The Meaning of Jesus Christ

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

MATTHEW 16.13-17

 

The question that Jesus asks all of his disciples is not as easy as identifying a name on a list or a face in a police investigation lineup. The church has very much followed the culture in reducing personal faith in Jesus to a glorified game of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ Even the secular filmmaker can see that this does not quite add up. In the very popular movie ‘Forrest Gump’ (1994), we may remember Lieutenant Dan cynically ask Private Gump, “Have you found Jesus?” to which Forrest responded innocently, “I didn’t know He was lost.”

Our culture is filled with desperate attempts to pretend that Jesus is not the rightful center of reality. We tend to “tolerate” Him as a mere cultural relic. The substitution of “X-Mas” for Christmas is certainly a perennial favorite, and the preference in textbooks for B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) over the oldfangled B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini) only moves the problem back a step in the hopes that no one will ask. Even the unbeliever finds himself wrapped up in a world that has divided up its calendar by the event and the meaning of the Incarnation. All this and more moved the famed skeptic, H. G. Wells (1866 – 1946), to write:

More than 1900 years later, a historian like myself, who doesn’t even call himself a Christian, finds the picture centering irresistibly around the life and character of this most significant man…The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is ‘What did he leave to grow?’ Did he start men thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him? By this test Jesus stands first.[1]

The century that has followed Wells has only increased in secularization, and yet, in one sense, the Person and Work of Jesus Christ are still as popular items as ever. This is true even among a people who have the maxim branded across their heart that the two things you don’t talk about in polite company are religion and politics! Apparently no one has informed the citizen of the emerging global community that the real Jesus of Nazareth was not exactly “polite company” when He visited our world. Now this may be testimony to the rebellious naiveté of the sinner; but it may also be testimony to the magnetic goodness that everybody still senses about the Son of God. We are drawn to something. The cross of Christ functions as one the leading pieces of jewelry as well as tattoos. Diverse images of Jesus cover tee-shirts and more often than not without much reverence. Athletes still offer up their thanks to Him when celebrating their momentary victories on television, as does Dog the Bounty Hunter before sanctifying his own line of work.  

The list of cameo appearances in the past few decades in the lowest form of pop culture include The Simpsons and South Park, and the cross blasphemously mimicked in Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” and mocked in Tool’s “Jesus Christ, Why Don’t You Come Save My Life.”  Mel Gibson honestly attempted to portray him from an admittedly Catholic perspective in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004), while CBS’s ‘Jesus’ (2002) was anything but reverent. His name is invoked by artists such as Kanye West, Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw and, naturally, U2. Of course the most infamous treatments of Jesus in cinema were Martin Scorsese’s ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988) and Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s ‘Divinci Code’ (2006), the former entertaining the idea of the sexual allure of Mary Magdalene while the latter builds a whole, though unoriginal, thesis of their lineage that Rome has kept hidden from the world. 

And in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries, then candidate George W. Bush named Jesus Christ as the most influential person in his life. The Lord’s name is used in vain everywhere, not only by politicians using Him for expediency, but by people simply trying to get a rise out of others.

There is also a comfort zone of overcorrection that we have settled into. For instance, we have gotten used to the fact that Jesus did not really have milky white skin and a long, flowing mane of hair. Nor was He simply the nice grandfatherly figure of Charles Dickens’ Life of Our Lord (1846 – 49). It never occurs to us that this must have always seemed obvious to someone. And what picture do we put in its place anyway? What is the point of all of this modification? Is it simply a dispassionate scholarly clearing of the throat? There is much evidence that an entirely new agenda is riding the wave of these crumbling caricatures. Without knowing it we live in the middle of a kind of Christological anarchy, where those who wield the most innocent questions marks have a whole doctrine of Christ prepared to insert in place of the old. This first section in our study of Christology will be broken into four heads:

  • JESUS IN CONTEMPORARY CULTURE
  • JESUS AS THE PROMISED MESSIAH OF ISRAEL
  • JESUS AS THE SOLUTION TO THE INFINITE-PERSONAL PROBLEM
  • JESUS AMONG OTHER GODS

Big Idea: Jesus is exactly who He said He is, over all individuals and cultures and earthly powers.

