The second elephant

Most people have either read this poem by John Godfrey Saxe or have heard the story that it tells.

It was six men of Hindustan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind)
That each by observation
Might satisfy the mind.

The First approached the Elephant
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side
At once began to bawl:
“Bless me, it seems the Elephant
Is very like a wall.”

The Second, feeling of his tusk,
Cried, “Ho! What have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear.”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Then boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake.”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“’Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The last stanza of the poem compares the arguments of the blind men with the way people today argue about God and religion.  The two kinds of argument are very much alike.  God has revealed his existence and power through what he has created and he has given all of us an innate concept of right and wrong, so everyone knows something of God.  But that knowledge is incomplete and is usually mixed with a lot of false beliefs.  In most theological arguments those involved are like the blind men in that “each is partly in the right and all are in the wrong.”

Most people who have heard this story don’t know of an event that happened to the blind men later. Someone else brought an elephant to the town where the men lived. However this was not a live elephant but a model elephant which was small enough for a person to hold in his hands. He heard about how the blind men were always arguing so he gave each of them an opportunity to examine his model elephant. As a result all six of the men finally came to an understanding of what an elephant was really like and this brought an end to their arguments.

If we had a small model of God that we could examine perhaps it would put an end to our theological arguments.  But of course that isn’t possible.  Or is it?

The first chapter of John’s gospel introduces someone called the Word who is God but who also became a human.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:1-5
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14

Verses 17 and 18 tell us who the Word was.

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

One reason Jesus came was to show us what God is like.

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”
John 14:8-10

Just as the blind men could understand what a real elephant was like by examining the model, we can learn what God is like by seeing what Jesus was like.

Jesus is no longer on the earth but is seated in heaven so it is no longer possible for anyone to observe him directly but in the New Testament we have the words of those who did see him.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
1 John 1:1-3

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.
2 Peter 1:16-18

By reading and studying what they wrote we can come to understand God as well as we could if we had seen Jesus in person.

Jesus went through the land teaching and healing those who were sick.  By his teaching he told people what God was like and corrected any false ideas they held and his healing proved that he was really who he claimed to be and also showed that God wants to do good for us.

But he did one more thing which is probably even more important.  He allowed himself to be crucified.  The people who crucified him couldn’t have done so without his permission.  He demonstrated that clearly when he was arrested.

And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
Matthew 26:51-54

What possible reason could there be for someone who was God in human form to die?  The answer is found in the words of John the Baptist.

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
John 1:29

If we compare our lives with what Jesus taught it is obvious that none of us has done all that God requires of us and therefore we all need forgiveness.  Jesus died as a sacrifice to take away our sins and his resurrection shows that God has accepted his sacrifice.  This means that anyone who turns from his sin and puts his faith in Jesus can be forgiven.

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
Romans 10:9-10

The fact that the death of Jesus was necessary before we could be forgiven shows us two important truths about God: God hates all sin and will judge it but he loves us and he expressed his love by sending Jesus to pay the penalty for our sins.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:23-26

Salvation includes more than having our past sins forgiven.  We receive eternal life and in John 17:3 Jesus tells us what eternal life is.

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

The model elephant helped the blind men to understand what an elephant was like but that was all it did.  But Jesus did much more than simply enable us to know more about God; he made it possible for us to actually know God.

Posted on February 14, 2012, in Bible study, salvation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The second elephant.

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