Many Christians wrongly assume that the gospels contain a higher level of truth than the rest of the bible, for the simple reason that these books describe the life of Jesus Christ. This is why many bibles will even have the words of Christ in red ink, believing that these words hold the revelation of God in its fullest extent.
The truth is quite different. The gospels rank higher than the Old Testament books, but certainly lower than the epistles in terms of Christian teaching and practice. They offer a sort of transition period from the old to the new covenant, and anyone basing their Christian practice mainly on the gospels will experience significant confusion.
This is because although the gospels are found in the New Testament, in terms of dispensation they belong more to the Old Testament. Christ was born under the Law, and it is only at the cross that He ushers in the New Covenant (or testament). John the Baptist, the one who came to prepare the way, was the last of the Old Testament-style prophets, even though his record is in the New Testament books.
Yet, the gospels are profoundly different from the Old Testament books. Christ the light of the world has come, but there is so much darkness that He would blind everyone if He shone all His light at once. In His love, He shines a significant amount of light among people accustomed to life under the shadows of the law. He grants them a new dawn and lifts them up into some kind of adolescence, but admits that full knowledge of the truth will have to wait a little longer (John 14:26).
Just as God spoke to people at the level of their understanding in the Old Testament, He does the same in the gospels. There is a much greater illumination of issues, but the overall picture is still grossly deficient.
The Old Testament was concerned with outer rituals and ceremonies. Man had to do or not do a string of actions to please God. In the New Testament, however, we know that salvation is by the grace of God through merely believing in Jesus Christ—no rituals are necessary, and neither are there rules and regulations to be kept. God has done everything for us, and our response can only be to give him continual, spontaneous sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving.
When we look at the gospels, however, we find that Jesus charted a middle path between these two extremes of rituals against no rituals, actions versus grace. In fact, by relying only on the evidence of the gospels, it would be somewhat difficult to know what rituals the Lord would approve of and what he would discard. He told the Pharisees to be more concerned with justice, mercy and faithfulness, but not to neglect the outward practice of tithing. He taught His disciples to pray directly to their Father who hears in secret, yet sent those he healed to the priests to perform the sacrifices commanded by Moses—and by so doing gave tacit approval of the Levitical priesthood and outward sacrifices.
Jesus told His disciples that all they needed to be victorious and bear much fruit was to remain in Him, yet still tolerated practices like fasting, appearing to take it for granted that His disciples were supposed to fast. He did not tell them the truth that this ancient practice was of no value in the kingdom, since all that matters is to be in Christ; food does not make us any better or worse off, as the apostle Paul so clearly stated (Romans 14:17, 1 Corinthians 8:8).
Today, we are no longer required to do many of these things that Jesus gave His approval for during His ministry on earth. That means believers must depart from the actual teachings of Jesus in the gospels and seek an apostolic interpretation of the events of Jesus' lifetime. This underlines the fact that spiritual maturity was not gained at the time of Jesus as described in the gospels, but rather with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit—who came to teach in a way that the apostles, who were previously "dull of hearing," would comprehend the message of Jesus much more clearly.
Today, the Holy Spirit continues this same work, moving us even beyond the understanding the apostles ever achieved, but in the same Spirit of love and freedom. That is why we are able to oppose slavery rather than ask slaves to obey their masters, and we declare women free to participate in the life of the church despite Paul's concerns. That's all apostolic reinterpretation of the events of Jesus' time and of the epistles of Paul.
We need to move away from the earthly Jesus in order to reach the heavenly Jesus: The former is but a stepping stone to get to the latter. The earthly Jesus was constrained by the cultural limits of the people He revealed Himself to; the heavenly Jesus speaks abstract truths that the church should aim to achieve despite the shackles of local circumstances. The earthly Jesus spoke to people who did not have the Holy Spirit's ever-present help to enable them gain real knowledge of God; the heavenly Jesus dwells in our midst by His Spirit and speaks to us day by day. The earthly Jesus was interested in charting a middle way that would be acceptable to the hearers and attract them to a clearer understanding of God beyond the Judaism of their day; the heavenly Jesus pours out gems of wisdom and knowledge from his throne without measure, and only our individual refusal to accept the truth becomes a limiting factor.
The historical Jesus took upon Himself human weaknesses and was subject to hunger, tears, pain and death. Having emerged victorious from the grave and ascended into heaven, the exalted Christ is not subject to any of these weaknesses. That is why we who are in Him are able to mock death and ask, "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55).
The earthly Jesus dwelt among men in a fallen material world; the heavenly Jesus, however, is to be found in the spiritual realm, where He dwells in unapproachable light in total perfection—no idolaters, murderers, thieves, adulterers, or anything impure can come near Him.
The Jesus the church ought to listen to is no longer the Suffering Servant, but the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who reigns from heaven. Jesus does not want His Bride to cast herself according to the imperfect image of the God revealed in the gospels, but rather to train her eyes to gaze steadily at the heavenly Christ, who is the epitome of heavenly glory, purity and holiness. Christ wants a bride without blemish, one who reflects the glory of God; to reach that state, the church must have a clear idea of the God it is supposed to mirror. It is to this higher standard of perfection that Jesus beckons His church to aspire. And that is why He continues to speak to us from heaven (Hebrews 12:25).
There is no contradiction between the earthly and the heavenly Jesus. The earthly Jesus brought grace and truth in a limited form; the heavenly Jesus pours out even more of this grace and truth. As believers, we fix our eyes not on the earthly Jesus described in the gospels, but on the heavenly Christ who is seated on the throne of heaven in all His glory and power, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that can be invoked, surrounded by all the heavenly host.
Whenever we hear people tell others that Jesus says this or that, the issue that should concern believers is, Which Jesus—the heavenly Jesus or the earthly, historical Jesus? While we should not neglect to study what is written about the historical Jesus, our preoccupation in the interpretation of God's word has to do with what the heavenly Jesus is saying.
Now, the question then becomes, how do we get to know what the heavenly Jesus is saying? This is achieved through apostolic interpretation, which is the reason God has given gifts to His people (Ephesians 4:7-13). True apostolic power is soft power, quite unlike that seen on television throughout the world as false apostles seek followers. True apostleship is about persuasive authority exercised through accurately dividing the word of God and speaking forth His very words and desires for the church. This heartbeat of God can only be discerned through spending time in the Spirit, and yet the heavenly Jesus is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
Excerpt from Isaac Mwangi's newly-released book, "The Nature of the Apostolic Church." The writer may be contacted using his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org
Isaac Mwangi is a Kenyan freelance writer and author of "The Nature of the Apostolic Church". He may be contacted via e-mail: email@example.com
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