How to choose your own personal Jesus

Over the new year, I had an interesting, though at times bizarre, interaction with a well-known church leader in Australia (such are the wonders of the internet). This person had posted a graphic/meme similar to the one here as a light-hearted New Year’s resolution, and I added the comment:

—Tell people they are sinners who need to repent.

—Perform amazing miracles of healing and deliverance.

What followed was an odd exchange, where I was told that, by making an apparently serious critique of the list, I was demonstrating a lack of sense of humour, but this was followed by an apparently serious critique of ‘Calvinists’ and ‘charismatics’ for their flawed theology—to which I responded by suggesting that the person themselves lacked a sense of humour!

A few weeks later, someone posted this graphic on my timeline, and my impression is that, far from being something merely humorous, this list is taken by many as a serious description of Jesus’ ministry and a characterisation of the kind of person we meet in the gospels. This is just one example of the way that we find it easy to trim off the parts of Jesus’ ministry, personality and actions that we find uncomfortable, and in doing so create a Jesus of our own choosing. I thought it would be fun to discover all the Jesuses in the gospels that look like the different groups of people we meet in church and society.

Liberals: good news! Jesus is just like you! He criticises the Pharisees for being too religious, and imposing their religious expectations unfairly on others (Matt 23.4). He appears to have a radical programme for social change, in which the poor are rewarded and those unjustly imprisoned are released (Luke 4.18), and this is rooted in a long-term vision for the inversion of social roles in which the rich and powerful are humbled, and privilege is removed (Luke 1.52). Judgement will be on the basis of whether we have offered practical assistance to those in need in the world around us (Luke 10.37, Matt 25.40).

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).

At one level, this is quite a fun exercise—but at another it is deadly serious, and offers key insights into Jesus as he is depicted in the gospels, and our interpretation of him.

First, it is really quite startling to realise what a complex and multi-faceted character Jesus is. When I started writing this post, I was planning to offer only four different profiles. But the more I reflected, both on the complexity of Jesus and our tendencies to select what we want to find, the more different aspects of his character I noticed. I have here teased out 11 aspects of his personality and ministry, but I suspect it would be possible to add more. (Do offer your own characterisations in the comments!)

Secondly, what is striking is the way that this complexity is actually found in all four gospels. We have a tendency to notice the differences between one gospel and the next, and that can be helpful in noticing the details, and seeing how each gospel is drawing out some particular theological priority in order to highlight it, not least in the context of speaking to a concern or an audience of interest. However, the danger with this is that we miss what is common—and this is much more significant and substantial than the differences. All these different aspects of Jesus are found in all the gospels—and this demonstrates both that the gospel writers don’t appear to try and flatten out complex, even apparently contradictory, aspects of Jesus, and that they all appear to be writing about the same subject, even when they offer different emphases.

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, and in the end (as someone, I forget who, said), if we worship the Jesus of our own choosing, we are not actually worshipping Jesus, we are worshipping our choices.

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. I have find this especially helpful in the current debates about ‘inclusion’ and sexuality and marriage. How did Jesus’ inclusion’ actually work, when he spent time with ‘sinners’ because he believed they were ‘sick’, and was happy to tell them so? What did Jesus in the gospels actually teach about marriage, sexuality and sexual ethics? These questions often take us back to the heart of the matter.

Fifthly, the tendency to make Jesus in our own image is a sign of declining biblical literacy both within and outside the church. And the really worrying thing about the future is that our ordained leaders are spending less and less time on studying scripture and how it is interpreted, in favour of doing more in context, learning about church growth and mission strategy. Is this really the right priority for the long-term health of the church, whose first task is to worship God as he has been revealed to us in Jesus, and call others to do the same?

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19 thoughts on “How to choose your own personal Jesus”

  1. Well I never -Ian Paul the humourist, even a cartoonist in prose.
    It feeds in well to a seeming irreducible need to classify, categorise and compartmentalise, rooted as it is in the beginning, in Genesis.
    Let’s see, where do I fit, self identify. And don’t anyone dare to tell me otherwise.
    The real problem is the Bible: rather, it is our problem with the Bible. The Bible reveals our problem.
    There is an interconnectedness to it which would hardly be surprising if there is one ultimate author.
    Do we know Jesus, as he is, for who he is?
    The answer extends beyond the Gospels, to the whole Bible.
    And if we do, then what?
    If we don’t, then what?

  2. The Prosperity Christian: ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ (John 10:10), how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him (Luke 11:11), Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. (Matthew 24:46)

    I think this attitude is perhaps exemplified by the stereotypical ‘Judge not’ Christian (He whose bible apparently consists just of ‘judge not’). I think the solution is to say seriously “Is this passage which I delight in actually the most specific passage to the current situation?”

