The Incomparable Christ, by John Stott (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001, 235 pages)
The contents of this book were delivered by John Stott at the A.D. 2000 London Lectures on Contemporary Christianity, at All Souls Church, London on four consecutive Thursdays. The full title of the lectures was The Incomparable Christ: Celebrating His Millennial Birth. Despite having founded the annual London Lectures in 1974, Stott had never been the lecturer until this time. And in this book, he brings the 2000 lectures to print.
Stott begins his Introduction by emphasizing the centrality of Jesus with a quote from Jaroslav Pelikan contained in his book, Jesus Through the Centuries:
Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of western culture for almost twenty centuries (page 15).
And Stott asks us to consider his dominance in three spheres: Jesus is the center of history, the focus of Scripture, and the heart of mission. Regarding that last sphere, Stott quotes from Bishop Stephen Neill:
Our task is to go on saying to the Muslim with infinite patience, “Sir, consider Jesus.” We have no other message (page 16).
However, Stott says, that brings up the question as to which Jesus we are talking about, for “there are many Jesuses on the overcrowded shelves of the world’s religious markets” (page 16), a trend which had its beginnings even before the end of the first Christian century as many teachers demonstrated a tendency to “create an image of Jesus according to their own image” (page 16). And this tendency has continued down to the present day, as evidenced by “The Jesus Seminar” in the United States, which has used highly subjective criteria to “evaluate” the authenticity of all of the sayings attributed to Jesus.
Thus Stott’s plan is to investigate the Christ of the New Testament witness, and to consider some ways he has been presented in church history, and how others have been influenced by him. Thus he seeks to ask and answer four basis questions about Christ, which will lead to the organization of the book into four parts:
Part 1-The Original Jesus. Here he asks how the New Testament witness bears witness to him, with the goal of demonstrating that while rich in diversity, it is at the same time a united witness.
Part 2-The Ecclesiastical Jesus. Here he asks how the church “at different times, now faithfully, now unfaithfully, has presented Christ to the world” (page 17).
Part 3-The Influential Jesus. Here he moves from the successive stages of church history to the successive stages of Christ’s career, and asks “how each stage (with its different emphasis) has inspired different people” (page 17).
Part 4-The Eternal Jesus. Here Stott reminds us that Jesus is not only historical, but also “eternal (‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’) and therefore also our contemporary” (page 17). As such
…he confronts every new generation, century and millennium in his roles as Saviour, Lord and Judge (page 17).
Therefore in Part 4, the question is what should Jesus mean to us today? And Stott has chosen as the context for this fourth study the New Testament’s last book, the book of Revelation, and will bring our focus to the ten main visions of Christ in that book.
Stott then concludes this portion of the Introduction:
This book, therefore, will be a blend of Scripture and history. We will consider the church’s presentation of Christ and Christ’s influence on the church, against the background of the New Testament in general and the book of Revelation in particular. In this way the biblical portrait of Christ is seen to be normative. He is the authentic Jesus by whom all the fallible human pictures of him must be judged (page 17).
The second portion of the Introduction deals with history and theology. He notes that in the 20th century, the emphasis has been on the quest of the historical Jesus. The first quest began in 1906 with Albert Schweitzer, and concluded with Bultmann who claimed that “to demonstrate the historicity of Jesus was neither possible nor (if it were) necessary for faith” (page 18). The second quest began in 1953 with Ernst Kasemann; while having a more positive view of history, the models of Jesus provided by that quest were too “tame” to provoke his crucifixion or to launch the worldwide Christian movement. The third quest began in the 1980s, and is marked by a greater confidence in the reliability of the gospels’ portrait of Jesus (though such confidence is not universal, as demonstrated by “The Jesus Seminar”). However, there has been a shift in emphasis among scholars from history to theology.
However strong our conviction may be that they are conscientious historians (as Luke claims in 1:1-4), it is also important to hold that they are evangelists, consciously proclaiming the gospel, and theologians, developing their own distinctive emphasis. This being so, it is clear that the process of divine inspiration did not smother the personality of the human authors…The Holy Spirit selected, fashioned, prepared and equipped the human authors in order to communicate through each a message that is both appropriate and distinctive (page 19).
