I’m at the beach on an overcast day, reading Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew (Zondervan, 1995). In the introductory chapter Yancey writes about the Jesus he knew as a child in Sunday school, the Jesus he knew in Bible college as a young man, and the Jesus he came to know through books, films, articles, and his own careful reading of the Gospels. I was thrilled to see how his understanding of Jesus evolved over time, because too many Christians seem to carry around in their heads the Jesus they knew in Sunday school—“someone kind and reassuring with no sharp edges at all,” as Yancey writes, a comforting kind of “Mister Rogers” character. It’s hard for me to imagine that any serious reading of the Gospels could produce such an image of Jesus. Yancey writes:
The more I studied Jesus, the more difficult it became to pigeonhole him. He said little about the Roman occupation, the main topic of conversation among his countrymen, and yet he took up a whip to drive petty profiteers from the Jewish temple. He urged obedience to the Mosaic law while acquiring a reputation as a lawbreaker. He could be stabbed by sympathy for a stranger, yet turn on his best friend with the flinty rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan!” He had uncompromising views on rich men and loose women, yet both types enjoyed his company.
One day miracles seemed to flow out of Jesus; the next day his power was blocked by people’s lack of faith. One day he talked in detail of the Second Coming; another he knew neither the day nor the hour. He fled from arrest at one point and marched inexorably toward it at another. He spoke eloquently about peacemeaking, then told his disciples to procure swords. His extravagant claims about himself kept him at the center of controversy, but when he did something truly miraculous he tended to hush it up. As Walter Wink has said, if Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.
Two words one could never think of applying to the Jesus of the Gospels: boring and predictable. How is it, then, that the church has tamed such a character—has, in Dorothy Sayers’ words, “very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies”? (p. 23).
That’s not the Jesus I know; I hope it’s not the One you know either.