Jesus is such an important and admired character in world history and western culture that everyone seems to want to claim him for their tribe. So there are many different versions of Jesus for us to believe in.
Shopping mall Jesus
This is the most obvious Jesus, and the easiest to see through. Two months before Christmas, supermarkets and shopping malls began stocking Christmas goods and playing the infernal muzak Christmas carols, and it isn’t long before nativity scenes begin to appear. A cute baby, a beautiful madonna mother who can’t find a room at the inn, lots of fluffy animals and a cast of rich kings and poor shepherds – what’s not to like?
This Jesus wouldn’t say anything against the commercialisation of his fake birthday, and he is apparently happy to help move product off shelves and maximise end-of-year profits.
Most of us buy into this monetary worship by spending up big buying presents which are generally in excess of needs, but while we like the story, we know the real story in the gospels has nothing to do with profit. This Jesus is only a faint shadow of the real person.
Cosmic sacred Jesus
The carpenter Jesus of the gospels becomes in Revelation a cosmic Jesus to be worshiped. This Jesus is perhaps best “seen” in grand Medieval cathedrals, with their soaring spires emphasising how far God is above us mere mortals. Inside, the same point is made with the cathedral clearly divided into “God’s end”, where only the priests can minister, and the people’s end.
This Jesus has risen far above his humble earthly beginnings among farm animals, and is now so distant that many Catholics seem to think that his mother is more likely to hear them, and some Protestant televangelists and megachurch pastors seem to think he isn’t watching their sleazy and materialistic behaviour.
This Jesus certainly reflects some important Biblical teachings, but he’s a long way from the Jesus of the gospels.
Cosmic hippy Jesus aka progressive Jesus
Cosmic hippy Jesus used to be popular, and he still puts in an appearance sometimes today in a new guise as progressive Jesus. This Jesus is all about love, though not always the sort of love described in the Bible; he accepts everyone and condemns no-one. He’s definitely left wing politically, caring for all the alienated and repressed people, such as refugees, the LGBTQI community, oppressed indigenous communities and victims of war and violence. He is much admired by people who are spiritual but not religious. In fact, he never enters a modern western church, and if he did, they wouldn’t recognise him.
The new progressive Jesus is not as extreme as cosmic hippy Jesus, and built on a better understanding of the New Testament. But he still definitely emphasises love and acceptance over judgment.
I have a lot of affection for this Jesus. I share a lot of his values, including most of the ones I’ve just mentioned. And this Jesus can be found in the pages of the gospels. Sort of. But the Jesus of the gospels did judge and criticise, and his love was often a tougher love than cosmic hippy Jesus ever exhibits.
Reformed evangelical doctrinal Jesus
This Jesus is almost the opposite of cosmic hippy Jesus. Sure he loves everyone, but he sends many of them to hell. Yes he loves everyone, but good doctrine matters, and he’s not going to accept any sloppy doctrinal thinking.
This Jesus came for just one thing – to die on the cross to divert God’s righteous wrath from our sinful rebellious selves onto himself, and you might well wonder what the rest of his life was all about – why did he bother with all that teaching about the kingdom of God? He’s a stern and serious Jesus and you’d better get on the right side of him if you want to go to heaven. And it would probably help if you were politically conservative and ignored all that historical Jesus talk against materialism and about non-violence and caring for the poor.
Reformed evangelical doctrinal Jesus is closer to the Jesus of Paul than to the historical Jesus of the gospels. Somehow, this Jesus seems true up to a point, but very truncated and missing so much.
Jesus the apocalyptic prophet
This Jesus is the one believed by many New Testament scholars. He’s based on historical study and is right at home in first century Jewish religion and culture. He fanned the hopes of many repressed Jews that God was finally going to remove the yoke of the hated Romans and bring in his kingdom on earth. And of course this meant the king would be a Jew and rule in Jerusalem, and the Jews would be top nation.
This Jesus envisaged this massive reversal of fortunes happening very soon, within the lifetime of his followers. But it didn’t happen – he failed – and his followers had to invent a new story of atoning death, resurrection and a spiritual kingdom to make sense of this failure.
This Jesus is built on historical facts and makes sense of much of the gospels, but it misses some key gospel hints and is built on naturalistic assumptions – understandable for secular historians but surely an unsafe basis for understanding someone like Jesus. When a man establishes a religious community that goes on to cover a third of the world, you’d want to think twice before you call him a failure – perhaps it is your understanding that has failed.
Will the real Jesus please stand up!
Which of these, if any, is the “real” Jesus?
I want to suggest that all of them contain some truth, but all miss some very important things.
I want to suggest we need to go back to the historical Jesus and understand why so many scholars see him as an apocalyptic prophet, and to find that there is good reason to think he was all that … and much more.
I suggest we all need to see whether the Jesus we worship, or reject, is consistent with the historical Jesus of the gospels, or lacks that fundamental foundation.
Next post I’ll suggest some things we should learn from the scholars, and a few places where we can legitimately and truthfully go beyond their somewhat limited and careful picture of Jesus. And learn why we should be wary of fully embracing any of the pictures of Jesus I’ve outlined here. And hopefully also see a few ways we can each have a more accurate picture of who Jesus is, and can be for us today.
May you ponder these things and grow in understanding this Christmas, so that we may all “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly”.
Graphic: Wallpaper cave