Stott proceeds then into Part 1: The Original Jesus (or how the New Testament witnesses to him). He first looks at each of the gospels, finding Jesus portrayed as The Fulfilment of Scripture (Matthew), The Suffering Servant (Mark), The Saviour of the World (Luke and Acts), and The Word Made Flesh (John). Further, he detects in the gospels’ witness the four dimensions of the saving purposes of God: its length (Matthew: in looking back over long centuries of expectation); its depth (Mark: in looking down to the depths of his humiliation); its breadth (Luke: in looking at God’s mercy to the broadest spectrum of humanity); and its height (John: as the Word made flesh looks up to the heights from which he came and to which he intends to raise us (page 40).
He notes the attempts over the course of church history to compose a harmony of the gospels, beginning with Tatian in the middle of the second century. However, he advises caution, referring approvingly to a book by Dr. Richard Burridge titled Four Gospels, One Jesus?
What, then, is the relationship ‘between the four gospels and the one Jesus?’ Dr. Burridge answers that we must allow each evangelist to paint his own portrait and tell his own story. We have no liberty to turn the four into one by ironing out the individuality of each, or to turn the one into four by exaggerating the individuality of each, and so making a composite picture impossible. No, ‘there are four gospels, with four pictures, telling four versions of the one story of Jesus.’ And this one story in its four versions remains normative; it is the criterion by which to judge the authenticity of all attempts to reconstruct other Jesuses (pages 41-42).
Stott then moves into the rest of the New Testament to expand on the portrait of Jesus. He looks first at the 13 letters of Paul, finding Christ portrayed as the Liberator (Galatians), the Coming Judge (1,2 Thess), Saviour (Romans, 1,2 Corin), Supreme Lord (Coloss, Philemon, Ephesians, and Philippians), and Head of the Church (Pastorals), as helpfully summarized in a chart on page 45. Next he looks at a grouping he calls Three More Jewish Authors and finds Christ portrayed as the Moral Teacher (James), Our Great High Priest (Hebrews), and the Exemplary Sufferer (Peter).
Deferring an examination of Revelation until Part 4, he concludes Part 1 by emphasizing “diversity in unity” (page 74).
We must emphatically agree that we have no liberty to manipulate biblical texts into an artificial harmony; that we may not iron out apparent discrepancies; and that we must allow each New Testament author to say what he does say. And when we do this, tensions will remain. But we have also seen from our survey that the four gospels complement each other; they do not contradict each other. Nor do Jesus and Paul. Nor are Paul’s 13 letters self-contradictory. Nor do the more distinctively Jewish books (James, Hebrews, 1 Peter) strike a discordant note. Even Paul and James do not preach a different gospel. All the New Testament authors find their unity, as Professor Charlie Moule has written, in ‘devotion to the person of Jesus Christ—the historical Jesus acknowledged as continuous with the one now acknowledged as the transcendent Lord” (pages 75-76).
To hammer home his point, Stott quotes from Bishop Stephen Neill, as updated by Dr. N.T. Wright:
It is the view of many competent scholars today that all the fragments of Christian tradition which we possess in the New Testament bear witness with singular unanimity to one single historical figure, unlike any other that has ever walked among the sons of men (page 76).
And so, with Stott, we “pay our tribute to the original Jesus, the Jesus of the New Testament witness, who is the incomparable Christ” (page 76).
And so we pass into Part 2: The Ecclesiastical Jesus (or how the church has presented him). With varying degrees of success or accuracy, and sometimes colored by prejudices and traditions, “the church has displayed a remarkable ingenuity in adapting, shaping, and presenting its own images of Christ (page 79). Here Stott has selected 13 examples from church history, beginning with Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165) who presented Jesus as Christ the Complete Fulfillment, and ending with the various world missionary conferences from 1910 to 1974 which portrayed Christ as the Global Lord. In between we see such portraits as Christ the Unique God-Man (by the early church councils who dealt with various heresies), Christ the Ethical Exemplar (Thomas a Kempis), Christ the Gracious Savior (Martin Luther) and several others. For such efforts to portray Christ to be Christ-honoring, Stott says that on the negative side, we must “rid our minds of all preconceptions and prejudices, and resolutely renounce any attempts to force Jesus into our pre-determined mould”, and on the positive side, we must “open our minds and hearts to whatever the biblical text tells us, and listen to the witness of the whole New Testament to Christ” (page 120). He then provides a helpful analogy:
C.S. Lewis saw an analogy here with an appreciation of art. He wrote: ‘We must look, and go on looking, till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way’ (page 120).
