“I am a Jew,” Albert Einstein wrote, “but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene… No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”
But is this an accurate view of this young, enigmatic Galilean villager? The one called both ‘son of Mary’ and ‘Son of God’? The one who can enthrall people from Einstein to presidents, from peasants to prophets?
Professor Donald McCullough was speaking with a Marxist in a political science class. After reading the Bible for a paper on Christianity she was forever changed. “She met Jesus Christ, who proved to be far more radical than Karl Marx.”
Are you sure?
We have no record of what Jesus looked like. The only thing we have is one prophecy that says there was “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
So it wasn’t his attractiveness that made him attractive.
Many people paint a picture of a Jesus who was universally loving, forgiving, accepting and non-judgmental. Perhaps an against-the-grain activist who you would have liked to have around, challenging the status quo and making you feel good about yourself.
But is that fair?
I re-read through everything Jesus ever said and did in the Bible and made topical categories. I consider myself a teacher of the Teacher I serve. So I want to be faithful and accurate in how I present him.
Based on my own survey, here is what Jesus actually said and did most, going from #8 up to #1.
8. Two-Way Tie: Hypocrisy; Trust/Obedience
Jesus was a wildly controversial figure. Dozens of his conversations are actually arguments.
He engaged in disputes with others and confronted them about their hypocrisy. Apparently truth matters. A religion of outward appearances was chastised in favor of inward (and outward) authenticity before God.
He did this about as much as he talked about obediently trusting his Father in everything. He wasn’t into little tidbits of moral advice. More like big doses of revolutionary muscle.
7. Another Two-Way Tie: Priorities & Money
He spoke about priorities. Putting God first and everything else way down the list. “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else” (Matthew 6:33, NLT).
Interestingly enough, he talked about money too. Money is never about money. How you handle money is a symptom of the heart.
The loving Jesus “meek and mild” spoke about judgment and hell. A lot. His love was fierce and truthful. Most of what we know about hell comes not from the wrathful passages in the Old Testament… but from Jesus!
A lot of time was spent choosing real-world disciples and preparing them for the work they needed to do. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as wise as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
4. The Kingdom of God
This is a huge category. And you need to know there is a lot of cross-pollination between many of the categories.
Jesus taught about the “Kingdom of God.” This is basically wherever God is King; it is where and when heaven and earth come together in God’s global renovation project. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, Lord’s Prayer.)
The kingdom is something that is still to come, but also breaking into the world right now through Jesus himself.
3. Healing & Exorcism
A major part of Jesus’ ministry was healing. His word and touch could cure someone. Someone’s faith often had a role to play in their healing. And the really real reality of Satan and evil are never downplayed.
His healing ministry included massive swafts of spiritual warfare where Jesus confronted and overcame the satanic forces and evil spirits loose in the world.
And no, this isn’t just an old way of seeing the world; spiritual warfare is very much a part of life today. I’m sure one of Satan’s greatest coups in the modern period is convincing so many people he’s not really there.
2. Identity and Authority
I was amazed at how much space is given to discussing who Jesus is—and his authority. This category dwarfed most others. Why? Because understanding who he actually is and the powerful authority he carries is essential to the Christian message.
Jesus established the church on Peter’s insight into who Jesus was (“the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”), and a tonne of room is given to establishing his authority and unity with God the Father. Grasping this critical insight has a massive impact on Jesus’ impact in your life.
1. The Cross
Hands down, the cross DOMINATES the stories. When you add up the number of times Jesus predicts his suffering and resurrection, and then the stories themselves, they are simply unrivaled in centrality.
Like the slow-motion replay of a controversial and unexpected winning touchdown, all the Gospels slow down to record and examine Jesus’ sacrificial death and victorious resurrection more than anything else. No question.
The cross is a floodlight on God’s heart.
It is the defining event of his life. And ours.
I don’t pretend to pass this off as a scholarly summation of the New Testament. And I could be challenged on some of the categories.
Plus, you need to keep in mind that statements such as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31) are given unrivaled weight in his teaching—but don’t appear on the list above because they seem like an expanding bracket on his entire life.
Plus, we need to keep in mind that subjects such as feeding the poor and forgiveness can be included as teachings in the “kingdom of God” category.
What’s more is that the stories about the cross are also Kingdom of God stories because they highlight how Jesus is King. In fact, many details in the story of Jesus taking his “throne” on the cross directly mirror enthronement ceremonies of Roman Emperors in the first century. I believe the first hearers of these stories would have known that and seen the connection (even if we don’t).
But my intent here is simply to present a big-picture corrective to the Jesus we think we know.
Here’s why I think it’s important:
We move mountains to fashion a Jesus who resembles us, when we should really move mountains to fashion ourselves to resemble Jesus.
But we can’t do that if we look at his life and cherry pick only what makes us feel warm and cozy.
- Taught about who he was, and his authoritative-yet-servant-style Kingship
- Taught about God’s dream of marrying heaven and earth called “the Kingdom of God”
- Challenged hypocrisy
- Stressed radical obedience to God’s will
- Warned us about judgment and hell
- Gathered followers and prepared them for his vital work
- Fought and overcame the forces of Satan
- Engaged in a ministry of crowd-stunning healing
- And demonstrated the loving power of his kingdom come—the culmination of which was his victory on the cross
Forget meek and mild.
If you meet Jesus and are unchanged, you haven’t really met Jesus. You’ve probably just met an idealized version of yourself.
As the great Quaker Elton Trueblood said: “Jesus Christ can be accepted; he can be rejected; he cannot be reasonably ignored.”