Which Jesus do we “Follow?”

Over the past 15-20 years, many people have preferred to refer to themselves as Christ-followers rather than Christians, of which I am one. However, what following looks like has everything to do with who we understand Jesus to be and what he is up to in the 21st century.

In the last post, I suggested that there is a significant difference between “believing” and “following.” I would further suggest that we consider the difference to be related to who we understand Jesus to be, rather than a mere definition differentiation of the two terms. It is important that we distinguish between cognitive belief, typical of 21st century western thought, and pisteuō, the Greek New Testament word often translated as “believe.” It might have more to do with who we want Jesus to be in our day-to-day lives.

What if I view Jesus in a transactional manner – meaning, he came, died and rose for the forgiveness of my sins with my acceptance of his action as a completion of the transaction? How might that affect who Jesus is to me? How might that affect daily life? I would propose that a transactional understanding of faith leads to a ‘static’ Jesus – he came to earth, did his job, and returned to heaven awaiting our arrival (unless he comes back to get us first). It’s the Jesus of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism! Consider what a static Jesus looks like…

In truth, the “Jesus card” (above) that we gave the confirmation kids depicts a static Jesus – he’s not moving. Since he’s not moving, I can move toward and away from with ease and regularity. If I need him, I know where to find him – he’s right where I left him (i.e., I can leave him at Church and come back to see him the following week(s)). A static Jesus is safe and predictable and will not mess with my world. This is the Jesus of western cultural Christianity, the one we manipulate* so we can live a nice, civilized life. His job is to make us happy. With this Jesus, it’s mostly about me and sometimes about him. This Jesus won’t ask much of me. This Jesus will randomly ask us to serve others to appease him and to feel better about ourselves. I can’t follow a static Jesus (he’s not moving!). I can only “believe” in him. This all begs the question: “How can I have a dynamic relationship with a static Jesus?”

In reality, Jesus is on the move, advancing the kingdom work he inaugurated 2000+ years ago. As confirmation classes progressed, we helped the kids understand this. What changes for me if I see Jesus as present and on the move? Everything!

The Jesus depicted above is not static. He invaded our world 2000 years ago and turned things upside down.  This Jesus is on the move and has invited me to join him in his movement – the advancement of his kingdom.  If I choose to walk away from this Jesus for a while, he moves on without me because it’s not about me – it’s all about Him.  This Jesus asks for a lot – all of me.  This Jesus says that our primary purpose on earth is to serve others.  This is the Jesus of Christ-followers.  This Jesus is worth following and makes my following worthwhile.  This is the Jesus of scripture.  THIS IS THE REAL JESUS. Oh, and I can have a dynamic relationship with this Jesus!

I would suggest that if we find ourselves with a static Jesus, we don’t really know him. We have built a faith primarily on knowing about him. Consider that the Pharisees primarily had a static view of God. We certainly don’t want to align our theology with the Pharisees, but many of us have. How we follow is affected by how we view Jesus. Which Jesus do you “follow?”


For Your Consideration:

“It was the good (and extremely dangerous) news that the living God was on the move. Jesus came to Galilee as a wandering prophet, not a stationary one. Jesus’s contemporaries trusted all sorts of things: their ancestry, their land, their Temple, their laws.  Even their God – provided this God did exactly as they expected him to” (my emphasis). (From NT Wright in Mark for Everyone – comments regarding Mark 1:14-20.)


* The most accurate definition of idolatry is “conscious manipulation of God.”

“You are NOT the Good Samaritan”

Hearing this statement at a Young Life conference 35 years ago set me on the path to discovering the Jesus of scripture. The speaker (I think his name was Bob) wanted the audience to understand that we tend to eisegetically read scripture. Eisegesis was a newer term to me – one of those theological terms that I thought was of no practical use. The speaker proved to me otherwise.

Eisegetical scripture reading, Bob explained, happens when we read the text through the lens of what we already believe to be true. What we read is shaped by our preconceptions. As I took notes, this cognitively made sense to me. I prided myself that I certainly was above reading scripture through such lenses. Then the speaker rocked my world, wounded my pride, and pretty much disrupted everything for me.

