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Twenty-first century christians are far removed from the culture of Jesus’ time, so it is easy to misunderstand what was actually going on.
The experts tell us that Jesus’ “good news” wasn’t quite what is commonly preached today. Some of his teachings are sharply critical of attitudes that many christians have today, including some things we say and think about God, and his mission was much bigger than commonly recognised.
But we can re-orient our understanding and our response, and gain an exciting new vision of following Jesus today.
You might think you know the story of Jesus pretty well
We know all the stories – parables like the Prodigal Son, and stories like how Jesus fed 5000, and his meeting with a woman at a well in Samaria. And of course we all know about his death on a cross and his resurrection 3 days later.
Is there anything more we really need to know?
Well there probably is. I believe we western christians have lost the real Jesus, for three reasons.
1. Our culture is so different
It is too easy to understand Jesus’ sayings as if he was saying them today, in English, in modern materialistic culture. But Jesus spoke Aramaic, lived in a relatively poor part of a country under foreign occupation, and (most important of all) he had a thousand years and more of Hebrew culture and religious tradition informing everything he said and did.
If we understand that wrongly, we understand Jesus wrongly.
2. We easily ignore his teachings
Jesus spoke against many things that our western culture holds dear. He was against violence, urged love and forgiveness towards enemies, regarded wealth with suspicion, and often championed the outcast and marginalised against the rich and powerful.
Western christians mostly live in countries built on capitalism, where power is rewarded, wealth respected and military spending is high. We don’t quite know what to do with these teachings, so it is easier to tone them down or find some explanation that allows us to avoid them.
3. Jesus came to die?
So we take the truth that Jesus died for our redemption and turn it into a distortion that dying was the primary purpose of his life, almost the only purpose. You can see that in Apostles Creed, that jumps from Jesus’ birth (“born of the virgin Mary”) to his death (“suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified …”) – as if his life, miracles, teachings and interactions with people never happened, or weren’t of much importance.
But Matthew, Mark, Luke and John thought that all that Jesus said and did was important enough to record in detail.
Looking again at the exciting story told in the Gospels
So let’s look again at what these Gospel writers have told us about Jesus, and see if it may give us a new, and more exciting picture. I think you’ll find it makes a real difference.
Jesus was a first century Jew
Of course he was. So let’s begin by seeing how his first followers (who were also first century Jews) would have understood Jesus.
An itinerant prophet, healer and teacher
Historians are generally agreed that Jesus would have been known through much of Galilee as a healer and teacher (Rabbi) who could draw large crowds. Other healers and teachers appeared from time to time, but probably none as successful in their healing nor as striking in their teaching.
His criticisms of the religious elite would also have meant some saw him as following the traditions of the Old Testament prophets, and the religious elite would understandably have been unhappy at these teachings.
The roles of teacher, healer and prophet were familiar to first century Jews, at least as concepts.
Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man?
These titles, given to Jesus or claimed by him, are something different.
“Messiah” means “anointed one” and refers to the practice of anointing a king with oil. So the Messiah was a human figure, promised in the Old Testament prophets, who would act on God’s behalf, to restore Israel and bring release from bondage. Most expected him to be a warrior figure, and Jesus’ refusal to accept a combative role was a disappointment to many. Even John the Baptist was confused enough to ask Jesus to verify if he was indeed the one they were all expecting and waiting for. Jesus’ answer (Luke 7:22-23), typically, leaves the question up to his hearers and John to answer.
It is generally accepted by scholars that Jesus didn’t make overt claims to be divine (which would have been an enormous step for a monotheistic Jew to accept) and was reluctant to accept worship from people during his lifetime. But the gospels contain hints of his divine status (see Jesus – son of God?) and it seems that it wasn’t long after his resurrection that Jesus was being worshiped (see Jesus Worship), which led to the christian belief that he was indeed the “son of God”.
Jesus’ favourite title for himself was “Son of Man”, and these is considerable debate about what he meant by this. The obvious source for the name is the apparently semi-divine figure in Daniel 7:13, but Aramaic scholars say the phrase may have simply meant “a person”, shifting attention away from himself. I’m inclined to think both understandings are applicable and helpful.
The main point here is to realise that Jesus refused to say too much about himself most of the time. His main message was something else.
The kingdom of God is here!
