January 22, 2021

The Jesus Shaped Question: Can We Know What Jesus Was Like?

Who is the most Christlike person you know?

I live and work in a Christian community with approximately 150 other staff members who serve in our ministry. We live close together and see each other almost every day. Even with occasional breaks and vacations, we still spend far more time together than the Christians in the average church. As a result, we observe one another’s lives closely.

In the 16 years I’ve lived in this community, I’ve known some incredibly “Jesus shaped” people. They worked and ministered in the kindness and compassion of Jesus with only modest compensation. They’ve continued to serve through illness, loss, suffering, rejection and difficulty. Some have gone the extra mile so many times that it’s not unusual to do so. Some have given generously in ways that weren’t required or expected.

In my mind, I have known some incredibly Christ-like people in my time ministering here. Of course, that sentence assumes that I know what Jesus Christ was like. In that regard, I’m pretty typical.

Jesus is a standard of measurement for human beings in all different kinds of cultures, religions and worldviews. Atheists and Buddhists are as likely to say someone is Christ-like as are. People with no interest in Christianity will say “You aren’t acting much like Jesus” or endorse “WWJD” as a reliable guide to decision making.

Have you ever heard Oprah Winfrey- a convinced new ager- reference Jesus as the ultimate example of spirituality? Or heard a politician reference Jesus as endorsing his/her policies on war or the economy? Have you ever heard someone say that Jesus would drive a certain car or eat a certain kind of food?

And then there are pastors and teachers in Christianity’s churches. How often do they refer to Jesus with complete confidence that everyone present is in agreement that Jesus endorses their church’s views on baptism, homosexuality or a new building?

I’m officially suspicious of such broad agreement about what Jesus would endorse or approve. As Ravi Zacharias says, it’s far more likely that all these differing points of view are wrong than that are all right. I believe he’s correct.

So am I contradicting my earlier claim to know “Christ like” people? No, but I am raising the issue of HOW we know what Jesus was like. I’m suggesting that we can’t simply make that claim without having engaged in some reasonable and reliable exploration of the best evidence we have for knowing what Jesus was like, evidence that will direct us to the New testament and the four Gospels.

At this point I should briefly respond to three issues and objections.

First, there is obviously considerable general skepticism among many people about the truthfulness of the Gospels. As a Christian, I accept the New Testament Gospels as reliable accounts about Jesus. In fact, I go beyond that to say that I believe they are inspired by God. Books presenting the case for the reliability of the Gospels are available to anyone.

I do not believe, however, that it is necessary to either believe the Gospels are divinely inspired or that everything Christians say about them or from them is true in order to reference the Gospels as reliable guides about Jesus. There may be significant disagreement about what and how much we can know about Jesus from the Gospels, but I believe we can build a considerable consensus for a Jesus shaped spirituality from the Gospels as they are.

In his song, “The Rebel Jesus,” Jackson Browne says.”I bid you please, I bid you cheer from a heathen and pagan, on the side of the rebel Jesus.” I would invite anyone- skeptic, atheist or believer in another religion- to consider the probability that we know enough about Jesus in the Gospels to make a substantial beginning on a Jesus shaped spirituality.

Secondly, there is a strange reticence toward using the Gospels among some Christians. In my internet writing career, I’ve been stunned to find how many Christians use Paul’s writings to interpret the Gospels and are opposed to anyone using Gospel texts without Pauline explanation.

For example, the Sermon on the Mount was recorded by Matthew to be plain and understandable; so much so that he is clearly referring to the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says “Teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” But many Christians would insist that we can’t understand the Sermon on the Mount without additional material from Paul. While I believe Paul’s teaching on the Gospel and the Christian life are perfectly harmonious with every word of the Sermon on the Mount, I’m not afraid that Christians will misunderstand Jesus if Paul doesn’t explain what he really means!

I’m sorry to be blunt, but many Christians simply treat the Gospels as second-class literature, constructing their own canon within a canon or imposing an external grid of theology or denominational agendas on the words of Jesus. Letting Jesus speak in the Gospels and be heard to say EXACTLY what he meant at the time the Gospels present those sayings occurring is VITAL to understanding Jesus.

For example, in several places in the Gospels, Jesus says to his audience “Come to me.” In John 6, he says “….whoever comes to me shall have life.” What does this mean?

In the most literal terms, it could mean to walk up to Jesus and present yourself to him. In John 6, however, Jesus tells us exactly what he means by the use of grammatical parallelism.

John 6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

Coming to Jesus means believing in Jesus as the true bread/water that human beings need for eternal life.

