Difficult issues series
On the first Counting Crows album, Adam Duritz sang about Maria, who said she was “close to understanding Jesus”.
But I can’t help feeling that modern western christianity has covered Jesus in layers of theology and convenience, and is close to misunderstanding Jesus.
If you think that’s harsh, please read on.
Layer upon layer, precept upon precept
In principle, the process is quite simple.
Jesus lived and died, and people saw and heard him. They told others about him, and some wrote their memories down. More and more people believed in him, and he became important to them. And so the christian church grew, and passed on the stories.
But the process of belief so easily becomes muddied.
Gradually church organisations grow up around belief in Jesus, and certain ritual practices develop. Christian belief becomes shared by large numbers of people and becomes part of the shared culture of a city, and then a nation. And then belief becomes mixed up with rites of passage, superstition, society, government, and people’s need for security and meaning.
And so adherents to particular religious traditions can take on beliefs that owe more to their tradition than to Jesus and his teachings, and not really be aware of it. If they comment on a divergence they will likely be given an “explanation” of why this re-interpretation of Jesus is true.
Jesus as an object of worship
Christians believe Jesus is present with us through his Spirit. We can pray to him, receive guidance and sometime healing. Since the very first days after Jesus’ resurrection, his followers have worshiped him, and for some this is a deep spiritual and intensely emotional experience.
So it is inevitable that people will relate to Jesus on more than one level. We receive his teaching as we read the Bible, we accept his forgiveness, which we acknowledge comes through his death and resurrection, but we also learn and grow into new understandings via the ministry, the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit.
So, “what is truth?”
So building on what we know of Jesus from the gospels is inevitable and necessary. But we still believe that Jesus was the most complete revelation of God ever given to us.
So how do we keep all this in balance? How do we avoid misinterpreting and misunderstanding Jesus?
Go back to the source
It seems pretty obvious. If we believe that Jesus is the supreme revelation of God, and if we believe the Bible is a written account of God’s revelation, then surely we must start with a correct historical and cultural understanding of Jesus, and move out from there, praying for the Spirit’s guidance on how to apply his teachings and example into our different situations.
I have written a brief summary of how we might better understand Jesus, based on the work of historical and literary scholars – see Understanding Jesus better. If you are interested in this matter, I encourage you to check it out.
Some common (and not so common) misunderstandings
Jesus came to die?
Well, yes, he did. But it certainly wasn’t all he came for. And it appears it really wasn’t the main thing he came for, though it was a necessary part Scholars all pretty much agree that Jesus’ main purpose and message was to announce and begin the rule of God on earth in a new way (= “the kingdom of God”).
Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to think about how this one change in understanding would change how you live as a christian, and how the church goes about its mission.
Evangelism is the church’s first priority?
I heard a young preacher say this not long ago, in a talk based on the teachings of Jesus. Trouble is, it’s not really what Jesus said.
Jesus definitely left his followers with the mission of making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), but it’s one of the few places he gave us this command. Throughout his teachings we find many more commands governing the way we live, and urging us to live lives of sacrificial and serving love towards other people. Parables like The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and The sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) teach this graphically, the latter even suggesting that our failure to live this way may disqualify us for life in the age to come.
Moreover, Jesus wasn’t an evangelist as we would define the word today. Think of all the different encounters with people recorded in the gospels. He dealt with every one differently, not giving them all (or any of them, in fact) the same evangelical message that we would tend to give today. Some he encouraged, comforted or healed; some he challenged. For many, he seemed more concerned about healing them and giving them back their dignity than he was concerned to preach at them or recruit them.
We misuse the word “gospel”. The word had a secular origin – in Jesus’ day it meant a public announcement that a person had become king (e.g. after the death of the previous king). Applied to Jesus, it indicated his announcement of the kingdom of God. He was inviting people to join him in a program to make change, not just offering them personal salvation (though that is part of it).
We might wonder why this emphasis. I think there may be several reasons for it. Jesus had a bigger agenda than we often recognise – renewing “all things”. He allowed people freedom to work out their own lives, and he trusted the Holy Spirit to lead genuine people to know him. He didn’t have a formula to how people come into the kingdom. And I think he knew that showing love tangibly is often a necessary part of the process.
Again, you might like to ponder how this understanding would change how modern western churches do mission.
Wealth, power and privilege
I live in Australia, where the average person lives at a higher standard of living than in most countries in the world. I am a beneficiary of where I was born, a fact I can claim no credit for. My relative wealth makes me, and likely you too, a person of power (in that I can influence other people’s lives just by the products I buy) and privilege.
Few churches actively teach the inequality of all this, nor model the ways we might change our lifestyle to make a difference. What pastor is going to make his congregation uncomfortable like that? (Not to mention tell them to give more away to the poor, thus jeopardising his own income!)
Yet Jesus stood against entrenched wealth, power and privilege, and on the side of the poor, the powerless and the under-privileged. Somehow so much preaching on the gospels manages to slide past Jesus’ uncomfortable teachings here.
Faith vs following
Jesus didn’t just call people to believe in him, but to follow him. The picture here is of a student or disciple following his rabbi, learning as they went and accepting the master’s discipline.
If we were taking Jesus as our model, there would be no “pew-sitting” christians (except those unable to do anything more at a particular time). We would all be actively following, not sitting on our laurels (or whatever else we sit on!) waiting to “receive our reward”. We sometimes forget that Jesus said “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). Following Jesus is a journey, not only a one-time choice.
Re-aligning our understanding
If we think, as I do, that modern churches have built a barrier between us and the original teachings of Jesus, we need to re-align. Perhaps the following steps would help.
- Pray. Ask God’s Spirit to help you re-align, so you can understand Jesus better.
- Read the Gospels again. Try to read them with new eyes. When something seems anomalous, don’t gloss over it but make a note.
- Do some research. There is some useful (I hope) information on this site under Jesus. Google noteworthy matters you find in your Gospel reading, and try to read several different viewpoints. Read some good historians – I recommend John Dickson as a good starting point (see reference list below).
- Talk to christian friends. Everyone has different gifts and responses, and we can learn from each other.
- Live it out. Be a follower. Ask God for guidance, then find ways to do as Jesus taught us to do.
And please make a comment here, about your initial thoughts, and later about any conclusions. Escaping years of some wrong traditions isn’t always easy, and we need to encourage each other.
I find the writings of John Dickson, historian, Minister, writer and Aussie, to be very helpful here. He has a good understanding of the historical and cultural context, and he can express this understanding in simple and practical ways. Try any of the following:
- A Spectator’s Guide to Jesus – probably my favourite explanation of his life.
- Life of Jesus – available as a book and an accompanying DVD.
- Jesus, a short life – aims more at the historical information, and includes lots of illustrations.
If you found this worthwhile, you may like these:
Top picture: Flickr Creative Commons