January 21, 2021

The Jesus-Shaped Question: What Was Jesus Like?

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 now 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 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 move 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. We are all in that boat to some extent, as we all miss a lot about Jesus and what it means to follow him. To paraphrase a line from the old Pogo comic strip: We have met the disciples; and they is us. We simply don’t get it much of he time just as the disciples didn’t.

    The more certain people are about who Jesus is, what he means and teaches, what it means to be his follower/disciple, the more I want to keep my back to the wall around them, so to speak, because those are the ones that I’ve found who will “knife us in the back,” but, of course, “all in the name of Jesus.”

    For me, it all begins with humility on our faces before Jesus.

  2. Michael:

    Inasmuch as the picture of Jesus is relatively clear when one reads the Gospels, I’m wondering whether the answer is not that most Christians don’t know what Jesus was like, but rather, they don’t want to know, because deep down, they know that if they did, they would be called to act in ways radically different than what they’re comfortable doing. Kind of the same reason athiests stay athiests even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.

    Grace and Peace,

  3. One question: How do you define “principles?” I ask because in my understanding Jesus actually did teach principles – IF you define principles as commands that can be applied to a variety of settings.

    Going the second mile, for example, (Matthew 5:41) isn’t so much a command limited to certain Roman impositions on first-century Jews. It’s a principle that can be faithfully applied to a myriad of settings.

    That said, your reflections (and passion!) are rich and challenging. They encourage me to want to be like Christ, and remind me that THAT is what I am predestined to be (Romans 8:29).

  4. Principles is a pretty generic term. I tend to see them as what preachers and teachers extract from the sayings of Jesus, sometimes accurately, sometimes with considerable damage.

    What bothers me is that we need to let Jesus’ words exist as they are and not turn them into sets of principles. “Ten Principles From the Prodigal Son” is a kind of second version of scripture. Our problem is that if we let Jesus speak, he says things that we can’t “fit” into our existing ways of doing things or even thinking, and the typical set of “principles” taught in an evangelical megachurch is a Procrustean bed on which the force of Jesus words have been reduced.

  5. Michael,

    Thank you for reminding me why I read your blog. You’re an encouragement to me.

  6. So perhaps we should be less obsessed w/ “applicable” sermons and focus more on ones that exalt Christ and His grace? (not that I’ve EVER read Piper or anything) 🙂

  7. I think most Christians do try to be like Jesus – the resurrected and ascended Jesus, above all earthly suffering and cares (Theologia Germanica, ch. XXIX). We want to be victorious, powerful, and glorious – free of care, pain, and illness. We speak of Christian love only in emotional and sentimental terms.

    As my pastor said tonight: if you love, you will suffer. That message is not going to sell many books. Christians now equate love with happiness, romance, sex, etc. – just like the rest of the world.

    Maybe that’s where grace gets derailed. If we view grace just in terms of making us happy and relieved of guilt, rather than in the context of restoring broken relationships (with God and our neighbor), then it becomes selfish, ugly, and useless.

    I want people to be like Jesus when dealing with me. I want people to be patient with my failings. I want people to forgive me. I want others to give sacrificially to help me. (Am I the only one who feels that way?) So, we really do believe and long for Christ-likeness. It is just hard to wish Christ-likeness upon ourselves.

  8. Thanks for the clarification. In that sense, I see your point (not that I’d ever actually get convicted by it or anything 🙂 )

    I tend to be one of those people who look for practical ways (without apology) to apply biblical truth to people’s lives. However, that can lead to two ditches – the first is exalting the application to a position of law. That makes me a Pharisee. The other is fitting scripture to those feel-good principles you talk about, rather than letting the word speak for itself.

    BTW, I recommended your site to Darren (Problogger) as a model of a blog that “leaves a trail.”


  9. Chris Stiles says

    I wonder if you have been listening to Will Willimon’s podcast? The latest podcast is very much in this vein – complete with the imagery of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple.