Somewhere, of course, a denomination is saying that this means you must come to them and to their way of encountering Jesus in order to “come to him,” but that wasn’t possible at the time Jesus said these words. In the aftermath of the feeding of the 5,000, there was no denomination. There were people gathered around listening to Jesus teach; people who were being presented for the first time with the choice to believe Jesus’ claims about himself and his relation to God, or to reject that. Jesus meant that to reject him or to receive him- right there in the wilderness after dinner- was a matter exactly like the simple, essential, life giving actions of eating and drinking.

Now let me be clear: I don’t believe my interpretation is special or authoritative. I just don’t think I needed to go to Romans or Hebrews or a denomination’s doctrinal statements to understand Jesus’ words that afternoon. I don’t believe we have to insert the idea that Jesus came to found something and when we come to it we come to him. I believe Jesus meant, “Come to me = believe in me,” exactly as he says by the normal rules of language.

The meaning exists in the context of the passage or of the larger book itself, and if the writer is a competent writer, the meaning will be accessible in the simplest possible terms that honor definitions, context and grammar.

I am not suggesting that everything written in the Gospels has one, simple, obvious interpretation only and there is no rational basis for doctrinal disagreement or diversity. While I have a strong view of what “this is my body” means in the context of a reimaged passover meal, I understand the case made by those who believe a literal interpretation is necessary. I don’t find every passage equally plain. Mark 13 gives me the same headache it gives anyone else.

But the material for a Jesus shaped spirituality is available in the Gospels, and it is understandable, as written, without additions, authorities or insertions.

[NOTE: I’m aware that several of the epistles were written before the Gospels and some make a case that the epistles have primacy over the Gospels for that reason. Some critics point out the development of material in the Gospels that is not mentioned in the epistles. While I accept a mainstream dating of the New Testament, I believe much of the material in the Gospel of Mark was in circulation before or simultaneous with the writing of the epistles and is in the background of the epistles. There is no reason not to consider early forms of Gospel material to be in circulation very early in the Christian era. My own case for the primacy of the Gospels rests not on the final forms of each Gospel, but on the use of the material in the Gospels for the purposes of evangelism, catechesis and teaching. Good books on the place of the Gospels in the New Testament are available.]

Third, we need to pay particular attention to the claim that tradition outside the New Testament is necessary to understand what the text of the Gospels are saying.

I believe in the reality and place of tradition, but I do not believe tradition holds the key to knowing what Jesus was like. I believe we should be on our guard against the tendency of tradition to make the actual text of the New Testament less useful for those of us who want to know what Jesus was like.

For example, did Jesus drink wine? The answer from the text of the New Testament is clearly “yes,” by any reasonable interpretation of grammar and context. While there may be a discussion of what kind of wine Jesus drank, there seems to be no discussion on whether Jesus drank wine.

This has not stopped religious traditionalists from insisting that Jesus is a teetotaler, would be a teetotaler and condemns all moderate use of alcohol as a bad witness. The kinds of reasoning used to take the plain claims of the text and produce a Jesus who doesn’t drink wine or thinks it is a big problem to do so are a wrongful use of tradition.

So, returning to the question “How do we know what Jesus was like?” I want to suggest eight possible sources of information about Jesus in and outside of the New Testament. These are not seven equally helpful sources, but they should all be considered.

1. The summary message about Jesus we read in I Corinthians 15:1-11, which Paul says is the essence of the tradition he received and was passed on to him. Many Christians just call this “The Gospel About Jesus: His death, burial and resurrection.”
2. he teaching, examples and narratives about Jesus written primarily in the four canonical Gospels
3. The implications, consequences and application of Jesus’ by Paul and the apostles, which is recorded in the rest of the New Testament.
4. The consensus understanding of the Christian community about Jesus as they experience him through the Holy Spirit.
5. Further divine revelations about Jesus made within the Christian community.
6. The perceptions and resources of those in the culture but outside of the church.
7. The claims about Jesus made from teachers outside the historic, orthodox Christian community.
8. The results of scholarship and academic study within the church and the academy.

I believe the first three sources of information are dependable, accurate and helpful in coming to know what Jesus was like, what he taught and how he lived. Obviously, all are going to be interpreted and those interpretations can be very diverse, but the amount of agreement is remarkable and useful for all Christians wanting to know what Jesus was like and to model their lives after his spirituality.

For example, there is no real disagreement on the marital status of Jesus, despite all the fireworks the past few years, and also no real disagreement on the way Jesus related to women in general in his society. There is no real disagreement on how Jesus practically participated in Judaism or how he viewed his movement in terms of political options. While we should consider the possibilities and options presented by any serious student of the Gospels, the portrait of Jesus is well filled in and remarkably free from contention on the main points.

Option four is a “wild card,” because all Christians believe in the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, but there are many examples of Christians believing that “spirit of Jesus” was leading them to believe and practice things that were never part of scripture or related to anything suggested by Jesus in scripture.