JESUS IN CONTEMPORARY CULTURE

What interests us here is not simply the images and impressions of Christ that lie on the surface of pop culture, but what is behind it all. What are the theological assumptions that place Jesus where He often finds himself in these shadows? For the Son of God is first and foremost a theological figure and not a communal figure. We should also point out that Jesus is first a doctrinal figure before He is a devotional figure. So what sort of doctrine of Christ is assumed in the modern makeovers?

There has been no shortage of books about Jesus in recent years. Since the turn of the millennium, according to the count of one historian, more than a hundred biographies have been published in English alone.[2] It never ceases to amaze us just how many people in the modern world can write books about Jesus while not believing a word that the primary source documents say about him.

One spokesman for that segment of society that still wants something to do with Jesus, but not with supernatural religion, is the duly ordained atheist John Shelby Spong. In his Jesus for the Nonreligious (2007) he splits the Jesus of history from the “myth of church dogma” as initial liberalism had always done. He makes it clear that this might just be the last book he writes. And what is he content to say about Jesus right before he goes to meet Him? Spong quotes, with approval, a professor of his who taught him that “any God who can be killed ought to be killed.”[3] This is the Christianity that, for him, must change or die: the old faith in which God is supreme and in which we are justly separated from him as a judgment for sin. Orthodoxy is the construct of a world that no longer exists, one in which there was “the attempt to reconcile the human with the divine,”[4] the divine being above the line in supernature, inaccessible. In a piece of imagery that could have been diagramed by Kant directly, Spong places above the line the form of orthodoxy (right teaching) with the truth and the soul which obtained it, and below the line the body and its thinking, which naturally includes doubt. He then argues along the same lines as traditional liberalism that the notion of orthodoxy diminishes the humanity of Jesus.  

Depak Chopra’s Jesus (2008) is a novel, ala Dan Brown, where he divides the man from Nazareth into seeker, miracle worker and messiah. But what do each of these words come to mean? He begins that, “This book isn’t about the Jesus found in the New Testament, but the Jesus who was left out,”[5] namely in the ‘lost years’ between ages twelve and thirty so often teased in apocryphal and other fantasy writing. Chopra, of course, is in a unique position to tell us what became of the lost years of Jesus since nothing he has ever said makes much sense anyway. If Jesus is the one and only ‘Son of God,’ argues Chopra, then the rest of us really are left as orphans. The assumption here is that our separation from God is purely intellectual or experiential, as in an innocent and exciting journey. Our illegitimacy would be purely and simply about being unenlightened, which follows the basic categories of Buddhist and Hindu thought. But what if, he asks, we could follow the same path of ‘discovery’ as Jesus? In the lost years, Jesus was, in a word, lost, a seeker, which is after all the most “human” place to be these days. This shouldn’t surprise us since Chopra also claimed on the Larry King Show, “I see Christ as a state of consciousness we can all aspire to.” In one of his more ‘practical’ books he suggests,

In reality, we are divinity in disguise, and the gods and goddesses in embryo that are contained within us seek to be fully materialized…We must find out for ourselves that inside us is a god or goddess in embryo that wants to be born so that we can express our divinity.[6]

This novel approach is rooted in a lot of thought Chopra has given to Jesus. In the same year, he published The Third Jesus (2008), a ‘non-fiction’ work dedicated to his “Irish Christian brothers in India” who first introduced him to the Lord. Here we can see the social justice Jesus added on to the seeking enlightenment Jesus. This ethic, centered upon the Golden Rule, is unpopular but it is not impossible. He is called a “third Jesus,” as we will see, because the first was the Jesus of history, the second the Christ of faith—so far, so good to a liberal theologian—but a third Jesus is needed that embraces all of the contradictions and always transcends our current understanding.

