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The Official Jesus Section!
[because every good book has a section about Jesus in it! And, of course, Christianity is supposed to be about Jesus]
I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history. - H. G. wells
Well, you've made it through the fundamentals, so now it's time to get into the good stuff. This first section, as the title so eloquently reveals, is about Jesus. And I'm glad, because anything that's all about Jesus has to be good, right? [Go ahead, I know you want to shout a hearty Amen!] But of course that's not really true. The Last Temptation of Christ was all about Jesus, and we know what most Christians thought about that. And I'm sure you've experienced other instances where something that was all about Jesus - perhaps a church's passion play or a song written by the head of your church's Sunday school board or any TV movie about Christ in the last ten years - made you sick to your stomach becauseit was just so bad. I know I have.
But anyway, as I was saying, this section is about Jesus.
Let me begin by asking you a question:
HOW DID YOU FIRST LEARN ABOUT JESUS?
I ask this question because, frankly, its answer is pretty important to your spiritual well-being. How you first learned about Jesus can affect your entire life: it can make you spiritually whole, or it can break you in two.
Me, I started hanging out with Jesus when I was four. Back then, I loved him like I loved Big Bird. Of course, I knew he was much more important than Big Bird, but my affection for him was similar. The songs we sang in Sunday school made Jesus seem more like a novelty act than a Savior. Jesus was someone who liked to give me hugs and pull me onto his lap, and every once in a while, he would teach me a great truth about how I should be treating my little sister.
See? JUST like Big Bird. Although sometimes Big Bird was actually a little cooler than Jesus. He had his own skating show: Big Bird on Ice. Jesus never put on ice skates, and he didn't have cool friends like Bert and Ernie.
By the time I had reached fifth grade, my impression of Jesus had matured. Well, somewhat. By then, I was pretty sure I knew what Jesus looked like: He smiled a lot, was well tanned, wore a pretty white robe, and looked kind of like a young Smoky and the Bandit Burt Reynolds. Oh, and he was a HUGE fan of Ronald Reagan!
As I grew in my faith, I began thinking of Jesus more like an overprotective parent than a large yellow bird. You see, according to my church, Jesus was always sitting next to me, watching everything I did. When I was taking a test, he was watching me, making sure I didn't cheat. If I was on the basketball court, Jesus was helping me run faster and make lots of baskets. When I walked out of the bathroom without washing my hands, Jesus would see me and frown at my poor hygiene. And when I became a teenager, the feeling only intensified that Jesus [like the band The Police] was watching every move I made. I was taught that Jesus liked it when I sat in the church's front pew during sermons. He jumped up and down and applauded when I turned 90210 off. He thought that going to movies was sinful and holding girls' hands was dirty. He hated it that one of my friends tasted beer on his birthday. By the time I was sixteen, I truly believed that to love Jesus simply meant that I had to say no to a bunch of stuff that seemed like fun.
The experiences of my childhood certainly had an impact on how I perceived Jesus as a young adult.
Now, I don't want to make you think that my entire Christian life up until college was a joke; I certainly had moments when I experienced Jesus in a real way. But despite those sporadic experiences of grace and truth, I don't believe I really knew him then. Sure, I knew his message and what he did on the cross. But I hadn't experienced Jesus in the ways I believe he desires me to. Unfortunately for me, my situation got a lot weirder before it got better. But after spending many years learning who Jesus really was [and going through quite a bit of therapy], my perception of Christ began to change into a truer picture of how I believe the Bible portrays him.
SO WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF JESUS?
Hopefully they were a little more biblically true for you than they were for me. Having a true picture of Jesus is extremely important. Of course, you can never know everything about him. To be honest, I don't think we're meant to.
But then on the other hand, some of us Christians claim to get pretty darn close.
Have you ever talked to someone who claims to know almost everything about Jesus?
I've met quite a few Christians who seem to think they have Jesus' every nuance figured out. Many of us pretend to know what he looked like. Some of us seem to have a supernatural ability to know exactly how he would respond to all the great debates of our time. And of course, with Jesus on our side, the other side is just wrong. Heck, there are a few of us who even think we know his personality.
