images of Jesus
One’s theology is, to a great extent, dependent on one’s image of Jesus. Some people think of Jesus as a benign figure, sweet and gentle, meek and mild, patting children on the head. Others have come to see Jesus as a social critic, and even as a violent revolutionary. A great number of believers often find it difficult to think of Jesus as human at all. For them, he was God on earth, a divine being disguised as a human being—all-seeing, all—knowing, and all-powerful. They see him as flawless, sinless, and sexless. They imagine Jesus as a kind of superhero, able to perform miraculous deeds and read people’s minds. They think of him as walking the earth without feelings or failures.
Such one-sided and exclusive concentration on Jesus as divine renders him inhuman. It makes him someone we can worship and adore, but need not imitate; someone we can believe in, but need not follow. At the other end of the spectrum is the view of Jesus as just a good man, a wise philosopher or an outstanding moral educator. He has also been described as a religious genius, an expert psychologist, and the world’s greatest salesman. Those pictures of Jesus focus on his humanity, but deny the incredible spiritual nature he embodied and ignore the radical social vision he espoused.
the popular image: the creeds
After the death of Jesus, his followers began a process of re-evaluation and reinterpretation of his identity, message and mission. Through this process a number of widely different views of Jesus developed. For three hundred years competing images of Jesus circulated in the early church. In the fourth century, the emperor Constantine convened church leaders to domesticate Christianity and to agree on a single orthodox view of Jesus. The result was the image of Jesus we are most familiar with, the Jesus of the historic creeds of the Christian church, the Christ of faith.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his [God’s] only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
Marcus Borg summarizes the popular image of Jesus found in the creeds as follows:
- Jesus was the divinely begotten Son of God, the risen Christ, true God and true man.
- His message consisted primarily of inviting his hearers to believe that what he said about himself and his role in salvation was true.
- He was sent into the world to die on a cross as a means of reconciliation between God and humankind. “Jesus died for your sins” is his purpose in a nutshell.
The primary source for this image is the gospel of John. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Following Jesus involves a radically different understanding of the identity, mission and message of Jesus than the traditional understanding presented by the earlier paradigm of Christianity.
the three questions
At the outset, I indicated that following Jesus in a postmodern world involves a new set of answers to the following three questions:
- Who was Jesus?
- What did he hope to accomplish?
- What did he proclaim?
If we are able to rediscover the life and teachings of Jesus in a fresh way, to understand how Jesus confronted the social issues, politics, economics, and religion of his day, we may be able to bridge the gulf between the ancient world and the postmodern world.
Below, you will begin to see a taste of the new answers to these questions.
who was Jesus? – an emerging portrait
Today, after over two hundred years of scholarly research into the historical Jesus, some new images are emerging. When Jesus is viewed in the social and political context of first-century Roman Palestine, a human Jesus emerges who is truly remarkable.
Without formal education, he teaches an alternative wisdom that is still meaningful and challenging today. Although an intensely spiritual person, he is much more political than previously imagined, speaking about the social conditions that created a class of expendable people and that was fostering armed rebellion.
There is no firm consensus yet on the Jesus who is emerging from this study. Scholars argue over whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet or a nonviolent social critic. But a new image is coming into focus.
Here are some ways in which Jesus is viewed today.
Jesus as a peasant
Jesus was a Mediterranean Jewish peasant. As a member of the artisan class, his father Yosep (Joseph) and his family were on the lower end of the economic and social scale. Although a construction worker would be considered middle class today, there was no middle class in antiquity. In the first century, these frequently itinerant workers were generally peasants who had lost their land due to misfortune and indebtedness. Thus, on both the social and economic scales, they ranked below the peasants who still worked their own land.
Jesus as poor
Jesus was born into poverty. At his circumcision and presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem, his parents sacrificed a pigeon, the offering of the poor. Throughout his life, he identified with the poor and their plight.
