September 21, 2020

iMonk 101: What Was Jesus Like?

This May 2008 post is from a series I did called “The Jesus Shaped Question.” You can find it in the “Jesus Shaped” category on the sidebar. It goes along with the material in “The Jesus Disconnect.”

Mark 3:20 Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”….Mark 3:31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers* are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

Most Christians aren’t like Jesus.

Should we even try to be? Isn’t that impossible?

None of us can be like Jesus perfectly, but the Gospel of the Kingdom calls Jesus’ disciples to hear his call and set the goal and direction of their lives to be like him. For a follower of Jesus, Paul’s words of “follow me as I follow Christ,” are translated simply, “follow Christ in every way possible.”

Ghandi said “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” He’s far from the only one to have made that observation, and those critics aren’t holding anyone to a standard of perfection. They are simply looking for enough congruence that the claim to be a follower of Jesus makes sense.

Christians have gotten very good at explaining why they really shouldn’t be expected to be like Christ. At various points, these explanations are true. At other points, they start sounding like winners in a competition for absurdist doublespeak.

Perhaps many Christians don’t resemble Jesus because they don’t really know what Jesus was like. Or- more likely- they assume Jesus was very much like themselves, only a bit more religious.

Getting our bearings on being like Jesus will start with something very important: discarding our assumption that our personal and collective picture of Jesus is accurate.

One of the constants in the Gospels is the misunderstanding of Jesus. The list of mistaken parties is long.

Herod the Great mistook Jesus for a political revolutionary.

The religious leaders mistook Jesus for another false Messiah.

Jesus’ family mistook him for a person who was “out of his mind.”

Nicodemus mistook Jesus for a wise teacher.

The rich young ruler mistook Jesus for a dispenser of tickets to heaven.

The woman at the well mistook Jesus for a Jewish partisan.

Herod Antipas mistook Jesus for John the Baptist back from the grave.

The people said that Jesus was a political messiah, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.

The disciples….oh my. The disciples were certain Jesus was a political messiah/king who would bring the Kingdom through miracles, but just at the moment they were most certain of who and what Jesus was, he turned everything upside down. Only after the horror of the cross was past and the Spirit opened their minds and hearts to the truth did the disciples begin to see Jesus clearly.

Thomas mistook Jesus for a dead man.

Like the blind man in Mark 8, the disciples had partial, unclear sight that required a second touch for clarity.

I believe Judas misjudged Jesus. Saul the persecutor certainly did, as did Pilate and the Romans.

If you got all the people who misjudged Jesus into a room, you”d need a bigger room.

When our children were small, my son was a big fan of wrestling. Every wrestler has a “signature move” to end a match; a move that no one does exactly like they do.

When I read Mark 11 and the story of Jesus turning over the tables of the merchants and moneychangers, I believe Jesus’ “signature move” is turning over the tables of expectations about who he is and what it means to follow him.

Read back through the Biblical examples I’ve cited. In almost every instance, it’s Jesus who overturns the tables of expectations and preconceived notions. It’s not just a discovery by a seeker. Jesus is the initiator of the big surprises. Part of what it means to be a Jesus-follower is to have your notions of religion, life and God turned upside down by the rabbi from Nazareth.

So is Jesus like today’s Christians who so easily assume they know what Jesus is all about? I’d like to suggest that the answer is “No.” Jesus isn’t like today’s Christians at all, and a large portion of our failure of Christlikeness comes down to a failure to know what Jesus was like.

Do you like grape Kool-Aid? I’ve always loved the taste of grape Kool-Aid on a hot day.

Have you ever tasted grapes? Do grapes taste grape Kool-Aid?

No, they don’t. But you could easily imagine a child who loves grape Kool-Aid eating a grape and saying “Yuck!! This doesn’t taste like grapes at all!”

The real thing has been replaced by the advertised replacement so long that there’s genuine confusion and disappointment at the taste of a real grape.

