There is an odd story about the Israelite people dying of thirst as they shuffle towards Mt. Sinai. God instructs Moses to strike a big rock with this walking stick - upon which water starts to flow. Ahhh, what a refreshing story!
Rob Bell observes that Paul summarizes that story by saying Jesus is the rock. What???
And what does this story have to do with the overall book about heaven and hell and the fate of every person who ever lived? In short:
Heaven is full of surprises, and people come to Jesus in all sorts of ways.
There you go. What do you think of that idea? Do you agree?
Rob reflects on how Paul writes about Jesus:
Jesus, for these Christians, was the ultimate exposing of what God has been up to all along. This is, of course, a mystery, which is exactly the word they used for it. (148)
It's a mystery how Paul can see Jesus in the Moses-rock story. But then as Rob sees it: Paul finds Jesus there, in that rock, because Paul finds Jesus everywhere. (144)
Just as baffling as it is to see Jesus in the rock, so it is to imagine God in the flesh. Rob writes:
Here's where the claims of the first Christians come in. They believed that at a specific moment in the history of the world, that life-giving "Word of God" took on flesh and blood. In Jesus, they affirmed, was the word, that divine life-giving energy that brought the universe into existence. The word that gave life to everything and continues to give life to everything, they insisted, has been revealed in fullness. (146)
It's surprising to see God in Jesus. It's surprising to see Jesus in the rock. It's surprising to see what Jesus did when he walked the hills of Israel. If the religion scholars back then were surprised at the teachings and activities of Jesus, why shouldn't we be surprised that there are more surprises awaiting us?
What's the implication of this? Where is Rob going with this?
As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn't come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted what ever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created and name him. Especially the one called "Christianity." (150)
Whoa. Does this comment from Rob surprise you? Do you believe that God has more good surprises up his sleeve? Can Jesus still surprise us today? Are Christians the only ones that know anything about Jesus? Are we the only ones who know the truth about the universe and the way the world works? Does Jesus show up in the world outside the bounds of Christianity? Could Jesus surprise you - much like he surprised the observant Jews all those years ago?
Rob puts it like this: Jesus is supracultural. He is present within all cultures, and yet outside of all cultures. (151) Think about it - this is our Father's world. Jesus has been given the authority and responsibility to overcome evil with good, to make everything all right. When the work of Jesus in his world is finished, he will hand everything back over to God. If this is God's world, if it is Jesus' Creation, then of course Jesus is present yet transcendent.
Again - where is Rob going with this? He goes to the well-known and oft-quoted Evangelical verse in John's Gospel: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." What [John] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through [Jesus]. (154)
This is where a lot of Christians will resist the development of Rob's proposition. Rob agrees that Jesus is the only way. There is only one way to God, and it is through Jesus. He writes: What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. (155) I can agree with that. But then Rob points out: People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways. (158) Does this statement unsettle you?
Rob opens his chapter with an unusual story of how a pot-smoking friend was saved by Jesus. Rob states that he has heard many unusual stories that after awhile point to his observation: people come to Jesus in all sorts of ways. What to do with that observed reality? The surprise of how Jesus worked out salvation in those people ought to bring us joy but also remind us of the mystery involved.
Jesus is Lord - so he can bring about salvation however he wants, even if it goes against our understanding of how we thought he was going to do it. Right? Can we definitively know who will be joining us in heaven? How can we for sure know who is in and who isn't? Is there value in going public with who is going to hell and who isn't? Is it enough that only Jesus knows?
Are you okay with there being a diverse way of people coming to Jesus? Do Muslims have to convert to Christianity? Do atheists have to embrace religion? Do the mentally-handicapped have to articulate orthodox doctrines? Does Jesus have the right to work in His world however he chooses? Even if it surprises us?
What we see Jesus doing again and again - in the midst of constant reminders about the seriousness of following him, living like him, and trusting him - is widening the scope and expanse of his saving work. (159) Does that make you uncomfortable? Why?
In the end, Rob is working to establish the idea that just as Paul saw Jesus in the rock, so we can see Jesus everywhere - in every culture, in every religion, in every nation. We can see Jesus, but we don't control Jesus, we don't have a hold on Jesus, we don't have any special claim on Jesus. Jesus is the one with the claim on us. Jesus is our Lord - he is the one with the ability to save, and surprise.
If he surprised us once with the incarnation, and again with crucifixion, and again with resurrection, and again with ascension, and again with the Spirit, and again with the calling of Paul, and again with the salvation of Gentiles... well, does Jesus have any more surprises for us?
What is the fate of every one who has ever lived? We know what we read in Scripture. We know that there is a variety of interpretations. We know it is in God's hands. We know of our calling to love and serve and go. And we know that God is full of surprises. Jesus is the only way, and people come to Him in all sorts of ways. Don't they? What does that mean for your faith if Jesus still pulls off surprises?