For instance, how many times have you heard a Christian talk about Jesus' great sense of humor? These people describe Jesus' wit like they were with him at a party just the other day. They talk about his humorous nature so casually you might think they witnessed him firsthand at a local comedy club, telling a joke about the disciples. But what strikes me as funny is the logic they use; it's almost always the same.
"Oh, Jesus had to be a serious jokester, man!" said a friend of mine once. "He was God, right? and God made monkeys! if he made monkeys, he must love to laugh."
Don't get me wrong; I think monkeys are funny looking, and I've certainly laughed at them a time or two. But I wonder if Jesus thinks monkeys are funny looking. Do we have proof of that? Have we ever thought that maybe Jesus is passionate about his Father's creations - that instead of laughing, he might even be offended by the way we talk about his Dad's monkeys? it's just a thought, but you have to admit that it's possible. What if Jesus' real response to our monkey theory is, "My Father wasn't being funny when he made monkeys. Heck, some of them are more intelligent than many of you. And they praise better, too."
Stop what you're thinking: I want to make it clear that I am not saying Jesus would claim that monkeys are cooler than humans or that our praise pales in comparison to that of a chimpanzee. I'm just saying that we don't really know whether or not Jesus thinks monkeys are funny. I just thought I should make that perfectly clear before some of you begin e-mailing me, cursing my name, and questioning my salvation.
And now, before your personal picture of Jesus and his personality crumbles into oblivion, I will answer the question I'm sure you're dying to ask:
Do you think Jesus had a sense of humor?
Sure. At least, I hope he did.
But I don't know that to be truth.
And that is my entire point.
In our human quests to know Jesus and to experience both his divine and human qualities, we often jump to conclusions. Throughout history, we Christians have made blanket comments about Jesus' likes and dislikes and how we believe he would respond to life if he were on earth today. And I guess that's a normal human response. Because many of us believe the goal of Christianity is to know Jesus, and because this desire is deeply spiritual, we often begin to view him not as some intangible existence living far away from us but as a friend. He becomes strangely familiar. We get comfortable with him. And sometimes in our "comfort," we forget that he's also God and that he's still a mystery and that we don't have all the facts.
And each of us also has our own experiences with Jesus. We hear his voice in our heads and hearts. We enter into worship the way we feel he is most pleased with. And most of the time, I don't think there's anything wrong with this variety in worship as long as our goal is to continue the journey to know Jesus.
Most Christian leaders would probably agree that an individual's quest to know and experience Christ is one of the most important aspects of Christianity. In fact, much of what we do - our traditions, our sacraments, and our worship - is just the expression of an ongoing effort to know him better.
But our experiences with Jesus must come out of a heart's desire to seek out truth. And that's why this first section is all about Jesus. I'm hoping that by reading this, you'll be able to focus on what the Bible says about Jesus, how history has portrayed Jesus, and what we can do to begin [or continue] to experience him as a friend and a Savior - and maybe even a jokester.
Are you ready to experience Jesus? Then get worshiping. I mean reading.
But before you begin, read this verse:
Jesus said to the people who believed in him, "You are truly my disciples if you keep obeying my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)
Key Players in the Life of Jesus
If you want to get to know Jesus, you might also consider getting to know those he hung around. You're probably aware that many of Jesus' friends, as well as his enemies, played a significant role in his story on earth. The following are some of the more popular.
John the Baptist
Who: John the Baptist was born only a few months before Jesus. John's parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were good friends of Mary. Elizabeth was also Mary's cousin.
As a young adult, John became a preacher who lived in the wilderness. His sermons focused on announcing the coming of Jesus to all who would listen.
Famous for: He ate locusts and wild honey right from the comb. He also baptized Jesus.
Sad part of the story: John was beheaded. In fact, the king's daughter made a request: "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter" (Mark 6:25, NASB). Yeah, she was a [insert fitting "name" to describe a woman who would want John's head on a platter]. She got her wish.