It is here that we must beware of those who have Jesus speaking through silence, or who make claims that the Spirit gives new information about Jesus that contradicts foundational aspects of the Bible. When St. Francis or Shane Claiborne speak of the Spirit of Jesus and living among the poor, it is in harmony with what we know of Jesus in scripture. When Bishop Gene Robinson speaks of the spirit of Jesus moving the church toward an acceptance of gay marriage, I believe he is making an exaggerated claim disconnected from everything but a fringe interpretation of Jesus’ practice of inclusion.

Those who most stress the power of the Holy Spirit must be doubly careful to bind the work of the Spirit with the clarity and authority of scripture. Claims that Jesus is providing gold fillings or purchasing stadiums for megachurches ought to make us suspicious because they have no connection to a recognizable Jesus.

The fifth claim raises the issue of whether scripture is unique or are further revelations about Jesus being made. The Catholic church has a structure of tradition and scripture that allow some Christians to make dogmatic assertions – such as recent Marian dogmas- that are only tangentially related to Jesus. the fact that Jesus was respectful to his mother does not qualify all later dogmas about Mary as legitimately Biblical. If a claim about Jesus cannot stand on obvious clear and direct textual evidence, then it is unreasonable to say that it has been revealed that Jesus actually supports some recently asserted claim.

Enthusiasts for end-times scenarios often fall into the same trap, using complex symbolic and typological schemes to say that Jesus is carrying out some end-times plan that was unheard of before a particular teacher received a revelation. Listening to prosperity prophets like Paula White say that Jesus has ordained various financial blessing schemes is enough to make anyone run for the boundaries of plain scriptural teaching and stay there.

Options six and seven are obviously outside the zone of usefulness for most Christians, but we should be aware that cultural and/or secular scholars can sometimes see aspects of Jesus that religious people resist seeing. I often use Jesus Christ Superstar with students to illustrate the attitudes of the disciples, and one New Testament professor said that the best orientation to the first century’s many religious and political groups was Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. While these examples will seem silly to some, they are indicative of the perceptive views about Jesus that may be present in unlikely places.

Even a piece of largely worthless speculative fiction like The Da Vinci Code will open up the discussion of Jesus’ humanity, his relation to women, the nature of early Christian ideas about Jesus and many other profitable topics. While we seldom will learn much about Jesus from these outside sources, we may be helped in keeping our eyes and minds sharp in seeking to understand him.

Option eight brings us to the usefulness of scholarly study about the historical Jesus for the Christian who wants a Jesus shaped spirituality.

I am convinced there is much good here, but there is an ongoing need to separate useful insights from unhelpful speculation. The average Christian won’t be able to do the work. It’s rare for many of these scholars to make their work accessible to the ordinary reader. But others do so, and that is important.

The fact that we can not gain a perfect or unassailable picture of the historical Jesus shouldn’t stop us from benefiting from these academic studies when they touch on areas of interest to understanding Jesus. Some historical Jesus scholars, even those less than orthodox, have been incredibly helpful to me in seeing aspects of Jesus. (Marcus Borg comes to mind immediately.)

Perhaps the best recommendation I can make is the acquisition of books by authors who review, select and translate the insights of Jesus scholars into more practical and usable form. Take, for example, Mark Roberts Can We Trust the Gospels? and Lee Stroebel’s The Case For Christ. All these books will benefit those who want to know what Jesus was really like and want to learn what scholars are saying about Jesus.

Can we know what Jesus was like? I believe we can certainly know the essential facts about Jesus, and I believe we can dependable- though not perfectly- know enough about Jesus to make following him and being transformed by him into a passionate lifelong quest.

The attacks on the New Testament as a source of information about Jesus have been particularly strong the past century, but the benefit of these attacks is a vast amount of study and scholarship confirming that the Gospels are a dependable presentation of the person of Jesus. When studied with humility and care, these sources can greatly enrich the Christian’s understanding of the words and life of Jesus without distracting from the Gospel about Jesus.

Jesus is a compelling figure. Men and women are drawn to him and have found him to be a true revolutionary in every sense of the word. If we can now what Jesus was like, we can ask if we are like him. We can see the difference between Jesus and the anemic culturally compromised Christianity of contemporary evangelicalism, and we can begin the road to a Jesus shaped spirituality.


  1. MODERATOR: I am printing this comment out of courtesy. As the discussion has taken up more than a hundred comments on other threads, I’ve been very generous. The discussion won’t follow here.

    You can begin the road to a Jesus shaped spirituality. Somebody’s already doing that for me.

    The Holy Spirit does all my ‘Jesus shaping’ work for me, thank you very much.