Mark begins his Gospel (Mark 1:15) with a summary of Jesus’ teaching of “the good news of God”:
“The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
The words “good news” translate the Greek word euangelion, which is often translated as “gospel”. We commonly use the word “gospel” today to mean the message of personal salvation which we think is the core of christianity. But we can see that it was something much more to Mark, and presumably to Jesus.
For euangelion, originally had a secular context. When a king came to power, or conquered a city, an announcement would be made that Gaius (or whoever) is now king! That announcement was the euangelion.
So when Jesus first preached the gospel, he was announcing that God was beginning to set up his rule on earth, through Jesus. He invited his hearers to be part of the dawning reality of God’s rule through him, which would require a complete change in the way they thought and lived (repentance, literally “a change of mind”).
Scholars are almost universally agreed that the kingdom of God was the centre of Jesus teaching and actions.
Putting Jesus’ death in context
So Jesus didn’t just die to save you and I from our sins, though he did that. He died to defeat (in some way we can’t fully understand) the forces opposing the kingdom of God, and establish the rule of God on earth. Even many non-christian scholars accept that Jesus believed his death would be redemptive, not just for individuals, but for Israel and the people of God (which includes us), and in some sense for the entire world.
So what can we learn from Jesus’ life?
Jesus’ miracles were not just a supernatural proof of his divinity, nor just his compassionate response to suffering people, though we can see them as both of those things, especially the latter (the gospels several times record that Jesus was moved with deep compassion for people’s suffering and afflictions).
Jesus said on several occasions that his miracles were works of power that demonstrated that God’s kingdom was alive and active among them. God was beginning to put things right through him, and one day all things would be put right. His miracles were signs of the dawning reality and a promise of better things to come.
Many of Jesus’ teachings were not original. In first century Judaism there was often disagreement on important questions of doctrine and ethics. Two major schools followed the teachings of famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai, with Hillel’s school generally taking a more compassionate, flexible, liberal and peaceful view than the school of Shammai. Jesus’ teachings were often similar to Hillel’s teachings, which he sometimes developed further, and his disputes with the legalistic Pharisees were probably with followers of Shammai.
But some of Jesus’ teachings were as confronting then as they are today.
- In a society that saw wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, Jesus taught that wealth was a trap that can keep us from the higher priority of serving God. He urged his followers to be willing to give generously to those in need, and even be willing to give it all away.
- In a culture where violence and war were acceptable ways to retain ownership and protect their culture, and among Jews who looked down on Gentiles (non-Jews), Jesus urged non-violence, not taking revenge, returning good for evil and actively loving enemies.
- Jesus urged greater compassion and generosity to the poor and marginalised, and he treated women with equality, which was rare in his day. He was compassionate towards outcasts such as abused women, lepers and tax collectors.
- In a religious culture that had developed thousands of rules and precedents to ensure every aspect of life conformed to how God’s laws were understood, Jesus opposed unloving adherence to rules, and urged love, compassion and mercy.
We can gloss over these teachings as “idealistic” or “aspirations”, but Jesus commanded his first disciples (Matthew 28:18) to teach new disciples “all that I have commanded you”. He meant us to take these teachings seriously. And the world would be a very different place if we did!
Jesus and the Old Testament
The Tanakh (basically our Old Testament) was Jesus’ scriptures, and he saw these writings as God’s revelation. But his approach to these scriptures was often different to the religious leaders of his day, and generally those of our day also.
- Jesus showed us the character of God (John 14:9-10) and so gave us a revised picture of God from what we see in the Old Testament.
- On a number of occasions, Jesus was willing to correct or modify an Old Testament teaching, or a misunderstanding of an Old Testament teaching. For example:
- God allowed divorce, but really it wasn’t what he wanted.
- The Sabbath rules given in the Ten Commandments shouldn’t be interpreted pedantically, but were given as a help to the Jews.
- The law condemned certain actions (murder, adultery, theft) but Jesus said God was really interested in what was in our ‘hearts” – hatred, lust and envy.
- In common with other rabbis of his day, he was creative in how he applied the Old Testament to the questions of his day, sometimes applying passages into completely new contexts and even altering their meaning.
- God cared in a special way for the poor and underprivileged.
- Perhaps most importantly of all, God stood ready to forgive, and welcomed the penitent and humble, but not the self-righteous.
Jesus thus completely changed the rules about how to approach God. This can be seen clearly in two ways:
- In Luke 16:16 Jesus says that the Tanakh applied up until the time of John the Baptist and controlled how Jews should approach God, but now the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached and everyone (even those who don’t keep the Law) is welcome.
