How Jesus Did Theology

By Casey Tygrett

Jesus didn’t give us words about God. He lived as the Word of God. What does that show us about what impact God’s words should demonstrate in our lives?

When I was a kid, I had an uncanny resemblance to my dad. Our facial structures, mannerisms, and senses of humor were so closely aligned that the folks in my small hometown knew whose I was before they knew who I was. They looked at me—my long angular nose and the way my eyebrows elevated and separated when I spoke—and they saw my father from years past.

There is a huge difference between looking like someone and acting like someone, however. My dad and I took different career paths, we have different political positions, and our tastes in everything from food to sports are completely different. When I walk into my local haunts, sit down, and start a conversation, I am myself. They know me as me and not as my dad.

What needs to be said about theology—literally “words about God”—is that we all do theology. We all speak, act, think, and live in such a way that we show the beautiful strangers around us that this is who we believe God is. Our walk resembles our belief.

We can live as if we believe he doesn’t exist.

We can live as if we believe he’s angry and in desperate need of antacids.

We can live as if we believe he is distant, absent—like a workaholic parent who simply has too many other pressing items to tend to.

Regardless of whether we proclaim these or even other beliefs, we are doing theology. We are painting with wide strokes on the canvas of our bodies, families, and communities who we think God is. Who we believe he is.

Then there’s Jesus.

Paul, who once said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), says Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).

Walking Theology

Take a moment, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and digest that. Jesus was sweaty and gritty. He was hungry. He felt betrayal and needed to sleep. He sat with objectionable people and listened to jokes that could blister paint. He was also “walking theology.” He wasn’t a word about God, he was the Word of God in person.

02_Tygrett_JNHe doesn’t just resemble his dad. He IS his dad.

If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, then whatever is true of Jesus is true of God. Jesus was doing theology with every turn of his hand to bless, every turn of phrase to instruct, and every drop of blood that poured from the unjust wounds of crucifixion. Writer and teacher Jonathan Martin recently called this “the Christlikeness of God.”

Too many times we have a vision of theology as an academic thing done by serious old men with white beards and a lot of spare time. We see them with their glasses perilously balanced on the end of their nose, peering over a titanic oak desk piled chest high with dusty volumes, spouting words like predestination and dispensational and transubstantiation. I admit, these fit with the work of theology, but where we get our deepest instruction is in the comings and goings of Jesus of Nazareth.

In a world where Jesus doesn’t just do theology but is theology, everyone has a place. The food truck chef, the pipe fitter, the stay-at-home mom or dad, the stockbroker, the IRS agent (you have to love Levi, right?), the podiatrist, and the freelance blogger all have the opportunity to engage in these “words about God.”

They engage by the deeply dissonant and satisfying way of following Jesus. This “walking theology” is possible when we step in line with and put into practice the teachings of Jesus. When we shape our minds to adopt the attitudes of Jesus, let our hearts be wooed and swayed by the compassion of Jesus, and put our hands to the plow of the work of Jesus we are actually giving theology breath in the world.

God is not far from us (Acts 17).

No doubt, the Spirit of Jesus is God living within us (John 14:17).

Jesus coming as a man is not simply God condescending to hang out with rabble like us; it is God unveiling himself in the most tangible way possible. It is God stealing Toto’s job and pulling back the curtain on the great Wizard of Oz. The plot twist is that instead of a balloon-driving huckster from the Midwest, we find the creator and originator of the gift of life and all eternity.

Me, My God, and My Daughter

When my daughter was born, I suddenly felt a connection to the “God-as-father” passages. I got it, in a sense, when I heard about God the Father wanting to give good gifts. The kind of generosity I feel toward my daughter is dangerous and would ruin her life if I didn’t restrain it. I would spoil her into her own destruction. I need a different word on being a dad. Parenting in the way of Jesus is a way of doing theology—parenting with words about God by following the Word of God.

I hear Jesus say, “I only do what I see the Father doing.” The pressure amps up and the stakes are much higher when I realize my daughter will become the “image of the visible Casey” and walk through her life with whatever habits and ideas I put in that beautiful, walnut-stranded head of hers. The best thing I could do for my daughter is theology, to walk in line with Jesus in a way that pours out words about God.

Jesus gives us commandments, invitations if you will, that allow for a healthy playground of life and interaction. I should do the same.

Jesus shows grace to failures and ramblers, so when it comes time for my daughter to fail and ramble, I should definitely do the same.

Jesus moves through the details to the heart of the law—the priority, the reason, the center—and does what the law means and not what the law says. How else can we explain the fact that Jesus seemed to wait until the Sabbath to do work that was a blatant violation—at least in some people’s eyes—of the Sabbath? Was Jesus too booked to get it done on Thursday?

I pray God will show compassion on me if I ever tell my daughter what to do without giving her the curiosity to search out why she should do it. I pray that way because I often parent like a heretic, letting “because I say so” be my “thus saith the Lord.”

Object Lessons

Let’s step back for just a moment. Maybe the word theology creates distance for us. We feel alienated by it because it seems to create arguments where there should be unity, enemies where there should be brothers and coconspirators, or it creates a volley of Scripture verses launched from behind blog platforms and pulpits that land on people the launcher has never even met.

You see where this is going, don’t you?

The way Jesus did theology was at tables. He said, “Pass the bread, here’s the good news.” He said, “If you want to see God, if you want to know him, then stop worrying about washing your hands before the soup comes out and worry more about the rotting corpses in your own soul. If you want to say words about God, the best way to do it is to tell stories about me. That’s theology. Tell these stories by loving like I loved, because that’s the way God loves.

“Tell the stories by forgiving like I forgive, because that’s the way God forgives.

“I didn’t come to tell you about God. I came to show you God.”

Theology through Jesus is always an object lesson. That’s because theology was meant to have skin and bone. It was meant to be lived in groups, not just held strongly in our minds but put into practice with real people. The disciples became theology students as soon as Jesus said, “Love one another,” and then showed them how to love. They were PhD candidates as soon as Jesus said, “You give them something to eat,” and then multiplied a Lunchable into a full-on catered meal. They were named full professors when he said, “Abide in me, and I’ll abide in you” and then submitted to a broken and corrupt system of justice in order to seal that promise.

When we ask Jesus a theological question, he says: “Let me tell you about my Dad.” Then off he goes, toward the Samaritans and tax collectors. He stops a short distance away, turns, and motions for us to follow.

How are you doing theology today? What are you telling people “about your Dad?” Perhaps it’s time we learned, as James Bryan Smith says, to “fall in love with the God Jesus knew.”

Casey Tygrett serves as spiritual formation pastor with Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois.

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