Jesus was most upset at people for seeing but not seeing. For missing it. For succumbing to the danger and idolatry of forcing God into preconceived ideals. What if there were a better way? What if Jesus came not to help people escape the world but rather to restore it? Best-selling author and spoken word artist Jefferson Bethke says that “Christians have the greatest story ever told but we aren’t telling it.” So in this new book, Bethke tells that story anew, presenting God’s truths from the Old and the New Testaments as the challenging and compelling story that it is—a grand narrative with God at the center. And in doing so, Bethke reminds readers of the life-changing message of Jesus that turned the world upside-down, a world that God is putting back together.
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It's Not What You Think
Why Christianity is About So Much More than Going to Heaven When You Die
By JEFFERSON BETHKE
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Jefferson Bethke
All rights reserved.
YOUR STORY'S NOT WHAT YOU THINK
LOVE DEFINED YOU BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE DID
CHRISTIANITY IS A BOUNCED CHECK TO MY GENERATION.
We heard the promises, the value of "coming to Jesus" — payouts such as a better life and no more problems — but when we went to cash in on those promises, nothing deposited. The investment didn't deliver what it said it would deliver. So we put our trust into things that did (or at least felt like it).
I still remember when I first started truly following Jesus my freshman year of college and began to go to church with a whole new perspective. I wanted to learn more about Jesus, but I found myself dreading going every week. The church I was attending frequently put the perfect, shiny-rainbow Jesus follower onstage, who made me feel even worse. Half the time I was expecting an angel to fly over the stage with Handel's Messiah playing from the clouds.
During what was called "testimony time," someone would be invited to share for a few minutes about his or her life before and after Jesus. Usually they'd say something like, "I was an alcoholic for forty years and struggled every day with no hope. I gave my life to Jesus and have never thought about a drop since."
While many people have that type of story, I don't. So every time I'd hear testimonies like that, I'd sink deeper into my chair and look around, wondering if anyone felt the same. Was I the only one who didn't have that kind of experience? Was there something wrong with me? Did God not love me? Did I mess up and not become "Christian" enough?
Because when I started following Jesus, things actually got harder. I had a long season of depression. Things in my life started to go poorly. Relationships broke. Addictions stayed. I knew I didn't want to live for myself, or listen to the fleshy desires in me, but they still called me and lured me more. I felt I had no place in Christianity.
When I was a kid, the Christianity I saw never really gave much space to struggle, fail, or ask for help. Growing up in the '90s and coming of age in the beginning of the twenty-first century was a really peculiar place to be. It's as if we are in the middle of that monumental shift from Christianity being the law of the land to now becoming adamantly opposed. How'd we get here?
Western Christianity today is a weird stew of some biblical teachings and some gnostic principles, in a heavy modern enlightenment foundation with a Jesus sticker slapped on it. And sadly that combination leads to erosion, decay, and a Christianity that is honestly neither fulfilling nor enticing. In fact, it's pretty lifeless. It's not a compelling story because it's usually not a story at all. It's a formula, or facts, or a math equation.
But what if there is a better way? I truly believe Jesus tells a better story.
In order for Christianity to start fresh, we have to start with the gospel.
My first memorable encounter with the gospel was when I was in middle school. All around me other middle school kids were crying and hardly anyone was standing. It was a powerful moment — so much so that even now when I think about it, a range of emotions comes over me.
I was at a Christian youth camp.
It was the last night of that camp when everyone "asked Jesus into their hearts." The piano was playing softly while the camp speaker asked all the kids to bow their heads and close their eyes. He would then say, "Okay, whoever wants to receive Jesus, repeat after me...."
Sound familiar? Welcome to 1990s evangelicalism.
Considering how common that experience was for people back then, there's something that has always struck me: Why is it that a similar situation, when read as if it were part of the gospel narrative, feels weird or off base?
Imagine you pick up the Gospel of Luke, and you see a bunch of red letters (the words of Jesus). You start reading those red letters, and it says, "All righty, everyone, bow your heads and close your eyes. The worship leader is going to come play some soft piano music behind me, and if you think you want to follow me, just put your hand in the sky. Don't worry: no one is looking." And when someone raises his hand, Jesus says, "I see your hand; God sees your heart."
It's almost comical, isn't it? Jesus' exhortations to his listeners were almost exactly the opposite. His declaration to follow him bled grace — to the point of bleeding himself — but in that grace he said, "Follow me." The abandon, the unknown, the reference to a first-century torture device, all crashed into that two-word phrase, follow me. We privatize our faith, when Jesus calls us to follow him publicly.
How did we get so far off base? How come our gospel doesn't really seem much like Jesus' gospel?
Here's a scarier question: at what point is a religion only wrong in a few areas but still the same belief system, and at what point is a religion so unrecognizable to its founders they'd call it a different religion entirely? Have we reached that point in Western Christianity?