    He’s on my lips and in my heart. He is in me and I in Him. How much more Jesus does one need, how much more Christ-like can one be? Unless of course you want to go by outward appearances, then all bets are off because all men are liars and our motives are tainted.(Isaiah 64:6) “All our righteous deeds are as used tampons.”

    The most Christ-like appearing person may not even be a Christian. “Many will say Lord, Lord, we did such and such in your name, and He said depart from me I never knew you.”(Matthew 7:23)

    I guess one of the greatest things about being in Christ (for me) is the freedom it brings. (Galatians 5:1) “For freedom Christ has set us free…” That answers the question, ‘why did Christ die for me?’ For freedom…that’s why!
    I used to be on the ‘religious rat-wheel’, but now that I have tasted the true freedom, won for me by Christ…I will never go back. And odd as it may seem, now that I’ve stopped concentrating on my ‘Christian performance’, I actually think I’m a lot more helpful to my neighbor.(my wife is cracking up)

    Some people are really serious about trying to do the things that Jesus told us to do (but I’ve never met one).

    In Luke 14:33 Jesus tells us (out of His own mouth, nonetheless) “that whoever does not give up everything they have cannot be my disciple.” Now that is what being serious is all about!

    I don’t know a single Christian that has done that. I’ve had some say, “welllll… you’ve just got to be willing to do it.” That’s ridiculous. The text doesn’t say that, it says…’give it up’.

    Doing is fine. Just be aware that you’re not progressing one bit in God’s eye’s towards greater righteousness. If you think you are then your motives are shot to hell and you can forget about that ‘good deed’. You can toss it in the filthy rag bag.

    Forgetting about ‘trying to be like Jesus’ is a good start to doing good things in an un-self-conscious manner, without worrying about the effect it’s going to have on your Jesus shaping project.

    “When did we do these things?” ” When you did it to the least of these you did it to me.” No self- consciousness. No striving to meet a demand. Just acting out of love.

    There they go again! Why can’t those stinkin’ Lutherans mind their own business!?

    Ok, ok… I’ll crawl back to the Bier Garten and study my small catechism some more…

    Thanks again, Michael!

    – Steve ( I’ll never say the words Law and Gospel again in your presence) Martin

  2. Wolf Paul says


    the second-to-last paragraph seems to be missing a bit …

    An observation on books about Jesus: Last summer I read Benedict XVI’s book “Jesus of Nazareth” and was impressed; then when Benedict visited Austria in September and I heard some of his comments I noticed a strong disconnect between the author of the book I had read and the public persona of the Pope.

    So there is MORE agreement on Jesus than on anything else, but sometimes the agreement on Jesus is not enough to lead to full unity and communion.

  3. It appears that one may not have a Christ-shaped spirituality, but having Luther shaped spirituality is fine. To be like Paul, “running the race” yourself is denying the value work of Christ, but to argue Lutheran theology with all your efforts is not unacceptable.

    It’s strange how the other man’s theological contentions are works righteousness, but my theologial contentions are examples of just letting Christ do it all.

    As I’ve said repeatedly, Christ’s righteousness does it all, but to then approach the Gospels with a prior grid making all commands and exhortations nothing but guilt producers that should be avoided while we rest in the Gospel sounds like hyper-Lutheranism.

    For the whatever time: the small catechism on the commandments is clear that Christians are to seek to honor and obey the commandments of God, even as they believe in Jesus.

    I’m not going to make this distinction any more; I’m not going to wade through it again so that every thread becomes useless for my readers because the discussion isn’t about the post.

    This post is about HOW we can know what Jesus is like. That’s the discussion or there is no discussion.

  4. Memphis Aggie says

    Hi Mike,

    Which part of Christs life are we speaking? I can think of many who emulate his ministry and warmth but only a few can model the Passion.

    I think I know more people, especially women, who aspire to be Mary-like in humility and service than are Christ-like in courage and revolutionary wisdom.

    One quibble, the Paul fixation is distinctly Protestant. The Gospels are central in Catholicism so that the Gospel is the featured reading, delivered by the priest or deacon just before the homily (except for certain seasons like now between Easter and Pentecost where Acts are read). Also, of the 20 Mysteries of the Rosary, 17 are derived from the life of Christ as revealed in the Gospels (especially Luke). So in the course of one week a Catholic would contemplate, at least once, almost all the key moments of Christ’s life from the Nativity to the Ascension.

  5. I enjoyed the 8 points you made and elaborated on.

    I’ll be honest, it was the harsh and uncensored words of Jesus that I read privately outside my SBC upbringing that drove me to the graciousness of the Gospel as articulated by Paul in Galatians and Philippians, because I realized how sinful of a sinner I was.

