Over the years some have asked me why, as an evangelical writer, I so infrequently invoke the name of Jesus. My usual glib response is that I prefer not to name-drop just because I'm on a first-name basis with the Creator of the universe. But the truth is, I’ve never felt that being an evangelical required me to stuff my essays with scripture references or end my articles with an altar call. I hope that my work is, like Flannery O’Connor’s South, “Christ-haunted” and would consider my labor to be a failure if his influence cannot be detected in my writing.
Nevertheless, there is a time to talk about Jesus more directly. Since I think about him constantly, I frequently have questions and concerns, and, on rarer occasions, reverie-inducing contemplation about my Redeemer. Admittedly, I rarely have fresh insights about Jesus (those are best left to theologians and heretics) but I had six thoughts that, however banal or obvious, might be worth sharing.
1. Christians believe, as the Nicene Creed states, that Jesus was both man and true God. We consider it axiomatic that Jesus is the only human who can claim to be the “true God.” But I think it can also be argued that Jesus is the only human who can claim to know what it is to be truly human.
It has been said that theology became anthropology when God became man. But I think we fail to appreciate what a significant insight into anthropology was given to us by the Incarnation. Not only did Jesus provide us an image of God, he provided us with an image of man before the Fall (and still more amazingly, did so in a post-Fall context). While it may be difficult to determine exactly which aspects are attributable to his humanity or to his divinity, he gives us a clear vision of what being a human should look like. He gives us a view of what was meant to be and what those who put their trust in him will become in the future.
2. “Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat,” said my friend John Mark Reynolds, “He’s probably a monarchist.” When I first heard that claim I thought it was clever; now I find it to be a profound insight. Jesus constantly talked about the Kingdom of Heaven. So why do so few Christians talk about it? One reason, I believe, is that we are now all republicans and democrats (small-R, small-D) and simply don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. We may use the term “Lord” and “King of Kings” but—unlike the vast majority of people throughout history—we do not comprehend what it means to live under the reign of a king. We need some remedial training on how to live as subjects in a kingdom. We may be justified in rejecting the divine right of kings to rule but we cannot justify rejecting the rule of our divine king.
3. Whenever I hear non-Christians say that they don’t like the “Old Testament God” but that they admire Jesus I always wonder, “Have they ever read the gospels?” Even if you set aside the “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” trilemma you’re still left with the fact that Jesus considered everything he did to be consonant with his “Father”—the Old Testament God. His every action, as he claims, was done in submission to God’s will.
It is true that he healed people and hung out with sinners. But he also called them to repentance. As the old cliché goes, Jesus loved the sinner but hated the sin. In fact, Jesus hates sin more than [Fill in the name of your favorite intolerant Fundamentalist preacher]. And you think Old Testament God was a bloodthirsty warmonger? Jesus goes even further by promising not only to pit nations but families against each other. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth,” says Jesus. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In other words, he ain’t no Jewish Ghandi. If you don’t like Yahweh, then you shouldn’t be too fond of Yeshua either.
4. In 1896 a Christian socialist named Charles Sheldon wrote a book called In His Steps which popularized the slogan “What Would Jesus Do” and inspired two of the most well-intentioned but misguided fads of the twentieth century: the Social Gospel movement and the marketing of WWJD paraphernalia. The problem with both is that they are based on WWJD and that is the wrong question.
The gospels provide us with a clear record of what Jesus did—healed the sick, preached, traveled, made disciples. While we may also be expected to do these types of things, they were essential to Christ’s earthly mission. If he were walking the streets of America he would likely still be doing the same thing. But is this what we should be doing? Not necessarily. We are not Jesus; we are his disciples. Our mission is not his mission but the mission he assigns us. The question we should keep constantly before us is “What Would Jesus Want Me To Do?” But then WWJWMTD isn’t as easy to embroider on a bracelet or fit on a bumper sticker.
5. Some people assume that Jesus was a carpenter while others (on better evidence I believe) think he was a rabbi. Whether he worked with wood or with words, I think it is indisputable that Jesus was also a philosopher. As Dallas Willard wrote in his essay, “Jesus the Logician”:
There is in our culture an uneasy relation between Jesus and intelligence, and I have actually heard Christians respond to my statement that Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived by saying that it is an oxymoron. Today we automatically position him away from (or even in opposition to) the intellect and intellectual life. Almost no one would consider him to be a thinker, addressing the same issues as, say, Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger or Wittgenstein, and with the same logical method.
It truly is, then, as Mark Noll once wrote, a “scandal” that evangelicals have failed so miserably in their commanded task of “putting on the mind of Christ.” As a group we should be fertile ground for producing intellectuals. After all, we are disciples of the greatest thinker in history.
6. One of the most poignant and profound theological lessons about Jesus remains the one I first learned as a four-year-old:
Jesus loves me
This I know
For the Bible tells me so
If I think about Jesus for the rest of my life, I doubt would be able to produce an insight so beautiful, concise, and true.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Dallas Willard, Jesus the Logician