So it is with Jesus. The version of Jesus that dominates so much contemporary Christianity is the grape Kool-Aid version of a real grape. And many, many Christians have no “taste” for Jesus as we find him in scripture, especially the Gospels.

Where would the real Jesus perform his “signature” move of turning over our popular misconception of him?

Here’s just a few tentative and preliminary suggestions.

Jesus wasn’t building an institution or an organization, but an efficient, flexible movement with the Gospel at the center and grace as the fuel.

The church Jesus left in history was more a “band of brothers (and sisters)” than an organization of programs and buildings.

The message at the heart of all Jesus said and did was the Kingdom of God, which implicitly included himself as King and the status of all the world as rebels in need of forgiveness and surrender.

The movement Jesus left behind was made up of the last, the lost, the least, the losers and the recently dead. The world would never recognize this Jesus shaped collection of nobodies as successful.

Jesus treated women, sexual sinners and notoriously scandalous sinners with inexplicable acceptance.

Jesus taught the message, power and presence of the Kingdom. He did not teach how to be rich, how to improve yourself, how to be a good person or how to be successful.

Jesus didn’t teach principles. He taught the presence of a whole new world where God reigns and all things are made right.

Jesus rejected the claims of organized religion to have an exclusive franchise on God, and embodied the proof that God was in the world by his Son and through his Spirit to whomever has faith in Jesus.

Jesus practiced radical acceptance in a way that was dangerous, upsetting and world-changing.

Jesus calls all persons to follow him as disciples in the Kingdom of God. This invitation doesn’t look identical to the experiences of the apostles, but the claims and commands of Jesus to his apostles extend to all Jesus-followers anywhere.

God is revealed in Jesus in a unique way. What God has to show us and to say to us is there in Jesus of Nazareth. All the fullness of God lives in him, and to be united to Jesus by faith is to have the fullness of all God’s promises and blessings.

Jesus didn’t talk much about how to get to heaven, and certainly never gave a “gospel presentation” like today’s evangelicals. Nor did he teach that any organization of earth controlled who goes to heaven.

Jesus never fought the culture war.

Jesus was political because the Kingdom of God is here now, but he was the opposite of the political mindset of his time as expressed in various parties and sects.

Jesus was radically simple in his spirituality.

Jesus was radically simple in his worship.

Jesus wasn’t an advocate of family values as much as he was a cause of family division.

Jesus fulfills the old testament scriptures completely, and they can not be rightly understood without him as their ultimate focus.

The only people Jesus was ever angry at was the clergy. He called out clergy corruption and demanded honesty and integrity from those who claimed to speak for God and lead his people.

Jesus embraced slavery and servanthood as the primary identifiers of the leaders of his movement.

Jesus didn’t waste his time with religious and doctrinal debates. He always moves to the heart of the matter. Love God, Love Neighbor, Live the Kingdom.

Jesus expected his disciples to get it, and was frustrated when they didn’t.

Jesus died for being a true revolutionary, proclaiming a Kingdom whose foundations are the City of God.

Does this sound like Jesus as you’ve encountered him in evangelicalism?

That’s the sound of tables turning over.

That’s the taste of a real grape, not the Kool-Aid.

That’s why so many Christians aren’t like Jesus.

They have no idea what he was really all about.


  1. Ouch, and yes, and “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

    How I know you’re hitting me in the sore spots is when I start going “Yes, but – ” to explain away the points you’re making.

    You had me going “Yes, but – ” at several places there, Michael.

  2. desiderius says

    The reason Christians aren’t like Jesus is because, as the creeds and doctrines of the church have always taught, Jesus was born without original sin and lived a sinless life. Christians are “human, all too human”.

  3. I like the central thrust of what you’re saying in these posts and there’s loads of good nuggets in here.

    I have two questions though, which sprang to mind as I read this. I don’t think they undermine the criticism of a theology which doesn’t know the ministry of Jesus, but maybe answering them might clarify that criticism?

