A tale that has achieved the status of urban legend has professional gemologist Roy Whetstine strolling through an amateur rock collectors’ exhibit when he was stopped by the collection of a rockhound from Idaho.
On the card table amid the prized and polished rocks sat a Tupperware bowl containing a menagerie of rocky duplicates and discards. The masking tape on the front of the bowl read “For Sale—$15 Each.” Whetstine reached into the dusty bowl and fingered the rocks. One felt strange. He lifted a potato-shaped gray violet rock into the air, twisting it before his trained eye. “You want $15 for this?”
The collector grabbed the rock and looked at it closely. “No,” he finally replied. “You can have this one for $10.”
Whetstine pulled out a wrinkled $10 bill and walked away with, according to the legend, the world’s largest star sapphire—700 more carats than the previous record holder, the Black Star of Queensland, Australia. Estimated value? $1.7 million. Marked down to $10!
Just a fictional story? Nothing more than a parable? But have we in the church done the same thing? Or worse: relegating the star sapphire of the universe to our dusty Tupperware bowl of doctrines, creeds, and other such collector’s items? Do we tote them about, touting their value to the world, when all the while the infinite treasure of Jesus lies unnoticed, buried beneath our dusty accumulations of orthodoxy?
Make no mistake. Choosing between Jesus and doctrine is a false dichotomy. Although given our culture’s distaste for creed and doctrine, for the notion of capital-T Truth at all, it’s hardly surprising that we might be tempted by the opinion, “Jesus—Yes! Doctrine—No!”
But that would be patently illogical. Because by very definition a doctrine is a belief or set of beliefs held by a church. How could the star sapphire truth of Jesus not rank as the doctrine extraordinaire? Yet no matter how you cast it, “doctrine” doesn’t feel very warm and friendly, certainly not as friendly and inviting as Jesus. So must we choose between them?
Jesus didn’t. Just hours away from His execution, He declared without equivocation, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). He was not only the incarnation of God; He was—and still is—the personification of truth, capital-T Truth. Thus by definition any biblical doctrine, any scriptural truth and belief, must ultimately be Christocentric, Christ-centered. A point Jesus sprang on the ecclesiastical hierarchy one unforgettable afternoon.
Jesus had just had the temerity to heal a man paralyzed for 38 years—done it with a simple command, and done it on the Sabbath.
The guardians of tradition and orthodoxy descend on the young Teacher-Healer with fury. But Jesus doesn’t flinch. It’s another one of His “need versus creed” showdowns, in which He elevates human need above prevailing creed. Challenged by Scripture He quietly responds: “You studythe Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39, 40). Catch His point?
You can’t miss it here in Eugene Peterson’s Message rendition of Jesus’ words: “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.’”1
“These Scriptures are all about me!” Christocentric, Christ-centered, all about Jesus—that is the compelling truth about all Bible doctrines—they are all about Jesus.
Wouldn’t you love to have a YouTube clip of that moment? Two heartbroken followers of Jesus are returning to their village home—grown men crying, so disappointed they are over the tragic death of their Leader. A stranger catches up to them, slips into their tearful conversation, and begins a recitation of Old Testament passages and promises: “He 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).
There it is again from the lips of our Lord Himself—the gospel truth that all truth is the truth as it is in Jesus in “all the Scriptures.” Period. No surprise: when Jesus returns to heaven a few weeks after His Emmaus walk, He leaves behind an embryonic but genuinely Christocentric faith community. Just listen to His disciples:
Peter: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Paul: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
Paul again: “Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).
John: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).
Jesus through John: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13).
Who can deny the Bible depiction of this Christ-centered church founded on Christ-centered doctrines taught by Christ-centered leaders? The record is clear. But all of that was 2,000 years ago. What about the third millennial church today? How is it with us?
All about Jesus—that is the compelling truth about all Bible doctrines—they are all about Jesus.
May I be candid with you? I love my church, this faith community into which I was born. I’m a fifth-generation Seventh-day Adventist and a fourth-generation preacher. But I have this gnawing sense that in spite of all the good we read about and hear about, something is still missing.
