The following is Part 1 of a Seedbed interview with Frank Viola about a conference talk titled “Epic Jesus” that has been shared with thousands of people both in person and through being passed along on the Internet. Read Part 2.
Can you share with us the big idea of your conference talk “Epic Jesus” and tell us how it came to be?
The big idea is that the Lord Jesus Christ is far more than any of us have imagined. The message seeks to unveil “the ageless mystery hidden in God” of which Paul of Tarsus was a steward.
The task of the message is to answer that very question, “How is Jesus more than we have imagined?” I really can’t do that justice in a few sentences. Suffice it to say that for most of us Christians, we’ve heard that Jesus is Lord. “Yea, I know that.” Is the common response. We’ve heard that He is Savior. “Wonderful,” we say. But Paul goes further, using superlatives like “the unsearchable riches of Christ” and “the fullness of Christ” and “Christ is All . . .” Paul says that “In Him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” In like manner, John says, “And we beheld His glory, full of grace and truth.”
In “Epic Jesus”, I sought to paint a picture of what those phrases mean for those living in the first century and for us who live in the 21st century. The word “Epic” is the best I could do in titling the talk.
Typically, fiction writers speak to the right brain while non-fiction writers speak to the left. It’s the difference between showing and telling. By turning Colossians into an unfolding drama, listeners to get “see” the Lord rather than hear Him merely described.
When we have story or narrative, we get “vision.” The talk seeks to “show” the Epic Greatness of Jesus Christ by building and building until it reaches a high fever pitch and ends uncorking what Paul called “the mystery of the ages.” These are high things. Very difficult to describe (hence why Ephesians 1 is mostly one long sentence where Paul piles superlatives upon superlatives to reveal Christ in God’s Eternal Purpose). They are easier and more powerfully shown.
“Epic Jesus” is a right-brained unfolding of Colossians 1, one of the most sublime texts in the entire biblical canon. When we move the text over to the right brain (instead of the left brain, which is typical), we view it from a different mountain.
In terms of how it came about, I guess I’ve been working on this message for the last 20 years, when I first got a glimpse of the stunning immensity of Jesus Christ. Before then, He was Lord, Savior, Teacher, Priest, Prophet, and King. But afterwards, I encountered the matchless Christ of Colossians who is so much more.
Someone once said that if you want to understand Led Zeppelin, listen to “Whole Lotta Love.” It will tell you everything you need to know. In the same way, if you want to understand my heart, listen to Epic Jesus. All of the themes that I’ve written about are contained in that message in seed form.
Has this talk been controversial anywhere?
I’m no stranger to controversy, though I’ve never set out to be controversial. (Trying to be controversial has no eternal value, so I don’t respect such motivations.)
I think the most controversial element in the talk may be the view I take on eternity—one that builds on C.S. Lewis, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas opposed to the view of Newton and Oscar Cullmann.
What’s interesting is that people who only know me from Pagan Christianity? end up going back to the book and seeing the Christ-centeredness in it that they had missed. They also readily discover that “Pagan” isn’t a stand-alone book and go on to read the more important follow-up volumes. I am very thankful for that as I regard “Pagan Christianity” to be my least important work.
How is this message different from the typical gospel presentations the church puts forth today, and why do you think this message resonated with so many people?
The difference between a good sermon and a great message is that people will say, “Wow, what an excellent sermon” to the former. But they’ll say “Wow! What a Christ!” to the latter.
I don’t rate my talks and not everyone reacts to a message the same way.
All I can say is that countless people—including pastors and seminary students—have said that after hearing the talk, they got a sighting of the greatness of Christ that left them speechless. Only the Holy Spirit can do that, and I’m humbled whenever I hear it. Apparently it has moved many people to tears and it had the same effect on me. (I almost lost it at one point.)
My talk attempts to produce the same effect. Practically, it is designed to give people a breathtaking vision of their Lord. One that ignites awe, love, and passion in their hearts for the Lord Jesus.
I know from my own experience, when our eyes are opened and our hearts are awakened to see the epic greatness of Jesus from a higher, unfamiliar plane, it wipes everything else off the table and we are left staggering.
I can only speak with respect to the people who actually commented on the talk (or the companion eBook). Like with any message, people’s mileage will vary.
If you read Colossians 1:15-22, you won’t find any practical handles. What Paul is trying to do there is lift the eyes of the Colossians Christians to apprehend Christ in such a way that Jesus trumps everything else, especially the spiritual and religious rabbit trails that they were chasing at the time.
I’ve often said that many a preacher uses the tool of guilt to motivate God’s people to do certain things. But revealing Christ, in my observation and experience, is a much better tool to pick up.
When the Lord appeared to Abraham in Genesis 12, his immediate reaction was to build an altar. The altar speaks of consecration, sacrifice, and abandonment to God. Abraham didn’t build the altar out of guilt, duty, or obligation. He “saw” the Lord, and out of that seeing, he was compelled to abandon himself to his God.
One of my favorite hymns brings this thought out beautifully:
What has stripped the seeming beauty
From the idols of the earth?
Not a sense of right or duty
But the sight of peerless worth
So the crushing of those idols
Was accomplished from the start
By the beaming of His beauty
The unveiling of His heart
‘Tis that look that melted Peter
‘Tis that face that Stephen saw
‘Tis that heart that wept with Mary
Can alone from idols draw
This, I believe, was Paul’s genius and gifting. One of the reasons why scholars dispute what the Colossians heresy was exactly is because Paul never defines it. What Paul does instead is raise the curtain and show the Colossians who their Lord really is in light of God’s ageless mystery. Upon seeing Christ in such riveting glory, the false doctrine could not stand.
So practically, the message seeks to produce what Paul prayed for in Ephesians 1:
“That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him: The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power.”