Chapter 4: JESUS
Why Jesus is so misunderstood. Why Jesus draws us in and pushes us away. Why Jesus is good news.
We bundled the boys up, pulled out the little red wagon, and started walking toward the lights.
By now it was an annual Christmas tradition. We went to Tom and Lisa’s house, ate stacked red enchiladas with their family, crowded too many people around their kitchen table, and then headed out into the cold. Just around the corner from their house was a neighborhood called Eastridge, and it was the reason we were all sneezing and sniffling the next day. But it was worth it.
I’m not sure how it began, but I know what it is today: house after house with homemade light displays of all shapes and sizes. Giant towering trees of white lights. Icicle blue lights. Red strands of lights covering whole roofs. Green lights hung dangerously high in trees. Every other neighborhood in my city is hit or miss with Christmas lights, but not Eastridge. Year after year the neighborhood spends whole weekends setting up light displays for those glorious few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Some people drive through, tuned to the non-stop Christmas station. But the real fans walk it. So we usually walk it, even if we have to haul half-sick children around in a little red wagon.
Along the way there are Peanuts houses with Snoopy and Charlie Brown and friends. There’s an intensely patriotic home with nothing but Texas stars covering their lawn and roof. There’s a Nightmare Before Christmas house. There’s a Star Wars Christmas house. There are photo ops as Mr. & Mrs. Claus. There are even people smart enough to load up on glow sticks, light up swords, and hot chocolate who sell them on the sidewalk to families caught up in all the Christmas magic.
But in the midst of all this holiday bling there’s something that seems out of place. In between Elvis Santa and his convertible sleigh, and the cast of Frozen, there’s a little baby sleeping out in the cold.
Usually with these particular displays the lighting is softer and more subdued. There’s little razzle-dazzle, instead the focal point is often on a simple scene cut out of wood: two parents, a baby, in stable, under a star. It’s the simple scene of baby Jesus. Around these displays cars drive a little slower and the families pushing strollers pause a little longer there.
It’s strange to find this baby Jesus amid all the flashing lights and nonstop action of Eastridge. He’s in an awkward place. He’s important enough to still be included, but he’s fighting for space and attention with a world that seems to move further and faster every year. He’s one Christmas ornament among many. He’s a religious symbol stuck into the whirlwind midst of modern technology, Americana nostalgia, rampant consumerism, and awkward seasonal family reunions that is the American Christmas season.
I’m not one of those “War on Christmas” people by any means. I love cookies shaped like trees and reindeer as much as anyone. But I think Eastridge is an illustration exactly where Jesus is in our culture today. Many people still have a basic awareness of a man named Jesus, even a general respect, but he’s fighting for attention against streaming television and the latest smartphones and news of the latest political clash. He can fade into the fuzzy backdrop of our lives while the real action moves elsewhere. Like most things in our world today, he means different things to different people. People agree that he’s important, but they agree on little else about him.
No one can deny that 2,000 years ago a baby came that changed history. But who was he? And why does it matter for our lives today?
Get ready to meet Jesus again.
Choose Your Own Jesus
If you have a religious background you probably grew up with a view of Jesus. Even if you didn't, you think something about Jesus. We come to him with our preconceptions. Here are a few stereotypes of Jesus that float around in our culture.
• Poor Martyr Jesus: He takes his place alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. as a great man who had a great dream for tomorrow but was killed before his time. His death means we can feel inspired.
• Social Justice Jesus: This poor nice man walked around barefoot trying to help people all just get along and encouraging them to stamp out injustices like oppression and slavery and chickens who are living in cages. His death was the ultimate protest against injustice.
• Good Teacher Jesus: This simple Galilean and his homespun and pithy sayings still give wisdom even in our modern age. He's suitable for good quotations on coffee cups and soft pastel paintings. His death was sad, but let's not talk about that.
• Spiritual Figure Jesus: Perhaps he was a prophet according to Islam, or perhaps he was a powerful spiritual leader according to Eastern religions, perhaps a powerful spiritual person in touch with the universe. His death had some spiritual significance like rising to a higher spirit plane. But he’s simply part of a broader spirituality people have, not the thing that defines it.
