I thought I knew all about Jesus by the time I was a teenager. I had been raised in a Christian home and was well-churched. Throughout my childhood I heard about Jesus in a number of venues: at church, in Sunday school, at church camps, and in moments of Bible reading. Yet when I actually met Jesus he startled me. He was very different to all my earlier impressions; and whenever I return to the gospels in a new read-through those surprises are reawakened.
For one, I found Jesus to be deeply compassionate. This was hardly one of my biggest surprises—most people affirm this as a proper starting point in speaking of him—but it was more than I expected and to a different crowd than I expected. He cared for the broken, hungry, and needy and not just the good folks who deserve his care [I’m using my pre-conversion view of things here!]. When he and the disciples were ready for a retreat he delayed it as an act of compassion in order to feed the hungry thousands who were following them. He spoke of Jerusalem as a city that he longed to draw near to himself like a hen gathering her brood of chicks. He offered his power to heal and exorcize freely and often. He asked the Father to forgive those who carried out his own crucifixion while he was dying on the cross.
Jesus is also his Father’s delight; and he, in turn, is devoted to the Father. He did whatever the Father called him to do—even up to his willingness to die on the cross. He responded to the Father’s lead in everything. Whatever the Father said he accepted and obeyed from the heart. And he invites us to share in the glory of their mutual bond—a glory the Father gave him because he loves him.
So the surprise for me was that the gospels open a larger window into the Father-Son relationship than I ever expected. The view was at once attractive and shocking: the Father loves the Son and the Son reciprocates that love. Yet the Father wanted the Son to go to hell and back for our sake; and the Son—despite a momentary hesitation in Gethsemane—agreed. Why? In order to draw us, by the wooing of the Spirit, into their own familial love relationship: making all of us who respond to that love into the Son’s collective bride. All of this by way of the cross.
And from that invitation into God’s eternal embrace comes Richard Sibbes’ aphorism that “God has a spreading goodness.” The Father and Son share their love freely and boldly in order for us to enter into their bond of love through Christ. This trumped my teenage views that faith is mainly a function of legal demands and benefits.
What surprised me most, though, is the revolutionary Jesus. He came to overthrow the status quo of religion, of society, and of every person’s self-concerned view of life and meaning—a status quo based on human interests but not on God’s values.
This picture of Jesus keeps most people—including believers—from reading the Bible boldly and with open hearts. To the degree we idolize our self-focused personal identities, all that Jesus says represents just so much nonsense to us! And, with my own residual habits in play, I still find the three weeks it normally takes me to read from the beginning of Matthew to the end of John to be a jolting trip. There Jesus regularly reminds me of how he views life and it is never “Frost-centric”!
What I see in the gospels is a man who held the social structures of his day in contempt. He challenged societal leaders, both in the government and in the religious society. He called Herod a despicable animal [a “fox”]; he excoriated theology professors [“teachers of the Law” or “Scribes”] and Bible-quoting moralists [“Pharisees”] again and again; and at his final trial he gave the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, Herod and Pilate only the most cryptic answers while boldly advancing God’s ultimate Kingdom—a realm that would dismiss their own respective kingdoms as inconsequential—without a hint of fear.
At times he even challenged his own disciples for not getting it. At one point, for instance, he challenged Peter for being aligned with Satan by setting his mind on “the the things of man” rather than on God’s ways. So Jesus was and is always a polarizing figure: pressing people to either love him or to hate him. He insists on God’s full mastery over our lives.
How, then, would he respond to today’s social expectations that we all affirm relativism, pluralism, and diversity in life and religion? Not warmly!
These are values that speak to superficial social issues birthed in human autonomy rather than in a bond with God, shaped and guided by his love. Jesus, in opposing our autonomy, calls for repentance and offers a transformation that is only birthed by his renewing love. And from this repentance will come passionate yet compassionate disagreements with those who differ from us.
The point is that Jesus refused to blend the world’s values with the ideals of God’s Kingdom—the two are utterly incompatible. Instead he offered parables, sermons, and provocative actions that challenged the status quo of his day, and ours. And he refused to accommodate himself to the ever devolving social mores of his day, and ours; yet he reaches out to all who were and are hungry to be healed and set free from the ravaging outcomes of autonomy.
Jesus, in sum, lived in the world but he was never of the world. He lived a life fully oriented to the Father and that was always running against the flow of his earthly culture. One visual picture that regularly comes to mind for me—after trips on a jetboat on the Snake and Salmon Rivers in Idaho some years ago—is of a ministry that drives forward against plunging currents and massive rapids. He followed his own Spirit and insisted that his way is the only option for all who wish to join him and his Father in eternity.
In the end his stubborn nonconformity led his foes to kill him. Which is exactly what the Father sent him to experience: to go into the hell of our broken world in order to bring about resurrection for all who come to love him and what he stands for. He offers real life to all who repent—by dismissing the world’s fixation on personal security and status—and follow Jesus in his revolutionary ways. What haunts me is that most churches, Bible colleges, and social structures in society today are non-revolutionary by biblical standards. So it is that within this environment I often find myself being pulled out into the powerful currents of media, of societal expectations, and of friendships that move me away from a full devotion to Christ. I find myself being swept downstream, even while among groups of believers, by those who find accommodation to be preferable to revolution.
In my Bible reading, then, whenever I come to the gospels I find a jetboat awaiting me with Jesus speaking: “Come aboard, my son; let’s enjoy the ride!”
So the final question for today: is anyone else ready to get on board with us? The trip is a thrill and the destination is even better.