Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Jesus of the Gospels or the Jesus of the Church?

I came across an interesting passage in the C. S. Lewis biography I have been reading. Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Lewis was a thorough-going atheist who strongly resisted the biblical depiction of God and particularly of Christ. As he began opening his mind to Christianity, he started to read the Gospels and was surprised by the depiction of Jesus he found there. The Jesus he encountered there was not at all the Jesus the church and society had led him to believe could be found there.

Most Americans today, even more so than the Europeans of Lewis' time, operate with a faulty perception of Jesus. This misperception grows out of gospel illiteracy and is perpetuated through the depictions of Jesus we find in films and television. But make no mistake about it, popular culture is not at fault here. The primary source of this misperception is the church itself. Christians have bought into and perpetuated the idea that Jesus was all about love, forgiveness, and compassion. Love, forgiveness, and compassion are absolutely true representations of Jesus, but they are only part of the picture. When Christians talk about Jesus as their "friend," "buddy", or "big brother," they turn him into little more than a divine Mr. Rogers ("Jesus is my neighbor").

We operate with a watered-down version of Jesus because we don't read the Gospels completely and carefully. As Lewis found out, the Jesus one meets in the Gospels is a Jesus with an edge. He can be harsh, uncompromising, and , frankly, terrifying. I'm just flying off the top of my head here, but it seems to me that whenever people encounter Jesus in the Gospels, they experience one of four responses: joy, confusion, anger, or terror. Some of the parables that Jesus tells are extremely violent (this says something about how violence functions within fictional stories, like parables, and raises certain questions about how one should evaluate the portrayal of violence within popular culture -- but that is a post for another day).

I don't know why we prefer to hide behind our stained glass, Sunday School versions of Jesus rather than the Jesus of the Gospels. Or maybe I do. Perhaps we don't want to face the fact that fear may be just as accurate a response to Jesus as is joy.


At 12:35 PM, Blogger Jim MacKenzie said...

Some of us learned at RC's Sermon Seminar this year, not only, as you put it, "fear may be just as accurate a response to Jesus as is joy", but a change is required in us from our core, our heart! Good post!

Any time we go to the Gospels we run the risk of having Jesus confront us just like he confronted his world then!

At 9:34 PM, Blogger Loden said...

Greg...This is a great post! I guess I don't understand your statement about Jesus in the Gospels being "terrifying". To the people who met Him, saw His miracles, who refuse to accept Him, maybe/probably.

He was definitely a radical in His day and continues to be radical in our day. There has never been anyone like Him in history. Those who don't know Him should definitely be confronted when reading the Gospels. As you said, this Jesus is very different from the stained glass version.

To me, the word "fear" should mean "awe" or "reverence" when relating to Jesus. Those of us who do know Him should be amazed that God loves us that much. Further, we should be inspired to live our lives in pursuit of Him while at the same time being convicted regarding the areas of our lives which cause God to grieve.

This is my first time to post here. Thanks for the blog.

At 7:43 AM, Blogger Sermoniac said...

It facinates me that Jesus did not like the religious people of his day. His anger/frustration showed vividly when he dealt with the Pharisees or teachers of the Law. But when Jesus was face to face with an adulterer he compassionately said "go and sin no more".

I've been to churches and heard sermons that preach an angry Jesus to get sinners to repent and be baptized and I think that is misguided. It seems to me that I would much rather be a sinner when I meet Jesus than a religious person.

It is this understainding of the gospels that warn me that those of us in the church should be more concerned about how we understand our Lord.

At 12:11 PM, Blogger Naomi said...

I find it interesting that, in the story of the Calming of the Storm at Sea, the disciples were "afraid" at the storm, but "terrified" at Jesus' calming it.

At 8:33 AM, Blogger Bill said...

This is a very intriguing post, Greg. I especially resonate with the second paragraph. Perhaps someone should write a book: How To Read the Gospels for all They’re Worth.

FYI: I included a bit from your post “The Necessity of Fiction” in my latest post: “Why I Enjoy Fiction”. Hope you don’t mind. Blessings, -bill (

At 10:55 AM, Blogger KMiV said...

Greg, I have also noticed this is still an issue today. The modern Jesus is becoming the Mel Gibson tough guy. With the Passion of the Christ Jesus is becoming this savior who, like Rocky, takes abuse and stands firm. Jesper Svartvick, a scholar from Sweden, told me that it seems "the Word became flesh wounds and lived among us." This hypermasculinizing of Jesus seems to be an issue.

This is also prevalent in Elderedge's book, "Wild at Heart" where he focuses on the warrior side of Jesus. It seems that he forgets that Jesus was "counter cultural" as a man, at least in the Roman Empire, and calls men today to a different masculinty.