    An example, to pick on one of my own positions, is supporters of female ordination quoting Galatians ‘No male or female’. Is that really the best and most relevant verse for how women should act in church? But, yeah, really you shouldn’t be taking verses out of context but have understanding of the entire patchwork.

    • Hi Kyle,

      I would say that both the supporters of women in leadership in the church and those who oppose it are falling into the same kind of partial view of Scripture as Ian draws out so clearly in regard to how we see Jesus.

      In the context of this post, I guess we should ask what we can learn from Jesus. I would suggest that Jesus’ commendation of Mary being in the position of a disciple at his feet is important. Also, I seem to find that his attitude to leadership in the Kingdom is rather different from a hierarchy with someone at the top, which makes the question of who can have authority or not rather moot!

  3. Very good, actually.

    When it started out, I could not understand your humor. For example “Tell people they are sinners who need to repent.” However, by the end, I see what you mean. Yes, it is true that we see the Jesus that we find most appealing. That Jesus shifts around partly according to our own feelings at the time. If we are feeling closer to the prodigal-son, we look to the compassionate side of Jesus, when we are on a good run on the glory road, we feel closer to the elder brother, and we like the judgment side of Jesus. Yet, in fact, you’re right, Jesus is all of this, all that we can glean from scripture, and probably far more than we can ever imagine.

    On the flip side though, getting into a part of the plan is better than not being in the plan at all. God is the real teacher, and the hope is that by the end of the journey, we will have made some identifiable progress in the right direction. That is why there is victory in Jesus. It is not by our own power that we succeed, but the work of the holy spirit in us who opens our eyes day-by-day urging us toward wisdom.

  4. What a fun exercise. If only we could all be as balanced as you LOL

    On a more serious note about the meme that started it all, I’m one of the people who finds that sort of statement of faith in a less narrow Jesus (and hence expression of Christianity) both comforting and stimulating. I make no claims that this is a balanced view of Christ but it’s a knee jerk reaction to how fundamentalism and evangelicalism were expressed in ways that actively excluded what was disdainfully referred to as social gospel.

    The fact that some of us still feel the need for this sort of post should be seen as an indictment to how evangelicalism is still much too narrow and generating of exclusion. Perhaps things have changed in the UK. On a world scale things seem worse. Here in France, as in many other countries ‘evangelical’ is associated with the American Right and we’re needing to assert more than ever that Jesus was willing to associate with all and sundry.

    • Hi Liz,

      my feeling is that the Jesus portrayed in the picture is a very narrow one, rather reminiscent of the ‘hippy’ Jesus of the 70’s. Where here is the Jesus who says that he will judge the world? Where is the Jesus who drove the money changers from the Temple? Where is the Jesus who taught an ethic which was not less stringent that that of the Pharisees, but more so. Where is the Jesus who acknowledged that it was not external things which made us ‘unclean’, but that it is out of the human heart that come all kinds of evil?

      • Hiya David, I agree. I wouldn’t even to begin to suggest it’s a valid whole picture. The thing about memes is that they are not full teaching but a comment on where we’re imbalanced. That Jesus you speak of is not just present but magnified in many parts of the evangelical tradition. Maybe adding a little balance to the judgement and exclusion might not hurt.

        I don’t know the Australian church leader who posted the original but if he’s typical of the sort of people like me who like that sort of meme he’s possibly reacting yet again to some clumsy acts to vulnerable communities. Another of the memes I’ve seen a lot recently and also agree with is to do with the treatment of foreigners. The point is not saying only concentrate on foreigners, it’s saying this is a huge area of lack in our churches in the west in general at the moment and we want to bring it to everyone’s attention. A little humility might go a long way to redressing the balance and mending some of the damage we’re doing.

        Yours, Liz.

  5. This is timely. I faced a dilemma a few days ago when a friend posted on Facebook one of those pictures with a pithy saying akin to what you are referring to. It said something like “Jesus ate with those on the margins”. I wondered if I should challenge the subtext. It suggests that Jesus approved of those on the margins.

    Jesus was rebuked for eating with “tax collectors and sinners”. But the response we see in Luke 15 is three parables of lost things or people being found, and the rejoicing that results. That rejoicing is like the rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents. Clearly, Jesus saw those with whom he was eating as lost people who needed finding, as sinners who need to repent, and (as he says elsewhere) sick people who need a doctor. He ate with them so that he could bring them back in from the margins by transforming them so that the reason for their marginalisation was removed.

    The same is true of many of his healing miracles and, of course, the driving out of unclean spirits. The marginalisation of lepers was a necessary thing. Jesus did not affirm them in their state of sickness, but healed them so they could be restored to the community.