    Maybe its a process. If we read Jesus’ words through our legalist or Pelagian ears, we will resist or rationalize his commands away until, or unless the Spirit works repentance in us then His words bring us to ruin. Then we realize that the Grace Paul explains is the remedy for our condition. Then, and only then can we turn back to the Gospels anew to “know” Jesus and seek a harmony from then forward.

  6. When it comes to knowing what Jesus was like, it seems that we, here in the west especially, are always reduced to rational arguments over texts and interpretations. Average laymen, like me, must rely on other people’s research and theology to a great extent. I am convinced that I am not going to get where I need to be in knowing what Jesus was like if I “go it alone” – just the Gospels, the Holy Spirit and me. So, whose interpretation do I believe or what tradition do I follow? How can I even begin to make that decision? It is enough to make you want to give up on ever knowing anything about Him! Frankly, I’m tired of all these intramural debates among Christians.

    So, I am beginning to conclude that I must move away from protestant church (with 23,000+ denominations) which is “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” I need a divinely-ordained authority to guide me through the Scriptural truths and to knowledge of God. I do not know if that will be the RCC or OC but I do not know what other option I have.

  7. Bror Erickson says

    Thanks for sending me back to the Greek this morning, and making me break out Kittel to boot!
    I have no truck with the historical reliability of the Gospels, absolutely none. and I do agree they can give us a good picture of who Jesus is. I think they actually do much more than that, but that is an aside. I do however believe that one has to use sound exegetical principles to arrive at the picture. one of those principles would be to allow scripture to interpret scripture, and in so doing not drive a wedge between say Paul and Matthew. Paul Himself says that he imitates Christ. 1 Cor. 11:1
    But I also understand your contention that each book was essentially written as a stand alone document. Yet here again We have to be careful in out interpretations if we really want to understand Christ. You discuss Matthew, specifically the sermon on the mount. Writing:”For example, the Sermon on the Mount was recorded by Matthew to be plain and understandable; so much so that he is clearly referring to the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says “Teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
    this is quite a narrow interpretation of the great commission. I’m quite certain that Christ taught them much more in his three years than that which is recorded in the sermon on the mount. And the word Teirein which you translate as obey, also skews the interpretation. Observe would be more correct, the word has the connotation of protect, guard, keep watch. This actually makes a huge difference in what Christ is saying.

  8. Bror:

    I don’t believe the Gospels are independent. I have a traditional view of Markan priority and I believe John wrote with the other gospels in mind.

    I also don’t believe in restricting what Jesus was referring to to the Sermon on the Mount, but in Matthew the organization of material clearly points to the priority of the SOM as catechetical material.

    I do have some concerns that defining tradition as what Jesus said but we don’t have in the Gospels just opens the door to chaos. I trust the canonical consensus.

  9. No need to post this, Michael.


    Thanks for being generous with posting my comments.

    The predominant theology in America is the theology of glory. Getting better, progressing, making comparisons (who’s the most Jesus-like).

    The other is the theology of the cross. Death and resurrection. No progress. Only Christ and His righteousness. No benchmarks. Just baptism… and no further.

    When one makes comparisons in his own life (I’m better today than I was yesterday), one is still living under the law. In societal life that is good. In the Christian faith, not so good.

    The freedom that Christ wants for you is not there yet.

    Luther’s name used to be Luder. He changed it to Luther to get the ‘th’ sound in elutheria, the Greek word for freedom. He wanted his name to soundas much like the word freedom as possible.

    In freedom comes the Christ-like life. It doesn’t come from trying to do it. It comes from not trying to do it…and just living…in Christ.

    I’m not hung up on Luther. It is St. Paul that Luther is parroting. Christ used St. Paul to make these theological distinctions. Why in the world did Christ choose St. Paul anyway? One of the most religious ‘doing everything right’ kind of guys He could find. To be the perfect spokesman to say…’it’s not about your performance!’
    In Christ the performance will come. “He who beagn a good work in you will bring it to completion.”

    I’m not making these comments to say that I am right and you are wrong. I want nothing more for you and your readers to experience a bit more of God’s freedom and forget about being so dog-gone religious, that’s all. Religion is our doing, our efforts to be more Christ-like…it’s not necessary. So much of what you talk about revolves around our doing, and it’s difficult for me to not want to say…look at Christ! The Pharisee and the publican. Christ is not after religiousness. He wants someone who is broken by the law and knows it.

    I really do think that on some of your topics of a lesser import, I might be able to chime in and make a contribution without getting anyone riled up.

    But, on important issues like this one, and so many others that you bring up (nice job), I think I ought not even go there.