These pictures of Jesus all have a problem—all of them have bits of truth but none of them are the whole picture of Jesus. To get to know Jesus as he truly is we have to dig deeper. And to dig deeper we need to read Jesus’ book.
The New Testament wasn't physically written by Jesus, but the gospels were created and shaped by eyewitnesses to Jesus. Matthew and John were present for the things they wrote about. Mark probably relied heavily on the testimony of Peter. Luke approached his gospel with the skill of an investigative reporter piecing together testimony. Remarkably, they all hold together, telling one big story.
Beyond this, the New Testament claims that these documents are authoritative and inspired by Jesus himself. If this seems ridiculous to you remember who God claims to be in Scripture. If he could spin pulsars into existence I'm sure he could make sure some of his disciples got their gospels right. The Bible claims to be written by God, let's at least be willing to read it according to its own claims about itself.
To understand Jesus, we need to understand two things about him: That he was more human than we think, and that he was more divine than we think. Taken together these two aspects of Jesus help us rediscover what he did on the cross and why.
More Human Than We Think
Sometimes in Christian religion Jesus is acknowledged as divine, but he's so divine he bears little resemblance to us. Or he's a spiritual Jesus that was more spirit than man. He seems to glide from hilltop to hilltop as he teaches and he never gets wet in rainstorms. Not true.
Jesus was born the way all of us are (Luke 2:7). Jesus grew physically as well as mentally and even in wisdom (Luke 2:40, 52). As a grown man, he got tired after walking for a long time (John 4:6). He got hungry after he didn't eat (Matthew 4:2). He felt real sadness (Matthew 26:38). He got astonished (Matthew 8:10). One of his best friends in the whole world died and he openly wept about it (John 11:35). Jesus wasn't a spirit figure who sat at a distance from humanity's condition and even humanity's pain.
Jesus also experienced all the temptation we experience and more (Luke 4). I've been sorely tempted but I've never had the devil show up, in person, after I haven't eaten for days, and offer me delicious food. I've never had the devil personally offer me control of the nations of the world to do with as I please. I've never had the devil throw every weapon in his arsenal at me all at once. But Jesus did. And Jesus didn't sin, not even once. Looking at Jesus’ whole life Hebrews calls him “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews. 4:15).
Jesus did what we could not do and lived a perfect life, utterly acceptable to God. He was Adam in reverse––doing the right thing at every point Adam failed.
Jesus is not a spirit-figure detached from the realities of the world. He wasn't a God-controlled robot that stiffly marched around delivering speeches through his mouth/speaker output. He bridged the chasm between Creator and creature. He invaded the world we ruined to come to us.
This is good news.
More Divine Than We Think
This is perhaps the more difficult part: I think that in general, in today's world, we are more okay with Jesus being a real person than we are with him being utterly divine. We think highly of ourselves and think, perhaps, we are not too many steps removed from Jesus ourselves.
Yet, while Jesus is not less than human, he is far more than human.
The Bible lays out Jesus that is not just a few steps above us, but a Jesus who is infinitely above us. Colossians 1:15 says that Jesus is "the image of the invisible God" but that he is far more the image of God than the way we are “in the image” of God. Jesus, unlike us, has all the attributes of God in fullness. I referenced Colossians 1:16-17 about God creating all things invisible and visible and holding them together. Actually, to be more specific, it says that Jesus is the one that does all that. Everything we talked about in the chapter on God is applied to Jesus. Now, Jesus did lay aside some aspects of his glory when he walked the earth according to Philippians 2:7 but he was still truly and fully God. Scripture says that all the fullness of God dwelt in him (Colossians 2:9). Jesus was not sort of God. He wasn't sort of powerful. He was as fully God as he was fully man.
We see glimpses of Jesus' utter power while he was on the earth. He tells evil Spirits what to do and they obey (Luke 4:36). He saves people from diseases from which there was no cure without a drop of medicine (Luke 5:13). He brings paralyzed people to full strength with no surgery and no rehab (Luke 5:24). He even raises people from the dead far long after the time for CPR and chest compressions is over (Luke 8:55). And notice that Jesus doesn't sit around meditating trying to charge up his spiritual power to do this stuff. He doesn't go on an epic quest to gather the five mighty stones of power to use a secret spell. He just does this stuff.