  10. Bror Erickson says

    The Ghandi quote is nice, but I sometimes wonder on different levels if it is at all accurate.
    I have questions; Did Ghandi know what Jesus was like, any more than the supposed Christians he meant to scold? If He did why didn’t he become a Christian? Was he any more like Christ?
    The other Question is who did he have in mind when he made the blanked statement about Christians? Did he mean westerners in General? Or was he talking about Mother Thereasa? Did he mean the countless other Christian missionaries there?
    Sure Christians have missconceptions of who Christ was all along, So do none Christians. Maybe this is a chance to ask them if they would like to study who Christ was with you. A chance to open the Gospels, and read about him, talk about him, so in the end you can both have a better understanding of who he was, with which to make a more informed decision as to what you should be like. Hopefully somewhere in your reading the veil of Moses will drop, and the Gospel will shine forth.

  11. Bror Erickson says

    I want to ask you. I know your going through some hard times here. But you write:
    “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.”
    This may be true enough. But I want to know where Christ did this? What do you mean by organized religion?
    I do also wonder if Paul was wrong for getting into a doctrinal debate with Peter as he records in Galatians. (I’m not sure that Jesus never got into a doctrinal debate either. You imply that if Jesus didn’t do it, then it is wrong. I’m not sure that is true at all, Jesus never drove a car, never got married, never did a lot of things. Jesus did stand up for what is right, you may not consider that to be a debate, when he asked the one without sin to cast the first stone, I see it as cunning intelligence that ended a debate.)
    Sorry I will be gone most of the day, but I really would like clarification on this.

  12. You just had to use grape kool-aid for a metaphor.

  13. You wrote:
    “Jesus treated women, sexual sinners and notoriously scandalous sinners with inexplicable acceptance.”

    I’m not sure I like the lumping of women with sexual and notoriously scandalous sinners for the obvious reasons (objectification, women=sex, etc). It’s guilt by association. That’s like saying, “Jesus treated men, rapists, and serial killers with inexplicable acceptance.”

    I know that you meant it with the best of intentions, but it doesn’t sound good for the ladies.

  14. I suspect that if a community is seriously wrestling with what Jesus was/is like, they would not downplay the Ascension as much as is common in many places nowadays. On the theological side, Douglas Farrow’s book Ascension and Ecclesia goes into this further.

    On the one hand, we sometimes act as if Christ did not ascend and on the other hand, we sometimes as if it were not Jesus who ascended.

  15. Memphis Aggie says

    “I believe Jesus’ “signature move” is turning over the tables of expectations about who he is and what it means to follow him.”

    Those points are excellent. Christ overturns our expectations about both Him and who we are as well. How much better are His plans than our own, but it may not be clear to us for many years (true for me anyway).

    I’m wondering what you think of “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas Kempis.

  16. GranpaJohn says

    Here is your answer…

  17. treebeard says

    I didn’t have the opportunity to post a comment on the earlier thread about your current situation. So let me begin just by saying that your blog has been a tremendous supply of grace to me, and that I thank you for your honesty. May the Lord lead you and your wife in the way that best fulfills His desires for you.

    I do have something to say about this post (“the Jesus-shaped question”), but if you would permit me to say one more thing about your situation. I am married to a very wonderful woman, and a believer, but something strange was true from the beginning. She just doesn’t have much of a heart for the Lord, at least not in an obvious way. In particular, she doesn’t care much about church meetings, and she never developed an appreciation for communion. I never expected to attend so many Lord’s Table meetings alone. She would rather sleep in, or do things that are more important to her.

    She’s much more concerned with “worldly” things than I am. On one hand she’s more practical, and I appreciate that. On the other hand, many times I have felt like I was alone in my seeking and following the Lord. This has been a sad reality of my marriage.