    When I do make my comments, it usually involves pouring the law on you and your readers, like that verse from Luke 14:33. That is a law which no one can stand up to. I’ve brought it up several times in the course of 6 months and no one will even go near it. People just close their eyes and wish it would go away. Well, it’s not going away, for it is the law… and a way which Christ was using, from His own lips (not to make you run out and sell everything you’ve got) to try and get you to realize that you are not Christ-like in and of yourselves and you are never going to be. He’s trying to kill you off to the religion project.

    That, is why I say what I say. Believe me Michael, I don’t enjoy it. But it needs to be said.

    I hear it and I don’t enjoy it either. The law crushes me the same way it does you. The only thing that keeps me going day after day is the sweet sound of the gospel that follows it up. “Your sin is forgiven for Jesus’ sake.”

    Thanks Michael! You are a good man to even give me a shot.

    – Steve

  10. Bror Erickson says

    When I said stand alone I was not making comments on what came first or what the other disciples may or may not have known about what other Gospels said. I would agree that John had the other gosples in mind. I don’t know that I agree with Markan priority, but I really don’t care either. And I find the q hypothesis to be quite dubious.
    All I meant to say is they don’t necessarily rely on eachother to get their message across. I would agree though that taken together they give a much more complete view of Jesus Christ, than taken individually.
    I would not ever want to entertain thoughts of what Jesus said that are found outside the historical canon of scripture. just saying Jesus said quite a bit more than what is recorded in the SOM. We have quite a few more comments of his even recorded in Matthew. If the SOM sets the tone for his catechetical teaching (Something I would agree with in principle), then the rest of his life and sayings are also meant to illuminate it.

  11. Memphis Aggie says

    Lovely post Steve – and you were so funny in “The Jerk” – what happened? /sarcasm

    As for people who have given up everything to follow Christ how about every Franciscan Brother or Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity or Thomas Merton?

    Just because it’s hard for you and me doesn’t mean other people don’t manage it.

  12. Memphis Aggie,

    Well, you probably know this already, but I will always be ‘the jerk’. I was a jerk way before ‘he’ was.

    Memphis Aggie, you got me (with your examples).
    Those are the real disciples. The rest of us are, well, …jerks.

    A little bit of God and a little bit of me. Roman Catholic theology. What is odd is that so many Christians basically have the same theology and don’t even realize it. I have friends that go to these big mega-barns and decry the Roman Catholic Church and then practice a syle of Christianity that is defacto Roman Catholic(without all the candles, purgatory, and the Pope).
    Their theology is basically the same.

    Focus is key. Focusing on ourselves and our peformance…or focusing on the neighbor.

    Memphis Aggie, I don’t care if you never join a monastery, convent, or go to India and live amongst the destitute…you are no jerk!

    From one who ought to know (one),

    – Steve M.

  13. Michael,
    You said, “But many Christians would insist that we can’t understand the Sermon on the Mount without additional material from Paul. ”

    We don’t have the Gospels apart from “additional material from Paul.” Apparently God wanted it all there.

    You might understand completely what Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. It may hit the mark perfectly. And then you say, “Woe is me, for I am undone!” Then where will you be?

    Thank God for Romans 8.

  14. Were copies of Paul’s letters distributed by the disciples that afternoon? Did I miss that in the greek somewhere?

    Can a person believe what Jesus taught and did in the Gospels and be a faithful child of the Father?

    I rejoice in Paul’s writings, but they aren’t what the people around Jesus heard during his earthly ministry. There was no canonized New Testament for quite a while.

  15. Bror Erickson says

    you write:
    “I rejoice in Paul’s writings, but they aren’t what the people around Jesus heard during his earthly ministry. There was no canonized New Testament for quite a while.”
    Are you sure? No I don’t think Paul’s letters were handed out there that afternoon. But I don’t believe their is any difference between what Jesus taught and what Paul taught. So I do believe that Paul’s Epistles taught exactly what the people around Jesus heard during his earthly ministry. If they aren’t then we have huge problems. Of course the cross and resurrection did a lot to shine light on what Jesus was trying to teach during his earthly ministry. And that is just it, you can’t as a Christian read the SOM, without hearing it and seeing it in light of what Christ did for us on the Cross. Even if the people there didn’t see the cross coming, and therefore might not have understood all Christ was saying.

  16. >…I don’t believe their (sic) is any difference between what Jesus taught and what Paul taught…

    They may not be in conflict, but there are plenty of differnces.

    Your view that the SoM was simply law waiting for Gospel has been repeated here to the point I’m sure we all get the point that the key to the Bible is Romans and Galatians, thanks to Luther.

    Next topic.

  17. Bror Erickson says

    You write:
    “Your view that the SoM was simply law waiting for Gospel has been repeated here to the point I’m sure we all get the point that the key to the Bible is Romans and Galatians, thanks to Luther.”