Jesus and his family were not at the bottom of the ladder in his society, however. There were others worse off. The lowest level in the class structure were the expendables. These people existed because—despite the high mortality rates, disease, famine and war—the lower classes produced more people than the upper classes found it profitable to employ in an agrarian economy. If they found work at all, it was as day laborers. Otherwise, they wound up as beggars or bandits. In any event, their lives were brutal and short. Widows and orphans were also people totally without means, completely destitute and dependent on others for survival.
Jesus as possessionless
As Jesus began his ministry, he lived an itinerant lifestyle, essentially without possessions other than the clothes on his back. He depended on the goodwill of others for food and shelter. He encouraged others to sell their possessions in order to follow him.
Jesus as a partisan for the poor
Jesus announced good news to the poor. He took the side of the poor. He became the voice of the poor. He stood with them over against the powerful elites that dominated their lives.
Jesus as a prodigy
Jesus possessed a spectacular intellect. As a peasant it was unlikely that he was educated. Most peasants were illiterate. But Jesus impressed those around him as “one who spoke with authority.”
Jesus as pneuma-filled
Jesus was a spirit person—one of those figures in human history with a deep experiential awareness of the reality of God. I use the term “pneuma”—the Greek word for the human spirit. Pneuma also means breath. A spirit-filled person was filled with the very breath of God. It is pneuma that gives us life and animates us.
Jesus as passionate and compassionate
Jesus was passionate about the reign of God. There was an urgency in his teachings. Jesus was also compassionate. He deeply felt the conditions of others. He saw compassion as a central characteristic of God. As Jesus understood the Hebrew scriptures God had a particular compassion for the poor and the destitute.
Jesus as prophetic
Jesus was a prophet. He saw himself in that context and identified with that role. In particular, Jesus was a social prophet, similar to the classical prophets of ancient Israel. As such, he criticized the social elites of his time. He advocated an alternative social vision, and was often in conflict with the religious and political authorities.
The ancient prophets of Israel observed what they perceived as the actions of God in history. The prophecies that they communicated were not predictions of the future; they were warnings or promises. The practical purpose of a prophecy is to persuade the people (as a group) to change or repent. Every prophet appealed for a social conversion.
The prophets warned Israel, particularly the king and the wealthy class, about God’s political and social judgment and promised God’s national salvation. Both the warning and the promise were conditional. They depended upon the free response of the people of Israel. If Israel refused to change their social conditions or their foreign policy, the consequences would be disastrous. If Israel did change, there would be an abundance of blessings.
Jesus as political
Jesus became a model of radical social action for the world. The word radical comes from a Latin word meaning “root.” Jesus social action was radical because it went to the root of the problem. Most social action leads to substitution, replacing one “domination system” with another. Jesus chose a path not of substitution but of transformation, complete and total change.
Jesus recognized that oppression is a norm for most societies. Even if Israel was miraculously freed from Roman domination, there were long-standing internal forces of domination and oppression within the framework of Jewish society and culture. Legal systems, economic systems, and even religious systems can and do oppress individuals. Most cultures create value systems which invariably oppress people through the glorification of wealth, materialism, prestige, fame and exclusivity. Jesus set about to address the “domination system” in general. We don’t need governments to oppress us; we oppress one another. Jesus’ way was a way out.
Jesus chose to confront systems of oppression at all levels of society including families, communities, and synagogues.
Jesus as present-oriented
Jesus didn’t teach about a heavenly afterlife. He was immersed in the here and now. He looked for the reign of God on earth.
Jesus as persistently subversive
Jesus was a subversive sage and a troublemaker. Like Socrates, Jesus was out to undermine the safe assumptions of conventional wisdom. He focused on the poor, the sick, the handicapped—on the injustices of the world he saw around him.
Jesus as persistently inclusive
Jesus shared meals with social outcasts. He openly welcomed despised tax collectors, prostitutes and Samaritans. He touched lepers and healed those with mental illness.
