Jesus was sent by God, the Father, to set us free from the chains of sin and its consequences, but everywhere, in every place where his name is revered, he is in chains.
Of course, by “chains” I do not mean physical chains. Jesus lives as our resurrected Lord, transcendent beyond physical limitations and all limitations of the space-time continuum. The chains I refer to are spiritual, mental, social, cultural, and theological beliefs and practices we attach to Jesus that impede his impact and influence. Jesus is chained by our distorted interpretations and representations of him that cause people to doubt and reject his love. Jesus is chained by our idolatrous prioritizing of our worldly values above the values of his Kingdom.
To some, it seems highly inappropriate to speak of Jesus being in chains in any way. Our Lord himself proclaimed in a post-resurrection appearance that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18, NRSV). The dilemma created by my language about Jesus points to the centuries-long theological debate about whether human history is determined more by divine sovereignty or by human freedom, a debate to which most of us answer, “both/and.” Jesus is omnipotent, but human beings have the freedom to choose how we will respond to Jesus’ works of redemption and salvation. This paradox creates an uncomfortable tension and angst for many, but it is a tension that will be resolved only in the fulfillment of Jesus’ Kingdom. In the meantime, we continue to live with this timeless, enduring enigma.
This enigma is pointed to throughout the Bible. For example, it is suggested in the prophet Isaiah’s words to God’s people, post-exile:
"See, the Lord’s hand is not too short to save,
nor his ear too dull to hear.
Rather, your iniquities have been barriers
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear. (Isaiah 59:1-2, NRSV)"
These words indicate that the actions and dispositions of the Hebrews have created a barrier to divine action among them. It is not so much that God CAN’T save them, but their rebellion has forced a kind of divine withdrawal from their circumstances.
We see a similar dynamic in a story about Jesus found in Mark 6. Jesus was in his hometown, and although he had been in a "zone" of performing miraculous deeds since the beginning of his ministry, his ministry is stymied and short-circuited in his hometown. Why?
Mark gives us this explanation:
And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:5-6, NRSV)
There is, at least, the suggestion in this story that the unlimited divine power of Jesus is being limited, or “chained,” by human belief or, in this case, unbelief. Jesus’ capacity and Jesus’ functionality are misaligned by human rebellion.
In my childhood, the seasoned saints used to say, “If there are a hundred steps between you and Jesus, Jesus will take 99, but he will always leave one step for you.” This grassroots theology was another way of articulating the duality of the consequences of history.
History is the consequence of the interaction between divine will and human response. Negative responses to Jesus can block him from freely and fully impacting our realities and destinies.
In the soon-to-be-released book, Jesus UnChained, I identify some of the ways we have, in our times, created chains around the person and work of Jesus, and then I go on to give my earnest attempt to re-present Jesus as he is given to us in the Gospels. I do this reconstructive work hoping that we will see him better and be transformed by his power and love in all dimensions of our lives.
I hope you will buy and read Jesus UnChained and help me do the work of “un-chaining” Jesus from the misbegotten restrictions we have placed on him.
Holy Spirit, help us to live so that our lives will be venues where Jesus’ capacity is fully functional.
Pre-Order Robert Glenn Johnson's upcoming title, Jesus UnChained.