    That wasn’t my point at all. I actually believe that Christ’s sermon on the mount had plenty of Gospel in it for those who were there to here it the first time. But it is even more of a shame to miss that gospel after Christ’s death and resurrection.

    And to play by your game, I am really trying to avoid making the point that the key to the Bible is Romans and Galatians, while not budging on the idea that scripture interprets scripture. Or that wedges should not be driven between them. I have actuallly strived to stay within the realm of Matthew on all this.

    As for Luther, well I like the man. I think one ignores him to his own detriment. But did I quote him? I don’t need him to interpret scripture for me, any more than you need Ravi Zacharias, Jackson Browne, or Markus Borg.

  18. OK. I’m done.

  19. “Were copies of Paul’s letters distributed by the disciples that afternoon? Did I miss that in the greek somewhere?”

    Nope. But *we* have them.

    It’s part of Jesus’s style to shock and not explain for a while, either to test our obedience or to drive us to despair of ourselves. Like when he said you must eat my flesh. He didn’t explain this one until the Last Passover. This is part of what Jesus is like, and I appreciate your post.

    His method is to drive us to say, “I can’t do it. You must help me, in fact, you must change me, or I’m toast.”

    The same God Who shocked his audience with the SoM also saw to it that people since the 1st century had Paul’s letters.

  20. I’m not certain where I stand on Law & Gospel, or even this whole matter of “being like Christ”. But as far as the dichotomy of Paul vs. Jesus, I would ask: where does Paul get his doctrine FROM? Did he make it up? Always believe it? OR did he get it when he learned from the apostles and simply state it more elegantly and prolifically than anyone at that point had? I tend to believe that. So maybe Jesus DID teach everything in the book of Romans and it just wasn’t written down until Paul. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the case, but that’s how I would tend to resolve any supposed conflict between, say, the Law of the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospel in Romans.

  21. The core of the Gospel in Paul’s letters is- as I said in the essay- I Cor 15:1-4, the essential events of Death/Rez of Jesus. But Paul’s applications are tuned to the serious questions of the Gentile church and are in context totally different from Galilee.

  22. “But many Christians would insist that we can’t understand the Sermon on the Mount without additional material from Paul. While I believe Paul’s teaching on the Gospel and the Christian life are perfectly harmonious with every word of the Sermon on the Mount, I’m not afraid that Christians will misunderstand Jesus if Paul doesn’t explain what he really means!”

    This will always have a context. The original hearers might well have thought that when Jesus made lust tantamount to adultery that we should stone the lusters. I’d bet that the original hearers did NOT know what the teaching entailed.
    Most of them probably had only the dimmest idea of who Jesus was when he gave the Sermon.

    So we’re supposed to just take whatever we originally thought was the meaning and run with that. I remember when I was about eight hearing the Sermon on the Mount in one of the old Easter specials, probably King of Kings or The Greatest Story Ever Told. It was the Lucan version, and Jesus said, “Woe to those who laugh now, for they shall weep.” I thought, “I laugh. Jesus must not like that. I wonder why.” If no commentary is necessary or helpful, I guess I should have just gotten stuck there.

    Or perhaps when I heard about calling my brother a fool, I should have just despaired and given up the faith. After all, you can go to hell for it. Merely doing it once. No good reason to bring in the forgiveness of sins. That would be importing.

    When someone says that other material is not necessary, I have to wonder whether the Sermon on the Mount ever really hit him hard. If there is no escape hatch, we all blew it beyond redemption before we left childhood. I remember.

    The Lutheran answers would have been very welcome to me when I was very young. Unfortunately, the adults around thought that ecumenism and guitar playing and doctrinal tolerance were enough. They weren’t when the text came in to haunt a young mind. I am thankful when we joined a Presbyterian church where the young were considered Christians and of value to teach. And I am thankful that they did not shy away from finding solutions to problems posed by one text by appealing to another.

    The rigorous position presented here is bad enough when inflicted on adults. But it has implications for children, too. There are children out there who need the Pauline door left open. Questions of assurance know no age boundaries, and the Sermon on the Mount will sometimes hit a child harder than an adult. Why? Because the child knows he cannot order his or her life in ways that match the picture given in the Sermon.

  23. >If no commentary is necessary or helpful, I guess I should have just gotten stuck there.

    I am not in any way denying the value of commentary. You are taking my position to an exaggerated extreme.

