Thursday, November 8, 2007

What Jesus Demands from the World

The title of this book by John Piper sums up, in pretty blunt terms, what it is about. This is a book about the demands Jesus makes of the world, of all cultures and over all time. “That’s a bit strong!” I hear you say, and apparently John Piper did too, because right at the start he gives a wee speal justifying why he called the book what he did. In a nutshell: “my conviction is that if we rightly understand Jesus’ demands, and if we are willing to find in him our supreme joy, his demands will not feel severe but sweet…But it would be a cheap and superficial spin to give the impression that Jesus does not in fact often speak abrasively and sound severe.”

The book is neatly divided into 50 short chapters, each supposedly dealing with a different demand made by Jesus. I say supposedly because I sometimes found it hard to discern what the actual demand was, and how it differed from other statements found elsewhere. An example is the chapter entitled Demand #32 – Love your neighbour as yourself, for this is the law and the prophets, where Piper deals with the passage in Matthew 22:36-40. Although the demand seems clear enough in the title, the content of the chapter mostly deals with the relationship between Jesus’ teachings and the Old Testament, all good stuff but stuff that can hardly be called a demand. This criticism hardly detracted from the overall effectiveness of the book, however.

What I most appreciated about this book is that it is profoundly biblical. Piper starts, develops and finishes each of his points with frequent references to the very words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. One would be hard pressed to argue that this book ‘puts words in Jesus’ mouth,’ given that literally every page overflows with quotes by the man himself. John Piper makes clear that in citing the Bible, he has made put lot of effort into keeping his references within the four Gospels. This is so that: “I have given my rendering of Jesus almost entirely through the lens of his own words as recorded in the Gospels.” The effect of this, combined with the concise and biblically rooted subject headings, is that the book can almost be treated as a reference book, much like a commentary. I am confident that this book will prove to be a helpful reference tool for future studies of the Gospels.

In writing a book such as this, Piper has had to deal with examples of hyperbole (‘rhetorical overstatement’) in the demands of Jesus. Take, for example, Jesus’ demand to cut out the eye in preference to sin, and to give away our coat when asked for our shirt. The difficulty in such cases is in retaining the sheer magnitude and force of Jesus’ strong words, while at the same time qualifying and outlining their proper interpretation. Referring to Luke 6:29-30, Piper says: “The challenge I feel as I face these radical demands is how to let them have their full impact on my heart and life and yet not take them more absolutely than Jesus intended. My fear is that if I make any qualification I will minimize their intended force. On the other hand, they will also lose their force if they seem so unrealistic that people just pass over them as irrelevant to real life. So I will try to find the middle way of showing that Jesus does not absolutize these illustrations of love, but does not water them down to the irrelevance of mere middle-class morality either.” In this I think John Piper does an admirable job.

Piper unashamedly states Jesus’ demands such as “you must be born again,” and “love me,” demands that Piper readily admits we cannot, in and of ourselves, achieve. There are a number of instances where it seems he writes in such a way as to highlight the paradoxical element of Jesus’ demands. This is a particularly perplexing example (based on Jesus’ demand to abide in him): “even though he commands us to abide in him – and we are responsible to abide there, and guilty if we don’t abide – nevertheless he himself keeps us there. And we would not abide there without his crucial keeping.” Because of passages like this, the book almost raised more questions than it answered. My problems lie not in the truth of the statements, as Piper adequately argues why they are so on scriptural grounds. Instead, my criticism is that he makes no attempt, at any point in the book, to justify why paradox is an acceptable position, and why Jesus is justified in making such oxymoronic demands. This heavy stuff, I know, but I’m inclined to say “John Piper started it!”

On the whole, though, I’m stoked I bought this book. John Piper has written in a way that captures something of the force and power of Jesus’ words, while still exploring how those commands relate to us in our day. The book is profoundly biblical, so much so that it doubles as a useful Bible study tool. The chapters are concise, informative and often challenging. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to capture a bigger vision of the radical person of Jesus.

No comments: