August 4, 2020

The Light Of A Most Obvious Question: Why Hanging Out With Jesus Is Changing My Christianity

If you enjoyed this piece, you would probably also like this earlier exploration of the significance of the Gospels in the Christian Life.

Dedication: A few weeks ago, I listened to an extraordinary sermon, but not extraordinary in the way you might think. The absence of Jesus in the sermon shook me.

Jesus was never mentioned. Not once. Not anywhere. Not ever. Not in any way. Not in the introduction. Not in the illustrations. Not in the conclusion. Not in some trailing reference to “accepting Christ” stuck on to the last paragraph a la Joel Osteen.

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Change the word “Bible” to “Koran” and the sermon could have been a hit in any mosque in the world.

Frankly, this kind of thing has caused me to start rethinking a lot of things. How can we be approaching Christianity as if it is the Oxford English Dictionary, where Jesus is an entry, but you can read thousands of entries without any reference to Jesus? That’s not right.

In the hopes of deterring some from the road that ends in giving talks about reformers and doctrine and the Bible and why we’re so right, but never even speaking about Jesus, here’s a (hopefully) provocative post.

I am going to give you a flawed and errant post. I’ll say that right off the top. What I’m going to recommend in this post as a method for doing theology is almost certainly flawed enough to inspire pages and pages of response in the blogosphere. So, if anything that admits its imperfections immediately offends you, move on to the cat pictures.

In fact, I can be pretty fairly specific about the error I am going to promote: I’m going to suggest an imonkish version of “What Would Jesus Do?” I’m read up on all the problems with that particular approach to Christian ethics, and I while I think it has its merits, I don’t recommend it to unlicensed drivers.

I’ll go on and say I’m not going to recommend my version to just anyone, either. What I’m going to suggest might be useful, however, to those of you who have enough experience with the Gospels to have some idea of what Jesus was like in the day to day.

I have no trouble admitting, by the way, that the Gospels weren’t written to give us a transcript of the day-to-day with Jesus, or to answer the kinds of questions about “A Day With Jesus” that our curiousity might suggest. The Gospels were front-loaded with the message that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, while also being the resurrected Son of Israel’s God; “God with us”, in other words. Still, I believe we can use the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus as a guide to evaluation of much that we do and believe, and even with a “verse”, we can have a sense- an accurate sense- of how Jesus impacts certain questions.

My theological suggestion has now been substantially disarmed of any potential arrogance, so I’m going to get it out of the garage and take it for a spin:

“If you were to spend three years hanging around with Jesus as he is presented in the Gospels, do you believe you would come to the conclusion that [fill in this part with the theological issue being tested]?”

Let me repeat: this method has a lot of possible subjective mischief associated with it, and I would never recommend this in a discussion other than to describe why you have come to a conclusion about Jesus or the Christian life.

It is far from useless, however. It’s actually worked in my own thinking in ways that have been marvelously clarifying and helpful to me. (I’ll say it again: I’m not drawing these conclusions for you. You can just point at me and say I’m weird and wrong.) Despite the fact that every book I’ve read on Jesus has been full of statements that we really can’t know all that much about Jesus, I find myself constantly overwhelmed with what I have come to believe I can know about Jesus. While I don’t believe my version of Jesus is without subjective, cultural bias, I’m not living with a kind of hopeless cynicism about what Jesus would think about, for example, abortion.

Remember, the key to this exercise is the idea of seeing the integration of life, ministry, teaching, priorities, worship and relationships in the life of Jesus. It’s not “What conclusions can I draw from Jesus about predestination?” but “What would I be saying about predestination if I hung around Jesus for three years?”

The difference is essential: Not what conclusions would I draw, but HOW WOULD I BE DIFFERENT? What would I see differently? How would I conceive of life, priorities and the continuing Jesus movement?

So how about a few laps around the track?

“If you were to spend three years hanging around with Jesus as he is presented in the Gospels, do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the primary job of a pastor is to ensure a church gets as large as possible?”

“If you were to spend three years hanging around with Jesus as he is presented in the Gospels, do you believe you would present the doctrine of predestination the same way as contemporary Calvinists present it?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that without the right kind of music, your church can’t grow?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that systematic theology is as precise and as important as we’ve made it?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that Jesus is best represented by western, American, middle-class white evangelicalism?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that a sincere and faithful homosexual should be a leader of the church?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that confessing Christians who disagree on the meaning of the Lord’s supper should disfellowship one another?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the best way to describe the Bible is inerrant?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that pastoral ministry is primarily about defending our theology from those who differ from us?”

“…do you believe you would place as much value as we do on formal, school based, education?”

“…do you believe you would promote “family values” and the “culture war” as important causes that represent Jesus?”

“…do you believe you would identify with the Republican or the Democratic parties?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that it’s very important to read from one translation of the Bible only?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that Jesus would identify himself with the labels of your denomination or group?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the Christian life as explained by evangelical evangelists and church leaders today is true to Jesus?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the emerging church is unfaithful to Jesus and should be condemned?”

“… do you believe you would come to the conclusion that you are not one of the rich? Or one of the Pharisees-types?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that you are, now, a disciple and follower of Jesus? Not a fan, but a follower?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are really helpful?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that the Reformation was the high point of Christian history?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that Jim Wallis, James Dobson, Joel Osteen or Rick Warren were acquainted with Jesus at all?”

“…what kind of sermons would you preach?”

“…do you believe you would come to the conclusion that your current approach to prayer is similar to Jesus?”

“…do you believe your treatment of people would change?”

“…do you believe you would spend money as you do today?”

The objections? Well, we already know that some will say that without the presuppositon of an inerrant Bible, I can’t even spell “Jesus” correctly.

And I can hear one of the BHT fellows already: “Jesus doesn’t live now, so we have no idea what he would say about these things.” Of course, but that’s not my experiment. My premise is how would three years living with Jesus change the way you answer the questions, live your life and conceive of Christianity?

I contend that we ought to be able to become conversant with the Gospels and make these judgments.

This is substantially different from, “Let’s select verses and build an outline of what the Bible says on predestination.” It is admitting that Jesus was seeking to make disciples, not to teach a class. The New Testament can be sorted through to produce a chapter or predestination, but isn’t this appeal to the imagination AND our knowledge a way to find an authentic answer to the questions we face?

In my experiment, I can not only take into account, “What did Jesus say about predestination?” but I can include how Jesus treated everyone. How did his stories and exorcisms and miracles combine to present his beliefs about predestination? How do I see predestination in his relationships and actions toward others? How did predestination come out of and work into, the life, teaching and ministry of Jesus? How does the topic interact with the Christian life?

There is always this question of “What do we see of a topic in the complete picture/impression of Jesus’ life?” And if we ponder this subject in the “light” of Jesus, what can we see ourselves saying, doing and stressing as faithful to Jesus?

[I am not, by the way, attempting to cut off the Gospels from the rest of the Bible, but I am frustrated and exhausted with the idea that Paul so accurately conveys Jesus that no contemplation or consideration of the Gospels is even NECESSARY. Paul is the first one to raise the issue of his own faithfulness to everything about the Gospel that came in Jesus. If he can be aware of his own dependence on Jesus- and the possibility of various on how much he can claim Jesus as standing behind his teaching at points- then so can we. But let me be clear: I absolutely reject any notion that there are theologies that “trump” the Kingdom theology of Jesus. Jesus’ chosen paradigm MUST have preeminence, and his life, ministry and actions are part of that Kingdom message.]

I am asking how much contemplation of Jesus actually goes into our thinking about Christianity. It is the Jesus-movement. We are the followers of Jesus. We are worshiping in, and through, Jesus. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is God with us. Jesus is Emmanuel. Jesus is everything.

If you spent three years with him, what kind of person would you be? What kind of theologian? Husband? Father? Man?

So much for my experiment. It may be an abject failure, but it is helping me every day, and maybe it will help you, too.

I believe this is a fundamental question. One of the things that really helped me was recalling that Paul studied Jesus for years before he started church planting. His “zeal” for the new Messiah wasn’t knowledge of the Messiah. Paul needed to be deeply “Jesus-saturated” in his thinking. When I read Mark and Luke, I realize I am reading the things Paul was hearing, and his life was being shaped by those Markan-Lukan stories.

I invite you to the Gospels, and to books that take you “further in.” And as you journey, contemplate this helpful question, and let it guide you as you are formed by the Spirit of Jesus himself.

Comments

  1. Michael,

    I’ve had the privelage of preaching several times for a Saturday night ministry as one of a team of speakers. There were two things we regularly talked about.

    1. What does the passage say about Jesus? (Even those who preferred topical to exegetical sermons had a specific passage of Scripture.)

    2. How can we apply it practically, or as we said it, does it work on the street? (I don’t mean this in a lame seeker-sensitive way. We all wanted to make sure our preaching had a useful discipleship component.)

    I wish I’d read this article before that ministry ever started, because it captures something I’ve had thoughts about for a while now, but could not put into words.

    I really don’t think you are in error with these thoughts. It’s true that you need to have a good grasp of the Gospels to apply this question to an idea, but shouldn’t that be true of anyone who stands before the body to preach the Word? (I think, sadly, that too many preachers and lay=speakers, myself included, get so focused on an idea that we forget to remember that the crucified and risen Christ needs to be at the center of it all.)

  2. Michael:

    Not sure what else to say other than – “wow”.

    That really got me thinking. Kinda cuts right to the heart of everything.

    Great post.

    Joe

  3. Of course, but that’s not my experiment. My premise is how would three years living with Jesus change the way you answer the questions, live your life and conceive of Christianity?

    I contend that we ought to be able to become conversant with the Gospels and make these judgments.

    I would agree, but I don’t think just being “conversant with the Gospels” is enough. We still read them like post-Enlightenment Americans (if, of course,that is what we are). Or we read them, to use your words, as part of “western, American, middle-class white evangelicalism” instead of as first century Middle Eastern peasants and patricians. There is a huge cultural difference.

    Maybe this puts into doubt the sufficiency of Scripture, but I’ve come to the conclusion that one has to somewhat conversant with historians and those of the “Context Group” of scholars to begin to get into the head of those who would have heard the Gospel first. We totally interprest the words we read differently than they would have.

    We are individualistic, they were dyadic; we think in terms of business, they thought in terms of families; we think in terms of introspection, they thought in terms of outside validation. we think of love as an emotion; they thought of it in terms of binding obligation; faith for us is intellectual assent, for them it was allegiance. We think in terms of the world; they thought in terms of Israel. And on and on.

    Yet for 2/3 of the world, this type of thinking is STILL normal and natural. In most ways, we of America and Europe are the oddballs.

    N. T. Wright does some of this cultural/historical analysis with the parables of Jesus. For example, me finds the parable of the prodigal son about the return of Israel from Exile. To the historian this is natural; for us it is weird.

    I’ve attempted to apply such thinking to the parable of the sheep and the goats on my blogsite and ended up in a totally different spot than I originally intended. And that was with just one parable of Jesus! I sometimes dread to think of what I will find next and how far off the track I may bave been for the last 30 years.

    So, yes, our thinking in all these areas will be different. It takes you on a fearful journey. But Jesus was never comfortable to be around anyway. Sometimes comforting, but never comfortable!

    But there is some assurance in all this. If the scriptures are correct, the disciples who DID hang around Jesus for three years as you propose didn’t do such a good job of understanding him either. How often Jesus lost patience with them for their lack of understanding, their petty squabbles, and their infighting! And in spite of all that, with the power of the Spirit, they took on the empire of Rome.

    So maybe we still have some hope.

  4. Great essay Michael. When will we ever learn that apart from Jesus, we can do nothing.

    Be encouraged!
    GBYAY

  5. mom2scboyz says

    When I was born again in December 1985, it was because the Jesus of the Gospels blew me out of the water. What struck me then — & continues to strike me from other angles now — is how radically different the Light of the World is from my composite mental picture of Him. He will not be pigeon-holed. He will not be boxed. But He will also not have much latitude to reshape your spirit unless you are with Him.

    I am forever grateful for the nudging of the Spirit which led me to read all four Gospels in one great gulp over Christmas break twenty years ago. It changed me in the most profound way (how amazing — my name is in the Lamb’s Book of Life!). I pray that your essay leads all of us to re-examine the issues that are near & dear to our hearts, & to realign them with those that are near & dear to HIS.