- Passover was a special time in the Jewish religious calendar and the Passover meal included rich symbolism and solemn remembrance of the covenant the Jews had with God. At his last Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus told them he was beginning a new covenant based not on animal sacrifice but on his imminent death.
Death and resurrection
Jesus’ death and resurrection form a major part of each of the Gospels.
Crucifixion was a form of execution the Romans inflicted on the worst criminals from the lower ranks of society, and the Jews regarded this form of death as an indication of God’s curse. So a crucified Messiah was an impossibility, perhaps on a par with a popular pedophile today.
Yet the earliest christians emphasised Jesus’ death on a cross despite knowing how it would be seen. This can only be because it was a crucially important fact for their understanding of Jesus.
The Last Supper gives us the clue why. The Law required animal sacrifices so that people could receive God’s forgiveness for wrongs committed, and Jesus was saying that his sacrifice would be the basis of the new covenant between God and people. If we are going to participate in God’s new kingdom on earth, we must be forgiven and put right with God. Somehow, Jesus’ death was necessary for that, and for evil to be defeated and the kingdom of God come in power.
The Bible, and theologians, offer various explanations of what Jesus’ death achieved. Some argue vehemently for their particular theory, but CS Lewis cautions that it is the fact of the atonement that is necessary, not any particular explanation, while NT Wright suggests all theories, even the ones we may personally find unhelpful, have something to teach us.
Jesus’ defeat of evil is shown clearly in his resurrection. This amazing miracle is well-attested historically and seems to have provided a significant impetus to the early christians’ belief that Jesus was indeed the son of God, and to their efforts to spread the message out into the Roman Empire.
All this was more or less how people of his day would have understood Jesus. What should be our response today?
Our belief about Jesus is not just based on the Gospels, but (in varying degrees) on the rest of the New Testament, on the collective wisdom and experience of christians down through two millennia, on our own experience of God, and on the conviction of the Holy Spirit. But the starting point must surely be with Jesus himself.
I suggest our response should include at least the following:
No more western Jesus
Too often Jesus is depicted in christian art and movies as tall and slender with long light brown hair, blue eyes and a western face. But we know he was a man of “middle eastern appearance”, likely shorter than us, olive skinned with dark hair. If we saw him we may be shocked.
We need to read the Gospels with his Semitic background in mind, and with an understanding of Old Testament history and culture. Too much of what is preached, written and said about Jesus reflects a misunderstanding. We can allow him to judge our culture rather than make him part of our culture.
Jesus didn’t simply call on people to believe in him, but to follow him. Following meant becoming his disciple, which meant learning from him and accepting his discipline, just as disciples followed other teachers. It means obeying his teachings.
There should be no passive “pew-sitting” christians. We must follow his teachings, not just say that we will (Matthew 21:28-31). He meant it when he said we would be judged by how we treated those in need (Matthew 25:31-46). He didn’t distinguish between good deeds of evangelism and of help, and he certainly didn’t prioritise evangelism over good deeds, and so neither should we. If we “followed him more nearly”, God’s kingdom would be much more apparent in the world.
A different gospel?
If Jesus’ gospel was an announcement of the reality of the kingdom of God, then we need to give serious thought to how we share the gospel today. I suggest we should put behind us evangelism that suggests that all people need to do is make a one time decision to “ask Jesus into their heart” or ask him to be their saviour (whatever formulation we may use), in favour of evangelism that:
- includes an announcement of the reality of the kingdom of God, and God’s plan to put everything to right;
- invites people to think again about their life and join us in making that kingdom a reality;
- encourages people to seek God’s forgiveness for their failure to live as children of God;
- recognises that following Jesus is not a one time decision but a lifetime of daily commitments; and
- encourages people to express their commitment as disciples of Jesus in practical and tangible ways.
I believe this gospel can transform us individually, transform the church and transform the world. Which was God’s idea from the beginning.
I have read dozens of books by historians and theologians, by both christian and non-christian scholars, in forming this understanding of Jesus. These are the ones that helped me the most:
- Richard Bauckham: Jesus: a very short introduction
- John Dickson: A Spectators Guide to Jesus and Life of Jesus.
- Maurice Casey: Jesus of Nazareth.
- AM Hunter: The Work and Words of Jesus.
- NT Wright: Simply Jesus.
- Richard Bauckham: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.