when you start digging into Mark’s gospel, you’ll quickly notice that the truth of the matter is unlike what we might expect from a Jesus who is good news, the Christ, and the Son of God. We might first expect Jesus to be good news for the kind of people American popular culture portrays Christians as: the religious, the moral, the upright, and the hyper-spiritual. But those people, the religious leaders in Jerusalem, are the last people who want anything to do with the Lord. Their reaction to him isn’t adoration or admiration but utter scorn and an underhanded plot to have him arrested and executed. The people who see Jesus as good news, though, are those the religious folks look down their noses at: prostitutes, adulterers, tax collectors, and sinners, including a pagan centurion from Rome, who was the first person to say publicly that “surely this man was the Son of God.”
And how about Jesus as Christ? The Greek word christos is a translation of the ancient Hebrew word meshiach. In English, we translate them as “Christ” and “Messiah.” They both mean “the anointed king.” When Mark calls Jesus “the Christ,” he’s putting Jesus in line with his ancestor King David. Mark even tells of Jesus the King in a crown and royal robes. Jesus is surely a king who cares for, protects, and provides for his people. But he doesn’t function like a powerful descendent of King David, ready to evict the Roman soldiers occupying Judea. Instead, he wears a crown of thorns and takes the cross as his throne. Jesus is an anointed king more like the suffering servant in Isaiah: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others: a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isa 53:2-3).
As for Jesus as the Son of God, what can we say? This is the Lord who can calm the wind and the waves, cast out demons, give the paralyzed working hamstrings, and heal a woman who has hemorrhaged for a dozen years. But more important, this is a God of kenosis. He is the self-emptying God, who on the cross poured out all his divine power and every last ounce of life and breath. Degraded and humiliated, Jesus became the dregs of humanity. Or as Paul says, he who knew no sin became sin for us. We find life in Jesus, who is the God who dies (2 Cor 5:21).
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