You might know him for: Showing up in the first verse of dc Talk's "Jesus Freak."
Peter, James, and John
Who: These guys were Jesus' closest disciples. After spending many hours with the Twelve, Jesus ended up choosing Peter and the brothers James and John to witness his transfiguration and to pray with him in the garden. You might remember, though, that they did end up falling asleep.
Famous for: John referred to himself throughout his gospel as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (21:7), and he was the only disciple who showed up at Jesus' crucifixion. He is perhaps best known for writing Revelation. Peter is probably the most famous of the disciples; he was outspoken and apparently had very good publicity. Of course, Peter also walked on water, ushered in Pentecost, and wrote 1 and 2 Peter. Sadly, James was rarely mentioned without Peter's and John's names somewhere in close proximity. But James is the only one of the Twelve whose death [by sword] is recorded within Scripture (see acts 12:2).
Sad part of the story: History tells us that because of his faith, John ended up being boiled in a basin of oil. Amazingly, he survived the burning oil. He lived out his days in exile on the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation. Peter never could seem to stay out of trouble, but he always recovered. After denying Jesus three times, he ended up becoming one of the greatest leaders of Christianity. However, history tells us that Peter died by crucifixion. [According to tradition, Peter refused to be crucified like Jesus, so he asked his killers to hang him on the cross upside down. However, this is more of a legend than a definite fact.] James probably died shortly after Jesus' ascension into heaven. Also, it's important to note that most believe James, John's brother, did not write the book of James. James, the brother of Jesus, is probably the one who wrote the New Testament book.
You might know Peter for: Peter is considered by the Catholic Church to be the first pope. Most evangelicals think this is pretty farfetched. [I'll talk more about this in a later section.]
Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany
Who: Mary must have been a very popular name during Jesus' time, because in addition to Jesus' mother, we also read about Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany in the four gospels. Before she met Jesus, it is believed that Mary Magdalene made her living as a prostitute; in the gospel of Luke, Jesus is said to have cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene (see 8:2). Mary of Bethany was a sister to Martha and Lazarus; she became one of the most passionate followers of Jesus.
Famous for: Besides her former "profession," Mary Magdalene is best remembered for being the first person to discover Jesus' empty tomb. Mary of Bethany is best known for anointing Jesus with her alabaster box of expensive perfume.
Sad part of the story: A lot of people believe these two are the same person. [Aw, poor Marys.]
You might know Mary Magdalene for: The Da Vinci Code's implications that Mary Magdalene bore Jesus' child have made her a household name of late.
Who: Judas was one of the original twelve disciples; according to Scripture he was the treasurer for Jesus' ministry.
Famous for: You know what he's famous for, but just in case you've not seen a passion play of late: Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. While Jesus, Peter, James, and John were in the garden, Judas came with soldiers and pointed out Jesus by kissing him on the cheek.
Sad part of the story: Umm, see above paragraph. In addition to that, Judas became so overwhelmed with guilt that according to the gospel of Matthew he committed suicide; according to Acts 1:18, "[Judas] purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out" (KJV).
You might know him for: Judas Priest. Kidding. not the same person. You probably know him as one of the most infamous traitors of all time.
Others Worth Mentioning
Nicodemus: The most famous of all Pharisees, Nicodemus ventured out of his comfort zone and questioned Jesus about being born again. Find the story in John chapter three.
Pontius Pilate: Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea when Jesus was tried for "blasphemy"; he ultimately ordered his execution.
Pharisees: The Pharisees were a group of Jewish leaders who rigidly defended their traditions and religion. Throughout Jesus' time on earth, the Pharisees challenged a lot of his teachings and actions.
Thomas: One of the original twelve disciples, Thomas is best known for doubting Jesus' resurrection. He didn't believe until he saw the scars on Jesus' hands.
Excerpted from What You Didn't Learn from Your Parents About Christianity by Matthew Paul Turner Copyright © 2006 by Matthew Paul Turner. Excerpted by permission.
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