Jesus: the indispensable center

We cannot love ideas as we can love a person. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ has been the motivating factor behind Christianity——and must be so for our own ministry.

Before his retirement Arnold V. Wallenkampf was an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, Washington, D.C. He writes now from Adelphi, Maryland.

A bold speaker stood in a marketplace of ancient Jerusalem as thousands of people, out-of-town visitors and residents alike, jostled one another and strained to hear. Only some two months earlier he had cowered before a mere servant girl in Pilate s judgment hall. This morning fear was unknown to him. Intrepid, he stood in the midst of the surging crowds and rebuked them for having crucified Jesus, the Prince of glory, whom he asserted that "God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it" (Acts 2:24).

Under the impelling power of Peter's Pentecost presentation of a Saviour who had been crucified and resurrected, 3,000 men and women accepted Jesus the beginning of an onward sweep of the gospel, symbolized in Revelation as a rider on a white horse who "went forth conquering, and to conquer" (chap. 6:2). As a result, the apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote about thirty years later that the gospel had been "preached to every creature which is under heaven" (Col. 1:23) in the then-known world.

What lay behind the dynamic power of the early Christians? What enabled them to sound the gospel proclamation to all the then-known world in barely thirty years? The people had expected to see the disciples confused and disheartened after the crucifixion of their Master. Instead they saw them filled with gladness and a spirit of triumph. The priests marveled at their boldness, "and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus" (Acts 4:13). Thus the religious leaders of Judaism put their finger on the reason for the irrepressible, power of nascent Christianity. Correctly they ascribed the fearless witness of the apostles to their acquaintanceship with Jesus. A knowledge of Jesus—friendship with Him—was the source of the gospel's vitality in the early church.

The apostles enjoyed a living relation ship with Jesus. This was in keeping with His own will for them. When He was still among them He had queried, "What think ye of Christ?" (Matt. 22:42). He did not ask, "What do you think of My doctrine?" but rather "What do you think of Me?" Likewise He told them, "I am... the truth" (John 14:6), not "I am teaching you what is right." Jesus Him self was, and still is, the answer to all religious questions.

In His parting promise to His disciples He assured them, "Lo, I am with you alway" (Matt. 28:20). He did not say, "I have told you what you ought to do and how you ought to live." Rather, He vowed to be with them through His Representative, the Holy Spirit. Even after His ascension He wanted to sustain a personal relationship with His fol lowers. Peter's crusading zeal after the resurrection was embedded in such a personal fellowship with Jesus. In the same way Jesus wants us who lead His church today to know and follow Him. Thus He invites, "Come unto me. . . . Learn of me" (chap. 11:28, 29).

When Paul joined the apostles he too did so through a personal meeting with Jesus. The greatest apostle of the Christian church did not rest his faith in Jesus in hearsay or in a mere intellectual understanding of His doctrines. Rather, the apostle Paul's faith was anchored in a personal acquaintance with his Saviour. On the Damascus road Saul was brought directly into the presence of Christ. Throughout his ministry he gloried in this personal acquaintanceship with Jesus and exclaimed, "For I know whom I have believed" (2 Tim. 1:12). He did not say, "I know what I have believed." That is the normal phrase we use as Christians: "I know what I believe." But can we, like Paul, declare that we know whom we believe? That we know Jesus? In Galatians 1:11, 12 Paul confidently proclaimed that he had received the gospel in a personal encounter with Jesus Christ: "But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ."

The greatest need of the church today is a rediscovery of Christianity as a vital relationship with Jesus as a personal Friend and Saviour. The indispensable center of Christianity is still Jesus. We impair our Christian experience and rob it of real meaning if we center it in anything but Jesus Himself. The early church became unfaithful to its trust and mission when it substituted a system of doctrinal definitions and propositional truths for a personal relationship with Jesus.

Stated beliefs, even if they are correct, can never be a substitute for a personal relationship with Jesus. Doctrines should be but reflections of the personal relationship we sustain to Him. They should be but articulations of the character and will of Jesus and God, whom we know as personal friends. Christianity is a friendship relationship. For living Christians this personal knowledge of God must be primary. After this we begin to describe His character and desires for us in words. In this way we formulate doctrines, but their essence is Jesus.

In the words of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, "Christianity does not exist for a moment apart from Christ." And the Danish philosopher S0ren Kierkegaard declared, "All other religions are oblique; Christianity alone is direct." He was referring to the fact that other religious leaders stand back and point to someone else. Jesus, on the other hand, directs the attention of His followers to Himself, saying, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).

Sometimes when we discuss our Christianity we almost give the impression that our faith is only a compendium of ethical advice or an amalgam of certain virtues that one can accept or reject at will. Christianity is much more than that. When we reject Biblical teachings we reject Jesus. When we accept and approve them we accept and approve of Jesus. He is the center and life of our beliefs.

