Tuesday, July 29, 2014

J.B. Phillips on Who Jesus is

In my youth I became familiar with the J.B. Phillips New Testament, and some of its striking translations (more properly, paraphrases) are permanently and helpfully lodged in my mind. I shared one of them on this blog a couple of weeks ago . . . 

“With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.” (Romans 12:1-2)

J.B. Phillips (1906-1982) was a priest in the Church of England, remembered for his skill in communicating the Gospel message in fresh and memorable ways. During World War II he used his time in the bomb shelters during the London Blitz to begin a translation of the New Testament into modern English, starting with the Epistle to the Colossians. The results appealed to the young people of his day. After the war he continued to work the rest into colloquial English. Phillips also translated parts of the Old Testament. In 1963 he released translations of Isaiah 1-39, Hosea, Amos, and Micah. This was titled Four Prophets: Amos, Hosea, First Isaiah, Micah: A Modern Translation from the Hebrew. After that, he did not translate the Old Testament any further. He often spoke of the revelation he received as he translated the New Testament, describing it as “extraordinarily alive” unlike any experience he had with non-scriptural ancient texts. He referred to the scriptures speaking to his life in an “uncanny way.” His other triumph - by the all-sufficient grace of God - was that he remained faithful to his vocation and ministry while at the same time enduring crushing bouts of real depression.

In addition to his translation work, Phillips wrote a number of books in which he shared the impact of the Gospel on his own life. Here are some passages about Jesus, who he is, and the difference he can make if we surrender to his love.

We may with complete detachment study and form a judgment upon a religion, but we cannot maintain our detachment if the subject of our inquiry proves to be God Himself. This is, of course, why many otherwise honest intellectual people will construct a neat by-pass around the claim of Jesus to be God. Being people of insight and imagination, they know perfectly well that once to accept such a claim as fact would mean a readjustment of their own purposes and values and affections which they may have no wish to make. To call Jesus the greatest Figure in History or the finest Moral Teacher the world has ever seen commits no one to anything. But once to allow the startled mind to accept as fact that this man is really focused-God may commit anyone to anything! There is every excuse for blundering in the dark, but in the light there is no cover from reality. It is because we strongly sense this, and not merely because we feel that the evidence is ancient and scanty, that we shrink from committing ourselves to such a far-reaching belief as that Jesus Christ was really God.
- Your God is Too Small [1953], Simon and Schuster, 2004, p. 83  

It is, of course, impossible to exaggerate the importance of the historicity of what is commonly known as the Resurrection. If, after all His claims and promises, Christ had died and merely lived on as a fragrant memory, He would only be revered as an extremely good but profoundly mistaken man. His claims to be God, His claims to be Himself the very principle of life, would be mere self-delusion. His authoritative pronouncements on the nature of God and Man and Life would be at once suspect. Why should He be right about the lesser things if He was proved to be completely wrong in the greater?
-Your God is Too Small [1953], Simon and Schuster, 2004, p. 110  

I have heard professing Christians of our own day speak as though the historicity of the Gospels does not matter—all that matters is the contemporary Spirit of Christ. I contend that the historicity does matter, and I do not see why we, who live nearly two thousand years later, should call into question an Event for which there were many eye-witnesses still living at the time when most of the New Testament was written. It was no “cunningly devised fable” but an historic irruption of God into human history which gave birth to a young church so sturdy that the pagan world could not stifle or destroy it.
- Ring of Truth, London: Hodder & Stoughton; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967, p. 40-41

Much of today’s Christianity is almost completely earthbound, and the words of Jesus about what follows this life are scarcely studied at all. This, I believe, is partly due to man’s enormous technical successes, which make him feel master of the human situation. But it is also partly due to our scholars and experts. By the time they have finished with their dissection of the New Testament and with their explaining away as “myth” all that they find disquieting or unacceptable to the modern mind, the Christian way of life is little more than humanism with a slight tinge of religion.
- Ring of Truth, London: Hodder & Stoughton; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967, p. 102


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