20-1 Images of Jesus
It becomes apparent from any reading of the Gospels that the Lord Jesus sought (and seeks) to radically re-orient the thinking of His followers to be centred around Him as a person. They are to see Him as their leader, the one they follow, the light of their world. All that they have seen and know of Him is to be the centre of their lives and very consciousness as human beings. The only foundation for spiritual life is the man Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 3:11). To be like Him is to the aim of our lives to which all else is bent: “Until we all reach...to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ...to grow in every way into him which is the head, that is, into Christ” (Eph. 4:12-16). The most essential error, practically or doctrinally, is to “lose connection to the head [Jesus], from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together...grows” (Col. 2:19). In the parable of the sower, the seed is surely Jesus (Jn. 12:24)- our eternal destiny is decided upon our response to Him and His teaching. We are bidden believe in or into Jesus. Belief involves the heart; it doesn't mean to merely give mental assent to some propositions. It must in the end involve believing in a person, with all the feelings and emotions this involves. We are married unto the Lord Jesus, in order that we might bring forth fruit unto God (Rom. 7:4). All spiritual fruit is therefore an offspring, an outcome, of a living, daily relationship with the Lord Jesus. This is how crucial it is to know Him. To believe in Him is described by John as a ‘work’ that has to be laboured at- with even more effort than that expended by the crowds who walked around the lake to get to Jesus and the free bread He appeared to be offering (Jn. 6:27; 2 Jn. 8). It is this ‘labour’, this hard mental effort to know Him and believe in Him, which will have a ‘full reward’ (2 Jn. 8). John here is alluding to the LXX of Ruth 2:12, where a ‘full reward’ is given to Ruth for working hard all day gleaning in the fields. It may be that this allusion was because “the elect lady” addressed by John was in fact a proselyte widow, like Ruth. But the point is, we have to labour
, as much as one might work hard walking around a lake or gleaning in the field, in order to know the Lord Jesus Christ.
The blind man asked about Jesus: “Who is he, that I may believe on him?” (Jn. 9:36). True belief depends upon having the true image of Jesus. The goal of conversion to Him is love from a pure heart (1 Pet. 1:22). To know Him properly leads to love within us. 1 Jn. 3:22 brackets together believing in His Name and loving one another. Again and again we say: images and understanding of Jesus matter. As John Newton put it:
To try both your faith and your scheme:
You cannot be right in the rest
Unless you think rightly of him.
All this, then, throws up a question of fundamental importance: Who then is Jesus? What is our image of Him as a person? Do we actually know Him as a person? Or is He to us a mere piece of theology, an idea in our brains, a black box that we call 'Jesus' every time we pray... and not somebody whom we can say we know? This question is crucial, utterly crucial. Perhaps the greatest and easiest mistake in the Christian life is to think of Jesus as a figure in a book, as someone who existed in history, and whose work we recount in terms of academic statements about the atonement. We can be so understandably concerned about finding the true interpretations of the Bible, in a religious world so sadly mistaken in their views, that we can actually forget the essence of what it means to be Christian disciples- to be learners of Him, of this man, this more than man, whom having not seen we love. Yet we can't truly love a person we don't know. It concerns me, it really does worry me, that so many of us seem to lack a sense of knowing the man Jesus as their personal Lord and instructor. One wonders whether our hymns of praise to Jesus are really appreciated by us for what they are and for what they say. Indeed, it’s our very presumption of familiarity with Jesus that is so often the basis of our unfamiliarity with Him.
We are no longer under Moses' law; but under " the law of Christ" . I cannot understand this as meaning that the 613 commands of Moses have been replaced by a set of laws given by Jesus. For the antithesis between law and grace to which the New Testament constantly draws our attention would then be meaningless. The law of Christ surely means the law which is Christ; to be and speak and think and do as He would do. This must be our law, a principle far more comprehensive and intrusive into our lives than mere legalism. 'What would Jesus do?' is surely our law. To walk even as He walked (1 Jn. 2:6), to do as He did (Jn. 13:15), love as He loved (Jn. 13:34; 15:12; Eph. 5:2), forgive as He forgave (Col. 3:13), have the mind which was in Him (Phil. 2:5), give our lives for our brethren as He did (1 Jn. 3:16). Gal. 6:2 defines fulfilling the law of Christ as 'bearing one another's burdens'. He bore the burden of our sin on the cross. The essential law of Christ, the law of being like Christ, is to likewise play our part in leading others towards the forgiveness of their sins. This is why preaching to others in whatever form is such a basic and necessary part of our response to His bearing of our sins on the cross. But if ‘What would Jesus do?’ is the golden rule of the Christian life, this of course assumes that we have a clear understanding of Jesus, and what He would do! To be able to live according to the ‘What would Jesus do?’ rule, we need to know Him, and know Him in a way which means we have a clear picture of how He would live in our current human situation.
