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Know Him Better to Love Him Better
A More Accurate, More Intimate Portrait
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Jesus seems to be showing up all over the place these days. In Jakarta, Indonesia, Christians by the hundreds claimed to have seen an apparition of Jesus in the water-stained wall of a house. The owner, who happened to be Muslim, did not object to Christians gathering by the dozens to stare at his home. He was not too fond of their midnight prayer vigils, however.
In Stone Mountain, Georgia, Joyce Simpson prayed for a sign from God concerning her participation in her church's choir. Then she saw Jesus on a billboard for Pizza Hut. There, in the midst of spaghetti hanging from a fork, was an image of the Savior, who apparently wanted Joyce to sing in the choir. Her friends agreed that Jesus was really there, though others identified the apparition as country music legend Willie Nelson.
When María Rubio began frying a tortilla for her husband's burrito, she had no idea that Jesus was about to appear. But when she examined the skillet burns on the tortilla, there he was. In the weeks that followed, more than eight thousand people flocked to María's home in Lake Arthur, New Mexico, in order to see this image of Christ. She even left her door unlocked so pilgrims could come in to seethe face when María wasn't at home.
Longing to See Jesus
When I come across stories like these, I confess that my first response is to chuckle. People will fall for almost anything these days, I think to myself. But my laughter misses something sublime in the midst of the ridiculous. Most of those who claim to see Jesus on a wall, a billboard, or a tortilla are not jesters seeking to entertain, but Christians who seriously seek to know Jesus. And whether or not their visions tell us anything about Jesus' methods of revealing himself, they speak volumes about the longing in the hearts of many believers. They yearn to see Jesus.
Even if you aren't inclined to look for the face of Jesus on a burrito, can't you nevertheless relate to the passion of those who do? Don't you long to see Jesus more vividly, to know him more immediately? Don't you wish he would reveal himself to you in a way that would transform your life?
I grew up in a strong Christian family and a Bible-teaching church, coming to faith in Jesus when I was a young boy. Nevertheless, in my adolescent years I struggled with doubt. The things I had believed so easily as a child began to grow more uncertain. Yet I wanted to believe in Jesus with all my heart. In times when doubt seemed to be strangling my faith, I cried out for help. "Lord," I prayed, "please show yourself to me. If I could only just see you, then I'd believe for sure." I don't think I really believed I would receive a personal revelation from Jesus, but in my desperation, that's exactly what I wanted.
I never actually saw Jesus, either in a mystical vision of on a billboard. In time, however, he did make himself known to me in a way that put my doubts to rest. But even to this day, I still wish I could see my Lord with greater clarity. With all my heart I echo the prayer of St. Richard, who sought to know Jesus more clearly so that he might love him more dearly and follow him more nearly. That is my daily prayer as well.
Sometimes I envy the simple faith of my children. When my daughter, Kara, was four years old, she was enthralled with Jesus. As Holy Week approached she wanted to hear the story of his death and resurrection over and over again. On Good Friday she was deeply moved by the fact that "Jesus died on the cross for our sins." She looked forward to Easter with great expectation. On the Saturday evening before Easter, I offered the blessing for our family dinner. "Dear Jesus, thank you for loving us so much. Thank you ..."
All of a sudden Kara interrupted me with an indignant voice. "Daddy," she said, "you can't pray to Jesus!"
"Why not, Kara?" I asked.
"Because he's dead! He died on the cross for our sins! You can't pray to him again until tomorrow."
Admittedly, Kara's theology needed a little work. But how I wish that Jesus were as real to me as he was to my young daughter. After almost four decades of being a Christian, and after devoting a substantial part of my life to studying the biblical account of his life, I still yearn to know Jesus with more depth and intimacy. To be completely honest, if I really believed that he could be seen on a tortilla in New Mexico, I'd probably make the trek to see it. As I look forward to heaven, perhaps more than anything else I long to see the face of Jesus.
Can you relate to this longing? Do you share this desire to know Jesus better? I expect that your answer is yes. So then, what should we do?
Jesus at the Local Bookstore
Many people who seek to know Jesus better begin their research at the local bookstore. That seems to be a sensible step because there are plenty of books about Jesus. In fact, no person in history has been the subject of more books.
This profusion of books is a mixed blessing, however. Some will actually help you know Jesus more truly and deeply. But a number of books, especially those that fill the shelves of secular bookstores, will steer you wrong, terribly wrong.