Of course none of this is unique to our time and place. Jesus was made into the essentially existential man, never mind that to typecast him as such contradicts the very definition of existentialist: that existence precedes essence. Even if we choose to say that the fundamental quality of Jesus was that he became enlightened or authentic—He seized it, He defined it, etc.—still, He is no longer himself so long as we can define Him as being essentially something.  

Jesus was also cast as a socialist revolutionary.  Jurgen Moltmann places the Christ of history over the Christ of eternity so that “To know Jesus does not simply mean learning the facts of Christological dogma. In means learning to know him in the praxis of discipleship.”[7] For this leading theologian of liberation, the Son of God came to give mankind the victory over the godforsaken power structures of this world. And John Howard Yoder, who is widely read in Emergent circles, commends a Jesus who is “the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and…political relationships.”[8]

Religious scholars who have not studied the social sciences or philosophy attempt to distinguish Marxist elements of thought in fringe theological movements and the wider spectrum of liberation theologies. Socialism is only seen as a narrow strip of political economy and not as the logical consequence of an overarching materialistic-collectivist worldview. One unhappy result of this is that our Evangelical guardians do not understand that much of what passes as biblical scholarship on church methodology and mission is peddling a basically Marxist view of history and culture. I have no doubt that many of the authors do not quite know it. Hence we do not notice the unity between the feminist Jesus, the communist Jesus, the existentialist Jesus, the black-liberation Jesus and the “red-letter” Jesus of most recent production. 

And if anyone is bothered by the exclusivity of any of the individual Jesuses, Brian McLaren offers us an emerging solution in a chapter entitled “The Seven Jesuses I Have Known.” There is the conservative Protestant Jesus where “Jesus saves us by dying on the cross.” This was given meaning in history by metaphors that were legal, economic, governmental and military according to what functioned most powerfully in that segment of Western culture. But, McLaren admits, “over time each analogy presented logical and ethical problems that dulled my enthusiasm.”[9] No problem, because there was the Pentecostal-Charismatic Jesus who gives the fullness of the Spirit, the Roman Catholic Jesus who rises from the dead for the Church, the Eastern Orthodox Jesus who fully enters humanity and is bound to his creation, the Liberal Protestant Jesus who is the humanitarian example, the Anabaptist Jesus who leads a community of disciples to non-violent resistance, and finally, the Jesus of the Oppressed who challenges the institutions of power. His conclusion: “Why not celebrate them all?”[10]

We cannot resist asking, “How are these others incompatible with the Protestant Jesus?” And if McLaren responds, “Exactly, they are not!” But if not, why treat them as separate? What is really being claimed here?

In these diabolical revisions, the end game is simple: He who controls the meaning of who Jesus is controls everything else. They must have their mascot. There is just one problem. Jesus is not anyone’s mascot! He is not even the white European’s mascot; but we do not correct one worldly error with others. As we will see Jesus is both very particular and very universal. He is particular in that He is what He is and not something else; but He is universal in that everything He is applies to every corner of the galaxy and over every human heart.  He is specifically revealed through one historic people, the Jews, but He is Lord over everyone and the only possible salvation for anyone.


[1] H. G. Wells, 

[2] cf. Paul Johnson, Jesus: A Biography from a Believer (Viking, 2010); p. 2

[3] John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Nonreligious (HarperOne, San Francisco 2008); xiii

[4] Spong, ibid., xii

[5] Depak Chopra, Jesus (HarperOne, San Francisco 2008); vii

[6] Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success (Amber Allen Publishing, San Rafael, CA 1994); pp. 3, 98

[7] Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ (HarperCollins, San Francisco 1990); p. 43

[8] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1972); p. 63

[9] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Youth Specialities, El Cajon, CA 2004); p. 47

[10] McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 66

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