    Getting to my point, and I hope I’m not presumptuous: Be thankful that you have a wife who is following the Lord. On one hand that seems to be leading to hardship and division. But for your wife to have a heart for the Lord is no small thing. I wish my wife would tell me that the Lord had spoken to her in some way. Strange as it may sound, if you are following the Lord (even while groping) and your wife is following the Lord, then that is a kind of harmony. I know that’s an over-simplification. But believe it or not, I wish I had a marriage where what has happened to you could happen to me. If my wife were to decide to become a Catholic because that was how the Lord was leading her, no doubt it would be peculiar and complicated, and it would put a strain on our marriage. But at least she would be putting her love for Jesus above her love for this world. At least she would be desiring to be with other Christians, rather than living an independent and self-centered life.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m exposing or insulting my wife. She has many virtues, and is a very precious person. Perhaps her normalcy is more genuinely spiritual than my own “spirituality.” I do love her very much, and she is a gift from the Lord. But the difference in our spiritual inclinations is not something that I expected.

    And concerning your post, maybe Jesus overthrows our ideas of a good marriage, just like He overthrows our ideas of what it really means to follow Him or be like Him. Maybe I’m learning to be like Jesus by loving a wife who doesn’t seem to love Him that much.

    I once belonged to a church that considered itself the only true expression of the New Testament church. Now I realize that I was very narrow and even deceived. That’s because the Lord was faithful to overturn the tables in my life. What does the true church really look like? What is a Christian marriage really supposed to be like? I don’t think either question has a right answer. Eventually, we only have Christ, and He is faithful to mess things up until we see Him yet again in a fresh way.

    I hope this isn’t presumptuous, but the following verse has always helped me in my difficulties: “For our momentary lightness of affliction is working out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” – 2 Cor. 4:17.

  18. “I believe Jesus’ “signature move” is turning over the tables of expectations about who he is and what it means to follow him.”

    A lot of truth there. But this is done in a way consistent with “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). That is, their expectations from the Scriptures were wrong expectations, in large part because they didn’t read right. As Jesus was fond of saying, “Have you not read…?” (Matthew 12:3, 12:5, 19:4, 22:31). Another signature move.

    To talk about overturning explanations might give some the impression that we can look out in the world for the unexpected, and when we see it, it’s Jesus.

    Or it might give others the impression that if someone meticulously prepares a Bible study, the best response is not to test it, not to take it on, but to say, “Oh, well. Whatever you just said, I know Jesus is different, because He always defies expectation, so I can just ignore all that.”

    And people really do get like that. Not most of them, but some of them. The expectations that were false did not come from Scripture itself, but false assumptions brought to the reading.

    There were some whose expectations were more on target: Simeon, Anna (Luke 2). I think they should be taken as exemplary, too.

  19. Just read The Subversion of Christianity by Jacques Ellul.
    You said the same thing in a much shorter time.

  20. Dunker Eric says

    Did Jesus die on the cross so it would be okay for us to be just like the Pharisee’s except that we believe in Him?

  21. Soulfaith,

    In regard to the way Jesus treated women (and Michael’s remarks) you need to consider how women were treated by most people in that day. They were considered unclean during part of the month, almost considered property by the men in their family. It was even worse if you were a Gentile woman in contact with a Jewish man. That is what made both the woman at the well in Samaria, and the Syro-phoenican woman. (She’s the one that had a very interesting conversation with Jesus, and left with her daughter healed.)

    Oh, the women knew and followed Jesus. (Luke 8, first few verses mentions the women.)

  22. Anna A,

    Yes, I realize that women were treated in an objectively sexual way in Jesus’ time, however Michael doesn’t couch his statements in an historical context. He uses them as if they were a modern continuance of the practice, which thank goodness it is not. I was merely pointing that out.

  23. Soulfaith:

    The treatment of women, lepers and sinners were all parts of Israel’s holiness code, both in Leviticus and in the practice of the Pharisees. My inclusion was on that basis, and is common in discussions of Jesus’ approach to the ideas of “clean and unclean.”

    I certainly wasn’t insulting women.

Speak Your Mind