Intro: Christians Who Don’t Worship Christ?
Until recently, I took it for granted that all Christians understood and agreed on at least one simple fact: That the Bible teaches Messiah Jesus of Nazareth (his life and teachings) is the definitive, perfect, and final revelation of God. After all, the writer of Hebrews makes this much clear:
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
– Heb. 1.1-3 (NIV, emphasis added)
Or consider Jesus’s answer to Phillip’s request to see the “Father” (God) to whom Jesus keeps referring,
“Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
– John 14.8-9 (NIV, emphasis added)
Or, if Jesus’s words don’t impress you (as has especially become the trend among Calvinists), and you need Paul’s didactic teaching style to convince you, consider this gem:
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form…”
– Col. 2.8-9 (NIV, emphasis added)
What a fool I’ve been: I presumed there was at least one common area of agreement among those who call themselves “Christians”—that we worship Christ! But, from recent discussions online and offline, it appears I was wrong. Instead, what I’ve learned is that some look for a god behind and beyond Jesus. For them, other revelation must be added to Jesus in order for them to receive God’s “full” self-revelation. Why they insist on calling themselves “Christians” then, I couldn’t tell you. Perhaps a more appropriate label might be “godians.”
In particular, the “Christians” with whom I’ve been discussing are angry about Greg Boyd’s proposal of a “cruciform-centric” hermeneutic 1. Boyd is unabashedly influenced by (Neo) Anabaptist theology, which has historically advocated for a Christ-centered (“christocentric”) reading of Scripture. This is nothing new. Even (New) Calvinists claim to be Christ-centered these days. 2 What Boyd adds to this interpretive methodology is the biblical idea that discipleship is the process of emulating one’s Master. (Shocking, I know!) Since Jesus laid down his life, and we are Jesus’s disciples, we too are called to lay down our lives—to demonstrate radical, self-sacrificial love (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.1-11; I Jn. 3.16). This process is now being called “cruciformity”—being formed by the cross, living out cross-shaped love. 3
The objection from some is that this approach is an external grid being imposed on the Scripture, and is therefore eisegesis (importing meaning to the Text), rather than exegesis (drawing meaning from the Text). Objectors also claim that such an approach undermines Scripture’s inspiration and authority. By applying the lens of Jesus’s cross to passages where God is depicted as violent (for example), these objectors also claim Boyd is attempting to ignore portions of Scripture or cut them out of the Bible entirely. 4
In what follows, I will demonstrate that the Bible itself, namely the book of Revelation, teaches Jesus-disciples to apply the cruciform-centric hermeneutic that Boyd describes. In so doing, I will prove that the cruciform-centric hermeneutic is not some external grid being imposed upon Scripture, but is instead Scripture’s own teaching for Christians. Therefore, the cruciform-centric hermeneutic is the appropriate interpretive methodology for Christians (i.e. those who worship Christ).
The Parallel of Worship in Heaven and Worship in the Church
The Apocalypse (“Revelation”) of St. John is a widely misunderstood book. Many Western Christians, influenced by popular forms of Dispensationalism 5 the likes of which can be found in the Left Behind books and movies, think of it as a future prediction code to be deciphered. Many search the book looking for clues about what will happen in the “end times.” While John certainly does speak of Christ’s return and sees a vision of the final telos of history, the primary flaw this approach suffers is that it overlooks the immediate and pastoral context. Revelation was written for us, but it was not written to us. Instead, it was written to seven churches by their pastor, the apostle John.
With this fact in mind, we can begin to understand John’s authorial intent. By reminding ourselves of the historical context, we can begin to piece together the meaning the book had for its original hearers. Then we can attempt to draw application from that meaning for our context today.
The setting is late first-century, Roman-occupied “Asia Minor,” where Christian congregations have been formed, and where severe persecution has afflicted the followers of the Way. Nevertheless, these courageous believers (many of whom are Jewish) gather together weekly to worship on the “Lord’s Day,” which is Sunday—the day Jesus rose from the dead. Why Sunday and not Saturday? The answer is both simple and profound: the Resurrection changed everything! The Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, is alive and reigns forever! He has defeated Satan, the powers, and death itself! The early Christians worshipped on Sunday because the early Christians worshipped Jesus!
Add to this what we know about the structure of early Christian worship:
- First, early Christians were baptized with water as a sign that they have died with Christ to their old live and have been raised with Christ to new life. Christ is at the heart of this ritual, which serves as initiation into the Church, the family of believers.