  6. A helpful blog, especially as I saw the post of the list going round on social media and found it frustrating, but it’s very heard to have a helpful discussion about it online – hence the strength/persuasiveness of the ‘meme’ is in the medium too – it shuts down discussion and only invites a ‘like’ emoji in response. It’s a confirmation bias.

    I would say to your ‘And the really worrying thing about the future is that our ordained leaders are spending less and less time on studying scripture and how it is interpreted, in favour of doing more in context, learning about church growth and mission strategy’:

    I think this is a false dichotomy. I have seen this meme circulated by both those who trained contextually and those on Facebook who trained a little while ago residentially with apparently lots of time to study scripture and how to interpret it (in a variety of residential colleges), who also don’t enjoy being challenged on the interpretation of Jesus’ ministry from the four gospel texts…
    As you know Ian, I’d be in favour of contextual training (which includes robust scriptural study) for certain ordinands, along with a commitment to ongoing learning and development in ordained ministry so that the commitment to the biblical text and discussing it wisely continues throughout ministry. I think the ongoing nature of ‘getting into what the [whole] text says’ is vital in this. I’ve already appreciated the study days for clergy that happen in my diocese. Not all delve into the biblical texts… Maybe I’ll suggest it!

    I do agree that training and formation for ordination should teach folk how to read and interpret scripture robustly and that this takes time. It should also challenge the biases and assumptions that all ordinands bring into training, rather than confirm them and leave them unaffected. I think training contextually did this for me both in the academic study and in practical ministry – it ‘shook me up’ enough to challenge me in all sorts of ways, not just my mind.

    I still don’t know how effective it is to engage with these types of social media posts online in debate – does it change anyone’s approach? Or do we challenge graciously out of care for doctrine?

    • ‘I think this is a false dichotomy.’ It might be—or might not.

      There are only so many hours in pre-ordination training, and the reality is that actual hours devoted to studying Scripture are now about half what they were for the majority of those in training.

      • And, alas, few dioceses offer further study of Scripture to their clergy and lay ministers, either in post-ordination training or in later continuing ministerial education. I’ve had the privilege to do study days on NT books for one diocese over some years, and they are hugely appreciated and valued, and that makes me wonder why the clergy and lay ministers don’t rise up and tell the hierarchy in their dioceses that they want this.

  7. This is surely a very important post indeed. We can so easily create a mental graven image and call that image ‘Jesus’. I myself find that one of my most fruitful disciplines is reading through the Gospels – a short passage every day – and meditating on what I read. By meditating I mean reading carefully and prayerfully, trying to respond to what Jesus is saying or doing in the passage I’m reading. This can be hard work at times, but surely every apostolic minister needs to be with Jesus on a very regular basis to learn from Him what that minister must then go out to proclaim. I use the daily Eucharistic Gospel readings, but one could use the Daily Office Gospel readings.

  8. I wonder whether the most effective method of challenging a meme is actually to respond with a different meme? ie: take the same approach, but with very different emphases, and with a hashtag #ThisTooIsJesus

    Memes are not logical arguments. They are emotive ‘soundbites’ which coerce you into agreement, half-truths which you dare not contradict because, though only half of the truth, they are, generally, true as far as they go.

  9. In reaction to some of these comments, surely the point of the blog is showing that Jesus was all of these things and quite likely very much more. But in trying to correct a mere meme to be classically evangelical at the same time as making it’s point seems to me to be equally unbalanced the other way. Surely in our evangelical circles we can cope with a bit of criticism, a bit of rebalancing some of it very much needed. Rightly or wrongly, on a world scale the impression of what evangelical represents is now firmly anchored in the behaviour of the political right in the US. We’re going to need an awful lot of putting our house in order to get the balance right. As the world is pointing out, our hypocrisy and the sound of the message “repent” is a clanging gong if we don’t put it in the right context – even if we only do it for other christians, let alone the rest of the needy – as with James 2 and 1 J 3. Look at what happened in the early church. After the apostles what were the first ever full-timers, the most spiritual men doing? Meals on wheels! Money where mouth is.

  10. Fascinating and funny, thank you Ian.

    I do genuinely wonder if this might even lend itself to a sermon series, with scope for some creativity in sharing testimony in the service as well as mining the Gospels for this range of ‘who is Jesus’ aspects. “Today we’ll be looking at “Grumpy old man Jesus” and I’ve asked XYZ to come up and share his testimony …!”

    • Now that would be worth listening to!

      On the ‘grumpy’ thing, I have in recent years changed my approach to conflict. I was raised in a discipline of always saying sorry, and when criticised looking for the nugget of truth. But I have discovered that that simply gives bullies free reign, and I am now much more willing to stand up to them.

      • Maybe, “nag” is wider in scope than “grumpy”, relatively speaking of course!: a more insidious form of bullying now that the term bullying has been expanded and can be applied to any disagreements.


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