Many books about Jesus promise to provide the "real truth" about him, as if no one had ever discovered it before. Yet what they offer is hardly the truth. It is simply a retelling of a familiar and misleading story. It goes something like this: Once upon a time there was a man named Jesus. He did and said some curious things and was put to death for his behavior. His followers didn't let him rest in peace, however. For some reason, probably having to do with some mystical experiences, these believers started attributing all sorts of nonsense to Jesus. They even concluded that he was God in the flesh. But they were mistaken. Jesus was just a man, an unusual man perhaps, a puzzling man to be sure, but in the end, just a man. He certainly had no intention of saving the world or founding a religion or being thought of as divine. All of this came after he was dead, when he wasn't around to set the record straight.
Sometimes the books that recycle this worn-out theory appear to be the result of serious scholarship. This is especially true of the torrent of manuscripts that have come out of the Jesus Seminar, a group of purportedly objective scholars seeking the unbridled truth about Jesus. But a bit of investigation reveals the unbridled truth about the Jesus Seminar itself. It was formed quite intentionally to debunk orthodox Christian belief. The participants were chosen by a process that guaranteed that the results of their deliberations would match the agenda of the group's founder, Robert Funk. Notice what Funk himself has said about Jesus: "We should give Jesus a demotion. It is no longer credible to think of Jesus as divine. Jesus' divinity goes together with the old theistic way of thinking about God." The Jesus Seminar was formed by a person who rejects what Christians believe about Jesus and who openly admits that he intends to knock Jesus down a few pegs.
The Jesus Seminar assumed as gospel truth an idiosyncratic picture of Jesus, envisioning him as a wandering philosopher who said a bunch of perplexing but relatively innocuous things. Anything in the historical records about Jesus that did not fit this picture was discarded as fictional. Not surprisingly, therefore, their "objective" evaluation ended up matching the seminar's predetermined agenda.
Many of these ideas have passed into popular culture, owing largely to the Jesus Seminar's brilliant manipulation of the news media. These ideas have undermined traditional beliefs about Jesus, causing some Christians to doubt or to lose confidence in Jesus himself. Even clergy are not immune. Last year a pastor from my own denomination made headlines by complaining in a public forum, "What's the big deal about Jesus?" He went on to argue for a spirit-centered Christianity that regards Jesus as one among many ways to God rather than as the unique Savior. Once again Jesus gets a demotion.
It would be tempting for me to take potshots at my fellow pastor. After all, shouldn't members of the clergy have already figured out why Jesus is such a big deal? But upon reflection, I believe this pastor needs to be taken seriously. What is the big deal about Jesus, really? I'm sure there are many other Christians, both clergy and laity, who find that Jesus is slipping from the place of honor that he once claimed in their lives. They truly want to figure out what the big deal is so they can revive their faith in him. This book seeks to answer this question from several different perspectives. Any single perspective would allow us to see why Jesus is indeed a big deal. Taken together the eleven perspectives in the following chapters will help us see him as the biggest deal of all.
Jesus in Our Own Image
Most Christians I know reject popular theories that relegate Jesus to a lesser status than that given to him in Scripture. They would never intentionally denigrate Jesus. Yet often without meaning to, they end up demoting him by re-creating Jesus in their own image rather than taking seriously the way he is revealed to us.
This happens when we reshape Jesus to fit our own biases. We say we want to be like Jesus, but in reality we also want him to be like us. We want Jesus to be on our side, to endorse our politics, to affirm our lifestyle. I saw this tendency when I was a teaching fellow for a Harvard College course titled "Jesus and the Moral Life." One of my students, a blue-blooded New England preppy, submitted a final paper with the title "Jesus Was a Gentleman." In twenty pages he argued that the Jesus of history followed the code of behavior found in twentieth-century Brahmin Bostonian society. As he read the Gospels, this student couldn't help but project his values onto Jesus. From his perspective, the man who drove the money-changers out of the temple must have kept on repeating, "I beg your pardon, sir," as he politely escorted them to the door. Of course it's a bit of a stretch to find this in the gospel accounts.