It is difficult for most of us to love ideas as such. Even those who are engaged in intellectual pursuits and schooled in abstract thinking are not very adept at loving mere ideas. We find it difficult to love purity, goodness, thoughtfulness, and kindness as abstract principles. But the composite of these virtues becomes intriguingly interesting and fascinating when they are found in one's wife or husband or children. Then they are no longer abstract, but tangible. Likewise the principles of our Christian doctrines need to be based in the person of Jesus, whom we know as a friend.

But the dynamic power of the apostles and the enthusiasm of early Christians consisted not merely in knowing Jesus as a person who had walked with them over the hills and through the valleys of Galilee and Judea, but in knowing Him as the divine Son of God, who truly had been crucified for their sins, who had risen from the dead, and who was now seated at the right hand of God in the heavens, interceding for them. Knowing Jesus as the risen Saviour and as Victor over death gave a fearless quality to their faith and preaching.

Before they learned of His resurrection they had been crushed by despondency, grief, and despair. They stayed together in the upper chamber, with doors closed and fastened, fearing that the fate of their beloved Teacher might be theirs. Their courage was gone, because they thought Jesus was dead. But the resurrection changed all that. As the disciples returned from the scene of the ascension the people of Jerusalem expected to see expressions of sorrow, confusion, and defeat on their faces. They saw, instead, gladness and triumph. Disappointed hopes were forgotten; they had seen the risen Saviour, and the words of His parting promise echoed in their ears. It was the risen Saviour, victorious over death, whom the apostles knew. Acquaintance with this living Saviour made Peter bold, even before those who had crucified his Master.

It was Paul's intimate connection with the risen Saviour that gave him invincibility amid hardships and made him triumphantly exclaim: "If God be for us, who can be against us?... Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? ... It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:31-39). Paul knew that through his Friend, Jesus, he was more than a conqueror. He insisted, "I can do all things through Christ which strengthened me" (Phil. 4:13).

It was a living Saviour whom John saw on the Isle of Patmos. Jesus assured him: "Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death" (Rev. 1:17, 18). Though on a penal island, John did not fear what his captors could do to him; the living Lord was in contact with him.

We today may also know Jesus as our constant companion. "We have the companionship of the divine Jesus, and as we realize His presence, our thoughts are brought into captivity to Him. Our experience in divine things will be in proportion to the vividness of our sense of His companionship. Enoch walked with God in this way; and Christ dwells in our hearts by faith when we appreciate what He is to us." —E. G. White, in Signs of the Times, Sept. 3, 1896. Our victory in Christian living will be in direct proportion to our awareness of a living Saviour by our side. This was the secret of Moses' victory, "for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible" (Heb. 11:27). God was real to him, ever present in his thoughts.

This was also the kind of experience Paul had with Jesus. After Paul came face to face with Him on the Damascus road, the image of the Saviour was imprinted forever upon his consciousness. Jesus was constantly in the apostle's thoughts. His Epistles bear testimony to this. They abound in such expressions as "to live is Christ," "the power of Christ," "riches of Christ," "the blessing of the gospel of Christ," "the fulness of Christ." The phrases "in Christ" and "of Christ" occur more than a hundred times in his Epistles. Indeed, "the heart of Paul's religion was his loyalty to Christ." Benjamin Willard Robinson, The Life of Paul, p. 222. Because Paul's thoughts were focused on Jesus, his loyalty to Him was complete and undivided.

When Jesus is uppermost in our thoughts we too will be loyal to Him. We will love to comply with His will and wishes for us. Jesus will keep us from doing wrong. Many of us have often overcome temptation by remembering the influence of our loved ones. We could not sin when the love of a mother, father, husband, wife, or child was uppermost in our thoughts. If we visualize our friend Jesus standing by our side in the moment of temptation we will be enabled gladly to choose the right and refrain from doing wrong.

We should school ourselves to think of Jesus. It would be good for us to set aside some time each day to think specifically of Him. To do so is not sentimental emotionalism. Rather, it is heroic choice to turn our thoughts from less important subjects and focus them on heavenly themes and Jesus.

Our Christianity will be vital and scintillating only when we enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus. Religion will make sense only when Jesus Christ is its central concern. Elisha prayed for his servant, "Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see" (2 Kings 6:17). We need the Lord to open our eyes as well to see Jesus as never before. It is by faith in Jesus as an indwelling Saviour and as a constant Companion that the Christian lives, for "it is written, The just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17). "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3).


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Before his retirement Arnold V. Wallenkampf was an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, Washington, D.C. He writes now from Adelphi, Maryland.

November 1983

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