    “Jesus wasn’t building an institution or an organization, but an efficient, flexible movement with the Gospel at the center and grace as the fuel.”

    “The church Jesus left in history was more a “band of brothers (and sisters)” than an organization of programs and buildings.”

    Everyone hates institutions these days. We stick it to the man and of course power structures and hierarchy are be definition baaad (as in two legs baaad).

    I can’t help wondering though, whether some form of institution simply flows as a natural consequence of loving of brother’s and sisters. We stick together. We try and arrive at a common mind over issues of disagreement. Can the call to ‘just follow Jesus’ sometimes be an excuse not to mix with those we disagree with … and as a consequence we end up just following Jesus how we want to, because we hear no dissenting voices?


    “Jesus rejected the claims of organized religion to have an exclusive franchise on God, and embodied the proof that God was in the world by his Son and through his Spirit to whomever has faith in Jesus.”

    I can see what you’re saying, but what about:

    John 20:23 “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

    I’m not saying I understand this verse (as simple as it reads), but doesn’t it suggest that we need our brothers and sisters. If we need them then inevitably some form of organization will follow to help us live with each other.

    I know organizations can end up being demonic … I’m just not sure if it’s possible (or even right) to do without them.

  4. I think you’re right, Michael. It would seem that at the bottom of this human nature of ours is the desperate need to be in control. That seems to be the thing that screws us up the most in our attempts to follow Christ. We so desperately want a how-to manual so that we can avoid anything that hints at our own idea of failure that we’re willing to write the darn thing ourselves. As you say, all we seem to come up with is how to make grape Kool-Aid. That, I must say, is a great analogy.

    From what I can glean from my own journey, when I have reached the point where I’ve run out of my own devices and I throw up my hands in utter frustration and/or despair, that is when God seems to say: “Okay, had enough? Why don’t you look at it this way?” And then I realize what a spiritual dope I can be.

  5. I’m not denying original sin, sanctification, etc. I’m agreeing with Paul that the goal of the Christian life is Christlikeness: to grow up into him in every way.

  6. The movement Jesus gave us is not synonymous with any institution, but it may take inperfect and fallible institutional forms.

    I don’t hate institutions. I work for one and hope you’ll all send money and students here. But we aren’t synonymous with the movement Jesus began. We are an imperfect expression of it and a sign of the Kingdom that is perfect.

  7. sue kephart says

    I agree with about 95% of what you have written. I would take issue with Jesus’ worship being simple. He was a Jew and I believe worshiped as a Jew. We know He kept the Jewish Holidays, Passover, Pentecost and Unleavened Bread from Scripture. Jewish worship is far from simple and without beating a dead horse, liturgical.

    Speaking from my tradition I don’t think people are ignorant of the Gospel stories or meanings you have discribed. The question is now that we know HOW do we follow Jesus or become like Him (sanctification).

    It seems to me that if we try to imitate Him we become ‘looking good Christian’. The kind Gandi wanted no part of. Spiritual formation means we have to surrender ourselves. I find most people don’t want to do this, thus lots of looking good Christians.

  8. I never denied nor even considered for a moment that Jesus was not a worshiping Jew. But he is also a Jew challenging the conventions of the mainstream Judaism of his time, particularly Pharisaism.

    I’m sorry that you see no reason to imitate Christ. But that’s why I am writing. It doesn’t surprise me, and I think you speak for many- if not most- other Christians in that sentiment.

  9. Within the Catholic Church, the Salesian tradition (see has interesting connections to Michael’s theme here.

    Live Jesus!

  10. Monk,

    A little bit of a rabbit, but do you think that Dispensationalism really hurts our ability to appreciate the gospels b/c it makes so much of them irrelevant to the dispensationist?


  11. Austin:

    Extreme dispensationalism does. Absolutely. But not more recent versions.

    Scofield said the sermon on the mount was for the millennium.