We can chuckle at the obvious bias of my student, but he's not alone. Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, a prominent preacher from the last century, once said, "By no stretch of the imagination would Jesus have been a socialist." Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev disagreed, observing that "Jesus was the first socialist." Lots of people are positive they know what Jesus would be like if he were to join our current society. An opponent of helmet laws for motorcycle riders is certain that he has Jesus in his corner: "If Jesus Christ were alive today—given his status as, among other things, history's most famous Freedom Fighter—He would not be campaigning for mandatory helmet law legislation." A lover of Christian heavy metal rock music proclaims: "If Jesus were alive today, he'd be a Christian Metal Dude!" And it turns out that Reverend Peale knew what Jesus preferred, not only in politics but in sports as well. He once proclaimed from the pulpit: "If Jesus were alive today, he would be at the Super Bowl." (No doubt he'd have seats on the 50-yard line of else be wearing a rainbow wig and holding up a John 3:16 sign.)
These are laughable examples of something we all do to one extent of another. Each one of us puts Jesus in a safe little box where he can be counted on to endorse our personal preferences. But isn't this habit completely harmless? Not when you realize the damage it causes. On the one hand, when we choose to mold Jesus like a lump of gooey day, we trivialize him, turning him into just one more political partisan, music fan, or Super Bowl spectator. This is a serious problem for those of us who believe that Jesus is anything but trivial.
At the same time, by making Jesus fit our preconceptions, we obscure who he really was and who he really is today. We miss the point of his life and message, not to mention his death and resurrection. Moreover, if we invent a pseudo-Jesus who happens to be just like us, then we completely miss the opportunity to be transformed by the real Jesus, to become more like him and to live the life he designed for us. We won't be able to see him more clearly, to love him more dearly, or to follow him more nearly because he will be obscured by the false images we project upon him. Our personal relationship with Jesus will lapse into stagnation as he assumes an increasingly less important place in our lives.
How can we evaluate the adequacy of our images of Jesus? How can we know him, not as we imagine him to be, but as he really is? The good news is that we are not left to our own devices when it comes to knowing Jesus. He has been revealed to us in a manner that allows us to know him accurately and intimately.
Jesus is revealed to us, first and foremost, in the pages of the Bible. This statement is true on different levels. On a historical plane, almost everything we know about Jesus comes from the New Testament, especially the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Many other ancient sources provide information about Jesus, but almost all of these use the Gospels as their primary sources. So, without presupposing anything about the New Testament other than that it was written by a variety of Christians who lived in the first century A.D., it would be safe to say that Jesus is revealed to us primarily in the Bible, just as Socrates is revealed to us primarily through the writings of Plato.
But Jesus is also revealed to us through the Bible in another sense. As a Christian I believe the Bible is more than simply a human book. Although written by human beings, it is the Word of God. As Paul wrote to Timothy, "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right" (2 Timothy 3:16). In particular, the Bible teaches us what is true about Jesus. It reveals him to us not merely as a historical person, but as Lord and Savior. Now, that's a revelation that deserves to be taken seriously, don't you think?
Yet God's timeless revelation comes packaged in writings penned in a certain time of history. If we are to understand these writings, and if we are to understand the Jesus they reveal, then we must work hard to grasp the historical meaning and context of the Bible. We need to place Jesus within his own milieu, within the cultural and religious matrix in which he lived. If we fail to do this, we will inevitably project upon Jesus that which we take for granted in our own life experience, thereby misconstruing the meaning of his life and ministry. We won't know who he really was, not to mention who he is today. Remember, Jesus of Nazareth never ate at McDonald's or read a printed word or wore pants or played baseball or voted in an election or switched on a light. In fact, he never actually heard the name "Jesus"—as we pronounce that name—spoken, because nobody in his world spoke English. Yeshua, as he was called by his Aramaic-speaking contemporaries, lived in a world that was radically different from our own, linguistically, socially, politically, economically, and religiously.
This book attempts to locate Jesus accurately in his place in history, to see him as a Jewish man from Galilee who lived in the tumultuous world of the first century A.D. It's essential to our understanding that we characterize the place of Jesus not merely with generalizations that one commonly hears, but with specific examples from ancient, primary sources. These help define Jesus' place within history, which then helps us know him more truly and love him more completely.
What Jesus Was Called
There are different ways to approach the identity of Jesus as it is revealed in Scripture. Most writers present an overview of his earthly ministry and message. This is a valuable strategy, but one that has been done already, many times over. In this book we will take a different path, examining the major names and titles of Jesus found within the New Testament. What did his contemporaries call him? What did he call himself? What did the earliest Christians call him?
Excerpted from Jesus Revealed by Mark D. Roberts. Copyright © 2002 by Mark D. Roberts. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.