This brings us to Part 3: The Influential Jesus (or how he has inspired people). Here he considers “the whole cycle of Jesus’ career, from his first coming to the anticipation of his second, and see how each stage (whether episode or teaching in the gospels) has gripped somebody’s imagination and inspired him or her to action” (page 126). Stott has chosen 13 examples, beginning with Francis of Assisi who saw in Jesus birth in a stable “the supreme expression of the Son of God’s self-imposed poverty “(page 126), and ending with William Wilberforce, who constantly remembered that one day he would have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and therefore dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery. In his conclusion, Stott quotes from historian Kenneth Scott Latourette:
In this world of men…there appeared one, born of a woman…To most of his contemporaries he seemed a failure…Yet no life ever lived on this planet has been so influential in the affairs of men (page 164).
The final section of the book is Part 4: The Eternal Jesus (or how he challenges us today). Here Stott has chosen the book of Revelation because “it contains within itself a gallery of pictures of Jesus Christ” (page 169). Whereas the other New Testament books seemed to each have a distinctive emphasis or particular theme, Stott says this is not so with the book of Revelation which contains:
a variety of portraits of Christ. It presents him as the first and last, the lamb and the lion, the thief in the night, the King of kings, the divine judge, and the heavenly bridegroom. These and other metaphors come tumbling out of John’s fertile mind. We must do justice to this portrait gallery (page 169).
In approaching Revelation, Stott talks about the two extremes of obsession with it on the one hand, and neglect of it (due to intimidation) on the other, but urges a third and positive approach: perseverance in view of an appreciation of its profound theology and literary artistry, combined with the promise in Revelation 1:3 of special blessing to those who hear the message and take it to heart.
He begins by setting forth four principles of interpretation: Revelation 1) is full of symbolism, 2) addresses the past, the present, and the future, 3) celebrates the victory of God, and 4) focuses on Jesus Christ (pages 170-171). Regarding the second point, he briefly sets forth the three classical theories of interpretation (praeterist, historicist and futurist), but doesn’t see it as necessary to decide between the three.
It seems better, therefore, to adopt a ‘parallelist’ view, which sees every section of the book as recapitulating the whole ‘inter-adventual’ period between the two comings of Christ, each concluding with a scene of judgment and salvation. John sees the visions consecutively, but the realities they symbolize do not happen consecutively (page 172).
However, an appreciation of this portion of the book is not dependent on agreement with his theory of interpretation, for as Stott says:
My plan is not to increase the confusion with yet one more analysis, but rather to concentrate on the ten most striking Christological visions in the book (page 173).
And so Stott presents each of the ten visions of Jesus Christ, beginning with Christ claiming to be the First and the Last, and the Living One (the resurrected and eternal Christ in chapter 1), and ending with Christ coming as the Bridegroom to claim his bride (chapters 21-22).
He concludes Part 4 with this hope:
I think and hope that my readers will have been impressed by the picture of Christ that John has painted in the book of Revelation—the eternal Christ who never changes, but who challenges us to follow him today. We have seen him now supervising his churches on earth, now sharing God’s throne in heaven, now controlling the course of history, now calling the world to repentance, now riding on a white horse to judgment, and now promising to come soon to claim and marry his bride (page 233).
Earlier, Stott had expressed a hope regarding his book as a whole:
My hope is that these studies in the Bible and church history will be seen to justify my title, The Incomparable Christ. There is nobody like him; there never has been, and there never will be (page 17).
And I believe that the reader of this masterful exposition will agree that Stott’s hope has been fully realized. The content of the book fully justifies the title. Christ is indeed Incomparable.