- Second, early Christians studied the Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible) and received teaching on their meaning. In light of Christ’s coming, the meaning of the Hebrew Bible has been complete transformed. Every apostolic author in the New Testament quotes the Hebrew Bible to teach that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. The Advent of Christ into the world has completely changed the way the early Christians approach the Hebrew Scriptures. In them, they now find Christ. 6
- Third, early Christians celebrated a meal together called a “Love Feast” or what some call an “Agape Meal.” At this meal, believers in Christ shared in table fellowship regardless of socio-economic status in the world’s eyes, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of age, and regardless of gender. During this meal, the Christians would remember the death their Lord and Savior suffered for them. In the participation of the Eucharistic meal, the early Christians worshipped Christ—weekly.
Eugene Peterson writes,
“The throne, the sea, and the altar are the glorious originals of the pulpit, font, and table in the house churches where St. John’s congregations gathered week by week in their Lord’s Day worship.” 7
Who is Worthy to Open the Scroll?
At the center of the heavenly worship gathering sits a throne—the throne of God. By the way some Christians speak of God, the throne should be empty. Seated on the throne should be an amorphous cloud of undefinable yet all-encompassing god-ness. But that is not what John sees. Standing at the center of the throne, the seat of power and sovereignty and rule, the center of all worship, all power, is the crucified Lamb: Jesus of Nazareth (Rev. 5.6). This should shock and arrest any Christian who does not think Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. This imagery is clear: Jesus is God! There is no god behind, beyond Jesus the Messiah! There is no god behind, beyond the Crucified One!
What happens next boggles and perplexes many modern readers.
I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…
– Rev. 5.1-6 (NIV)
For many modern readers, the “scroll” John speaks of here is mysterious. Theories abound and are filled with symbolism, secrets, futuristic woes and blessings. But because we have set out to understand what the Text meant to its original hearers first, before we attempt to apply its meaning to our context, we do not suffer from such delusions. Instead, we remember that the worship of the early Christians prominently featured the scrolls of Scripture. In fact, the people of God have worshipped God with the reading of God’s Spirit-inspired Texts for hundreds of years. In Jewish worship, the Torah was read aloud in synagogues every Sabbath day, and also the scrolls of the prophets. In Christian worship, the same scrolls were opened, but with new meaning and a new Subject: King Jesus, the Lord of Lords, YHWH Incarnate.
[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
– Luke 4.16-21 (NIV)
The Scriptures that the Jews read every Sabbath day were sealed, shrouded in mystery, bound up waiting until the Word, the One by Whom all things were spoken into existence, would stand before humanity and declare that the time has come for them to be fulfilled! The hearts of the Jewish believers were veiled, and a veil remained each time the Hebrew Scriptures were read. That is, until Jesus came! Jesus lifts the veil, revealing the Truth, uncovering mysteries. (II Cor. 3.7-18)
Jesus is the One who reveals the Truth of the Scriptures. Jesus is the One who uncovers the mystery long sealed in the Sacred Text.
[Jesus] said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
– Luke 24.25-27 (NIV)
Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
– Acts 8.29-35 (NIV)
Only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll, because only Jesus has suffered and laid down his life for humanity. Only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll, because only Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH’s Wisdom.
Again Peterson illuminates,
“Scroll” to a first-century Christian would mean scripture. The scrolls they were most familiar with were the great scrolls of scripture in the synagogues. Scrolls were respected and valued. God’s people believe that God speaks, that he tells us who he is and what he does. He is not a deus absconditus but a deus revelatus. His words are spoken to his people so that they will know his actions for them, his will in them. And these words were written in scrolls. It is to be expected in the act of worship that a scroll will appear. But the scroll is sealed. […]
In the midst of the great act of worship, St. John had wept because there was no one to unseal the scroll and proclaim God’s word personally to him (Rev. 5:4). Then Jesus Christ, in the form of the Lamb, came forward to unseal the scroll, that is, to preach to him. Immediately his weeping ceased: God reveals his word as Christ preaches to us. Is there meaning in the evil chaos of history? We hope there is a clue tucked away in the rubble. The unsealing of the scroll—the revelation of Jesus Christ whereby God’s will is known among us—is a proclamation of this good news in the midst of history. There is a correspondence between what is going on in the midst of worship and what is going on in the midst of history, and Jesus Christ, unsealing the scroll, provides it. We do not have to wait for the future revelation to find the meaning. We do not have to unravel a puzzle to figure out the meaning. It is presented to us. And Christ is the one who presents it.” 8
The Cross-Shaped Hermeneutic of Obedience
Jesus calls his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him (Mt. 10.38, 16.24; Mk. 8.34; Lk. 9.23, 14.27). To follow Jesus means to live like he lived (I Jn. 2.6). To live as Jesus lived, we too must lay down our lives for others (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.1-11; I Jn. 3.16). For Jesus-disciples, the cross is more than a historical event—it becomes a Way of Life (Gal. 6.14). This is the “cruciformity” to which Boyd and Gorman refer.
