Close to understanding Jesus?

Feet with sandals

One day, when I was a young christian, I had a surprising thought. As soon as I thought it, I knew it couldn’t be true.

But this untrue thought set me on a path of discovery that I am still on today. This path has enriched my understanding of Jesus and changed the way I live and some substantial things about what I believe.

Evangelism back in the day

It was the middle 60s, I was in my late teens, and I had been a believer for just a few years. Not long before, evangelist Billy Graham had held crusades in Sydney that had made a deep impression. So we keen young christians discussed evangelism, both methods and teachings.

And in our evangelical church, we were fairly clear what the message should be: sin – Jesus, son of God – Jesus’ death – Jesus as Saviour – repent and believe.

Bible verses for the keen evangelist

So as a keen young christian, I wanted to arm myself with Bible passages I could use to evangelise. And they weren’t hard to find – 1 John 1:8-9, Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23, 1 Peter 2:24, etc.

But then I noticed something strange – not one of these passages came from the mouth of Jesus. It was then that the strange thought went through my mind.

Jesus was not a very good evangelist.

That can’t be right!

As soon as I had this thought, I knew it couldn’t be true. Jesus must have been a good communicator, and he must have been a good evangelist.

So if Jesus was a good evangelist, why didn’t he say the things we knew were good evangelism?

Only two possibilities

I could see there were only two possible answers to my question:

  1. Either Jesus was doing something different to what we should be doing today, or ….
  2. …. we had missed something.

Was he doing something different?

Well on one level of course he was! He was son of God on a mission to save the world, and I’m not.

But what was all this stuff about the kingdom of God? If he was setting up God’s kingdom (which is what he said over and over again), wouldn’t that kingdom still be relevant today?

And if what he was doing was totally different to what we are supposed to be doing today, wouldn’t that mean that we could, and should, ignore all the teachings recorded in the gospels?

Do Jesus’ teachings matter?

At first sight, it might seem that they don’t. Consider:

  • The Apostles Creed jumps straight from Jesus birth to his death, and says nothing about his life and teachings.
  • Few preachers seem to talk much about the kingdom of God, certainly not in the way Jesus made it the core of his teaching.
  • Jesus’ persistent teachings on the perils of wealth and the importance of forgiveness, non violence and loving our enemies, are not strong parts of the ethos of most christians and churches in the wealthy west, and “christian” USA may be the most violent country on earth, when one consider both the level of gun deaths and the extent of US involvement in foreign wars, drone attacks, etc.

But, like Jesus being a poor evangelist, I just knew that conclusion couldn’t be right. Jesus’ life and teachings must be important. I just needed to understand them better.

Critical scholarship vs faithful conformity

Around this time I discovered the Scottish theologian AM Hunter and his book The Work and Words of Jesus. He wasn’t the biggest name in New Testament scholarship, but he gave me a picture of Jesus in his first century Jewish context that no evangelical writing or preaching had ever done, and it was a revelation to me.

I was troubled by some of his views that seemed to me to take too liberal an approach to the New Testament. (I now realise and accept that this is the only way historical study can be done.) But his insights made so much more sense than what I was being taught elsewhere, so I overlooked the things I found difficult.

The kingdom of God arriving in force

Perhaps the main insight I gained from Hunter was Jesus’ emphasis on the kingdom of God coming with force. His ministry was not that of a serene teacher of timeless truths (as in some liberal theology) or three years of twiddling his thumbs while he waited to die as a substitutionary atonement (as in much evangelical theology) but “God breaking dynamically into human affairs, God in conflict with the powers of evil …. the crisis which gives meaning to all history before and after it.”

The parables were not ‘nice’ stories with a heavenly meaning, but weapons of this warfare against evil. His miracles were not just acts of compassion but also “dynamic deeds …. tokens of the dawning reign of God”.

One of the most evocative quotes was this (excuse the mildly sexist language, but he wrote more than 40 years ago):

“Only if we see the Galilean ministry thus, do we see it aright – get the impression of ‘tremendous power’ as of ‘a great wind sweeping through Palestine’, which Jesus’ ministry created. And the emerging picture of the chief figure in that campaign of the kingdom, so far from being that of a high-souled teacher patiently indoctrinating the multitudes with truths of timeless wisdom, is rather that of the strong Son of God, spearheading the attack against the devil and all his works, and calling on men to decide on whose side of the battle they will be.”

“And that has made all the difference” 2

This was the start of a whole new understanding for me, and my reading and thinking ever since have opened up a whole new world. Jesus spoke into a first century Jewish culture, and we need to understand that culture if we want to understand what he said and did.

And when we do begin to understand, we see Jesus as a much more exciting person, and we see his mission as much more than simply dying for our sins. It is a call to us to choose whether we will be part of the his renewal of the earth and the human race, beginning with ourselves. It is a holistic ministry, to body, mind, spirit and the whole earth:

“to proclaim good news to the poor …. to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”

Next post I’ll review a book that contrasts this view of Jesus’ ministry with the ‘old’ evangelical view.


1. The title of this post is from the song Round Here by Counting Crows.

2. From The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.

Photo: I have seen this photo several times (first here) but with no attribution. If I shouldn’t have used it, please tell me and I’ll remove it.

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