Jesus as parabolic and pithy
Jesus was a teacher of wisdom who regularly used the classic forms of wisdom speech (parables, and memorable short sayings known as aphorisms) to teach a subversive and alternative wisdom.
Jesus as paradoxical
A paradox is statement that seemingly contradicts reality or defies intuition. It seems unbelievable or absurd, but may be actually true. Many of the teachings of Jesus are contrary to popular belief and conventional wisdom both in the first century and the twenty-first century. Only Jesus would say:
- “Love your enemies” (Luke 6:27)
- “The last will be first and the first last.” (Matthew 20:16)
- “Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. Congratulations, you hungry! You will have a feast. Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh.” (Luke 6:20-21)
- “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33)
Jesus as a peacemaker
Jesus was a non-violent social activist. The author of Matthew’s gospel reports that Jesus said, “Congratulations to those who work for peace! They will be known as God’s children.” (Matthew 5:9)
Jesus as a partner with God
Jesus proclaimed the in-breaking reign of God. Many theologians have claimed that the kingdom of God is by definition God’s kingdom and only God can bring it about. These scholars and writers are usually thinking of a new creation that arrives at the end of history. But in the life and teachings of Jesus, we see another image. Jesus calls his followers to participate with God in the creation of the new order here and now.
Jesus as panentheistic
Jesus believed that God was within and among us. He didn’t believe that God was located in a single dwelling place, either heaven or the Jerusalem Temple.
Jesus as a personification of God
For the early church, Jesus was a fully human being who was an epiphany (disclosure or revelation) of God. In Jesus, his followers heard the wisdom of God and saw the compassion of God. He was a model for the Godly life—a life immersed in the spirit of God. For them, Jesus embodied the very nature and character of God. For the people of the Jesus movement, he became an icon or image of God. If asked what God looked like, they would likely point to Jesus.
what did Jesus hope to accomplish?
Jesus’ mission was to paint a vision of a compassionate world (the kingdom of God) in words, images and actions so that human beings could see reality from a totally different perspective and assume a radically new identity centered in God.
The kingdom of God that he sought to inaugurate is a vision of a radical transformation of human beings and human institutions (social, political, economic and religious) to a form that will express the character and nature of God. It is a belief that the rule of God in human lives and institutions will transform the social structures of hierarchy, domination and inequity to structures of equality.
The kingdom of God movement, begun by Jesus, is a gathering of people who have decided to follow Jesus along this path. It is a community of people who are committed to the new values of the new order. These are people who listen to the words of Jesus and act on them.
what did Jesus proclaim?
Jesus’ message was that at the center of everything is a reality (God) that is in love with us and wills our well-being. He proclaimed a revelation of God as a compassionate being who invites people into a relationship of loving acceptance and nurture. That relationship is the source of transformation of human life in both its individual and social aspects. When emptied of self, the individual can be filled with the powerful spirit of God (compassion) creating a radically new life.
Jesus announced that the day had finally come when God would act to take charge of the earth. The coming of the kingdom is the coming of divine liberation from all oppressive earthly systems. The revolution that Jesus announced was a challenge to all powers, both then and now. But the kingdom of God does not come through violent revolution. It is not the replacement of one ruling group with another ruling group. It is a revolution far greater and deeper.
God’s kingdom would bring an end to domination, violence, injustice and poverty. Those who would benefit most would be those who suffer most under the domination system: the poor and the marginalized—social outcasts, women and children. Thus Jesus proclaims good news to the poor—“for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
Jesus’ identity, mission and message
By understanding Jesus’ identity, message and mission in this context, Jesus message can be seen and heard with new eyes and ears. His message can speak clearly to us across the ages. The gospel of the kingdom calls to us in our time and through a new understanding we can begin to build a fresh faith for the twenty-first century—a faith in which it is not important for Christians to believe in the existence of heaven or in the divinity of Jesus. The postmodern followers of Jesus will encounter the reign of God on earth, not through orthodox beliefs and the desire for individual salvation, but through counter-cultural actions leading toward personal and social transformation.