Today, we have lost a giant. This morning, Ravi Zacharias passed away from his battle with cancer. He leaves behind a wife, three children, and thousands upon thousands of lives that he touched deeply with the gospel message and God’s untold love for us. I thought I’d take an opportunity to make a gesture of gratitude for all the work he did in his life, the ways that it has influenced me, and hopefully introduce to others this profound and deeply moving speaker.
Ravi’s journey with Jesus begins on a suicide bed in India. Ravi had become so hopeless and miserable that he had attempted to take his own life. While on this bed, he was given a Bible. Reading the Bible, especially John 14:19, which reads “Because I live, you also will live.” Ravi was given new hope in life, and dedicated his life to serving Jesus. He prayed that day, saying “Jesus if You are the one who gives life as it is meant to be, I want it. Please get me out of this hospital bed well, and I promise I will leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of truth.”
And that is what he did. Ravi has advanced degrees, has studied and read intensely in philosophy, theology, and other areas. Ravi has developed an extremely useful and practical system of how to think about “worldview” – by which we mean one’s overarching, big-picture framework for thinking about life and the universe. A quick skim of mine indicates a bibliography of 33 books published or edited, which cover topics of world religions, eastern and western ways of thinking, dealing with the painful moments of life, and much more. He led a life much like Billy Graham – travelling as a preacher all over the world. He has preached in places where it would be almost unthinkable for an evangelical Christian to speak – including Moscow immediately after the fall of the Berlin wall, in the Mormon Church’s Salt Lake Tabernacle, and speaking in hostile areas of the Middle East, including a one on one with a man who founded a terrorist organization. He led an incredible life.
Why I Love Listening to Ravi
Ravi is one of my favorite speakers to listen to. I still don’t quite know how to put words to this quality, but Ravi is one of the only speakers I have ever heard that can seamlessly weave deep intellectual discussion and equally deep emotional discussion into the same speech, the same story, the same passage, and even the same sentence. And he does so far better than anyone else I have ever listened to. He can quote full poems with proper emphasis and structure, off the top of his head in responding to questions he receives from his audience. He tells stories with great humor and of great emotion to bring to light the deeper ideas of whatever topic he is discussing. He can ask questions that bring to light assumptions we have subconsciously in such a gentle and gracious way. He can expand upon many of the most powerful parables in our culture and many that ought to be part of our culture. He powerfully quotes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Nietzsche, Jesus, CS Lewis, Dawkins, and all manner of other important and influential figures of the past and present. He tells gripping stories from his own experience speaking around the world, a talk with a founder of a terrorist group, a mother praying that her child would be able to feel pain, and many more. The stories stick in the mind and always bring with them a poignant message.
I can hardly write enough about the greatness of a man like this – he is a unique, irreplaceable figure. I want to close my blog post with just a small taste, just one example, of Ravi’s deep insights taking stories we know well to another level, bringing to light all the underlying emotional and existential questions that are so important and yet are not often enough put into words.
A Taste of Ravi’s Insight
Just to give a taste of the depth of this man’s insight, I’ll give just one example that floored me the first time I heard it. In order to understand the point, the following encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees (a group of religious leaders that hated him):
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22, ESV)
I will first walk through the ‘normal’ observations you might hear about this passage from a knowledgeable Christian. The Pharisees were trying to put Jesus into a tight spot. The Jewish people viewed the Romans and Caesar as persecutors and longed to overthrow their rule. Thus, people hated paying taxes to Caesar. And the men who collected the tax were often very corrupt and took much more than was required, and this made Caesar’s taxes even more hated. When the Pharisees asked this, they knew that if Jesus said yes, the Jewish people there would be in outrage, and since these men hate Jesus, they’d love that. But if Jesus says no, the Roman authorities would probably arrest Jesus for insurrection against Caesar, and they would love that as well. So either way, the Pharisees thought, they win.
And yet, they did not win. Jesus turned their question on them. Jesus first outwardly makes it clear that these men are trying to trap him. But even better, he answers their question in a way they didn’t expect. He asks them a follow-up question, pointing out that Caesar’s image was on the coins in their hands. Firstly, this would be an embarrassing thing to admit out loud, because Caesar was, in a sense, worshipped as a god at this time by some people, and so walking around with an image of a ‘god’ on their person might be embarrassing. But more importantly, Jesus points out that it is right to give to a person or authority that which is due to them, and therefore we ought to give to Caesar what is due to him, and to give to God what is due to God. The image of Caesar on the coin indicates that he is the source of its value (similar to the sense in which any government is the source of the value of a currency). On many other occasions, Jesus points out how the Pharisees do not give to God what is due to God (the next chapter, Matthew 23, contains a scathing criticism of these religious teachers).
I find this interesting. It is an ingenious answer by Jesus that both conveys a sound answer and levels the pride of the men who were wrongly trying to tear him down in their anger. I had heard this story many times and even studied this passage in my Bible before, and then I heard Ravi speak about it and within just a few seconds, he blew me away. What is his observation?
The leaders should have asked “and what is God’s?” And I think Jesus would have responded by saying “Whose image is on you?”
Christianity is filled to the brim with the importance of the ‘image of God’ – being made in the image of God is, roughly speaking, that which gives us the infinite value that we each possess. It is our personhood, our ability to feel and think, to love and to cherish, to create and be creative, to have relationships, and so much more. And Ravi’s insight cuts right to the core of Christianity – that God has created us and desires to redeem us from the ugliness of our shattered minds and shattered world, but the only way for this to happen is for him to renew us. We are part of the brokenness, and our brokenness disables us.
A point like this will take up no more than 20 seconds or so of one of Ravi’s sermons or talks. He is a profound speaker, and you find from his teaching nuggets of profound insight no matter where you look.
How to Learn from Ravi
He will be missed, but his books, his public talks, and the many stories of his amazing life live on. I’ll put some links here of some of my favorite talks of his, as well as links to pages of his ministry organization, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), which has built up many other amazing speakers over the years who will carry on his legacy.
RZIM Website: https://www.rzim.org/
RZIM YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/rzimmedia
The Existence of God: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRRuKDXT7Kg
Why I Believe in Jesus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3kM6Rax1AU
Why I Am Not an Atheist (at Princeton): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6aDoOzYN-U
Where is God in the Midst of Suffering and Injustice?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOyBe2ag1zs