This matters because if Jesus is who he claims he is, it's not only incredibly offensive to see him as a good teacher or an inspirational figure, it's also incredibly stupid. If God came to earth as Scripture claims, then the implications shake the universe. To be more specific, the implications shake the foundations of our lives. If God came to earth, we shouldn't be able to rest until we find out what this means and why it matters.
To Seek and Save
So why did Jesus come to earth?
Remember what we’ve learned so far about God and about us. God is perfect and holy and just and made the world good. We are broken and sinful and have ruined what God made. Why then would God come to earth? Why then would he even bother?
Jesus tells us himself why he came: “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). That’s remarkable. He came on a rescue mission. He could have come simply to bring the justice we deserved. He could have come to settle our accounts with God. Instead he saw people that needed saving.
Why would he care? John 3:16 tells us that “God so loved that he sent his one and only son…” It was love that caused God to send Jesus. It was love that caused Jesus to go. Love for the unlovable. Love for people like you and me. That’s why he came.
Pushed and Pulled
When we see Jesus as he is in Scripture we’ll have the same reaction that the people in Jesus’ day did—we’ll be intrigued and pulled close but also offended and pushed away.
Again and again crowds built up wherever Jesus went. When he enters Jerusalem at the end of his life there are crowds shouting his name, calling him the king of Israel, a prophet of God. This is the truly amazing thing: It wasn’t just religious people who came to Jesus--the people in their Sunday best with a respectable marriage and obedient kids who always said prayers before they ate and never missed a church service. No, Jesus received the uneducated, the poor, the broken, the hurting, the lowly. And he went further. He didn’t just let them come near, he went after them. He pursued people who ripped other people off, people who sold their bodies in exchange for money, people who started insurrections.
There’s something about Jesus that intrigues, that draws us in, that continues to fascinate people long after he walked the earth. Here’s why I think that is: When we see Jesus, we see God. Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature but in human form (Hebrews 1:3). The thing we long for is that original relationship with God which gives us meaning and purpose and life. When we watch him welcome beggars and the poor, when we watch him speak with wisdom, when we watch him display power, something in our hearts is drawn to him.
I have a friend who took his daughter to Disneyland. When she met Mickey Mouse for the first time she said, “Oh Mickey I’ve missed you for so long!” I love that. Her little heart felt like it was finally full in a way she’d always missed. I think when we see Jesus, even for the first time, something in our hearts says that we’ve missed him.
But something in us also makes us uncomfortable about Jesus and pushes us away. In all this, Jesus is the perfect representation of the Father. He’s perfect, and jus,t and holy. But we don’t like looking in the mirror. We don’t like seeing the gap between Jesus and our own lives.
Repeatedly in the gospel of John we see people trying to kill Jesus. For example, in John 11, Jesus literally raises someone from the dead (!) and the response of some religious leaders is that he’s getting too popular, he’s going to upset the balance of power, so he needs to die. Wait, what? You’ve just seen a man raised from the dead and you think, “We’ve got to get rid of this guy?”
Before we judge those leaders too harshly I think we need to look in the mirror. See Jesus made all kinds of people angry because his existence threatened them. In rejecting Jesus the religious leaders wanted to preserve what they’d built instead of pursuing God himself. Today we often do the same thing. If we rightly understand Jesus, we’ll see that he threatens our life as it exists now.
Jesus lays some strong claims on our lives that are uncomfortable. He tells people who they can sleep with and who they can marry, he tells them to love their enemies, he tells them that anger is like murder. His teaching makes us uncomfortable because it demands that we drop what we’re doing and follow it. He demands not only that we follow his teaching but follow him in every respect as his disciples.
In the end, Jesus is killed. In the end, humanity chooses to push him away. The religious leaders arrest him, and lie about him, and deliver him to the Romans. The Romans ask the crowd, and the crowd calls for Jesus to be killed.
It looks like the story of God and humanity is over.
But it’s only beginning.