In recent years there has come a fresh consideration of the man, Jesus; of who he truly was and is, of what he stood for, or what his message was and was not.
For many of us, however, our growing to know the Jesus of the Bible involves shedding much misinformation about him. The New Testament teaches us that God's will is that you and I would be conformed into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). I am suspicious, however, that in our culture and too often in the Church today we are quick to make Jesus after our own image. For years we have done so ethnically. All you have to do is examine various Christmas cards with nativity scenes from around the world and the truth emerges. We see the pasty white Jesus, the black Jesus, the Asian Jesus, and on and on. Somehow it seems to be important to us that Jesus is in our camp.
There are several "preferred Jesus" models we tend to invent. We mistakenly view him in several major, but mistaken, ways, the more popular including:
The White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Jesus -- Much of America today has been taught to worship a Jesus who looks like the majority of American citizens. We are often quick to forget that Jesus entered this world long before Martin Luther did. Although Christianity funneled out through the post-resurrection centuries in a number of various streams, we must look back to where it began - with a sun-tanned Hebrew sojourning the countryside among his rough-edged cadre of misfit men, his disciples. Out of this initially unimpressive group of men, Jesus proposed to turn the world upside down (or should I say, right-side up).
The Republican-Conservative Jesus -- Jesus never ran for public office and neither did any of his disciples. Although we must not use this as a premise to avoid political involvement (after all we are called to be "salt" and "light" in the culture), it is important that we not brand Jesus as the spiritual mascot of any political party. Was he opinionated about the social issues of his day? Definitely. Was he determined to confront injustices in the culture? Absolutely. Was he focused on effecting social change through political methods? Never.
The Kingdom Jesus came to build was not a political one, but a spiritual one. And he did not come to lead a political revolution, although many hoped he would; he came to lead a spiritual revolution. His conquest was not one precinct at a time, but one heart, one soul at a time. Certainly we are free to make our political decisions and to be involved in government. I hope and pray that more and more Christians will do so. However, it is essential that we remember that the greatest hope for any country is not a new king or a new president, but a radiant, loving, devoted and confident people of God. When God saw a planet that needed a gift of hope and direction, he raised up not a new political party, not a military regime, but the Church.
The Social Activist Jesus -- Many view Jesus as someone who was primarily riveted on social reform. After all didn't he feed the hungry, care for the sick, and watch out for the children? And was his work not most often among common people, amidst the neighborhoods and among the poor?
It must be noted, however, that Jesus invested the bulk of his time not just dispensing help, but communicating hope. Not only did his loaves of bread and cures for diseases come into people's lives, they came with words -- words of hope. Of course the Scripture does teach us to "not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3:18), but, Jesus brought words of hope along with provisions of help. To him, apparently, they were interconnected. As a matter of fact, on one occasion he put it this way:
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (Matt. 4:4)
Jesus never separated his social activism from his spiritual ministry. His "help" came in the form of bread and words of everlasting life.
The Passive Jesus -- Many of us were raised in churches with stained glass windows. For hours and hours of worship services over the years we gazed at pictures of The Good Shepherd. My mind is still filled with images of a mild-mannered sort of Jesus, with nicely-combed hair, soft skin, a Jesus carefully holding a fragile little lamb.
Philip Yancey challenges our misconceptions of an emotionless Jesus:
The personality that emerges from the Gospels differs radically from the image of Jesus I grew up with, an image I now recognize in some of the older Hollywood films about Jesus. In those films, Jesus recites his lines evenly and without emotion. He strides through life as the one calm character among a cast of fluttered extras. Nothing rattles him. He dispenses wisdom in flat, measured tones. He is, in short, the Prozac Jesus.
In contrast, the Gospels present a man who has such charisma that people will sit three days straight, without food, just to hear his riveting words. He seems excitable, impulsively "moved with compassion" or "filled with pity." The Gospels reveal a range of Jesus' emotional responses: sudden sympathy for a person with leprosy, exuberance over his disciples' successes, a blast of anger at coldhearted legalists, grief over an unreceptive city, and then those awful cries of anguish in Gethsemane and on the cross. He had nearly inexhaustible patience with individuals but no patience at all with institutions and injustice.
If anyone ever lived life from the soul, it was Jesus. There was nothing bland about him whatsoever.
The Icon Jesus -- Some people treasure their icons of Jesus. Whether in the form of a crucifix or a rosary or a favorite old Bible or a WWJD bracelet or whatever it is that reminds us of him.
It is one thing to have memorials and momentos that remind us of Jesus. These may convey much the same significance of love letters kept, treasured and re-read by a lover. However, it is altogether another if we treat them like a good-luck charm, a rabbit's foot or an idol themselves. After all, the second commandment was "to make no graven images," or no idols.
Interestingly enough, we have no substantial record of a physical description of him prior to his resurrection. It is as if there was so much to absorb and record about Jesus' spirit, about his heart, about his authority and about his actions that none of the four extensive Gospel records gave so much as a hint of a physical description. Even John, who referred to himself as an eyewitness of Jesus was much more caught up in his perceived glory than any distinguishing physical characteristics. The only Biblical physical description we have of him is the one John saw at the Revelation.
The Good Teacher Jesus - Perhaps the most often used description given of Jesus by people who do not embrace the Christian faith is that of the "good teacher." An imagined conversation might go something like this:
Christian: So, who do you believe Jesus was?
Non-believer: Oh, I believe he was a good teacher. He had a lot of good, moral and philosophical things to say.
Christian: Does that mean that you would place him right alongside Socrates and Aristotle?
Non-believer: Sure, and Mohammed and Thoreau and the Dalai Lama. They all had a measure of light.
Christian: But, do you know that Jesus professed to be the Son of God. Was that a "good teaching." Do you believe it to be true?
Non-believer: Well, that was his reality. To him, that was the truth. I guess in a sense all of mankind are the sons and daughters of God.
In a day and age when it is unpopular to judge one religion as being more "right" than another, an honest reading of Jesus' words in the New Testament reveals much. One of the most blatant revelations shows a Christ who was far too dogmatic about truth to fit within today's pluralistic and tolerant environment. After all he didn't say that "I am one of the ways" to God, but I am "THE way... THE truth... and THE life (John 14:6)." Additionally, he made it clear that he was God in the flesh when he said, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father (John 14:9)." And, he expressed what today may be dubbed a religious intolerance when he said, "I am the door... All who ever came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them" (John 10:7-8).
The sincere seeker of God will regularly dust off the lenses of his own prejudices, notions and expectations and search for the genuine article; the real Jesus, the one revealed in the Gospels.
There is a wonder about Jesus. A wonder which the Holy Spirit himself wants to reveal within your heart and within mine. There is a glory about him that is missed when we approach him on a merely human level. We are wise to invite the Holy Spirit to inspire our reading of the Gospels, to direct our prayerful interaction with Jesus and to help us to see him clearly.
Is there a "preferred Jesus" in your life? Or, is there another one of these Jesus "models" I have missed?
Adapted from 'More Than A Savior: When Jesus Calls You Friend' (Mulnomah Books).