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God Our Contemporary by J.B. Phillips


Born in London in 1906, J.B. Phillips was ordained in 1930. In 1940 he became Vicar of the Church of the Good Shepherd, London. He is noted for his work in the field of Biblical translation, and in particular for two books: Letters to Young Churches and Your God is Too Small. Published by The Macmillan Company, New York. Copyright by J.B. Phillips, 1960. Fifth printing 1966. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 12: Returning to the Source


The reason why I have said such things as, "Forget about the churches for the moment," is simply because I think that an entirely new, unprejudiced grasp of the God-man relation is essential for our generation. Experience has shown that such words as "Christianity" or "religion" or "church" already have certain stereotyped associations in some people’s minds. This "conditioning" is frequently quite enough to insulate them from the shock of what early Christians believed -- that God had visited this planet, that he had joined mankind permanently to himself; that he was no longer the remote and extraneous Power, but the Spirit who was their vigorous, intimate contemporary in the business of living. But it must be understood that by this insistence on a direct return to the great Act of God on which Christianity is founded, I am by no means implying that all modern churches have lost their vision or reduced the revolutionary Good News to dull orthodoxy. I am quite sure this is not so, but I am equally sure that since modern man, for various reasons, is almost completely out of touch with the life and activity of the alert contemporary Church, he must be urged to go back and consider the act of divine initiative on which all Christian conceptions finally rest, before he can fairly observe any contemporary Church.

If we allow our adult intelligence and imagination to consider such a situation as at least possible, the value and significance of the Creator’s visit to this planet become hard to exaggerate. We should have certain and reliable information about the character and personality of God, about the purpose and meaning of this life, about values and principles by which man can live usefully and happily, and about physical death and what lies beyond it. We should learn something of the underlying purpose beneath the shifting human scene, and how we could cooperate with it; we should learn how we could make the best of this limited imperfect world and how men could best prepare themselves for the next stage of their existence. In fact, the more we think about it the more valuable would be the information which we could obtain from the Creator if he focused himself in a human being.

Naturally we find ourselves wishing that such a person could be alive and accessible to our own age, prepared to answer our innumerable questions and solve our bewildering modern complexities! We might think it desirable that such an incarnation of the divine should appear in human life at least once a century, but the moment we begin to indulge in speculation like that we are falling into a line of thinking which leads nowhere. And even if we do come to accept as historic fact this planned focusing of God, it is plain that many of our eager modern questions will not receive the kind of detailed answer we might expect. A life lived for a mere thirty years in a poor occupied territory, itself of small account within the huge Roman Empire, would seem at first sight to be so narrow in outlook and hedged in by circumstance as to provide very little that is valuable for our modern perplexities. What is more, when this unique event took place, hardly anyone knew what was happening, and from the modern point of view a most maddeningly incomplete biographical record survives. Traditional piety and reverence have often made men reluctant to admit the paucity of information. In the recorded life of Jesus not a word has been preserved, for example, about his years of adolescence and early manhood. Yet these are times of painful and difficult adjustment for many human beings, and it might well be thought that a divine example would have been a help to many. Again, since Jesus was unmarried and was executed while still a young man, we are provided with no divine exemplar for the good marriage, for the successful coping with the problems of middle age, or for the gracious acceptance of the closing phases of earthly life.

But perhaps we are looking for the wrong things. Perhaps what we should look for is not so much a perfect pattern of living for every human age-group, but a revelation of truth which will illuminate the heart and center of human life and give it a new significance and purpose. Perhaps we should be looking not for detailed answers to our many questions but the authoritative statement of the principles which govern life beneath the ebb and flow of human circumstance. Perhaps the information which we so earnestly seek will be both timeless and of universal application. Perhaps we shall to some extent be taken into the Creator’s confidence, and yet handed back a great deal more of responsibility for decision than we bargained for!

I do not myself believe that anyone who studies with an open mind the records which we have of the life of God-become-man is likely to be disappointed. He may be surprised, mystified, or even taken out of his depth. The information he receives and the total impact of the personality whose life is recorded in the gospels may astonish and disturb him; it may even lead him to look at life from an entirely different point of view. It is only the man who relies on some sentimental recollection of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who in later years discards what he thinks is the Christian Faith. In my experience I have never known a man to make an adult study of this extraordinary life and remain wholly in the dark.

When, therefore, we do examine these records with serious attention, we do well to remind ourselves that the setting is, in a sense, unimportant. To my mind it will not necessarily help us very much if we study Palestinian customs or the Jewish religious system. It is far more important that we should realize that we are seeing God living life on human terms; God, in Dorothy Sayers’s memorable phrase, "taking His own medicine." We are reading about something which had never happened before in the life of this world, and we can hardly expect the writers of the first century A.D. fully to grasp the significance of what they are describing. I have grown quite convinced of the substantial accuracy of their writing, but I cannot help sensing, beyond what was written, an actual awe-inspiring event, whose full implications we are only now beginning to understand. This may seem a strange and even arrogant statement to make, but what I am trying to say is that while the writers of the New Testament could hardly find words strong enough to express the certainty of their belief in Christ, the Son of God, yet their historic closeness to him and their very limited mental, and even geographical, horizons were bound to restrict their full appreciation of what had happened.

Within their limits of knowledge and experience there can be no doubt that the early Christians lived with sure knowledge of the living and contemporary God. And sometimes they showed the most remarkably inspired vision. Men like Paul could see the unlimited potentialities of the new situation which God had created. He could write such amazing things as these:

"Everything belongs to you! Paul, Apollos or Cephas; the world, life, death, the present or the future, everything is yours! For you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God! " (I Corinthians 3:21-23)

"All of you who were baptized ‘into’ Christ have put on the family likeness of Christ. Gone is the distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free man, male and female -- you are all one in Christ Jesus!" (Galatians 3: 27, 28)

"For God has allowed us to know the secret of his plan, and it is this: he purposes in his sovereign will that all human history shall be consummated in Christ, that everything that exists in Heaven or earth shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him. And here is the staggering thing -- that in all which will one day belong to him we have been promised a share . . . so that we, as the first to put our confidence in Christ, may bring praise to his glory!" (Ephesians 1:9-12 )

"Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God. He existed before creation began, for it was through him that everything was made, whether spiritual or material, seen or unseen. . . . He is both the first principle and the upholding principle of the whole scheme of creation." (Colossians 1:15-17)

"In my opinion whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has planned for us. The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own. The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited --yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!" (Romans 8: 18-21)

Nevertheless, despite the wonder of this prophetic vision, as we read the New Testament we may sometimes be conscious of a vast and timeless energy confined within the thought-forms and restricted knowledge of the first century A.D. Today the experience, knowledge and responsibility of every thinking man is very much greater than that of most of the men of New Testament days. But what changed and inspired those men, what gave them daring, hope, patience and self-giving love is quite timeless. There is no real reason to suppose that we cannot tap the resources of God just as effectively as they did -- no real reason except our modern insulations! If we could but see it, God is inevitably contemporary.

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