  12. sue kephart says

    I think in our human attempts to imitate Jesus we become Pharisitical. The thought that I can do it if I just follow the right set of beliefs, worship, rules, examples of imonk. The folks I know who most resemble Christ are ones who tried and tried to do it right. On the outside they were wonderful ‘looking good Christians’ but on the inside they were dying.
    I believe in the old addage,”when you run out of yourself, you find God”. When they finally threw their hands up and admitted they couldn’t do it and gave up trying, they met the Lord. Then they could start being formed in His image.

  13. One more example of not getting who Jesus is….Matthew 28:16-17 is a truly fascinating verse. It’s just prior to the great commission, Jesus has risen from the grave, came back to the disciples, and then you see this gem, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

    Fascinating…His disciples saw him crucified, saw Him die. Then He comes back, and not like all jacked up, but He comes back completely healed. Yet apparently, some of the disciples were still thinking, “I’m not really sure…maybe He’s the Christ or maybe He’s not”….

  14. The call to discipleship is inseparable from the grace of God. This is the point of the parables over and over and over.

    Do you think the prodigal is not being called to become LIKE his father, even though he’s still a prodigal?

    The Jesus Disconnect is rejecting the call of discipleship in despair that the grace of God makes it possible for justified sinners to become different. We are NEVER LIKE JESUS perfectly until the Kingdom arrives and we are resurrected. But we are called to pursue one thing- Christ and the life that is formed around him- in this life.



  15. How is the Jewish concept of worship NOT simple?

    All the ceremonies and holidays and purity practices such are things that God himself claimed to hate, preferring to them a contrite heart, etc.

    Just like Christmas isn’t -really- a celebration of the birth of Christ but something we do every year for ourselves and our families.

    All those ceremonies, and all of ours, are things we by and large do for ourselves, or do only routinely, without any clear connexion to the example of Jesus.

    Authentic worship, in the example of Jesus, doesn’t fret about making sure our ceremonies are properly solemnized or have the right emphasis. He (and God) doesn’t value our pious gymnastics at all.

    That’s why Jesus could be accused of breaking the Sabbath. He wasn’t scrupulous. He was God, and God doesn’t care about the Sabbath like we do.

    We think like children about what God wants us to do; Paul considered the whole of Judaism to be, in the light of simple apprenticeship to the love of God, to be “childish things”.

    All our ceremonies are really just playing ‘pretend’, even when God accepts it and makes it transcendently real for His purposes. What God’s always asked for, when it’s ever been meaningful what it’s always MEANT, is something completely different than the little dramas our churches and temples enclose: see Abraham, Isaac.

    Isn’t this what it’s about?

    1 Cor. 13: “Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.”

    Isn’t that recovered simplicity really the first ennobling quality of the Jewish monotheism that Jesus gave back to us?

  16. treebeard says

    These are great points, in the post and in the comments.
    I sometimes wonder, though, about the view that God doesn’t appear to you until you have given up. There were many things Paul taught, for example, and I don’t think there’s a secret meaning of “try this, then you’ll find out the hard way you can’t succeed, and then the Lord will reveal Himself to you.” That seems to me to be the opposite extreme of legalism, a kind of “don’t even bother trying because it’s hopeless” perspective.
    Isn’t there a balance, between recognizing you can’t do what God expects of you, but also recognizing that as you endeavor, Christ comes in to strengthen you? Similarly, you can’t go in the right direction that God wants for you by your own wisdom, but you still need to go somewhere so that He can come alongside you and guide you.
    I’m not drawing any conclusions, just asking.

  17. sue kephart says

    Jesus came to fulfill the Law not to destroy it. So I don’t think we can throw out the Ten Commandments. Remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy. God commands our worship and rightly so.

    Also, I don’t think God doesn’t appear to us until we have given up. God is always with us. We are the ones who don’t see Him. A big part of the Gospel message in my opinion is dying to self. We need to get out of our own way. The ego doesn’t go down easy. I can testify to that. It screams but what about ME!!! Coming to the end of our ego is one way it works. Being knock of a horse and being blinded is how it worked for Paul. I’d rather surrender peacfully but I usually need a fit to get there. But maybe I’m more pig headed than most.