Turning to Jesus’ parable we know as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Bob showed us just how real and subtly we read eisegetically. I remember him asking the audience, who in the story we most identified with. It seemed like we all figured we were the Good Samaritan, or at least tried to be. I know I assumed as much – after all, that’s what Jesus was asking of us, right? It’s what we learned in Sunday School.

Then the unraveling began. Bob helped us understand that Samaritans were despised (nay, hated) by Jesus’ audience, the Jewish theologians of the day. Some members of the Jewish nation had long prior compromised their charter and beliefs and married people outside their faith and ethnic group. These were the Samaritans. They were called half-breeds and dogs. When people traveled to Jerusalem from Galilee to honor God through the various annual festivals, they added days to their journey just to avoid Samaria. The parable, the story that Jesus told, was in response to a religious expert’s question:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”  The expert answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

As Jesus told the story, one could envision the legal expert understanding why the priest and Levite passed to the other side of the road, away from the robbery victim. They were on their way to serve in the Temple and contact with a bleeding person would have disqualified them to do their jobs. It was the law. However, what probably made the expert’s hair stand up on the back of his neck was Jesus’ introduction of the Samaritan as the ‘good guy.’

Wanting us to get the effect of what Jesus was saying to his audience 2000 years ago, Bob retold the story in modern terms. He talked about a pastor or a Young Life leader passing to the other side of the injured man. Then Bob went on to say, “But a Homosexual, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.” The hair stood up on the back of my neck! Not so much because he said ‘homosexual’ but because he had messed with scripture, that he had messed with the neat, domesticated story I was so familiar with. I was no longer the good guy – that was no longer on the table as an option.

What’s more, Jesus’ primary point wasn’t to be a ‘good’ Samaritan. The expert wanted to know who his neighbor was. After hearing the parable, he had to admit that his neighbor was, in fact, the Samaritan (though he couldn’t bring himself to utter ‘Samaritan’), and that’s who he was to love.

Who might Jesus substitute for ‘Samaritan’ today, if he were to tell the story in a manner that might make the hair on the back of your neck stand up? It’s an important question that we may not want to think about. Discovering the Jesus of scripture is a wonderful thing, but doesn’t come without the undoing of our domesticated version of Him or without some angst. But, as I said in the previous post, it’s well worth it!


Sunday School Answers

Billy attended school with me during my early Junior High days. He was in most of my classes. He was also our pastor’s son. He clued me in on something in seventh grade that might have had a larger impact on my life than I might have expected.

We were part of a Sunday School class of all boys (at least, that’s what I remember). I also remember that we were a typical group of seventh graders with built-in ADHHHD. Paying attention to the teacher or lesson was not high on our abilities or agendas (I suspect most of us were not in the class by choice). Billy’s clue was related to our Sunday School class. He told me he learned from his dad that if asked a question by the teacher and unsure of the answer, “Jesus” was always a safe response – a “Sunday School answer.”

One Sunday I was particularly distracted when, toward the end of class-time, our teacher asked me point-blank if I knew the answer to the question he had just asked. I had no idea what he had asked! And I was pretty sure he knew I hadn’t been paying attention – I suspect the question was his way of letting me know. Remembering Billy’s suggestion, I said, “Jesus!” emphatically and with confidence. The teacher looked a bit surprised and said something like, “Yes! And don’t ever forget it!” Class was over. I got the answer right and I didn’t even know what the question was!


“You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock.

C. S. Lewis spoke of first things throughout his writings. Just yesterday I was speaking with someone who had recently stumbled onto one of his essays that pointed readers to first things. I wonder what Lewis’ answer would have been if asked, “What is the first thing?” I suspect he would have said, “Jesus!” emphatically and with confidence. And he wouldn’t have been offering up a Sunday School answer.

Today if asked about the first thing, I answer emphatically and with confidence, “Jesus!” Many would agree with me. However, the answer begs a follow-up question: “Which Jesus?” Sounds like an odd question, but not really. One could be talking about the Jesus of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, whose job is to make us happy and show up when we need him. Or the Jesus of economic prosperity who lavishes us with material blessings. Or the Jesus we draw into our political bents to help us gain control over the ‘other.’ Or the western version of Jesus (or eastern). Or a Jesus whose main role is to simply get us to heaven. These incomplete Jesuses are a result of putting second things first – which is what he can do for us.