The New Testament speaks in challenging terms of how real is to be our relationship with the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s enigmatic words of Jn. 16:16 indicate just how close the Comforter was to make Him come to His people once He was in Heaven: “Yet a little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father”. I suggest that the “little while” in each clause is one and the same. In “a little while” they would not see Him physically, but exactly because He would be with the Father, He would send the Comforter, and enable His people to ‘see’ Him in the sense that John usually speaks of in his Gospel. This ‘seeing’ of Jesus, this perception of Him, is effectively a ‘seeing’ of the Father. 2 Cor. 3 speaks of our beholding the glory of the Lord Jesus in a mirror; and this process slowly transforms us into that same image of Him which we see. The “glory” of God was revealed to Moses at Sinai in Ex. 34 as the declaration of His character. In this sense, the Lord Jesus could speak of having in His mortal life “that glory which was with [the Father]” when the [Jewish] world came into existence at Sinai (Jn. 17:5 Ethiopic and Western Text). It was that same glory which, like Moses, He reflected to men. But according to 2 Cor. 3:18, the very experience of gazing upon the glory of His character will change us into a reflection of it. There is something transforming about the very personality of Jesus. And perhaps this is why we have such a psychological barrier to thinking about Him deeply. We know that it has the power to transform and intrude into our innermost darkness. I have given reason elsewhere for believing that the Gospel records are in fact transcripts of the Gospel message preached by the four evangelists. The 'Gospel according to Matthew' is therefore the Gospel message which he usually preached. And it's significant that at least three of them start and end where many of us would- starting with the promises to the Jewish fathers, and concluding with an appeal for baptism. Actually John's Gospel does this too, if you decode the language he uses. This is surely the explanation of the Lord's otherwise strange remark that wherever the Gospel is preached, the anointing of His feet by Mary would be part of that message. And this is one of the few incidents that all four Gospel writers each mention. What this shows is that the Gospel message is in its quintessence, the account of the man Christ Jesus- with all that involves. It has truly been commented that " the central message of the gospels is not the teaching of Jesus but Jesus himself" . This is true insofar as Jesus is the word made flesh.
Images of Jesus matter. He will say to many in the last day that He has never known them, for they never knew Him- for all their pure doctrine and good works. Life eternal is about knowing God and Jesus (Jn. 17:3)- and the Greek word here doesn't mean to merely know in an academic sense, but to know intimately and personally. Only if we really see / perceive the Son will we be saved; " ye have seen me and yet believe not" the Lord told the Jews, warning them that only those who see the Son and believe in Him will have eternal life (Jn. 6:36, 40). If we really know the Son then we will likewise know His love and sacrifice is enough to truly grant us the life eternal. If we truly see the Son and believe in Him, then we will know that we (will have) eternal life- because His grace, His love, His desire to save will be so clearly evident to us through the study and knowledge of His personality. If we know Him, we will be sure of our salvation. Knowing Him, coming to know Him, is this important. We will be humbly confident that in the very, final end- we will be there. There is therefore the factual, doctrinal 'knowledge' or 'seeing' which by grace has been granted us. But beyond that there is the true seeing and believing into the Man Jesus, with the definite Hope which that brings. If we truly know Him we will count literally all else as loss (Phil. 3:8).
1 Jn. 3:14 states that “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren”. But this is John taking his converts further in appreciating something he had earlier preached to them in his Gospel: “He that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life” (Jn. 5:24). To hear the word of Christ and believe the Gospel of God must issue, if it is valid and credible, in something practical- loving our brethren. It is only John who records the Lord speaking of “my word” [logos]. To hear Christ’s word or logos is not merely to believe that the Bible was written by Divine inspiration, or to intellectually assent to doctrinal truth; it is to discern Him, to know Him as a person in truth [which will involve correct doctrinal perception, of course]. And this simply has to lead to loving the brethren. This is the real result of knowing Christ.