    Blessings,

  6. Great essay.

    But I wonder what it says about me that I tended to answer the questions either with “yes! That’s what I’ve always been saying!” or with “no, but I really think that my way of living is allowable and Christian within a diverse Body made up of many parts.” (Or “yes, but…”)

    Perhaps it’s better to ask the question than not, even if you often answer it in the way that serves yourself. Perhaps if I ask the question for long enough, those areas where I say “no, but” will begin to turn to “yes, I see.”

  7. good good questions.

  8. Tom Hinkle says

    It’s amazing how my study of Jesus is totally shaking up everything I’ve previously believed. It’s given me a totally different mindset, and has made me wonder if 98% of Christianity is getting it totally wrong.

    Just look as Jesus’ “mission statement” from the fourth chapter of Luke as he read from the prophet Isaiah in the Synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Sometime this past week, in the BHT, there was a small discussion about whether one should place emphasis on the “person” or the “work” of Christ. When I first saw the phrase “work of Christ,” I immediately thought of the scripture that Jesus read from Isaiah in the Synagogue. But that wasn’t the “work” that was being discussed; the “work” was reconciliation with God, or Jesus dying for our sins, that type of “work.” Yet I think Jesus’ REAL work was totally missed. If you were walking around with Jesus day-by-day, and even witnessed his crucifixion, you would never get a concept of “substitutionary atonement.” You might get a sense of Jesus being the “Christ, the son of the Living God” as Peter did, but not of Jesus as the second member of a Trinitarian Godhead.

    So, Michael, you have some fairly radical questions there, but I’m willing to go more radical than that: If you walked with Jesus from day-to-day, would you have a concept of him “dying for your sins?” Would you have a concept of the Trinity? Would you have any concept of a “just war?”

    Just asking.

  9. On dying for our sins: Yes. See Mark 10 “To Give His Life as a Ransom for many” + dozens of citations in John. This came from Jesus. It was the only interpretation of his death that fit with his words.

    On the Trinity: Absolutely. Absolutely.

    On Just war: Hmmmmmm. Maybe. On defense of innocents, YES. Jesus didn’t say much about violence outside of the context of persecution, so I don’t have a clear sense. I do not believe his words indicate passivity in EVERY instance.

  10. I am , btw, aware that some of the epistles are written before some of the Gospels, but my view of the Gospels is that they INTENTIONALLY gather the material about Jesus and are Purposefully put forward as a presetation of JESUS, as compared to the epistles which have other purposes than to focus on the words and works of Jesus.

  11. If you spent three years with him, what kind of person would you be? What kind of theologian? Husband? Father? Man?

    I’d still be a woman 🙂 a cherished child and heir!

    but If I were to have hung out with Jesus for three years day and night I wouldn’t be the same. That’s for sure, and that’s where we go wrong IMHO – too little time with Him, and too little of the application of what He said, taught, did into our everyday lives.

    Lorna
    http://stf.heavenlytrain.com

  12. Michael,

    Truly a imonk hall of fame post, excellent.

    Brad

  13. thanks Michael! I was similarly challenged when I read Dallas Willard. Why do so many of us Christians lose Christ?

  14. Tom mentions Luke 4. Another important passage to remind us what Christ’s mission was (is): the Beatitudes.

  15. A major part of the Second Week of Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s “Spiritual Exercises” is a series of meditations on the life of Christ as described in the Gospels. The retreatant is encouraged to imagine himself/herself walking with Christ, watching Him preach, heal, and perform miracles, eating and speaking with Christ and the Apostles as they go about their ministry. The grace that the retreatant is usually encouraged to pray for is the grace of a more intimate knowledge of Christ, that the retreatant may learn to love him more deeply and follow him more closely. I’ve undergone the Spiritual Exercises a few times in my life, and I’ve always found myself showered with immeasurable graces from praying the Second Week. I do encourage everyone here to constantly read, reflect, and pray about Christ’s life.

    Incidentally, I’m not sure how it is in other Christian churches, but in the Catholic Church, the Gospel reading (the part where a passage from one of the four Gospels accounts is read) is the most important part of the Liturgy of the Word, and the other Old Testament and New Testament readings serve to shed light on the Gospel passage. I’m just wondering whether the same preeminence is given, in other denominations, to the four Gospel accounts over other parts of Scripture in worship services, or whether this is a Catholic peculiarity.

  16. anyone know what really happened with Victoria Osteen on her flight to colorado?