The Jesus-disciple lives a life formed by their Master’s example, emulating Jesus’s cross-shaped love. Not only is our interpretation of Scripture informed by this fact, but it informs our interpretation of all life! Every person we encounter, every obstacle we face, every achievement is another opportunity to love like Jesus—to die to ourselves and the world, growing in the life of the age to come. The more we live it out, the more the Scriptures become clear. The Anabaptists call this the “hermeneutic of obedience.” Jesus didn’t say the truth will set us free, then we will hold to his teaching. No, he said we must hold to his teaching—then we will know the truth and be set free (Jn. 8.31-32). Obedience precedes the liberation of enlightenment. “Doing” the Scriptures reveals their truth. And “doing” the Scriptures means obeying Jesus. He is our Teacher, our Master. He is the Lord—the Crucified One.
Conclusion: Christians Worship the Lamb Who Was Slain
The life of Jesus’s disciples is a life of worship. We demonstrate our loyalty, our allegiance to Jesus by following his example and holding to his teaching. In dying with Christ, we live. Being in Christ means living crucified lives—lives formed by the cross—lives of demonstrative, unconditional, self-sacrificial love.
In worship, now as in the first-century, we read the Holy Scriptures. Only now, because of our discipleship, we read them anew. They have been opened to us by the Messiah, the only Worthy One. Only the Lamb is worthy to open the scrolls because only the Lamb has been slain for us. And only in the Lamb’s sacrifice is God fully revealed. Now the veil is lifted, mysteries are uncovered, and the seal is broken.
At the center of Christian worship is the Lamb who was slain. Whether we are celebrating baptism: our old lives being buried with Christ, and being raised with Christ to a new life; or whether we are sharing in the Eucharistic meal, celebrating the Final Passover Lamb, slain for us; or whether we are reading and teaching from the Holy Scriptures, the scrolls now open by the Wisdom of God; Jesus the Messiah is the starting place and telos of worship—the Alpha and the Omega.
- “Hermeneutic” refers to interpretation, especially of the Bible. Boyd’s proposal is that Christians interpret the Bible with a Christo-centric (Jesus-centered) lens. But more than that—that Christians remember that the Jesus through whom God is perfectly revealed is the Jesus who died on the cross. And we, his disciples, are to follow his example. That is what “cruciform” means: to be formed by the cross. Therefore, Boyd’s suggestion is that our discipleship informs our biblical interpretation. You can read first-hand about Boyd’s proposal for a “cruciform-centric” hermeneutic in his upcoming book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God (IVP 2014?), and on the ReKnew Ministries blog here:
“Christ-Centered or Cross-Centered?”
“Answering an Objection to a Cross-Centered Approach to Scripture [Q&A]”
“Cruciform Aikido Pt 1: Jesus and the Violent God”
- Matt Chandler, Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church (The Village Church, 2012); “In Defense of a Christ-Centered Hermeneutic” by Mike Leake http://sbcvoices.com/in-defense-of-a-christ-centered-hermeneutic-or-a-reply-to-dr-eric-hankins/; “Jesus Centered Reformed Theology” http://www.acts29network.org/sermon/jesus-centered-reformed-theology–san-diego-2006/.
- Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Eerdmans, 2001); Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans, 2009).
- Ultra-conservative Evangelicals (or more accurately: Fundamentalists) routinely confuse the rejection of their interpretations of passages in the Bible with rejection of the Bible itself. They make the mistake of considering their interpretation to be authoritative, rather than the God whom the Bible reveals. What is gained by such tight control on interpretive methodology is political power. By insisting that their interpretative methodology is the only valid methodology, they maintain the status quo and preserve their gatekeeper positions. This is at the heart of the objections to Boyd’s proposed hermeneutic.
- John 5.39; Luke 24.25-27; Gal. 3.8; I Pet. 2.6-8; Heb. 1.5-13; Rev. 19.15.
- Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (Harper Collins 1988), p.63.
- Ibid., 64, 73-74.