  18. ….i think Sue has “Got it”….There is something VERY disturbing about being told to “give up/stop can”t do it”..It goes against every fiber within me and i can’t understand that God has forgiven me PERIOD. …there is NOTHING that i can bring to this table…i’ve been excused.

  19. Giving up doing what Jesus says or giving up tryin gto be made righteous by doing what Jesus says?

    “I’ve been excused” from what? Obeying Jesus’ teachings or trying to be righteous by obeying Jesus’ teachings?

    If you mean Jesus obeyed, now you do nothing but beleive, that’s the disconnect.

  20. sue kephart says

    Dear me,

    We can’t accept that God forgives us because we are opperating in our ego. I am so bad how could He forgive me. It is not about us. It is about Him. He forgives us because He does. Because He loves us and wants to be with us. He created us for His own pleasure. He wants to spend time with you.

  21. ProdigalSarah says

    I agree with all you wrote and I know we are to be disciples. I find it comforting that the disciples didn’t always understand discipleship; they quarreled, they doubted and they got it wrong. But they continued on with Jesus. They followed him, literally.

    The problem I find with discipleship is that I too often feel like the rich young ruler. It’s not that I have money, but I do have distractions. I suppose pretty much everyone living in the US in the present day has a wealth of distractions.

    Perhaps this is one reason we need landmarks called churches to help focus our attention away from the distractions. The problem I find is that the church can become its own distractions.

    I love what you wrote about Jesus’ trademark being surprise. This is what I have found in my own muddled way.

    Right before the turning over of the tables in Mark, we have the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree. I realize these are very closely related. The tree was standing there in fresh green adornment of leaves, but bore no fruit. Well that is how I read it. It seems to me to be about the church of his day. If you have more on that one, I loved to hear it.

  22. ProdigalSarah says

    As one who gardens and planted a Bible garden I’m not too fond of the idea of cursing fig trees, and one would not expect to find fruit that early in the spring anyway. But I think it must be closely related to the following verses in the temple.

    On your remarks about the grape Kool-Aid vs the grape, every Christina should have the opportunity to feel the strength of the grapevine.

  23. sue kephart says


    I mean to say I can’t do it by myself I need Him to help me. Then the lessons you are talking about take on a new meaning. I am giving up on me being the center and putting God in the center. It’s called surrender. That is why people have said AA is more Spiritual than church. I have to admit I am a sinner and I can not free myself. I want to do what is right but keep sinning. I have to surrender my will to God. Let Him restore me. Then the lessons that follow make sense. AA was not created for alcoholic. It was created as a Spiritual program for everyone.

  24. Well said sue k.

  25. KR Wordgazer says

    My own experience of evangelicalism was a little different, I think, than what Internet Monk has been talking about.

    In my own Christian journey, no one ever said to me, “All you have to do is believe in Jesus; you don’t have to follow Him or try to be like Him– just believe and go to heaven.” In fact, my early Christian experience was filled with impassioned sermons against that whole idea, and strict injunctions to not consider Jesus to be merely “fire insurance.”

    But what I discovered is that it is possible to try to obey the “letter” of the Sermon on the Mount and Christ’s other teachings, and miss the “spirit.” It is possible to turn even Jesus’ teachings into a set of do’s and don’t’s; to turn it all into external deeds instead of acts of the heart. I saw young Christian men afraid to even look straight at a woman for fear they’d lust after her. I saw young Christians spend so much time preaching the gospel that they flunked out of college. I saw young Christians giving away money their parents had intended for college living expenses. Their hearts were in the right place, but there was no wisdom because they had turned Christ’s teachings into just another set of external rules.