I can't help but look at the Scriptures and the Christianity I've lived and breathed most of my life and think, Really? Is this it? What happened? The truth is, we are living in a really, really bad story. And a lot of us are not only living in it, but telling others, "If you come to Jesus, you can escape this world." (Yet didn't Jesus say he came to restore this world?)
When I was a kid, this thing called heaven was always spoken of as somewhere far away up in the sky. I always imagined heaven being a place far, far away with winged babies playing harps and floating on the clouds. Now honestly, that doesn't sound like a place where I want to be for eternity. It sounds terrible and boring. In fact, if I ever saw a naked chubby baby with wings, I'd probably run as fast as I could the other way; I wouldn't say, "Oh, I sure want to go there when I die." What if there's better news than the good news that Christians are going to heaven when we die? What if God wants to give us heaven right here? In our families? Our jobs? Our meals? Our art?
Another bad story a lot of Christians live in is what I call "Cliffs Notes Christianity." It usually begins the story with Jesus: Jesus came to show you your sin, die for your sin, resurrect, and float off into heaven. It's a sterile, clean, plastic Jesus. It's the Christianity of show. It's nice, tidy — a neat package with a perfect bow on it. But walking with Jesus is way messier than that, like all of life truly is.
The problem with a CliffsNotes faith is we are disregarding the very story Jesus himself believed and lived! It starts with the New Testament and leaves out the fact that Jesus himself only had Genesis to Malachi as his Bible (or his story).
Many of us, without knowing it, rip Jesus' Jewishness right out of the story. But it's his Jewishness that informs the gospels and the story of Jesus himself. Jesus was a Jew and a rabbi. He probably had the Torah (first five books of the Bible) memorized, if not the entire Tanakh (Old Testament). The Old Testament is a lengthy, weaving, extensive collection of texts that seem to end without delivering what they all call for — a Messiah. A lot of us often skip from Genesis right to Matthew, leaving Israel's story in the dust. There's a reason Jesus didn't come in Genesis 4, but instead in Matthew 1. Jesus is the climax of the story, not the introduction.
If you can tell the gospel — or the story — of Jesus without even mentioning the story of Israel, it's probably not really the gospel, or at least not a full one.
So what story are you walking in? What's the plot? Who's the main character? What's the goal?
We all have answers to those questions whether or not we know them. To many Westerners, the plot is that life has no meaning and so you may as well enjoy it while you can. The main character is myself. And the goal is to enjoy it — gain as much as possible, as easily as possible, with as little pain as possible. When I was in college, this was basically the story every one of my friends was living in.
Others live in a story that is driving toward Utopia. It's about continuing out of primitive religions, philosophies, and ideas, and making the world a better place one step at a time. Sadly, they don't realize that the most "advanced" full century we've ever lived in, the twentieth century, is also on record as the bloodiest. It seems enlightenment of ideas and philosophy aren't going to achieve a utopia.
So what's the true story? Which is the best story?
The truth is, Christians have the greatest story ever told, but we aren't telling it.
The crucial left turn Christians often make when telling our story starts with the first three chapters of the very first book in the Bible — Genesis.
Genesis is a deeply beautiful, poetic, rhythmic, powerful book.
"In the beginning ..."
Quite a start, right? Not, "Let me tell you some facts, theories, and abstract truths," but, "Let me tell you a story."
Yet as Christians we often miss what's going on in the very first chapters of the very first book of the Bible. Many Christians don't even read Genesis 1–2 unless they need an offensive weapon against evolutionists. Because of this, many start their functional Bible in Genesis 3, especially when presenting the good news of Jesus.
This is evident in the "gospel bracelet" that has six different colors to help navigate the American gospel story. (And I say "American" because it breaks down the gospel in a Western, modern, abstract truth way that would have been foreign to Jesus.) The problem with those bracelets, though, is most of them start with the color black. If you've ever seen one, the order they usually take is similar to below.
Black for sin
Red for blood
Blue for baptism
White for cleansing
Green for growth
Yellow for heaven
I used to wear one of these bracelets and could "take people through it" like they were on some type of assembly line. But there's something strange about those six steps. I'd contend that this "gospel" is a large reason for much of the distortion, malnutrition, condemnation, and lack of true healing and freedom in the church today.
The problem is, it starts with black. The bracelet's story starts with sin. That's like trying to build a house on rot. We want to tell people Jesus is the best thing ever, and the first thing we tell them is they are horrible and sinful and wretched. We are literally training people to start the "good news" with horrendously terrible news: "Hi, my name is Jeff. Can I talk to you for a second? You are a sinner."
Some of you might ask, "What's the problem? Isn't it true?" Yes, it's true, we are broken, but even though it's true, it doesn't mean that's where God starts the story.