I am convinced from talking to people that for many, their childhood image of Jesus remains intact into adulthood. If you were raised thinking of Him as a pale faced man with a halo round His head, effectively non-human, this tends to continue. Yet because Christianity is based around the man Christ Jesus, this means that ones image of Christian life will reflect their image of Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer truly wrote that " Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship" (1). Albert Schweitzer in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (2) shows how most students of Jesus Christ had simply worked through the New Testament evidence to find support for the picture of Jesus which they already had in their subconscious. And we can do the same, even if we may not consider ourselves scholars. Reading the pages of the New Testament should reveal to us the real Christ who confronts and challenges us, whether or not we are comfortable with what we see and hear from Him there. Indeed, we could say that we have to rescue Christ from Christianity And actually we have to rescue [if I may use the term in this context] the true understanding of God Himself from religion / theology as a whole. Bonhoeffer had this in mind when he spoke of “the startling paradox of a non-religious understanding of God”(3). That’s a phrase I can go with. That Bonhoeffer came to that conclusion as he awaited his death in a Nazi prison, with all the clarity of thinking which impending death brings with it… is to me significant. To teach and preach that is not to preach atheism, nor even an end to ‘theism’. In plainer terms, it means to preach God as He is, without all the trappings of mere religion, even if those trappings have been created by men who believed in God. Images of Jesus matter in the same way as images of God matter. In my few discussions with pure atheists which have got to grips with the real issues, it’s become apparent to me that the God they are so passionately tilting against, the God they say they can no way accept as real… is in fact an image of God which they hold in their minds. The true image of God, like the true image of Jesus, encourages faith rather than discourages it.
Any biographer tends to interpret the great person of whom they write through the lens of their own personality; in a way, they create another person who is related to their own image and worldview. Yet if we read the Gospels properly, we are confronted there by the real Christ. We are asked to study His character, indeed to make this the most vital pursuit of our lives. But in seeking to reconstruct His personality, we are to allow Him as He was and as He is to be accepted by us just as He is, and not re-interpreted by us to make Him somehow more convenient or palatable or easier to handle.
Of course we need a correct image of Jesus if we are to follow Him. He, Himself, is the way in which we are to walk. When we read of being and acting and thinking " in Christ" , this surely refers to our way of life being based around Him as a person, reflecting His image into our own. The believer works and rejoices " in Christ" , speaks and admonishes in Him, shows hospitality in Him, marries in Him, is a slave in Him... We can only do these things in Him if we have an image of who He is. And my concern is that some of us admit to having a very hazy image of Him; or, in fact, hardly having one at all. God forbid that we should have merely accepted certain doctrinal principles and been baptized as mere members of a church. We must know Christ. If there was no meaning in the words used about Jesus in our formative years, our later Christianity can likewise be empty and void. For example, I think I knew Jesus was " born of the virgin Mary" well before I knew what a virgin was. And this empty image of Jesus as a mere 'Heavenly' idea that can't be practically related to can continue all our lives, unless we truly know and meet Him for ourselves. All I can do is to present to you my own understanding of the person of Jesus; and invite you to contribute or at least develop your own.
John writes that he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God will be thus empowered to overcome the world (1 Jn. 5:5). It’s unusual for the Lord of glory to be referred to merely as “Jesus” by the apostles. Perhaps what John is saying is that if we perceive how the real, human Jesus, the man from Nazareth, was so much more than that, He was Son of God- we too will find strength from the fact of His humanity to overcome the world. Thus later John writes that to confess Jesus Christ as having come in the flesh, to acknowledge His true humanity, is related to walking after His commandments (2 Jn. 6,7). And this perhaps is why John can say that it is a sin, a “transgression”, to abide not in the doctrine of a human Jesus (2 Jn. 9). Why should it be ‘sinful’ to hold a theological misunderstanding? Surely God cannot hold people morally culpable for genuine misinterpretation? Perhaps the answer lies in looking at it from a different angle. The purpose of doctrine is to elicit a Godly way of life. To refuse to believe in the real, human Jesus is actually a way of justifying our wrong behaviour, of hiding away from the challenge that His humanity is to us as His fellow human beings- to transform our personalities after the pattern of His. To believe the doctrine of a human Jesus who was nonetheless God manifest in human flesh empowers us not to sin; through this real and human Christ we have forgiveness and inspiration in the life that is in Him. This is why doctrine about Him matters- because if believed properly, it empowers a Christ-like life. This perspective helps us likewise understand what is fundamental doctrine, and what isn’t. Any idea or theory or interpretation that doesn’t have the potential to change our lives in practice just… isn’t worth arguing about.
