With his customary incisiveness, Ian Paul has shown how easy it is for us to trim and shape the New Testament picture of Jesus so that it becomes a reflection of ourselves.
Pastors: good news! Jesus is just like you! When he sees the crowds coming to him, rather than being overwhelmed, he is moved with compassion (Matt 9.36, 14.14, Mark 6.34). Out of a crowd pressing around him, he is able to pick out a woman in need (Mark 5.30) and he postpones his other activity in order to respond to her condition. He refuses to make a show of his miracles, but instead protects the dignity of those he ministers to by taking them out of the spotlight and treating them in private (Mark 7.33) and bringing healing in their own home away from the crowds (Matt 9.25, Mark 5.40).
Radicals: good news! Jesus is just like you! He just doesn’t seem to care what people think of him (Mark 12.14) and he taught his followers to have a similar disregard for the opinions of those in authority (Acts 4.19). He confronted those with privilege, and challenged their abuse of power fearlessly (Matt 23.16). He demonstrated his criticisms in dramatic symbolic actions which all would see and remember (John 2.15).
Introverts: good news! Jesus is just like you! He experienced some of his most important moments of affirmation and testing in long periods of time spent on his own, away from others (Luke 4.1–2), and made a regular habit of spending time alone, away not only from the crowd but even his closest friends, in order to be renewed and refreshed in silence (Mark 1.35).
Catholics: good news! Jesus is just like you! He was clearly an observant Jew, who was disciplined about going to church (synagogue, Matt 4.23) every week, and he observed the pilgrim festivals, with his family, like a good religious Jew (Luke 2.23, John 7.14, 10.22). He clearly believed in the importance of symbolic action (Mark 7.33, John 9.7), and engaged in communal rituals which he expected others to repeat (Luke 22.19, Acts 2.46).
Mystics: good news! Jesus is just like you! He engaged in some rather bizarre actions, spitting on mud and laying it on people’s eyes and ears instead of just praying (Mark 7.33), and doing obscure and apparently meaningless things like writing in the sand whilst people watched, without offering any explanation (John 8.6). People often found his teaching puzzling and obscure (Mark 4.13) and sometimes downright offensive (John 6.61, Matt 13.57).
Calvinists: good news! Jesus is just like you! His central message was not that ‘God loves you just as you are’ but that ‘the kingdom of God is coming, bringing judgement, so you must repent or perish!’ (Mark 1.15, Luke 13.3). He offered good news, but that good news was that God offered a way out of the coming judgement to any who would respond. He emphasised the narrowness of the true way of discipleship (Matt 7.13–14) and that, though many might like to follow him, in God’s sovereignty few are actually chosen (Matt 22.14). He spent time with sinners—because he believed they were sick, and needed the medicine of repentance administered by their true spiritual doctor (Luke 5.32). The invitation to follow him was an invitation to follow a hard path of self-discipline and self-sacrifice (Mark 8.34). He was more than happy to talk about judgement and the ‘outer darkness’ where people would, in agony, bitterly regret their decisions in life (Matt 8.12).
Charismatics: good news! Jesus is just like you! He did not minister, teach or do anything miraculous until the Spirit had not only come on him (at his baptism) but come on him ‘with power’ (Luke 4.14). Signs and wonders were integral to his ministry (Matt 11.5) and his followers clearly continued the same kind of miracles and healings (Acts 5.12).
Nationalists: good news! Jesus is just like you! He was quite clear that the Jewish people were special in the sight of God, and he had come to minister to them alone (Matt 15.24). He was quite rude to outsiders who presumed to think that they could share the privileges of God’s chosen people (Mark 7.27).
Grumpy old men: good news! Jesus is just like you! He often was tired and hungry, and this made him rather confrontational with those he met (John 4.6). He got fed up with the people he was teaching when they were slow to respond to what he said—and he wasn’t afraid to tell them (Mark 9.19). He even got fed up with his closest friends, and was frustrated by their failure to understand and trust him (Matt 8.26). When people made inappropriate requests, he was quite happy to insult them in the strongest terms (Mark 7.27).
End times speculators: good news! Jesus is just like you! He expected an apocalyptic doomsday to come, in which nation would rise against nation and there would be wars, famine and disease, all accompanied by cosmic signs of the sun being darkened and the moon turned to blood. And he appears to have expected his followers to read the signs of the times (Mark 13, Matt 24).
Ian Paul highlights a number of points arising from this:
Secondly, what is striking is the way that this complexity is actually found in all four gospels…
Thirdly, the varied evidence of the text explains why people find it so easy to see the Jesus that they want to—since there is a large amount of diverse material there. But you can only do this by reading very selectively…
Fourthly, what this then means, when we get into arguments about who Jesus was and what he taught, is that the answer is to go back to the text—and not just selected bits of the text, but the whole text and the whole depiction of who Jesus is in the gospels…
Fifthly, the tendency to make Jesus in our own image is a sign of declining biblical literacy both within and outside the church…