  24. AT Chaffee says

    Our pastor has been doing a series on the SoM. His focus is not on the transactionalism aspects (i.e., SoM as more ways God can now take points off) but on the fuller and more beautiful picture of righteousness (SoM as a description of what the truly righteous life could be). So having friends and neighbors can mean more than tolerating them without killing them. Wow- who would have thought? (and yes, he also preaches on our need for Jesus, just not right now)

    In that vein, the SoM isn’t all about me, really, it’s more a picture of God somewhat like the nature psalms. “How beautiful is your Law, O God.”Or like Proverbs.

    If someone were to listen to Placido Domingo and the only thing he could think of the whole time was all the ways in which his voice didn’t measure up to Mr. Domingo’s– seems like he’s missing something somewhere.

  25. dumb ox says


    Thank you again for this series and your practical approach. It is impossible to underestimate the need to know what Jesus was (is) like. The big news this week concerned the cult leader who sexually abused his followers while claiming to be Jesus. Could people really believe that Jesus is capable of that and accept it without question? When the life of Jesus is lost in intellectual concepts or emotional hype, I can see how can happen. We need to go back to the gospel texts to know that Jesus was (is) a living, breathing person who walked, taught, laughed, wept…and did not abuse either his followers or his enemies (reminds me of your basin-and-towel postings from Lent).

    As cliche as it sounds, we are the only bible that some may read. Walmart employees wearing those signature blue smocks represent the entire corporation to those they greet. How much more, as imperfectly as we may, do we need to model Jesus, because we bear his name and image? I think the EO folks call this being living icons of God. Especially to a visually and media-driven world, what people see and experience has a bearing on the validity of the truth we bear. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that accomplishes this.

    May it be unto me, according to his word.

    BTW, you inspired me to finally start reading “Mere Christianity”.

  26. “whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

    “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

    “If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.”

    AT Chaffee, you’re right. That sounds just like Placido Domingo. How could I have missed it before? What a gorgeous tenor voice, too.

  27. Michael,

    George MacDonald had a character somewhere who absolutely loved the Epistles of St. Paul, and theological argumentation. Until tragedy struck.

    Then all the theological arguments dried up, but suddenly he found great comfort from the person of Jesus in the Gospels. This seems absolutely correct to me.


    Steve Martin

    I really don’t appreciate the “many Christians attack Catholics, and then act like Catholics focusing on themselves” attitude. It puts you and yours at the front, by attacking and draging down others. “In humility consider others better than yourself.” Take the example of Christ who, though he knew better than the Blessed Virgin, yet descended to being led by her. Take the example of Christ who was found in the temple learning from Caiaphas. Please don’t attack your brothers.


  28. The Gospels can tell us who Jesus Is. And describe what He was like. But you can’t really *know* someone, or what they are like fully by reading about them. You can read every post the iMonk has ever authored, but you still won’t know him like a member of his family. But the Gospels do tell is Jesus is the glorious Incarnate fully God, but fully man. A *person* we can know.

    We never outgrow the Gospels, but having absorbed them to realize Christ is the God we can know as a person, and through His person and work, be in relation with not just Him but the whole Trinity, we have to stop just staring at the page and also look at Him.

    I grew up with the concept of a “personal relationship” with Christ. It was too abstract, too impersonal. Christ was some cosmic cashier. I’m struggling to cope with how much I *can* know Him. I envy those from *all* the various Christian traditions that have transcended the humanitive norm, and know Him, and thus what He is like, far better than I may ever know in this life.

    PS – Just so I don’t *completely miss the point of the thread (tongue firmly in cheek), certain IM thread commentors make me feel far less restrained in echoing the assertion that the Reformation lost the book of Galatians to the church, and it was pretty much Luther’s fault. Heh.

  29. AT Chaffee says


    Yeah, I guess that part doesn’t fit so well, does it? (Guess I should read the comments more carefully before posting, not to mention the whole SoM)

    Jesus seems to get mad mostly at people who just don’t get it, not at people who do things wrong. Isn’t the whole context of the SoM starting with the Beatitudes an introduction to the kingdom, a reversal of score-keeping theology and a bashing of heads together of those who like score-keeping because they are good at it? (Might be beautiful music for the people on the bottom)

    Did Jesus preach repentance per se? Seems like overall it was more good news that He’s here, and this is how things will be from now on, and this is what happens if you insist on a score-keeping mode.”Shape up and work harder to be good” – is this His usual mode of preaching?

  30. Well, AT, it isn’t that the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t have good news in it. My reaction mostly comes when someone can’t see that any of it might not require some kind of a solution from somewhere else.

    The “You have heard it said, but I say to you,” sections seem to be addressed to those who had managed to tone down the Law. Whoever that is said to most pointedly, it seems to hit all of us. C.S. Lewis even likened it to being hit in the face with a sledgehammer. Even if this does manage to lower the status of those up top who have been exploiting others, I don’t think those on the bottom see this as purely good news. The stakes are too high.

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