I’m not so worried about my church losing its hold on Christ-centered proclamation. Although I’ll be the first to admit that even Christ-centered preaching can sometimes feel sterile and heartless, even Jesus-less. I plead guilty. But we pastors and preachers know our marching orders.
Ellen White is clear: “Of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world. The proclamation of the third angel’s message calls for the presentation of the Sabbath truth. This truth, with others included in the message, is to be proclaimed; but the great center of attraction, Christ Jesus, must not be left out.”2 You cannot get any more Christ-centered than “the great center of attraction.” Christ’s church must preach Christ. Must proclaim the truth as it is in Jesus.
I’m also confident that the church’s theologians will continue in their duty to keep this faith community focused on Christ-centered proclamation and orthodoxy (“right believing”).
But to be honest, I am much more concerned about Christ-centered orthopraxy (“right behaving”) or the lack of it in our church. At least in my life, if not in yours.
A woman called our church one day. I didn’t recognize her voice. She said she’d been listening on the radio and knew if she called me I would help her. I admit: my immediate reaction to her word “help” was “she’s going to ask for money.” Sure enough, she did.
In that split second I’d tried to think of a place I could send her for a handout—United Way or the police station, maybe. But before I could speak, the Holy Spirit clamped my mouth shut as she went on. She had $1,000 waiting for her in Chicago, but after listening on the radio, she felt she should abandon that easy money. Turns out she was a prostitute with two little children—and out of money. So I made arrangements for her to anonymously pick up some emergency aid from the church.
Several weeks later an attractive woman came up to me after worship and asked if I remembered her. I didn’t. She spoke about that phone call and immediately, of course, I remembered it all. “I hope you don’t mind my children and me worshipping here.” I assured her she was always welcome.
Some months later when I saw her face radiant with joy as she came up from the baptistry waters, I realized how close I’d come to spoiling the work of Jesus in that woman’s heart.
Wasn’t that Jesus’ point that night before He died? “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34, 35, NKJV).3
Jesus’ point is inescapable: The only way the world will know we are His people is by our love. Are we a loving people? Or are we, as Mark Twain cynically quipped, “good . . . in the worst sense of the word”? Like the little English girl prayed: “O God, make the bad people good . . . and the good people nice.”4
“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” How could we possibly be a Christ-centered church if we are not a loving people? Doesn’t Christ-centered mean Jesus in the middle—in the middle of our friendships, in the middle of our marriages, in the middle of our studying, in the middle of our careers, in the middle of our everywhere and everything? Are we a Jesus people?
H.M.S. Richards, Sr., the beloved preacher who founded the Voice of Prophecy, once was asked, “What is the Adventist message?” His reply was two words long: “Jesus only.” Yes, but what about these “Jesus freaks” (it was the 1960s)? His answer: “Sounds like a good idea. I’ve been one all my life.”5
Isn’t that to be the truth about you and me, too? Jesus freaks—people known for their Jesus kind of living, Jesus kind of loving?
John Stott is right: “The cross is a revelation of God’s justice as well as of his love. That is why the community of the cross should concern itself with social justice as well as loving philanthropy. It is never enough to have pity on the victims of injustice, if we do nothing to change the unjust situation.”6
God asks: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isa. 58:6, 7).
Given the state of our nation and world, shouldn’t Jesus’ people, Jesus’ church, be just like Him in defending the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the alien and the alienated? “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” What are we waiting for?
For Jesus to come? Be careful what you look forward to! “When the nations are gathered before [Christ the judge], there will be but two classes, and their eternal destiny will be determined by what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and the suffering.”7
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). “I want to know Christ” (Phil. 3:10). Christ-centered people, such as Paul, have always had a passion for Him. Nikolaus von Zinzendorf penned: “I have one passion—it is He and He alone.”8
Ellen White was no different: “In the long weary hours of the night,. . . when every nerve seemed to be shrieking with pain, when if I considered myself, it seemed I should go frantic, the peace of Christ has come into my heart in such measure that I have been filled with gratitude and thanksgiving. I know that Jesus loves me, and I love Jesus.”9
That’s the church I want to belong to—a people who know Jesus loves them, who love Him back, and move into the world to love it back to Him.
Dwight K. Nelson is lead pastor of Pioneer Memorial church, on the campus of Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.