Some years ago, while listening to a Bible teacher named Malcolm Smith in a recorded teaching about Jesus, he said something that has stuck with me, and I myself have adopted it as something that I regularly say to others. He said, “It takes a long time to think about Jesus.” At this stage of my life and journey with Jesus, I’m confident that it takes a long time to think about lots of things (including Jesus). I often reflect back on things I once said, believed, or taught and think to myself, “If you could go back in time, you would take yourself aside and tell yourself that you got some of it right, but there was more thinking to be done.” This post itself is the result of an insight that I have learned in hindsight, and I hope it proves helpful to you as you read on.

Speaking of hindsight as a key to theological insight, let’s talk about Moses.

Remember the story in the Bible when Moses asks to see the glory of God? It’s in Exodus 33. In the story, we learn that Moses would regularly meet with God and talk with him “as a person speaks to a friend” (Ex. 33:11). But from Moses’ perspective, God had not shown him enough of himself yet. Moses had not seen everything he wanted to see. The reason this comes up at all is that God was commanding Moses to do big things for Him and Moses’ response was essentially — “Okay, but first let me have more perspective — more insight — into who you really are.” Here’s how it reads in the Biblical text.

Moses said to the Lord, “See, you are telling me: Lead this people. But you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said: You are my intimate friend; You have found favor with me. 13 Now, if I have found favor with you, please let me know your ways so that, in knowing you, I may continue to find favor with you. See, this nation is indeed your own people. 14 The LORD answered: I myself will go along, to give you rest. 15 Moses replied, “If you are not going yourself, do not make us go up from here. 16 For how can it be known that I and your people have found favor with you, except by your going with us? Then we, your people and I, will be singled out from every other people on the surface of the earth.” 17 The LORD said to Moses: This request, too, which you have made, I will carry out, because you have found favor with me and you are my intimate friend. 18 Then Moses said, “Please let me see your glory!” 19 The LORD answered: I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim my name, “LORD,” before you; I who show favor to whom I will, I who grant mercy to whom I will. 20 But you cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live. 21 Here, continued the LORD, is a place near me where you shall station yourself on the rock. 22 When my glory passes I will set you in the cleft of the rock and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand, so that you may see my back; but my face may not be seen. (Ex. 33:12-23, NABRE, emphasis added)

So helpful to me in meditating on the treasures to be gained from this story are a few lines from an ancient book by St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 A.D.) entitled The Life of Moses. When reflecting on this exchange between God and Moses, and why God required Moses to look upon him, shall we say, “in hindsight,” St. Gregory writes:

Now, he who follows sees the back. So Moses, who eagerly seeks to behold God, is now taught how he can behold him: to follow God wherever he might lead is to behold God. His passing by signifies his guiding the one who follows, for someone who does not know the way cannot complete his journey safely in any other way than by following behind his guide. He who leads, then, by his guidance shows the way to the one following. He who follows will not turn aside from the right way if he always keeps the back of his leader in view. For he who moves to one side that brings himself to face his guide assumes another direction for himself than the one his guide shows him. Therefore, he says to the one who is led, my face is not to be seen, that is, “do not face your guide.” If he does so, his course will certainly be in the opposite direction for good does not look good in the face but follows it. What is perceived to be its opposite is face to face with the good, for what looks virtue in the face is evil. But virtue is not perceived in contrast to virtue. Therefore, Moses does not look God in the face, but looks at his back for whatever looks at him face-to-face shall not live, as the divine voice testifies, man cannot see the face of the Lord and live. You see how it is so great a thing to learn how to follow God, that after those lofty ascents and awesome and glorious theophanies virtually at the end of his life, the man who has learned to follow behind God is scarcely considered worthy of his grace. [1]

There is so much here! St. Gregory reminds us that we do not stand above God as the objects to whom God is the subject. That is, God is not to be thought of or engaged as the subject of our objective inquiry. He is the creator and we are his creations. We do not stand in front of God as those who make demands of God, who tell God what he must do in relation to us. Even in our requests to God, which God obviously permits, he ensures that we are standing in the right orientation to him (behind him!) before we are permitted to see His glory.

We may be humbly reminded of the words of Isaiah here when he said,

9 Woe to anyone who contends with their Maker; a potsherd among potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to the potter, “What are you doing?” or, “What you are making has no handles”? 10 Woe to anyone who asks a father, “What are you begetting?” or a woman, “What are you giving birth to?” 11 Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, his maker: Do you question me about my children, tell me how to treat the work of my hands? 12 It was I who made the earth and created the people upon it; It was my hands that stretched out the heavens; I gave the order to all their host.  (Is 45:9–12 NABRE).

The connection between insight, hindsight, and discipleship

As I said, even when God does permit Moses’ request, God re-orients Moses to himself with words that may sound similar to something Jesus said to Peter when Peter tried to tell Jesus he was wrong about his own impending death (just moments, mind you, after Jesus affirmed Peter’s confession and gave him the keys to the kingdom; cf. Mt. 16:13-20). Jesus said,

“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Mt. 16:23, NABRE, emphasis added)

Here is a dramatic example of an occasion where a theological insight (“You are the Christ”) is put into fuller perspective in rightly-oriented hindsight (“get behind me”). And notice how Jesus ends the entire episode that begins with his question, “Who do men say that I am?”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. (Mt 16:24, NABRE, emphasis added).