At 11:18 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Thanks for joining in! I appreciate your comments. The only comment I would make is that there is a reason why "fear" and "reverence" are the same word in Greek. There is a close relationship between the two and certainly as awe in the presence of God in part is a fear response, I think. Some people in the Gospels, both believers and non-believers, do respond to Jesus with genuine fear. For instance, in Luke, after Jesus cast out the demons in Gerasa, the townspeople are so terrified by him that they beg him to leave their region. In Mark 4, as Naomi notes, Jesus' own disciples respond to his calming of the storm in a way literally described in Greek as "they feared a great fear." This is a form of emphasis that basically means "they were terrified." I think the point here is that, like with Moses on the mountain or John in Revelation who falls before Jesus as though dead because he is afraid, an encounter with divine power, even beneficial and helpful power, can be terrifying. Thanks for the intriguing thoughts and I hope you'll post again.

At 11:19 AM, Blogger Greg said...

No problem. I'm honored that you would consider it worthy to use.

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Jim said...

One of the things that strikes me is the emphasis Jesus put on us being loving and compassionate. This is one of the things it seems like we miss in the church today. We can talk about Jesus being loving and compassionate, but can also shy away from how his life and teachings demand the same of us.

At 2:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI. This post has been linked by

Thank you.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Came here from Good post. Are you reading Alan Jacobs' bio? I just finished it, and it's great!

If you're referring to the passage I think you are, I believe that the image of Jesus that Lewis rejects that not necessarily that of society or the church in general (though I'm sure he had many problems with those images), but more specifically the image of Jesus projected by his good friend Arthur Greeves, who was the first Christian that Lewis came to know well.

At 8:08 PM, Anonymous warren said...

I find it interesting that Love, Forgivness and Compassion are condsidered a watered down version of who Jesus is.

Personally, I find the greatest challenge in my life is to Love like Jesus loves. Put simply, I think the Church has got it wrong too, (putting the primary focus on Church on Sundays.) I think it is our committment to truly loving that is most unlike Jesus in the modern Church. Perfect love casts out fear... think about it.

Love is in fact an incredibly gutsy thing. As Jesus told us the greatest love is to lay down ones life... whats watered down about that?

Day by day, we face the decision of whether to act in love or not.. in our jobs, with collegues and clients, in our home with our kids and partners, we make choices to do what is self satisfying or what is best for others (and ourselves). To truly love, is to be like Jesus, making every choice and every action in our lives, to be truly motivated by Love... thats not a watered down anything... if only we could all be like that.

My lifelong challenge is to love others and myself, like Jesus loves me. Thats tough enough for me.

At 12:07 AM, Anonymous Chaplain Winston said...

I love your post! I'd like to add that perhaps it is the fear of the LORD that saints of God are afraid to read or even speak of the violence of Jesus. As you stated he often spoke with violence, it's the words not necessarily the volume.

If the saints of God come to grips that the Jesus of the Bible is God, who had manefested in the flesh even in the O.T. they would see just how violent God is against idolatry, the worship of other gods. Sodom and Gammorrah is but one but primary example.

Why people hold on to idolatry is the providence and Soverienty of God, Jesus. Why people deny the Scripture is to. But people like you and me (many) are not ashamed of the gosple for it has the power to save souls and we have to give them everything we got!

God is holding us accountable for what he has taught us. Leave not your light under a bushel nor bury your talent(s). God will surely give an increase that does not come back void. Amen brother.

Jesus is from a warrior tribe (Judah/David/Jesus/some of us too)
Judah and Benjiman are in Israel as we speak, the 2 witnesses spoken of in the book of Revelation, since 1948.

Saints, please read you KJ-V to open your eyes to what you are N-IV. You must avoid what you are in for. But that's another long discussion.

At 8:23 PM, Blogger Transmitter said...


I think it's necessary to understand the times that Jesus lived in to understand the words "fear" and "terror," and also to be able to understand what He was saying.


At 11:33 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Yes, I just finished Alan Jacob's bio of Lewis. I thought it was an excellent treatment. I especially liked his emphasis on Lewis fascination with fairytales and his preference for fantasy and science fiction literature over what many the cultural elitists of his time preferred.

At 11:40 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Love and compassion is not a watered-down version of Jesus' teaching, but how we have appropriated those themes. The kind of love Jesus calls for is a radical commitment for us to love others in a sacrifical and self-denying way, yet we have often turned it into a belief that God is all about showing love and compassion to us. This dulls the edge of grace. When we forget that the NT claim that "God is Love" (1 John) is equally balanced with the claim that "God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews), we become guilty of exactly what the author of Hebrews warns us against. We take the grace of God too lightly. One of the ways this manifests in the church is when people do not take sin seriously enough. We sin, offer a quick prayer of forgiveness and then, confident of God's compassion, we go on our way as though nothing ever happened. This leads to a cheapening of God's grace and a gradually increasing tolerance for sin.

At 4:16 PM, Blogger eph5115 said...

And what exactly makes the KJV more accurate than the NIV? If you are going for accuracy, why not the NASB?

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Tors said...

Amen Amen & Amen,
Jesus has been watered down. People forget that Christ didn't come to do away with the old testiment but to fulfill it. All the characteristic of God that exsisted in the time of Israel are still existant in Jesus today, after all He is GOD-The Son. Does the Church not realise that Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Everyone should have fear of the Lord, if you won't stay on the narrow path for Love at least you might for fear.

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