Real prayer and Bible study as God intends- exciting, life-changing prayer and Bible reading- must surely be rooted in a correct image of Jesus Himself. Even as non-trinitarians, we have so often muted the stark challenge of the real, genuinely human Jesus. We have done this by abstracting Jesus into theological terms which obscure the exciting, compelling human being which Jesus was. If we aren't careful, we end up doing in essence what the Catholics and Orthodox churches have done by reducing this awesome Man to a mere stained-glass figure. Caught up as we inevitably are in this world, in careers, child care and worldly worries, we must think afresh through the issues of what allegiance to this Man mean in practice. The substance and structure of our lives, and indeed of the whole world around us, need to be thought through in the light of the unique achievement of the man Jesus. And we must then go on to be for this world what Jesus was for the Israel of His day. So to search for a reconstruction in our own hearts and minds of who Jesus was is a solemn, non- negotiable duty for each true believer. Some degree of recovery of the personality of Jesus of Nazareth is not beyond the reach of any serious believer. And only in this way will we find the power to be renewed in our personal discipleship, and our community to be renewed in its sense of mission in this world. Indeed, our view of God depends totally upon our understanding of Jesus- for He has revealed the invisible God, not only to those who met Him, but to those who read and learn of Him through the inspired records of Him (Jn. 1:18).
Images of Jesus matter because the believer consciously seeks to mould his or her personality into the image of Jesus which they have. Who He is and was becomes vital in deciding who we become. We are changed into that same image, from glory to glory, by the Lord the Spirit. And psychological analysis of Christians by L.J. Francis and J. Astley has concluded that they “shape a self-concept that corresponds… to some extent and in some sense to his or her image of Jesus” (4). They interviewed 473 secondary school students, 317 older students and 398 adult churchgoers in the UK using the “Revised Eysenck Personality Questionnaire” and concluded that their data “exhibit significant correlations between the respondents’ personality and their images of Jesus”.
And so I have sought to show that images of Jesus matter. We each have a solemn duty to reconstruct our own personal image of the Lord, based on Scripture. On one hand, the details don't matter. If you imagine Him with a long beard, well it doesn't ultimately matter if this wasn't how He was. But we need to have an imagination, an imaging, of how He essentially was in thinking and behaviour in situations so that we can seek to replicate that image. It is clear enough that the four Gospel writers, under inspiration, were each struck by different aspects of this incredible man. Thus Luke pays more attention that the others to the prayers of Jesus; this is what struck him so deeply. John makes little mention of the phrase " Gospel of the Kingdom" - unlike Matthew. And this, perhaps, is how the body of Christ as a whole potentially has the complete vision of Him- for we each see different aspects of Him. Comparing the Gospel records, it is apparent that different people saw different things in Jesus. According to Mark's record, Jesus never openly proclaimed His identity; whereas John shows how in fact Jesus did so very clearly. John proclaims Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, whereas Mark almost implies that His Messiahship was some sort of secret throughout the ministry. And so it will be with us- my perception of Jesus may not quite be yours. Indeed, this is the very unique thing about Jesus- that He is the very personal Lord and representative of each of His followers, uniquely able to relate to them in an intimate way.
(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost Of Discipleship (London: S.C.M., 1964 ed.), p. 50.
(2) Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (London: A. and C. Black, 1910).
(3) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters And Papers From Prison (London: Macmillan, 1953) p. 124.
(4) L.J. Francis and J. Astley, ‘The Quest for the Psychological Jesus: Influences of Personality on Images of Jesus’, Journal of Psychology and Christianity Vol. 16 No. 3 (1997) p. 248.