It has always been interesting to me to think about why, after Peter’s confession, Jesus “strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah” (cf. Mt. 16:20). If what happens to Peter in the verses that immediately follow his confession is any indication of the reason (and I think it is), then we have a great example of how we can give correct and even inspired answers about things on the front end, but not really understand what we’re right about until we see them in hindsight; that is, until we are rightly positioned as followers behind the one we are rightly professing as Christ.  That may be a good segue into another observation before I end with a final word of encouragement.

The Church through history — hindsight begets more insight

If you search the Bible for the word trinity you’ll never find it. If you go looking through the pages of the Bible to find a list of the books that are inspired by God, and therefore, worthy to be included in the Bible, you’ll never find it. If you look in the Bible for some of the Christological language and formulations found in the creeds (like the phrase “consubstantial with the Father” as in the Nicene Creed) you won’t find it. These things were formalized and formulated hundreds of years (!) after the Church of Jesus was born. By the way (please stick with me here), if you are a “bible alone” Christian, then there’s no way to ever produce a Bible, for the Bible does not tell us what must go in it. The Church does that because the Church, not the Bible (according to the Bible) is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

If you could take a time machine back to the first decades of the Church and find some Christians, you would discover that they were still sorting lots of things out. The first Gospel (Mark) was not even written until thirty-plus years after Jesus had ascended to the Father and yet the Church of Jesus was growing and expanding during those decades. The other two synoptic gospels came later than that, and John’s gospel likely was not written until toward the end of John’s life — perhaps forty or more years after the ascension of Jesus to God’s right hand.

So, what were the Christians (especially those who wrote the Gospels) doing with their time? Why didn’t they write things down sooner?  I think at least two reasons (and they are both related!) help with the question. The first reason is eschatology. In short, the earliest Christians believed that Jesus would return within their lifetime. As we know, he did not. Were they wrong about the second coming of Jesus? Well, they were wrong about the timing of it, to be sure, and they were the first ones to hear about it from Jesus himself. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (perhaps the earliest document written in the New Testament) seems to be, among other things, a response to the fear and concern among early Christians that Christians who had died before the second coming would be left out of the Kingdom (see 1 Thes. 4:13-18). In hindsight, they gained insight and determined that they may not have thought things through completely.

The second reason is rheumenation. The Gospels themselves provide a few clues that it took time even for those who were taught first-hand by Jesus to come to grips with many of the things he told them (hover over these for a couple of examples: Mk. 6:52, 9:32, Jn. 8:27, 10:6, 12:16, 20:9). The men who wrote the gospels embed the idea that it took them time to sort things out in their own writings. They admit it. They tell us through their admission that their present insight (what they were writing about Jesus) was in some cases gained in hindsight. Back to what I said at the beginning (quoting Malcolm Smith) — “It takes a long time to think about Jesus.”

There is no new revelation, for Jesus himself is the full disclosure of God to humanity. He is the final and embodied Word of God (cf. Heb. 1:1-2). But that does not mean that there are no more insights to be gained through our continual interaction with what has been revealed. In this regard, the Church continues to both “hold fast to the profession of faith” (Heb. 10:23) while she remains committed to learn, grow, and in some cases, create new ways of articulating and clarifying the once-for-all-faith delivered to God’s Holy people (Jude 1:3). Again, there was a time when the word trinity was not in the Church’s vocabulary, though all the material for understanding it as truth was seen and articulated in hindsight.

A final pastoral word

But this is ultimately not all about getting better at articulating theological formulations and propositions. Think back to Moses’ request to God: “Let me see your glory.” This is about our legitimate longing to see more of God as we journey through life with him. God, as we see from his interaction with Moses, wants us to see him as much as is humanly possible. But one of the lessons here seems to be that it is only humanly possible to see some things about God in hindsight. Here’s another word from St. Gregory:

God remains invisible, but his opisthia (his back-side) are his traces in the world which are his powers. [2]

This idea from St. Gregory may help us to remember that we don’t get to see the full glory of God while facing God as though he is reporting to or moving toward us. Rather, God moves by us and ahead of us while, in some ways, we are hidden behind structures that veil our sight. It is only after God moves, and when we are rightly oriented behind him and following him, that we find the insight and perspective gained in hindsight.

Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God? Jn. 11:40, NABRE

At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. 1 Cor. 13:12a, NABRE

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1 Jn. 3:2, NABRE

What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, – 1 Cor. 2:9, NABRE

So keep following Jesus. For it is from that vantage point that we will come to see what presently remains hidden to our eyes. In this way, hindsight will be one of the ways that God opens our eyes so that we can see.

Notes and References:

[1] St. Gregory of Nyssa. The Life of Moses. New York: Paulist Press, 1978, pp. 119-120

[2] Ibid., p. 184