Starting the story with sin is like starting The Chronicles of Narnia with Edmund's capture by the White Witch. Or imagine the first page of Where the Wild Things Are already has Max in the jungle environment with the beasts. You probably wouldn't even know he was dreaming! Where you start a story drastically changes how you perceive that story.
Stories have a f low and an arc, a beginning and an end. When reading an encyclopedia or a dictionary, we can f lip to any spot and get information, but when reading a story, we need to follow the narrative.
So if Genesis doesn't start in Genesis 3, why would we start there when telling it?
My point is this: black represents Genesis 3. It represents the point in the human story when we stage a coup d'état on God's throne and have been doing so ever since.
It's as if we're saying, "You're not God; I am. You don't know what's right and wrong; I do. I know you've given me the very oxygen in my lungs that allows me to live, but step aside. I can take it from here."
When we begin with sin, we feel spiritually and emotionally naked. Shame, guilt, and condemnation distort our beings at the truest level. Things don't work how they are supposed to work. We know something is broken, amiss.
But that's not where the story starts.
Any reading of ancient Jewish thought would show the first two chapters of Genesis were critical to their worldview and to Jesus'. These were the chapters that concreted their very radical notion of monotheism, which was and still is a pillar of Jewish thought — one God over all creation, as opposed to many other societies at the time of ancient Israel who believed in regional gods of the sun, moon, and crops, among others.
And the first couple of chapters of Genesis are beautifully written. God makes order, beauty, and meaning out of chaos. Before God touched his finger to creation, it says it was tohu va bohu, which literally means "void and empty." But God starts making stuff, starts bringing beauty.
If you've ever seen a painter at work in his studio or a carpenter making something beautiful out of the best cuts of wood there are, you can only imagine the scene when God created everything.
And he just won't stop. Animals, stars, flowers, water, and land. And then, as the crowning act of creation, he makes two image-bearers — male and female — and puts them into the garden to ref lect, cultivate, and steward. He points them to the cultivated part of the garden where everything has been made right and tells them to make the rest of the world look like that.
Talk about a story! The joy, elation, and mystery to be there in the beginning. Purpose, love, marriage, intimacy — it's all there.
So the question arises, why don't we start there? Why not tell that story?
Are you a Genesis 1 Christian or a Genesis 3 Christian? Do you start your story with shalom or with sin?
Shalom is the Hebrew word for "peace." For rhythm. For everything lining up exactly how it was meant to line up.
Shalom is happening in those moments when you are at the dinner table for hours with good friends, good food, and good wine.
Shalom is when you hear or see something and can't quite explain it, but you know it's calling and stirring something deep inside of you.
Shalom is a sunset, that sense of exhaustion yet satisfaction from a hard day's work, creating art that is bigger than itself.
Shalom is enemies being reconciled by love.
Shalom is when you are dancing to the rhythm of God's voice.
And in Genesis 1, everything was shalom. It was shouting out of every square inch of the creation and exploding in every mole- cule in God's good earth. It was a crashingly loud symphony coming through the best surround-sound system you've ever encountered, hitting you from all angles at the peak of intensity. Yet now it's a dying whisper, a fractured song, a broken melody, only brought back into the right key at the feet of Jesus.
Genesis 1 Christians start the story with an appeal to the fact that all human beings on earth have inherent worth and value because they were brought to life by God's very own breath. They are living creatures standing in the gap between Creator and the rest of creation. All of creation God spoke into existence, but with us it said we were formed.
God got particular and creative with us human creatures. He rolled up his sleeves when he made us and declared us to be Imago Dei. Image of God. He did not call us broken, sinner, or failure. Which means our primal identity (the one most at the depths of who we are — in our very bones) is one given by the Creator himself. We are his.
Excerpted from It's Not What You Think by JEFFERSON BETHKE. Copyright © 2015 Jefferson Bethke. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Ann Voskama xiii
Introduction: living in Color xxi
1 Your Story's Not What You Think: Love Defined You Before Anything Else Did 1
2 The Temple's Not What You Think: It's God Pitching His Tent in Your Backyard 27
3 People Are Not Who You Think: They're Neighbors to Love, Not Commodities to Use 51
4 You Aren't Who You Think: You're a Person from the Future 77
5 The Sabbath's Not What You Think: You Rest As You Play 97
6 Worship's Not What You Think: You Become What You Behold 117
7 The Kingdom's Not Where You Think: It's Not in the Sky; It's Here Now 131
8 Brokenness Is Not What You Think: You Must Embrace Your Scars 159
9 The Table's Not What You Think: It's Not Just a Meal; It's a Sacred Space 175
Conclusion: A Final Word to My Friends 197
Further Reading 209
About the Author 213