The first thing must be the Jesus of scripture, the real Jesus, not a ‘Jesus’ informed by culture, ideologies, or what he can do for us. The first thing must be Jesus only. Period. It takes concerted time and effort to see past the pseudo-Jesuses to the Jesus of scripture. I speak from experience. I can also speak from experience that it is worth the time and effort. It’s transformative.

It all starts with an open, honest perspective of where one is now. So, ponder for a bit: In what ways might the ‘Jesus’ you know be shaped by outside ideologies?


Striking Out a Land

Spring plowing on the farm was one of my favorite things to do. When I was in high school, we plowed with a 39 horsepower John Deere Model ’60,’ capable of pulling a 3-bottom plow, each bottom turning over 16″ of soil. Each spring we plowed about 100 acres, prepping the soil for spring planting of corn and grains to feed our dairy herd. Plowing 100 acres, turning over a maximum of 48″ of earth at a time, meant we plowed over 200 miles at 2-3 mph. Translation: we did everything we could to keep the ’60’ and its plow in the field, weather permitting. As soon as I was old enough to plow, my dad and I took turns keeping the tractor moving. I might start at 4:00a, he would relieve me so I could have breakfast and do morning chores, then my turn after lunch till after evening milking, then his turn until midnight. Efficiency was critical to spring plowing.

Plowing in a straight line was an integral component to efficiency. The key to plowing straight is starting straight – what farmers call “striking out a land.” I don’t know the etymology of the term, but apparently it’s part of farming 101. Striking out a land is pretty straight forward. You pick a target at the other end of the field (i.e., a tree or fence post) and head for it. Here’s the key: Never take your eyes off the target! For anything. Typically while plowing, the operator is always looking back to insure the plow is at the correct depth. Not when striking out a land. Never look back.

My first experience striking out a land didn’t go so well. I was maybe a freshman in high school. I had seen my dad do it many times. I had this. I picked a tree at the edge of the woods on the far end of the field, focused on it, dropped the plow in the ground and struck out across the field. About a third of the way across the field I looked back to see how I was doing. I was doing great – straight as an arrow! I turned back to the woods to again focus on the tree. Or was it a tree? I wasn’t sure I was focused on the correct tree. Looking around a bit, I found the correct tree a bit to the right. Whew! Or was it the correct tree? Nope. I decided the correct tree of focus was a bit further to the right. After a few such iterations, I finally settled on a tree. Another third of the way across the field I looked back to discover that a curve to the right had developed. Course correction. I picked a tree to left and headed toward it. When I got to the end of the field, I had plowed a beautiful ‘S’ curve – not the original intent.

How often do we do we start down a path only to later discover that we’ve missed our original intent? How often have we watched friends or relatives who had every intent of walking with Jesus for years to come, veer off and miss the mark part way into the journey? What happens?

When Jesus, the carpenter who understood farming, wanted to help people grasp the cost of following him, he told them “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Jesus was not making a statement of who’s in or out of the kingdom. He talked a lot about service in his kingdom, as he did here. He’s telling us that to follow him is to put our focus on him and not look back. Look back at what?

In context, Jesus is implying that we not look back at where we’ve come from or at what we have might have left behind when we started to follow him and serve in his kingdom. I also wonder if he might have been suggesting that we not look back to see how we are doing – equally as dangerous. And we all do that. We want to know how we are progressing in the faith. Or, worse, how we are progressing compared to others. No matter why we take our eyes off Jesus, the result is the same – we veer off course. How do we keep our eyes on Jesus?

First, it’s a choice. Life is always about choices and choosing to daily focus on (follow) Jesus is one of them. Second, and of primary importance, is focusing on the correct Jesus. Sounds like an odd statement. In our culture, there are many versions of ‘Jesus’ on which we could focus – the ‘Jesus’ of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (more on that another time), the ‘Jesus’ of evangelicalism, the ‘Jesus’ of the Democrats or Republicans, to name a few. The correct Jesus is the Jesus of Scripture, the one we encounter when we read the Gospels regularly and continuously. With our eyes on that Jesus, we have a better chance to stay the course, to not veer off, to not miss the original intent.