    It’s possible to miss Jesus’ whole point that what he was talkingabout was loving God and one another. It’s possible to be caught up in doing, doing, doing, instead of “who do you say that I am?”

  26. According to Susan’s Cheever’s biography of Bill W, your statement about AA not being created for Alcoholics is not accurate.

    Surrender, “I can’t do it myself,” etc are all statements of faith. But the recovering Alcoholic is a disciple and persists in a rigorous mentoring community and a definite program of formation, complete with detailed commands to make restoration, etc.

    AA is a good example of the balance of faith and discipleship. Jesus is much more extensive on both.

    You cannot have faith in Jesus and not answer the call to lifelong discipleship. You must take up your cross and follow him. It is the end of efforts to be righteous and the end of efforts to be God. It is not the end of efforts to be a follower of Jesus, a lover of neighbor, or a student of the master teacher.


  27. Here’s the thing. There’s nothing wrong with wanting and trying to follow Christ. That’s not what has to be given up. What we need to realize is that our picture of Christ-following is likely distorted and that’s where we need to surrender. We get in trouble when we think we can read the Bible like an instruction manual and think we can simply deduce our way into being Christlike.

    Allowing God to lead us does not mean that we sit back and do nothing.

  28. “According to Susan’s Cheever’s biography of Bill W, your statement about AA not being created for Alcoholics is not accurate.”

    Michael, historically I believe you are correct. I could be wrong here but I took sue’s meaning to be that, in the final analysis, the 12-step program is something that likely could benefit everybody at some point.

  29. >AA was not created for alcoholic.

    I just finished Cheever’s bio, which doesn’t make me an expert on AA at all, but I’d say the generic use of 12 Step programs is a “second level” historical development. The Big Blue Book is for alcoholics.

  30. That sounds about right to me, IM.

  31. ..ok…i attend AA a minimum once a week for the past 2 years…but thats NOT whats keeping me sober and it would be foolish to even imply that it is….alcohol taught me that im powerless much the same way that sin has.

  32. me: That’s great me, but there are millions of alcoholics that credit “the program” with their sobriety. The program tells them they are powerless and need a higher power, but the program as community and discipline is the key for a lot of alcoholics, even if not for others.

  33. Why is the turning over of the tables Jesus’ signature move any more than turning water into wine, healing the sick, the raising of Lazarus, or a signature sermon. I believe Jesus’ signature move was the cross.

  34. I am obviously being a bit metaphorical at that point in terms of Jesus presentation of himself in contrast to people’s expectations. Not being dogmatic or trying to write a new theology. It’s a word picture.

    Jesus had nothing to say about the cross in the first part of his ministry, according to Mark. Yet he still was surprising in his presentation of himself as messiah.

  35. Great stuff iMonk. Thanks!

  36. @iMonk

    “The movement Jesus gave us is not synonymous with any institution, but it may take imperfect and fallible institutional forms.”

    “We are an imperfect expression of it and a sign of the Kingdom that is perfect.”

    I can live with that 😀

  37. I like the analogy of overturning tables, but I’d rather think the tables he was overturning was that you can’t compromise your relationship with a holy God. I think that’s why he was so abrupt with the clergy. All their extra rules and regulations and hypocrisy were the money tables in their hearts.

  38. Jesus didn’t waste his time with religious and doctrinal debates. He always moves to the heart of the matter. Love God, Love Neighbor, Live the Kingdom.

    Not your father’s Calvinism. 🙂

  39. I grew up in a strong fundamental Baptist church and I learned about the Epistles (particlulary Romans), the Old Testament, prophecy, and John. The synoptic gospels where almost never quoted or used in sermons. I think this is what Imonk is talking about. The synoptics do not fit in with our theological systems, they demand things of us which are against or unlike the established norm. I had to sit through a whole week presentation of Jesus of Nazareth to realize how absent Christ was in my spiritual life, how little I knew of Him. It was like finding a pearl of great price.

  40. Honest question: were the moneychangers clergy?